An Interview with Charles Hood

south pole sign hood

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Poet and photographer Charles Hood’s most recent book, South x South, based on a trip he made to Antarctica in 2011, has just been published by Ohio University Press (2013). Jordan Davis, poetry editor of The Nation, writes the following of the book: “I like to think the poems and prose in Charles Hood’s brief account of his residency at McMurdo Station are a sneak preview of the first literature we’ll actually make in outer space.” Hood lives in Southern California. I interviewed him this past week.

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TAFARELLA: You’ve written eight books previous to this one that are also based on strenuous travel (India in search of tigers in the wild, Africa in search of rarely seen birds, etc.). And now, apparently because there are no flights out of Los Angeles to the moon, you’ve gone to someplace very like the moon, Ant-fricken-arctica. Most writers manage to stay home. How does travel relate to creativity?

HOOD: Flights to space go for $200,000 at ticket. I knew I should have gone into banking, since we teachers just can’t afford that. Santi, in our lifetimes, “regular people” (well, regular rich people) will be going to space. Isn’t that cool? Wouldn’t you want to go, just to see the view? So far, when I think back, I don’t regret any of my world travel; I just regret the places I didn’t know I needed to rush to get to, like K-2, in Pakistan. The Baltoro Glacier area looks like Yosemite but with cliffs twice as tall. In college, hitchhiking around, I never imagined that it wouldn’t be safe, as a Westerner, to travel there. If I had known, I would have gone there first, put off my trips to Alaska until later. Now it’s too late.

The larger issue for any of us is what generates ideas, where do images come from, how do we manage to dislocate our sensibilities so that we see and hear the world fresh. Perhaps it’s playing into the myth of Romanticism, but I think when I saw the stone figures on Easter Island in person, that did something tangible that nothing on TV provides.

Just to give one example, the habitat is so utterly ruined on Easter Island that other than a few distant seabirds seen from cliffs, the island has no birds. Most places, even downtown Los Angeles, you can see ten kinds of bird: pigeons, sparrows, crows, and so on. On Easter Island all that had been native is gone, and hardly even any regular European house sparrows have been able to fill in the gaps.

TAFARELLA: The first two sentences of poetry in South x South are these: “Good place to meet dead people, / Antarctica. White like a hospital.” You then recount your father’s death in a hospital. When you wrote this, were you conscious of the Hamlet allusion? Is your persona in this book meant to be that of a newly fatherless man speaking from a “sterile promontory” (Act 2 Scene 2)?

HOOD: Is this the part where I say you’ve taught literature too long? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But yes, I too teach Hamlet, so the quotable lines are set into my imagination like radioactive fishhooks. More than that, for many of us, as we reach upper middle age, dealing with the decline of our parents remains an under-discussed burden. For my book Peyruis, thinking my father was stable, I had gone to France to work on some research. He died while I was abroad, and in fact, labor strikes meant that I nearly missed the funeral. By the time I went to Antarctica with my National Science Foundation grant, the reality was that both of my parents had passed away after some very difficult final years. Behind the grief, part of me was glad: finally, now, I could begin to get my life back.

As far as Antarctica itself, my late father would have said I was nuts to go. He fought in World War II and that was all the foreign travel he ever planned to do. It often feels that much of my current NPR-listening, world-traveling, art-appreciating life is a de facto repudiation of how I was raised. That’s liberating and yet guilt-inducing. That may be why I still go to church, and why in restaurants I order meatloaf.

TAFARELLA: I also thought I detected a Hamlet allusion in the title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” Act 2 Scene 2). Is the title alluding to that or something else? Perhaps a contrast with something in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (which is itself a Hamlet reference)?

HOOD: Titles are tricky things, and in planning this book, I made a list of more or less the title of every Antarctica book published. It is super hard not to be cliché. With this book’s title, we worried about the movie allusion, which I don’t particularly like, but the press and I (and the other writers I checked with) all felt that the “x” was too lovely to give up.

Pronounced aloud, it means “by,” but doesn’t it also look algebraic? “Please solve for x.” And in formal biology, you indicate hybrid species with an x between the Latin species names. As a math problem, if you multiply some amount of south by some further amount of south, what would the product be?

In my own work, my next favorite title is Xopilote Cantos, taken from an indigenous word for vulture. I would love to do a few more “x” books before I die. I guess I should cut back on the meatloaf.

TAFARELLA: The cover photo of a fuel line snaking across snow to a plane on skis is stunning. Context?

HOOD: It shows an Air National Guard LC-130 offloading fuel at a research camp. I took that at a place called WAIS Divide, which stands for West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Now we are, as the Australians would say, really in the back o’ Bourke with this one. Funny thing is, you get there in a belly of a cargo plane that’s not all that cold inside. Let’s say for the flight across Antarctica, you’ve spent five hours at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to outside, that’s really warm. You take off after standing around in the open air on top of ice and you will land on ice, but in between, you’re inside a moderately warm cargo plane and so in all your gear, you’re too hot. So you take off some of your layers, your mittens, the three kinds of balaclava.

On that day, after many hours, suddenly we were down and I had to rush outside in a hurry, so crew could unload. In my flustered haste, I had left some of my discarded gear on board the plane, so I was trying to get this shot and it was 20 below zero. What an idiot I was. All this great winter weather gear, but there I was, freezing my cannoli off.

The thing about book covers your readers may not appreciate is how they represent a three-way wrestling match. The author has her or his notions, editors and book designers theirs, and perhaps the marketing department, theirs. Of that chorus of squabbling, usually the writer gets listened to least. Somebody I know wrote a book about home horse care yet the cover photo features a fat, out of shape horse. Needless to say, it’s not a choice she would have signed off on voluntarily.

I love Ohio University Press for letting me go with this cover, which to my mind, matches the text exactly. I did give them other ideas of course, but we had a strong consensus to go with this. I just hope the rest of the book is as good as the cover art.

TAFARELLA: At one point in South x South you write the following: “1783: How quiet and still the people on the ground / seemed, said the first people to rise / in balloons. Quiet as milk.” Would you say this book is about something lofty or something messy? Is that milk in a glass or spilled?

HOOD: The British explorer and hero (and martyr) Robert Falcon Scott had tried to use a balloon in Antarctica, failing in part I think because he didn’t have a head for heights, nor the vision to understand how elevation could help topographical research. He just didn’t like it. To write about that moment caused me to go back and study the history of hot air balloons, and to realize how noisy flight is for the rest of us now. I have flown in a glider in the Eastern Sierra in late fall, with crystal air and views from Mt. Whitney out for a hundred miles. Not only was it ecstatically beautiful, but above all, it was silent. I envy that stillness, that peace, often long to recreate it. Helicopters, ultralights, very small planes like the one photographer Michael Light has taken me up in—these offer delicious and haunting experiences, but still, we don’t have the silence. Icarus was luckier than he knew, even counting in the final end.

TAFARELLA: Ezra Pound famously wrestled, emotionally and intellectually, with Walt Whitman. What poet or poets from the past are you Jacob-wrestling with? Who do you hate? Who would you like to surpass?

HOOD: You may be teasing me, since you know that I still think despite his obvious moral failings as a human being, Ezra Pound has a much more ambitious plan for literature than does Eliot or Frost or Wallace Stevens. Pound’s ear was so true and so subtle it makes e.e. cummings seem tone deaf by comparison. Gertrude Stein said that Pound was just a village explainer, which was fine if you were a village, but if not, not. She was on to something, of course—his anti-Semitism was and is deeply repulsive, and his economic theories verge on conspiracy theory whacko—but if you go back to the Pisan Cantos, written in a detention camp as harsh as Gitmo, what he achieves musically has no equal. There’s no other way to say it other than to say he had a very, very, very good ear—on par with Shakespeare or John Dunne.

Yet I can’t write for the people we teach in our classes or even who you discuss in this blog. I am not trying to beat Ezra Pound. Sure, I appreciate that for you, Prometheus is not only unbound but part of a present-tense continuum from the Greeks to the Romans to Helen Vendler to your syllabus. Intellectually, that’s true for me, too. Yet when I come to language, I have to write in the cadence of my own time: I am not part of the 1920s Parisian cafe scene, no matter how many times I watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Think of it like anthropology. Even though you know that the Maori men in New Zealand have fabulous facial tattooing, tattooing that you admire and make no negative judgments about, when your daughters get married, you’re going to wear a suit and a boutonniere, not a toga, a war bonnet, or a bird-of-paradise feather through your nose. (In New Guinea I met one hipster who had a ballpoint pen through his nose.) Spending a year getting elaborate facial tattooing won’t be part of the rituals that authenticate your daughters’ marriages.

So for me, I can’t wake up and say, “Whose ass am I going to kick today? Will it be Milton’s, or maybe just Robert Frost’s?” Separate from how that would be like Pluto saying “Today I plan to outshine the sun,” their language, their social framework, just isn’t mine.

In poetry, the free verse line has evolved tremendously in 100 years, so I have different options, but I also have different expectations. Whitman did Whitman’s thing, Pound did Pound’s thing, and every day when I go to work—and I write one to ten hours a day—I have to find out what my thing is going to be. What I am happiest about with the new book is that it achieves a line more varied and more risky than anything I’ve done before. I also like my decision to bring in elements from magical realism. I blend history, biology, whimsy, and confessional first-person narrative into something that goes past a Werner Herzog documentary.

Is it as good as the things my own teachers have done, Pulitzer-prize winners Charles Wright and Louise Gluck? Probably not. But then I wasn’t trying to do what they try to do; ours are different Olympic events entirely. Theirs might be like ballet—my event is closer to five drunk hippos, a bowling ball, and a pile of out of date fireworks.

TAFARELLA: Your poetry can be difficult, though this book is easier to decipher in its original research, allusions, and references than some of your others. You even have a page or two of endnotes. Was that your idea or the editor’s?

HOOD: Mildly helpful but slight opaque endnotes are a recent artifact in poetry. It’s an affectation, like epigraphs. Everybody does it, and yet even though most of us teach MLA citation for a living, most of us in our own books don’t worry about being too fussy in the exact bibliographic details. Endnotes these days nearly are a kind of found language poem themselves, and most defy or reject normal academic scholarship. T.S. Eliot started it in 1922 with the false breadcrumb trail he built at the end of Wasteland. Pound didn’t call him Possum for nuthun.

TAFARELLA: Related to that, when you write, are you generally content to leave those not “in the know” by the wayside? Despite the endnotes, I confess to being tripped up here and there when reading South x South. I don’t know for example, what “neoprene booties” are, and while I know that an “Auster Mk7c” is a plane and not a gun, I don’t have a clue what one looks like or its history. I suppose I could Google it. But are these things my fault? You’re not Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, returned from the dead, deliberately trying to mystify and disorient your audience, are you?

HOOD: I went to Antarctica twice. My plan was to focus on aviation, and in the end, to write nonfiction prose. That has evolved into multiple projects, one of which at one time was going to be prose poetry plus image, alternating, presented as an Internet-only book, since that would be a viable way of including a lot of photographs inexpensively. Some of the things that may bug you now with this book may be left over from my initial idea of text backed by photographs.

The basic story you cite works though without specifics: it just says that once, to move a plane from camp A to camp B, they took the wings off and left the engine intact, and “drove” the plane across the ice like a strange kind of Florida swamp buggy. Wouldn’t that have been fun to see? The actual route had seals on it: what a great picture it would have made. I learned about that story on my way home from the second trip, when I had a layover in New Zealand. The detail comes from a very obscure book that I found in a public library. I am glad I saved it to live on another few years. It nearly became extinct as a moment of human history. Don’t Google it, just enjoy it, like a spice in new food you can’t name but which tastes amazing.

Large poets—by which I mean large in readership, large in prize status, large based on the fame of their host presses—manage to use the particular to illuminate the general. Roger Tory Peterson created the best-selling bird book in the history of the world by abstracting complex natural forms into simple outlines and key features. God bless all of them: wish I could do that, but my natural mode is to let the particular stay the particular. We live our lives moment to moment at the specific level, and if somebody likes Diet Coke, they usually dislike the taste and mouth fizz of Diet Pepsi. So too with paper or plastic at the market, dating or not dating redheads, Chevy versus Ford. The world brims with infinitely small distinctions. Somebody should tell Billy Collins that.

TAFARELLA: In retort to Socrates, the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, “The unlived life is not worth examining.” But Emily Dickinson hardly left her house at all, and yet she still managed to have a rich and complex inner life and write some pretty darn good poetry to boot. To assist her art, would you have urged her to travel and stop futzing about in her papa’s garden?

HOOD: Would Xanex have helped or hindered Dickinson? I would like to assume her genius was so fabulously overscale that even had she suffered as John Clare did and been institutionalized, her imagination would have taken language far past everybody else anyway. As long as there had been paper and a pencil, she would produce great things. Conversely, had she taken her meds, conquered the anxiety disorder, found the courage to date and then marry the unknown, unnamed “Master,” maybe even have gone on to become the first Professor of Jurassic Technology at Harvard—that is to say, gone forth in the world—Miss Dickenson still would have been a galaxy the rest of us barely can see even with the biggest telescopes.

TAFARELLA: In Human, All Too Human (aphorism 208), Nietzsche writes the following: “Every writer is surprised anew how, once a book has detached itself from him, it goes on to live a life of its own.” Any signs, Dr. Frankenstein, that your creature has left the castle?

HOOD: Oh, so that explains all the villagers with their pitchforks and torches. What we have talked about before is the way that new delivery systems modify text. Prose writers (and some editors, but few professional book designers) might assume that words are words are words, no matter what the platform. I disagree: I’m one of those movie snobs who says that unless you see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm on the big screen with fabulous sound, you have not seen it. South x South is out on Kindle, something I agreed to contractually but never really thought about. The press and I didn’t talk about how to handle line breaks, or what the cover would look like if shown in black and white on a dinky screen.

When I did finally buy my own copy for my home Kindle, I was both distressed and amused. It may or may not be a good book that way, but by golly, it’s a different book. Lines wrap oddly, stanzas no longer have the same flow: it’s like an experiment in collage or cut-up art, so that the notes to the symphony are the same, but their order in the score and even the instruments playing them all have changed. Sort of amusing, really. I probably make it worse since my Kindle defaults to large font.

Even the hard copy book is not really the perfect, definitive version. We had some typesetting issues in the galleys, and I didn’t see the most final, final, FINAL version before it went to print. Turns out, there’s a goof, and a stanza gets split in an ugly way: one line widowed on one page, its concluding line exiled to a different page. One book designer at an unnamed small arts press told me, “Look, next time? See if your next publisher will let me design it, for free. I can make all this better.”

Despite the implied snub, I was secretly pleased, since with every manuscript, I never can be sure that there will be a next time. It’s nice to have a vote of confidence.

TAFARELLA: You sound optimistic. Based on your discussion with other writers, your many books yourself, and your sense of students you mentor, what do you say to those who think poetry is dead?

HOOD: Genres may change rapidly: fine art publishers now solicit what they are calling “hybrid” manuscripts. I have a book in submission titled Mouth, and it has three things going on. Part of it is a set of self-portraits by the painter Christine Mugnolo, brutally honest and compelling documents of her face after serious oral surgery. Part of it is an adventure story of two women (in love and yet rivals) poaching mammoth tusks in present-day Siberia. They have all kinds of things happen, from a brutal raid by Soviet police to receiving help from ghosts and shaman figures. A third portion of each page is fond text from a 1930s botanical book, which includes work by female undergraduates that had been appropriated by the male author and which now has been re-appropriated (or perhaps, “un-appropriated”) by me to help deepen the story of the women in Russia. The whole thing is one wild ride, not unlike the script for Pulp Fiction or Thelma and Louise (but with a happier ending than those).

Meanwhile, more poetry books are being written, produced, sold, and discussed than ever before. Last March in Boston, at the national creative writing conference (what’s called “AWP”), 11,000 writers and lovers of the printed word registered for panels, workshops, readings, and an amazing book fair. I would guess each person left with 20 or 30 books and literary journals—I know I did. In fact, my wife and I brought an extra duffel bag, just to haul back swag.

So novels are doing great, creative nonfiction has exploded, poetry books fill the horizon like wildebeests migrating on the Serengeti, and now we have the field of hybridity, so odd and new nobody knows what even to call it. Lots to be optimistic about. In the same month, two books about Antarctica came out, both poetry. There’s mine but also Red Hen Press released an astounding book by Kate Coles, a book titled The Earth is Not Flat. We were in Antarctica the same field season, but on the far sides from each other. Her book is great, and is one reason I say it’s not “Prometheus unbound,” but “Poetry unbound.”

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Hood at the South Pole:

Hood at South Pole

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Hood’s book:

S x S cover shot

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to An Interview with Charles Hood

  1. Good interview. I enjoyed it.

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