Poet Michael Hettich has provided four fascinating interviews for Hole In The Head Review in 2021. Here they are:
I first became fully acquainted with J.D. Whitney’s poetry about six months ago when a mutual friend, the poet Bob Arnold, introduced us—so to speak--through email. Though I’d been vaguely familiar with his name for at least twenty years, I owned none of his many books and had never spent time with his work. I did know that Bob held J.D. and his writing in the highest esteem and had even published a book of his selected poems, Sweeping the Broom Shorter (2014), through his Longhouse imprint. Since Bob is one of our most perspicacious and astute readers of poetry, and since he and I correspond on an almost-daily basis, I’m surprised now at how long it took me to come to J.D.’s work. After he and I exchanged some of the books we’d written and I got a chance to really read his poems, I was even more deeply surprised, for here was one of the freshest and original voices I’d come across in years, a writer whose poems were interesting, profound, moving, empathetic and downright funny. In short, his work gave me the kind of enjoyment I rarely find in contemporary poetry.
JD Whitney’s poems gleam with revelation; many of them have shivered me like moments of grace. Spare and unadorned, they employ the American language with an exactness and discernment reminiscent of that essential line of American poetry that moves from Crane to Williams, to Levertov and Creeley and the other (so-called) Black Mountain poets. Beyond its sense of line and reliance on the objective eye, though, his work is profoundly unlike anything these master-poets accomplished. Whitney’s work is in fact most distinguished from anyone else’s by what I can only call his humor: a loving embrace of his fellow creatures great and small, in all their warts and warbling, an embrace that, even in its smallest songs, reminds us of the largeness and variety of our world—and reminds us as well that the whole world in all its various parts is alive and singing. While much of his work is indeed funny, its humor is gentle and embracing, deepened by compassion and tenderness. His gaze is outward: gentle, humor-filled, forgiving, empathetic and alert. His best poems cleanse the spirit, awaken the senses, and fill his readers with gratitude.
This interview was conducted by email in December, 2020, between my home in Black Mountain, NC and JD’s home in Norman, OK. The poems gathered at the end of the interview present a sampling of JD Whitney’s poetry, which first started appearing back in 1964.
1. First, to get us started, please talk a bit about your background: Childhood, education, significant experiences. When and how did you come to your engagement with writing and specifically with writing poetry? Was there a particular moment you recall when you felt, this is what I want to do?
I was born and raised in southern California (got to know horned toads and trapdoor spiders as a kid); then moved to Detroit area for my teenage years (played with ham radio, hot rods, motorcycles). I was formally educated at Henry Ford Community College, the University of Michigan—Dearborn (B.A.), and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (M.A.). While an undergraduate, I met the poems of Stephen Crane and never quite recovered. Though I’ve never taken a creative writing course, I’ve learned by persistent reading and practice.
2. Did you have any particular mentors during your apprenticeship in poetry? How did you find your direction (so to speak)?
At the new and small University of Michigan, Dearborn, I was writing lame limericks in the lunchroom, making me the closest thing to a “student poet” on campus, so it fell to me to hang out with visiting poets between their afternoon talks and evening readings. I had the good fortune to spend that time with Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley—who made a life of poetry seem real and possible to me for the first time. After trying to be them in my early attempts, I discovered it wasn’t working.
3. When and where did you “come of age” as a poet—at least so far as you understand the term?
I don’t understand that concept as a turning point but rather as an ongoing process. I’m still turning.
4. Can you describe your writing “practice”? Do you write every day? How has your practice of poetry evolved over the years?
I write now and then, on and off, here and there—without any particular schedule, trying always to be attentive and welcoming to poems when they come to visit. I think my poetry has evolved though my practice has not.
5. Your sense of line is beautiful and striking—and far more modulated and nuanced than that of any other living poet I can think of. It is reminiscent of such poets as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov—and even of early Anselm Hollo—but it is clearly your own. Would you please talk a bit about how you understand the line—how you approach it?
I’ve been clearly influenced by the poets you mention, but my approach to lining is not something I consciously think about in any useful sense. I try to HEAR the poems as I write and then try to line them by “scoring” them on the page, as Charles Olson described it in his “Projective Verse” essay and as others have exemplified. The stepped lining allows me to indicate the lengths of silences as the poem moves. I hope to help a reader hear the poems as I do.
6. A few well-known quotes: “No ideas but in the thing itself,” (WCW); “Form is never more than the extension of content” (Creeley/Olson). Explicate, from your personal perspective. And as a follow-up: How would you define “organic form.”
WCW’s “the thing itself” has been an important lesson to me: that paying close attention to the objects and phenomena of being alive is more rooted and fruitful than interpretation, generalization, abstraction. But all these mental processes, important as they are in some contexts, are brain-directed, often leaving the body as a bored bystander. As for “organic form,” I hear that as acknowledging the need for the writer to stay out of the poem’s way. It knows where it’s going.
7. One of the most wonderful qualities in your work is the humor expressed there, gentle and joyous and what I want to call spiritually playful. It is also the kind of humor—the rarest kind, to my mind—that opens up the world, as it opens our eyes and hearts to the vivid particularities of all beings. Although this life-affirming humor is evident in all your work, it is perhaps best seen in your Sd, and in the two wonderful All My Relations collections. I’m curious about how you came to this embracing humor, so different from the disjunct irony so much in fashion now.
Again, it’s not so much a matter of conscious choice as it is a function of how I seem to understand the world and my place in it. I love the playful/mischievous energy of young creatures, the life-joy, the Coyote spirit all around us. Darkness, too; we can all laugh even when the lights are out, sometimes.
8. When Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize in literature, you remarked (to me) that though she was certainly deserving of the award, you thought Gary Snyder should have won. I tend to agree, for my own reasons. What are yours?
Her work is wonderful, fully deserving of such reward. Snyder, though, ought to be a worldwide hero for all of the environmental perceptions and teachings offered, in his big-hearted way, long before most of us Euro-Americans came to such awareness. But his value goes well beyond the merely topical because of his writing skill; his energy, economy, and specificity are examples I’ve long loved and learned from.
9. For the most part you eschew “confessional” poetry, and I don’t find many examples of the explicitly autobiographical in your work. Your “I” is most often an “eye” rather than a psychology. Is this a conscious decision on your part, or does it just show where your interests lie?
It shows where my “interests lie.” I most like poems that present a definite OUTward focus. There are so many things more interesting in the world than the self.
10. I find many other animals –animals other than human—in your work. These animals always come across as “themselves” rather than as projections of your own human psyche. You obviously watch things very carefully, and you open your heart to the beingness of the non-human. Can you discuss this way of living in poetry?
I’ve been deeply affected, “transformed,” even, by the perception of many Native people(s) and tribal cultures, often represented by the Lakota saying “Mitakuye Oyasin.” A rough English approximation is “we are all related,” suggesting that all creatures and so-called “natural phenomena” are sentient, alive, and deserving to have their personhood recognized. I think the distinction between us humans and “lower forms of life” is a self-serving delusion. So I just spend a lot of time with my neighbors, trying to listen and learn.
11. I know your wife is a Robert Frost scholar. Has Frost had any influence on your work, as far as you can tell? And to take the question a bit further and in a different direction, to what extent (if at all) do you think you’ve been influenced by metrical poetry?
I’m aware of no direct influence—except insofar as both have helped me learn the rhythms & cadences of the language.
12. I sense in your work a great spiritual affinity for Native American cultures, traditions and world views. Have any particular Native American cultural traditions, attitudes, or poetries been particularly influential? Any books?
Years ago, I came to feel that my own Euro-American cultural background did not give me good advice about how to be a responsible citizen among other creatures and peoples. At about the same time I encountered books of “Native American myths and legends,” more properly termed “story systems,” and I immediately felt a resonance. From there, I devoured all such books I could find. That led me to Native communities and people and ultimately to friendships with Native writers and their work (Mark Turcotte, Denise Sweet, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Peter Blue Cloud, and others).
13. In commenting on your work, Charles Olson, praising it, said, “He is himself.” That sounds wonderful—but what does it mean? What does it mean, to you?
I want it to mean that he thought I’d come into my own voice despite obvious influences. But maybe it was just a noncommittal, inoffensive line to dismiss the young me, gently.
14. Many of your books feel like one long poem made up of many parts. Can you please describe your process of putting a book together? Do you simply gather the poems you like most from a period of time, or do you have a guiding principle, a goal or kind of architecture guiding your writing from the outset?
No principle, really, but it works out as you describe: most of my books have been sequences of related poems: Tracks, Sd, Grandmother Says, All My Relations (books 1 and 2). I think I’m pretty much a one-track-mind kind of guy. These sequences continue until I feel done with them or they with me; then, if there are enough pieces that work together, the gathering can become a book.
15. I know you taught at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County and College of Menominee Nation for many years. What did you teach? And how did your teaching affect your writing (as far as you can tell)? As a corollary, I know you moved to Oklahoma a number of years ago. What drew you there?
After some high-school teaching outside of Detroit, I taught Head-Start (summers) and university classes in Wisconsin: the usual composition plus some creative writing and occasional classes in environmental literature and Native American “myth and legend.” All my teaching engaged me with language, literature, and (of course) students and their bright energies. Teaching at College of Menominee Nation, part-time for about eight years, gave me a realer-world understanding of reservation life, along with the problems Native peoples face and the tremendous strengths they possess toward what Gerald Vizenor has called “survivance.” And those classes convinced me, further, that serious learning and playfulness can walk together.
After many years in Wausau and Madison, Wisconsin, my wife and I decided we’d move to a place with gentler winters; we’d visited Norman, Oklahoma, frequently to be with family, so it was an easy choice as well as being closer to my grown children in Colorado and their families. I’d loved the richness and variety of Native cultures and peoples in Wisconsin, and Oklahoma was a natural next home.
16. Do you see any current trends or developments in American poetry that look promising to you? Any particular living poets you’ve been reading with interest?
I read less contemporary poetry than I used to. Lately, I’ve been following the work of Bob Arnold, Malcolm Ritchie, Ronald Baatz, and Michael Hettich, with delight. Also, Linda Hogan and Gary Snyder stay with me. And I still find plenty of life in non-living poets I continue to read: Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Lew Welch, Jim Harrison, Carroll Arnett, Ed Dorn, and a wide range of traditional haiku (especially Issa).
17. What are you working on right now, in poetry or otherwise?
I have a little book, titled Ago, of unconnected (!), mostly shorter poems, coming from the Turkey Buzzard Press in early 2021. Otherwise, I’m living my lucky life with my wife Lisa, playing with our two dogs, bicycling, and playing with motorcycles.
· HELLO. Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1965, 20 p.
· HELLO (2nd ed.). Detroit: Artists’ Workshop Press, 1967, 25 p.
· “wu-shih,” Platteville WI, It Press, 1967, 8 p.
· TRACKS, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1969, 38 p.
· THE NABISCO WAREHOUSE, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1971, 60 p.
· SD, New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1973, 20 p.
· SOME, Madison WI: The Never Dismount Press, 1975, 32 p.
· TONGUES. New Rochelle NY: Elizabeth Press, 1976, 16 p.
· MOTHER, Eau Claire WI: Red Weather Press, 1981 12 p.
· WORD OF MOUTH, La Crosse WI: Juniper Press, 1986, 64 p.
· 6 POEMS, Mt. Horeb WI: The Perishable Press, 1987, folded broadside.
· SD, Peoria IL: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1988, 66 p.
· & SD, Madison WI: The Clearing Press, 1990, 24 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1994, 23 p.
· SD & DONE, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 1995, 40 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Madison, WI: Parallel Press, 2000, 24 p.
· WHAT GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Greensboro NC: March Street Press, 2001, 71 p.
· GRANDMOTHER SAYS, Sausalito CA: Arctos Press, 2005, 83 p.
· COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2007, folded chaplet, 12 poems.
· ALL MY RELATIONS, Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2010 106 p.
· MORE COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2011, folded chaplet, 15 poems.
· SO MANY COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: 2013, folded chaplet, 14 poems.
· COUSINS EVERYWHERE! and STRING TOO SHORT TO BE STRING, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2014, folded chaplet, 26 poems.
· SWEEPING THE BROOM SHORTER: SELECTED POEMS 1964-2014, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2015, 173 p.
· & COUSINS, West Brattleboro VT: Longhouse, 2017, folded chaplet, 13 poems.
· ALL MY RELATIONS (book 2), Kalispell MT: Many Voices Press, 2018, 86 p.
J.D. Whitney lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with his wife Lisa Seale and their two dogs. He taught writing and literature for many years at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County (Wausau) and College of Menominee Nation (Keshena). He has published more than 20 books/chapbooks since the mid 1960s, and his poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Origin, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Orion. He is grateful to have learned that stories choose to inhabit us, or not, and that the language we’re alive in is alive.
I met Mildred Barya a little more than two years ago, when we read together at Asheville Wordfest. I was moved deeply by her reading, by the gentle clarity of her responses to audience questions, and by her forthright commitment to environmental and social justice. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to one of her classes and of presenting my work for the reading series she curates. But I knew little about her background as a person and her practice as a writer, among other things. I proposed the following interview for precisely those reasons.
This interview was conducted by email during the months of March & April, 2021, while Mildred was busy with her teaching duties at the University of North Carolina/Asheville.
You’ve told me that your earliest serious mentor in creative writing was Ayi Kwei Armah. Can you describe how you met him and give us some sense of the experience of working with him? What kind of mentor was he?
I first "met" Armah on the pages of his books. His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, had a profound impact on me and is still regarded by many as one of the finest books to tackle the predicament and complexity of the post-independence era in Ghana and Africa at large. In person, we met in early 2005 at a Kwani writers’ conference organized by the late Binyavanga Wainaina in Nairobi, Kenya. I was enthralled to see him, couldn’t believe how lucky I really was that I got to be in his presence and hear him address us calmly and eloquently. During coffee break, I could not contain the wellness of joy babbling all over my body, so I approached him, and the curious journalist in me started asking questions. He told me that he was in the process of establishing an African writers’ residency in Popenguine, Senegal, where he lives, and he would mentor young writers in the art of novel writing. At the time, I was writing a novel and imagined what a great opportunity it would be if I was a successful applicant for his mentoring program.
We kept in touch after I returned to Uganda. In early 2006, I saw the call for applications—seeking aspiring writers from across Africa. Only four people would be selected. What chance did I have? Still, I applied. I was working with Ernst & Young as the Human Resources Advisor then, after completing a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology at Makerere University. I got immersed in work and eventually stopped thinking about the writers’ residency. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later I received news of acceptance along with three other fellows from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. I left EY, a lucrative job, to pursue the unknown. For nine months we wrote and workshopped our novels with Armah. He read everything and advised us accordingly—we were all apprenticed to him—and that was my first long and immersive engagement with craft. The environment was warm, inspiring and very professional. After nine months in Popenguine, I had a good draft of 603-page novel.
You earned your M.F.A. at Syracuse—and I assume it was in poetry. Can you describe the program as it was when you were there? How difficult was the transition from your work with Ayi Kwei Armah in Popenguine, Senegal to cold and gray Syracuse? I wonder about the cultural disruptions and transitions of that period for you. Did you find any particular mentors there?
My MFA was actually in Fiction, although I took workshop courses in all genres. The program was open in the sense that you had to take more workshop classes in your admitted genre, but in no way were we limited to take courses in other genres. Again, I had incredible mentors—Arthur Flowers—a griot from Memphis reminded me of the griot performances I had watched in Dakar, where I moved after. my nine-months writing residency in Popenguine ended. It was while I was in Dakar that I began to think about attending the MFA program in the US. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Less Taken explains my circumstances best in this one line: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way”.
At Syracuse I had George Saunders as my advisor and worked closely with him on a collection of short stories for my thesis project. Mary Karr’s memoir class was also eye-opening, and I took several poetry courses with Michael Burkard, Chris Kennedy, and Bruce Smith. My transition to Syracuse was made smooth by these compassionate and wonderful writers. I’ve maintained close communication with most of them and once in a while we meet in person. Arthur Flowers, for instance, was one of our MLK Guest speakers at UNCA in February 2020. Bruce visited my high school in Birmingham, Alabama where I taught for a year in 2013. It turned out that he knew two folks—one of the instructors in creative writing, and also the chair of the Creative Writing Department who hired me. Bruce had previously taught them in the MFA program at the University of Alabama before he moved to Syracuse in 2002. That’s how broad and small my writing world has been. Other than the harsh weather, the program at Syracuse was right for me.
And finally, at least as far as your education goes, I wonder the same things about your time in Denver. I know we’ve shared the fact that I got my MA at Denver University, studying under Burton Raffel and John Williams. Did you find any particular influences in the Ph.D. program? Was Bin Ramke there when you were?
Funny you should mention Bin; he was my primary dissertation advisor, so he got to read a lot of my poetry. My dissertation was in poetry framed within a long critical introduction on the poetics of home and the diaspora. Unlike Syracuse, where I had gone not knowing what to expect, Denver was remotely familiar from the country songs of John Denver that my father and I loved listening to when I was growing up. Secretly, I nursed a desire to see the Rockies for myself. I loved hiking in the mountains and camping in summer. The blue skies were also a relief. No matter how cold it got, we always had blue skies. Nowadays I choose my locations based on how blue the skies are.
What I appreciated most about the Ph.D. program has to do with how experimental and innovative it was—that spoke to me because I do not know how to exist in one genre, and traditional forms, however exciting they may be, don’t hold my fascination for long. I always like to mix things up a bit, so at DU I could invent and do whatever I wanted. I feel like hybrid genres can absorb all that life contains, while still highlighting the poetic, narrative, anti-narrative, and/or dramatic experiences typical of life. The opening or openness to form is what I particularly found liberating.
Now, to shift a little to your life and work today. What’s your current practice in poetry? Do you write every day? How do you keep the spirit of poetry alive within you?
Poetry is how I pay myself first. One of David Bach’s books on creating financial freedom mentions paying yourself first by putting 10% of your monthly earnings in a retirement fund. (Since we all know what a booming business poetry is!) I dedicate the first hour of my morning to the practice of poetry, either by reading, writing, or meditating upon it. In this regard, I think that poetry and prayer have a lot in common. Whenever I skip a day without paying myself first with a poem, I end up in a less joyful state. I’ve always felt that writing in general is a sacred art form because we use words and sound—the origin of all creation. Nowadays I’ve taken that belief a notch higher, and overall I am definitely good company after a dose of writing/creating. My partner says that I am a danger to myself and others around me whenever I step out of writing communion for long. I think that says a lot, because it speaks to the possibility of existing in a state of writing, whether one is actually writing or not. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the idea of abundance—what it’s like to be in a state of abundance versus manifestation of abundance in what we call “reality.” I know some people that would be categorized as poor, yet they exude a sense or perpetual state of abundance. I also know people who from a material perspective are financially blessed but give off too much poverty vibe.
What poets have most influenced you? What poets mean the most to you now, both as a practicing poet and as a human being? Do you think any particular “schools” of poetry have been more amenable to you than others?
The Ugandan poets, Susan Kiguli and the late Okot p’Bitek were foundational to my becoming a poet. When I was an undergrad student, Susan Kiguli introduced me to the poetry of Jack Mapanje (Malawian) and it sparked a fire in me, then the visionary Blake, Coleridge, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, T. S Eliot, and Maya Angelou. Each week we’d read tons of poems from writers across the world. When I look back, I realize what a great and rich education my undergraduate experience was at Makerere University. I was shocked when I came to the United States and discovered that some of my peers didn’t know any poets outside White American literature. This still jolts me when I realize the narrow scope of literature studies that students in our institutions have been exposed to. Milan Kundera has an essay on this—World Literature—how small nations tend to study all there is about large nations and themselves, while citizens of large nations tend to not go beyond their noses. According to Kundera, “The large nations resist the Goethean idea of world literature because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere.” Kundera quotes what Kazimierz Brandys says in his Paris Notebooks: 1985–87, “that the French student has greater gaps in his knowledge of world culture than the Polish student, but he can get away with it, for his own culture contains more or less all the aspects, all the possibilities and phases, of the world’s evolution.” I think this is similar to what I’ve encountered here.
Nowadays, the poets that mean the most to me are those in touch with the numinous or mystical experiences like Rainer Maria Rilke. I’m also fond of animal poems—I have a whole unpublished collection featuring the animals around me—the basis of which is my reverence for all forms of life. Your poems too, Michael, acknowledge the importance of kinship with our animals and planet, so I have you next to Mary Oliver. Other poets I’m rereading include Gabeba Baderoon, Ai Ogawa, Ross Gay, and Tyehimba Jess.
Have you ever translated poetry? If so, please discuss the process and tell us how you think the discipline of translating has affected your own original work.
I have translated trickster tales from my mother tongue, Runyankole Rukiga into English, but not poetry. However, whenever I’m writing and want to use fresh images in my poems, I switch to thinking in Rukiga because it’s the best way for me to tap into the rich vocabulary and idioms of my culture. When incorporated into English, they come across as original and organic. Besides, they force me to think of their equivalent in English, so I think it’s safe for me to say that my writing is a form of translation. Assuming that I didn’t have knowledge of other languages, it would still seem to me that the act of writing involves translating thoughts to make sure they make sense on the page.
Translating is the closest thing to creative writing. It is in fact creative writing. There are several schools of translation theory but they all meet at a creative point that allows the translator to improvise by thinking mostly about the culture in which the translated text will emerge rather than the one from which the text originates. Diction, for instance, distinguishes a good translation from a bad one. It’s also a major characteristic of good writing. What I take away from translation theory is that the work or text should be intelligible and meaningful. The intelligible follows logic and the meaningful creativity.
Please describe the process of revision as you typically experience—or engage—it.
George Saunders says revision is love in progress, and I agree. I write freely without stopping to think too much, but after I have the first draft, that’s when I read it with revision in mind, sentence by sentence or line by line to make sure the sequence is right, then diction and tone. I like to put the work aside and give it time to grow in the dark, then return to it after a week or month, and that’s when I work on the musicality and fall in love all over again. At some point I read it out loud—ears are good editors—they’ll detect what the eyes may not see. After the second or third round, I eat the work to feel how it tastes—how it settles in my body. If it gives me indigestion or some other discomfort, I know it’s not ready. If it leaves me feeling fresh as if I’ve just peeled and eaten a sweet orange, or it fills me up like steak and potatoes, I know I’m getting somewhere.
How do you typically organize a manuscript of your poetry? What I mean here is, how do you make something that has the coherence of a book, rather than just a group of poems with a title. How do you create something larger than the sum of its parts, something with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end?
After I’ve written over 60 pages, I write a brief synopsis or blurb to inform me of the manuscript’s essence, which then gives me a sense of what the majority of my poems are really about in terms of themes or subject matter. From there, I categorize the poems from first to last, following the arc, but also determining how to balance the prose poems with verse, that sort of thing. The last organization involves flow. I need to feel the manuscript’s fluidity as the running thread—ease and grace.
You currently live in Asheville, which is right down the road from Black Mountain, home of the renowned Black Mountain College and the Black Mountain School of Poetry, comprising such figures as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Edward Dorn. These poets are famous in part for having extended William Carlos Williams’s call for a poetry written in the “American” language. As someone coming from a tradition outside the “American” tradition, what influence, if any, have these aesthetic ideas had on your practice. What does “American” poetry mean to you?
These poets are heavy on image and improvisation, which I favor myself because that approach is experimental; it’s not about getting it right all the time or insisting on a particular form, but rather staying open to the creative process itself. The art of craft, which we favor in creative writing to shape content, throws borders like “American poetry” out of the window. The cultural content may be American, if we figure out what that means, but the way craft is executed in the work may not be different from the way a Jamaican writer demonstrates craft. I’m teaching a course in World Literature at the moment focusing on African Poetry. After analyzing three full poetry collections and an anthology of about 400 pages, I set a trap question to my students and they cleverly avoided it: “What makes African Poetry different from other kinds of regional poets you’re familiar with?” It forced them to respond from a comparative perspective, pitting craft elements against craft elements, and thematic issues dealing with the continent versus the diaspora. Although some things were distinct, like a community or outward focus v. individualized self/thinking, a lot crisscrossed, which is on point to what you’re raising here. It used to be that Ethnic literature wasn’t talked about in terms of merit or craft, but I think that is changing, especially with the likes of us in the classroom. Also, American poetry is diverse if one is looking beyond the canon or what’s commonly taught in the classroom. Sharp differences only emerge when white male poetry of a particular period is emphasized over and over as if it’s the only American poetry that counts.
As a corollary to the previous question, shouldn’t we best think of American poetry as embracing as wide a range of voices and practices as there are voices and cultures in American life itself?
How important to you is understanding what a poem means? To what extent should good poems resist paraphrase?
I think it would help poetry readers to ask themselves what kind of understanding they’re bringing into a poem rather than thinking that they’re coming into it without any knowledge or preconceived notions. I’m particularly interested in how we read as opposed to what; how we ingest and process information or the world around us, which involves poems, which means that we most likely see things in a poem that the author didn’t put there, and that should be fun, instead of deliberating one possible meaning.
What role, if any, does politics play in your work?
In the sense that the personal is political and vice-versa. I’m not sure if it’s possible to talk about one’s identity, a writer’s identity, without seeing how it engages the political.
I know you write prose as well as poetry. Can you briefly discuss the differences you find in the process of composition of poetry versus prose?
I need more time, planning and structure for prose. More thinking space and a large desk. Probably some candles, sage burning, Duke Ellington in the background. A glass of water or a pot of tea and wide windows. The process is elaborate. Poetry is more merciful in its offerings. It shows up when I’m taking a shower or working on a prose piece. It comes to me while I court prose. Nowadays poetry happens when I’m running. I don’t know if it’s the sound of my feet crunching leaves or coming into contact with the ground that brings it on, so I memorize the lines and continue running. The funny thing is that I run to get away from thinking, so I’ve been surprised to find that when I do succeed in getting out of my head, poetry appears, which implies that it’s coming from somewhere other than my head, and frankly, that’s a relief.
Finally, what quality do you think most distinguishes you as a writer?
Persistence and a relentless attempt to express the inexpressible.
Mildred K. Barya is a writer from Uganda and assistant professor at UNC-Asheville, where she teaches creative writing and world literature. Her publications include three poetry books as well as prose, poems or hybrids forthcoming or published in Shenandoah, Tin House, Obsidian, poets.org, Poetry Quarterly, Asymptote Journal, Matters of Feminist Practice Anthology, Prairie Schooner, New Daughters of Africa International Anthology, Per Contra, and Northeast Review. She’s at work on a collection of nonfiction, and one of the essays—Being Here in This Body—won the 2020 Linda Flowers Literary Award, and is forthcoming in the North Carolina Literary Review, 2021. She received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and a B.A. in Literature, from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.. She is a board member of the African Writers Trust, and coordinates the Poetrio Reading Events at Malaprop’s Independent Bookstore/Café in Asheville. Visit her blog: http://mildredbarya.com/
I’ve never actually met Cyrus Cassells, but I’ve known of his work and its stellar reputation for years, and though I’d never read it with any serious focus, I was curious to do so when Bill Schulz, editor of Hole in the Head Review, suggested I approach him to see if he’d be willing to be interviewed for the August issue of the journal. Though extremely busy with various writing projects and responsibilities—including those related to his recent appointment as Poet Laureate of Texas—Cyrus agreed without hesitation and with the enthusiasm and open hearted engagement I’ve come to see are as fundamental to his personality as they are to his work . His answers to my questions are characterized by the honesty and probity--as well as the profound poetic intelligence—that distinguish all of his writing. It has been a pleasure to delve into that writing and to work with him on this interview.
As Spencer Reece said of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, Cassells’ 2020 chapbook, “Cassells couples one dialectic after the other: the human and the divine, the land with the stars, the secular with the religious…They come out of the depth of a man having worked in his craft for forty years. Joyful, extravagant, lyrically-packed, strange, memorable…It is a lovely thing to have Cassells as our watchman.”
MH: To get started, would you please talk a little about your background? I’m curious to hear about your family circumstances and/or formative childhood experiences. I’m also curious about how and when you first knew you wanted to write and write poetry specifically.
CC: I'm an Air Force brat, born in Delaware but raised primarily in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. During my childhood summers, I stayed with my maternal grandparents, Frank and Annie Williston, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, so I have a keen sense of the South as well. I come from a very committed and distinguished African American family. As a cadet in the early 1950s, my father Cyrus helped to desegregate West Point. My maternal uncle, Roger (Bill) Terry was the national president of the Tuskegee Airmen and was Jackie Robinson's college roommate! My Uncle Claude worked for Dr. King and my cousin Claudia Young (who worked for the King Foundation) grew up as a close friend to the King children. Among my relatives are National Book Award winner, Jacqueline Woodson, Mary Jackson of Hidden Figures fame, and Stedman Graham, Ophrah Winfrey's longtime partner.
I'm one of those people who knew from elementary school that I wanted to be a writer and have never wavered from that ambition. I constantly studied the N volume of my Encyclopedia Britannica to bone up on the history of the novel, so I started my preparation in grade school! My first writing assignment was in fourth grade: I was asked to write the Class Prophecy for the other students.
It was reading Sylvia Plath's Ariel at age sixteen that first interested me in poetry--that convinced me that it was an emotionally potent medium.
Previously my poetry education had been confined to Shakespeare and 19th century writers like Longfellow. I soon became enamored of Confessional and activist poets.
MH: What poets from the past (and present) do you see as primary influences on your work? Have you had any particularly significant mentors? Do you see yourself and your work as part of a line or tradition in American poetry?
CC: My favorite poets are Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesare Pavese, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Carlos Williams. I guess my next tier would include Eliot, Jean Follain, Keats, Neruda, Plath, Roethke, Stevens, and Yeats.
Besides Plath, the first contemporary poets I read as a teenager were Ai (who was my colleague for a year at Texas State), Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich. As an undergraduate at Stanford, I discovered the poetry of Louise Gluck, our current Nobel Laureate, who remains a major inspiration. Other poets, whom I know personally, that have influenced me: Martin Espada (we ran a reading series together in Boston), Carolyn Forche (a colleague at George Mason University), Paris-based Yale Younger Poet, Ellen Hinsey, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whom I met as a fellow teacher at the Idyllwild Poetry Conference.
I'm a rare American poet and professor in that I have no terminal degrees. I won the National Poetry Series at age 23 and immediately had a New York publisher, Henry Holt, so at the time (in the early 80s), acquiring a master's degree didn't seem necessary. Nevertheless, my mentors have been Linda Gregerson, Alan Shapiro, and Timothy Steele (my poetry tutor and professors at Stanford), Stanley Kunitz, who awarded me the Peter Lavan Younger Poet Award, and William Merwin, who give me advice and invaluable help, especially with my fifth book, The Crossed-Out Swastika.
For the most part, my work is very international and multicultural, so I don't see it as particularly American in tenor, though poets Robert Hayden, Carl Phillips, and Tracy K. Smith come to mind as kindred spirits: they're all African American troubadours very at home in the world, unfettered by stringent stereotypes of what a Black poet should write.
MH: Follow-up question: Whom do you consider the most “important” poets writing today? Who are you reading? Are there any trends in contemporary poetry/literature that particularly interest you right now? To your mind, who is opening up and extending the possibilities of poetry at this time?
CC: Rather than label them "important," I'll just say that I always look forward to new books by Martin Espada, Carolyn Forche, Suzanne Gardinier, Jorie Graham, Lousie Gluck, Robert Hass, Ellen Hinsey, Carl Phillips, and Patricia Smith. I loved the late C.D. Wright's work and the late Jean Valentine's distinctive poetry. I thought Yale Younger Poet Richard Siken's first book, Crush, was spectacular, and Natalie Diaz's Postcolonial Love Poem, which just won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, is a fabulous reinvention and updating of the erotic praise song.
In my graduate poetry workshops, I always include two or three "cutting edge" books by poets whom I feel are expanding my sense of what's possible in the genre. Books that I've loved sharing with my students: Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins, Victoria Chang's Obit, Jos Charles's feeld, Matthea Harvey's If the Tabloids Are True, What are You? Tyehimba Jess's Olio (2017 Pulitzer Prize), Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic, and Evie Shockley's semiautomatic. The open-ended Olio especially blows students' minds, with its "syncopated sonnets" that can be read three ways, and tear-outs that allow you to "co-create" and physically reconstruct this trailblazing book about Jim Crow era African American musicians and performers. it's the most experimental book of poetry ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I'm proud that Jess was a former Cave Canem student of mine and that we serve together as jurors for the LA Times Book Prize in Poetry.
MH: Which arts other than poetry, if any, have influenced your work in poetry?
CC: Attention to sound and the musical quality of my poetry is very important to me. I come from a very musical family. Both my brothers are talented singer-songwriters. I played the clarinet growing up and was exposed to a lot of jazz and classical music as well as contemporary genres. My years in Florence and Rome in the 1990s inspired my love of opera. Attention to sound and the musical quality of my poetry is very important to me. I'm a big fan of the "musical literature," as I like to call it, of Joni Mitchell and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, and of other accomplished lyricists like Leonard Cohen, Shawn Colvin, Paul Simon, and Sting. I've occasionally performed my poetry with musicians in the US and in Italy. I'm currently in talks to do a benefit reading in Siena, focusing on the Gullah poems in The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, with a group of Gullah musicians. The reading is to aid people in the Italian tourist industry who lost significant income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My undergraduate degree from Stanford is in film. Several of my ekphrastic poems have been inspired by movies. In 2019, I was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for my 2018 film and television critiques in The Washington Spectator. My love of film has been a constant, and I am slowly preparing a book of my collected cultural criticism called Renegade Charisma.
One of my hobbies is art appreciation, particularly painting and sculpture. My half a decade spent in Italy really enhanced my sense of the visual bonanza of life.
MH: One of the unfortunate but perhaps necessary tendencies of many artists in all the disciplines is the embrace of a “signature style.” In poetry this often results in the poet writing virtually the same poem over and over. How do you keep your work from falling into such a habit of mind and approach--while still maintaining a personal style and voice?
CC: The variety and shifts in my books so far have come primarily from my travels, which always involve diligent research, learning, risk, and self-revelation. I like to strike out in a different direction each time, though it has all been organic, without a lot of conscious forethought or agenda. I often don't know what I'm doing until well into the new cycle of poems. Hopefully, with each book, I explore different dimensions of myself. My forthcoming books represent me at my most political, scathing (The World That the Shooter Left Us), frank, conversational, and funny (Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?).
MH: I know you’ve translated quite extensively, particularly from the Spanish and Catalan, but also from Ita
lian. Can you discuss your translation process? I wonder too what languages you speak and what level of fluency you think it’s necessary to have to translate. What draws you to the works you translate?
CC: I think the most effective translations require dedicated immersion in the world of the original artist, a solid cultural and historical grasp, and that's often a long, demanding process. Many poetry translations fail because the translators are too word-for-word literal, and just can't come up with agile and effective enough English. Regarding languages, I am most fluent in Italian, as I lived in Florence and Rome for six years. I was well-educated in Spanish from junior high up through college. I studied beginning level Japanese at Stanford and at Keio university in Tokyo as a summer exchange student but decided to change course when I left Stanfod. I spent two of my Texas State University sabbaticals in Paris and learned the language there: I have always been drawn to Paris and felt an affinity for French. I have a good reading grasp of Catalan but have never spent enough time in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca to master speaking. I ended up translating Catalan (which was banned from public use at the end of the Spanish Civil War by Franco) because, as an African American, it appealed to my sense of justice. The clear-eyed but ebullient celebration of life and the everyday in Francesc Parcerisas's work and the austere beauty and aura of perseverance in Salvador Espriu's volumes captivated me and spurred me to translate their poems into English. I was able to work with Francesc directly on my translations, but Espriu died in 1985, not long after our first meeting in Barcelona.
MH: Of your most recent Copper Canyon book, The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012) one reader has commented: “The book's arc and scope reach so far beyond the tragic, earthly event they intone as to recreate, quite literally, a history that seems to have been overlooked. There is an emotional ethnography of the Holocaust that has become sacrosanct among most contemporary writers, but in reading The Crossed-Out Swastika the blurred portions of this history are wiped clear, given focus, and held up to the light.”
This strikes me as extremely prescient and insightful. How closely does the comment rhyme with your intentions in writing the book?
CC: I hadn't seen this comment before, and I find it quite moving. It is deeply gratifying for a writer to have this profound a response. I felt very driven to write the book. There was an urgency about it, and I had to put aside another still unfinished project (a novel-in-verse) to write and complete it. My project was to consider the role of children and young adults in the Holocaust: war's devastating effect on children is generally something we prefer not to think about. In a substantial way, it's a sequel to the Holocaust poems in Soul Make a Path through Shouting. I am consistently drawn to the past, to places of trauma (Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Dresden), and to stories of hard-won spiritual triumph.
MH: Your new book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (Nine Mile, 2020) was largely written while you were a resident in a Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico. Would you please talk a bit about that book, and about the experience in the monastery?
CC: In 2018, I was gifted by the prior and Benedictine brothers of Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico, with two different hermitages as writing workplaces: at Three Kings Day, The Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage, close to the novice's quarters, and in May, The Saint Augustan of Canterbury Hermitage, alongside the Chama River, on the monastery's outskirts, roughly a fifteen-minute walk away from the striking chapel and main grounds. There was no internet or phone reception, so this was the first time in my life that I was incommunicado for a long stretch, and the results were dramatic: I've been composing, nonstop, new poetry and cultural criticism from the first wintry day that I landed in Abiquiu.
The spare book is comprised of twelve-poem sequence, a lyrical meditation on faith and monastic life, that examines the immense natural beauty of the abbey's Chama Valley setting, with its red and saffron-yellow cliffs, and the devotional life and hardy activities of the monks. The title comes from Psalm 130:6
"More than watchmen at daybreak,
My soul is longing for the Lord..."
My book is a poetic thank-you to the monks, who graciously allowed me into their world.
MH: While many poets organize their manuscripts only after they’ve written a book-length number of poems, you seem typically to organize your manuscripts around particular themes or formal challenges. To what extent is my hypothesis correct? And how do you create something larger than the sum of its parts--something with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end—while still maintaining the integrity and power of each individual poem?
CC: I’m an atypical poet in that I work almost exclusively in book-length cycles; it often takes several years for the full “theme” of the cycle to emerge, which can be both frustrating and exhilarating in terms of the dogged detective work and ever-expanding odyssey required. In my forty-year career, I’ve hardly ever written an occasional poem. I seem to crave length and structure as a poet; my lyric impulses are almost always linked to a far-ranging project. I’m a world citizen and inveterate traveler, so crafting my thematic books often involves actual pilgrimage, cultural investigation, and historical study.
MH: The most recent poem of yours I’ve seen, "Rumors and Exits," is a three-part poetic sequence inspired by Lorca's three greatest plays (Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba). It's from your in-progress poetry project, If Lorca Had Lived in Morelos: Poems and a Memoir of Granada, which is a homage to Lorca and Frida Kahlo, that also explores the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the bonds between Mexico and Republican Spain. You’ve told me that you’re about half-way through the hybrid manuscript. Your approach here seems to me to open up new possibilities for your work. I’m curious to hear more about this project, and why you chose to pay homage to Lorca and Kahlo.
CC: A friend, a gifted poet, Ellen Hinsey, read my fourth book, More Than Peace and Cypresses, and felt perhaps I was the reincarnation of Lorca!--which I'm not, of course, but the indelible Spanish bard and playwright has been my hero-poet since my earliest language classes. My high school graduation gift from my Spanish teacher, Concepcion Jorba (the most influential of all of my teachers), was a leatherbound edition of Lorca's Collected Works. It was Ellen who suggested that I write a book about Lorca, so in 2012, 2013, and 2019 I visited Granada, happily following the Lorca trail, and my volume in progress, a memoir of Granada with accompanying poems, documents my sojourns. I taught a graduate course this past semester on Lorca and it definitely helped to advance the book.
This time I am mostly creating a documentary of my encounters with Lorca, with flamenco and Andalusian culture, and with the wonderful people that I have met there over the years. In early 2020, I stayed, by chance, next door to Frida Kahlo's La Casa Azul, the most visited spot in all of Mexico City. My bedroom window and writing desk faced Frida's fabulous garden and bedroom, and I was there long enough to begin considering my connection to her--one of the world's most distinctive, innovative, and inspiring artists. I am writing about the early period in her life when her crippling bus accident and hospitalization spurred her toward painting instead of a medical career. I am also writing about Mexico as the refuge for the Spanish Civil War exiles: the only country to offer true asylum and support. It is now known, after decades of secrecy, that Lorca was planning to leave for Mexico with a young lover, Juan Ramirez de Lucas, when the war broke out and the poet was assassinated by Franco's occupying forces. Ramirez kept the secret of his relationship to his grave. Two years after Ramirez's death, his sister found and shared their correspondence and a poem that Lorca wrote for Juan. The title poem of my new book imagines Lorca living in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City.
MH: Beyond the overt themes and investigations we’ve already touched on, what role, if any, does politics play in your work? To what extent can politics be overt in good poetry: how does the poet resist or go beyond sloganeering? As a corollary, how does a political poem stay relevant over time?
CC: My new book, The World That the Shooter Left Us, is due out in February/March by Four Way Books. This is the most political work that I've created to date. The title was inspired by the 2017 Stand Your Grand killing of a close friend's father over a parking space in Houston. The man was later convicted of murder, based on forensic evidence that made it clear that the gun-wielding man had lied regarding his claim of self-defense.
The rest of the book burgeoned in the space of two months while I was traveling in Spain and Italy during the summer of 2019. All my feelings about Trump-era America just poured out of me, sometimes at a rate of two poems a day. Perhaps being away from my own country allowed me added insight and genuine permission to create no-holds-barred political satire and commentary and to focus on the shadow side of America: #MeToo and rape culture, drugs, police brutality, rampant racism, and child detention. A friend, who was a close reader for me, said it was my first volume that also functioned as "a historical document." The epigraph for the book is from Adrienne Rich's Dark Fields of the Republic and really expresses the project's aim:
And now when you read these poems...
don’t think I was trying to state a case
or construct a scenery:
I tried to listen to
the public voice of our time
tried to survey our public space
as best I could
—tried to remember and stay
faithful to details, note
precisely how the air moved
and where the clock’s hands stood
and who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.
—Adrienne Rich, “And Now”
I think it's important, most of all, to bear witness to events, without any overt attempts to explain or persuade. The work stays relevant through the poet's deep commitment to justice, far-reaching compassion, emotional truth, and memorable language in exploring the refractory and nightmarish elements of politics and oppression. Poets of "the political imagination," such as Martin Espada, Ellen Hinsey (especially Update on the Descent and The Illegal Age, Carolyn Forche (her recent poem, "The Boatman," about a Syrian refugee and cab driver is unforgettable), Milosz, Evie Shockley, and Patricia Smith constantly inspire me.
MH: Finally, what qualities do you think most distinguish you as a writer?
CC: Empathy, lyricism, a penchant for sequences and persona work, and a keen attention to the psychological, musical, and visual dimensions of a poem. Above all, a belief in poetry as a healing, absorbing, and necessary art form.
Cyrus Cassells is the 2021 Texas State Artist-Poet Laureate. Among his honors: a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Poetry Series, a Lambda Literary Award, a Lannan Literary Award, two NEA grants, a Pushcart Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award. His 2018 volume, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translated Book of 2018 and 2019. He was nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for his film and television reviews in The Washington Spectator. His eighth book, The World That the Shooter Left Us, will be published by Four Way Books in March 2022.
Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
MH: First of all, it’s a pleasure to finally “meet” you—so to speak—after years of reading your poetry and prose. I know we went to the same college, Hobart, where your father served as President, and I know we’re about the same age (you’re a few years younger). I also know we studied poetry with the same professors there, including James Crenner and Anselm Hollo. Despite these things, we’ve never met in person, and in fact I’m not even sure you were at Hobart when I was, which was between 1971-1975. To get us started, could you talk briefly about your experience at Hobart, the years you attended and the professors you studied with. And then maybe talk a bit about your time in Iowa City, and your MFA work there. SK: I transferred to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the summer of 1974 after a year as a freshman at the University of New Hampshire. At UNH I’d studied with the poet Stephen Dobyns and I was fully alive to studying writing. But I found the ice hockey fueled destruction of my undergrad classmates to be rather ghastly and I decided to high tail it out of town. Because my father was President of HWS transferring was relatively easy and cheap. I knew the poet James Crenner from my years in high school in Geneva—he’d graciously read my fledgling poems which were quite awful and showed me how to twist them like balloon animals into a different shape. So when I came to Geneva in the fall of 1974 I immediately signed up for a course with Crenner and also a very tough course on 19th century American literature with Professor John Lydenberg. Much to my surprise and delight no one bothered me about being related to the Prez. Those were great years for poetry on campus as we had a range of faculty and a fabulous array of visiting poets. Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, James Tate, Charles Simic, Bill Knott. Nowadays one sees how white and male the poets were but it was still a heady time to be introduced to poetry. MH: You’ve written three books of poetry and three memoirs (correct me if I have these numbers wrong). How did you begin as a writer, and what were your aspirations then? SK: The beginning for me was tied to my blindness and attendant depression. I was hospitalized for severe anorexia in 1972. I was given the gift of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems. To this day his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese occupies an important place, both in my imagination and on my bookshelf. Rexroth’s Complete Poems (available from Copper Canyon Press) is a must read for anyone who cares about American poetry and intellectual independence. Anyway Rexroth was my gateway poet. MH: Anyone who knows your work even slightly knows that your blindness is one of the central facts of your life and one of the defining subjects of your writing. I will have more to ask about this as our conversation develops, but for now I’m interested in learning the extent to which your blindness influenced or coincided with your need to write. Here I’m interested specifically in hearing about the relationship(s) between your blindness and your turn to poetry in particular. SK: In 1961 my mother Evelyn built a bomb shelter under our family’s small house in Durham, New Hampshire. She was a year ahead of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and neighbors made fun of her but she didn’t care. She didn’t give a damn about easy opinions. Anyway she filled it with canned goods and jars of water. One afternoon I went in there after being abused by a neighbor kid who flat out hated me because the world gave him permission—who after all wanted a blind child next door? And so it was the bomb shelter for me. I lay on cool cement and whispered stories to no one. That’s how storying unfolded, talking in the dark, breathing the odor of Army blankets. Who loves you, who doesn’t, where’s a lucky window, how high the sun, my lips moving. To this day I talk to myself. My wife sees me, says, “What are you saying?” I shrug. How can I say? I’m reciting fragments the way some skip pebbles. It might be someone else’s words. Maybe Ezra Pound: “And the days are not full enough/And the nights are not full enough/And life slips by like a field mouse/Not shaking the grass”… Or sometimes it’s just me: “Trace the veins of a barberry leaf, that’s Braille enough…” Talking in sidelong darknesses of broken manners, when the day is insufficient, the minutes not feeding me… Up river go the words, the lonely words. Oh anything will do. Kropotkin I love you. I have excellent hands. How the kings of France loved tennis. Poetry began for me in solitude enforced by what we nowadays call “ableism” and I found my ways and means of turning blind life into art in college and then graduate school at Iowa. MH: In commenting on your memoir Planet of the Blind, a reviewer for The Sunday Times (London) said, “His poetry has given him extra sight.” In what ways has this been so? SK: That's a lovely trope of course and one wants to adopt it but the only talent I have is my ability to listen carefully and a strong facility for expressive lingo. I'm certainly no Tireisias. MH: Did you have any particular mentors initially and/or as you began developing as a writer? Well, Jim Crenner of course, who founded the journal , but also and oddly enough, Robert Bly who befriended me while I was still a college student and who corresponded with me, invited me to his house, and generally encouraged me. One of Bly’s influences was to be brave about the poetry thing—go to Finland, be lonely, write in the darkness, don’t imagine the university will be your friend. I did go to Iowa for grad school and then I hightailed it for Helsinki, Lapland, provincial places where one could think. The poet Marvin Bell was also very important to me as he saw poetry writing as a kind of philosophical play and helped me see that the mind is as central to poetry as imagery or stresses. MH: The Finnish/American poet and translator Anselm Hollo was my first true mentor in poetry, and I know you knew him as well—probably better than I did. He was an incredibly vivid figure. Can you talk briefly about your relationship with him and any influence you think he might have had on your poetry? SK: When I went to Hobart I was too shy to talk to Anselm. He seemed worldly and I was living in the mind like a hermit crab in someone else’s shell. So I went to every event he sponsored, sat in back of the room and absorbed. When he brought Ted Berrigian to campus I was absolutely thrilled. Those were the days when American poets thought of poetry as being divided between the “cooked” (academic and formal poets) vs. “the raw” (Black Mountain, the beats, Charles Olson etc.) Perhaps it was my disabled childhood, you know, not fitting in, but I didn’t aspire to be a member of either group. I loved Berrigan and Anthony Hecht. Anselm was especially important for me because he had translated Paavvo Haavikko into English and also some early poems by Pentti Saarikoski. This led me to ultimately go to Finland to read and translate Finnish poetry. MH: Could you talk briefly about your connection to Finland and to Finnish poetry? You have translated quite extensively from the Finnish, too. Discuss, please. SK: I haven’t translated as much Finnish poetry as I should. I think about it and then something seizes me from the life before me. What I love about the Finnish sensibility is its stoic quirkiness…here’s a little poem by Niilo Rauhala: when you open the book of life if I hear my name do I get to go look at it?” translated from the Finnish by SK And here’s Haavikko as translated by Anselm Hollo: This poem wants to be a description, And I want poems to have Only the faintest of tastes. Myself I see as a creature, hopeful As the grass. These lines are almost improbable, This is a journey through familiar speech Towards the region that is no place, This poem has to be sung, standing up, Or read without voice, alone. When I say the Finns have a quirky stoicism I’m alluding in part to the collective intelligence of a very old provincial culture. I once met a successful banker in Helsinki who revealed he had a special rock in the woods that he visited several times a year. In Finland everyone has his or her own private hunting lodge. “The region that is no place” is everyplace. The thing is, this may or may not be spoken aloud. Finnish people are notoriously quiet, especially with foreigners. This is changing somewhat owing to globalization and in my view it’s a good thing. Younger people in Finland are more open to the world than their parents or grandparents. But it’s a land of sharpened and guarded introspections. I remember when the American poet Robert Creeley decided to go to Finland on a Fulbright. He thought he would discover a whole country of outgoing talkative Finns who would be like Anselm Hollo. Instead he found a dark, cold, efficient nation that didn’t want to know him. Even with Anselm’s help, Paavvo Havvikko wouldn’t meet with Creeley. Imagine! A great poet visits your country and wants to meet you and you won’t bother! Creeley was hurt. When I read this I just nodded to myself. I’d been a Fulbrighter in Finland a few years before Creeley and found that, in general terms, one was on his own. As I say, that’s changing. But the line above, “read without voice, alone” is a very Finnish trope to be sure. MH: Please discuss your practice as a writer. Do you write every day? I know you direct the Burton Blatt Institute’s Programs in Disability at Syracuse and that you also hold a University Professorship there. Given these significant responsibilities, how—and when—do you find time to write? SK: I do write every day. Long ago I learned that if I don’t attack the keyboard daily I will drift and maybe even stop. So I wake early and drink a cup of strong coffee and get right to it. I often do my best writing early in the morning. I can of course write at other times but I prefer the freshness of mornings. But I’ve also learned to write in airports, hotels, on trains, and even in the middle of boring meetings. The invention of noise cancelling headphones is a blessing. I think I got the write in the early morning idea from William Stafford who always extolled this method. MH: I see an interesting growth in the music of your poetry from your fist book, Only Bread, Only Light, to your second, Letters to Borges. In the second book, your lines feel more relaxed—in general—and I hear a greater modulation of cadence, more variation in line breaks, and in general a more various music. Do you see this? Was it intentional or simply the result of a natural evolution? SK: So what I think (which could be quite wrong of course) is that after writing two “lyric memoirs” I found a way to relax my lines in verse. It’s also the case that the poems in are often addressed to Borges’ ghost and are intentionally informal, like talking to an old friend. The incitement for the Borges poems came from seeing him at Cornell University in the early 1980’s. It became clear to me that Borges had never been taught the art of independent traveling and that as a blind person he had to be accompanied by a sighted companion at all times. This struck me as sad since traveling solo when blind is, in fact, not only possible but thrilling. So the poems in the collection work off of that—often written from strange places where happenstance and serendipity inform what’s happening to me. Although they’re not quite epistolary poems in the classic sense that’s the notional idea behind them. MH: Finally (for now): Robert Bly is an obvious influence, though the particulars of that influence are covert (I think). Hugo, too, certainly in your second book. And Merwin. These all feel like “shadow” influences, to me, real though hard to define. I also see Donald Justice, also shadowy but a presence. All men of our fathers’ generation, a great generation in American poetry. Among younger writers, Ted Berrigan also pops up from time to time, though I see no influence there—except perhaps in the vividness of his personality. Talk about these figures, and about any other contemporary or near-contemporary poets who may have influenced you. SK: It’s interesting when one thinks about influences—as you say, some are overt and others more shadowy. I studied with Donald Justice and while I admire many of his poems I found him to be a flinty and ungenerous teacher in the classroom. By the time I got to Iowa, Don had been teaching for a long time. He’d developed that habit that long-time teachers—perhaps all of us—tend to arrive at where we imagine things were better in the past. Don thought Cole Porter was great and the Beatles were junk and accordingly he’d lost enthusiasm for young people. At Iowa the poet with the most curiosity about students was Marvin Bell, who I remained close to until his death a few short months ago. Marvin knew how to talk, listen, play with the intellect both on and off the page. So he didn’t care about generation gaps. I admire his poems greatly and though I don’t write as he did, I tend to read a lot of philosophy as he did. Ted Berrigan’s insouciance (along with Anselm’s) matters a lot; depth psychology and Jung’s work mean a good deal to me. I prefer Robert Bly’s early work— and to his middle period. However his last two books of poems were rather extraordinary. The “men’s movement” st