An Interview with Paul Hoover by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I imagine the Hölderlin translations have been in process for some time. How did you come to this project? How long has it taken you?
Paul Hoover: Maxine and I had long talked about translating together, and, because we enjoyed his brief hymn, “Half of Life” (Hälfte des Lebens), we decided to start with Hölderlin. This was in July of 2005. We had no ambitions of creating a volume of his poetry. We were just entertaining ourselves during the summer, when we were free from teaching and could work all day. If we had been aware of the difficulty his work presents to the translator, we might have lacked the courage. Some of his sentences travel half of the page, held together by semi-colons and commas.
After we caught the Hölderlin bug, we would translate two or three of the early and late odes a day. It wasn’t until we came to the elegies and hymns, which are several pages in length, that we realized that a book was possible. At first we were terrified of the size of poems like “Bread and Wine,” “Menons Lament for Diotima,” and “The Rhine.” But the hexameter works are actually easier to translate than some others. Their syntax is traditional, and the sentences are fluid. The first draft of the long poems would take us about three days.
Our system was to sit together at the dining room table with two German dictionaries. We would work through each sentence out loud, with Maxine taking the lead, and write it down by hand. When we were satisfied with the first draft, I would take it to my computer for additional work, especially relating to the flow and force of the expression. Then Maxine would look it over. We enjoyed the detective work of translating and especially the “aha!” moment when the poet’s purpose became clear. Often, our versions were not of the same temperament, pace, and emphasis as the other key translations, Michael Hamburger’s Friedrich Hölderlin: Poems and Fragments (Anvil, 2004) and Richard Sieburth’s Hymns and Fragments of Friedrich Hölderlin (Princeton University Press, 1984). Someone once asked us if we “cribbed” by changing someone else’s English versions to our improved English versions. No. We worked from scratch and then checked with Hamburger and Sieburth to see what the differences were. Our German improved substantially as we moved along, as well as our feeling for what Hölderlin was feeling.
JMW: Dealing with intentionality in poetry is so tricky—never mind working in translation, and from a gap of a couple centuries. What did you learn from Hölderlin that you hadn’t known or been aware before you began?
PH: We realized that Hölderlin’s romanticism was of a far different character than that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, despite the fact that Coleridge had borrowed concepts of the Germans during a sojourn there. Hölderlin was an idealist, who trusted in the gods and saw firsthand their withdrawal. Coleridge and Wordsworth seem far more disengaged and rational, despite the opium and “spots of time.” Like Empedocles treading out to the cauldron, Hölderlin seems to be putting everything on the line.
Hölderlin’s intellectual nature was a big surprise to me. His concepts of der Wechsel der Töne (alternation of tones) and ein Enstehen durch ein Vergehen (a “coming-to-be through a going-away,” in Thomas Pfau’s translation) reveal a complex, advanced theoretical mind. In his “Remarks on Oedipus,” Hölderlin contributes to the theory of tragedy and makes an important remark about the caesura being the “pure word, the counter-rhythmic rupture.”
Had he not become celebrated as the great poet of German Romanticism, Hölderlin would have held a position as a thinker. His advance on Fichte’s concept of subjectivity (we can never know ourselves purely, or subjectively, as Fichte imagined; we require the mirror of others) is part of philosophical history.
Our greatest realization was what a great lyric poet Hölderlin was. This is not a minor point. His popular image is that of a heart-broken madman, who wrote long, heroic poems to gods and rivers. He is also a beautiful poet of the domestic and everyday. In “The Churchyard,” written in the period of madness, there are such lines as these: “When someone hears the minister talking there, / Surrounded by a group of friends who’ve / Come to be with the dead one, how rare / This life, what a spirit; piety never ends.” I learned to value Hölderlin for his intensity of feeling and subtleties of irony; that is, as a poet of intention and innocence. He is much more than a poet of “radical grammar,” in George Steiner’s words. Hölderlin is far out because he’s so far in.
But you are also asking how the translations have impacted my own work. Kevin Killian asked me how come my most recent books Poems in Spanish (2005) and Edge and Fold (2006) are my best. Hölderlin is one reason. He speaks to the condition of everything, from the gods, whose “day travels out from shadows and down to man,” to a bell put out of tune by snow. With the exception of my recent work, Sonnet 56, which is playful, a note of elegy and sobriety has dominated my work since Poems in Spanish. In Edge and Fold XXXIII:
the first estate is time
the second is matter
the third estate is shape
the fourth is shadow
the fifth estate is nothing
nothing at all
of silence by sound.
This fall I completed a 50-page poem, “Desolation : Souvenir,” a writing-through of Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole, as translated and edited by Paul Auster from the poet’s notes on the death of his son. I wanted systematically to fill in the many blank spots of the work, as one might complete the fragments of Sappho. Perhaps because I’m not by nature a writer of fragments, the result resembled the original only in its elegiac mood:
infant at the entrance
words are nearly gone
print falls from voice
voice falls from mind
noise is never alone
how can you hear a thing
if there’s no mother note
the ancient laws still hold
our footsteps are man-made
there’s a short-cut to the sun
through a dark wood
a thought so close to life
it has its pallor
something’s quiet in the child
and something ages
the rest is ‘forward dreaming’
life without the seams
I’ve never had the experience of losing a child, but manic-depression leading to psychosis seized one of our children very strongly and then, more moderately, a second child half a year later. This is part of the motive behind Maxine’s poem “Have You a Daughter?” I also had a wrenching experience of loss relating to my former teaching position. I’m not conscious of the Hölderlin influence formally or even strategically; that is, I never set out to emulate that poet. It would be ridiculous to try. But there are lines in the poem above, such as the “mother note,” the ancient laws still holding, and the “short-cut to the sun / through a dark wood” that are most definitely not of a postmodern character. They’re closer to the plea than to the oblique, half-said (or twice-said) statement.
JMW: As you write in the introduction, “Clinically, Hölderlin was probably schizophrenic.” The fact that he did not recognize much of his own work later in life, that he signed his poems “Scardanelli,” and that he gave incorrect dates pre- or post-dating them by a hundred or more years—this is all quite fascinating, if only because it arrives in the context of some of his most visceral, imagistic and, as you say, “proto-modernist” lyrics. After having finished reading your translations over the last three nights, I am struck by a few things: on the one hand, I’m most drawn to the fragmentary lyrics and fragments of hymns, and on the other hand I keep wondering whether we are in danger of romanticizing (for lack of a better word) Hölderlin’s illness?
PH: We do romanticize the lives of poets; to a certain degree it’s inevitable and even necessary. We do so with baseball players and movie stars, why not poets? I don’t believe there’s any danger of poetic inflation in the case of Hölderlin, for example that he was just an everyday poet whom we’ve lifted to fame based solely on his love affair and madness. The poems show his power at every stage of the career, including those written 1807-1843. It’s impossible to determine the degree to which mental illness was a powerful source of his creativity. It’s clear that he came into his major work around 1796. That happens to be the same time that he moved to Frankfort and fell in love with a married woman, Susette Gontard, whose son he tutored. It’s impossible to read his work without taking this relationship into account. She may indeed have been the muse who awakened his genius, and learning of her death when he was already in emotional peril probably did contribute to his illness. I believe that the seeds of the illness were already present, and the impact of four events drove him over the edge: a loss of hope for his writing career when Goethe rejected him and Schiller followed suit; the break-up with Susette, about which he wrote several poems (see “The Farewell,” p. 129); the death of Susette, the news of which he received by letter during his famous walking tour of Bourdeaux; and, probably more important than is given credit, the accusation brought against Isaak von Sinclair, Hölderlin, and others that they had plotted the assassination of an important state official. His life story is full of detail that could and should be romanticized. Had he been a minor poet, however, the life story would be of little importance. We romanticize Caravaggio as a murderer because he was a brilliant painter.
JMW: Hölderlin’s influence (power to effect or produce effects) on you and your work is energizing to follow. Still it’s difficult to comprehend how a single poet could have this power to effect so many figures of his own era, as you mentioned above, but also of the 19th-21st centuries: Adorno, Derrida, Nietzsche, Blanchot, Rilke, Heidegger, Celan, (Jean-Luc Godard!), Lacoue-Labarthe, et al. What do you think accounts for this lasting effect—not just on poets, but on philosophers spanning Hegel to Agamben?
PH: Benjamin, too, wrote about Hölderlin. The attractions of Hölderlin’s poetry for philosophy can been seen on the first page of “In the Forest”:
He remains nowhere.
A vessel to contain him.
In life, we are used to boundaries and identities. A name means something. Hölderlin confronts a wilderness of vacant signs that, on the one hand, represents madness; on the other, it’s an intellectually playful construct. There is no world where no sign binds, except one of no-things, and a world of no-thing is imaginary. Thus “he” (in the larger poem, “Man, who lives in huts, dressed in shame”) is uncontainable only in death, fiction, and philosophy. I doubt that this is what Transcendental Idealism meant by “absolute freedom.” Perhaps Hölderlin is intriguing to such thinkers, because he is of the Romantic, Dionysian line of thought that begins with Heraclitus (all is change, crisis, and process) and runs through Nietzsche and Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida. Such a philosophy favors existentialism and grants poetry a major role. Being one of the first to sense the gods’ withdrawal, Hölderlin seems perhaps a forerunner, or pilgrim, of nihilism, but he is actually more complex. Central to his concept is the dialectical relationship of spirit and form, resulting finally in “the perfection of genius and art, the actualization of the infinite, the divine moment” (Pfau 71). The poem is the actualization of the infinite. How could such thinking not appeal to philosophy? Puzzles intriguing to philosophy are common in his work, such as his concept of the double default of God and man, which Lacoue-Labarthe addresses in one of his essays, based on the Hölderlin line, “As long as God’s absence comes to his aid.”
JMW: Across a continent and a couple of centuries, we arrive at your translation with Nguyen Do of contemporary Vietnamese poets, in the recent collection Black Dog, Black Night. How did this project come about?
PH: In the spring of 2003, I traveled to Vietnam for two weeks, the first week in Hanoi, with a small delegation from my former college. It was during the SARS crisis, so we took packets of surgical masks along. The focus turned out to be poetry because my anthology was well-known there, and a couple of years before I had also been introduced by Vietnam novelist Larry Heinemann to the powerful head of the Vietnam Writers Association, Huu Thinh, who threw a special banquet for us. Also, waiting for us at the Hanoi Opera Hilton Hotel was Hoàng Hung, an outsider poet and translator of Ginsberg and Creeley, who had spent three and a half years in the former Hilton, now referred to as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison, on the suspicion that he had passed an outlawed poetry manuscript by his hero, Hoàng Cam, to the French Embassy in 1978. Our Hanoi stay alternated between visiting the Huu Thinh and Hoàng Hung groups. It was through Hoàng Hung that I later met my collaborator in Vietnamese translation, Nguyen Do, who invited me to work with him on two major projects, the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry, and the translation of 150 poems by the great ancient poet, Nguyen Trai, 1380-1442. Nguyen Do had been forced to leave Vietnam in the 1990s as an undesirable, which means that he, too, was an outsider with negative, existentialist, bohemian (in Vietnamese Communist terms, bourgeois) views of life. In the 1970s, you could go to jail or re-education camp if you translated French poetry. To heighten the drama, the government demanded that Hoàng Hung carry the message to Nguyen Do that he must leave Vietnam.
About a month after I returned from Vietnam, Hoàng Hung was able to obtain permission to travel to the United States. The government required, however, that he first resign his position as a journalist for the Vietnam Labor News, his job for many years. When Hung showed up at my door in Mill Valley, California, late one evening, he was in the company of two Vietnamese-Americans. One of them was Nguyen Do. That was our first meeting, and, as is customary, we drank a lot of ruou, Vietnamese rice vodka. Everyone stands to toast and, after declaring “hundred percent,” throws the shot down in one gulp. It doesn’t take long before everyone is leaning against each other and feeling sentimental—“love you, man” and that sort of thing. It’s how you do business and how you get to be friends in Vietnam and China. If someone is likeable while he’s drunk, the relationship is worth continuing.
When I met him, Do was renting a bedroom in someone’s house in Sacramento and barely surviving financially. He’d been through a lot. His wife had left him for her ESL English teacher and taken their daughter with her. Our translation work was a boost for him, especially the poetry of the beloved Nguyen Trai, who was both a great poet and instrumental in ousting the Chinese Minh Dynasty from Vietnam. We had translated only 18 poems when Hanoi journalist and poet Nhat Le interviewed me for the Labor News. The story was published in every newspaper and official website in Vietnam including the Communist party main page. This helped to re-establish Do’s viability in Vietnam. He is now free to travel in that country, and he lives in much improved circumstances in Daly City, California, with his girlfriend Helen and her two daughters.
The anthology was published early in 2008 by Milkweed Editions, a beautiful book with French flaps. It contains the work of seventeen Vietnamese poets selected by Do, including the outlawed Hoàng Cam, Tran Dan, and Van Cao, leading members of the Nhan Van group of 1956 that called for freedom of expression. The Nhan Van writers were ruthlessly suppressed, losing their jobs and Writers Association memberships. Some went to prison. Their work could not be published in Vietnam from 1956 until 2007, when they were forgiven by the government and, in an official ceremony, given the country’s highest literary award. In his eighties and one of the few still alive, Hoàng Cam commented, “Isn’t it a little late?” I selected the work of four Vietnamese-Americans, Linh Dinh, Mộng-lan, Hoa Nguyen, and Truong Tran.
In the spring of 2009, Nguyen Duy will publish thirty of our Nguyen Trai translations in an expensive four-version coffee table edition. The versions are Han (ancient Chinese-Vietnamese) handwritten figures, Han in Roman letters, contemporary Vietnamese, and English. Viet Nam means “South State,” a southern state originally of China. An ethnic minority, they were driven out of China and in turn ousted the Cham people from the area now defined as Vietnam. Thus history turns. Our publishing contract with Nguyen Duy, which I insisted upon because of Nguyen Trai’s huge popularity, is reportedly the first ever arranged with a non-Vietnamese since the Communist era.
Do and I translated another volume in Vietnam in 2007, the bilingual 12 + 3 by Thanh Thao, a poet of major reputation. It was published by the Vietnamese Writers Association Press of Hanoi.
JMW: We often hear the lament that so much “world” poetry never gets translated into English; what are your hopes for the future of translation in English?
PH: I have great hopes for the future and present of translation. In the 1970s, you could find European poetry in the bookstores, especially in English translation. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, it seemed that little translation was being done of European poets but you could find plenty of Neruda and Rumi on the shelves. Or perhaps lots of translation was being done and the independent bookstores two blocks from campus were going out of business.
Since the mid-90s, translation has been in the air. Many poets are translating, and several presses of this generation, from Archipelago Press and Action Books to Ugly Duckling Presse, have a strong focus on poetry in translation. Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop individually and also their press Burning Deck have published many important works of French and German avant-garde poetry. Other translation presses include Granary, Exact Change; the university presses at Princeton, California, Wesleyan, and Northwestern; New Directions, Green Integer, Dalkey Archive, City Lights, and, most important to me, Omnidawn Publishing and Milkweed Editions. Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Pierre Joris, and Nathaniel Tarn have been valiant in the field of translation for years. The variety of poetry translation can be seen in the lineup for a poet-translator event to take place at the Poetry Center of Chicago in February. It will include Donald Revell (Rimbaud), Cole Swensen (Caroline Dubois), Forrest Gander (Coral Bracho), Pierre Joris (Celan), Johannes Göransson (Aase Berg), Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover (Hölderlin) and Jen Hofer (Laura Solórzano).
Another important aspect of translation is its contemporary use as a compositional tool or poetry machine—translating, in effect, from English to English. My Sonnet 56 project translates Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number into 56 other poetic forms. Poems in Spanish consists of poems in English that have the cadence and flavor of Ibero-Hispanic poets like Lorca, Sabines, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Another of my recent long poems, “The Windows (the actual acts),” was created by reading through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and responding in a notebook to every proposition in my own simple thinking. The bulk of the writing was done in a hotel room in Argentina. Here are the first few propositions:
The world consists of acts.
The actual acts; acts result in worlds.
Whatever is, is actual.
Hypothetical dog chased by a real cat.
Things are possible then they exist.
In what respect is an accident a thing?
Accidents occur when acts go astray.
If an accident occurs in a sentence, is meaning liable?
There’s a distant look on possibility’s face.
It will never quite exist or become a fact.
Never acting is also an action.
Which do you prefer, the thing or its state?
Another recent long poem is a purposeful mistranslation of Mexican poet Raúl Renán’s “Escala efimera,” The only phrase that remains the same is “verbs in your veins.” Like Raúl’s poem, I allow one word per line, but my words and impulses are my own.
The expansion of art and culture across borders will gain even more momentum under the Obama administration. Due to mass communications and a smaller globe, we are able to live everywhere. China’s murky and poisonous industrial clouds take three days to cross the Pacific and acid-rain on California. Our expressways, packed at rush hour, are melting the polar caps at breakneck speed. This is the ultimate in the technology of “reach out and touch someone.” It reminds me of that anonymous folk ballad, “Shine,” about the sinking of the Titanic, a version of which appeared in an Etheridge Knight book. When the boat goes down, we’re all going to be in the water, like the banker and the rich white girl, shouting for the coal stoker, Shine, to save us. With poetry translation, the reaching out is comparatively wholesome and non-toxic.
JMW: You have long relationships—that I know of—with two great and completely different American cities: Chicago and San Francisco. What’s the impact of these cities on your work and development of a poet, editor, teacher, and translator?
PH: Chicago was a long-term project. I moved there from North Manchester, Indiana, in 1968 during the Vietnam War to begin my work as a conscientious objector, finding a position at Wesley Memorial Hospital, on the Gold Coast, delivering computer reports to various offices—the expiration report, for instance, meaning how many died the previous day, usually two. The poets I was reading were those I could find on the shelves of the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, Sylvia Plath, and Theodore Roethke. The poet Paul Carroll founded the Program for Writers in 1971 at University of Illinois, and I was accepted as part of the first year cohort.
I met Maxine at a poetry reading in 1972 and we’ve been together since that evening. Our contribution to Chicago was sizeable, through our presence as writers, our teaching, the magazines New American Writing and OINK! , and our organizing of readings at The Poetry Center of Chicago, of which I was a founding member, as well as at Columbia College Chicago, where I also founded Columbia Poetry Review to serve as a student-edited annual. All this is in the past.
In 1994, Maxine, who was well-published as a fiction writer, realized she would never teach creative writing unless she applied for jobs outside of Chicago. She got an offer from San Francisco State that she could not refuse. We moved to San Francisco and bought a house in Mill Valley, but it was the beginning of eight years for me of commuting to Chicago to teach a double load in the fall semester of each year. Those were difficult years.
In 2003, I asked Columbia for a two-year leave of absence and began teaching as a Visiting Professor at SFSU. I never returned to my former teaching job. In 2006, following a search, I was hired as Professor of Creative Writing with tenure.
San Francisco has been welcoming to us as writers. Our books are published by local presses like Apogee and Omnidawn, our magazine has the financial assistance of SFSU, and I curate a major reading series at the de Young Museum. But, even if we live in San Francisco for the rest of our lives, it will never be our town. We were not present at everyone else’s founding moment, and by everyone else I mean Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and others of our generation.
Both San Francisco and Chicago have a range of poetic practice, but, even with the advances that Chicago has made since I left town, San Francisco is the place to seek avant-garde practice. Chicago leans strongly to a performance emphasis. I was out of synch with Chicago in the 90s because of my interest in language poetry. I was not a language poet myself, but we published a good amount of it in our magazine. If I’m not mistaken, people think of me as some kind of New York School poet. You can see the influence of the New York School and Surrealism on my students up to roughly 1990, especially the minimalist Elaine Equi, with her interest in popular culture and everyday things seen with an uncanny eye. I hesitate to list her among my students, because she doesn’t like to think of herself as bearing such influences. At any rate, she and Mary Jo Bang are my most successful students from the Chicago years.
The basis of a poem in Chicago tends to be voice and image. It’s OK to be funny there. Even before the slam scene arose, Chicago audiences wanted to be able to applaud every poem. There’s something of that instinct still at work in my own poems. You can especially see it in Poems in Spanish, Sonnet 56, and other crowd pleaser works like “The Windows (A War in Tawara).”
The San Francisco poem is often a serial poem, therefore open-ended, and has an affinity with French. I’ve written some serial poems since moving here, the first being “At the Sound,” written according to the constraints of the book and the day. I bought a small Marble Memo notebook slightly smaller than 3x 5 and determined to fill its forty pages within twenty-four hours. The other constraint was that each page had to “hold” that page, a movement in language in its own right. It also had to have some kind of development or curve-back. The first poem was successful, so over the next two years I wrote four more. One of them, “The Reading,” is the second of two poems in Edge and Fold. If you write serial poems, you are also writing long poems. At this point, I’m faced with the Jack Spicer dilemma. My stand-alone poems of a page or two are becoming scarcer, like his “one-night stands.” But when they do appear, especially if they are produced by procedure or machine, I make them part of a series, “The Windows,” that is slowly building. The aforementioned “A War in Tawara” is a perfect example; every line of the three-page poem is a palindrome; the poem is also an abecedarium.
In Chicago, we had to create everything ourselves. It seemed that no one else wanted to do it. We had to trampoline high enough to be seen on the coasts. In San Francisco, there’s so much going on in poetry it’s almost tiresome. The test of an event’s quality is whether or not it inspires in you the energy to cross one of the Bay Area bridges to attend it.
JMW: When we began this interview, you were traveling in Mexico. Obviously your journey to Vietnam was irreparable, thank you for the stories about it—and you mention starting your Poems in Spanish in Argentina. More broadly, then, how have your travels around the world impacted your writing? What trips or landscapes or cities stand out for you?
PH: In recent years, I’ve traveled to Sao Paulo for an Ibero-Hispanic gathering of literary magazines of the Western Hemisphere, though Spain and Portugal also sent contingents; St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach in the Summer Literary Seminars, where Maxine and I read our work in the Akhmatova house; Liège, Belgium, for a conference on American poetry organized by Michel Delville, at which I gave the keynote address; Cambridge University at the invitation of John Kinsella, where Maxine and I read at Gonville-Caius virtually beneath Stephen Hawking’s rooms; Vietnam, as already described; Yunnan, at the invitation of the Chinese Writers Association, which was having its annual meeting of Chinese language poets of the world; Rosario, Argentina, where I wrote much of the Wittgenstein work, not Poems in Spanish, although I did read from Poems in Spanish there and it was very well-received; Vilnius, Lithuania, where I read entirely from Sonnet 56 and enjoyed the company of Piotr Sommer; and recently in Puebla, Mexico, with my Spanish translator María Baranda, where I delivered a paper with the title, “Nomad, Meet Your Monad” and was invited by LunArena editor Victor Rojas to publish a bilingual book in his series. They are all memorable and important, but for emotional impact the highlight would have to be Vietnam, with its nests of intrigue and insider-outsider drama. The China trip was fascinating because we had no idea what we were getting into. Our guide, Baolin Cheng, a member of the Chinese Writers Association now living in San Francisco, told us we were going to a poetry conference. He didn’t tell us that we would be the first non-Chinese ever to attend, as honored guests, one of their most august meetings.
The influence of such visits is felt later, in poems and essays or a special feature in New American Writing. I wrote a couple of poems based on the China trip, one in the mode of Tu Fu, whose cottage we visited in Sichuan. At the Summer Palace in Beijing, we saw a large stone that had been the ruin of a wealthy man of ancient times. He loved it so much that he hired many men to move it hundreds of miles to his property. Halfway there, he ran out of money, and the stone remained in nature for hundreds of years. Later the Dowager Princess used valuable resources to move it to the Summer Palace. That story of human folly impressed me. Now imagine that the wealthy man is George Bush and the stone is the Iraq War.
JMW: Since you began publishing your work in the late 1970s—and since you started OINK! and later New American Writing with Maxine Chernoff—what’s changed the most in the terrain of poetry? Are there things you wish the culture of American poetry could return to? Or would finally vanquish, for that matter?
PH: When I began writing, the New Americans (those in Donald Allen’s anthology) had a powerful influence over my generation. Our loyalty to their work was of great benefit to them, because we were the largest group of admirers in American history. They were also the first youth culture. Now that generation has largely passed, with the exception of Ashbery, Snyder, and Ferlinghetti. You could feel the loss with the deaths of Whalen, Guest, and most especially Creeley. The recently published Reginald Shepherd anthology, Lyric Postmodernisms, was published in stated objection to avant-gardes, and the expression “post-avant” came into being. At the same time, the language poets and others were gaining acceptance in the academy. Many of them became professors at distinguished universities, not uncommonly with an endowed chair. More importantly, their ideas were now part of mainstream practice. Generally you can judge by what’s being produced at the Iowa Workshop; currently, it is indeed lyric postmodernism. That development could not have occurred without some historic shifts: the death of bohemianism; the rise of the MFA program and university as economic base even for Allen Ginsberg; the establishment of the AWP annual conference as major meeting site, supplanting the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, the Poetry Center at SFSU, and Beyond Baroque; and a general cultural shift toward careerism and professionalism. The oppositional model was fading, even though poetic differences had not entirely. The forthcoming major anthology, American Hybrid, edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John, is based on a chimerical poetic body with many diverse parts that function variously. John Ashbery, a gifted negotiator of modes, Barbara Guest, and John Taggart are the collection’s senior figures; in that respect, it is avant-leaning. It also does something that I had long wanted to see, and tried to attain in collaboration with Brenda Hillman in the 90s, create a broadly based anthology.
I’m opposed to the expression “post-avant,” because it seems to cheer on the enemies of avant from the perspective of the traditional camp. We’re not historically equipped to make that call. I suspect it’s only a generation that is passing, that of the New Americans. Are Christian Bök and Kenny Goldsmith not avant-garde? They borrow from earlier avant-gardes like Dada sound poetry, Oulipo, Andy Warhol, and John Cage, but their projects are fresh. The language poets were and are avant-garde, and I see the possibility of a new bohemianism in Austin, Texas (Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen). Language poetry has accomplished its avant mission and entered its seniority; now it’s up to the new generations.
I’m glad to witness the return of lyric. It never made any sense to oppose emotional and songlike pursuits in language. You can’t vanquish beauty; it’s an aspect of the uncanny, or forever-alien, and that’s not going away.
JMW: You’ve published with some of the finest small presses like The Figures and Talisman House, and more recently Flood Editions and Apogee Press. Actually, the list of bigger presses you’ve worked with is about as varied as one could get (from Norton to Vintage to New Directions) as well. What has been your relationship with publishers and publishing over the years? What do you tell your students to keep in mind about publishing these days?
PH: I have a good publishing history, but, quite honestly, I’m never sure where, or even if, my next book will be published. But it always works out.
W. W. Norton and Julia Reidhead were a dream to work with. The contract was surprisingly simple, two pages of large print on a very pretty rag paper. I worked for two and a half years to prepare the book. Julia was very kind and generous. She consulted me on the typeface and asked me to recommend the cover art. On my first jaunt to find an image, at the Art Institute of Chicago bookstore, an Ed Pashke painting of George Washington with smears of colorful paint on his face lay by the front door, and I looked no further. There were two difficult parts to preparing the anthology: negotiating the permissions fees, which I was supposed to limit to $35,000, and writing the teacher’s manual. I wrote the manual in three weeks by getting up at 4 a.m. and working until bedtime. I kept the book’s existence a secret, because I didn’t want interference from the poets fearful of not being included. The language poets thought I would short-change them, but when the publishing event was held at St. Mark’s Church, Allen Ginsberg complained that they had been served too well.
As editor of the Poets on Poetry series, David Lehman did me a very good service by suggesting that I convert my scraps of reviews of New York School poets into a larger, more coherent essay. When the essay was finished it was over fifty pages long. Its title, “Fables of Representation,” became the book title as well.
I wrote my novel, Saigon, Illinois, in five months. I can remember beginning work during the winter holiday season, because Maxine bought me an Amstrad word processor for Christmas in order to write it. It was 1985. The processor had no internal memory, just an “A” drive, and one evening, after working for six hours, I turned off the computer before saving the work. It was like the man from Porlock knocking on the door. All was lost, but I stayed up until 3 a.m. to write it again. When I completed the manuscript, I sent out chapters to magazines, and Veronica Geng at The New Yorker accepted chapter 13 for publication as the story, “Demonstration.” At one dollar a word, the check came to $5,240, a mile of words. When Vintage Contemporaries heard that The New Yorker would publish the story, they sent me a book contract in the same week. Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City had made the Vintage series a big success; the Vietnam Memorial wall had revived interest in the war; and my office mate at Columbia College, Larry Heinemann, had just won the National Book Award for his second novel, Paco’s Story, a Vietnam homecoming story.
The novel got my picture in the Chicago papers; pretty, expensively dressed young women who were not poets signed up for my literature classes; and my own father suddenly took an interest in my writing, for which I was grateful. It also led to New Directions accepting my project to follow, The Novel: A Poem, written in response to that experience.
There are many publishers of poetry now, more than of fiction. When I know they won’t be disappointed, I encourage my students to send their manuscripts out and not despair of rejection. Poets of high achievement get rejected all the time. Good work always finds a way.
JMW: Thumbing through my copy of Postmodern American Poetry, I’m struck by how capacious a book it is (for being limited to a hundred or so poets). In certain ways, it seems like a broader sequel to Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, as a lot of the usual suspects (like Creeley, Guest, Wieners) are there. What were your hopes as editor of in the early 1990s when you were assembling that anthology? I’m sure it’s easy for one person to come along and say, Where is Robin Blaser?! Or where is….etc.? But looking at it now, and seeing Joseph Ceravalo, Hannah Weiner, Alice Notley, Gustaf Sobin, Stephen Rodefer, and Lorenzo Thomas all included—I’m surprised at how broad it is. Fifteen years later, what’s your perspective on this collection?
PH: I had an early draft of the contents, names only at that point, that would have included Canadians and Brits like Robin Blaser and Nathaniel Tarn, but we soon realized that we wouldn’t have room for everyone. I also considered beginning the anthology with the Objectivists, but if you include Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedecker, why not William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Gertrude Stein, and if you include Pound and Stein, why not T.S. Eliot? So we began at the same generational mark as Donald Allen, which seems fair enough. My first approach to Norton, done casually and without planning at the Chicago MLA meeting of 1991, was based on the failings of the Norton Modern, Second Edition, of 1988. I was shocked that poets like Gregory Corso, James Schuyler, and Ted Berrigan were dropped, while minor poets of the mainstream were added. Schuyler was a 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner! Clayton Eshleman wrote a seething critique of the Second Edition that appeared in American Poetry Review around 1990. His criticism created uneasiness at W. W. Norton that one of their important volumes was off the track. So the company was ready to listen when I blundered into the MLA book exhibit to see my new book from New Directions. I made the casual remark to Peter Glassgold that mainstream poetry anthologies like Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry had ceased representing work of what Ashbery calls “the Other Tradition.” Poulin included Ashbery, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan, Ferlinghetti, Levertov, O’Hara, and Olson, but there were no Michael Palmers and Susan Howes to balance with C.K. Williams, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Mary Oliver, and Li-Young Lee. It was as if history stopped for the American avant-garde.
Thinking that I had a proposal, Peter said that New Directions couldn’t afford the permissions costs, and guided me straight to the adjacent Norton booth, where I was introduced to a Senior Editor, Barry Wade. I began by criticizing their second edition, which I would never have done if I had a real plan. He asked for a proposal and things proceeded quickly from that point on.
I regret not including Bob Kaufman and Fanny Howe. I looked at Fanny’s poetry books, but I had identified her with fiction, which we had published in New American Writing, and couldn’t find an outline. Later I became a fan of O’Clock and One Crossed Out and invited her to read in Chicago.
Some people were surprised at the inclusion of Charles Bukowski. I wasn’t into his work, but my male undergraduates would bring his poems to class to read out loud, and I came to realize how effective they could be. It was my practice to begin my four-hour poetry workshops, at any level, with a poem read out loud by every member of the class. I would then extemporize on what we were hearing. It’s an effective teaching practice. Bukowski is one of the few bohemian poets of that generation who didn’t attend Columbia University or Harvard.
Norton gave me a limit of five-hundred pages, which I massaged to seven-hundred by including additional poems and the poetics section. The inclusion of poetics has since been emulated by the Norton Modern, Third Edition, edited by Jahan Ramazani. I suggested the two-volume structure of the Third Edition, recommended poetics pieces by Wallace Stevens, W. C. Williams, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, and offered other suggestions relating to contents. Many of them were incorporated. Originally, I suggested Robert Pinsky as the editor (Julia asked for a “formalist” nomination) and he was selected but dropped out after a year or so. Ramazani was an inspired choice. The names of Ellmann and O’Clair are still attached to the book, because their heirs sued to retain a percentage of the earnings.
JMW: Could you discuss your relationship with Maxine Chernoff and how your projects in Chicago and San Francisco have evolved through the years?
PH: Maxine and I met in 1972 at a Halloween poetry reading at the Body Politic Theater on Lincoln Avenue. She was dressed as a football player and I was dressed as a schoolboy with freckles, beanie, and wire-rim glasses. It was a dark and stormy night in Chicago, and we drove down to see the waves on the lake, crashing hugely over our heads. I asked her up for a sandwich, but didn’t have sandwich makings. We’ve been together ever since.
I had already begun editing OINK! with two other grad students, Dean Faulwell and Jim Leonard. They both dropped out by the seventh issue, and Maxine became co-editor. I was also on the board of The Poetry Center of Chicago, at the invitation of founder Paul Carroll. After a while, there was an opening on the board for Maxine and then for our friend Art Lange. In 1987, we all resigned from the Poetry Center, thinking that we had already invited all the poets we wanted to see.
OINK! ceased publication after nineteen issues and was revived a year later as New American Writing. We began to publish our work in magazines and in poetry collections, and Maxine, after writing her prose poems, turned to short stories and novels. We both won Chicago’s highest literary prize of that time, the Carl Sandburg Award, and we were featured in Chicago, the city magazine, as a literary couple. Chicago was kind to us, as I look back on it. Our books were reviewed in the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Chicago, and our magazine was esteemed at the level of Poetry and TriQuarterly.
Inevitably, people want to know if there are professional tensions in the lives of two writers married to each other. There are challenges. One person seems to be getting a lot of attention, and the other one is glad but also worries about his/her career standing. We have tried to stay out of each other’s way as much as possible. It wasn’t by design, but Maxine wrote prose poems mainly, and I wrote in verse. Then Maxine wrote fiction primarily, and I wrote poetry. The latter pattern went on for perhaps fifteen years. After the publication of her novel, A Boy in Winter, for which she received a nice advance, her interest in fiction began to flag and she turned back to poetry. She has published several poetry books since that time and, especially with Among the Names and The Turning, builds them around a central theme, such as the gift in Among the Names. She brings history and culture to bear in her poetry; I’ve been investigating proceduralism and the long poem. Her poem “Scenes from Ordinary Life,” in The Turning, is framed as a play in which the speakers are Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. I wrote one of my Old Testament series, “Gravity’s Children” (Esther) as dialogue with stage directions. By weaving our activities, we make room for the other to prosper, too. We translated Hölderlin together, but I have a second collaboration, with Nguyen Do, of translating from Vietnamese. She chairs the Creative Writing Department; I curate the de Young Poetry Series. Our house is a small press poetry and fiction mom and pop shop.
JMW: I understand that you’ve taught for some years and now teach at San Francisco State University. To paint it crudely, it seems that there are literally thousands of young writers seeking permanent teaching gigs at the university level and on the other hand many folks in the system have certain ambivalences about their role in academe. It seems that writers (perhaps unlike philosophers and sociologists—though I’m romanticizing other disciplines here) have less anxiety about the academic world. What’s been your relationship with teaching over the years? And how did it begin?
PH: My entrance into academe was so different from what we see today. My terminal degree is an M.A. in English, with an “emphasis” in creative writing. To get the degree from University of Illinois Chicago, we had to submit a thesis manuscript and pass two days of essay testing covering every period of English literature including modern poetry. This is rigorous by today’s standard.
When I was hired at Columbia College Chicago in 1974, it was not yet accredited and had only six-hundred students. It was the family business of a leonine Old Leftist, Mike Alexandroff, whose father had won the institution in a poker game. Mike’s office was directly behind the college receptionist, and he would often come out to say hello to people gathering their mail. As a young man, to protect the great singer from attack, he was assigned to sit in the back seat of Paul Robeson’s car with a baseball bat in his lap. This was perfect preparation for a career as college president, Chicago-style. The building was a drafty warehouse on Ohio Street that the college rented from a board member for a dollar a year. For the part-time rate of $750 per four-credit hour course, I taught a full load of twelve credit hours a semester, two workshops, and two literature courses, with no contract and no employee benefits. Both workshops were beginning / advanced; there was no intermediate level. A beginning writer would sit next to someone who had taken the course four times. Bill Knott of St. Giraud fame was my predecessor and recommended me for the job. Legend was that when Bill didn’t like a poem, he would make a paper airplane of it and sail it out of the window. I taught at every opportunity including the summer and interim sessions and still made less than $6,000 a year. Because I took this job, which provided no health care, Maxine gave birth to our daughter Koren through a public health facility. In 1977, because the college enrollment was growing at the extraordinary pace of 25% a semester, I was asked to join the full-time faculty. The college began as an elocution institute a hundred years ago, became a radio & TV training school in the 40s and 50s, and was converted by Mike to an arts and communications school after inheriting it from his father in the late 60s. You could study photography, film, dance, painting, creative writing, arts and entertainment management, and other professional arts disciplines, but you could not get a degree in history, psychology, or English. Once I overheard a department chairman, who had made his previous living as a rock concert promoter, ask, “Are we a trade school or a real college?” We offered an education in the arts for first generation college students, most of them urban. As recently as 2001, the college had more black students enrolled than all the other arts institutions in the country put together. We were proud of the “mission,” as Mike called it. At one commencement ceremony, I heard lyricist Yip Harburg, in his 80s, sing his famous song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” alone, acappella, on the stage of Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. I was in tears.
For many years our college had no faculty tenure; it still has no system of rank. I felt no pressure to behave as an academic but rather to create good student poets. I was not required to publish papers and poems in refereed journals. Nevertheless, I taught my workshops and literature courses at a developed level of discourse. My undergraduate poetry students learned to think theoretically about their practice, they often wrote beautifully, and they were accepted by the some of the best graduate programs in the country, such as Iowa, Columbia University, Bard, and Brown.
You asked about ambivalence that poet-teachers experience between their two roles. I’ve written on this subject before, expressing concern that professionalization of the discipline (MFA followed by PhD) will lead to a poetry of the tenure track. In the 1980s, the dominant poem was a free verse narrative poem with a yearning for epiphany. Now a majority of poets seem to stress the “innovative.” Despite its high pitch of self-awareness, the innovative poem rejects subjectivity for the material signifier and lyrical spaces of the white page. It compares with Barbara Guest’s poetry of the Berkeley years, a reserved and intelligent style fueled by avoidance, silence, and theory. Written in free verse, it shows discretion, good taste, and the right kind of artifice. In the innovative community, this is more or less the mainstream style, acceptable in high places such as the university. Is the university a high place? It is now virtually the only place. Does the PhD poet have to make compromises with the university, or has the university made the adjustment?
We all recognize that the academy has changed considerably. But there are still tensions in the English Departments between the poets and the scholars. These differences express themselves in crisis situations like search and tenure committees. The academic feels that the creative writer lacks a certain seriousness and rigor. When Maxine was a finalist at a university I won’t name, the nine academics in the English Department sided against the eight creative writers and hired someone with fewer publications and less recognition. That person also possessed a PhD. In one of the hiring interviews, one of the older professors asked Maxine if she intended “to scatter beer cans in the wilderness.”
In Chicago, I found myself in opposition to the slam poets. I wasn’t attracted to what they were doing, because it was too high on entertainment value, and I expressed that opinion to the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. This created a peculiar identity for me. To the slam poets, I was a stifling academic. To the real academy at University of Chicago and Northwestern, I was an untutored ragamuffin of the streets. One of my students, Teri Davis, was a long reigning champion of the Slam’s early period. My best student of one period, Lorri Jackson, was the Belladonna of the young Chicago bohemians. When she died of a heroin overdose, the Tribune called to ask me if she was good enough as a poet to honor her with an article. The story began on page one with a photo of Lorri under the heading, “Heroin Claims Young Poet’s Life.” Thereafter, a prize given for performance poetry was known as the “Lorri.” The college was not delighted that the word “heroin” appeared in connection with the college’s name. I mention all of this to show how odd the situation of outside and inside can be. I have earned my ambivalence and will live proudly under its flag.
JMW: There’s a lot to navigate for a novice poet/reader these days with so many books, journals, reading series, poets, blogs, presses, anthologies, etc. What’s your advice for somebody starting out in poetry writing?
PH: This is the most difficult question of all, because it calls me out on the essential question, “Why write?” Since it is apparently not to make money, it must be for some other satisfaction, such as fame or a spiritual and/or political calling. I often heard the word “calling” while growing up. One was “called” to service in the church, a profession, or the arts. Having translated Hölderlin, I must have some interest in Transcendental Idealism and the motives of Romanticism, all of which lead toward inwardness and spirit. I should therefore counsel young poets, in allowing for spirit, to value language as incantation and magic.
I do believe that one’s ambitions in poetry should begin in innocence; that is, the belief that one may see, know, and transform through words. Innocence includes irony. This perspective holds that communication is possible even in mysterious circumstances, like a Hart Crane or Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Because it is textured and dynamic, the world speaks. Because we come with certain moods and intentions, it speaks through us differently. The weight of a word varies by its use. It’s not simply what a stone weighs when laid on a scale. Why write? Because life is short, bitter, and sweet.
Spiritual ambition counsels poets to ignore the depredations of the poetry biz. All the getting and spending should be related to the investigations of sensation, memory, and language, not crafting one’s style in order to gain publication in The New Yorker, Paris Review, or Fence. On the other side of this calculation lies the socioeconomics of poetry, for example, the assigning of value to one poet over another, based on: (1) the perceived importance of their works (2) their position in society, in other words, social class and (3) the good or ill they can do to you as poetry politicians. A young poet would rather have the respect and admiration of an important senior figure, who might further his or her aims by the giving of prizes, blurbs, and publishing contracts. The fiendish plan of the flatterer is to curry favor for as long as it takes to gain advantage over the generous patron, whereupon he withdraws his flattery and seeks to steal all that the patron possesses. See Goneril and Regan. Ancient and abiding, this kind of behavior has its counterpart in the selfish patron, who influences the novice to write in his manner and publicize his importance, but in the end creates an empty entourage.
A true master instructs the student to surpass his own achievement, but no true master is ever surpassed.
The language I am using is of the courtly era. Most of the politics and social structure of poetry are still medieval. That’s not a bad thing in itself. But many of us lack the graces of court.
On the side of innocence is the long-honored practice of gift exchange. I write the poem as a gift to you, on your wedding, death, or coronation. It is freely written and freely given. This is the world of samizdat and the manuscripts of court and church. Have you read the poems of Donne? Yes, I’ll hand you the tattered manuscript at dinner. It is also the world of the poetry workshop.
Most of the poetry economy is gift-based. But it is not free of self-serving behavior. For example, it is generous of an editor to publish his or her magazine of high standard. The loathing and melancholy appear when one editor publishes another in order to be published in return. Because the great majority of poets have something like a magazine, reading series, or website to offer in exchange, a lot of negotiation and politesse is required. The fact that so many poets are entrepreneurial says something about poetry’s artisanal economic base.
My advice to the student is to aim brilliantly, ridiculously high, which means not playing it cheap; to make friends of other poets they admire, as they are a comfort and help along the way; and, in addition to writing well, to found a magazine and reading series, not for the purpose of gift exchange, but because the poetry you believe in can only be served by you. You are putting your queer shoulder to the wheel. Found only what you can eventually drop by the wayside. The nomadic nature of poetry, as well as history, prefers it that way.
This interview first appeared in Denver Quarterly, 2009.