Time and Materials
Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.
CMT: While you’ve been very busy with poetry-related work—translations, a newspaper column, being Poet Laureate—It’s been a long time since your last book: did these poems come slowly?
RH: Sometimes poems come slowly in the sense that I live with them in a dissatisfied condition until I finally get what I was after, or what the poem was after. Sometimes they come very quickly in a first rush, then it takes months for the work of the poem to finish itself. I don’t know that it’s so much that I’m slow but that I’m also very distractible. There was quite a stretch in which I needed some quiet time to look at the work I’d been doing and see if I could make a book out of it, and I was able to do that last fall in Iowa City. It’s very exciting work—it’s kind of like writing poems—trying to put a book together.
CMT: One of the things that has always characterized your work is a real fidelity to the details of the natural world. But in this book, especially in the long poem “The State of the Planet,” there are more general observations about human nature, and specifically the parts of human nature that got us—and our planet—into the mess we’re in. Do those specifics help you see the generalities, or vice versa?
RH: “The State of the Planet” was a particular kind of challenge because it was originally written as a commission; it was the only time I ever did that. A really good way to get stopped altogether is to write “the state of the planet” at the top of a poem that you know is going to be read in front of the world’s foremost climate scientists. I was struggling to find a form, and it seemed appropriate to try to write with a certain kind of directness. In some way the form was an essay form, and that led me to think about Lucretius, and his poems, and then the whole tradition—not exactly of the didactic poem, but the kind of poem that Virgil wrote that gives agricultural advice, his Georgics; it’s like a georgic poem. So now that we’ve become willy-nilly the gardener-caretakers of the whole planet, I was able to do it by thinking of it as that kind of poem. It’s not where I’d want to go all the time, but I gave it a shot.
CMT: The years these poems are dated on the cover of the book—1997-2003—were particularly fraught; a lot of bad things happened. Did you feel responsible for taking those events on in the book?
RH: I felt like they were on my mind, and in San Francisco, where I live, there’s no shortage of poetry commenting on current affairs, and there’s no shortage of moral certainty and self-righteousness, so it’s not like there was some vacuum I needed to fill. Watching my country stampeded into this senseless war was tormenting. I found myself thinking about war in general and violence in general. Because of the invasion of Iraq, the subject of violence and war—also because of Czeslaw’s death: he always complained about the fact that he had to think about violence in the 20th century—was on my mind. It quite naturally became subject matter to wrestle with. That said, I’ve always had the feeling that political poetry is pretty much doomed. Emily Dickinson wrote the greatest poems written during the Civil War, and they’re mostly about having her feelings hurt by her sister-in-law.
CMT: Was the feeling further complicated by having just been Poet Laureate?
RH: Not really. It didn’t feel like “having just been Laureate”—it was some years later. What I did feel was that in 2001 when everyone was writing poems about that violence, I didn’t quite understand why, when a few really sick fanatics managed to kill a bunch of people acting out some bad disaster movie scenario, it moved everybody to patriotic poems. I felt just as patriotic before and just as patriotic after. Something happened—some kind of wounded narcissism about the country was a secondary explosion of that thing, and it’s led us in a disastrous path. Also knowing that poets have no particular authority with which to have opinions about world affairs, I found myself in some of the poems thinking about that, and while putting the book together found myself thinking about how to put public and private together. That was for me an interesting part of the process.
CMT: And, on a lighter note, what would it mean to you to win the National Book Award this year?
RH: You know, I so much admire the other poets that I’m going to feel great no matter who wins—almost all of them are really old comrades in this art, so I feel very easy about that whole business.
Craig Morgan Teicher's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Bookforum, and Poets & Writers. His first book, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and is due out this November. He works as an editor at Publishers Weekly.