Robert King, a fine poet and the indefatigable curator of the Colorado Poets Center (and editor of its quarterly publication, The Colorado Poet), has an interview with me in the current issue (#20). Looking it over, I see that it ends too abruptly, maybe even cryptically—ironically so, since I was holding forth on the subject of “clarity” at the end!
Bob King: You’ve written and published a lot—eight chapbooks and Thread of the Real is your sixth full-length book, I think. It’s the first since The Rain at Midnight in 2000. Were you collecting material or planning this book a long time ago? Do you see your books as different steps on a journey?
Joe Hutchison: Actually, it’s my fifth full-length book—my 13th collection. Two more—a chapbook and another full book—are coming in the next year. Those three together represent, more or less, what I’ve been doing the last 10 years.
I’m one of those poets who writes without a plan. I scribble and send work out to magazines until I get an itch to pull something together. I don’t get that itch very often because the process of publishing is no fun. It’s beside the point. Sometimes a year goes by without my submitting a poem to a journal.
The way Thread of the Real came about was that I’d decided to do a “New and Selected Poems.” This was 2006 or so. I wanted to make some of my out-of-print stuff available along with some new things. In the process of assembling the “new” section, I discovered I had much more than enough for a whole new book. So Thread came together over the following three years.
Because I don’t write with a plan in mind, making a collection is always a struggle. And I really wrestled with Thread. I write in a lot of different modes, or like to think I do, so I aim to reflect that variety while finding some coherence in the overall structure. I tend to think dialectically (I have a built-in on the other hand) that leads me to like poems that push against each other in some way. I like setting contradictory poems side by side rather than arranging around a particular argument that builds. In my head, the sections of Thread are more like scenes in a novel. Each one follows the progress of a conflict. So it’s only right that shaping the book was a struggle!
As far as Thread in connection with my other books, I do feel there are advances in it, in technique and content. There are two sections of what I think of as “public” poems: politics, social commentary—areas of concern that I hadn’t written much about before. And it seems to me that the poems overall have a richer texture, a greater range of feeling and reference, a more complex music.
BK: “The thread of the real” has a connection to poetry when viewed as a thread which, as you write, “strings our words like beads/ together, loops them / around our lover’s neck—they kiss her when she walks.” But it can also be seen as “a line of mindfulness / that curves differently / grained materials, a strand / of cloudy glue squeezed clear / between inlays of rosewood / and blond bay laurel.” How do you understand the concept of “mindfulness” and how does that figure in your poetry?
JH: We all live habitual lives. We all have routines that we pretty much sleepwalk through. We need those habits and routines, of course, just as our bodies need the autonomic nervous system. If we had to think about swallowing every time we took a sip of coffee or had to consciously engage with each movement involved in bending down to pick up a dropped pen, all our attention would be wasted on trivia. The problem is that habit and routine can divert awareness into the System and make it automatic where it shouldn’t be. I see an obese woman coming out of a Wal-Mart and all kinds of habitual thoughts and feelings kick in, none of which have anything at all to do with this individual woman. This kind of thing is destructive.
For me, mindfulness exists to reclaim from habit and routine the areas of awareness that need to remain receptive, subtle, complex, and luminous if we’re going to be enlightened human beings. Mindfulness is purposeful, like the glue in the lines you quoted: it holds different materials together for a purpose, for usefulness and beauty.
Mindfulness is another word for love. It’s passionate and purposeful. It engages. If we think about what it’s like to fall in love, we’ll notice that it disarranges our lives. All the old habits and routines break down! We always hated opera, but our love loves opera, so we go to the opera, we bring a new mindfulness to it, and suddenly it’s not just a bunch of portly actors ululating in some foreign language. We see it in a new way. We may never fall in love with opera, but our habitual thinking about opera is swept away.
Mindfulness is what poetry is all about, of course. Poetry is the result of the poet reclaiming awareness from habit and routine and putting the result in words that can help a reader do the same thing. The poet’s long dead, but through engagement with the mindful poem, the living reader can reclaim awareness in his or her own life. Poetry is a kind of sympathetic magic.
BK: There are a number of references—although that word feels wrong—in epigraphs, quoted lines, and the like, to a variety of other poets including Levertov, Machado, Ponge, Celan, Ted Hughes, and the South Korean poet Ko Un. I know from your blog (http://perpetualbird.blogspot.com) that you read very widely. How does the literature you read affect the literature you write?
JH: I’ve never been interested in imitation, but it’s impossible to read seriously and not be affected by it. I used to believe the poetry was “natural,” and so I’d fret over whether what I was writing was “authentic.” Did it sound like Eliot? Did it sound like Stafford? Was Bly’s voice creeping in here? Or Creeley’s there? If I recognized an influence I cut it out. Of course, the deepest influences go unrecognized. They feel like one’s own.
One new thing in my last decade’s work it’s that I’ve tried to allow influences to appear openly in the poems. Or not so openly (even I don’t remember where all the bodies are buried). The point is not to willy nilly drag other writers in to justify the poem but to let their resonance into the poem if it was actually part of the process.
BK: In what I’ll call your “political poems” your language is, of course, different from your more lyrical ones. In “A Dream of Difference,” for example: “The ravaged / make news only in obits, / but on the front page it’s all demagogues, / glassy eyed and misquoting Leviticus, ‘ presidential committees conceived / in denial and dedicated to diversion, / polled majorities deploring condoms.” How do you see your movements in a political poem as contrasted with a non-political one?
JH: As I said before, I seldom tackled political content in the poems up through The Rain at Midnight. Then George W. Bush came along, and the 9/11 attacks, and the nightmarish jingoism that followed, and I had to acknowledge it. I’m old enough to remember the late 60s, when here in Colorado the John Birch Society was fighting fluoridated water as a communist conspiracy and the American War in Viet Nam was on TV every night. The Birchers were clearly paranoid nuts, but I didn’t imagine at the time that their views would become central to rightwing thinking. I opposed the war and wrote against it, but I didn’t write well about it because I couldn’t integrate my rage and my grasp of the historical situation. Maybe I was actually too young to grasp it! Anyway, that’s why Thread includes two poems about that old war. They were written at the time but never, in my mind, finished until 2006 or so. There are lots of others that are simply irrecoverable. These two were the only ones that seemed to offer authentic insights into the situation—and by “authentic” I mean the insights are still valid. I guess that’s my test for a political poem. It has to be formally durable and deeper than journalism. As Marilyn Hacker put it recently in an interview, “Good journalism is preferable to bad poetry.”
BK: Your diction is often strikingly vivid and musical as well at metaphoric. I’m thinking of the sign outside a café (“a crazed sizzle of blazing bees / in the word EAT.”). Or the opening of “Mortality”: “Hard to imagine yourself in the ground…a shabby mess / of broken spindles, the loom / that cranked out the cloth of you / smashed, scattered—and somewhere / the ego sputtering its rage.” Does language just come out this way for you or do you have a method of revision or working?
JH: Yeats: “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” So no, the language almost never comes out at first the way it appears in the finished poem. Revision is a re-seeing of the words, their sounds and meanings (denotation and connotation), the rhythms they make together. For some reason my poems tend to spiral out and complicate over time, although I came up through the workshop system that put a lot of emphasis on cut, cut, cut—the assumption, evidently, being that the first draft blathers on and you have trim away the deadwood. That does happen—sometimes only a phrase or two survive from the original draft—but it occurs in a process of expansion, a reaching out for what may only be a hint of a resonance in the first draft. Also, I give myself the freedom to take a lot of wrong turns, which adds hours to making even a small poem.
BK: I find many of your poems to focus on what I’d call a “momentary mystical experience.” One example is in “January Thaw” where you mention Whitman, Hopkins, and Clare, and then “There / I was / floating / above the flood / of words… feeling / my whole being / blossom / in the veins / of the day.” Without getting into definitions of the mystical (or maybe you want to), how do you view these feelings? Have you always experienced this?
JH: Shall I wax philosophical? I’m no mystic. On the other hand, I’ve had the kinds of experiences that people might apply that tag to. I can’t because I don’t believe in the supernatural. I believe that nature is simply vaster than we think, and that it includes so-called supernatural dimensions, and we move among them now and then. Let’s say you wake up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in your side, and suddenly you’re thinking about your brother and feeling of dread comes over you. You give him a call and find out he’s just been taken to the hospital with a burst appendix. (This happened not to me but to my wife.) Well, you can either deny it or embrace it, be afraid of it or celebrate it. I celebrate it whenever it happens—this breaking down of commonly acknowledged boundaries. Isn’t that what art does, at its best?
BK: On your website, you say : “In all the years of my writing life, I’ve responded to and aspired to a quality in poetry that I can only call “clarity.” Would you explain more about this “clarity?” It doesn’t seem to be just what’s called “accessibility” in poems.
JH: You’re right: clarity isn’t accessibility. (I’m not sure what accessibility means, because what’s accessible to one reader may not be accessible to another. So when we talk about accessibility, we’re getting into statistics: what percentage of readers understand this poem on first reading? On second? On third? Etc. It’s a useless term.) Clarity is also not an absence of ambiguity. Blake is notoriously ambiguous, but no poet writes with more clarity.
So—I’ve said what clarity isn’t but not what it is. I would say that my sense of clarity goes back to the medieval meaning of the word—“glory” or “divine splendor.” In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake writes: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses.” He also writes: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Moments of clarity come through the senses but carry us beyond them. Blake has Isaiah say, “[M]y senses discover’d the infinite in every thing.” Poetry, no less than quantum physics, does that for us—but without the math!
This may sound religious, but I don’t think of it that way. And I don’t like the cheating distinction between “religious” and “spiritual.” So let me borrow a passage from an interview with the great A. R. Ammons, in which he pretty well sums up my own view on things. He’s recalling a moment of clarity that came to him while sitting on the bow of a ship in South Pacific, when he was in the Navy: “The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination—the water level was not what it was because of a single command by a higher power but because of an average result of a host of actions—runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers. I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what we don’t yet know rather than what we are certain of.” Poetry, for me, gives us what neither science nor religion can: a celebration of our ignorance—what Keats called “negative capability.”
I have to admit that “a celebration of our ignorance” gives me pause, but it’s true, isn’t it? We swim in existential mystery, but only poetry both acknowledges and celebrates that fact. Science and religion offer “answers,” but not always convincing ones.