An Interview with Melanie Hubbard, author of We Have With Us Your Sky, winner of the 2011 Subito Book Prize in Poetry by Sara Renee Marshall.
Sara Renee Marshall: Melanie, I read, re-read, scoured, edited and admired your manuscript all before really knowing anything about your background. Such is the way of the book contest, I suppose. How long have you been writing poems?
Melanie Hubbard: Oh, my goodness. Since fifth grade! I still have my brilliantly rhymed poetry book with the construction paper cover. I read Dickinson early on and had my nature-poetry phase, then impersonated her for an English class project. My Grandma gave me Dorothy Parker, and then there was a while spent with e.e. cummings. By the time I got to college, I really did want to learn how to write real poems. It's taken me quite a long apprenticeship to perhaps begin to know what I'm doing, or what I'd like to do.
SRM: I like that—the idea of an ongoing apprenticeship. To accept those conditions opens up some space, and ventilates the writing brain. Are you tied to a particular writing practice?
MH: Funny way of putting it, like bondage. No. I'm really not. I'll try anything to get a good poem. I happen to like involving chance in my process—found language or unconscious association—because it tends to take me where I wouldn't ordinarily go. Funnily, my little head-committee still gets upset by 'nonsense' creeping into my writing, so I have to find ways to get around myself to let it in. My writing is a 'practice' in the spiritual-path sense: I try to be in tune with myself, cultivate a space of nonjudgmental play and awareness, that flow-zone in which anything can happen. So just getting to the writing is the 'work' part. I think of myself as an instrument, like a flute, that I have to keep clear of obstructions. I journal, talk to trusted intimates, baby myself with small gifts, adventures, and gratitude; that way my ego-needs are addressed and I can let the words come out and play. On the other hand, that's baloney: the poems are what or who I need; they're a solace to and expression of something often deeply distraught—or unacceptably exuberant. Which is that subjectivity-based lyric, and for me I guess there's no point in telling it to go away and be more theoretically correct. I have no particular writing practice because I distrust ideologies and dogmatisms. The best I can do is to try to disrupt my own assumptions. Oh, and I happen to write long-hand with a "fine black" Pilot ball point pen.
SRM: The instrument, your fine black pen, is an important detail in the process of making. Like Lyn Hejinian, I think I was initially attracted to writing for love of its implements and materials. It’s important to identify what facilitates a productive process—any mainline to language—even if it’s a ruse. How much time did you dedicate to making this particular manuscript?
MH: Gosh, that's hard to say. Do you mean in hours, or years? I tend to scribble drafts fairly swiftly, in an hour at most—there is an almost physical endurance component to the concentration necessary to bang out a good draft. Then I might fiddle over it that day, and the ensuing days, set it aside, take it to a workshop or show it to my husband, set it aside some more, come back to it in six months and know exactly how to fix it—or not, set it aside some more, finally maybe revise it before I have to submit it to a magazine, get it back, set it aside, revise it again. Multiply that process by however many poems I'm generating—usually a small enough number, per year, maybe twenty or thirty, but then there's the backlog, and half of these poems won't turn out to be very good anyway. So it's endless, but I tend to work in fits and starts. I'm not disciplined at all, and I really wish I were. Life keeps happening, and if I'm writing scholarship or teaching I'm in a completely different space, though I take a particular pleasure then in playing hooky from research or grading for a morning to write a poem. I began submitting this particular book, which shape-shifted but as it shape-shifted revealed its central concerns and identity, in 2006. I've added poems, taken some out, thrown them back in, usually in marathon weekend book-revision sessions after having had the manuscript make 'finalist' or make zero in any given contest season.
SRM: It’s interesting that the making of a book has so many entry points, and that it’s infused by a past/present/future. You say while teaching or doing scholarly work, you occupy a “different space” than while writing poems. I understand you’re a Dickinson scholar. Do your scholarly and creative practices intersect?
MH: Well, my scholarship lately attempts to account for Dickinson’s strange manuscript practices—her leaving of variants, her writing on scraps, even perhaps her reticence to publish—by attending to her philosophical, rhetorical, and cultural education. And that has meant I’ve read a bunch of John Locke, David Hume, and their Common Sense philosophical inheritors, such as Campbell, Whately, Stewart, Reid, Brown, and Upham. It sounds, I know, like a dry and dusty set of philosophers nobody’s heard of because they’ve been left far behind, but Dickinson was indoctrinated with their ideas, and their debates about the nature of language, perception, and causation became pragmatism, rigorously skeptical scientific inquiry, neuroscience, psychology, and the ‘new’ rhetoric, emphasizing the almost sensory processing of language, we’ve practiced since the Romantics. That rhetoric, which elevates impression, association, memory, and imagination, has everything to do with Dickinson’s choices in practice. Much of my point with Dickinson is that she’s able to drive language theory to the edge through her poetic investigations—that she’s taken the linguistic turn. I can only hope that I might be in the same neighborhood. I suppose my theoretical preoccupations are very much my poetic preoccupations.
SRM: In what ways have Emily Dickinson’s poems themselves influenced your writing or your relationship to language?
MH: Hmmm. You know, she is just so very, very smart. She's continually surprising and fresh, heart-stopping, swerving, gleeful, wise, funny, sardonic, human. If I could have half, no, one-eighth of that come into my writing somehow, I'd be very happy. I appreciate very much what one might call the category distance between the parts of her metaphors—a bat is an 'elate philosopher,' flies are 'cattle' on the furniture. I also appreciate the mobius-like quality of her indifference to inside and outside, her surreality of perception.
SRM: What an elegant description, and an apt one: “her indifference to inside and outside.” I feel like she invented that finesse—that brand of movement between interiority and exteriority—from which so many poets derive that skill, and by which so many poets have been liberated.
MH: On the other hand, her insistence on difference, division, and the privacy of identity (however fractured and even fictional that identity is upon closer inspection)—her standing, as one might say, in the irreducibility of her very vulnerable body—this is also paramount to me. Poetically or even formally speaking, I like that she's musical; she's rigorous, careful and wild at the same time. I guess I aim for lines that are musical, tight, and yet free. Dickinson gives me a sort of long-distance touchstone.
SRM: You describe her so well—such chosen language, yet always electric and disarming. I see both musicality and an acute attention to the line in your work. Perhaps the most remarkable tactic I see in your manuscript is your masterful enjambment. Can you say something about these choices? Does this work happen in revision for you, or do some of these choices happen while writing?
MH: I think my poetic upbringing stressed the line, pretty exclusively, as the unit of sense in a poem; I no longer adhere so strictly to that belief myself, but it may be ineradicable in any case. Enjambment, then, is where the dance of pleasure and confusion takes place—the jamming, you might say, of syntactical, rhythmical, and visual signals that at its best undoes and remakes sense. I have to tip my hat to Stanley Fish’s essay on Milton, and to Milton himself, by way of Keats. As for my writing process, I do usually write in lines and break them as carefully as I can while I’m drafting, but I often break them differently when I revise, seeing more possibilities as I go, or because of the interpolation of new material or a certain stanzaic structure.
SRM: There is a noticeable interest in and play with science—a sort of mythic science—in your poems, as in “Some of your atoms / are missing, others derive from the ambient / litter in space” or “It’s that the air is clear, and that the earth / is hollow. How does the water stay in?” What informs this sensibility?
MH: Probably a girlhood spent reading my Dad’s Science News magazine every week, and the presence of a lot of science fiction in the house, which bespeaks an imaginative engagement both with facts as they now stand and with the history of science. I was good at math, biology, and physics in high school, and have always been curious about the point where physics might meet philosophy. The latest idea that there may be an energy/particle that travels faster than the speed of light provokes in me philosophical reflections about the literal relativity of our knowledge, not to mention its provisionality. I probably picked up from Dickinson that it was important to observe the world accurately, and also that perception itself is a process of construction. Almost nothing in a poem is worse to me than a patent factual inaccuracy, and yet as you observe, there seem to be alternate realities in the poems. I plead no contest.
SRM: What other forms or media interest you or provoke you to write?
MH: Wow. Everything? Billboards, cereal boxes, YouTube, short stories, cartoons, bumper stickers. I watch a lot of movies, I read the newspaper—talk about the surreality of everyday life, especially in Florida. Even conversations can be absurd and formally interesting, if you're listening. I enjoy and am learning about jazz, and I've always loved Indian classical music, especially the tabla. I think when I listen to these sorts of music, I'm listening to rhythms and change-ups, getting at a bodily level the flow and seizure of attention. In another life, I'd be a drummer. I'm also a nature girl; I appreciate the forms of things not made by humans. They're ordered at the most basic mathematical level and yet improvisational, responding to chance, perfectly imperfect. Gimme some of that.
SRM: It’s clear you’ve got “some of that” in your poems, both deeply worked and experimental at once. We Have with Us Your Sky is cordoned off into three parts, introduced by very different epigraphs. Did you write these as discrete sections?
MH: Nope. I made this book the old-fashioned way, one poem at a time. My itty-bitty head-committee says I ought to have a "project" and a "vision," but I really am an intuitive, feel-my-way-through-it kind of writer. As I tried out various ways of putting together a book, the mass of undigested poemy-bits became less a bolus than a series of fairly distinct and interlocking concerns, with or without the epigraphs. I tried to make these sort of theoretical undercurrents visible with the epigraphs, but there is also an emotional colloquy between the poems in any one section, and then of course I hope they reach beyond their sections to talk to each other. It's actually astonishing to me that they do hang together, but as a practical matter, I implicitly trust my obsessions.
SRM: What exactly are your theoretical concerns or obsessions?
MH: You know, I love language. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but in the context of the problem, in the book, of articulating a nearly inarticulable humanity, of hearing the unheard, of connecting to another human being or to one’s own deepest unfed longing—well, it would seem that one would have to hate language, its insufficiency, the imposition of it, the necessity to have to resort to it, its prefabrication. But it carries us, it loves us or damns us, it makes jokes, often at our expense (I love a sly sort of humor in poems), it forms us for good or ill. And we form it. And that’s where the poet comes in, as an intervener upon cultural forms and categories and perceptions desperately in need of re-form, or revolution. So where is the edge of sense? How far can I go and still be understood, or how far can I push the understanding, especially even my own understanding, to see or articulate something not quite ever yet known? I have to say, I hold out for a subject however given, a self however fictive, a point of radical wilderness capable of “no,” and then “yes,” and then of so much more. Poetry for me is an almost physical dance, a literal ex-pression of energy. Less strenuously, it’s a song or a murmur, something to hold close like a hum in your day. Or maybe an unfolding realization.
SRM: I understand that bodily interaction with language. This is why reading, and sort of emotionally conversing with one’s poetic progenitors, is so important to writing. In addition to some historical influences, We Have with Us Your Sky culls from found language. Can you say a bit about where you sought language and how you shaped it?
MH: Gee, I love found language. For me, it's like a Rorschach test, a way of by-passing the conscious mind's concerns to the sub- or unconscious concerns of the speaker. I also like the instant distance the language has from my particular ego, even if it says "I." But then I like to see if it can hang together somehow, 'say' something that might never otherwise get said. If I'm reading in a scholarly way, I always check the footnotes for tasty bits. When they're arranged as catch-words, you get an instant found poem, a long, skinny tissue of quotes which is also, in some way, a register of the concerns of the book. I do shape those a bit by cutting uninteresting language, but my one rule is never to change their order. I also buy books that are old and filled with the pedantic and unselfconscious language of a particular era, like a 1960s boy scout badge manual about mechanical force. I might do a sortes virgilianae selection or erasure, but I don't have a particular set of chance operations or mystical numbers or anything—I actually keep losing my I Ching, which I bought a long time ago to help me read John Cage.
SRM: Ha! To lose one’s I Ching—that’s either a great book title or the best metaphor of all time. I love John Cage. On that topic, whose poems have wowed you recently? Whose poems always wow you?
MH: You know, I really like Mary Ruefle. With her Selected you can see that she gets herself into more and more impossible situations—I mean, the poem goes farther and farther away from its original impetus, and yet something toward the end will make a completely unanticipated thought-rhyme which both offers the poem a sort of closure and yet leaves it as mysterious as it's been the whole way through. I also like her lines, the way she thinks one perception at a time. I suppose, not to cast too many aspersions, I think of longer lines as sloppy or slovenly, like a bad roommate. Which of course means I'll have to try them. May I just say, too, that I had occasion to dip into Marianne Moore recently and was struck quite hard by the feeling that her poems could have been written just yesterday. Her sampling and jump-cuts feel extraordinarily fresh. Alexis Orgera's work in her chap Illuminatrix blew me away—she’s the real deal. I just have no idea where her language is coming from, except it's from the gettin' place, that reservoir of mystery we're sometimes privileged to touch. Julie Doxsee’s poems I find rich and strange. I saw her read them once and her embarrassment over them charmed me; it was a good indication to me of their genuine nature, their circumspection. Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun is so smart and slyly singing; it has the mussed feel of the very carefully put-together, and that sincerity. I've liked Brandon Shimoda, perhaps because I read R. H. Blyth's books on haiku to recharge and to consider the space between perceptions, and Shimoda caresses that delicacy.
SRM: Brandon is a friend of mine. I admire his poem-mind so much—the nightmarish imagery, the range, the concision and peculiarity. When I read The Girl Without Arms, I learned something valuable about mining deeper for the really good language. Your first full-length book is now underway. What are you working on now?
MH: Um, I'm blocked! Because suddenly I think I'd better get serious about this poetry business and make book number two an impressive theoretically correct project with long lines or even prose, and it better make a big statement about, say, God or suffering or capitalism, all of which need attention. But it also has to be really popular. So, you know, I need to relax. As usual.
But here’s an update, six months later: I’m well into an erasure project and having so much fun with what talking back to a book, or being suggestible to its influence, can be. It’s called Auto-Suggestion for Mothers, and the 1924 base text is about managing your child through subliminal suggestion, which is of course an incredible embrace of the mother’s power to ‘mold’ subjectivity; it is both feminist and deeply troubling. Through chance and choice operations on the pages, I’m working out a language or languages of critique, dialogue, and play. I’m also letting myself paint pages (scanned!), as in Tom Phillips’s A Humument. That is a learning experience in itself—sometimes I paint over a word I thought I needed, and it turns out I don’t.