On February 1 at Musehouse in Philadelphia Hayden Saunier and I will be reading from our new books. You should go. There will be snacks and wine. And poems too. And books for sale. And people to talk to.
I wrote this on New Year’s Day 2013, I think. The day before I’d spent a few hours hiking around Peace Valley Lake in Bucks County, so that’s where some of the imagery began.
New Year’s Day
The woods smell like good dogs
in the rain, walnuts and acorns cracked
and crunching under boots, the kind
of light that comes like notes
in music, rests where it needs,
holding onto bare bushes or
the cracks in fallen trees.
It’s not the rot and rhythm
of woods that’s right,
the lie of snow against water,
a shifted step from stone to stone
and the life he thinks he lives.
The trail is wide and flat
with rocks he names for dogs
he knew, dark hackles raised to the light.
Pennsylvania 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.
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.
I have a new (actually it’s kind of an old) poem published at Heron Tree. It’s nothing about herons or trees. The idea came from a story I heard about a family in Charleston during a yellow fever outbreak. Don’t get too hung up on the facts.
You can read the poem here. Many thanks to the folks at Heron Tree for selecting it.
And here’s a heron photo, shot at Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County PA.
Click this link to read it.
Frequently while reading Miriam Sagan’s latest poetry collection, Seven Places in America, I was struck with waves of jealousy. The book is constructed around her journeys and residencies at what, at least through her writing, must be some of the most wonderful places in the country for a poet to meditate on things great and small. This is especially true for a poet like Sagan, who has an affinity for the more rustic or natural places.
Some of these places were official writers’ retreats, while others were just places that accommodated her, and she accommodated them. Either way, she made the most of these visits, as good writers can, by using the foregrounds and backdrops as gateways for her poems to pass through or stretch out within. Her poems ride “the boat of the mind/that floats on air” tacking through waterways looking for purchase. When they land on hard ground, you know it, as in “10,000 Islands,” part of a series titled Ever/Glade (which, incidentally, made me think of Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia.
I longed for departure
As if it were love
As if it would take me out
Of myself, of my accustomed way—
Sandbar of white pelicans
Lifts off, wheels into the sun
Silver flash of fish before the prow
Maze of low islands, one after the other,
to open water.
Do you see what she did there? The very quiet leap from the silent meditation of longing for departure to the dramatic scene of birds rising and a boat rushing among islands. For me, these poems are at their strongest when she uses her environment as the A in an ongoing Q & A with themselves.
While I found poems to relish throughout the book, I think my favorites are in part V, which were written at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. Maybe being a Pennsylvanian drew me to these poems as they describe scenery very like my own home.
In the first poem in that section, Sagan uses, with dramatic effect, the refrain “body of” in a chant-like list of things you might find in any eastern woodland.
body of liberties
body of knowledge
body of research
body of principals
That’s fun, as are a lot of the poems in this book. You can feel the author’s delight coming off the page. At the same time, there are also haunting moments, such as in “Tree House,” where the speaker reflects in attendant language (“The creaks and meows of night,/Shadows of the copper beeches.”) on the material landscape of a childhood while simultaneously acknowledging the psychological landscape.
There were moments I thought the poet may have fallen into her own traps—pushed a metaphor a little too far, took the readers’ trust for granted, but then come moments of wonderful self-awareness, as if she knows where she’s taking us and is grinning a little inside, like here, in the poem “Stone Quarry Hill”:
If this poem were Chinese
I’d say my hair is gray (which it is)
And that I haven’t heard
News of you in a long time.
If I’m being played, I’m OK with it. Even when she asks “Why must inspiration be a vista?” you know she knows the answer is more complicated than that. “An inner self/that also shifts shape” is the visita we’re really meant to contemplate: “how what we ignored or couldn’t explain/remained in plain view.”
In April I’m traveling to Missouri for the 2013 Missouri Writers’ Conference. I’ll be teaching two sessions there, a one-hour session called Core Issues and a longer, three hour, session called Building Trustworthy Poems. You can learn more about and register for the conference here.
To help promote the confernence, Margo Dill conducted an interview, which you can see here.
These two videos were recorded at a Mad Poets’ Society event in Media PA in 2012.
More about Harry Humes here.
One of American’s most beautiful poets, Jack Gilbert, has passed away. He was 87. He is easily the most important poet to me as a reader and as a writer.
WAKING AT NIGHT
The blue river is gray at morning
and evening. There is twilight
at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
wondering if this quiet in me now
is a beginning or an end.
(from The Dance Most of All)
Some links below:
Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining a fantastic group of poets reading at the 25th annual (wow–25 years) Mad Poets Festival in Media PA. An impressive crowd of poets attended and read, including Joseph Farley, Leonard Gontarek (and his teenage son Max), David Kozinski, Allison Hicks, Peter Krock (editor of the Schuylkill Valley Journal) and many more.
A highlight for me was seeing Daniel Hoffman, the nation’s first Poet Laureate (before the title had that name) and winner of the National Book Award. He’s 89 years old,turning 90 very soon, and read a poem about that at the festival (see video below). I mentioned to him before the reading that I’d recently been reading his book The Center of Attention and was actively stealing ideas from it. His 14th book of poems is soon to be released.