A Conversation With William Heyen
IT SEEMS TO me that two characteristics that distinguish great poetry are prescience and allegiance. But prescience is not clairvoyance, and it’s nothing as stentorian as prophecy; instead, it’s that necessary but undefinable feel for the nuances of weather-noumenal, phenomenal. Dickinson describes prescience as a tingling in the scalp; Frost as a lump in the throat. Allegiance is something we hear a lot about, especially these days. But I’m not talking about a conscious commitment to people, country, aesthetics or ideals — or, not only that. By poetic allegiance I mean a willingness to commit fully to the music and insight prescience yields. Poetic allegiance implies an empowered, engaged transmutation of sound into vision, a willingness not merely to reflect weather, but to predict and even influence it.
In a career that has spanned four decades and earned recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Fulbright Foundation, and many other prominent organizations, William Heyen has given us such poetry. While the foci of his books range from Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) to the Holocaust to the Gulf War, from the Alice in Wonderland world of Princess Di to the trauma humans inflict on the natural world, always William Heyen combines these traits of allegiance and prescience in a way so attuned to heart and world that at times it seems preternatural.
This interview, conducted during his visits to Youngstown State University and The College of Wooster in early February of last year, reveals something of what generates William Heyen’s poetry. And, though it predates the events of September 11 by several months, the interview indeed reveals an eerie anticipation of what now faces American literature and culture in its aftermath. And, in terms of preserving an allegiance to the importance of writing, of poetry, William Heyen continues to show us the way. Immediately following September 11, Bill Heyen set out to make an anthology of American creative writing, in an attempt to focus the diffuse but immense powers American writers bring to our separate lives and concerns every day. The results of his efforts, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, which includes the work of 125 American poets and writers, is forthcoming from Etruscan Press in March. —Providence, Rhode Island, December 27, 2001
Philip Brady: At the reading last night, you mentioned that you hoped your poems about the Holocaust — in particular the poem in the voice of a Holocaust survivor — were “responsible.” What did you mean? What makes a poem responsible or irresponsible?
William Heyen: You know, Phil, I’m probably still casting about for reassurance that I haven’t committed some great obscenity in writing The Swastika Poems, which was then expanded to Erika, and through writing what will be another book of Holocaust poems since. On the one hand, I believe fervently in chance-taking, wildness, writing toward breakthrough as we follow our words to get at meanings beyond words; on the other hand, I believe in being careful here: the Holocaust first of all belongs to the murdered and to the “survivors,” and to insult or humiliate them, to assume we can know them and their experience, to use them, to take advantage of them for the purposes of art — art which is voracious and intent on itself — may be dangerous and immoral. In the end, I keep going back to the proposition that we should say nothing that we would not say in the presence of the burning children. But we must not condescend to them, bore them, diminish them by stereotyping them. And excessive self-consciousness is debilitating for the poet. For better or worse — and maybe silence would have been better-during the writing of the best of the poems I’ve probably suspended all the questions of aesthetics that swirl in my daylight mind, or I’d never have gotten past the blank page, or I’d have had simplistic metrical moralities instead of poems, if I do have poems.
What upwells from the unconscious? Where do the psychic maps take us within atrocity and nightmare? The daylight mind is usually habit, convention, our veneer. Poems may begin in this mind, but then begin listening to themselves and, by way of fused sound-image-story-rhythm, descend. This is their process. But I hear myself pontificating. As William Stafford said, make believe there’s a ghostly question mark after everything I say. In fact, I really don’t want to understand too much about many questions regarding poetry.
PB: Robert Bly has said that most political poems are too “heavy” with personal anger to make their way into the world of public concerns. Writing about ecology, about the Gulf War, about Native American genocide, about the Holocaust, how do you see your poems making their way into the public sphere?
Heyen: There’s an essay in Pig Notes & Dumb Music that was a fulcrum point for me, I think. I complain that Seamus Heaney’s assumptions about the political dispensations of poetry will no longer serve, as they always have, because now our entire planet is on the verge of ecological catastrophe. I argue that we need a new poetry, one somehow still evocative and interesting but one direct and filled with Truth in ways it has not been before, or else it will be less than marginal and trivial. My essay seems to me now to be spoken by someone filled with dread. Either, now, I’ve lost my edge, or I was asking for too much. There is no way, maybe, to subvert the character of poetry as we have known it down through time and in all cultures — its subtlety and suggestion, its complex patience, its willingness to withhold and obscure itself as teacher until the student is ready to hear and learn, which may be never. But I called for a poem that could obliterate a tank and slap a tyrant upside the head and make us all saints, and in so doing save the world.
I still believe that only poetry can save the human world. But I’m not talking about our word constructs, these lyric and other poems that we read and write, but about a poetic conception of our place here, of the earth as One, of thought as integration until we realize we must change or we will die out. I’ve a feeling there’s not enough time for us to learn to accept enough, to accept our place here and our limitations. And the essay I mentioned wants to rush to a metapoetry that can raise us into the light by tomorrow morning at the latest. Instant satori.
The public sphere? I don’t know. Maybe our best poems keep the faith and will always be content to hang around until we’re ready to have them by heart and to act by way of their song. Maybe this is what is behind what W.S. Merwin wrote me a couple years ago (I’ve just dug out his letter): “What I wanted, most of my life to write was something that we would want to remember in a time of threat and crisis, to take into great peril.” This is that time for us now, isn’t it, unprecedented in its danger for our species and for all species? And we do need company, don’t we, in our peril-the company of poems that can teach us what we need to know but only if we’re ready for them? Blunt poems, preachments, one-sided and blind-sided wisdom poems only confirm our stupidity and increase our loneliness and despair when we’re with them. But what poems, what faiths, what dreams of love and meaning will we take with us into great peril, this fear of our own extinction that sometimes seems to extinguish us?
How do certain poems, in Robert Frost’s phrase, become hard to get rid of and make their ways into the public sphere, if any poems ever do? One reader, one heart at a time, I’d guess. They’re in no hurry, these poems. I’ve wanted them to rush, but they can’t and won’t be pressed. It’s not their fault that I’ve got only a decade or three left to live. They aren’t disposed to hurry, it’s not in their nature, their disposition, so in that essay of mine I might have been asking for a creature that couldn’t be conceived of and born. But what do I know?
Daniel Bourne: I’ve been struck by your “long-staring” at the things of this world, your ongoing gaze toward history and toward the big stories of our time. Joyce Carol Oates describes you as a poet in whom “the ‘visionary’ and the ‘historical’ are dramatically meshed.” Were you aware of something clicking in your mind at some point, something that pointed you in this direction? Or, did the poems just point themselves and you followed?
Heyen: When I look around, I do seem to have done and to be doing, but only on the surface, something different from most or all of my contemporaries — no value judgment here. And I think that in each case I could locate some of the foreground and sources of the various books, but that wouldn’t explain much. The central thing may be that in each case a generative force has to take over, and this force is something that has been building in us always so all we have to do is allow it to speak. Walt Whitman told himself that he contained enough, so he just had to let it out. After it was published, I thought about the origins in me of Diana, Charles, & the Queen, for example. It’s true that when I was a boy of eight or nine I read of the birth of a prince, Prince Charles, and as he grew up and stories about him appeared in the papers I associated him with castles and battles, kings and merlins. And it’s true that when Diana appeared on the scene I was fascinated by this golden girl and she swirled in me with a thousand personal associations, and all this became mixed with my graduate school English studies and with a couple trips to England, etc., etc. But when I happened to read that first book on Diana by Andrew Morton and wrote what happened to be a rhymed double quatrain in its margin, and then another, and then another, something took over as I read other books until I had over three hundred of these poems. The interesting thing to me now is not what might be said in the book about English history or the monarchy or failed love or Diana’s relationship with Mother Teresa, but the ways in which, by sounds and images and associations, the whole sequence gets itself said. I mean, as Doc Williams reminds us, we can stay young in our writing only by way of this very force — he uses the word “technique” — not by way of subject matter. Subject matter, as strange as it may be to conceive of it in this way, is almost incidental, is along for the wild ride of the saying-and it is always fearful, it may be, that it will lose its life, its factuality and empirical veracity. But we come to any subject matter naturally, or should. Passion won’t be forced. Already I was deeply interested in the royals, as the poems certainly are, and I wrote those poems until I had no more of their music to hear for a time. And, if I found them right, wrote them right, they will keep giving of themselves because, coming from visceral inchoate fens and bogs inside myself, they know much more than does the wise-ass Ph.D. who wrote them.
I see my Holocaust books, Ribbons: The Gulf War, Crazy Horse in Stillness and other books in these same ways. I become absorbed. I read. I can’t not begin to write. I fall into a trance or semi-trance. Everything rises and converges, sings, wails, intones, narrates. I revise in states of unconsciousness and consciousness that drift in and out. I sometimes look up from a finished poem or book and wonder where I’ve been while it somehow got written. Then, I want to know what I’ve done, want to understand, want, again, the poem or book to be responsible, intelligible, want it to communicate. But the text must protect itself from any desire in me to handcuff it and throw it into the jail of my misconceptions about it. A while ago some jerk’s review of Crazy Horse in Stillness showed up online. He refers to the book as an endless series of tiresome vignettes, something like that. Now, there are many serious questions about my book, but a guy like this-well, I want to ask such folks to learn to hear — this is the whole thing, to learn to think by way of their ears. It may be that even the included brevities, what he calls those vignettes, when heard, yield unceasing answers to the question we put to any poem: so what? My poems’ true subject matter is their sounds that carry their meanings. How boring reading must be for you if you can’t sense the implications of sound.
DB: In our most recent issue of Artful Dodge we published an interview with Tess Gallagher, one of the poets in your Generation of 2000 anthology. We asked her if she thought there was any connective thread there among the poets whom she might characterize as sharing “her generation,” and if there was anything to distinguish this group of poets from those who went before or who have emerged since. Have you come to any conclusions about possible connective threads in this generation, any distinctions along generational lines?
Heyen: From the beginning, I conceived of The Generation of 2000 as an eclectic anthology. I don’t think I had any choice. A generation is not a school, or movement. A generation of poets may best be thought of, maybe, as a group of individual voices who happen to share an approximate time period. And as I keep my eye on 2000 poets over the years, I don’t think Paul Mariani has much in common with Charles Simic, Robert Morgan with Heather McHugh, Tess Gallagher with Ray Carver, Lucille Clifton with Michael S. Harper, Ai with Judith Minty, Faye Kicknosway with Stanley Plumly, Albert Goldbarth with Gregory Orr, Marge Piercy with Louise Gluck. I can think of similarities between and among some of these and other poets, of course, certain themes/assumptions/ways of getting themselves said, but. . .
But this generation of mine seems to be a learned generation, I sometimes think, and the last one to have come to poetry wholly naturally: that is, we are the last poets in America to make our way forward before the great explosion of workshops and creative writing programs across the country. Were there ten such programs by the mid-’60s when I was in graduate school? Are there 300-350 now, and all producing writers hungry to break into print, to find decent jobs by way of their writing? There seems to be a factory, a production line aspect to poetry that there wasn’t before. And many thousands of MFAs, for many different reasons, imperatives of body and spirit, will abandon the craft and sullen art.
In the end, maybe the main difference between a real poem, one meaningful and important, and an exercise is that we have the feeling that the former had to be written, that the poet had no choice. Much of the poetry I read these days from younger poets seems to be going through the motions, gesturing in vitiated ways toward what has already been done with more intensity. But in the end, poets with fire, poets hurt into their singing, will create the poems by which any generation is known.
DB: Do you know Robert Hass’s statement that “the isolated lyric is no longer tenable”? He’s hardly decrying lyric poetry (and he’s one of our finest lyric poets anyway), but he does seem to be highlighting that lyric poetry must do more than offer the chronicling of personal experience, offer more than pretty words. This seems to be very reminiscent of your own comment about “quasi-surrealism” in The Generation of 2000: “It is understandable but tragic that there is so much distracting silliness and indulgence in poetry during this critical point in human history, a time when all life on earth is threatened.” You’ve already touched on this, this dissatisfaction you feel with the state of current poetry, but could you go a bit further here?
Heyen: There I go again. . . I wrote that in the early ’80s. I was scared out of my wits. The ponds and woods in my mind and of my experience were being asphalted over and sprayed with carcinogens. I wanted poets to stop playing and to tell hard truths directly. I still want this, but, again, it doesn’t now seem possible to me that poetry can become some kind of frank inspirational directive that can flat-out save us. It cannot become unbeautiful even in its terrors, so far as I can conceive of it. There are no advances in art, there’s no progress, as John Gardner says. It is and will be at best what the ancient cave paintings are. But how can we, given our dire circumstances now, not ask more of it? Certainly, I’ll keep asking more of myself. Generally I’m not satisfied with most of what I read in contemporary poetry, but this may be my own problem. The writing I connect with — you mention Hass and I think now of Czeslaw Milosz — is in-the-grain aware of devastation, exile, the obliteration of cultures, the evil behind what Paul Celan calls “that which happened.” Maybe every young workshop poet ought to study the slave trade or Verdun or Hiroshima or Auschwitz or My Lai or the great killing fields of Asia for emotional grounding (not necessarily for subject matter, of course) in where we’ve been/what we are. Maybe. The education of a poet is mysterious. Emily Dickinson read little, except nature and her Bible (while Walt read everything). As for me — I’m thinking of Hass’s connection with Jeffers now, and Jeffers, who is more and more important for me, often uses this turn-phrase in his poems. As for me, I believe there is such a thing as high seriousness beyond indulgence — not one unbroken tone of death and despair but knowledge first and then, if it can happen, if it can happen, a miraculous turn to some kind of grounding despite everything. In contrast, the other day in my journal I wrote the phrase “mellifluous blah-blah” to describe what I thought about a couple romantic essays by a friend of mine in a magazine, retrospective, good essays that I’d read years ago but that now seemed to me to be located in some neverland that I recognize because I’ve been there, too — as will be apparent in my decades of essays, called Home: Autobiographies, Etc., coming out from Mammoth Books. But maybe one thing Hass is pointing to is that context is necessary. I think a single lyric remains possible but it will have somewhere in its sounds, its genetic code, the road-side dog realizations of Czeslaw Milosz, of Jeffers, of Tomasz Jastrun in your translation, Dan, Jastrun sees “A silhouette in a window / cut bread with an artificial arm” — his realizations are stark, realistic, and shock us into recognitions that may keep us from becoming part of the problem.
PB: Looking at your opus I’m struck by two things: the breadth of locations, and the intensity of concern — it seems to me that intense dismemberment is one of your themes — exploring the place where identity comes apart. I’m thinking for instance of the last lines of “Darkness” and “Simple Truths” in Erika and of that searing poem from Ribbons about the Japanese soldier.
Heyen: Let me try two new poems on you. The first is “Yes,” and comes from the 1946 testimony of a Holocaust survivor identified for us only as Udell S. in the book Fresh Wounds, edited by Donald L. Niewyk and put out just this year from the University of North Carolina Press:
One of my comrades was working.
An SS man approached him with a gun
and asked him was he thirsty.
Of course he replies, “Yes.” So the SS
called over a second comrade, a certain
Tshernetsky from Bedzin,
and shot him, and said,
“Here, now drink your brother’s blood.”
And here is “Coal” from the testimony of a Kalman E.:
The German said for two people
to fill a railroad car with coal
and for two people to lie on the floor
and be covered. When they were covered
he laughed at us and ordered us
not to dig them up, they should
swim up by themselves, and if they cannot
they can just stay there.
Well, these are witty fellows, aren’t they, these sadists? In how many ways are we dismembered by history? And these murderers are of my blood. If I’d been born in 1920 in Germany or Poland or Romania or Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe instead of in 1940 in Brooklyn I might easily have aspired to the SS and become a man of such wit. And the victims? — at least in my dreams I have often been chased by dogs and heard the sound of gas chambers’ doors clanging shut like a Freiburg Cathedral bell and have been covered by night, that coal. Where is my membership, where is yours? Who are we? We exist in this “dis-.”
These are simple poems, but can’t be heard and known until the reader hears the rhymes in “Yes” of “working” and “thirsty,” of “SS” and “Bedzin,” for example. I don’t mean simply that ideas arise from these sounds like the famous “ices” and “crisis” in Eliot’s “Prufrock,” though they do. I mean that such sounds and echoing rhythms place us within the hypnogogic state wherein meaning and mystery reside, wherein poetry may begin to. . . is this possible?. . . help us to change our lives, to make ourselves other (which is the way I hear that last declaration in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso”). Maybe we do too much talking and not enough swimming. When we give ourselves over to sounds, immerse ourselves in them, we experience, it may be, the onomatopoetic source of sound itself. An “r” or an “l” doesn’t have a particular meaning, a thought-equivalent, but when these sounds are absorbed in the reading of “Coal,” and when the “should”-“cannot” rhyme is heard in contrasting ways, when the “r” sounds come together, then the poem can work in us, survive in us. But, knowing what we must know, can our poems now claw their ways up into air from under that historical coal, or will they not survive, as our planet closes down on us, and just suffocate there? Brady: Those two poems are matter-of-fact, deceptively simple.
Heyen: Yes, straight-forward narratives with no diversion, I think. And this occurs to me: I do not break in in any way and say that these events are bad, evil, but just report them as the survivors reported them, assuming that bad things were done, inhuman things — oh the ironies of that word — and then I count on a compassionate and sympathetic listener, so if my readers are bothered by these two pieces — and not only the first time through — then maybe there is still hope for us during a time when we hear so often that murderers feel no remorse. But maybe I’m just whistling in the dark here, hoping, too, that my poems might be of some use in our evolution toward the power and order that Emerson said was at the center of the universe. But in my secret heart I might most believe in what Yeats says in his modest and accepting “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” that “He has had enough of meddling who can please / A young girl in the indolence of her youth, / Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
DB: Are you concerned about using survivors’ words?
Heyen: Yes, in many ways, and I’ll go into this in the notes to Shoah Train, the new book of Holocaust poems.
DB: Do you worry about the question of “cultural ownership,” of who has the right to write about certain things? I’m not just thinking about your Holocaust poems here, but about Crazy Horse in Stillness. You’re not Jewish, and you’re not Native American.
Heyen: In all honesty, I guess I’ve been concerned about this in my daylight mind, but, for better or worse, I haven’t censored myself when I’ve been seized by a subject or character or story or sound. I don’t think a sculptor or musician or artist or writer who gravitates naturally toward the Other should close himself or herself off. (The metaphor of Dutch Elm Disease just entered my mind, fear of invasion by an alien virus so that the tree quickly shuts itself down unto death.) That seems a kind of suicide to me. In the end, is the work sincere, genuine, responsible, enlightening? I fall back on the old verities of aesthetics. As for me, my books will be the proof of whether or not I’ve lusted after sensational materials or, even if well-meaning, have been a dunce when it has come to understanding the subjects that have generated the poems.
My experiences in writing have somehow been integrated ones, calming. I compose myself as I compose, as I read over, hundreds of times, what I’ve written. But my experience in listening to what is being said out there has often been jangling, disorienting. While one of my daylight anxieties has been that maybe a non-Jew should not attempt a Holocaust poem or book, Karl Shapiro went so far as to write that only a poet with my background could create true Holocaust poems, that I was the poet with the “right credentials” and that my poems were “unmatched.” For a few minutes, I sort of felt that he solved my Jewish problems. Sherman Alexie wrote to the publisher even before Crazy Horse in Stillness came out because he’d seen a flyer that said this white guy born in Brooklyn was the author, and he objected. Later, we exchanged 2-3 letters. When he read the book, he said that he liked the poems but listed 11 or 13 reasons why I should stop writing about Crazy Horse and Native Americans. I wrote back, point for point, 11 or 13 reasons that his reasons seemed to me to be skewed, that he’d better not start sawing off limbs behind him that he’s sitting on. He said he’d pledged to some Sioux that he’d honor their request and never again write of Tasunke Witko. But Leslie Marmon Silko and Joseph Bruchac spoke up for the book, and Adrian Louis too, and for a few minutes I felt they solved my Indian problems. Look, all this is very serious, and it’s not. Is there any reason whatsoever that Silko or Alexie might not be seized by Bergen-Belsen and write something heartbreaking and piercing about it, something that hadn’t been known and said before? Black novelist John A. Williams has a Holocaust novel. Such examples of cross-cultural art are myriad.
This may be presumptuous of me, of course, but I might tomorrow write something about the Jews of Masada-maybe they need me to express something of themselves that hasn’t yet been expressed. I can almost see a man and wife with their children in a cavern where water still trickles in as, outside, the Roman ramp grows toward them. Maybe tomorrow a poem will come to me about the hailstones of paint on Crazy Horse’s chest, washing from him as he rides his favorite pinto. Maybe about the catbird outside my door right now. Maybe about Martin Luther King. Maybe about passages in Raul Hilberg’s The Politics of Memory that astounded me the other day, his musical conception, via Beethoven especially, of his construction of his monumental Destruction of the European Jews. Anything can happen, and, logically, it is easy to reduce to absurdity the argument that an artist must be limited to only certain subjects, that his imagination may be allowed to seize only ideas and stories within his own culture. Sounds are not limited to certain cultures. But tomorrow I would listen respectfully again if Alexie urged me not to write of the Plains or Lakota again. But then I would probably dream again, and the sounds would begin.
Does only my family, or do only German-Americans, own my father, who died a few years ago? Can only we write about him or try to paint him and the culture from which he came to America in the late ’20s? What if his black apprentice or Jewish apprentice in old Brooklyn had thought about him, with gratitude or revulsion, for decades, and wanted to write about him? Could we even say that I would have the better chance of writing a better poem than that other?
PB: Whatever the subject, how is it, do you think, that you’ve been so prolific?
Heyen: I had to laugh the other day when I was reading comments by authors in a book of photographs by Jill Krementz. Joyce Carol Oates said she just seemed to spend her time dawdling and doodling and never getting anything written! But I know her feeling of never seeming to get enough done. Ours is the generation whose parents went through the Depression, with all its attendant fears, and then WWII from Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Germany and then Japan. At ten or eleven each night, just before bed these years, I seem to get very anxious and have to calm myself — some of this anxiety has to do with feeling that another day is done, that I should have worked harder, accomplished more, found some way to make more money so that I could stay out of the poor house.
When I was in graduate school and for several years after that, I thought I was the kind of aspiring perfectionist who would publish a book maybe every five years or so, like James Wright and Richard Wilbur. But I’ve found out that I seem to write as much as William Stafford did. New work keeps showing up in my notebooks. And I’ve often written poems, it seems, in bursts. Once I’m where the lines are coming to me from who knows where, I sometimes can stay there while five or ten poems — though maybe I have to lower my standards to call them poems — show up in a day. Once we’re singing, why stop? And just as Stafford said that he has a clue to forward motion in poetry-at least a syllable or a sound suggesting another, maybe a word or a phrase, and following the poem in this way by nudge and impulse and trajectory — a complete poem will often generate another for me, and then another.
To this point, I feel I’ve written only two fairly long poems, “Poem Touching the Gestapo” in Erika, 100 or so lines, and the new “Iwo Dahlia,” 168 lines. I think of The Chestnut Rain and Ribbons and Diana, Charles, & the Queen, for example, as lyric sequences. Other books hope for coherence and wholeness-god knows I spend an awful lot of time on their arrangement — but are basically collections of individual lyrics. But I don’t know. I don’t want to sweat definitions, genres, the niceties of labels for these various forms we pressure into various lyricisms. Three winters ago I wrote what might become the closest for me to a single book-length poem — it seems to hover in one place instead of growing, progressing, developing. No overall narrative. It has 60-80 sections. It will be called The Angel Voices — from the carol, down on your knees, O hear preceding my title phrase — and I look forward to getting back to it once other projects are behind me.
DB: Speaking of being prolific, you mentioned that you have many more Crazy Horse-Custer poems.
Heyen: Yes, enough for a good-sized book again, and I’ve put together this book, but I think I’d like, if possible, for a publisher to integrate these new poems with Crazy Horse in Stillness and make one bison-sized book. Artist DeLoss McGraw has done a series of paintings in response to my Crazy Horse and Custer poems, and I’d like to have these included, too. In any case, I believe I’m now done writing those poems. But who knows?
PB: Mammoth is publishing a book of your stories, The Hummingbird Corporation.
Heyen: Yes, these stories appeared sporadically over the last thirty years or so. I’ve a feeling that this will be my only book of stories, ever. But who knows? But I like the brief preface I wrote for it. I say, in the third person, that when the writer looked over his stories, what he liked most about them was that, apparently, he hadn’t known how to write them — here and there, plot complication is lacking, character motivation weak, etc. — but that there is something about each of these-most are flash fictions — that endears itself to him. And this is the way I feel about this book. Sure, I include some stories that should be scrapped, some might not even rise to the level of fiction at all, might just be sketches, but I’m fond of this little collection of mine. The guy in the preface says, too, that his other work is not so lonely now that these stories have been published. Most of my family and closest friends — outside the poetry scene — aren’t much interested in my poetry, may in fact even be pained to try to understand it, so it will be a pleasure to give them my new Home: Autobiographies, Etc. — and I think they’ll enjoy and be relieved by The Hummingbird Corporation, too.
PB: You’ve just raised the question of audience. Do you have anyone in mind when you write? That’s one question. The other has to do with the audience for poetry in this country. Are you glum about it, or hopeful?
Heyen: I don’t know if I have anyone in mind when writing. Maybe I have the poem in mind, what it needs, how it wants me to follow it to wherever and not get in its way. In the end, maybe, only that poetry will last that will somehow deepen and ramify the art of poetry itself; and this art, maybe, has to do with something I’ve tried to express here, the transformation of subject matter into inexhaustible sources of language/story/music/spirit. But if I don’t have anyone in mind while writing, when I’ve finished something that I think holds up, I sure do think of showing it to certain writer friends, yourselves included. But I usually don’t get around to this, if ever, until a book is published. For better or worse, I don’t workshop poems with friends. I’ve always felt that I have to become my own best reader, and, as I’ve said, I sure do spend much time — maybe too much time — reading my own poems over and over. But occasionally a friend or editor will help me improve a poem, as Dave Smith helped me with one called “The American Civil War” that appeared in The Southern Review before it got into Crazy Horse in Stillness, for example. In general, I’m fairly stubborn when it comes to minding my business and finishing poems myself. When I was an undergraduate at Brockport, there were no creative writing courses, and I took only one in graduate school at Ohio University, a fiction workshop from Jack Matthews. I’ve just been in the habit of going it alone. I’m not saying that this is the way it should be done, but this is what seems to mesh with my own personality.
Audience. It sometimes seems that there are two levels of poets in America: the famous who have been the Poet Laureate and/or have won the Pulitzer Prize and/or National Book Award, whose books sell from a large publisher with a major distributor; and the rest of us, just getting along in good faith or in desperation, lucky to find publishers so that our books will exist, lucky to get a thousand copies of a book around. The twenty-five or so stars will pack a hall, folks will line up to get books inscribed, Bill Moyers will interview them, anthologists will never leave them out. We others are the underground or compost. Some few of the famous will remain famous, most will join us as the compost of the age, and some of our poets currently without laurels will rise into consequential identity in Time. And all is as it should be. Coming or going, always at home. The older I get, the wiser Jeffers seems to me to be who said that “If God has been good enough to give you a poet / Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead; no prizes, no ceremony.” Jeffers says that a poet is one who listens to nature and his own heart, and that the world’s noise gets in the way of this. When this happens, “Hemingway play[s] the fool and Faulkner forget[s] his art.”
As for me, I seem now to have reached a joyful equilibrium. How could I bear up under more mail, more correspondence, more friendships than I have now, how find time to stare and to live the contemplative life. I won’t name poets of the generation previous to mine who seem to me to have lost much because of their fame — as Frost lost so much — because they were always on the road in one way or another, but there are many.
I’ll tell you though, this question, this conception of audience in a poet’s psyche — nothing will prove to be more complex and influential in terms of his or her life’s work.
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