from American Poetry Review, July / August 2011
LAURA McCULLOUGH Over the course of your oeuvre, you've written on many subjects that one could have grievances about: the economy, job loss, cancer, medical systems, public and private violences. To draw on Frost, your poems walk a line between the personal and political—they are poems of grief which sometimes reveal grievance—yet they are neither confessional nor didactic. What do you think the relationship is between grief and grievance in poetry? Or, what is the condition out of which you write?
BOB HICOK Grievance and grief are both a kind of loss. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a way of life. The kind of political or social grievance you refer to often has a hypothetical or theoretical dimension, a lament that rises from a sense of how things should or could be. Grief is much more physical and there's nothing theoretical about it. Not sure what you mean by the condition out of which I write. Sleepy. And ... some combination of pissed off and empathetic. I have a scar on my right hand from trying to pet a woodchuck. It had been attacked by a dog and it seemed important to comfort it, to offer redress for what had happened. The woodchuck didn't want redress, it wanted to run away. I also get pissed off when I see other drivers cut off. Someone with these traits wants to fix things. But sleepy is the truer answer.
LM: Can you speak about the arc of kinds of poetry one might write and about your process in entering a poem?
BH: Take today. Here's the first thing that came to mind:
I wondered what a plow looks like
on a wind farm.
I liked that and so wrote from there. I think the poem worked, and it remained loose, maintained fidelity to its start. Now tomorrow, if in rereading that poem I still think it works, I'll probably write something in the same zone, and maybe for a couple days after that. Or not. Because soon, everything that kind of poem isn't capable of will start to bother me and I'll swing more toward ... I don't know: simple declaration or greater biographical content or a larger social dimension. Something different. And residing there will naturally push me away from residing there. Every kind of poem is valuable and none of them are complete. Consider figuration: narrative tends to have little or none, whereas surrealism is almost entirely ... trope-ic? Is that a word? Gotta keep the e, otherwise it's tropic. Lyric poetry falls somewhere between. So a few days of narrative poetry allows me to enjoy messing with content, with stuff, though it tends to feel imaginatively plodding. Surrealism, the other way around. The desire to move between them, to turn a stylistic dial, makes it both more enjoyable to write and easier, on any given day, to be productive, for I can respond to moods more easily than someone who wants to write, say, only lyric poetry. But it's also frustrating. I almost never look at a poem and feel it succeeds, not for more than a few days. Each poem, in being what it is, announces what it isn't, and I tend to focus more on that. Surprise: a poet who attends to absence.
LM: Yeats said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Is that what you mean by attending to what is absent in a poem?
BH: Could be. The dude and I don't talk. But yeah, I can see what I'm getting at as a kind of quarrel with myself. A perception of inadequacy or failure, kind of like, how come you never set the oatmeal pan to soak, only it's, how come you can't write a two-line poem that feels full, or entirely, entirely indulge the drift of language, or just, I don't know, write a poem made entirely of the letter z. I think it was Calvino who liked the idea of a book that would appear to have been rescued from a fire, it would be partial yet readable in its way, a broken yet whole thing. Everything we make is that, just as we are.
LM: What is the relationship between your reading and writing lives?
BH: The question has been hard for me because of the truth: I wrote for a long while without reading much poetry, so there weren't models or gods for me. I started out trying to write songs. It was almost instantly apparent that my songs were a kind of violence of boredom and rhyme upon the world, so there I was, on this island of wanting to write but knowing I couldn't write the thing I had wanted to. So influence for me isn't genetic like it is for many of us, it's more like dating. I meet someone and find them beautiful and want to go to Paris with them. Then we go to Paris and it's wonderful until I notice that this poet sucks their teeth and we break up on the rue de Something but not really. Like Neruda. I read Neruda and adore him then get tired of all the fucking bells and bury him for years until I'm vacuuming dead flies and there he is, giving me bells when I need them. More than anything, I find myself invigorated by other poets: individually, no matter how gifted a poet might be, he or she is limited, but as a group, we're complete, we get at everything and embrace every approach. The work I respond to exerts an almost physical tug upon my aesthetic, announcing, through the personality of the poet, that I can and should try to be larger than I am. I don't know how anyone could read, well, almost any poet at their best and not think, break me off a piece of that, give me that in my work, because any good poet at their best is a one-off. Just by accident in the last few days, I've come across poems by Heather McHugh, Mary Ruefle, Shanna Compton, and Pierre Reverdy that I find thrilling. And that thrill, that frisson, draws me farther into their work, and, by giving me an expanded sense of the possibilities of language, deeper into my own. All kinds of poets exert a kind of gravity upon me, but none are the sun. The circumstances of how I came to write precluded that possibility .
LM: So you're poetically promiscuous? Or a serially monogamous poet?
BH: I'm in love with every kind of poem because none of them are complete. A lyric poem does something a narrative poem can't, or can only do a little bit of. Surrealism is great but the extent of the figuration makes content a tricky thing. My promiscuity is a result of hunger, of wanting to say everything I can while recognizing that each form, each approach, both liberates and straightjackets. The Great American Novel comes to mind in this context: we still, to some extent, harbor the notion of a single work that can "say it all." From my perspective, this totality isn't possible. You get chunks of it, get bricks, sticks, you get an aura here, an ocean there, and cobble it together. We'll never even know what the all we're trying to say is. Any one mind is limited ... by the very nature of that mind—welcome to Tautology Street—and the products of our minds are also limited, personally, within the confines of an artistic existence, but also categorically, in the sense that movies don't dance. So my best chance to get everything down that I want to get down is to care less and less over time about the how of it. As they say on the Simpsons: a little from column A, a little from column B. A huge mistake poets make is to divide themselves into camps or tribes. Once that's done, people feel obligated to attack a whole range of the spectrum of options they might choose from. This is especially limiting if you believe that most of us are horribly, horribly stuck. By and large, I will write the same poem over and over if I don't push myself away from my own nature. Even then I probably will write the same poem, but that engagement with boredom will at least infuse the work with the energy of my attempts not to.
LM: Attention to form has been growing in your work, starting in This Clumsy Living, and now very much in the forefront in Words for Empty and Words for Full, but form in a way neo-formalists might balk at. What do you think about the relation of form and structure and content in a poem?
BH: In this context, I often think of this from Clement Greenberg:
Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account. What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself. By doing so it would, to be sure, narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of that area all the more certain.
It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered "pure," and in its "purity" find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. "Purity" meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance.
You can see how this has played out in poetry, or plays out. For if you buy this—and I think many poets, consciously or unconsciously, still adhere to a Modernist perspective—you firmly wed poetry to theory, to a critical exposition of the nature of poetry that fundamentally shapes what poets attempt. What can the medium do or hold? Is an investigation of language the only genuine aim of poetry, the only valid content? You can also see how this leads to an ascendency of style, a ... what's the word we use ... privileging of style, such that style, over time, becomes content. True content, publicly recognizable content, is orphaned the more one accepts Greenberg's or related ideas. I went to a museum when I was about thirteen with a woman who was much older. I remember looking at three horizontal bars of color on a white background and basically shrugging. She said that if I knew enough I could appreciate what the painter had achieved, and that I'd probably like it. The path here is intellection to emotion: knowledge leads to feeling. And she was right, to a certain extent. Someone like Rothko commands my respect in exactly that manner. I want to know what he thought about what he was doing, I want to absorb his ideas in addition to his works, and, because of the appeal of his art, have widened my critical awareness of painting in general. But Rothko appeals to me emotionally first with his colors, their quality of life: they nearly have a pulse. The path here, in my case, is emotion to intellection. To the extent I'm bored by experimentation in poetry (or what passes for it, as much of what is lauded as experimental is more of an echo of earlier models), it has to do with that vector, that point of origin: beyond the self-interests of the medium, I can't tell why the poem exists, what it wants to say. And here's where I obviously disagree with Greenberg. My responsibility isn't to perfect the poetic medium, but to use the poetic medium to perfect the sense of life that I can render.
We're all formal poets. I remember saying that out loud, almost accidentally, the first time I taught a forms class. There was something about the logic, the pattern of the sonnet, that made me think of poetry in a broader sense. Our minds develop certain patterns that we tend to repeat, over and over. Images we use, conclusions we build to, settings we inhabit, objects we adore. That's why we're able to speak of voice, of recognizing a particular poet: we come to learn their shape, their form in words. And while these private forms are just that, they tend to come in classes, say, narrative or lyric, and schools, and so on, such that there is a public dimension to these private forms. One of the most thrilling aspects of writing is my desire to perfect this form (or these forms, I hope) while also learning to step away from it or them. The difficulty there, of course, is how do I use my mind ... to un-mind or re-mind itself?
LM: Robert Frost said, "A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." Clearly, the event at Virginia Tech has affected your work, not just in terms of content, but as regards the malleability of language. I'm speaking of the "violence" of language in the book, the way you ravage syntax, the way you wield syllepsis. It's clearly founded in your previous work, but how has this escalated for you in the new work?
BH: I didn't realize it had. This isn't something I thought about while writing these poems. I've long liked a kind of hinge line, one with phrases or words that swing both ways, which hold the end of one thought and the beginning of another. I'm probably more interested in sentences than lines, strictly speaking, in the unit of thought or emotion, more than of breath. That rhythm of the mind in motion is what I follow and try to get down. And since the mind is so associative, it's natural for me to allow and cultivate a kind of bleed through, to try to capture where this image rubs against that memory and connects to this wish. It could be that the shootings and other events accelerated that tendency.
LM: So you are saying that form is really the manifestation of the internal mind of an individual externally? Is this analogous to the dance of the bee for the hive? Is poetry no more than directions to the good pollen or instructions on how to build a nest?
BH: No more than? No less than? Greater than or equal to? We're getting deterministic here, and some of that I think is justified, is the case. Given language and self-consciousness, brain structures, Noam Chomsky Noam Chomsky Noam Chomsky, the forms that language can take are limited. But infinitely limited, I think. There is this notion in physics—the universe as bounded but infinite—and I can apply that to, I don't know, Russell Edson. Edson writes the same poem over and over. And I'll be clear: I love the same poem he writes over and over. For they're not the same. Though I know the shape of what he'll do, I don't know how he'll fill it. He is such an inventive motherfucker that, you know, he'll be a hundred years gone and still transforming people into pianos or whatever. But Russell Edson is, to my mind, a formal poet, even a conservative poet, because he has so fully occupied this shape, this form. What I get a kick out of is how revolutionary it would be for him to put out a book of straight-forward narrative or little lyrics about birds that remain birds and don't become bathtubs or tubas. Each. Mind. Has. A. Form. But these forms overlap (and hopefully are manifold). James Tate is in the Edson range of the spectrum. More varied in approach, but many of his transformations are Edsonian, or Edson's are Tateian, or Breton's were Apollinaireian. And just as we can discuss the nature of the sonnet, we can examine these forms in terms of what they can and cannot do. Looked at from the perspective of the individual, the poetic horizon is infinite. When you break us down into aesthetic classes, into unfilled forms, we are bounded, we are known. What do they say: there's something like 39 plots? 39 plots and endless stories.
LM: How is your mind these days? When you go in, is there clutter to be attended to, or is it more like a mine that has been drilled and buttressed well, and you can go deep?
BH: Tumbleweeds as far as my mind's eye can see.
I think of poetry as a performative, rather than compositional act. That I've trained myself to improvise, to grab what's passing through my mind and hold it as it holds me, to shape it, even as it reveals its shape. I think I'm inventing my mind as I write.
By now, it's well understood that the act of looking changes what's looked at, that looking is, in a sense, creative: an observed particle becomes a different particle, a unique particle, because of the energy it absorbs from the devices we use to observe it. Basic Heisenberg. It's the same way with the mind: the act of focus, of observing what's going on in the mind, imparts energy, a charge to that activity, to the mind's objects, if you will—thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories—that otherwise isn't there. And those objects and the mind are changed by that jolt. In other words, we create new minds when we write. I leave writing, the desk, with a different mind, a materially different brain, than when I began. And this wombing—I feel like I need a new verb—is substantially of my own making, in that I've chosen to be there and have made choices, to some extent, all the way through. Where else do you get to do that, or how many of us get to do that? Artists are lucky. We don't own the banks but we can erase time. That's what happens to me when I write. Musicians especially talk about this: where did the afternoon go? Who knows, but it sounded nice.
Laura McCullough's books include Panic, winner of the 2009 Kinereth Gensler Award (Alice James Books, 2011) and Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press, 2011)American Poetry Review
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon