Poet, artist, and photographer Charles Hood’s most recent book, Partially Excited States (University of Wisconsin Press 2017), is the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize for this year. I interviewed Hood, a Southern California native, about his new book.
ST: You now share a distinction with a prominent writer in the skeptical community, and I wonder if you know this. In 2005, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a book of poetry titled Funny, and it too won the Felix Pollack Prize. Hecht has also written some widely acclaimed skeptical titles, my favorite being Doubt: A History (Harper 2003). Do you know of her, and do you regard yourself as an atheist?
CH: Yes we all know her, right? And envy her clarity of expression? (I do, anyway.) I had to stop going to my long-time church this year when the new pastor just was too Yabba Dabba Doo for words. I miss it though, miss singing the songs I grew up with, miss the sincerity of the congregants (even the homophobic ones). It’s easy to be skeptical, and particle physics even makes it scientific to be uncertain, but I do like the mystics, I like faith, I like C.S. Lewis when he’s a fussy old apologist in a worn-out sweater. I miss the church, even if I can never commit to it fully. Didn’t Wallace Stevens return to faith on his deathbed? Cremate me, that’s fine, but I hope I come back as a really odd animal. A porcupine? Would you like to be a porcupine? The quills make a rattling sound, cold and hollow, as it waddles along. You just trundle through the forest, all alone, gnawing tree trunks and doing your thing, perhaps humming to yourself. In the Amazon last month I saw prehensile-tailed porcupines, sort of a half porcupine, half monkey sort of thing, black and white with a pink nose. Durga the great goddess rides a tiger (or a lion in some versions)—let’s rewrite the story, make it a goddess on a porcupine. That is my faith, part fancy dress party, part ur-narrative.
ST: Oh, well, by that description, I think I may already be a porcupine. As to your book, it isn’t titled Funny, but like Hecht’s, your new collection of poems has a lot of devices in it associated with humor, such as double entendre, as in your poem, “How My Parents Died,” where the narrator writes of a clerk working in an office in which death certificates are processed, and he remarks, “She has a form.” The phrase recalls Theodore Roethke’s poem, “I Knew a Woman” (“when she moved, she moved more ways than one”). Is there, in your view, a natural affinity between what the poet does and what the comedian does? Do people read Hecht, Roethke, and Hood for reasons similar to spending an evening at, say, a comedy club?
CH: Maybe it’s the booze, maybe it’s the late-night hours, but most comedy clubs are safe zones where you can be completely un-PC; alone in my truck I listen to “Raw Dog,” a comedy channel on satellite radio that is R-rated and beyond. It’s a guilty pleasure—I could never have it on if you were riding with me, and I could never do it during daylight, when I am locked onto NPR like the good foot soldier of neo-liberalism that I am. Yet being transgressive is fun: who doesn’t want to put a thumbtack on God’s chair once in a while? Poets, court jesters, standup comedians: we all listen to how language works and then try to bend it the other way. That old Vaudeville joke, “Take my wife…please,” that’s zeugma plus an enjambed line break. A Woody Allen monologue and a Robert Creeley poem both pivot on the same perfectly timed pattern of pause / punch line / pause, without ever cracking a smile.
ST: In your poem, “How My Parents Died,” each line surprises. Instead of a grim, serious poem, it’s in turns energetic and ironic, and its opening lines, “I finally get to Montana—I have always wanted to go to Montana— / but while I am there, my parent die,” recall for me a passage in Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise: “Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.” The narrative voice in DeLillo’s novel sounds a lot like your own ironic, experienced, world-weary (because world-familiar) poetic voice. Do you ever get world-weary yourself for long periods of time, or do you just enact it on the page? And if you do get world-weary, who or what lures you back into all the suffering and travel (from the French word travail, ordeal) that you embrace? In spite of life’s ironies, pains, and pratfalls, should we go to Montana anyway? Should we be good Stoics and make pain unimportant as we press forward with life? Or is “How my Parents Died” a “vanities of vanities” poem—a warning to just stay home?
CH: Probably not Montana, too cold in the winter and Jim Harrison is dead now anyway. My father did pass when I was in France, and there was a general strike, I couldn’t get back to Paris to fly home, so I almost missed the funeral. Then when I got there, I had left my eulogy at home on my desk, then I stepped in gum. What a day! That poem you cite about my parents, I do grieve sincerely at the end, even as I play with the tension—and I think you have it too—of looking at parental units and thinking, “Surely I have nothing in common with these people. Look how ugly they all are, plus they voted for Trump!”—and yet at the same time, having to admit how much of them is in me, even the N-word, holocaust-denying parts of them. So in the poem if they hypothetically lived larger-than-life lives, and if in reality, that’s the thing they did NOT do, maybe I am just flirting with the fear that I too am small and constrained, and that all my worldly knowledge is just an illusion. At heart I am 90% white trash, with the barest trace of a classical education slopped on like a cheap coat of red paint.
ST: Now that last sentence is funny, and Dante can be funny too, and the way you arranged this new book of poems seems to echo Dante’s Divine Comedy: there’s a hell realm section titled “The History of Hell in America”; a sublunary (beneath the moon) purgatorio section addressing various secrets of the hidden, human heart (“Invisible Terrain”); and a section focused on the heavens (poems devoted to planets and moons brought together under the title, “Escape Velocity”). Was Dante in your thoughts when placing them in this arrangement? And did you settle on the title, Partially Excited States, in part because it sounds a bit like paradiso—or am I giving this book a far too Catholic overlay? Was the title no more mysterious than say, at the time it occurred to you, you were watching Curb Your Enthusiasm?
CH: I hate that show and you only mention it to annoy me, I am sure. The last third of the book, the part after the journey to hell, goes from Mercury to Venus to Earth and on out past Pluto, very directly and linearly, and as with the end of 2001 (which I saw as a child at the Cinerama Dome), it wants to join the stars. We are reborn at the end, or at least we get in line to do the ride all over again. That third section is the ejectimenta from a failed project about all 177 moons of the Solar System; that it works at all is more luck than skill, since I tried to put those pieces in about a thousand different orders. I am still not sure I got the pace right. I do though think that a good book needs an invisible structure, even if it’s based on intuition and rolling a ten-sided die.
ST: In this collection, you have a poem (“Magazine Tiger, Harper’s Bazaar”) that appears to flip roles played by tiger and lamb in William Blake’s “The Tyger.” In Blake’s poem, the tiger is a symbol of fire and experience, terrifying, while the lamb is white and innocent (“Did He who made the lamb make thee?”). But in your poem you have humans that are terrifying and a tiger that is innocent, taking on qualities of Blake’s lamb, even being nursed like a little lamb: there’s “this lady…bottle-feeding a baby white tiger.” The baby tiger is encircled by the human world, which consists of coarse lusts, capitalist greed, superficiality, and the machinery of an advertising photo shoot—a real hell realm, which you describe. Yet even as the tiger has been encircled and dominated by the human environment, the poem ends with a dramatic panning-out to a yet larger, Inferno-like encirclement: “The world waits patiently before / crushing us into powder with the immense weight / of its beauty and indifference.” Is that baby powder? Have we hit an iceberg? Have we moved beyond mere innocence to experience, and into Camus’ realm of the absurd, the poem functioning as a kind of myth of Sisyphus for environmentalists? Or is that crushing to powder not a punishment at all, but the shock of the new: larger nature waiting for us to unplug from narrower dramas and actually notice, really notice, the sublime and surprising power of each moment, however indifferent it happens to be to our own selfish and self-absorbed existence?
CH: I wish I could have a dollar for every allusion you make on your blog and then I could retire early. As for Blake’s tyger, that’s the most widely anthologized poem in English supposedly, and as such, it’s hard to escape its driving trochaic beat. What modern writer hasn’t internalized its rhythms and its dichotomies? In my case when I speak of the indifference of the world I am being a modern skeptic: dinosaurs come, dinosaurs go, and we want to be important, yet we are not—not as a species, and certainly not as individuals. And the power of the primal woman, the allure of sexuality, that’s in the text too: on the imaginary set (though it is a real ad, my set is imaginary), I make the gaffers and grips all willing to be walked over by the model, so enthralled are they by woman as Siren. It doesn’t have to be a woman: sexuality more generally, so it could be a young male model who captivates and seduces. We as consumers are kept on a choke chain, same as the tiger, which is sedated and leashed, and yet the tiger is sexuality, ready to devour us. To quote one of my own lines in another book, if you could sleep with the most beautiful person in the world, think how ugly you would feel—which might be reason enough to do it.
ST: In “Sunrise on Mercury,” you contrast your father’s passion with your own reserve: “My own wounds / I have learned to tap with a little metal spigot”—a wonderful image of ink tapping the music of your words into a journal. And such lines also feel very much like the Buddhist poet, Gary Snyder, as when he writes in “Riprap” (1965):
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
This would seem to be the map you’ve followed in your new book—indeed, in all of your books. And yet, though you have a Buddhist’s eye for control and precision, lingering on details, collecting your stones—you don’t quite have the Buddhist’s patience for holding still like a stone. Would you describe yourself as a rolling stone; a rolling Buddhist; a Buddhist on the run (akin to Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run”)?
CH: Can somebody tell me what the band is on the run from? That song came out when I was in middle school and I still don’t understand it. Spigot and tapping is a maple tree image: how one gets the syrup is to tap a spike into the tree and slowly, slowy the sap leaks out into the attached bucket. As for the great Gary Snyder, he blurbed my first book. I am not in his league in terms of craft or political cachet, but he’s another poet whose rhythms are inside me deep as blood pulse.
Yet I write wider lines than he usually does, with a faster rhythm. What can I say? He’s a good Buddhist and I risk a speeding ticket every time I get in the car.
Two stories: one, I was at an eco rally once, waiting for Ed Abbey to speak, and it was at a fairground, on the lawn, and I was so bored, so antsy. Speaker after speaker, many quite good (Simon Ortiz). But I had no patience, so I pulled the grass, I tried to look up skirts of passing hippie chicks, I stabbed sticks into the lawn and made small forts. One fellow though some rows ahead of me sat perfectly still, cross-legged and present, attending to everything. No fidgeting. It was of course Gary Snyder. I played frisbee with his kids. Later when he was supposed to read there was a thunderstorm and the power went out. We went into a barn and sat on hay bales while he read by kerosene lantern. You think, “Okay Jesus, take me now, it will never get any better than this.”
ST: In your poem, “The History of Hell in America,” you write, “To be American is to be eccentric, preaching / to 30,000 like Aimee Semple McPherson / or else building vast networks of railroads / in your basement…” And in “On the Island of the Not-So-Broken Poets” you defend the incorporation of facts into your poetry against another poet, your friend Kate Gale, who says to you, “facts are overrated.” I can’t help but hearing in the voice of Aimee Semple McPherson and Kate Gale dark prophecies of the Trump era, and this is your first book of poetry to come out in the Trump era. You’ve written on politically charged themes before, such as your historical meditation on Hiroshima (The Half-Life of Salt: Voices of the Enola Gay), and so do you suppose Trump will begin to creep into your poetry over the next several years, invading your art? Or do you think you’ll exercise your will not to include him, as one might decide to swear off, well, cussing?
CH: He-who-shall-not-be-named has become a thing for all of us, just as the Great Depression was a thing for your dad and mine, or the Vietnam War for that generation. I can’t be bothered to write anti-Trump screeds though. Just wouldn’t be an interesting text. I assume any writer working now will have to deal with him / his followers / the triumph of ignorance, at least indirectly. How that will manifest itself, too soon to say I think. It may be fifty years before we can fully weigh the consequences of the moment. Combat experiences in World War I influenced Tolkien in his descriptions of Mordor and yet the Dead Marshes or other quasi-Somme-like battlefield scenes did not fully reach the general culture until Peter Jackson made the film version of Lord of the Rings. The malignance of this present era may not be fully seen until some opera cycle on Mars explores it 100 years from now.
ST: There’s far more of play than politics in your new collection. Poem titles include apolitical subjects like the following: “Street Trees of San Francisco” and “The Life of Jasper Johns.” These are gorgeous poems, and don’t need justification beyond themselves, and many such poems were written in the 20th century in the midst of collective traumas. But poetry anthologies of twentieth century witness, like Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (1993), edited by Carolyn Forche, remind us that poets of the previous century also spoke to collective traumas as they occurred—from Soviet gulags, to the Holocaust, to the war in Vietnam. In our own time, what is the future shelf life for a poem about, say, the trees of San Francisco? Will such a poem, a decade from now, seem anachronistic if the public realm goes dramatically south? Is it to some degree irresponsible for poets not to write at least some explicitly political poetry in times like these? Does, for instance, the stand-off between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un not yet merit the sustained attention of poets?
CH: All life, all language merits our attention. We’ve been mad at North Korea before, and they at us. No news there. And I shouldn’t say this, but I did go to hear Carolyn Forche when she was first getting promoted as the Next Liberal Thing, and while I don’t doubt her sincerity, there was an unexamined easiness to her condemnation of Central American violence. It’s like saying “child abuse is bad!”—well, sure, duh. But how do we deal with it? What are the causes? Those are much harder questions. She was good at shock value. Robert Peters said she was only famous because she was so beautiful. An ugly person could not have become a spokesperson for a cause as she did. In any case, be wary of agendas and didacticism. Writing an anti-Trump poem may make the author feel like resistance has happened, but come on. It doesn’t really do any good, does it? Even a bumper sticker reaches a wider audience than a poem.
ST: The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died in April of this year, his most famous poem being “Babi Yar,” a poem about the murder of 33,000 Jews in Kiev over a two-day period in 1941. The subject invites our lingering attention and sobriety, but Yevtushenko’s own writing about it perhaps not so much, for he was born in 1933 and didn’t actually experience Babi Yar. Instead, he wrote a poem about it in 1961, while still in his twenties, and at a level that reads (at least in translation) as more sentimentality and outrage than actual witness. By contrast, whenever I read a poem of yours, I tend to come away with the sense that you’ve earned whatever sentiment you’ve expressed; you did the requisite homework and actually went physically to the site you were writing about. Even with a poem like “Street Trees of San Francisco,” I have no doubt that you never cheated, just Googling images of trees in San Francisco and writing about them. You went there. You studied the trees. You lingered and thought about them. You made the details matter, and you confronted their matter (their material existences) head-on. So in a sense, though visiting the site, would you say that Yevtushenko didn’t quite earn the right to write “Babi Yar” in the way that he did, or is this too harsh a judgment, speaking ill of the too-recently-dead?
CH: Just to fess up, there’s a lot of pseudo fact or misplaced fact in that poem about trees: Bristlecone Pines only live in the Great Basin, in just a few mountain ranges, not in San Francisco, but I hoped everybody would see that. They are not street trees: they take 5,000 years to grow. Ah, woe is me, even my irony isn’t ironic. But it is true, I have done pilgrimages—in Poland I went to Treblinka, the Nazi death camp site, went there alone on a cold afternoon as sleet turned to snow and sadness filled me right up to my eyebrows. In Tibet I was allowed into the monastery that is closed to foreigners. Blah blah blah. And I know my trees, yes of course, and have published on them more seriously, as in the Heyday anthology LAtitudes, when I wrote about the trees of Los Angeles. Climbed them, smelled them, licked them, planted them, bought a small library of books about them. I live in terror of the inauthentic, which makes me a true Romantic in the most cliché way. In San Joaquin Marsh there are five oak trees, “Hood Grove,” trees that I planted and kept alive bucket by bucket. White-tailed kites nest there.
ST: In being a Californian and calling yourself “a true Romantic in the cliché way,” do you put the two together and find yourself gravitating toward, and influenced by, the poetry of the ever nature-attentive Robinson Jeffers (also a Californian, also typically classed a Romantic throwback, blowing off with indifference the politics of his time and the modernism of Eliot and Pound)? Jeffers’s most famous poem is perhaps his manifesto, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” content to let America burn its way through empire, decline, and “the mould of its vulgarity” while, along with his children, he heads for the hills and (presumably) Tor House. Some lines from one of his poems (“Birds”) recalls for me what seems to be the project of your own poetry:
Needs multitude, multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesh-eaters,
Bright hawks that hover and dart headlong…
CH: If I say that I find Robinson Jeffers tedious then people will accuse me of wanting to club the baby seals or eat hard-boiled condor eggs for breakfast, but I just find myself annoyed, not inspired, whenever I go back to his collected poems—maybe we could call it the collected doilies and buttercups—and for me, it’s hard to believe he was born in the same generation as Hemingway, Stein, Pound, John Dos Passos, or even e.e. cummings. Robert Hass speaks of him respectfully so I keep thinking it must just be me (it HAS just to be me), but jeez—such long, droopy lines, like pasta that has been cooked at a full boil for forty-five minutes. “Clamorous” as a word choice? He reads like a hippy dippy version of the worst of Thoreau’s poetry, and trust me, Thoreau was a really bad poet before he became a really good prose writer. I’ve had three chances to tour Tor House and have yet to take my cod liver oil and go do the pilgrimage. Each time instead of that I just went whale watching or fossicked around in the tide pools. Jeffers’s nature feels too much like he wants it to be cap-N “Nature,” and not actual ecological nature. Remember that anthrax is nature. Bubonic plague is nature.
ST: How about, then, San Francisco Renaissance poet, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), who Kenneth Rexroth loved? In the twenty years since his death, I think he has been wrongfully ignored. For me, he’s always been the real, complicated deal. I love lines like these (“Fog Days”): “Only the cedars do not tire of fog; / They drip patiently through days, / Gathering mist and letting it fall.” And from “Year’s End”: “I sit in the northern room, in the dusk, the death of a year / and watch it go down in thunder.” I’m guessing he’s a bit too religious and philosophical for your taste, and you might hate him. Just curious. Can you put in a good word for Brother Antoninus? He was, at minimum, a devoted letterpress printer, which surely you can appreciate.
CH: Again this is where you and I read differently—you’re more interested in content, and, to some extent, the genteel expression of ideas, while for me it’s craft and the line, taking risk, who influences whom. It has to do with what poetry does for me as a working writer. So of course Everson is charming and readable and you and I and he could share a pot of herbal tea and some organic orange slices, and all of us pass a very pleasant morning. You could come to the meeting fresh from a yoga class, with copies to have him sign that you bought at the thrift store and are toting around in a hemp bag. But to me (and most active writers?), he no longer feels essential, perhaps because his poetic practice is ever-so-slightly generic. If you wanted to think about the 20th century in terms of technical changes in poetry, he’s not an author one would study in order to watch the line evolve and to hear persona played with, or even to be wowed by the flash and bang of language. Yet for you, his congruence with your political ideology adds to his charm. That’s fine—that is a perfectly valid reason to go to the poetry buffet. I wouldn’t put him on a syllabus though, not unless we were doing a very very thorough review of the San Francisco Renaissance.
As for the letterpress, the lure and love of the hand-made lives on today; of my own books, the one I am fondest about is the one that was released just in an edition of fifty, the one with art by Christine Mugnolo titled 25 Tigers. It is an accordion-fold book; as soon as you finish one side, it takes you back around to the other side, infinitely. No more copies are available, making the few extant versions some kind of very, very minor saint’s relic.
ST: How about a contemporary California poet, the USC English professor Dana Gioia? Perhaps you’ve assigned his literature textbooks to classes, as I have, but do you have an opinion of him as a poet? I find him impressively attentive to detail, including the subtleties of the modern soul (what it means to live with not knowing, etc.). He’s someone people might well be reading a half century from now, especially if one is Catholic.
CH: First of all, in my world Mr. Gioia can do no wrong, simply in terms of services rendered to the Republic. First he saved Jell-O and after that, he saved the NEA. Go, Team Gioia! He is an interesting writer because he uses rhyme and often writes about direct life in a very accessible, un-French-theory way. He has a connection to the high desert, though he may not know it, in that he championed the once-unfashionable Kay Ryan, who also writes in rhyme and with deceptive simplicity. She grew up in Rosamond by Edwards Air Force Base (home of the “right stuff”) and went to Antelope Valley College, then much later became Poet Laureate, in part due to his sponsorship. If you can hear him read, he has a beautiful speaking voice—sort of like a cross between Morgan Freeman and Dan Rather. I was supposed to introduce Dana Gioia at a major event, but I turned it down in order to be a good spouse. My wife, Abbey Hood, was giving a reading across town at the exact same time, so I forfeited my Gioia gig in order to be in the audience and support her. (She was pretty good, too! Shout out to Catamaran magazine for setting that up, and to Hennessey and Ingalls for hosting it.) Will he be read in 50 years? All those predictions always turn out to be wrong. Even Emerson misjudged Thoreau, thought Mr. T was wasting his time keeping ultra-detailed nature journals instead of being an abolitionist or public speaker. You are optimistic though, even to ask: apparently you think people will be reading anybody in 50 years. Let’s hope so, even if it is just Robinson Jeffers.
ST: Speaking of the 1850s and just past it, given her distance from the Civil War, was it a good thing (in retrospect) that Emily Dickinson never wrote about the Civil War? Was it better for her poetry that she focused on what she knew—her garden, etc.? Given her privilege (the daughter of a Congressman), and the way she lived, could she have written, in your view, an honest poem about the Civil War—and if so, what would she have had to do?
CH: Oh I dunno, I think she was writing about the war the whole time: loss and dismemberment is in there so much. I don’t just mean poem 444, written we think in 1862, which starts out “It feels a shame to be Alive— / When Men so brave — are dead.” That’s conventional piety that she was just trying out to see how it sounds. Not that, but in all the little gaps and losses that so enchant us and yet defy explication… that gap between syllable and sound that she mentions, there is an awareness of the brevity of life in all of it, and that can’t just have come from the regular deaths and infant mortalities that were part of 19th century life. She was too attuned to the music of the spheres not to wince a little each time the Death Star nuked another Alderaan.
For my money, the best Civil War poem is Charles Olson, “Anecdotes of the Late War.” As he says, Jay Gould got rich, “while Joe Blow got swap / in the side of the head.”
ST: You have a reference or two to Buddhism in your book, and some references to Native American culture and Greek mythology—but though you’ve been to India on numerous occasions, no Hindu gods get a cameo here, so I’ll ask a parting question in the name of two of them: Shakti (the god of energy) and Lila (the god of play). So many writers and artists struggle with depression and addiction, ruining body and mind at a young age. How do you maintain the energy, playfulness, optimism, and discipline you do for getting so much work, travelling, and writing done?
CH: Strike me dead and burn my library card if I am a liar, but I am done being suicidal, I am done with bad relationships, I am done with boring meetings (ever notice how often I am on my laptop at work?), done with all the dross and slag of everyday bullshit. Life is too short not to be giddy with the pleasure of all the good stuff. I am like some manic hummingbird now. Besides this book, I am publishing two more books this year, the other prize-winner (a book of experimental fiction, with art plates by Christine Mugnolo, titled Mouth), and a field guide to birds coming out from Heyday. They both are at the printers as we speak. Next year I have two more nature books coming out plus there’s a new poetry manuscript in contest circulation. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
It may seem like too much but let’s face it, I only have 30 or 40 years left to live, maybe not even half that, and fuck it, in that case I am going to jet flower to flower and hog up all the nectar I can slurp into my slobbery mouth. I want to be like Issa (or at least Issa as translated by Robert Hass). This is the only time I approve of exclamation points in poetry:
on a naked horse
in the pouring rain!
Yeee-haw. Gallop faster, you old nag, gallop faster!