Interview with Ernest Hilbert - PART III

Go back to PART II

Ernest Hilbert Bio at the Poetry Foundation


JC: As you’ve been involved with these diverse collaborations—opera, rock and roll, spoken word, film, etc.—have you noticed differences in how you approach writing for these projects? You have garnered support from some prominent institutions and collaborators. How do you see moving forward with this kind of work, particularly for writers and composers who might not have that type of support?


EH: The truth is that I am more or less an independent author. I’m lucky to have a very good independent press that issues my collections of poetry and offers considerable support and worldwide distribution, but it is worth remembering that I did not publish my first commercial collection until I was on the cusp of 40. I’m lucky to have a solid small record label behind me as well, and a backing band. As for the big funding bodies mentioned earlier, they are there for the composers. You’ll see a variety of funding bodies in the front matter of my most recent book, including Universal Pictures, which is surely due to the fact that I have a Los Angeles publisher. It’s good to know that money is out there to help bring art like poetry and opera to the public. It would have trouble surviving otherwise in a purely market-driven society. While I’m on the topic, I have to point out how lucky I am to have the publisher I do. Kate Gale, along with her husband Mark Cull, are transforming the face of independent publishing, in part by bringing the professional sensibilities of commercial publishing—first rate design, marketing and publicity departments, appearances at major book fairs and conferences—with the independence and daring of a small press. They are the ideal publisher, so far as I’m concerned. I doubt any other press would have taken a chance on me, since I’m a bit of an outlier. I don’t fit into the traditional career trajectory of a poet in America and my poems do not resemble those of any major school or group. I’ve always worked outside of systems and movements. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell inscribed a copy of his book Outliers to me as an “outlier” when my wife met him at an archaeological conference. I don’t fit into any recognizable movement or group, though I maintain loose alliances with a constellation of poets, many of whom write in significantly different ways. I believe artists are best when they act independently—I mean not only financially and socially but also ideologically—but, let’s be fair, we all need friends and supporters.


JC: You have mentioned teaching a number of times. What have your teaching experiences been like, and how do you feel the teaching of poetry fits into your work? Is teaching—as it often seems—crucial to the survival of a poet’s work? Does this teaching necessarily need to go on in the university, or are there other options?


EH: You can’t teach someone to be a good artist, but it is very possible to guide and encourage an existing talent. I never had anything in the way of a mentor until I met David Yezzi, who acted as a bit of a big brother and showed me many ways to improve my verse and criticism. Although I have a doctorate from Oxford University, I only started teaching in my early 40s. I teach a summer intensive course on the art of the opera libretto at a master of fine arts program in Colorado, at Western State University of Colorado, up at 8,000 feet. I teach an intense session. It may be the only class of its kind aside from one at the New York Lyric Opera Theater, though I believe that one focuses more on the workshop portion and a bit less on theory. I begin with Aristotle’s Poetics in the Malcolm Heath translation and work through the history of opera while also work-shopping one-act librettos with the students, who have, by that point, been put through their paces in the program, including scansion immersion, metrical traditions, narrative forms of poetry, rhyme, the satirical tradition, public performance. They’re in their third year when they meet me, so they’re already trained in many of the techniques I ask them to use, dramatic emphasis in the recitative, lyric verse forms in arias, and narrative theory for the overall story arcs. The opera libretto is a distinct and unusual literary form, falling between poetry and playwriting, and, while most librettos are simply adequate as literary art, if not merely silly, the genre has produced some true masterworks by geniuses such as Lorenzo Da Ponte and Hugo von Hofmannsthal as well as modern masters such as J.D. McClatchy.


To get back to your question: I genuinely enjoy teaching. I do. I wish I had started sooner, but something tells me that in my wilder younger days I wouldn’t have made the correct impression. One bright spot on the wrong side of 40 is that you’ve learned a lot, or ought to have, and you can speak more authoritatively and persuasively. I think the reason I started teaching was simply because I wanted to forge a closer bond to my father, who was a high school teacher for thirty five years. He passed away over two decades ago. He taught choir and music theory, and his students adored him. I saw first-hand the many ways in which teachers change lives outside of any particular subject they happen to teach. Many people have told me over the years that my father saved their lives. It sounds dramatic, and he always waved such things off, but there’s something to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to help someone that way, but in the meantime I push them to get their stories down for a composer to set to music.


JC: “Domestic Situation” tells a disturbing story. It is a fantastic, brutally funny poem. It manages to be familiar in its form and also shocking in its content and tone. What do you think accounts for its popularity and its place in recent anthologies? How do you achieve such a tone—as in “Domestic Situation” or perhaps “Prophetic Outlook”—where misery and humour simultaneously inflect the highly organised, though deceptively simple idiomatic phrasing, rhythm, and rhyme scheme?


Domestic Situation 

Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe not.
A man came home and chucked his girlfriend’s cat
In the wood chipper. This really happened.
Dinner wasn’t ready on time. A lot
Of other little things went wrong. He spat
On her father, who came out when he learned
About it. He also broke her pinky,
Stole her checks, and got her sister pregnant.
But she stood by him, stood strong, through it all,
Because she loved him. She loved him, you see.
She actually said that, and then she went
And married him. She felt some unique call.
Don’t try to understand what another
Person means by love. Don’t even bother.

EH: Artists are rarely afforded the privilege of deciding what the public embraces. I never would have guessed that “Domestic Situation” would be the one to break through in such a way. In addition to all of the places where it has been reprinted, including some Penguin anthologies, it is also regularly recited by teenagers competing in the National Endowment for the Arts’ series Poetry Out Loud national recitation contest, so it is frequently mentioned in newspaper articles about the winning students. I’ll receive texts on my phone to tell me that someone is attending the semifinals in New York City or somewhere and a student has come out to deliver a searing recitation of the poem. I’m only sorry I’ve never been in the audience to hear it, but I was told one night when I was reading in the West Village that despite my best efforts I will never equal the versions done by these young readers. For whatever reason, the poem resonates with an audience of all ages. I will admit that it is an example of art as provocation. It consists of nothing more than a conversational, deadpan revelation of a horrific situation of a woman abused by a man she loves and can’t leave. The only commentary comes in the note of resignation at the end, “don’t try to understand what another / person means by love. Don’t even bother.” That too is staged. Both the story and the rhetorical conclusion compel readers to question the values of virtues they’ve likely always taken for granted. Are love, loyalty, devotion, and selflessness destructive if taken too far? It’s a terrible thought, of course. It is composed in a deliberately flat, unmusical style, and, like “Prophetic Outlook,” it applies a kind of irony to unlock a psychological dimension to the poem. When I’m asked by audiences or interviewers about how long it took me to write “Domestic Situation,” I reply that there are, actually, two answers. I wrote the poem in probably half an hour, very unusual for me, but it is the final expression of a feeling that had grown in me over many years, a frustration at the willingness of some, perhaps including myself, to remain the subjects of violence, intimidation, and control by self-serving bullies. So, in a very real sense, it took thirty years to write. The demon lover and his crimes are invented, particularly the cat in the wood chipper, which I’m often asked about. That is all invented. I was troubled by a news story I had read of a man putting his girlfriend’s cat into a microwave, and, while my stomach was turned, and I felt a terrible sense of outrage, it must have also sparked something in me that led to this poem. The reason the poem works is that everyone who reads it knows that this sort of brutality exists at all times in the world and always has. The demon lover is familiar to readers of poetry at least since the romantic era, but I took pains to strip away any glamor that might accrue to him. The poem may be the least gothic or romantic one imaginable. It is stark, plain, trailer park, and it is, in fact, funny at times, but I am still a bit unsettled when I look out at an audience that laughs at the lines explaining how he “broke her pinky, / Stole her checks, and got her sister pregnant.” They feel as if so many terrible things have piled up so quickly that it’s comic, almost unbelievable, but they are quickly abashed, because, as with “Prophetic Outlook,” I inspire them to laughter despite themselves. They know better most of the time, but poetry allows all sorts of strange emotions and impulses out into the world. They are left feeling perhaps a bit embarrassed that they’ve been symbolically cast, for just a moment, in league with a loathsome figure. I remember this happening when I read it at the Grolier Club in New York City. I suddenly saw a sea of bow-tie-wearing, bespectacled men chuckling at the travails of this poor, dispossessed woman—well, possessed only by a demon lover. As the poem continued, they went a bit red in the face. That’s what I mean when I mention the psychological dimension of the poem. You turn people on their heads.


Prophetic Outlook

Crooks run the whole world, and the Dow just fell.
Crap rules the airwaves. All your best plans stall.
The air is dirty, and you don’t feel well.
Your wife won’t listen. Friends no longer call.
Sad songs from youth no longer cast a spell.
Cancer research has run into a wall.
Some inflated hack just won the Nobel.
You witness clear signs of decline and fall.
The neighbors are cold, and your house won’t sell.
Your cat has bad teeth. Your paychecks feel small.
Maybe you’re really sick. It’s hard to tell.
Up ahead, traffic has slowed to a crawl.
The world didn’t just start going to hell.
You just noticed for the first time, that’s all.

In the case of “Prophetic Outlook,” the litany of complaints is devised in order to show that the speaker has lost all sense of perspective and therefore moral seriousness. To compare cancer to the sense that your “paychecks feel small” is incredibly petty, and it’s a parody of the type of “the world is going to hell” routine that humans have been uttering for thousands of years. The aim of both poems is to lure the reader or listener into laughing only to realise they’ve been tricked into being callous and insensitive to suffering. “Prophetic Outlook” also ends with a twist, as if the speaker of the poem has recited back one’s complaints and then delivered the knockout of the last two lines: “The world didn’t just start going to hell. / You just noticed for the first time, that’s all.” That allows me to throw the despair into historical relief. It’s actually reassuring to know that people have always suffered and that your complaints are not new. It’s a great opening poem, and to this day I kick off most readings with it.

When I was in graduate school, we would always ask each other “When you sit down to write, what is your imagined audience?” This was all strictly academic, in every possible way, because no one had an audience, and almost none ever would. In a sense, I write for my first readers, who are poets I trust, and on whom I can impose my work privately, give it an airing before it goes out “officially” to an editor or is read before an audience, though I almost never read unpublished poems live. I have enough published work to fill the bill, and I usually wind up changing things a lot before they are ready for publication. I won’t usually show it to an editor until I’m convinced I can’t budge the poem one more millimeter in any direction. Even live performances leave a record. I read a poem called “Kite” when I was a featured reader at Dante Hall in Atlantic City, and that performance was filmed and put online, so the earlier, now mostly extraneous, or let me say still-unformed, poem is out there for the foreseeable future. A far better version will appear in Parnassus. I understand the urge to try out new poems in front of an audience. It’s sort of like when big bands appear under a fake name in a small club before starting a tour, just to get back into the flow. But I don’t do it. I did it once, and now I regret it. When I read reviews of my books, I realise that the subjects that fascinate me are very often ones I share with my wife. She is in the very fabric of my books. Though I’ve managed only a small number of love poems, it strikes me that nearly all of my poems are love poems to Lynn, because they could not exist without her.



JC: From the opening note on the Apollo 8 Christmas greeting, it seems much of All of You on the Good Earth is concerned with perspective: new perspectives on old forms, internal perspectives of the poems’ personae, or I suppose—more grandly—the historical perspective of a contemporary poet looking back over poetry in English, which the collection seems to at once celebrate and poke fun at: opening a sonnet with the line, “I am lonely, of course, hung-over, pale, and fat.” Again, that poem mentions Christmas— "The hardened pinesap cold of Christmas saddens me”—which in our world seems a time for looking back on the year and assessing it. What’s going on here? How are poems—these poems—approaching time, memory, and perspective?


EH: The first poem in the book, “Dusk in the Ruins,” is placed before the first chapter in order to serve as something of a prelude to the book. It’s about confronting memory, the past, history, and it concludes with the notion of gaining strength or vitality from the confrontation rather than being destroyed by it. In the ruins, we see remains of the mysterious Etruscans, who were absorbed by the Romans, who in turn, per Gibbon, brought to their final decline not only by barbarians but the triumph of Christianity. The title poem, “All of You on the Good Earth,” is about our best efforts at perspective failing us, but it is intended more as a cautionary episode than a pessimistic one. It is perfectly natural that our species will dream of better futures while struggling to come to terms with history. It brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s famous “Angel of History,” which he describes with “His face [. . .] turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Christmas comes at year’s end, and you are right to see it as a time for assessment, to count off one’s blessings and failures. It is a very hard time of year for many, partly because of its retrospective character. Another year gone. Another decade, a century, a millennium, we’ve been through all of those in the recent past. What does it all mean? All it means is that we must proceed with awareness, compassion, kindness wherever possible, a sense of equanimity. Of course, how does one act with compassion and kindness toward someone trying to throw him out of his house or take his job? I try to get that frustrating complexity into the poems as well.


A reviewer recently complained that the poems in my latest book are too pessimistic. In a largely complimentary review, she grumbled that “the pall of negativity got occasionally wearisome to this reviewer.” It was good for me to hear that. What some call negativity I call honesty, but, of course, that’s always the way. Maybe I should try to write happier poems in the future, but, speaking of perspective, when one dilates out on any situation the ultimate end is annihilation and oblivion. The moments of beauty and comfort we have are terribly sad to me, because they are merely a brief stay against terror and decline. They are all the more valuable for that, but they are fragile and they are fleeting. Too much perspective probably doesn’t do one much good! Once I was sitting in a deli on my lunch hour watching CNN on a wall-mounted TV in an incredibly depressing back room. Ads that run along the side the whole time aimed at CNN’s daytime demographic. It’s basically tailored to appeal to the enfeebled with offers of disposable catheters, funeral insurance, stair-lift chairs, and mobility scooters. The commercials featured testimonials by aged couples sitting in their tiny living rooms, and I thought “the most you can hope for is to still have the one you love when you’re both old and afraid,” and I moped down Market Street wondering how we can go through the world without being crushed by its sadness and dread, and then I remembered that it is only possible with love, and beauty, which can’t exist without some kind of love. I sat down and wrote a poem called “Funeral Insurance” that afternoon, or at least an early draft of it, in ballad meter. Poems are magical spells that allow us comfort and comprehension when confronting death, love, loss, beauty, fear. That’s what they’re good for. When poets abandon feeling and humanity in their work, I feel they’ve moved away from what I enjoy most in poems, even if their coteries of admirers are politically or intellectually enriched by their experience of the work.


JC: The poem “Infinity” (as it’s read, “∞”) is interesting. Can you tell me a bit about it? What role does chance play in art?


EH: That poem is as much about interpretation as it is about chance in art. “What is the chance that it would fold like this?” How much meaning should one take from signs? There would appear to be a very real, sometimes desperate human drive to find meaning, assign value. This is why we have things like tarot cards (see “PAST PRESENT FUTURE,” which approaches the same idea from another angle) and biblical prophecy (I got enough of that with my doctoral dissertation at Oxford). We like to read the tea leaves. Is any given moment or image meaningful or not? It’s a sticky question. The poem describes a scenario in which a person, walking along a city street, spots a thick rubber band in the gutter twisted to become the symbol for infinity. He wonders what the “chances” are that it would fold like that. Is it something easily explained or is it truly unusual, bordering on wondrous, and isn’t it quite evocative in that shape? The seconds of the day are suddenly opened to nothing less than a vision of infinity itself. Or are they? The speaker is skeptical, but only partly so: “Am I simply naïve?” I wanted to impart the sense of understanding we can achieve when we are drawn out from the daily pressures and routines necessary to our survival and sanity. So this rubber band is doing a lot of work in the poem. “Relieved / Of pressure borrowed from something firm, / It relaxes.” When the speaker walks away, he wonders “Is it merely what I see in the moment?” and “will it keep what it meant?” I believe Robert Frost once said something along the lines of “when in doubt, end a poem with a question.” It’s fitting in this case, because the speaker, and by extension, the reader and author, remain tantalized by great truths but remain frustratingly trapped by uncertainty. It’s a spiritual as well as an intellectual dilemma. Interpretation is valuable, necessary, and potentially maddening. In broad terms, I agree with critics who insist that an artist’s intentions are not entirely responsible for a finished work of art, that it exists in its public reception and interpretation over time, that important structures are furnished almost by accident, almost, but like most people I concede that interpretation can be taken too far, and often is, particularly when it is harnessed to a larger, uncontainable ideology or obsession, or gripe, or axe in need of grinding. Beyond this, there is an almost universal impulse to identify a one-to-one correspondence between a symbol and its world-historical correlative. This is why you have those who over the centuries have seen in certain Bible passages everything from Napoleon’s Russian campaign to nuclear war. The poem under discussion is also really about desire, the yearning for significance, structure, organization. The speaker in the poem wants to take the meaning away, wants to believe he or she has seen something remarkable, something so out of the ordinary that it shines a light on everything around it. By extension, that is what a good poem does as well, so the poem is as much about interpretation as it is an entity to be interpreted. 


JC: I’ve heard you say, for example, that “Panthera” is not about you—it’s about a panther. Where does Ernest Hilbert—the “earnest / Pilgrim”—fit into the poems? “Dusk in the Ruins” really is the way in.


EH: Well, I’m trying to throw everyone off the scent, I suppose. So I’m joking when I say it’s not about me. That’s my clue that it is, in part. Never take poets at their words. The best poets are tricksters. They dissemble and play games. They introduce riddles, and they have done so for centuries. Playfulness and mystery are of paramount importance to good poems. “Panthera” is, in part, about being kept, exchanging freedom for a measure of security. It’s about pent energies. It’s about dwindling life force. It’s about compromise. It’s about captivity. The emotional impulse behind it may have something to do with my life, but that was evident only after it was completed. When the poem was published in Parnassus, the editors remarked that they felt I was quite bold to confront Rilke’s “Der Panther” in that manner. The two poems share much, yet they are instinctually different. For one, I went with the Latin designation, to make it slightly more abstract and also feel more ancient. The editors’ first concern was the poem’s literary lineage and the possibility of a gladiatorial confrontation across a century between the two poems, but I don’t think I felt that way. Beyond Rilke, I had in mind, when I began writing, the energetic panther that appears to replace the moribund, Christ-like human at the end of Franz Kafka’s “Ein Hungerkünstler,” or “Hunger Artist.” Then, as the poem proceeded through the vagaries of composition, the turns and transformations that occur during the process, it became clear that it was more Rilke than Kafka, though there is meant to be something of both in the poem. The panther, though caged, is still dangerous. I wanted to get that across. I was walking through the crumbling old concrete big cat house at the Philadelphia Zoo—since supplanted by a new, more authentic “habitat”—and it was winter, so the zoo was empty. I was in a bleak hallway that led to the tiger’s room, though I did not know there was a tiger there. It already sounds like a fable in this telling. Most of the cages were empty. The great cats were penned in plain, dull cages back then. Before I saw the tiger, I heard his roar, a petrifying, titanic noise that caught me unawares and sent a tremor through to the primal core of my being. Part of me was not aware, deep down, that I was safe, that the force of the killer was under control, but felt I was intruding into the territory of a much more powerful being. It’s one of the most frightening things I’d ever encountered, that enormous sound resounding down the corridors. I was tempted to turn back, almost afraid to confront this tiger! That’s the very germ of the poem. It started with that aspect of lived life, before I saw the larger implications of the cat’s existence, and my own, and, most importantly, by extension, the lives of others. At its root, it is also a meditation on power and its inevitable limitations.



They come to view the creature in its cage.
It clutches its bale, stalks its small square,
Licks its sides beneath rust-blot clouds.
It tamps down a long dwindled pang of rage
In the warm murmur of mid-summer air.
It seethes in sleep before sighing, fleshy crowds.
Why does all this largess feel like a trap?
Fresh meat dangling streamers of clammy blood,
Freedom from the grueling search for prey,
Penned, but allowed to lounge all noon and nap,
Permitted, on rare occasion, to stud,
Growl half-heartedly at bars, but never stray,
Constrained by this contract, compelled to trade
Strength for slow half-life, and weaken in shade.


JC: What is a poet these days? 


EH: This is a tough subject. It’s not a job. People confuse having a well-paid MFA teaching job with being “a poet,” which is why Poet turns up on those lists of the most competitive jobs. It’s actually the least competitive, if you look at how much lackluster poetry gets published. The bar is exceedingly low, but there are not many jobs teaching it, so you get that sense of what it means to be a poet. Garrick Davis, founder of the Contemporary Poetry Review, said to me once, “people younger than us believe that poets are required to have an MFA and teach. We did not grow up with that assumption. They can’t imagine there is any other way to be a poet.” You know, I didn’t think of myself principally as a poet until relatively late. When I was interviewed on WHYY/NPR radio by Marty Moss-Coane, she asked me live on the air when I first thought of myself as a poet, and I realised for the first time, only then, that it was when I was in my early thirties, having written and published poems since my teens, and my friend, the New York composer Daniel Felsenfeld, began introducing me as “a poet.” I liked the sound of it, and we had the good fortune to be in rather rarified precincts where that means something. You meet choreographers, opera singers, performance artists, curators, you think nothing of it. You’re not met with the blank stare. That was New York City. You don’t get that most places. Because one cannot make a living publishing poetry, especially now in the age of the internet, to be a poet is to proudly proclaim that you have devoted yourself to something that has such a small audience, or a large unpaying one, that you can’t support yourself, even in a very low style, by doing it, and you never will. So you take up auxiliary or allied arts, translation, teaching, bookselling. Auden long ago said “It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it,” so it is hardly a new state of affairs. Lord Byron earned so much from a single poem, published as a book, that he was able to buy an estate. But that was a very different time, when reading was restricted to a small class and books cost a great deal more, comparatively, than they do now. Buying the new Byron would set you back as much as a new sofa by today’s economic measure. So, it is, as Auden called it, “a sad fact,” and we must live with it. Most people, certainly in America, identify others by the ways in which they make their money. Oh, you’re a lawyer? He’s a personal trainer. She manages a store. He’s a bartender. Everything else is pushed over into the realm of avocation, hobby, “what you do in your spare time,” and is therefore considered largely beside the point. A man who works as a banker and is as devoted to fly-fishing—to fashioning the lures, to honing his technique, going away to practice his art—as a very serious poet is to verse craft, would never declare “oh, I’m a fisherman” if asked what he “does.” That’s an important distinction to draw, between how we earn our livings and what we live for. I am obliged to admit that I am a poet who makes his living as a rare book dealer. I met a jazz musician after hours in an art gallery in New York back in 2000 who said “if you’re not working in your field, then you’re afield.” He said this to me at a time when I wrote poetry and partly saw myself as a poet but was making my living as a corporate temp while finishing my doctorate. I couldn’t have been farther afield. I was caught looking a word up in a dictionary once, one of those little Merriam-Webster mass market ones that used to sit on most business desks, and was briskly asked by a manager “don’t you have some other things you’re supposed to be doing?” He was right, of course, I was trying to type up a poem on the sly. Poetry is, above all, an aspirational art. The aspirant wants to be dubbed “a poet,” but it’s hard to know just how that works. There is that old designation, a hangover from an earlier age, I think, of “published poet,” as in, so-and-so here is a published poet! It’s an odd boast, and one that makes me cringe. What does it mean anymore? The systems of distribution and dissemination are incredibly scrambled. I might have far more readers for a poem on a website than I will ever get of one of my books. The other thing that happens when one is introduced as a poet, published or otherwise, is that the reaction is either, “I didn’t know that was a thing,” or, “do people still do that,” as if you said you were a knight errant or a squire, or, most commonly, “oh, my girlfriend” or cousin or son or nephew or friend “is a poet too!” You two should get together and talk about it.” As if you shared a rare incurable disease that, while not deadly, is somewhat embarrassing to talk about. If you’re a poet, you just need to deal with the many stereotypes that have grown up around that term, from the high Romantic ideal of a young Chatterton, too pure for this world, penniless in a dingy garret, dead by his own hand, or all the subsets of that, like Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, a combination of conventional ignorance and adolescent fantasy. It’s all boring. Another thing people usually feel compelled to tell you when they find out you are a poet is “oh, I don’t read poetry. I read some in college. It just means whatever you want it to mean.” So, it’s a lonely row to hoe.


JC: This seems to touch on most of what we’ve discussed so far—but tell be about being “Stuck between Grub Street and the Brill Building.”


EH: That line is very specific to that poem, “For ______.” That’s a poem for my friend David Yezzi. In Victorian London, Grub Street was known for its concentration of publishers, struggling writers, and aspiring poets. It was thought a bit seedy. Authors turned out what we would call trashy novels in the standard three-volume style of the day for purchase by lending libraries and readers. George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street is a tremendous examination of the publishing world and the fortunes of writers, particularly the ever present friction between artistic integrity and commercial success, something no less true today. So there’s that sense of Victorian striving, throwing your hat in the ring, “making a go” of it as a writer, a bit hardscrabble, a bit sordid. The Brill Building is near Tin Pan Alley in New York City. It’s where many famous, hummable songs were written. I was trying to capture the sense that we adhere to some older principals, such as the literary tradition, the realities of publishing, while attempting to make our poems accessible to any intelligent reader, after the style of The Movement in Britain, and allow the poems to retain the germ of song, which is the true origin of poetry. It was certainly not meant to be taken to mean too much.


JC: Who are you reading?


EH: That’s a tough question because I try to get through a few books a week, so whatever I’m reading this week would quickly become irrelevant. However, I can point to two over the past year that have had considerable influence on my style: Wallace Stevens and Jorge Luis Borges. They’ve brought me around to a richer, denser sound, pitched high. However, I also read a lot of Frank O’Hara and Larkin at the same time, which brings that tone back down again. It’s like mixing medications. 


JC: Who should we be looking at?


EH: Poets who make new poetry out of old forms, old views, old ways of thinking. Mahler tells us “art is not the worship of ashes but the tending of the flame.” Beware protectionist traditionalists and arrogant avant-gardists both. Look for the small handful of poets possessed of an intellect that does not cloud artistic sensibility, with a musical ear but also a sense of balance and taste, a knowledge of history, literary examples, and lived experience, a powerful emotional nature, a good ear. They won’t be a self-proclaimed movement. They won’t cluster into a collective. It won’t be the obvious ones. But they are there in places no one expects. You just have to listen carefully. That is why we need thoughtful and enthusiastic critics more than ever.


JC: What’s next for you?


EH: I’ll write poems. That’s what I do. It’s one thing that always makes me happy and drives me to despair and yet lures me again. I love to write. I never force it. I only write when I feel the time is right, when I feel right. So I’ll continue to write poetry. That’s the main thing. Every poem is an experiment and a chance at something new, a promise. When I interviewed Donald Hall, I asked him what is best in life, what is the good life. He answered, “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do.” It’s hard to improve on that, even if the thing life has chosen for you, or you have chosen for life, is poetry. 


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