“Checking One Belief Against Another”:
A Conversation with H. L. Hix
H. L. Hix was born in Oklahoma and raised in various small towns in the South. Hix taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and was an administrator at the Cleveland Institute of Art before joining the poetry faculty of the University of Wyoming. His most recent book is First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010. Other recent poetry collections include Incident Light, Legible Heavens, and Chromatic, a finalist for the National Book Award. His books of criticism and theory include As Easy As Lying, Spirits Hovering Over the Ashes: Legacies of Postmodern Theory, and Morte d’Author: An Autopsy. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming, with his partner, the poet Kate Northrop.
This conversation took place by email between November, 2009, and April, 2011, spanning a time which begins with the early Obama presidency, and ends with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as protests against policies proposed by governors and legislatures in Wisconsin and Ohio restricting collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Karen Schubert: God Bless, and many of your books, are centered around an idea—they are projects, or “capers,” as Craig Paulenich would call them. What draws you to projects within poetry? What’s in it for you, as a writer?
H. L. Hix: The first thing I’d say is that for me the basic unit of poetry is the book, rather than the individual lyric. That’s how I most often read poetry (by buying books of poetry and reading them cover to cover), and I tend to respond especially strongly to “collections” that seem as though they were conceived as a whole
To which I’d add that the project or “caper” seems to me to open poetry to a wide range of possibilities (re-open? remind one of the ongoing openness of?). I see it often assumed, in society at large and also among poets, that poetry is a vehicle for self-expression. Fine, but I hope that’s not all. In the normal way we mean the term “self-expression,” neither Homer nor Dante nor Shakespeare was engaged in it at all. (Indeed, Keats seems to mean by negative capability something like deliberate refusal of self-expression.) I’m after something other than self-expression, and the project seems to me to afford more space and more options.
KS: How much does the project tap into a different driving force in generating the individual poem? In an interview with Etruscan Press editor Philip Brady, you say that—in a reductionist sense—the book God Bless was driven by obsession, and that you like to follow your obsessions. This would seem a different pleasure from holding one’s arms open to receive a poem from the ubiquitous ambient material.
HLH: Your question suggests one aspect of the project for me: a change from passive to active. Maybe I would sit and wait for inspiration if I thought I were a divine emissary or the darling of the muses, but all evidence points to the contrary, so I think of poetry in fairly blue-collar terms. Part of what the obsession implies is that I “keep at it.” Poetry feels to me much more like old-fashioned hard work than it does like a visitation from above. There’s plenty of ambient material, but like soil it needs to be worked if it’s going to produce what you want it to produce, or at least that’s been my experience.
KS: I want to ask you about several of your books, but I want to begin with God Bless, which juxtaposes, in poems, the speech texts of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. You follow the poems with several interviews with scholars and journalists who discuss religious, linguistic, historic and other aspects of the conflict.
This is the most political poetry collection I’ve read. It’s both distinct from your other books, and more sophisticated and nuanced (as framed by the interviews) than much of the political poetry I read that came out of the frustration and powerlessness many people felt during the Bush era. At the time, you mentioned that people who attended your readings were buying the book by the armload to give as gifts.
Did the writing of this book change you as a writer? Maybe as far as your relationship to the reader, or the subject matter you are willing to consider, or even you as a political being?
HLH: “By the armload” might have been a slight exaggeration—I wouldn’t know what to do if anyone ever bought an armload of my books! But that book definitely participated in a change for me as a writer; the book is both a cause and an effect of the change. I have never felt as though my actions as a citizen were efficacious, so my political involvement has always been minimal, only the obligatory gestures of gratitude for the immeasurable gift of living in a democracy and under rule of law: I always vote, for instance, and I don’t cheat on my taxes. The Bush administration, though, seemed to me a violation of the ideals of democracy beyond any I have witnessed in my lifetime. I disagreed adamantly with the principles Reagan stood for (to name one example), but thinking (as I did of Reagan) that a President has a radically mistaken vision of democracy, has inadequate ideals, is not the same as believing (as I did, and do, of George W. Bush) that a President has, not a vision of democracy at all, but a corrupt and corrupting cynicism capable only of harm, a vision that is antithetical to democracy.
I still don’t regard my actions as a citizen as efficacious, but because I regarded the President of my country (along with his Vice President, and others in high positions in our government) as war criminals, and as threats to the viability of (our) democracy, I felt obliged to bear witness. One way of talking, then, about the change in me as a poet is that I am much less interested now in poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” than I am in poetry that pursues other aims, such as bearing witness and “going on record.”
KS: While you were conducting the interviews in God Bless, the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was in process, and it seems the assumption was that Hillary Clinton would win. Your interviewees generally make the point that these issues transcend party politics, and that whoever is in power in the U.S. needs to operate with a profound understanding of the world we find ourselves in. But Obama won the election and has been in office for a measurable amount of time, and I wonder how you would frame his rhetoric in this context.
HLH: I suspect that party politics doesn't have to do primarily with policies per se, but with underlying premises that often manifest themselves most clearly in rhetoric. I mean that most Republicans would have continued to support Bush through his first term whether or not he had decided to invade Iraq (regardless of the specific decision, in other words), because he spoke of freedom as something one fights for, because his speeches assumed American exceptionalism, and so on. Similarly, most Democrats (at least after the panic of Sept. 11 subsided) would have opposed Bush regardless of the particular decisions, because of the rhetoric. Part of the book's point is that there is some validity to this: we can't know in advance what decision a particular president will make in a given situation, but we can infer something about the sort of decisions a president will make, by recognizing the premises implicit in the rhetoric. In God Bless I was interested in highlighting some of the premises behind Bush's rhetoric. So even though I'm not overwhelmed by the tangible policy results to date under Obama, I do share many of the premises behind his rhetoric: Bush placed us above the community of nations, Obama places us within it; Bush valued unlimited accumulation of capital as the fundamental economic good, Obama values broad access to capital; Bush asserted executive hegemony, Obama acknowledges the mutual accountability of executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and so on.
KS: Taking a step back, I wonder if there is a tension for you in creating a book of poetry that is so marked by place and time.
HLH: This may seem like a breezy answer, but I think there is always—in any poem or collection of poems—such a tension. All I mean is that any poem needs some element of timelessness and some element of timeliness. We tend to valorize the timeless aspect of poetry (as when Pound defines poetry as “news that stays news” or when we use “occasional” as a pejorative description of a poem), but I regard that as a fluke of literary history: the poems from past cultures that we still read and value are those with a prominent timeless aspect. But all that poetry (and other poetry that hasn’t been preserved) was valued by readers in its own day for its timely aspect more than for its timeless aspect. I don’t take for granted that there will be humans around, reading poems in English, in 100 years or 1,000, much less reading my poems; if I have to make a mistake, I’d rather err on the side of timeliness than timelessness.
KS: God Bless is written in first person, so you are, in effect, embodying both Bush and bin Laden. In your book Incident Light, the poems are arranged as interviews, with both the questions and answers in first person. So you are writing the ‘I’ as both yourself, the questioner, and as artist Petra Soesemann, the answerer. Why first person in all these cases?
HLH: Point of view seems to me one key to poetry’s capacity to edify. I’m not the first one to note the importance of creating and sustaining complexity in point of view, of seeing things simultaneously from a local and a global position, simultaneously sub specie humanitatis and sub specie aeternitatis, from innocence and from experience. Wendell Berry talks about this in an essay called “Two Economies.” I’m looking at Czeslaw Milosz’s The Witness of Poetry this week, so I saw it just last night in Milosz’s praise of poetry “that connects the time assigned to one human life with the time of all humanity.” Too much attention to the local position, unchecked by the global, results in narcissism or solipsism; too much attention to the global results in dogmatism. Part of what I understand myself to be doing in God Bless is drawing attention to a blurring of point of view that I contend is false and harmful: Bush and bin Laden both appear to me guilty of dismissing the tension between the two positions. As a local agent, one may be validated by the global position (this is what we say of martyrs, for instance) but one is also checked by the global: its insusceptibility to human manipulation means that we cannot be sure how we stand in regard to it. I contend that Bush acted as if he were an agent of Freedom (capital F), and bin Laden as if he were an agent of Justice (capital J). This conflation of the local and global, dismissing the tension between them, pretending that the global has been absorbed into the local, has a familiar name, given to it by the ancient Greeks: hubris.
Art (literary art, visual art, music, etc.) seems to me to derive much of its value from its ability to remind us of that tension, by creating circumstances in which we inhabit the local and the global simultaneously, and are aware (in some way, whether cerebrally or viscerally) of doing so. That’s one reason for the strategy you so perspicaciously note, of speaking as questioner and as answerer. I find the tension present in Petra’s visual art; I see her life circumstances (the late discovery about her biological father) as revealing the tension with particular clarity; and I want to retain the tension in the poems.
You point out ways in which the doubled point of view is fairly explicit in both God Bless and Incident Light, and I thinkthe doubling of point of view can be prominent (the first example to mind is Frank Bidart’s “Ellen West,” in which the local voice, “inside” Ellen, alternates with the global voice of the therapist, “above” her). But it can also be less explicit (a perfect example for me is Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia,” in which the one voice of the poem is simultaneously the child and the adult). I do try—successfully or not—to realize that kind of doubling in my own poems.
KS: Your poetry is highly structured: the sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas of God Bless, sonnets of Shadows of Houses, the rhythmic, iambic lines in Incident Light and Surely as Birds Fly. What beliefs or preferences feed this impulse?
HLH: The kinds of structure you’re pointing out help me, in a pragmatic way, to keep listening to language, not only employing it. I believe that language in general, and the English language in particular (the only one in which I am fluent), knows more than I do. Its memory is larger than mine is, so its relation to history is more complex; and its combinatory possibilities are infinite, so its capacity for invention, and thus its relation to the future, is more dynamic than my own. This is another way of getting at my being less interested in “self-expression” than in discovery. I see poetry as valuable not because it provides an especially beautiful way to formulate something (an idea or emotion) that precedes the poem, but because the language rewards a certain kind and level of attention. In other words, the adequation at stake in the poem is not of the language to my idea, but of my idea to the world. It’s not that my experience is true, and I just need to find, ex post facto, the right words to express it, but that the words show me what of the world I have access to. So the attention to structure is not from a sense that received forms (for example) will prettify the formulation of my ideas, but from the sense that linguistic structure is culturally and metaphysically revelatory, just as chemical structure is physically revelatory (as in our parsing of the genome), and that linguistic structure is performative (as computer code is).
KS: Do you believe something is lost in our free-verse culture?
HLH: Not at all. I don’t mean for my own commitments (and my own limitations as a poet—my commitments and my limitations may be identical) to become prescriptive for others. For one thing, I see my own engagement with received forms as agonistic rather than deferential. (In Shadows of Houses, for example, I try not simply to employ the sonnet, but both to go it one better—not just seven sonnets in a crown, but 56—and to “cheat” its standards—hexameter instead of pentameter.) And for another thing, the poetry I read and value is at least as likely to be in free verse as in received forms. For every favorite poet of mine who works in received forms, there are two working in “open form.”
We cheat ourselves, I contend, by constructing what I see as a false dilemma between “formal” and “free” verse. My sense is that the features most typically recognized as “formal” (e.g. end rhyme, regular meter) are by no means the only formal elements of poetry, and that “free verse” is (often? always?) every bit as formed as poetry in received forms.
KS: Elaborate on that—what do you think about structure in poems?
HLH: I have a second-order sense of structure. No particular formal or structural device has ultimate value in itself. Discussions that attribute intrinsic value to formal devices such as meter and rhyme strike me as simple-minded and trivializing. What matters, I believe, is adequation of structure and form to subject and purpose. That relationship, not structure or form in itself, gives gravity to poetry. We have a name for poetry in which structural and formal devices are present but inadequate to the subject and purpose: doggerel.
So I try not to think too much about structure per se, but only about structure in relation to subject and purpose.
KS: Can you be more specific? Exactly what do you mean by “structure in relation to subject and purpose?”
HLH: Not gonna let me get away with anything, eh? The last time I taught a short conference workshop, I posed the question by appeal to the philosophical distinction between nominalism and realism. Philosophers pursue more precise definitions, but to get at this question all we need is a rough distinction. A nominalist holds that universals (e.g. “tree,” “happiness”) are names without any corresponding “reality,” and that only particular objects exist. In other words, universals are features of our ways of thinking of things, but do not themselves have prior, independent reality. A realist holds that universals do have reality prior to and independent of our thinking.
So: when we use a word like “structure” or “form,” do we do so as nominalists or realists? It makes a difference. If I think that “form” is something real, then it seems a reasonable corollary to think that the job of my poem is to approximate form; my poem and I are obliged to form; I am adapting my poem to the dictates of form.
If “form” is something we made up, then it looks like my poem can employ form rather than approximating it; form is obliged to me and the poem; I am adapting form to the dictates of the poem. If I’m a realist, then Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 is good because it’s a really good example (i.e. a close copy) of The Sonnet. If I’m a nominalist, then it’s good because the sonnet form helps this poem do well what it, the poem, does.
Obviously, I incline toward nominalism here. Rather than holding that iambic pentameter (say) is good, period, or that iambic pentameter is “formal” but lines of varied syllabic length are not, I want to say that iambic pentameter has, or has the potential to host, properties such as fluidity (to a native English speaker’s ear) that lend it to storytelling, but that the haiku has a compactness that lends it to isolated perceptual observation. If the first hummingbird of the summer just came to the feeder, I probably want to record my elation in a haiku, and if I want to recount for you my many adventures on a long cross-country road trip, blank verse seems the better choice. Neither iambic pentameter nor haiku (nor free verse) is intrinsically better than the other; each suits some purposes better than others.
So I don’t mean anything tricky or fancy, only that I think we poets give ourselves a wider range of options, and we readers of poetry attune ourselves to a poem more fully, if we treat “structure” and “form” as means, not ends.
KS: Recently, I admitted to a philosopher, a poetry-loving philosopher, that I had a long-standing desire to study philosophy, and he steered me away on the premise that it would ruin my ability to write poetry. Do you think there’s anything to the warning?
HLH: I have to hope not, since my graduate degrees are in philosophy, not in writing or in literature! But I think some better grounds than my desperate hope could be offered for regarding with some skepticism your friend’s advice.
I’d want to contest that idea by posing an alternative to the conception of poetry and the poet on which it appears to me to depend. Studying philosophy could ruin one’s ability to write poetry if the poet were an idiot savant, and poetry the result of some version of “inspiration” or “genius” susceptible to corruption by rationality. Or it could ruin poetry if poetry were essentially decorative, if it were just prettified language, and if philosophy by imposing dry reason shoved beauty out. But I doubt that either of those views, or any similar view, is true. I doubt that reason and beauty are mutually exclusive (and in support of my doubt would cite such conjunctions of reason and beauty as our counting “elegance” as one criterion for a mathematical proof). I myself believe that poetry arises from depth of knowledge or intensity of experience or acuity of attention, not from some isolated inner wellspring that would be poisoned by contact with the world. Consequently, I suspect that, all else being equal, the more a poet knows about anything (philosophy, nuclear physics, farming, geology, music, appliance repair, SpongeBob, medical imaging, differential calculus, whatever) the better for her or his poetry. I can’t think of any knowledge that would corrupt a person’s ability to write poetry; to put this in the opposite way, I doubt that the ability to write poetry is so fragile that it can be harmed by learning.
That advice also echoes something I’ve heard each time I’ve taught an introductory-level poetry writing course: “I don’t read other people’s poetry because I don’t want to corrupt my own style.” But that takes for granted both that style is the single most crucial element of poetry and that one’s style is innate. I doubt both premises. My own experience, and what I can infer from any evidence I can gather, suggests that style (or voice, another term sometimes used in the same beware-of-corruption approach) is a composite, something that one constructs rather than something that one receives. I want to say that poetry has to do more fundamentally with how one listens than with how one speaks or writes, and that philosophy (like any number of other inquiries — math, geology, etc.) can help one listen more acutely.
All that said, it’s worth remembering that Wittgenstein reportedly warned his students away from philosophy, period, not only if they were concerned for their poetic abilities. So whether or not you take your friend’s advice, he’s got good company in offering it!
KS: Let me come at the question slant. Do you think studying philosophy changes the structure of thinking? and without assigning judgment, does it interact with the structure of thinking used in writing poetry?
HLH: Yes, and yes. The characteristic gestures of philosophy are analysis and synthesis. By analysis I mean recognizing the premises that underlie a statement or belief, and by synthesis I mean recognizing the implications of a statement or belief, the entailment relationships that hold between it and other beliefs. Metaphors for analysis would be taking things apart, or “drilling down”; for synthesis, putting things together, or “getting a bird’s-eye view.” I’d want to talk about the result as a heightening of responsibility. The change in thinking is a pushing against prejudice and toward consistency: a checking of one belief against another, accountability of one belief toward another. Without these skills, nothing prevents dogmatism or hypocrisy.
Then I would describe the characteristic gesture of lyric poetry as substitution, putting one thing in place of another, as in simile and metaphor (in which I substitute a red, red rose for my love), and the characteristic gesture of narrative as identification (in which I imagine myself in the place of another). Lyric thus pushes against shallowness and narrowness (only being able to see things one way, from one point of view) and toward depth (which we humans perceive largely through binocular vision), and narrative pushes against dismissal and toward identification (and such of its consequences as solidarity, empathy, and so on).
This is all oversimplified and overschematic, but you get the idea.
I want to argue that all these changes in the structure of thinking are good, not only the change wrought by lyric; that they complement and support one another, rather than replacing or undercutting one another; and that any one by itself is inadequate. (If I’m alert to narrative, for instance, but not to analysis or synthesis, then I’ll keep falling for “I didn’t have my homework because my grandmother died”; I’ll keep identifying with the protagonist of the narrative, but not impose limits on my identification. A less trivial example would be the ungrounded anecdotes that, since Reagan, have been the staple of political speeches.) All the changes are constituents of wisdom, and they advance wisdom better in concert than separately. It is wise to learn from philosophy not to regard assertions as free-floating, and wise to learn from lyric not to regard words or statements as univocal. Or, framing this positively instead of negatively, it is wise to be attuned, as philosophy is, to implication, and to be attuned, as lyric is, to connotation.
KS: Now the Wyoming question. I’m sure it comes up. I think the discussion of place in writing is interesting, both because it is a perennial question, and also because we are constantly redefining place—with political, economic or environmental frames; is it the culture, the weather, the landscape, the way we feel about America or our lives in that moment?—or do we feel like we’re in a geographical idea, like the South, with all its rich and complicated historical soup? For academics it’s even more layered, since you’re not in Wyoming as much as you’re in a microcosm, likely liberal and fairly like-minded, made of people from everywhere else. And furthermore, academics bounce around while they’re in school and in those early years after school, so wherever they are, there probably isn’t a deep-rootedness. Yet, as writers, don’t we draw heavily on the texture of the place around us? What strikes you about this place, and how do you see place at work in your writing?
HLH: My impulse is to treat “place” as a plural, to draw out the multiplicity of its aspects. So my answer to the question would vary according to which aspect of the place we were attending to at the moment. In the same way that I want to keep alive more than one aspect of my identity at once, so I want to understand myself as placed in various ways.
By various ways I mean, for instance, that Wyoming names—as you suggest in your question—both a political entity, one of the fifty states in the U.S., and also a demarcated region, a physical topos. From Wyoming as a political entity I feel very detached, even alienated. Wyoming is politically conservative, a state that ten years after Matthew Shepard’s murder still can’t see its way to making hate crimes illegal. So politically I feel way out of place. Wyoming is, most decidedly, not the civitas by the ideals and standards of which I seek to define my citizenship. To Wyoming as a topos, though, I feel much more connection. The landscape is dramatic, the sky is dramatic, the weather is dramatic. Dramatic, yet spare. The particular place in Wyoming where I live is high desert: Laramie is on an extensive plain at 7,200 feet (much higher than “the mile-high city” of Denver), between two lines of mountains. The altitude makes winters long, and cold. I’ve seen my thermometer read more than thirty below, and that’s temperature, not wind chill. But it’s also sunny most of the time: winter or summer, the light is amazing. Moonlit nights are breathtaking.
In A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke gives a useful way of thinking about emplacement. His term is “the scene-agent ratio,” by which he means a “synecdochic relation…between person and place,” i.e. that we should seek some reconciliation between inside and outside, between ourselves and the “scene” (the setting) in which we live. For me, that reconciliation doesn’t have to do with the mythology of the West: the fiction of the rugged, solitary cowboy and other such hokum. I’m not interested in trying to make something out of that mythology, after the manner of Annie Proulx. Nor is the reconciliation pragmatic for me, as Wendell Berry’s reconciliation with Port Royal, Kentucky, seems to be: for him, the land offers fairly immediate and clear ethical instruction, for instance.
For me, the reconciliation with Wyoming’s landscape is less mythical or ethical than metaphysical: you can’t go very long here without being reminded that the world is bigger than you are, not interested in, and decidedly not subject to, your will. Conceptually, cerebrally, metaphorically, I have for a long time felt insignificant: but in this place all it takes is one fifteen-minute walk to work when it’s twenty below and windy or one instance of being caught in whiteout while driving to make that feeling visceral.
KS: Beyond a larger geography, I see in your poems a close-up use of place that gives the poem metaphorical vertebrae or a structural frame. In Legible Heavens, the body becomes a landscape, or thoughts turn to place for a kind of desperate anchoring: “I’ve tried to find a way to tell you what I don’t know to say/something about a rooftop garden with ornamental trees/organizing the gridded gravel roofs.” These descriptions seem beyond textural detail, or the it-is-raining-I-am crying parallel, and place becomes the lip that keeps the poem from sliding off the edge.
HLH: To some degree, the body/landscape trope is perfectly normal, even inevitable. In so common an activity as choosing a page layout on your computer, you select between “portrait” and “landscape”; that’s just one random example of how deeply embedded the metaphor is in our language and culture. But, as your question implies, I’m trying to take the body/landscape trope farther than, or charge it differently from, the “normal” use.
When T. S. Eliot introduces the term “objective correlative,” he speaks of it as a “way of expressing emotion.” The emotion happens first, and then “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” is found that evoke the emotion, which was complete prior to, and exists independently of, the evocation. But that seems to me to be a weak sense of “correlate.” I think we have plenty of evidence, anecdotal and scientific, to suggest that our external conditions don’t correlate with our internal states in only that weak sense, but also in a stronger sense that connotes influence. The suicide rates in Iceland and Norway, seasonal affective disorder, the prices of beachfront real estate: all demonstrate that our external surroundings don’t just represent our internal states, but also help to create them. The landscape is evocative of my internal conditions, yes, but also catalytic.
Or, to take a different tack. I just read Vandana Shiva’s (profound and edifying) book Earth Democracy. One of her crucial points is that the market economy falsifies human experience and distorts human identity, reducing us “to consumers of globally traded commodities if we are privileged, or to narrow, fragmented one-dimensional identities based on color, religion, or ethnicity if we are excluded.” In contrast, she asserts, our “ecological identities are our most fundamental identity. We are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe.” I want to reconstruct my identity in resistance to such reductions. I want in my life to make myself ever less a consumer of globally traded commodities, so construing the body as a landscape in my poems seems at least coherent with, even if not sufficient unto, reconstructing an ecological identity.
KS: What else are you reading these days? What new voices have captured your attention?
HLH: A few of the new or newish poetic voices that I’ve been led to lately are: Sarith Peou, whose short book Corpse Watching, published by Tinfish Press, recounts his childhood growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; Santee Frazier, whose Dark Thirty is full of vividly drawn character sketches; Rita Wong, who tries in Forage to square up to the relationship between our political complicities and our environmental circumstances. Asher Ghaffar, Shane Book, Bino Realuyo, Chelsey Minnis, Craig Santos Perez. The list could go on and on of “young” or “new” or under-the-radar voices writing ambitious and powerful poetry, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it.
Not to mention “established” voices whose recent books have added resonance to bodies of work I already admired: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown and Susan Tichy’s Gallowglass, for instance. Besides those poetic voices, my attention has been captured recently, as the previous answer’s reference to Vandana Shiva suggests, by various voices speaking in prose: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance, whose Decolonising the Mind issues a reminder of the political consequences of our language uses; Alain Badiou, whose Infinite Thought invites a restoration of some of philosophy’s highest ambitions; Philip Metres, whose Behind the Lines calls for a richer understanding of the traditions of war resistance poetry, and by implication a revitalization of all manner of war resistance.
In more senses than one, it’s tough to “keep up”: not only can I not get to all the books I want to read, but—much more importantly—it is hard to live up to the understandings suggested by the books I have read. I try to take seriously the Rilkean imperative to revise my life, but I can’t revise it fast enough to keep up with the challenges issued by such books as these!
KS: Let’s revisit political rhetoric: since the end of 2009, when we began our conversation, there seems to be a sea change in places like northern Africa, the Middle East, and our Midwest. One thing I’ve noticed here in Ohio is a much more substantive discussion on Facebook—sharing of blogs, news and interviews about the situations in Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as organizing efforts. I’d imagined those things taking place on social media in Thailand and Iran, as much as it was possible, but now here we are in the thick of it. Do you see reason to hope for a more grounded public discourse?
HLH: I do cling to such hope, but not because I think there’s reason for hope. There is good news in the capacity of the Internet and such of its “social media” as Facebook to overcome distance in a way that wasn’t possible even twenty years ago, so information can cross oceans and national borders faster and more reliably than ever; social networks are “viral,” so (in principle) information can reach a broad audience almost instantly. I think, though, that there’s some bad news to mitigate the good. For one thing, I suspect that the quantity of information and the ease of its availability leads to a skimming that replaces reflection. Thinking about something takes time, but the Internet and social media encourage rushing from one thing to the next. The quantity of “stuff” out there leads also, I believe, to a “flattening” of information: a lessening of discrimination about what matters a lot and what a little, an eschewing of synthesis into a logical or narrative pattern out of the discrete events reported to us as random. What is happening in Libya and Egypt gets the same space and attention as tomorrow’s weather or the winner of the Westminster Dog Show, and disappears as quickly. Which is a concern, I want to say, because democracy depends not only on the citizenry’s access to information (which Facebook might help) but also on its ability to process that information cogently (which I suspect Facebook harms).
I don’t want to be the skeptical and retrogressive Socrates of the Phaedrus, warning us all away from writing because it will destroy our memories. But I do want to resist merely being swept away by what are ultimately commercial interests. Verizon and Google want all information to be equivalent in value, so that only quantity matters, so that the need is always for more information. I myself am interested in, and I believe healthy democracy depends on, better information. More information makes me a better consumer; without better information (better as it reaches me, and better as I myself synthesize it) I will not—cannot—become a better citizen. I want to say in regard to information something like what Amartya Sen articulates clearly in economics. Increase of capital, he points out, is not identical to, nor does it inevitably result in, happiness and well-being. So, I contend, with information: increase of information is not identical to, nor does it inevitably result in, wisdom and understanding.
External aids such as Facebook can alter individuals’ internal states (as A. R. Luria and others since him have shown of, for instance, writing’s ability to alter brain anatomy). They also can alter external conditions (as Jared Diamond, for instance, has argued about weaponry). But it’s not automatic or necessary that any given alteration be for the better. Even if the Web can spread liberatory agendas and discourse-deepening content rapidly, as seems to have happened in the Middle East—“We are the men of Facebook”—it can also spread discourse-shallowing content, as in its facilitation of Tea Party messages.
KS: Tell us about your “Object Lessons” project.
HLH: Thanks for asking. I’m enjoying it a lot, and I hope mention of it here will entice readers to have a look. (On my home page (http://www.hlhix.com/), click on the red IN QUIRE button and then, under “Projects,” on the “Object Lessons” button.) I’m asking people to email me a snapshot of a thing that they live with and love, but did not purchase, and did not receive as an “obligatory” gift (such as a Christmas or other holiday gift). I’m interested in things people hold dear in terms that refuse translation into currency (“That painting is worth a million dollars!”), things that are outside the reach of “getting and spending.”
Kandinsky says that “objects, in themselves, have a particular spiritual sound,” so I’m trying to listen for that spiritual sound, by hearing it in the objects offered and also by overhearing it in the ways people talk about why the objects matter to them. Every image I’ve received so far has given me joy. They include: a fortune cookie fortune that reads “The rubber bands are heading in the right direction”; hand-crocheted doilies; a bread-baking pan; a masonry trowel; a hand puppet; a carved elephant; a cow vertebra; a pillow; a prop powder-puff; a cardboard cow; a bar of soap; and on and on. The request for objects is open; I invite anyone reading this to send an image.
KS: You have a new book out with Etruscan Press, First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010. What is the nature of this collection, and what motivates you to work with a small press like Etruscan?
HLH: Let me start with the second part of the question. I work with Etruscan from unmitigated self-interest: they’ve treated me like royalty over the course of several books. As a small, still-young non-profit press, Etruscan doesn’t have the deep pockets of, say, Knopf or FSG, but in consequence of being limited to a few titles each year, Etruscan only publishes books its editors and staff care about.
And those turn out also to be books I care about. With very rare exceptions (such as Frank Bidart with FSG and Adrienne Rich with Norton), I don’t bother with the big commercial presses any more: they feel to me like the poetic equivalent of Hollywood movies. If you lined up the poetry books I’ve read over the past three years, there wouldn’t be a dozen books published by New York for-profit houses, but there would be a few hundred by Tinfish and Ahsahta and Ugly Duckling and Flood Editions and Green Integer and Sarabande and New Issues and Action Books and Atelos, not to mention the “big” nonprofits such as Copper Canyon and Graywolf, and the university presses: Kent State and Cleveland State and Pittsburgh and Arizona and on and on.
When Adrienne Rich poses the question, “With whom do you believe your lot is cast?,” the scope of her question extends way beyond poetry publication, but it’s a question I’m trying to learn to ask myself with a seriousness modeled on Rich’s seriousness about it, and in regard to all I do. So even though there was a time when I’d have wanted my poetic lot to be cast with the Jorie Grahams and Charles Simics, the handful who get most of what little fame and fortune there is in the poetry world, let it now be cast with Craig Santos Perez and Claudia Rankine and Jennifer Moxley and Mark Nowak and Juliana Spahr and Juan Felipe Herrera, poets whose work has to it the sort of edge that may forever preclude its acknowledgment by commercial presses, but by whose work I am more energized and challenged and changed.
Which is a way of talking about my hope for First Fire, Then Birds: that it, too, have such an edge. It’s a “selected poems,” but I want it to reflect an ongoing process of inquiry, not simply to gather and memorialize previous collections. So, with the exception of the Bush poems, which are quoted material and therefore hard to change, every single poem in the book is changed from its prior book publication. The change may be minute or large, but there is change. You’ll know better than I do whether the poems realize my ambitions for them, but I want dynamism, not stasis. I want the book to have a wholeness, not simply to sum. I think that something like the self-similarity at all scales that characterizes fractals also characterizes lyric, so I want any given word or line to have integrity and gravity and wholeness, and any given stanza or poem, and any given book. That can simply continue to the “selected,” which I want to be a unified whole, not what Heraclitus calls “a heap of random sweepings.”
But maybe this returns us to the beginning of this interview, your observation about poetry projects, books centered around an idea. First Fire, Then Birds signals my desire that all my projects engage an ever-larger project governed not by an idea exactly but by a regulative ideal, one that for me these days the indicative mood designates less aptly than the interrogative, in the form especially of Rich’s question.
Karen Schubert’s chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, 2011) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Her poems have appeared in such journals asArtful Dodge, DMQ, Water~Stone Review, diode, and Zoland Poetry and have won awards from the Academy of American Poets, dA Center for the Arts, and Knockout Journal. She holds an MFA from Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts and teaches writing at Youngstown State University. (12/2011)