Adam Tavel: Most poets begin by scribbling timid and feeble imitations of the writers they most admire. Who were some of your earliest influences, and what impact did they have on your sensibility?
William Hathaway: This is a common first question in writers’ interviews, and I’m one of those writers who immediately feel churlishly self-centered and ungrateful for not being able to glibly roll off a list of poetic mentors. It’s like being a kid staring up at the 101 flavors in the ice cream shop, being pressured to pick a “favorite.” “Well,” remarks some peevish grownup, “I guess you don’t like ice cream!” And what significance do first impressions hold in the long run? “Up a misty mountain, down a rushing glen, we dare not go a-hunting for fear of little men.” Did that lilting, little verse “trigger” my “creativity” as I bounced on mama’s knee? Maybe.
For several nights once as a boy, in an effort to train myself in formal prosody, I laboriously scribbled imitations of a Robert Bridge’s poem I’ve since long forgotten, equating suffering with virtue. Fortunately, I was also listening to the distant rock and roll station from Buffalo fade in and out as my brain sweated over diction gone to dust. “Now I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be—bompa-bomp-bomp—bomp-bomp. You’re gonna give your love to me…” It’s hard to explain to younger poets today how important Ginsburg’s “Howl” was in making all sorts of new poetry possible.
In fact, I’ve been overwhelmed by influences. I suspect everything I’ve ever written has been “stolen,” as creative writing workshop prattle calls imitation. I’ve not consciously imitated any poet’s style, though I remember passing back and forth parodies of Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” with my buddy Bill Smock during some particularly dull high school English classes. When an anthology with an old poem of mine in it came out recently, I recognized with utter chagrin a phrase that seemed lifted from a Roethke poem. It’s a deflating feeling, like being betrayed by your subconscious.
Dylan Thomas was the first poet I heard read when I was nine. John Berryman was the second, swigging out of a pocket flask tucked in a knit cozy. Many of the “parent poets” of my time had difficult personal lives, and I knew many of them and assumed many of their sensibilities, both good and bad. Finally, awaking in a dark wood in the midst of our lives, I’ve taken an independent stance regarding poetic matters, not confusing self-reliance as self-sufficiency.
Even a casual reader of your work would notice your critical attention to sound and the aural qualities of your diction. What role does your poetic ear play in your compositional process?
I have two serious disabilities that affect writing poetry: I have a tin ear for melody and I can’t memorize. Long ago in another country when interesting people still asked me to dinner parties, I was seated next to a distinguished musicologist who asserted that he could teach absolutely anyone how to sing. After coaching me for an hour, he said “I amend my statement: I can teach almost anyone how to sing.” I also remember a kindly seventh grade English teacher comforting me when, at the first line of my recitation of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” my mind achieved that absolute vacuum that wise swamis seek after all their lives. “Don’t fret, Kit,” she said, not everyone can be a poet.” Who cared about that? The dismal epiphany was that if I couldn’t learn lines it was going to be hard to be a movie star.
The line is the basic unit of the poem for me. And yes, I like to run a subtle rhyme through a long riff with assonance and consonance. I like muscling syntax in and out of jams. When I give readings, I weave to the beat to the point where my wife’s old boyfriend refers to me as “The Automatic Prancing Poet.” Sound matters—it has to cadence like a poem—and yet increasingly I’ve become a one-note-Johnny. Maybe sound seems like more of a vessel for the sense than it used to.
Can you describe your process? How does a typical Hathaway poem progress from inspiration to publication?
Well, like with Hardy’s “Ruined Maid,” it’s a done-deal for me, and so I never have to worry about getting anything done. I’ve got about twenty unfinished poems in my documents file, and at random I’ll open one and fiddle around with it for awhile. Then a restless ennui with myself overwhelms, and I’ll drive up to the bookstore to talk politics with Nick, the owner, who’s trying to run a business. I move stuff around. I brood on what I meant to say in comparison with what I actually said, then choose and readjust. Writing a poem is like repacking a small suitcase for a long trip over and over. The balance of want and need.
So my poem writing doesn’t progress, really, but poems fall randomly into completion as the little beads in a hand puzzle eventually slip into the little pockets. As long as you keep tilting the thing, drooling in mesmeric absorption. Or not. Most don’t get done. (Miscarry?) Most that do aren’t worth sharing with the world. Poets known as Great because their poems survive in posterity are generally only known by around ten Great Poems out of thousands written. Cows chew grass that grinds and mushes through various stomachs, and then plop, plop, plop. Golden steaming poems. That’s progress. I’m still a liberal, not a progressive.
Many of your narrative poems mix high and low culture. I’m thinking especially of the poems in Churlsgrace such as “Below Houston,” where, for example, allusions to Huck Finn, Hamlet, Bonnie Raitt, and Coriolanus all occur within a few stanzas. Is this a conscious attempt to subvert the pretenses of reading poetry, as well as the reader’s expectations?
No, I don’t think so. Well, maybe more so in that poem. I read somewhere some time ago that this mixing of high and low is a “postmodern” characteristic. Perhaps I should refer again to the legacy of “Howl.” This poem opened up poetry for our actual world, even though most of us never wrote at all like Ginsburg. I regard those narratives of mine as odes in the tradition of those by Wordsworth, Keats, and Robert Browning. Arguments with the self. The narrator of “Below Houston” is having a fevered Under the Volcano experience on a trip to Mexico. He’s all over the map, as they say. I often take on a sort of “anti” voice, but with not a consciously subversive intention.
Much of your work attempts to reconcile the present by evoking, and wrestling with, what we would call the wider intellectual history. I’m thinking especially of poems in The Gymnast of Inertia, such as “Several Estates in North Carolina” and “Anger Among the Primitives,” where boozy, conflicted speakers evoke and ponder Vanderbilt, Zola, Whistler, Beethoven, and Thoreau as part of their own swirling emotional conundrums. What role has history played in your work? Do you feel that poets must invariably confront the past?
“I hear you been talkin shit about my mother!” I confronted History. Then we wrestled about for a bit in the alley next to the bar until the booze got the best of us and we slept in each others’ arms…
Yes, I suppose the “Below Houston” poem was a continuation of boozy personae, jumping anomalously two books forward. Alcoholism made a struggle of life, not any educational category called intellectual history. I think that the poems you mention strive, or yearn, more for emotional sincerity than for an appearance of erudition. As I said before, I’ve always read a lot, and what I read is a living part of my mental experience, but not any intentional abstract literary strategy. I grew up surrounded by real intellectuals, before such people disappeared into the vast middlebrow clerisy, but I’ve never considered myself an intellectual. I suppose I’d be shot as one in a totalitarian purge, but I’d prefer to be thrown in the ditch with the gypsies than the one with today’s eggheads.
Back in the early or mid-nineties I was seated at dinner next to a young philosophy professor at Hamilton College where I was giving a reading that evening. He told me his specialization was Nietzsche, and when I remarked how most people now seemed to get Nietzsche distorted through Ayn Rand, he expressed amazement that I knew anything about Nietzsche since it wasn’t in my area. He’d heard of Ayn Rand. My silent amazement at his amazement has only deepened over the years. I know nothing thoroughly. I’m just a constant, casual reader.
Until 1979, I was the typical drunken campus poet of that era. As one who had to change his life, I’ve had to confront my own past, though I don’t think poets as such need to invariably confront any sort of history. Browning said somewhere, probably in reference to Shelley whom he admired, that poets should confront the misapprehensions of their age. I take that “should” seriously. “Anger Among the Primitives” seems now to me a prototype of a sort of ironic critique of faux-pluralism that I sometimes write these days.
You once remarked that many readers who are familiar with your work regard you as a nature poet/bird poet, yet many of your landscape poems have human figures in them. What sort of connections, or tensions, exist for you between the natural world and the human world, and how does that influence your work?
I suppose we could ask what isn’t nature? And I suppose we could say nature is whatever isn’t us. I think both Pope and Wordsworth agreed fundamentally that mankind is the proper study. I’m certainly interested in the medieval mentality that sees it differently and provides a tension with my own visceral humanism. Jihad is not inscrutable to me. The setting of my life happens to be rural landscape, mostly, and I presume the role of the mind of the scenery—always a mildly ironic posture. That is, always conscious of the presumption. My poem may feature a fox or a chickadee, but the point of view is inevitably human. The natural world I’m watching constantly doesn’t argue for an immortality of what we know as ourselves in this life. It suggests higher power but not eternal life for our personalities. To me, this sense isn’t a howling nothingness but ceaselessly poignant. Besides, animals are more interesting and less depressing to watch than Walmart shoppers or English professors, and humans under eight years old make the best company.
A resonant theme in your poem “Betrayal” (which was published in the October 2009 issue of Poetry) is that it has grown unfashionable for poetry to actually say anything. What is your sense of contemporary American poetry—has it become too ironic, too chic?
A lot of the poems I read in on-line journals like yours [Conte] are quite ironic and glib, and I think rightly so because such irony, flamboyance, and witty sashaying is the provenance of youth. I’m enthusiastic for irony as the literary juxtaposition of appearance and reality, but unequivocal irony is a cynicism that quickly becomes an “unbearable lightness of being.” I was listening to the popularizer of spirituality, Deepak Chopra, on NPR the other day, and I was impressed with how sensible and wise his message is. But then, during a question period, I was struck by how many of his sycophantic followers—those who seem to “own” his philosophy—seem to be desperately seeking a sort of unnatural formula to escape from the tragedy that is life. The negative capability in parable frightens them and so professionals explain the meanings to them so that they can “get saved by accident.”
In this same way poetry has never been more successful in America, or more meaningless. How come so many witty poems are so boring?
Most of the readers and writers of career-oriented poetry belong to a cultural class that finds belief impossible yet nonetheless believes in believing and insist that is what belief is. It isn’t. It’s doubt, but it isn’t Tennyson’s “honest doubt.” So far as I’m concerned, all successful elites since 1980, regardless of ideology, have embraced The Revenge of the Nerds and led the country into The Age of the Zoloft Eaters. My objection to these times—which I am in but not of—is that today’s rewarded poetry reflects the massive misapprehensions of the elite classes without confronting them.
I just read an ad for an MFA program in the back of Poetry magazine that boasts that it “trains you for a career, not just a genre.” Just one small example. How can the poetry of our country return to being a mouth that “makes nothing happen,” as Auden put it in his elegy for Yeats?