Certain Things Intruding on the Wilderness: A Three-Cornered Conversation with John Haines
EVEN MORE THAN politics, poetry is local. For John Haines, his poetry has had an ongoing attachment to Alaska, his experience of the land as well as the stories of its people. Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1924, and for several years an art student on the East Coast, it was after becoming a homesteader in Alaska that Haines in 1966 published his first book of poems, Winter News, followed by his second collection The Stone Harp in 1971 (both issued by Wesleyan University Press). This was the start of an impressive body of work, including News from the Glacier: Selected Poems 1960-1980 (Wesleyan, 1982), New Poems: 1980-1988 (Story Line Press, 1990) and The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems (Graywolf, 1996). His books of prose include Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place (University of Michigan Press, 1981) and a memoir, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire (Graywolf, 1989).
But poetry does not remain local. Indeed, what characterizes Haines’s poetry is its ability to make that leap from the personal to the mythic, to celebrate and explore that which is essential in human experience. Haines’s poetry is also often marked by a ferocious economy of language that finds its power through the resonance of image, of its connection with the natural and cultural world, regardless of whether the poem involves a military cemetery in Eagle, Alaska, or a 16th century engraving by Albrecht Dürer. It is no wonder that Haines has been honored by numerous awards, including an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Alaska Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and a Western State Arts Federation Lifetime Achievement Award, not to mention two Guggenheim fellowships and one from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In early February 1998, John Haines visited the College of Wooster, where John Kooistra, a longtime friend of Haines from Alaska, was teaching in the philosophy department. What ensued was a three-cornered discussion centered on Haines’s poetry — and accompanied by a fifth of single-malt scotch from the Isle of Islay. Above all, what emerges is–as Haines described it in a subsequent letter — “a conversation between three friends.” The result was an engaging exploration of an entire landscape of connections between poetry and place, between the natural world and literary artifice, between the writer and those whose stories enrich the writing. We are also pleased to see an unpublished poem of Haines at the end of the interview, showing that, as in The Stone Harp and its grapplings with the unrest of the 1960s, John Haines still takes the world around him, Chechnya or Rwanda, Oklahoma or Ohio, very, very personally. —Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio, December 31, 1998
Daniel Bourne: Last night at your reading you mentioned how some readers were disturbed by how different your second book The Stone Harp was from your first collection Winter News. Do you, though, see any continuities between the two collections? Did the second one stem out of the first one in some way or another?
John Haines: It was impossible at the time, even living way up there in Alaska as I was, to ignore all the political stuff that was going on in the country. There was the Vietnam War and all the rest of it. Somehow I felt I had to find a way to incorporate all this into my poems, though I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Plus, when I had finished Winter News, I realized that I had come to the end of something. So, although I didn’t know what to do next, I knew I couldn’t go back to writing what was no longer true, and these other matters came pressing on me as well. Then about that time, after publishing Winter News, I left the state, went out on a reading tour and got involved with people and talking with classes in one school or another in Michigan and Ohio, and it was even more impossible not to feel the pressure of these events out there. I had to find some way of incorporating it into my poems. So The Stone Harp came out. But an individual who was then chair of the English Department at Fairbanks was disappointed with The Stone Harp, because he wanted more Winter News. And he was not the only one. Somebody else, I can’t remember who it was, reviewed the book and expressed a certain disappointment in it, that I was not writing more about those days. But it was a necessary transition, and I could see that.
Bourne: Did they feel that The Stone Harp was too topical?
Haines: It was topical, but to them it was also harsh in a certain way. Hell, I guess that they felt it was a falling off somehow, that I had started up something and I hadn’t continued with it.
Bourne: I guess what fascinates me is that there might be a certain connection between the two books, certain ways of dealing with place, with the imagery you use to talk about place.
Haines: I was in a transitional phase. On the one hand, there was this remaining fame and whatever from Winter News. On the other hand, there was my interest in all these other materials that I thought I had to deal with in some way or other. And beyond that I didn’t know what I was going to do. It emerged in a later book. But how to somehow fit these things together? I went to New York on my first reading tour, in April 1967. I hadn’t been to New York City since we left, my first wife and I, in 1952. And going back there was very strange. I went down to Greenwich Village, to 8th St. where the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art used to be, which I had attended in 1950-52. And I went to Washington Square Park, and I was appalled at the deterioration, and people sleeping on benches and the trash piled everywhere. I had remembered a very clean, decent place. It was depressing. But, then there occurred a little incident. I stayed briefly with Betty Kray, who was director of the Academy of Poets and her husband, Vladimir Ussachevsky, who was originally from Manchuria. I stayed with them, and I had come to New York very lightly dressed in a suit that my brother had loaned me in San Diego — which is another story entirely. Whenever I appeared, say, at Dennison University, or somewhere else here in Ohio, I had on a suit and white shirt and tie, while the students at these places expected me to show up with red suspenders and a fur coat or something. But anyway, here I was in New York, I hadn’t anything warm to wear, and Betty loaned me a sweater from her husband. So I was walking around the street there with this sweater under my suit jacket. And the fact of the sweater, my being in New York and that Vladimir Ussachevsky was from Manchuria — along with all the political stuff that was going on at the time — came out in this poem I wrote when I got back to Alaska, “The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky.” Or, when I was at Oberlin, for example, there were these meetings going on, the students agitating and demonstrating against the war. At the party that was held after my reading at one of the houses on campus there was this conversation going on. And a poem came out of that, too: “In the Middle of America.” But there was no program. I was just going step by step toward something I didn’t know.
Bourne: And it was almost a matter then of writing the poems individually and at a later time realizing a logos?
Haines: Yes. And the discovery — an instinctive feeling — that there’s a theme going through here somewhere. I didn’t know what it was. There’s a poem at the end of The Stone Harp I read last night called “The Flight”—
John Kooistra: —”and our life like a refugee cart / overturned in the road”?
Haines: Yeah, right. That feeling of abandonment was sitting in the background too, and there’s this other poem that I did not read last night, “A Dream of the Police.” I had been reading about the confrontation out in the American West and the conflicts at Wounded Knee, and I related that to the confrontation involving the Czar and his troops, and the Bolsheviks and the people in the square in St. Petersburg. All of this was quite compelling. Somehow or other I put it together, and I didn’t know whether it was working or not.
Bourne: In hindsight, do you think those poems from The Stone Harp and some of your earlier political poems have lasted pretty well?
Haines: I think certain of them hold up pretty well. Yes I do. “The Middle Ages” is one. It refers to a work by Dürer, an etching: “The Knight, Death, and the Devil.” But it fits in The Stone Harp. Overall, my mood at the time was pretty pessimistic, even though I was not taking a direct part in the demonstrations going on then. Everything just seemed to fit into my pessimism, somehow there was this thread running through. In the short poem “Lies” I was thinking about Lyndon Johnson, though I didn’t mention him by name. “The Legend of Paper Plates,” “Guevara,” “The Dream of the Police” about the demonstrations in the square in St. Petersburg, the Oberlin poem “In the Middle of America,” “In Nature.” One way or another, I was brooding on things, and the mood at the time seemed to call for something very different, even though there are, I think, a couple of clues in Winter News, pointing in that direction.
Bourne: Pointing forward towards The Stone Harp?
Haines: Yes. I wrote “The End of the Summer,” one of the longer poems in Winter News, after I had read Doctor Zhivago, and in fact there’s a direct quote from Pasternak here: “Death, the surveyor, / plots his kingdom of snow.” Something like that anyway. There again, certain things were constantly coming to the surface, intruding on the mood.
Bourne: Certain things intruding on the wilderness.
Bourne: Would it be true then to say that your reading of Pasternak and the Polish poet Leopold Staff and other Eastern European writers occurred in the interval between Winter News and The Stone Harp?
Haines: Yes. Definitely. And otherwise I had little or no contact or correspondence with anybody outside of the world there in Alaska at the time. But after that I agreed to meet with some people in Fairbanks and read poems from The Stone Harp. The book got a lot of notice then, much to the consternation of the people at the university. They didn’t know what the hell to make of it.
Bourne: Well, I don’t know if it’s some unfortunate legacy of Wordsworth and even Coleridge and the entire “nature wing” of the romantic movement, but it seems that you’ve suffered the fate that a lot of poets suffer, a certain squeamishness about appropriate subject matter. As long as you’re writing about nature, you’re talking about things that a poet ought to deal with. But you should never talk about what’s happening in the country in any sort of political way. And it’s not the politicians who are telling you not to write about these things, because unfortunately they could care less, because I wonder if poems do matter that much in terms of actual political power. But it seems as if it’s the poetry readers themselves who are saying, “No, you can’t write about these certain things.” Actually, to me, in The Stone Harp you were writing about national events with the same sort of piercing, apprehending imagery that you had been using to talk about the Alaskan landscape in Winter News — and just as successfully.
Kooistra: One thing that would seem to carry over from one book of John’s to another is this dream-like voice and the way the image explodes from the voice, even if it is political.
Bourne: Well, it’s that sort of imagery that’s both surreal and mythic, along with this impression that the thing observed is truly important, whether it is something political or something from the natural world.
Haines: I thought the new book was important too, though it still disconcerted people who were expecting something more along the lines of Winter News. It’s perhaps an interesting aside that I later published this poem, “The Insects,” in Twenty Poems, right after The Stone Harp. “Maggots, wrinkled white men,” it went. Anyway, I was sitting at a counter in a drug store in Fairbanks, and this man next to me recognized me, and he said, “I read a poem of yours not long ago. I was sitting here eating my hamburger and I came on the word ‘maggots.’ I just couldn’t go on eating. Why do you write things like that?”
Kooistra: I thought you were going to say he couldn’t go on reading.
Bourne: That’s great. Poets dream of achieving such paralysis in their readers to the point they can’t go on engaging in the same thing they were doing before. I must admit, however, that one of the poems in The Stone Harp did trouble me, “A Poem Like a Grenade.” I thought it was a wonderful poem in its execution, but it bothered me because I didn’t really know what you were getting at, if you were saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, or if you were some sort of quasi-Unabomber type at that moment. And I found it interesting that it didn’t show up in the collected poems.
Haines: Well, I left out a few things: “The Doll House,” “A Poem Like a Grenade,” “From the Rooftop.” I guess I had to make a choice. But I still like those poems. And if I were to select the poems again I think I would have put them back in there. But, in terms of what I was thinking of in “A Poem Like a Grenade,” I guess I was dealing with the poetry that was commonly published at the time and what effect it has on the audience. And I was thinking, why can’t we write a poem that would really make the public pay attention, that they can’t ignore.
Bourne: That was my “positive” reading. The other reading was that you wanted an actual grenade to function like a poem. And I think that the metaphoric connection in the poem can go either way — that a poem can be as powerful as a grenade or a grenade can be used as a type of physical poem. And, of course, the first interpretation is the more comfortable one for me: that, yes, I want writing to be that powerful a tool, I want to believe that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. But this other interpretation was also there in the poem, and I didn’t know if I wanted to join in your vision — but yet this image of political violence constituting a type of poetic act was very arresting. And like I said, it was an example of a poem that seems to be absolutely powerful, yet can also cause some ethical squeamishness in the reader.
Haines: Yeah. I would say that it was an acknowledged wish of mine that I could write a poem that would really change things. Seriously, the things that we do as writers are symbolic of a certain power. That’s really what I was thinking about.
Kooistra: Well, fortunately, paper cuts aren’t mortal wounds.
Bourne: In the class today you mentioned the notion of the poet as preaching to the masses as well as the fact that at one point you had thought about becoming a priest. I’m wondering if you really do feel that poetry does have some political/physical force in the world in the way that a politician or priest or preacher might have. I’m also reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment in “Existentialism is a Humanism” that writers are the legislators of humanity. Do we affect the world off the page?
Haines: I’m not sure of how I could answer that. I think of poets elsewhere — Eastern Europe, Poland, and Germany, for example — of the people who at the risk of their lives have written certain things, and I don’t think as a general rule that that has happened here. Not yet anyway. We’ve been pretty free; we can write pretty much what we want. And I think that does make me wonder to a degree whether poetry matters — whether it can really have an effect on anything, or rather whether a poem is just entertainment in some way. But if you have a situation where you write something and publish it and you know you may be arrested for it and taken away somewhere, I think that reduces the mere entertainment value of poets.
Kooistra: It probably creates an audience at the same time.
Haines: Well, it creates an audience, sure it does. It also eliminates a lot of unnecessary stuff. I mean, there are some things you don’t bother saying, because there is something that must be said. That’s what I think. You’re going to write it because you have to. And if you don’t have to write it then you’ll find something else to do. But it’s odd, and there aren’t any rules. At this point you have these poor kids publishing poems and people ridiculing them-what is this crap anyway; who wrote this? But it all depends. If there’s something that needs to be said, and the poet or the novelist is there somehow. . . I remember there was this exhibition in Washington one year, either ’91 or ’92, of the degenerate art that the Nazis dismissed. Here these artists were producing wonderful stuff. It was just this time, this period, and certain things had to be said in one way or the other. I feel that every real artist at a certain point is in that position. This is something one has to do. There’s no way to avoid it. It has to be said. It has to be put forth, and if the poet’s arrested and shot, well that’s the way it is. That hasn’t happened here in that extreme form, but it could.
Bourne: When and how did you wake up as a poet, that you realized this is something I must do.
Haines: Yeah. Interesting question. How did I wake up? What made the difference, precisely I think, was that I was undergoing my first winter there in Alaska; I had been an art student and I intended to pursue my art, one way or the other. And I had brought along with me on that initial trip canvas and paints and what have you — all this stuff I thought I would need. And after getting the little house built, and a few other things done I started to try to do my artwork. But something went wrong somehow. I found that I simply couldn’t respond to what was there in paint. I couldn’t find it in the shortness of daylight either. The outside world was so overwhelming, how the hell do you paint it? You know, it was just so dramatic, so absolutely compelling. So I had to do something. I started writing. And I think that was it. I had no real training. I had a certain background. I knew Chaucer, and things like that, Whitman and what have you; but I just started writing, using this experience and this place, everything that I could see and feel.
Bourne: How old were you?
Haines: I was twenty-three in the summer of ’47. And somewhere in mid-winter there I started writing. And I remember writing to a girlfriend of mine back in Washington about some of this, about this dilemma I was facing, and I sent her some of the poems, and she showed them to her mother who was quite an intelligent reader. So then I went back to Washington to go back to school, pursuing the continuation of my art education, and found myself in this dilemma of painting, drawing, doing sculptures and also writing constantly. It did reach a point of decision after I moved to New York in 1950. I decided that’s it. I want to be a writer and a poet, and the artist in me would have to be left behind. That was it.
Bourne: Was it a matter of your realizing that as a writer you didn’t need as many brush strokes to deal with that outside world? One thing I notice about your poems is that throughout your career you’ve been able to present a wide picture by focusing on the particular, how a hunter calling a moose in captures the natural link between prey and predator, individual consciousness and nature. Or, starting with a single skull and see other things there. But it’s always with as few words — as few brush strokes — as possible. You might still be overwhelmed by the landscape, but you know how to react to that feeling of being overwhelmed, as a writer you know how to handle it.
Haines: I could still see, visualize, as a visual artist. And I think that it was very good in many respects that I had that background. But, words are a different story, and not necessarily an easy one.
Kooistra: When you were painting, did you have the same sort of flowage? You were writing constantly. When you painted, did you paint constantly, in the same way?
Haines: In a way I did, yeah. Drawing and so forth. But it was still more sporadic, I think. During the war, I was at sea in the Pacific for a period of time, and I drew a lot of sketches that I would mail back to my mother, but it was mostly only what I could see out there, aircraft carriers and planes diving. And, you know, once in a while maybe a coral atoll off in the distance. I was just sketching for the fun of it. Or, I would see an illustration in a magazine and I would sketch something similar-a cat lost in the woods or something. Then at art school in Washington before I went to Alaska, I was continually learning the rudiments of things: watercolors, oils, canvas, and so forth. And I think I must have spent a good deal of my time sketching. But it wasn’t the same thing as writing, though I’m not sure why.
Kooistra: Writing must be closer to thinking.
Haines: Yeah. In a certain way it is. On the other hand, one of the things that I really missed about art was the physical aspect. Especially with sculpture, using your hands and things like that.
Bourne: A poet like Gary Snyder, though, would want to emphasize how poetry is a craft, with a tangible, visceral feel to it.
Haines: But still writing tends to be more abstract, because you’re dealing with words and you don’t have to cut that word out of stone, or to carve it in wood, or tell a machine you’re doing something or other. There is that distance there.
Bourne: I’m way beyond my own skimpy knowledge here, but with the calligraphic poets — those writing in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. — poetry doesn’t just consist of the images represented and so on. It’s also created by the quality of the poets’ brushmanship, their calligraphy on the page, their handwriting. Thus, in these traditions, the notion exists that writers don’t just deal with words as mental, intellectual constructs. Though not necessarily etching poems out of stone, the poet still brings the poem physically into life. And it’s a notion that our own tradition is very much divorced from. We may write our poems on a keyboard, but somebody else will print them. It’s a very different thing.
Kooistra: More like French cooking.
Bourne: How so?
Kooistra: When the poem arrives on the plate it’s calligraphy — and the portions are so small.
Bourne: Writing with the white space.
Kooistra: Right. The meal is arranged in space. With attention to color.
Haines: I just thought of something else that is related to our discussion. I think of Wordsworth walking down the country road there in the Lake District and composing his poems out loud, to himself. Then he’d go home and recite them to his sister Dorothy, who wrote them down. But, I think that we get more and more impoverished as a consequence of technology-the ease which makes it possible to put something down instantly on a piece of paper or on a screen or whatever. But something gets lost. I think about Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach” and the point in the poem where he says, “Come to the window, sweet is the night air.” The scent, the feeling of presence, of actually being there at that moment. . . And all through Wordsworth, and many other poets, there’s such a physical mood, walking and being in the world in a certain way. I think we’ve lost it. The words are there on the page, but something is missing.
Bourne: Denise Levertov wrote an essay or two in the early seventies on what she called organic poetry, which in some ways was a defense of non-formal poetry, how it did have a form, though it might change from poem to poem because of the structural needs of that poem and its other complexities, just in the same way that organic structures have very functional shapes, though quite different from each other. More recently, Robert Hass in Twentieth Century Pleasures has described how a lot of the conventions of symmetry and expectation and regularity of rhythm in poetry goes back to our basic awareness of our body: you know, two hands, a regular heartbeat. Poetry is not just something mental, but is connected with our body, with the way our body experiences nature. Do you feel that you too learned about poetry by gazing at nature? Can you think of some ways in which you might have learned something about the essence of poetry through looking at the Alaskan landscape around you? Some sort of recognition that what I’m seeing here is also something that can show up in my poetry — and not just in terms of content.
Kooistra: I think that’s a damn good question, though for me I wouldn’t know how to answer it. Clearly the answer would be yes, but how to fill in the blanks?
Haines: But I don’t think I thought of that in the early days. It’s only lately that I’ve become aware of something that I feel is missing in the poem now, and which I alluded to in my reference to Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” I’ve thought of the early ballads, of the poets, or singers and story-tellers, wandering from village to village, having their poems and songs passed on in that vocal tradition. To the extent this was done, it was certainly a good way to have their lines and stanzas remembered, and it was closely tied to the popular culture. Later poets, the ones we know by their names, could draw on this, and certainly poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example, were able to do this. There was this underlying culture that could be included in the poem, and that shared background was already there in the public.
Bourne: But now poetry has lost its connection with other people.
Haines: Yeah. And so in come the Bob Dylans, and people like that, the popular singers and folk singers filling that space. I think there’s something valuable in that music.
Kooistra: It plays a strong transitional bodily role, or something. You can actually feel it in the mind, so that somebody can hear music and not even listen to the lyrics and still enjoy the song.
Haines: Sure. I mean, you examine the words on the page, and it doesn’t make great poetry. But combined with music there’s definitely something there.
Bourne: I remember looking at one of my students’ poems this week and throughout this poem the student wanted to do these concrete poetry techniques, like “the snow falls down,” with d-o-w-n written vertically down the page. And to me that’s just really irritating, though I know to a lot of young writers this is clearly a case of “form follows function”-just all sorts of interesting things going on. Anyway, this student also wanted to spell out the word “long,” with spaces between each of the letters to emphasize, I guess, how long the longness was. Meanwhile, I was thinking, well, doesn’t the word itself already contain that longness? When we say “long,” don’t the sounds themselves seem drawn out? There is already in words a certain kind of music, and poets only need that type of music that already occurs there in the words and between the words. And, for better or worse, I think poets and readers of poetry don’t need any other music. They can experience these words in some sort of visceral sense, some sort of tactile sense, how you can dig down into certain words and flow through others and so on.
Kooistra: That physicality is what’s happening now with poetry slams and performance poetry. So we’re trying to bring it back.
Bourne: Right. Bring back that feel of oral poetry. But, even if you’re reading it by yourself, silently, there’s still that oral feel. Wasn’t it Pound who zeroed in on the musicality of poetry by saying that the consonants don’t even matter; it’s the way the vowels sound with each other, that they were like musical tones, and the way that they assemble themselves creates the poetry. So, the stringing together of the different vowel sounds actually creates a type of music, and this music can then be apprehended in a visceral, gut-level type way. And in that sense words take on this very physical attribute that involves more than just a matter of reading them and mentally apprehending what the word might mean or what the image might be.
Haines: One of the reasons I think Yeats is such a pivotal figure in modern poetry is that he was able to make use of the old tradition of ballads and folk poetry — which is part of himself, of his background — and then he wove this material, one way or another, into the modern period. But he kept the best of the old tradition-the musicality and the forms. And most of us of don’t have that background. We’ve lost it. We don’t have the old ballad poems, and we don’t have the folk poetry behind us that we can draw on. That’s all behind us. What we have all too typically is just this typographical figure on the page.
Bourne: So Yeats was basically at the right place at the right time—
Haines: He was.
Bourne: —and was a type of conduit then. That brings up something I wanted to ask you along with the question of waking up as a poet. When did you absorb the notion of land as being a great subject matter for you, that this is what you’re going to write about, there in Alaska, dealing with that particular world?
Haines: Well, I had a vague sense of things like that when I was young. But once I positioned myself there in that particular place, at Richardson, in a situation where you simply couldn’t avoid it, there was nothing else, there was the land, the place, and either you found some way to settle down there and make a living, some way to exist, or you’d have to go out and get a job somewhere. But it was that situation and the fact that I had somehow subconsciously, subliminally, decided that this was where I wanted to be, one way or another. If I can’t make it here, I’m not going to make it anywhere. And then there was the example of Robinson Jeffers, who placed himself half-consciously in a situation in California: this is where I am and what’s here in terms of history, background and so forth, so what am I going to make out of it.
Kooistra: John picked a nice place to make something of himself.
Haines: The land was the essential thing; you simply couldn’t equal it. And the land there was virtually undisturbed, with a human history on it that was fairly recent. Not the Native Alaskan or Native American Indian history of living on it, I was aware of that, too. But my background had to do with the immigrants, the gold rush. But the land was the stage, the place where everything took place. And that’s what I drew on, instinctively. I didn’t have a writing program anywhere. This is where I am. What do I do with it?
Bourne: Did you feel like a — this is a horrible metaphor — like a fish out of water at the time?
Haines: No. No, I was puzzled as a young person, that’s quite sure, but I had this instinctive feeling that this is where I am. This is where I should be. And from there I wrote. And there was a certain rightness in it. I mean, I can sit here and talk about it now, but at the time I was just going on intuition, not knowing. I can imagine coming out here to some place in Ohio, a hundred years ago or something like that, and finding a place that really appealed to me and settling down there. And what do I do? Find a way to make a living, start writing. This happened, that happened, there were people here and they were gone and it all finished off. And if I’m a writer then I’ll have to sort these things out and decide what’s important and what really isn’t.
Bourne: Do you feel that through writing you somehow earned your way into the place, that other people had their families there, their traditions there, and that through writing you could fit in?
Haines: Yeah. To a certain extent. I mean, there was always this background, the frontier literature of America with Jack London and so on. But the people I lived around were mostly uneducated, though they could read, and they might have Robert Browning or Shakespeare on their bookshelf. But they were pretty simple people. Yet, in a very rudimentary way, there at Richardson they had already, not intending to, through their interactions with neighbors and so forth, put together a sort of mythology. And you hear all the stories — that people were here and they moved on, that this happened and that happened — and you could see this thing move, and you listened, and you became part of it. It was, compared to some place over in England or Scotland, a pretty short line, because they started at the turn of the century or shortly afterwards, and the gold rush was over in a few years’ time, and people moved on. But a few people stayed, and eventually there was a city there in Fairbanks that maintained a certain continuity.
Bourne: So they were newcomers themselves.
Haines: I arrived there at just the right time, because these men and women were still there. They would carry on the stories, who did this and who did that and who hated who. And so I absorbed all these stories that became part of what I sensed was that place. And I was, in a way, an intruder, somebody that just came in there — I didn’t have a microphone but I was certainly a willing listener. We’d get together in the roadhouse at Richardson, and we would sit there at the table, with gas lamps and so forth, and they’d begin telling stories, and I’m just sitting there listening to them. It was something you can’t replace.
Bourne: Did you ever hazard a story from the Lower Forty-Eight in order to intrude into their conversations, or did you just keep quiet?
Kooistra: I bet you kept quiet.
Haines: I kept quiet. No, I just listened, that’s all. I might make a remark if they would ask me a question or something, but I mostly just sat there and listened to them, their antagonisms and so forth, and later wrote about it.
Bourne: Did they eventually get to read some of the things that you wrote about them and their stories?
Haines: Oh, no. Mostly they were all gone by then, though a few of the later people were still there at Richardson, at the roadhouse. They were aware of me and had read some of my work.
Kooistra: Who would have been able to read your stuff?
Haines: Remember driving out there by Tryph’s place at Harding Lake?
Kooistra: Oh yeah.
Haines: Well, she would have. She was there at Richardson at the time. But all the others have disappeared that I listened to. They would not have known what to make of it, anyway. They knew I was listening though, and they would speak freely and tell me whatever they felt like talking about. I was there to listen. But I wasn’t in that sense a writer, somebody recording what they were putting down.
Kooistra: Right. They weren’t readers, you weren’t a writer.
Haines: That’s right. And I just kept quiet. But it was a great thing. You know, if you came here to Ohio someplace, found a little settlement out here and got familiar with the people, and they got together and they’d talk about this or that which had happened fifty years ago, whatever, and you just listen.
Bourne: Actually, I’ve had this type of experience while living in Poland. I speak Polish fairly well, but definitely with an accent, and I’ve found it best just to listen.
Kooistra: How did the Poles like your accent?
Bourne: Well, most Poles are quite kind and polite about their language. But there are — now I’m really getting into a long story now — two types, really. There is the one type who believes that no one from the outside will ever understand anything going on in Poland, and to this category of people anything you say will never be enough to make them think that you know anything about what’s happening in Poland, in whatever language you’re speaking. Then there’s this other group, who is just so happy that someone from the outside world is interested in Poland that anything you say is fine, and they will be very supportive and understanding. But in the mid-’80s I came to know this one fellow from the first group quite well. He wasn’t an intellectual at all. He operated a little newsstand, a kiosk, in Krakow, and usually we would talk about very basic things. At times he would make fun of my Polish, but still I would understand him and he would pretty much understand me. Well, I happened to get a couple of my poems about Poland accepted by this Polish literary journal called Odra. And they were translated, and very well translated, and so I could actually take them to him and say, you know, this is how I sound when I’m speaking Polish up to speed. This is what I know about what’s going on here in Poland. He started to read through them and was nodding his head, yeah, yeah, then he looked at me and said, “Yeah, but do you know what’s written here? Do you understand the ideas?” And then I said, “Yes, because I wrote it — Ja to napisalem. Then all of a sudden the light went on in his head. This is what I was capable of saying if only my Polish was better, and just because I couldn’t speak Polish at a certain level didn’t mean I was terminally naive. But that whole notion of just being an observer, and listening, and keeping your mouth shut then, but maybe afterwards speaking these stories in a different way, at a different time to others, this is quite similar to what you are talking about there. It’s just a matter of soaking up and soaking up, and then it comes out in another way that’s both authentic and yet transformed into something else.
Kooistra: Yeah, soaking up and appreciating as opposed to soaking up and pontificating, trying to organize it all from above. I don’t know how it strikes you, but it seems that John McPhee does a bit too much of that. And it sours him for me.
Haines: Yeah. Well, it’s sort of like I went to Richardson, and I’m working for a newspaper, and I go around interviewing people. I get some information, this and that. So that in my case I’m slowly picking up bits and pieces from part of the neighborhood. They’re not looking on me as somebody come to get something. I’m just part of the community. And I happened to be a lot younger, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just settling down in a place, you know, but they opened up and they included me.
Kooistra: They probably enjoyed it. I mean here’s a guy. . . I remember you told me this story about when you got a moose. You were afraid that the horns would pull off when they picked it up by the horns.
Haines: Did I tell you that?
Kooistra: You told me that, yeah.
Haines: I don’t remember that.
Kooistra: Yeah. They thought it was really hilarious.
Haines: Yeah, yeah. But you know, people relax after that.
Kooistra: Because that disarmed them or you, I don’t know which way the reference goes, but that ignorance sort of released the tension, so that now Haines was okay.
Bourne: It’s the Holy Fool phenomenon. The outsider — the one who seems to know nothing, but is sensed to be well-meaning, to just be there to listen and to appreciate — is often treated that way.
Kooistra: Yeah. The thing about Alaska is that civilization is so new to the place. It’s all new. True, there’s a way in which the place has been around for an eternity, there’s a way in which Alaska is older than France, because in France you have this civilization that goes back, say, 500 years in a village, and you can even trace a kind of comfort through this continuity. But in Alaska you can’t trace anything. And you can’t ignore forty below. There’s no way to ignore it. It’s not going to go away. So it’s part of the warfare that your psychology has to undergo just to be there.
Bourne: The natural becomes the cultural whether you like it or not.
Kooistra: And I think this would account for the respect you had for these people who were there. Formal education meant nothing. Nothing meant anything except the way you dealt — practically — with getting through one day after another until spring came.
Bourne: How you dealt with the moose horns.
Haines: Yeah, and the background they brought with them, like Fred Campbell was from northern Michigan or some place, and he had no schooling to speak of. When he first came to Alaska he couldn’t even read.
Kooistra: Northern Michigan is a lot like Alaska, so he was sort of prepared that way.
Haines: Yeah. And then old Billy Melvin came from Kansas. He was there during the days of the cattle rustlers and people like that. He went as far as the seventh grade. He had been in Dodge City — Wyatt Earp and so on — and then he moved north to the Gold Rush. But he didn’t think much of Wyatt Earp and those people.
Bourne: Really. What were the failings of Wyatt Earp, according to him?
Haines: I don’t know. He just had a sour view of the whole thing. He thought the crooks had the wrong role as far as I know. And then his partner, Kievik, came from Russia. He was much older. He’d come across the Bering Strait and they’d both gotten involved somehow in the gold rush. But all this local history occurred in a very short time — fifty years. It had already developed a certain neighborhood mythology. Who was here, who wasn’t, what they did, this guy did this and this guy did that, and these stories were all very real. And I was there at just the right time. I listened and got to know the people. It was wonderful. The whole background, Richardson, how it was a town of several hundred people, there were bawdy houses and hotels, everything there. You wouldn’t believe it driving through there now, but there were a thousand people living in that area.
Kooistra: Oh, I’ve thought of that so many times, gone through there and there’s absolutely buck-all.
Haines: It’s just really something. They all came and then in a very short time the easy gold gave out and the next stampede started somewhere else, and they all left and went there.
Kooistra: And so few people made it anyway.
Haines: I know. It was kind of a madness in a way. But they left behind this little town, and that’s what I found.
Kooistra: It’s such an exaggerated dynamic, enforced by the weather. You know, just the climate and nature. I remember being so impressed with Circle-Circle Hot Springs. I got to talking to the guy who ran the resort there, an older guy, not that old, but still in his sixties. He was certainly old enough to be impressed with the past. The young are never really impressed with anything besides themselves. But at the same time he was impressed with the past in a way it was almost like he was a young person — because in the context of the past around him he was just a young person. But he pointed out to me that in Circle the cemetery contained only three women in the whole cemetery. It’s a demographic that’s absolutely enforced by the weather, by the life. The people buried there are all miners. They were all from the old country. They had no family. But there was a tradition, you know, a way in which they would finally go out, that their life was their work. As they got to a certain age the faculties started going, and when the eyes went that was a really big one. They had no family, so at a certain point they realized they just couldn’t take care of themselves, and they killed themselves. And so the cemetery is all filled with men, foreign men, and it’s just kind of moving to stand there and feel the whole dynamic of this climate, this life. It’s not the kind of thing that love of money could ever produce. It had nothing to do with money. It had to do with some way to pay the debt of your existence in the only way you knew.
Bourne: I can see where there’s a real raw edge involved, where the history and the mythology are just blending into each other.
Kooistra: Indistinguishable. Yeah.
Haines: What you were saying reminded me of the Old Military Cemetery in Eagle. Vera Thompson was the only woman there. I have a photograph of her tombstone.
Kooistra: I think “To Vera Thompson” is one of your best poems. Yeah, all you can do when you collect a “best poems” is take “To Vera.” I think I told you I went there, didn’t I? I was up in Eagle, and I went through that cemetery, and I was struck by the fact it was so immaculate. So, I’ll ask you this question now because I’ve never asked it before. I’m just curious if you went to the same cemetery I did. All the graves, everything, was painted white. It was like a regular military cemetery. And down the road, toward Eagle Village, the Indian village, was a kind of cemetery that was like a representation of history. Crosses had rotted of at the foot. There were crosses with no names. There were crosses underneath spruce trees that must have been a hundred years old. So it was a much better representation of the historical process than the military cemetery, which in a way denies the passage of time. I can’t even remember when I found Vera’s grave because of the military cemetery’s overall look. There’s a way in which it all gets homogenized by perfect maintenance.
Haines: I remember you writing to me about that. You were working, doing something for Alaska magazine.
Kooistra: I was doing a travelogue. Yeah.
Haines: Well, I remember it being rather overgrown, but it wasn’t immaculate.
Kooistra: Oh, well, this was quite the opposite. This was like the Garden Club had taken over.
Haines: No, it wasn’t like that in 1968 when I was there.
Bourne: And when were you there, John?
Kooistra: I was there in ’95, something like that.
Haines: Thirty years later.
Bourne: Alaska gentrification, maybe.
Kooistra: Well, something. It’s almost like all of a sudden people realize that there’s history. When you were there they hadn’t yet realized this is history. But by the time I got there there was a historical society that was fully engaged.
Haines: And McPhee had written about it in the meantime. . .
Kooistra: And McPhee had written about it in the meantime. So people got self-conscious about it. There were daily tours in the summertime, conducted by the historical society. . .
Bourne: Enter the postmodern sensibility, where everyone is aware of history, but wants to go about re-shaping it, sprucing it up through after-the-fact cosmetics.
Haines: I remember that road going to Eagle up over American Summit from Tetlin Junction.
Kooistra: Oh, yeah. The Taylor Highway.
Haines: How was it in ’95?
Kooistra: Well, I’ll tell you it was great. And here’s where it was great. So many people take that Klondike Loop. They leave the Alaska Highway near Whitehorse, go up to Dawson and across the Top of the World Highway and connect with the Taylor Highway and then go down to Tetlin Junction. But now Eagle is up on a spur, off the loop road. So nobody wants to go to Eagle because nobody likes to retrace their steps. Psychologically it’s like you’ve taken part of your life and given it away. So I was amazed to find out how few people turned off then went to Eagle. And that road to Eagle is just the way it was in the fifties. They haven’t improved it, there’s no guard rails, there’s this chasm. It’s a dangerous road.
Haines: I remember it. Yeah.
Kooistra: Well, I’m sure it hasn’t changed much from when you remember it. Each winter they have to close that road-it stays maintained until the middle of October, and then that’s it. Nature maintains it then. I thought it was great. To go to Eagle you have to go across the pass, you know, American Summit. And up at the top of that summit the most amazing thing occurs. When I was driving along it was about sunset. And you’re up there in all that space and even the sunset looks small there’s so much space. And from miles away I could see this building, and I thought, boy, imagine living up here. This is really on the roof of the world. And then I got to the place and there’s this sign that says American Summit Liquor Store.
Haines: I don’t remember anything like that.
Kooistra: And I thought—
Haines: I doubt if anything was there, frankly. I do remember going over the summit and finding the way down to Eagle. I stayed there maybe a couple of days and then went back, but I do remember it was quite a summit, and I was driving a pick-up camper, not a small car.
Kooistra: Oh it is quite a place. Of course Eagle itself was dry. As a town, you can’t get booze there, which is the only reason why here’s this liquor store up here above timberline.
Bourne: Above timberline. . .
Kooistra: Above timberline. This has gotta be one of the most unique liquor stores on the face of the earth.
Bourne: Wow. So the residents of Eagle have to drive up here to the American Summit—
Kooistra: Well, they’d either fly it in themselves, or they’d have to take like a seventeen or twenty mile run up the mountain and across the tundra and load up with what they’re gonna get, I’m sure the prices are not good, and then drive back to town again. But I think that’s a really smart thing on the part of the town of Eagle because the last thing you want is this long winter and the whole population, or at least, say, a sizable percentage (and I don’t know what would be reasonable here, just in terms of psychological demographics) but whatever the profile would be, you’d have a sizable percentage of the town drunk from the middle of October until spring. Yeah. And they probably have enough trouble getting along as it is, sort of self-contained down there in that little town, without half the population being drunk.
Bourne: Wouldn’t the residents, though, have flown in enough alcohol for the duration?
Kooistra: I’m sure many had enough foresight to make sure they were taken care of. But, evidently, enough didn’t, so that there liquor store was probably doing just fine.
Haines: I’ll bet it was. Do you recall what the population of Eagle was?
Kooistra: Boy. I did know that, because there’s a sign at the beginning of town, and it says what the population is and it says what it was around the turn of the century, and of course it was like thousands of people then and it’s hundreds of people now. So, a year ago I could have told you exactly what the population was.
Haines: Oh I’d love to go back up there sometime.
Kooistra: Well, it was — it is — a great place. Not a stereotypical Alaska.
Bourne: Mythical Alaska? Not stereotypical?
Kooistra: Okay, that’s a good one. Stereotypical. Mythical. Because, you know, stereotypical Alaska is, also, a bunch of modular homes. Because, of course, anyone who goes there to do something goes in there saying, “Hey, I’m not gonna be here forever. I’m gonna be here temporarily. As soon as the money runs out, or whatever my reasons, I’m outta here.” And Eagle at least is different, at least it touches the mythology that people have about Alaska, you know, lots of log houses and small lots, and a kind of coziness. But I’m wondering what the population was there. I think it swelled to like three thousand people, maybe even a little larger than that. But the Yukon there is very beautiful, while it’s very ugly in other places.
Bourne: So is the Yukon — and it’s probably the case that it changes throughout the year — but is this a rather wide, shallow river or is it one that is basically just not fordable?
Haines: In typical glacial rivers you’ll have a single channel that is very fast and deep, then it will spread out into a delta. You have different channels here and there with sandbars and so forth constantly changing. But I remember in Eagle it was pretty much one channel.
Kooistra: It’s closed in, a deep sort of interesting-looking river. By the time you get up to Circle, though, it’s a mile wide and I would imagine that it’s just what you’re talking about.
Haines: The Tanana, a major tributary, is much the same thing. Out by part of our homestead it’s islands and different channels. But you go up to Big Delta and it’s all one channel, very deep and swift. It’s constantly changing.
Bourne: And you can wade in some parts and drown in others.
Haines: Yeah. It’s a typical glacial stream, is what it is. The Missouri used to be like that.
Bourne: Before they dammed it everywhere.
Kooistra: So, one day I was riding my bicycle in Eagle, because, you know, that’s the way I got around there, because, hey, what are you in a hurry for? And, I also felt more comfortable riding out to the Indian Village on my bicycle than I did driving my car around in their village. But I felt I could go anywhere on the bicycle. Then, there was that cemetery almost like a garden, a historical garden.
Haines: Yeah, we just found it by accident, and it was so overgrown with moss and so forth.
Kooistra: Now this was the military cemetery, or the civilian one?
Haines: The military cemetery. It’s the only one I can recall. We were just wandering around in there, and I found this one tombstone, with the name on it. Thompson, Vera Thompson. It was so striking. I felt like it was so lonely, this one woman in all of this. And she died at a certain age. She didn’t live very long. But, I took a photograph of it. . .
Bourne: And you wrote a poem.
Kooistra: And of course it was right near the fort there too. That comes up in the poem also, about the rotting sills, and now of course they’ve re-done it. So it looks probably about the same as it did then when it was new. Because they’ve refurbished it. Someone has taken pride, you know, and it’s not like the pride that a termite takes.
Haines: How true.
Kooistra: I don’t know that it’s worth telling, but I just recalled this student I had in Alaska. She’s Dutch, older than I am, and of course she was appalled at the way I allowed my name to be pronounced in English. I allowed it to be Koostra, which is the way my father Americanized it, because he was an immigrant and so he tried hard to Americanize; he Americanized his first name and he Americanized his last name. And so anyway, there was this Dutch student who had married an American serviceman, actually a Black American serviceman, and she was living in this town called Delta Junction, up here in Alaska. This is a very small town, and this would really make an impact on that town, a mixed marriage. So anyway, she came into Fairbanks and she was taking philosophy courses. And, she said that if I ever came through Delta, that she was going to dance on my grave or whatever, something dire, if I didn’t come in and have coffee. So I would try to do that whenever I would pass through there, at least go by, and if they were there stop in. So we had coffee and talked. But she had a plaque up on the wall, a Dutch plaque, in Dutch. And, you know, at one point on the way out the door I said, “Well, what’s that plaque? What’s that mean?” And she says, “That says, you know, don’t talk about yourself. You know that we’ll do that after you leave.” But, I think the interesting thing, the most interesting thing is that Alaska has always been the scene of these amazing sorts of combinations. You know, here we have this typical Alaskan combination. I’m talking about this Dutch student that I had, a woman, who married a Black American soldier, in Europe, and then somehow they ended up in Delta Junction. It might be that he was at Fort Greeley, or something, and then when he got out of the service they got used to the town and just ended up taking up residence there. So here you have this unlikely combination, and slam it down into Delta Junction, Alaska.
Bourne: And meanwhile she’s getting on your case because you’re Americanizing the Dutch in your last name.
Kooistra: Yeah. Yeah, right. She’s taking care of her tradition. She actually gave me a pair of wooden shoes even, which I still have.
Bourne: Made of Alaskan trees?
Kooistra: No, no, they’re imported.
Bourne: From Holland? Are there still trees in Holland? In the late Renaissance or whenever the wooden shoe tradition emerged, I’m certain they had trees, but now?
Kooistra: Well, that was exactly my first response! Where did they make these shoes? Where did the wood come from? No, there aren’t trees in Holland. You know, it’s flat. So where did the wood come from? And yet, the Dutch walk around in these wood shoes. And I don’t even know how they do it. I put them on and it’s like the Inquisition. They’re terrible. I’m sure that the wood shoes have these attributes that made them a natural choice. Like for one thing, if you’re going to be walking around in wetness and in mud, at least wood shoes don’t leak. But, boy, comfortable? It’s like sleeping on a marble floor. But, anyway, that Dutch woman’s story was so poignant. The ordinary human situation already has enough poignancy, without being exacerbated. And the Alaskan climate seems to really put the squeeze on. I think this Dutch woman’s marriage was under stress. You know her kids were of course, well they were black, although they were mulatto. And so there was all the community stress of that. But I guess the most interesting thing is to watch the shape of people’s dreams. And these folks had some land, and put a little trailer on that land. That’s when I came through. I think I was just gonna go camp up in the middle of nowhere, between Delta Junction and Tok. And they kind of insisted that why I stay on their land, you know, that there was a little trailer there, so why don’t you go out there and spend the night. And so I did.
Bourne: Do you think that there has been a golden age of Alaska, and it has passed? Do you see it being in peril, the Alaska you love?
Haines: There’s an army fort, Fort Greeley. It was established somewhere around the early fifties. It was obviously set up partly because of the Cold War and the fear of Russia and so forth. But now that the army has been downsizing a bit, I think Fort Greeley’s going to be given up. And one possibility for them to use the facility would be to turn it into a state prison. The other possibility was to move the state legislature to Fort Greeley. It’s an ongoing joke in Alaska.
Kooistra: Oh that’s hilarious.
Bourne: So, turn that facility into a prison or a state house for the legislation? The idea here seems to involve containment.
Haines: Move the state legislature to Fort Greeley and shut them up!
Kooistra: The idea also being to sort of concentrate their attention on business.
Bourne: In my homeland in southeastern Illinois, there’s a plan to build this medium security prison on the county line here. Building prisons seems to be a growth industry in Illinois, but it’s also thought that it will upset the cultural apple cart in the area. A lot of the locals look at it this way: less farming, more urban undesirables, and so on. In any case, there go the old ways. But, back to the question, do you think the mythological Alaska is gone?
Kooistra: Oh I think it’s gone, don’t you?
Bourne: Except in Eagle?
Kooistra: Except in Eagle, right. You know, I do still like going north, I like going out of Fairbanks. When you get out of there you’re into another part of Alaska. If you go south from Fairbanks, you’re into where all the tourists go. I think that the border is probably roughly synonymous with the pavement. Where the pavement stops you start to get into the real Alaska.
Bourne: And there’s more and more pavement.
Kooistra: But if you go north from Fairbanks you’re on dirt, and it feels like a different country up there. But hey, for the most part the old Alaska, the mythological Alaska’s gone. Now, you’ve got to find it, and I suppose one thing about being up there for a long time is at least you know where to find it if you want it, whereas people who come up there in their RVs don’t know where to find it, but they don’t need to find anything because they already brought it with them.
Haines: Yeah, it’s sort of like traveling around here in Ohio on a much smaller scale, going through little towns and settlements and so forth. There in Alaska, you’ve got to travel a longer distance, but if you know what to look for, there are places. Like Richardson, for example. You know some of the history there. Or, you go down to Big Delta, and there was a history there, too. A river boat would come up from Fairbanks to Big Delta, just as far up the river as it could go, and there was a trading post. And now they’ve got a kind of tourist center there. But you could pick up history. As you’d drive down the highway toward Fairbanks and Delta there are certain places like Munson’s Slough. There used to be a Munson’s Roadhouse. Periodically, I think every twenty miles, in the old days they would have a roadhouse where they would change horses on the stages. And there would be these places scattered around everywhere. And if you know about it, it’s very interesting to see, and then you get closer to Fairbanks and there’s a military base. The history’s there, but people drive through now and don’t know that the Silver Fox Roadhouse was once here.
Kooistra: Well, everything’s been burned down.
Haines: They burned down, they disappeared, and then you drive on further and there’s Birch Lake, and then there’s Richardson and then you went on to Shaw Creek. There was a place there. And then you keep on going and—
Kooistra: None of those places are there anymore.
Haines: No, they’re all gone.
Bourne: Well, better that they burned down, than be pushed down by a bulldozer and then paved over by some sort of development, which is the fate of a lot of landmarks from the past here. That’s something that we have to fight with — to save precious little swamps and wetlands and old theaters and so on that are constantly under the gun. Will this be the site of the next Walmart of K-mart or Cinemax? Do they wipe out the bluebirds to build Bluebird View?
Kooistra: No worry there.
Haines: Yet. But, John, do you know that long hill before you get to Birch Lake? You’re going up the long hill and you get to the top and you level off and then you’re headed for Birch Lake? That used to be called Woodchoppers Hill. I would go into town with my neighbor, Fred Allison, to pick up a load of coal to take back to the roadhouse. I remember coming back from Fairbanks carrying a load of coal, and we got to the bottom of the hill and started up. But we couldn’t make it, so we had to back down the hill, to the bottom, and put on the chains or something, all the while Fred was cursing and all. And no heat in the truck. It was twenty below or something like that. Never forgot that. I just picked up all this local mythology, listened to people talking about things, who was here and who was there, one thing and another. And I’ve sorted it out later. I didn’t know what the hell it meant at the time.
Kooistra: But, of course, local mythology translated into local reality. Mythology is always connected to reality.
Bourne: Good writers, great writers, seem to find this mythology and its connection to real life. Writing fiction and poetry involves some sort of creation of new myth. So that so-called “creative” writing might rather be “neomythic” writing. Do you feel that you are creating new myth — not in the poems that deal with Gilgamesh or the Judeo-Christian mythology or Native American mythology — but in the poems where you’re describing your own experience on a college campus or you’re out hunting a moose?
Haines: Yeah, in some way I do. I wouldn’t want to make a program out of it. But subliminally or whatever, I think that’s true. I definitely do. Where it ends, I don’t know, or what it amounts to, but I definitely have felt this in the several decades I’ve been writing.
Bourne: Novelist John Gardener in his book On Moral Fiction claimed there are good myths and bad myths — myths that we culturally and individually may live by, but also die by. Do you have a similar sense about your own poetry, that these poems are showing us certain myths, certain patterns of existence, that we ought to realize rather than others? Do you feel you’re asserting any particular set of values?
Kooistra: But isn’t there a distinction between creating a myth and uncovering a myth? These would seem to be two entirely different things. The latter is clearing rubble out of the way, so that a natural response can occur, as opposed to the former, which is trying to create some sort of climate that’s going to come and go.
Bourne: But, to use your metaphor, if that climate is worth writing about, it will come and not go for a while. Or in the sense that it’s an ongoing climate and not just day-to-day weather, it’s a situation that’s important to recognize and to deal with.
Kooistra: Right, it’s a human situation.
Haines: Well, I think I feel as if I’ve been trying to reconcile my experiences as an individual — what I’ve been able to connect with locally and so forth — with what I sense is this larger history, being an American or a Western European. And, whatever that might mean in the future somehow, that all these little bits and pieces add up to something. But I had no program or anything. The only thing I could do is trace step-by-step in terms of poems and essays and so forth: what am I trying to discover here; what does it mean; where does it lead. And maybe there’s no final answer to that. I feel that there must be, but I’m not sure what it is. I’m an American, descended from Europeans, we’ve got this immense continent, certain things have happened here, this ongoing impulse of Americans to go on and do something more, more, more, get, get, get. You know. They don’t want to stop anywhere. And my feeling is that, yes, there has to be someplace where we say, “There’s nowhere to go. Let’s stay.” It’s interesting. I’ve given thought and spoke on this theme at the university in Anchorage this spring. I got through, and various people came up to talk with me. One fellow came up and said he was thinking of going with his brother back to Georgia, finding a farm or something, going back to where they had come from. And I said, “Why? Why not? You came to the last frontier, you got to see it, what are you going to do with it? You can’t go on moving forever. Unless you go out into outer space, there’s nowhere to go.” And I think part of my problem there was basically that you do have to go home, wherever it is and decide to make something out of it worthwhile. You can’t go on to the frontier indefinitely. It’s basically what Wendell Berry has been saying: “Stay home!”
Bourne: And tend your garden.
Kooistra: But where is the frontier?
Haines: Well, you know, it’s here.
Bourne: Inside you?
Kooistra: So literature or philosophy can be seen as an unending assault on the infinite.
Haines: You can look at every community in the country. Certainly quite intelligent people decide at some point, “Well I’ve had enough, I’ll try somewhere else.” But they don’t necessarily make things better.
Kooistra: Do you think your sensibility is made more acute since you came from a military background, so you never had a home anywhere?
Haines: No, I never had a home.
Bourne: Until you went to Alaska?
Haines: Yeah, until I went there and found a certain sense of locality, of life in a community, which is now gone. It’s not there anymore. But I could sense even then that it was all in a temporary state.
Bourne: I’d like to change the focus a bit. You mentioned going back and working more on some poems you thought you had completed years ago, for example, “The Poem Without Meaning,” a piece you published in 1966 in Hudson Review. Do you have any misgivings about such a process, that you’re correcting things an earlier voice said?
Haines: Quite simply, no. Not at all. However I came to it I knew I did it exactly the right way.
Bourne: And the poem just wasn’t finished.
Haines: The poem finally realized itself, and I had the necessary patience to wait for it.
Bourne: Did you feel a dissatisfaction with the poem even as it was published?
Haines: Yeah, I did. I just sensed, vaguely, there was more to this theme than I had been able to deal with, but I couldn’t do anything with it at the time. I set it aside, and I went back to look at it and added to this and that, ideas and so forth, and it took all this time.
Bourne: That’s a notion that many students can’t quite grasp: you have to work for a long period of time to sound spontaneous on the page.
Kooistra: Or to get it right. I really appreciate, by the way, the span of thought that went into that poem, from 1966 to 1992.
Bourne: But that’s a notion that is so foreign to beginning poets, who think in days and weeks, rather than in years or in entire lifetimes spent on poems and poetry, that if there is something interesting there in the poem it will keep you interested even after whatever initial emotion that made you write the poem has passed. But you have to get it right. You might not even be feeling that particular emotion when you’re working on the poem later, but in another way you’re also participating in that earlier feeling. It’s almost like a religious rite, that you’re going back through that poem and dealing with that earlier thing — at least you’re attempting to name it, to find the right name.
Kooistra: Somehow you have to hone a paradox. You have to respect your uniqueness, and you also have to respect your un-uniqueness. And that seems to be what the challenge of art is. To do justice to both. You will never occur again, and yet there’s nothing special about you.
Bourne: What did Christ say? You can’t serve both God and Mammon. But maybe that’s what artists really have to do, they have to serve—
Bourne: Yes, between, in the messy middle. John, what did you say in class today about the dirty tricks the hunter uses to draw the prey towards him? Do you have any sense of being a user of dirty tricks as a writer to bring the reader to you?
Haines: That’s a real question, isn’t it? Well, yeah. In one sense, calling the animal to you is a deception, but on the other hand you have this necessity behind you: I need to do whatever it is I need to do in order to live here, and this dialogue that I establish, treating myself as an animal, is a way of satisfying something I need in my life. I don’t know if that answers your question, maybe it’s not quite right, but my point is that I as a contemporary person have certain needs to fulfill that relate back to this other situation two thousand years ago, when this dialogue between people and animal was real, it was actual. And it serves a certain purpose now in that I am satisfying something in myself, that I’m using a ruse, so to speak, to bring this animal close to me. And of course I have to kill the thing, to complete the act. But I think that in that dialogue there’s something very natural. And it’s something that is important to art and important to poetry. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking this way, but I was doing it. While hunting I was just responding to something I’d learned, the lessons from the older people there at Richardson, that if you want to get a moose you get into dialogue with it, then get in close enough to kill it — and there were certain ways to do this. And it’s fascinating in itself that you can do this in writing, also. So there’s that deception, but at the same time there’s something in it even deeper and older, that you don’t have to be ashamed of this conversation between you and the natural world. And I’m glad that I was able to learn that. If you’re there in that scene and you get that moose, it is something that you can’t make up, you can’t describe in journalistic prose. There’s something there that is just elemental.
Kooistra: And there’s a sense of intimate shame as well. It’s what Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy referred to as paying the debt of existence.
Bourne: So, going back to writing poems, there might be a sort of trickery or veiling of oneself, but it’s a holy trickery?
Kooistra: Holy trickery. That’s good.
Haines: Then the animals are out there communicating in their own way, for one reason or another, the male is calling the female, and then they mate, and there’s young, and on and on it goes.
Bourne: And there are certain things about the moose that are beyond human morality, too. The moose would have a very lackadaisical attitude towards the state of the homeless in New York City. The issue would just not exist for him. In the same way, certain objections about killing a moose that might occur to a non-hunting yet meat-eating person here in Ohio just wouldn’t come up in Alaska.
Kooistra: You have to suspend your morality to hunt at Walmart, too. Because you don’t realize you’re so far removed from the fact that your own life means death to other things. If you want to sustain yourself in the ways you’d like to be sustained — when you’re so far up in the food chain, the production chain — then something has to suffer.
Bourne: But if you kill your own food, and if you do it right, you realize this is what you’re doing, and you feel sorry for the animal—
Kooistra: And reverent.
Bourne: —and reverent towards the animal’s sacrifice. And this is more moral than going off to the local grocery store and picking up a slab of meat in a cellophane container. Because you’re aware of the ritual involved, you’re aware of your participation in a real world that is very complicated-and by golly you have to deal with it. So much of what grocery stores do to be successful is to attempt to deny that reality.
Haines: Right. That’s true.
Kooistra: And that must be what saying grace is all about. First degree grace, as opposed to second degree grace. First degree is meditative grace, and the other is just cold-blooded repetition.
Bourne: That’s what grace ought to do, to deal with all that.
Haines: Yep, I know. People are getting it second hand. They don’t understand something is missing. Money is a poor representation of the actual transaction taking place. All you have to do is put your own chicken in your coop and raise it, then chop off its head—
Bourne: I grew up on a farm and remember the adults cutting the chickens’ heads off while I had to go catch them. But the chickens were smarter than me, without their heads, and I always had trouble catching them.
Kooistra: It’s hard to relax when your future dinner is running around the barn without a head.
Bourne: Back to poetry rather than poultry. At the end of your book of collected poems, The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, why did you decide to include notes to many of the poems? What about the notion that the poems ought to speak for themselves?
Haines: Well, I guess I could say one thing, that maybe I wanted to clarify to myself why certain things happened in certain ways. But the other thing was that I thought some of the sources of the poem would not be familiar to everyone. They might read a poem, but there might be some background there they would not be able to relate to. And if I could clarify all that, maybe it would help them return to the poem and get a better understanding of what I wanted to do. A specific instance would be the background I gave to “The Poem Without Meaning.” But I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Maybe somebody could do without these notes. It wouldn’t matter a bit. But it happened to satisfy something in me. I felt a certain responsibility. So for “The Poem Without Meaning” I mentioned the references in the poem to the Great Horse Nebula, to Orion in winter, to the stone sculpture of St. Luke in a church in southern France and so forth. Or, say, in “The Sleepwalkers,” there was a summation of certain events in Egyptian mythology and religion. These are incidentals. Maybe they’re not important. But I’m glad I did it.
Bourne: Well, I find it pleasingly ironic that you furnished notes to a poem entitled “A Poem Without Meaning.” Already there’s a dialectic, a dialogue. The world is not a simple place.
Kooistra: Yeah. It highlights the fact that obviously the title is false. Or, a background is required. Even un-meaning requires a background.
Haines: Or, maybe the explanation is I felt subliminally that the poem isn’t important, but if I add this to it people will think it is important.
Kooistra: But I appreciate notes, some dialogue, some context. People who say let the poems speak for themselves, it’s sort of like introducing somebody and then saying here’s a man who needs no introduction. You know, that’s bullshit.
Bourne: And maybe notes are important especially now in an increasingly culturally-divergent world. We need to establish the background texture so that others not familiar with the cultural or historical context might realize what is going on.
Haines: For instance, the title of the poem “It Must All Be Done Over,” on page 76 of The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer is taken from a brief essay by William Carlos Williams, from In the American Grain. So, maybe somebody reads that note to the poem and then they go back and read Williams. That just adds to the richness
Bourne: It’s an attempt to increase the resonance of what that reader might experience?
Kooistra: Yeah. Plus, there’s a quantum leap between — I don’t want to say prose — but poetry and mere reportage. And sometimes the notes can provide a way of mediating that quantum gap. So, even if it turns out that the notes really don’t help anything, they certainly don’t hurt.
Bourne: And I like it when, especially in a book, the notes are at the back of the volume, where you have the choice of turning back to them or not. Also, as the editor of a literary journal, I have to deal with what happens when a reader encounters a single poem by a writer, more or less in isolation: one poem, one author, is there enough background? But, in a collection of poems, the background accumulates. What happens though when there’s just one or two poems? Will the reader get it? Will there be enough of a connection made? So, even there with a single poem in a journal, maybe you might want to put a footnote at the bottom of the poem that helps to provide context. But, then again, it’s a deadly spice — though one that perhaps needs to be applied at times. But this question of providing notes for the reader also brings up another matter. As a poet, do you find yourself actually talking to someone? Some poets would say they only talk to themselves.
Haines: Talking to myself, yes. But also, I think, to some sort of suppositional person, mythological, whatever. The dialogue between me and some sort of individual or congregation out there, with whom it may or may not be possible to talk plainly. And even with the universe in a sense.
Bourne: So a poem is like sending yourself out into space in a capsule.
Haines: I’m sending myself out there somehow. I’m talking to a congregation that I’ve imagined. Maybe they don’t exist, maybe they do, I don’t know.
Bourne: One last question. Are there any surprises for readers of your real first poems, the ones you wrote even before the poems in Winter News, but which have only just been printed by Copper Canyon Press?
Haines: The poems in At the End of This Summer? I think there might be: in the musicality of the verses, the use of rhymes, the musical structure of some of the poems, the dialogue between myself and another individual.
Bourne: What kind of individual?
Haines: One with which there was a love relationship. Reading those poems over now, I realize this person was probably invented, a dramatic character. It wasn’t a real person, but somebody I projected.
Bourne: It’s interesting that these poems are only now emerging, that only now do they constitute evidence of your total work. Yet, in actuality they were there all along.
Kooistra: What I would like to say about those first poems of John is that I hear them and what I hear is this kind of innocence, this urge for some sort of ultimate emotional satisfaction. And of course what creates the innocence is that at this point in your relationship with the cosmos you actually thought somebody could step forward and satisfy everything you needed. And in actual practice they can’t. . .
Bourne: Well, is there anything we didn’t ask that we should have?
Kooistra: If you were interviewing yourself—
Haines: Well, yeah, it’s true, there is one question: What in the hell did you do all this for?
Bourne: All right then — and try to answer in just a few words too.
Haines: I can do that. I did it — because I had to.
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