Interview with Poet Harry Humes

harry-humes BWPennsylvania is teeming with exceptional poets. One of my favorites, and one of the first poets I connected with, is Harry Humes. I was first introduced to Harry by Dick Savage, a professor in the English Department of Bloomsburg University when I was there in the 80s, who also served as an informal mentor to both of us  (though many years apart). While at BU I met Harry at a writing festival at nearby Bucknell University, and we’ve met up and corresponded from time to time since then. We both share a love of the wilder places in Pennsylvania, particularly the state’s mountains, rivers and streams–which we both stalk with fly rods for trout.

Harry earned an MFA in poetry at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 1967. He taught in the English dept. at Kutztown University, and currently teaches a fiction writing class at Cedar Crest College.

Harry’s work has been featured in numerous journals and the Best American Poetry 1997. He’s been awarded a Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize, National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Devins Award and others. For many years he also ran the poetry journal Yarrow.

What is it about revisiting past events that they become triggers for your poems?

I think mine live inside of me. That’s to say that Girardville is always there. It doesn’t drag me down; it’s just rich. Growing up in a place for 20 years, everything you know, everything you found out about, you learned one way or another in the first 20 years of your life. All the important stuff is there. I didn’t think I was paying a whole lot of attention to things when I was growing up, but obviously I was paying attention.

As poets, we’re consciously paying attention to things, looking for material, but as kids you don’t think that in 20 or 30 years these events will become poems. Is recreating past events and details a challenge? Is there embellishment?

Oh yes, I make things up a lot. I start with something that happened, but then sometimes I lose interest in it, so I start inventing things about it and other people. I’ve imagined a lot of things that didn’t happen but could have happened.

Girardville was a wonderful place to grow up for a kid, but it was also very dramatic and dangerous. The mines were there, the mountains… we just roamed around like crazy. My mother had to worry about her husband going out to the mines every day. So anyway it was profoundly there. I didn’t think about it for years… I had some dead-end jobs and then got drafted, and when I got out of the army and went to school and began thinking (and that’s when I met Dick Savage) that maybe I could do something with that experience. But I didn’t starting thinking about the coal mining poems, the father poems, until many years afterword and started mining that material for poems. I had been writing about fishing and nature, girlfriends and so forth. But later the town became central.

I lived in the coal valley, and it was torn up. There were trucks and trains and so forth, but right over the mountain I could hike out of my valley over the top and down into this agricultural valley. There was a clean trout stream running through the middle of it, and it had fields. And there was no coal mine. Sometimes I’d fish or sometimes I’d just mess around, and then I’d hike back over the mountain back to my valley. So this gave me two landscapes. I had the coal mining landscape and the other landscape. Those two are my dominate landscape, and the people in them. So I’m constantly in nature. Dick and I talked about this a lot, that what we find in nature is more than pretty flowers; it’s something else. He introduced me to Wordsworth and Blake and the others early on.

You mention the dangerous and dark environment of the mining valley and the green and light farming valley. I noticed a lot of duality in some of your poems? Was that an approach you established early in your writing?

It took me a long time. After Bloomsburg I went to the University of North Carolina and the MFA program. I thought then I’d bitten off more than I could chew because these guys [the other students] had been writing for a long time. But I developed a whole lot in those two years. It took me forever to learn how to do it. I tell my students don’t even think about doing anything serious for the first 10 years. Gerry Stern used to say “read a hundred books, then write a poem.”

Process? It just sort of happened. It just poured for about 15 years. Something became unplugged. I think something in me knew not to get to the good stuff until I was able to write about the good stuff. Then they all came out. Over a period of 15 or 20 years they all came out. Now I fiddle around. I didn’t think too much about process. For a while I thought about writing in form. I wrote in form and meter and rhyme and published some, but then went back to the free verse stuff and never looked back.

Talking about beginnings, middle and ends–endings have always been hard for me, they still are and come harder now than they used to. Metaphor was always there. When the plug got pulled there was a torrent of metaphors and imagery.

I’ve never been quite sure when I’m writing a poem what I’m doing. It’s like fishing. You know what you’re doing because you’ve been fishing in the water and you see things in the water… but I write, and then things have an instinctive way of happening. I’ve started poems about one subject and they morph into something else, because something in the poem said change the subject. And it’s like that with endings. I’ll get near the end, but it might take me another week or two to come up with the right lines to end it. It’s like looking at a piece of water and just knowing there’s a fish in there. All you’ve gotta do is just fuck around long enough to get him out one way or another.


Butterfly Effect, a 1998 National Poetry Series selection.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Every now and then I’ve tried to write a sequence of poems, and I’ve never been able to do it. I get two or three poems out in the sequence, but then it starts to fade. I lose interest. Poems come to me from nowhere. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for why they turn up. I’ll be looking at a corn field and something will come to me. It’s often about wherever I happen to be.

I was fishing on the Little Lehigh last night and had a good hour and a little sulfur hatch, and I put on a comparadun fly, and so there I was fishing and thought, “This is pretty nice. Maybe I’ll write a poem about this.” and then I thought “don’t write another fishing poem.” So poems just happen. I don’t go looking for them. Sometimes I think I’ve got two sets of eyes. One is for living and one is for looking for poems.

A lot of your poems deal with some work or craft, someone building something or working with tools. Is because those are part of the memories or preserving something of a lifestyle we don’t really have anymore?

I have things in my room here that belonged to my father. I use his hammers and saws that he never let me use as a kid. I have a poem now that I’ve been playing around with about a cellar door. It was the house in Girardville and inside the door were the knee-high mining boots that he used to wear. So yes, tales like that I love to bring into poems. I try to get my students to think of things. We live in a world of things, and that’s what makes a poem alive for me.

Many of your poems have a journey—hiking to a swamp or crossing a mountain—that can seem almost mythic. Are you using these places as vehicles to explore an inner world as well?

Sure. I think anyone who writes does that. I did a poem last year called Climbing the Wall. We used to a lot of climbing on the slate walls after the coal had been taken out. It was very dangerous. I had to climb over those walls in order to fish in the valley on the other side. So I played around with that.

Anyway, sure, swimming, hiking, the journey metaphor is there. The other day we were up on Hawk Mountain, and the journey of the hawks is always quite stirring for me, so I wrote a poem about it of course. You go from here to there, and that’s our life.

When it comes time to assemble a collection into a book, what do you consider when deciding what to include and how to order it?

I’m in that process now. I have about 50 poems that I didn’t think were going to go anywhere and over the last couple of week’s I’ve been looking at them and thinking maybe they could be a book. So I’m looking at them again, and eventually I’ll get around to putting them all over the living room floor. Again, it’s instinctive. It’s like writing the poem in the first place. I know the way the poems should come together, I know what I’m looking for, but I don’t know that I know. The hardest one was my first one, Winter Weeds. It’s a long process, and I’ll probably spend another six months deciding what poems I want to keep and what I want to throw away. You have to make hard choices sometimes. If there’s the least little thing I’m not satisfied with in a poem, I put it in the maybe pile. It’s like knowing there’s a little misfire in a motorcycle engine—something isn’t working. I don’t think in terms of a collection when I’m writing. I think of the poem.

You can purchase books by Harry Humes here.

Happy Frank Stanford Day

ImageWhen I was in grad school in Bowling Green, Brian Ownbey introduced me to Frank Stanford. The 1991 collection The Light the Dead See had just come out. It contained selections from most of Stanford’s books. At the time no other book made a greater impact on me. Today is his birthday.

Here’s an article at the Poetry Foundation web site all about him.

10 Favorite Poetry Books from 2011 Plus Something Else

This is the time of year in which people make lists. I’ve already done a few of these  Best of … etc. stories for my day job, but here’s my poetry list for 2011. You’ll notice that many of these books are not new, but they were new to me this year, which is good enough for my list. You may also notice some themes here. Pennsylvania poets are over-represented because I like supporting people from my own state. We grow damn fine writers here. In addition, you may notice that I have some kind of connection to several of the authors here for a similar reason to the above trend—I like to support the writers I know or have met in person. Poetry is a hand-to-hand business, so getting to meet or know many writers personally is a wonderful benefit.

The Devastation by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Cooper Dillon Books)

“I have sawed through my sorrows

Like a jeweler would facet quartz.”

I came across this book by accident. After reading one of Essbaum’s poems in Poetry and hearing her on a JP Dancing Bear podcast, I noticed this chapbook on a list of titles available at Cooper Dillon (I was preparing to send them my manuscript). Rather than charge a reading fee, Cooper Dillon asks submitting authors to purchase a book. The editors rejected my manuscript, but the wonderful little book was worth it anyway This was a bit of an odd book, and it took me a while to get into the motions of the poems, but once the flow set in and the sort-of narrative began to unfold for me, I found myself liking this volume very much.

The Beds by Martha Rhodes (Autumn House Press)

“           This is a dare-not-

venture-into place

and so persists, tannic and idle”

I heard her at a Bucks County Community College reading. Like Essbaum’s book, The Beds is an entire story, or multiple related stories, strung together in a sequence of poems. They’re mostly short lyrics with sharp edges and piercing language. You haven’t read anything like this before.

Show and Tell by Jim Daniels (University of Wisconsin Press)

“Let’s taste the moon’s

clean white meat.”

Here’s another Pennsylvania poet (from Pittsburgh) and also a fellow Bowling Green MFA alum. This collection brings together many of Daniels’ Digger poems plus lots of other great works, many based on a working-class mythology plus poems about family and modern domesticity, all with a subdued and lovely word craft.

Spit Back a Boy by Iain Haley Pollock (University of Georgia Press)

“And all our sadness will be old Arkansas,

rural and misspoken, its roads smudged

by the fog’s blue prints,”

Here’s another writer I met at a Bucks County Community College reading, and he’s also local to the Philadelphia area.  The voice and style varies a lot in this collection showing broad influence, but overall there’s a richly dynamic use of language in here. This collection contains one of the most moving poems I’d read all year: Blue Note 53428. If you only buy one book on this list, buy this one.

The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke (Stephen F. Austin University Press)

“           There’s always an excess that wants let loose.

For example, what are your bedrooms downhill from?

Each and every one of you live below something,

Even if it’s simply a cloudless, benign sky.”

This Pennsylvania poet, from Selinsgrove (Susquehanna University) works in a mostly narrative mode, but I like the more lyric poems in this collection best. I’ve met Fincke a few times (he was one my sister’s teachers 20 years ago), once or twice at readings, and then just a few years ago when I sat in on a session he taught at a writers’ conference.

Gravedigger’s Birthday by BJ Ward (North Atlantic Books)

“As children we learned our shadow

is a darkness we never totally shake”

I picked up this book at a writers’ conference in November after taking two sessions conducted by the author. There are fantastic poems in this collection, mostly focused on family and the speaker looking back at a sometimes troubled childhood. There are marvelously insightful poems here, but more than that, there’s the writer’s masterful use of the poet’s tools. This collection is from 2002, and I certainly hope there’s a new one soon.

The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Transtromer/translater by Robert Bly (Graywolf Press)

“It’s like the child who falls asleep in terror

listening to the heavy thump of his heart.”

I don’t know why it took a Nobel prize for me to pay attention to Transtromer. I wish I’d started reading him years ago—but better late than never. It’s no wonder Robert Bly was attracted to translate these—they share a lot of his love for personal mythologies. What interests me most are the rich images and dynamic use of contrasts and tone shifts. As a person with some Swedish heritage, I should be doing a better job of supporting poets form the motherland.

Holding Company by Major Jackson (Norton)

“Whichever way our shoulders move, there’s joy.

Make a soft hollow noise. We’ve our own hourglass

and no one else to blame.”

This collection actually took me a while to warm up to. I’d read many of his poems in journals over the years, but Holding Company offers a completely different kind of poem than what I was expecting. I later learned in an interview that the shift was intentional. Anyway, these poems, somewhat based on the sonnet form, can be surrealist, and lyric, and sometimes difficult to approach, but most exhibit a wonderful inner logic and gorgeous revelations.

Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me by Stanley Plumly (Ecco)

“           The last thing you want to hear is

the sound of your own worn heart. It has a signature,

a silence, like a voice or fingerprint, the heart

line of a the graph the abstract of a mountain range”

I bought Plumly’s collection Boy on a Step years ago when it first came out and loved it then. I came across this 2000 selected book in a used bookstore in Doylestown PA a few months ago and had to snatch it up. Plumly’s richness of language is up there with James Wright, Richard Hugo and Robert Lowell.

When You Become Snow by Doris Ferleger (Finishing Line Press)

“What will I do with all this Splendor you left me?”

I loved Ferleger’s first book, Big Silences In a Year of Rain (reviewed here), but this collection is even better. Much of it follows the path of loss and grieving, but the poems are not given up to that. Ferleger’s poems completely own their subject matter and their worlds and exhibit a power and directness that’s really stunning. When you read this, turn immediately to page 14 for For Example.

Poetry In Person by Edited Alexander Neubaur (Knopf)

This is not a book of poetry, but rather the transcripts of classes conducted by Pearl London at the New School in which her guests were some of the most important poets of the 20th century. London died in 2003, but her recordings of the classes were discovered and turned into this amazing book. Each class begins with the guest poet talking about one of his or her recent poems, and then a Q&A discussion follows about how the poem evolved. Sometimes we even get to see multiple drafts of the poem. Included guests are Maxine Kumin, Stanley Plumly, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, C.K. Williams … it just goes on like that.

 Also, I hope you add my book, The Trouble with Rivers, to your favorites of 2012. You can get it here or directly from me at upcoming readings or workshops which I’ll announce on this blog.

Reading List: Stanley Plumly

I’ve had Plumly’s “Boy on the Step” on my bookshelf since about 1990, but it had been years since I gave it much consideration. My own interests and aesthetic tendency’s have changed a lot since then, so I’ve been recently going back to books I’d abandoned long ago. This book has been one of the more rewarding re-discoveries for me.

Consider this last few lines from Fountain Park:

”                                          all kinds of things

pass witness and are true about this last

light of day coming onto winter,

the trees almost transparent in the dark,

the high grass green as lawns in the hereafter.”

And here’s a more recent one published in the New Yorker last summer:


by Stanley Plumly July 12, 2010

Mine, I know, started at a distance

five hundred and twenty light-years away

and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,

Continue the poem here

And here’s a video of Plumly reading Infidelity, one of the most startling poems in the book.

Now that I’ve gone back to this book, I’ll have to check out his newer works.

Vote for Your Favorite Author

As part its National Book Festival, the Library of Congress is sponsoring an online contest for America’s favorite author. You can cast your vote here.

As of this writing Diana Gabaldon is in the lead, with Neil Gaiman coming up second.  The first poet on the list is Pulitzer prize winner Rae Armantrout in the number 10 spot. I love Gaiman’s books, but he’s not even American (he does live in Minnesota).  How about more poets people? On this list there’s Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Li Yung-Lee, Linda Pastan, Molly Peacock, Charles Simic, and a few others. I cast my vote for Kooser.

So far it looks like neither Laura nor Jenna Bush have attracted many votes–but there are still those hanging chads to worry about.