I wasn’t familiar with Henry Hughes’ work until a local poet, Celeste Thompson, introduced us. His second full-length collection, Moist Meridian (© 2009, Mammoth Books) arrived shortly thereafter, and I was quickly wrapped up in Hughes’ use of language, as well as the clever and playful way his poems approached topics around intimacy and human relationships. A professor of English and Creative Writing at Western Oregon University, Hughes and I met briefly at Wordstock, then got together at a Portland coffee house were we sat under the front awning and watched the rain come and go. Our conversation started with Hughes’ role as a poetry critic and reviewer for Harvard Book Review, then circled back to his own work.
HH: I feel dead about some current poetry.
DJ: How so?
HH: A lot of it feels like it’s just been ground out of the poetry machine. And poets will speculate. I’m not particularly curmudgeonly about “the death of American poetry.” Some people blame workshops, or just the overly democratic poem, or the overly accessible poem, or even the overly inaccessible poem.
DJ: When you’re doing a review, do you have to jump out of your sensibilities of “This is how I write, this is not how I write?”
HH: Sometimes it’s about wearing the intellectual cap and being the more objective critic. Sometimes it’s just about being open-minded to different styles. Like in music or the visual arts, which I pay a lot of attention to, I like a lot of different things. I’m not someone who has to have this certain kind of thing, this certain kind of genre or style, or else I get turned off. I tend to have very broad tastes, which is helpful in writing reviews. Sure, in the end, who I am as a writer, and what I think is really great, or what I really love, is going to play into a review. I think we expect that out of our critics and editorialists. We want to hear their opinions.
I like writing reviews. They break me out of….you know, when you’re writing a poem, you have to really believe that you’re writing the most beautiful thing in the world. I really think that. You should love the stuff you’re writing. Otherwise you should change it, because obviously it’s not really and completely you. When you write a poem, you should say, “This f—ing poem is great.” At least in that moment. And the next day, if you still think it’s great, then you got something. In reviewing, you really have to back off from that love of your work.
DJ: Backing off from that, even if the poem you’re reading doesn’t come across as a great poem, you still have to do…what?
HH: You have to look for what is admirable in the work. Is it doing something that you can’t do? Is it doing something well? Is it making you think about something? Is it handling syntax in a way that’s very athletic and inventive, yet is still intelligible?
If this were a scientific evaluation, you could apply different tests and apparati and get interesting readings. So I try to think of it from these other angles.
DJ: Have you ever gotten any backlash on a review?
HH: I don’t really pan anybody. If I really dislike a book, I pass on it. You know how it goes…in the world of journalism, if you don’t like something, then the thought is that you should just trash it. They certainly do in reviews of theater in the NY Times, and occasionally in the book reviews.
Not often, but once in a while you’ll see someone really really trash a book. I don’t do that. Let someone else do that. I don’t know…maybe I’m a coward.
DJ: Or you’re being fair.
HH: Well, if I can’t say something more sophisticated than, “I hate this book,” then I don’t really need to say anything.
DJ: And you get positive response.
HH: I get a few emails from time to time. Most of the time I don’t hear back. I’m not really networked, I suppose. I have reviewed a number of major poets. Merwin most recently. I’d love to get a note from W.S. Merwin that says, “I read your review and you had some insightful things to say.” That’s my ego, too. But also, maybe it would be sustaining. Like anything with poetry, we don’t get paid much.
I hear back from people who read the reviews…students and people doing dissertations. So I do get follow-up questions. It’s nice to know that I may be part of the dialogue. That’s why I like reviewing. You’re part of the conversation. It’s nice to be there.
DJ: To be there…there’s also the passion of being part of it all. You mentioned ego; it’s nice to be acknowledged for what it is, but there’s also that simple desire to be in the pool, so to say, just because you like how the water feels.
HH: That’s right.
DJ: I think that drives a lot of the interconnectedness of being associated with poetry on any number of levels. As a reviewer, a writer, a networker.
What are your writing funks like?
HH: My only problem with writing is finding the time. The world would love for you not to write. The world would love for you to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, do more service at the university, be better prepared for your classes, paint your house, call your father, write that letter to your friend who you haven’t returned the letter to in three years. The world always demands those things of you, and you have to say “No.” That’s my biggest battle.
DJ: Saying no?
HH: Saying no and finding the time to work consistently. Right now I have about two mornings a week. I have one full day. I go out to my house in Falls City on a Tuesday afternoon. I have Wednesday morning, all day Wednesday and maybe Thursday morning where I’m not disturbed. I don’t even have email out there. No student stuff, no family stuff even. Although if something comes up, I have to be there for my wife and step-sons.
Most people don’t live that way. Most people are not artists. For a long time, I was embarrassed to even say I was an artist. It sounded egotistical. It sounded pretentious. . . “Oh, I’m an arteest.” I didn’t like that, but I’ve learned I actually have to think that way.
DJ: Do you ever have any trouble calling yourself a poet?
HH: I used to be embarrassed by that. Now I say it. But I’m careful. I still don’t have cards that say, “Henry Hughes, Writer.” Some people do. Or stationary, or web sites full of their enchanted gardens.
Being an artist in busy America, or anywhere, is challenging. That’s my biggest obstacle. I’ve always loved to write. What are your funks?
DJ: I was trying to get the last layer on a poem that involves a firewalk. Earlier drafts would get to the firewalk…the poem would resolve after the firewalk, but I was skipping the walk itself. I’ve never done a firewalk.
The poem is highly imaginative, but I kept getting to that same place. It was one of the few occasions where I actually knew what I was avoiding. So I took a day off…and this is a meaningful poem to me. I was grinding on it. I took a day off and went to hang out at an artist friend’s studio. I was hanging out with her and another friend of hers. I was just sort of soaking up this feminine energy, I guess. I told them about the poem and they said, “Just shut up and write it.”
HH: Best advice I’ve ever heard.
DJ: The next day I went for a hike, just kept staying away from it, then I came home and wrote out the firewalk. The funk there, I guess, was that I kept grinding and getting to the same place, knowing exactly what I had to do but not knowing my way through it.
HH: Most people would stop at that grind, and they would finish the poem and that would be it, or they’d never finish it. A real writer goes back to it again and again. After a long hike…after a number of years. I don’t think you were in a funk. I think you were in a place that required another full flight of stairs, another few swings of the pick, another hundred miles. I know that place well. Even people who write every day get to those places. They probably get to them more often. That’s where, you know, we need time to work.
DJ: How long were you in Asia?
HH: I was in Japan for three years and China for two years.
DJ: Is there a carryover of that Asian aesthetic into your work?
HH: To some degree. The East Asian aesthetic, which I’ve always admired, has found its way into some of my writing, and certainly into the way I just, you know, keep my room a little more stark and simple, the way I look at painting. There’s a certain austerity, especially of Japanese forms and of some Chinese too, that certainly is present.
I’m very interested in East Asian history and culture. It really woke me up to the world. Prior to that I had never really traveled, except for drunken exploits in Mexico or to Canada for fishing. This really woke me up to a whole other world, and politics, and poverty, and beauty, and time, and history. That changed my writing, and made me, I feel, a much better human being.
DJ: That was before Men Holding Eggs?
HH: Yes. There are Japan and China poems in there, and there are many poems in that collection that were informed by the experience.
DJ: I wanted to ask about what seems like a uniqueness I’ve seen in your work, and “Parking Lot in Portland” is a great example. Sometimes your lines go way out in this fanning sort of way. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What are you hoping for with that style, whether you’re looking for something more from the story itself or something else, and if this was something you were doing in Men Holding Eggs.
HH: Less so in the first book. I think Moist Meridian is a more mature book, and I feel a deeper sense of rhythm and the mind’s music, as I call it.
Many of my poems are stories. An easy way to tell a story in a poem is to write a narrative poem. Good old William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark,” or Donald Hall, take you out to grandpa’s farm sort of stuff. I do a lot of that in Men Holding Eggs. I like the narrative poem. I grew up with James Dickey and Dick Hugo. I just wanted to tell stories in cool sounding language that did some funky things, that transformed in places I wasn’t expecting. I couldn’t write fiction all that well. It wasn’t that interesting somehow. People didn’t really like it.
If I’m going to write stories in poems, then what can I do? One thing I do is I start of kind of slow, kind of tentative. I start reaching…reaching…reaching. The line seems to reach. I find that that’s kind of the way I read them too. I gain momentum and kind of stretch out to the margin. I guess I’m approaching prose, at least in the spirit, not so much in the rhythmic motions, but in the spirit of wanting to tell a complete story.
Then I kind of come back. I’m going to close it off. I’m not going to write a novel. I’m going out to tell you something and I’m going to come back.
It feels natural. I’m not the kind of poet that sits down and says, “I’m going to write a sonnet, or I’m going to write a villanelle,” or God forbid a pantoum or something. I really write what I want to say, and then end up looking at the lines after. It seems to me that I’ve found this motion naturally. I say this unpretentiously. I wasn’t taught to do it. I’m not trying to emulate someone or some style. I’m sure critics can look at it and say, “Oh, well, that’s a C.K. Williams line that’s been truncated front and back.” That’s for critics to do. To me, it just feels right.
DJ: You used the word ‘motion’. There is that motion to it, from what I’ve noticed. The book as a whole…there’s a lot of sailing in there.
HH: Yes, yes.
DJ: So going from the title then inward, there’s a water quality to a lot of what’s happening in the collection.
HH: I love water.
DJ: The poems feel as if they go out like waves and then come back. When you first started to write in that form, did you try to stop it at all, or find yourself saying, “What the hell is this?”
HH: No. I just rode the wave.
I’m not very resistant to a lot of things in my life. I tend to go with things. I’m a very flexible person. If a group of us is going out for dinner, I’m pretty easy. I’ll walk pretty far. It doesn’t bother me. Or I’ll stop right here. I’ll eat Mexican, I’ll eat Chinese, I’ll go to a gay bar, I’ll go to a straight bar. It doesn’t bother me.
I feel that way about certain motions in my writing too. I don’t really resist them.
When you edit, you have to cut things back, because there’s a lot of bullshit and clunky exposition in there. Then you have to be tough with yourself. It’s like cleaning out the closet.
But in terms of my original creative process, if it feels right, I just kind of go with it.
As for others…I can see sort of the neo-formalists saying, “Henry Hughes is rather undisciplined,” or, “Just more free verse. Where’s the rhyme, where are the metrics?”
I don’t care. Clem Starck, with whom I read at Wordstock, he said something wonderful at one of our readings. He’s a great and interesting man.
He said, in response to a question about formalism, “It’s fine if you want to write formal poetry, and I admire form. But it’s hard enough just to write in very spare language, in a minimal number of lines, something meaningful and still sound human.” That’s a paraphrase, but he said it at one of our readings when someone asked a question, and it makes so much sense to me.
I want to say something meaningful, I want to say it in as few lines as possible, and I want to sound human. If I have any artistic agenda, it’s to sound human but not careless.