An Interview with Bob Hicok
from Gulf Coast, Summer/Fall 2007
Bob Hicok writes simultaneously from the mind and body. His poems are playful, meditative, tragic, exuberant, and wildly imaginative. Born in 1960, Hicok ran a successful automotive die design business for several years. He also published four acclaimed books of poetry before ever obtaining a degree. His previous collections include Insomnia Diary (Pittsburgh, 2004); Animal Soul (2001), a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; Plus Shipping (1998); and The Legend of Light (1995), winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and Notable Book of the Year according to the 1997 ALA Booklist. His new book, This Clumsy Living, is available now from University of Pittsburgh Press.
Matthew Siegel: Some of your newer poems seem to be much more meditative and less "witty" than your earlier work. Also, I've been told that you are trying to turn away from this perception of you being a "funny" poet. Is this true? If so, what do you find troubling about being called a "funny" poet?
Bob Hicok: Long ago, in a land far away—well, Chicago—I read at the Green Mill. A group of us had come down from Ann Arbor. I think I was about twelve years old. I was at the bar when another poet started to read. A woman to my right turned to another woman and said, "Oh, he's political," and they went on to talk through his reading. Having identified what they thought he was about, they were done with him. I like that I'm considered a funny poet, so long as that isn't the end of it. It would be nice to be known as an ambidextrous poet. A totally-indifferent-to-angora poet.
MS: So many contemporary artists seem to scoff at the idea that art might still be able to change the world. What is the best thing a book of poems can accomplish today, in 2006? Can poems be catalysts for change in the world at large?
BH: Sure. Why not. No way. Pick a card, any card. Maybe the best thing a book of poems can be in 2006 is a doorstop. It's such a private matter, what poetry does for each of us. The best thing a book of poetry can do is give your back pocket something to cherish. I love seeing books that have lived with people that way. Poems change individuals who are little bits of everything. So yes, they can change the world. They can be the world while reading them, while inside them.
MS: This past summer, you were part of the Wave Poetry Bus Tour, traveling and reading with the likes of Joshua Beckman, Gillian Conoley, Carrie St. George Comer, and Matthew Zapruder. How do you feel about the energy of these and other young, up-and-coming poets?
BH: I found those readings amazing for how they washed personality away and left the poetry. No one read for very long—maybe ten minutes tops. It felt like one large poem that filled each body briefly and then entered the next. That's sappy and strangely viral but apt. One reading in particular, the stop in Athens, was so full of good work and energy that it unmoored me in a way only the deepest feelings of connection can. That's so contradictory, a letting go in the midst of feeling deeply bound. But there it is. By the end of the night, I felt distilled to a grin.
MS: Years ago, you used to organize poetry slams in Ann Arbor. Did slam poetry in any way affect your own work, and if so how? Do you think there is anything publishing poets could extract from the spoken word community?
BH: In the sense that that public existence convinced me I wanted to get my work out, yes. I've been thinking about this recently. I went to an open mike and listened to some of the grad students and undergrads read. After, I watched them come up to each other and talk about the poems they liked. Trying to appeal to and compete with each other will drive their work ahead in a way workshops won't. Slams were part of that process for me.
MS: It seems that much of contemporary poetry is compartmentalized into cliques, groups, schools, etc. Why do you think this is? Do you see it as a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a function of the poetry business?
BH: It's crap. I'm sorry, I was vague there. It's a vat of steaming, worm infested, semi-conscious dung. Poets are very ideological. Some of that stems from genuine belief in an aesthetic and a desire to defend or promote it. But mostly, I think we need to prove that we're smart. I suspect this is driven by a desire to fit in to academia, which rewards people for cutting out theoretical turf. There is not a correct kind of poem to write, or an incorrect kind. I want access to the whole spectrum. If I piss on the surreal, I won't let myself head in that direction. If I insist that the lyric is dead, that door closes. Being open to all kinds of poems allows for a fuller range of expression and helps the poet write out of different kinds of moods and sensibilities.
MS: It seems as though you are really pushing your voice forward with these new poems. Who is influencing your work at this stage of your career?
BH: Our cats.
MS: Your poems are often ambitious, as in, you seem to jump around in terms of subject matter while keeping a consistent narrative thread running through them. Do you find yourself ever pushing a poem too hard to get it to do what you want it to do? If this is at all possible, does it occur during the revision process?
BH: The extremely associative poems you're talking about will sometimes seem jangly. I'll feel an almost physical irritation while writing them, as I go back and re-read what I've put down. Like there's no core, no motive evolving among the elements of the poem, no generative momentum. There's something appealing to me in that phrase—generative momentum—something explanative. When it's not there—when a poem has that jangly, disconnected feel—a line, a phrase, doesn't naturally lead to the next. The poem has to be pushed. When that momentum is there, any one passage seems to generate or point to the next. I wonder if each poem has its own ideational rhythm, and writing the poem is largely the search for that groove. Surfers talk about reading the wave, but they talk some weird shit, so forget surfers. It's hard to revise this rhythm, or to do so in a small way. A highly associative poem is much more likely to succeed if I'm able to revise it as I go.
MS: Oftentimes writers will begin a piece knowing where and how it is going to end as well as having a clear goal of how they want the piece to function (in the world and/ or on the page). Do you find yourself setting out to accomplish something specific when you begin to write a poem? How much do you think about your audience?
BH: I almost never have a goal in mind for a poem, so poems failing to do what I want them to do aren't usually a problem. It's a large part of the joy of writing for me, to arrive where I didn't know I was going. Writers talk about this quite often. I think it's why many of us don't want to talk in detail about what we're writing. I tend to run with the first line or image that arrives with force.
I don't think about "my" audience. It would be fun to have an audience. I'd keep it in the garage. I don't know how anyone could write with a group of people in mind. It's difficult enough to rummage around in my own head, let alone estimate how my words will enter another life. Writers should be good at sensing where readers will be more or less confused, angry, emotionally or intellectually involved, in evaluating the content of their writing in general terms. But to think about readers while writing is to invite the hypothetical into the process in a way that stops me from being open to the actual, to myself.
MS: In 2002, you abandoned a successful die design business, one which you built from the ground up, to teach in the academy. Do you have any regrets about this decision? Was this ever a goal of yours?
BH: I miss my plotter. Roll feed, 36-inch paper, four color. Hewlett Packard makes good plotters and printers. I wonder if they'd pay me for mentioning them. No, no regrets. And it wasn't a goal. Because I don't have an undergrad degree, and didn't at the time have an MFA, I thought it wasn't possible for me to teach. Who knew.
MS: I find it comforting to know you came on the poetry scene without any glittering degrees. How do you think this influenced the direction and velocity of your career? When did you find your work started getting the attention it deserved?
BH: I'm happy that I developed on my own. I don't like watching students struggle to take in all the opinions they get in class. I had only my own thoughts and feelings to contend with.
I have no opinion about the attention my work deserves, though I'd like to be reviewed in Finland once before I die.
MS: What was the strongest physical reaction you've ever had to a poet/book of poems? What about to a reading?
BH: Jumping jacks.
At one Slam, I burned the ten dollars I won and put it out with my hands. Because I'm stupid and because I was insulted at the low score another poet received.
MS: To whom have you reacted this way?
BH: How about a metaphysical reaction? Frank O'Hara. Such a happy imagination. Is glee a physical reaction? Is pepper steak a steak made of pepper? Achoo.
MS: What was it like studying in an MFA program after already having published four books of poems? How did it change your own work?
BH: Annoying. I did a low-res program and I didn't like being away from home.
It didn't, but I'd never vetted poems, never been part of a workshop, so letting others in in that way wasn't anything I wanted.
MS: So many poets are rushing to get that first book out, spending hundreds of dollars on contests and reading fees. Do you believe this is the best way for young poets to get noticed?
BH: That's tough. The web is great but we fall in love with books. You can't read a CD. I don't know why chapbooks aren't more common, given how easy they are to produce. Books by presses that have worked out distribution and PR are still essential to a poet developing a national reputation. It may be the only way for this to happen, and without this rep or the promise of it, it's hard for poets to get jobs.
MS: What message, if any, do you have for the several thousand people who are going to graduate this year with MFAs?
BH: Remember that, when I say I want my root beer without ice, I mean it. I was a waiter, dish washer, I mowed lawns, worked in too many factories, sold Fuller Brush door-to-door, did the die design work for years. Don't try to sell anything door-to-door would be my advice, particularly your poems. Try to find work you like, work that doesn't follow you home. Keep writing. It seems to take most writers a few years to get clear of their program. Try not to vet everything you write with other writers. A friend says that most poets don't begin to get interesting until they're in their 40s. This is a slow process.
MS: What would Bob Hicok launch from a giant sling shot?
BH: Bob Hicok.
About the Author
Matthew Siegel is the Assistant Editor of Pebble Lake Review and has poems
recently published or forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Passages North,
Paterson Literary Review, and Forklift, Ohio. This summer in addition to
lifeguarding back home in New York and interning for New York Quarterly, he
will be attending the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as a work-study scholar
in non-fiction. He is currently enrolled in the MFA program in Creative
Writing at the University of Houston.
University of Houston
Executive Editor: Nick Flynn
Managing Editor: Darin Ciccotelli
Associate Editor: Nicole Zaza