Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019).Dante Di Stefano,
H. L. Hix, The Gospel (Broadstone Books, 2020).
DD: In the introduction to The Gospel, you note: “This book is not ‘creative writing’ or ‘imaginative literature’ in the sense that applies to those works [books about the life of Jesus by Saramago and Coetzee]. I did not ‘make up’ anything here. I selected, arranged, and translated all the material, but I invented none of it: everything in The Gospel derives from ancient sources, nothing originates with me.” It strikes me that much of your work (and especially your more recent poetry collections such as American Anger and Rain Inscription or even books like Demonstrategy and Lines of Inquiry) blurs the boundaries between poetry, prose, criticism, philosophy, translation and so on; sometimes when I read one of your books, I think perhaps there are no boundaries between these modalities of engagement. You always bring me back to Benjamin: “all great literature either dissolves a genre or invents one.” Could you talk a bit about The Gospel, and your body of work, with some of these thoughts in mind?
HH: Thank you for this generous question, itself a robust modality of engagement that sees a continuity between The Gospel and my previous books.
Because the fact is so easy to forget, it’s worth occasionally reminding ourselves that genres are made up. Genres are not what philosophers call “natural kinds,” distinctions that exist in the real world independently of us, and that our categories then correspond to (or fail to correspond to). Instead, our categorizing creates and sustains genres, and they never “pull away” into an existence independent of our conceptualizing. They’re invented, not discovered, and they’re not very tidy: a novel isn’t distinguished from a short story by the same principle that distinguishes a novel from a memoir. Our genres don’t “cut literature at the joints.”
Which makes them susceptible to questioning. I would string the pearl you offer from Walter Benjamin with this pearl from Audre Lorde: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.” And this from Amartya Sen: “We can not only assess our decisions, given our objectives and values; we can also scrutinize the critical sustainability of these objectives and values themselves.” All three, like your question itself, point toward an urge that drives all my writing: not merely to renegotiate one particular agreement or another between us, but to reveal, and thus to make available for evaluation and revision, the “metastructure of consent” (Lauren Berlant’s term) that has been governing all our agreements.
So you’re right to pose the question of genre to The Gospel. To read for the gospel exclusively by haggling over what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote is to grant the metastructure of consent that says those four texts and only those four texts contain the gospel. But that metastructure of consent is constructed, not observed. It doesn’t describe a quality inherent in those four texts; it imposes a rule on my behavior, setting limits to what I should read and how I should read it. The Gospel is a way of asking what that rule hides from me, a way of asking what I can see if I don’t follow the rule, that I can’t see when I do follow the rule.
The fact that several poems in the Ill Angels’ first section are addressed to your students leads me to ask you a version of the same question. If you talk to students all day in class, in that modality of engagement, how important is it to talk to them also in another modality of engagement, in poems? And how important is it to you to address a particular person or group in a poem?
DD: It’s both of utmost importance and of no importance at all. In some sense, any addressee is merely a trope, part of the poem’s furniture and frame. Sometimes when I reread a poem I’ve written I feel like I’m speaking to myself in a small empty room and sometimes I feel like I’m speaking to all the round earth’s imagined corners.
I do speak to students all day long in my job as a schoolteacher, and sometimes those conversations are poems, sometimes those conversations die into poems, sometimes poems die into those conversations, but most of my students will never read the poems I write. Still, addressing my students in a poem shows that I care for them deeply—it’s a form of prayer for their wellbeing and future success.
Deep attention is the highest form of love; embodying and engendering deep attention is the work of poetry and the work of teaching.
The greatest two words in all of literature are the epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End: “only connect.”
After the birth of my daughter, it became very important to me that in the future she might read my poems and understand something about her parents that might otherwise remain hidden to her. In a very real sense, my wife and my daughter are the ones I am always speaking to in any poem I write.
Who do you see as the ideal audience for The Gospel? Who is this book for?
HH: The glib answers to this question — It’s for everyone! and I write for myself — do point toward something that I think is not at all glib. I myself experience an awe before the world and a wonder at experience that could be called “religious” because they convey a sense that in what meets the eye there is more than meets the eye. But I haven’t found (yet!) an institutional form or a heroic figure or a codified set of beliefs adequate to that awe and wonder. I wrote The Gospel for myself, then, in that the awe and wonder I feel invite continuing exploration in preference to settling on (or settling into) a received framework. And The Gospel is for everyone in that of course I’m not the only person who feels awe and wonder, or the only person intent on continuing to look toward what I can’t yet claim to be looking at.
While we’re thinking about who is speaking to whom, the first poem in Ill Angels, “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen,” ends “This is the part where I take your hand in / my hand and I tell you we are burning.” If angels are messengers, as the etymology of the word suggests, does the “I tell you” in that last line alert the reader that the speaker is one of those ill angels in the book’s title?
DD: I hadn’t thought of that possibility, but I think it’s a smart reading of those lines. The ill angels from the title are the ill angels from Poe’s “Dream-Land,” which begins: “By a route obscure and lonely, / Haunted by ill angels only.” To me, “Dream-Land” is a “fantasia of the unconscious” (to borrow a phrase from D. H. Lawrence); it’s a poem about journeying deeply into the self in order to turn outward more ardently. These ill angels are the legion woes that amass in the four chambers of our hearts as we go through this life; they are our dead, our regrets, our wounds, our arnica and eyebright, our hopes, our dear ones—they hold out the possibility of seeing ourselves the way a stranger does, unfolding in moments. In some sense, all the personae speaking through these poems, and all those spoken to, are these ill angels.
On an entirely different tack, I was reading in The Atlantic about Thomas Jefferson’s redacted New Testament, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s version expunged all the supernatural elements from the gospel. Your version adds miracle upon miracle from the ancient source material. We have, for instance, the baby Jesus taming dragons on the flight into Egypt, a trip during which he collapses distance and time. I was delighted by these stories, especially the ones from Jesus’ childhood. Has your conception of Jesus (as character, as metaphor) changed during your selection, arrangement, and translation of this material? What can we learn from the Hixian Jesus? How does this Jesus speak to our era?
HH: Jefferson was very concerned with the operation of things. How did things happen? How do thing happen? How will things happen? That concern invites historical and scientific accounts, which are especially good at answering those questions. An answer to how things happened should leave out miracles. There are no miracles in the domain of cause and effect.
I value historical and scientific accounts, and I am interested in how things happen, but I am even more interested in what things mean. I share Jefferson’s sense that the answers to those questions should be coordinated as far as possible, but I don’t share his strategy of coordinating them by only asking how things happen. I share Jefferson’s assessment that how things happen is an important concern; I choose not to follow him in making it so exclusive a concern.
A person who wants to know how things happened (what actually took place in the Middle East 2,000 years ago?) or how things happen (how do political institutions and religious institutions shape one another?) should get rid of supernatural elements in the narratives. A person who wants to understand what things mean might decide to attend to those supernatural elements, with the possibility in mind that they have more to do with significance than with cause and effect. Historical narratives are really good at answering how things happened, and scientific narratives are really good at answering how things happen. Literary narratives are really good at answering (or, I would say, at addressing) what things mean.
I don’t for a second think that a real goddess named Athena really appeared in the guise of Deiphobus to trick Hector into squaring off with Achilles, but I don’t take that or any of the other supernatural elements out of The Iliad, because I’m not reading The Iliad to find out how things happened; I’m reading it to find out what things mean. For me, it’s the same with reading a Gospel. I don’t believe, as an historical record of actual events that really occurred between physical entities, that baby Jesus tamed dragons, any more than I believe, in that way, that Beowulf slew a fen-dwelling monster named Grendel. I don’t think the writer who recounted the baby-Jesus-taming-dragons story in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is offering me, and I’m not reading that particular story for, an historical record of actual events that really occurred between physical entities. I do think the writer of that story is signaling me that Jesus is exceptionally attuned to what today we might call the more-than-human world. I’m not any more worried about whether baby Jesus really tamed actual dragons than I am whether Gregor Samsa really turned into an actual giant beetle. So, I’m happy to stock The Gospel with lots of miracle stories: bring ’em on!
Miracle stories or not, literature remains connected to real events and real people. We’re engaged in this conversation as a deeply contentious election looms, and I’ve written one book called American Anger and another called Counterclaims. I just want to hear anything and everything you have to say in relation to your lines “Here in America, trauma and rage / dovetail, become birthright, counterclaim us.”
DD: The poem that those lines come from (“National Anthem with Elegy and Talon”) is about the intergenerational impacts of mental illness and domestic abuse, as much as it is about notions of national belonging and the experience of living in the United States in the early twenty-first century.
As many writers have noted, due to systemic racism, widespread misogyny, income inequality, a variety of broken social institutions (the public-school system, for example), and so on, daily life in America has been traumatic for many people for a long time. Fear, pain, and hopelessness accrue into rage and/or apathy (American Anger charts some of these tributaries). Any degree of safety and comfort we might experience as American citizens is underwritten by violence at home and abroad; this violence makes demands upon us all. No wonder that, in W. C. Williams famous formulation, the pure products of America go crazy, driven by a “numbed terror / under some hedge of choke-cherry / or viburnum, / which they cannot express—.” The Trump era has rendered much of this suffering, anguish, and violence far more legible to far more Americans than ever before.
In the beginning of Counterclaims, you note: “Poetry offers instead a field in which transformation becomes intelligible: a metamorphic imaginary, a landscape of renewal. The new self enters the world first in and as imagination. The new self is made by making.” Huge swaths of American life run counter to a metamorphic imaginary. I feel my self being constantly unmade, as a consumer, as a citizen, as a man; the feeling of that unmaking might be where a commitment to poetry begins.
Thinking of this kind of unmaking calls to mind the claims that the canonical gospels make on western readers. Reading The Gospel was a profoundly moving and unsettling experience for me, mainly I think, because of the way that you redress the deficits caused by translation inertia and gender tilt. You speak about this at length in your introduction to the book, but I was wondering, if, for the purposes of this conversation, you could discuss those aspects of the text?
HH: Thank you for drawing attention to these two concerns, which were very important motivations for my undertaking The Gospel. The concern I call “translation inertia” is that a great many word choices in existing English translations of the canonical Gospels have become fixed by convention, even though the English language is continually changing (as are human societies in which English is spoken). Those word choices have become static, even though the relationship between the Greek word being translated and the English word used to translate it is dynamic.
I give a few examples in the introduction, but the list could be expanded. To follow up on one example that is only mentioned in the introduction, every previous English translation I’m aware of translates the Greek word christos as Christ, an obvious enough choice since the English word is a transliteration of the Greek word. But that “obvious” translation distorts something very important. The Greek word does not only refer, it also describes. In this it resembles, for instance, the English word president. “The President” refers to an office or to the person who holds that office, but it also describes the office or person as one who presides. The noun president relates to the verb preside, and the noun christos relates to the verb chrio, to rub a body with oil or dye or ointment. The English word “Christ,” though, doesn’t have a correlative verb form; it only refers, without describing. To capture that missing descriptive element, in The Gospel I translate christos as “salve,” which does function as both noun and verb: I can salve a wound or apply a salve to a wound. So “salve” describes as it refers, the way the Greek christos does, but the English “Christ” doesn’t.
The impulse to contest gender tilt is slightly different. Insofar as The Gospel is at all successful in resisting translation inertia, it is to that extent closer to, truer to, the original language of the sources; insofar as The Gospel succeeds in resisting gender tilt, to that extent it compensates for a limitation of both source and target language.
We recognize a problem with, say, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, a limitation in its depicting God as a thickly-muscled, light-skinned, heavily-bearded male, and we recognize a similar problem in referring to God as a male, and assigning God masculine roles such as father. The Gospel is an experiment in not doing so. I didn’t figure out a way to get The Gospel to pass the Bechdel Test, quite, but I hope its approach to degendering references to God and Jesus at least helps it not flout the Bechdel Test!
On a lighter note, I nominate you for President of National Poetry Month, and for “emotion recollected in tranquility” I substitute “a world less rickety, ricocheted with uncompromised shining.”
DD: Then, I’d recommend replacing “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” with your lines “…it is our work to send you careening / from consciousness to consciousness like tumbling down a hill.”
One of the stories from early in The Gospel stayed with me:
Walking once with xer mother across the city square, Jesus saw a teacher teaching some children. Twelve sparrows flurried down from the wall, bickering, and tumbled into the teacher’s lap. Seeing this, Jesus laughed. The teacher, noticing xer laugh, was filled with anger, and said, What’s so funny? Jesus replied, Listen, a widow is on her way here carrying what little wheat she can afford, but when she gets here she’ll stumble and spill the wheat. These sparrows are fighting over how many grains each will get. Jesus didn’t leave until what xe’d predicted had occurred. The teacher, seeing Jesus’ words become accomplished deeds, wanted to have xer run out of town, along with xer mother.
There’s so much to note and wonder about in this passage. We glimpse Jesus’ sense of humor, but its architecture remains a mystery. We see a link between Jesus’ clairvoyance and the clairvoyance of the sparrows. And I am left with many questions. Why is he laughing at the sparrows? Why does Jesus wait to see his prediction come true? Why doesn’t he help the widow? And so on. I will think of this anecdote every time I think of Jesus; it has subtly altered my perception of the metaphysics of the world presented in the Christian scriptures. What moments from The Gospel stay with you? What moments have altered your perception of the world presented in the Christian scriptures? And, out of personal curiosity, what’s your take on the passage I quoted?
HH: There are a lot of reasons to love that story, I’m sure. A couple of resonances are particularly strong for me.
One is by connection with Kierkegaard’s take, in Fear and Trembling, on the Abraham and Isaac story. Against the reassuring moralistic reading of the story that highlights God’s substitution of the ram for Isaac, and takes the point of the story to be something like Never fear: no matter how bad things look, God will rescue you, Kierkegaard foregrounds God’s command and Abraham’s obedience to it. The takeaway Kierkegaard registers is more like God is not bound by your judgments of value; God does not have to act the way you think God should. I hear something similar in this story, a reminder not to get too lazy or too cocky in thinking that Jesus just performs my vision of what’s right. Maybe Jesus is a rounder character than that, and maybe my vision of what’s right isn’t finished and perfect yet, but needs continuing adjustment and refinement.
Another resonance for me is with contemporary events. In the story, the teacher, confronted with truth, does not respond with self-correction and grateful embrace of truth: he responds with rage, and an impulse toward violence against truth and the bearer of truth. The teacher in the story seems to me to share a temperament with Trumpist America, the rage and violence being acted out against the truth of racial injustice, and against the bearers of that truth.
We live in an era where “facts” and “truth” are being constantly called into question in public discourse. For a collection that feels securely “grounded” in “real life,” Ill Angels also seems ready without warning to venture into surreal or dream worlds (“Because all the animals are kings and queens, / I wait for the rain to paint me”). How do those worlds connect for you? How do you want them to connect in the poems?
DD: William Blake’s visionary phenomenology inspires me. In one of his letters, Blake famously wrote: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.” Most of the times, I see the green things in the way, but I want the tears of joy. I want to learn to bear the beams of love. I want “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Poetry trains me in this direction: in a poem, I hold open the palm of my hand and hope for infinity with its skylarks and lambs and caterpillars and lions and oxen and owls and, even, its poisons…
I think Blake would have loved your translation of the Sermon on the Mount as much as I do; this sermon forms the heart of any version of Jesus’ teaching. You translate, for example, the famous “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” as “Graceful, the unassuming: they will inherit the whole earth.” Could you discuss your translation choices for the beatitudes? Also, how does the additional material you included change the sermon itself?
HH: I’ve been dissatisfied for a long time with “blessed” as the translation of the Greek word makárioi in the beatitudes. It has been the obligatory translation ever since the King James: everyone translates it that way. But there’s something deeply misleading in that choice. Blessing comes to me from outside. I’m not blessed in myself, but blessed by something. Which allows for blessing to be transactional, part of a system of reward and punishment. It sets up “for” as the translation of the Greek hóti, to suggest that the blessedness derives from what comes after the hóti: the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth, their blessedness consists in their inheritance.
But that’s not the flavor of the Greek at all. Makárioi is the collateral form of mákar, the primary meaning of which is the disposition, the well-being, of the gods, by contrast with that of humans. Its other uses are extensions of that primary meaning. Mákar is a godlikeness. It inheres in me, arises from within rather than being bestowed from without. It’s not a change of state imposed on me by something other than myself, it’s who I am. In the usual English translation it’s a transaction: if you are meek then you will be rewarded for that meekness by inheriting the earth, by which reward you will become blessed. But in the Greek the quality of being mákar is attended by inheritance of the earth. In the usual English translation, the value of being meek is utilitarian, teleological: it’s good to be meek because of the good results it brings. The value is in inheriting the earth. The usual English translation makes being meek a sound investment, and makes the rationale that runs through the beatitudes “rational self-interest,” the profit motive. In the Greek, though, the value of being meek is intrinsic, deontological.
I’ve tried other approaches. In a previous version of the beatitudes, the one in the sequence called “Synopsis” (in Legible Heavens and then First Fire, Then Birds), I used “replete” for makárioi. In The Gospel, I chose “graceful.” Maybe better, maybe not, but what I was aiming for was restoring the implications of the original that makárioi inheres in the person and has value in itself.
The beatitudes work by repetition. The intense repetition in your “Solo” feels like the intense repetition in A Love Supreme, which “Solo” cites (and there are numerous other jazz/music references throughout the book). But “I am beyond professing music now,” one of your speakers says in a later poem. How do experiences of music and other art forms relate to your work as a poet?
DD: Music and the visual arts nourish me as much as poetry; both artforms suggest a range of possibilities for what a poem can be (picture a poem as expansive and effusive as a Mingus composition, a poem as repetitive and minimalist as a Philip Glass piano etude, a poem as gesturally complex as a Jackson Pollock canvas from the drip period, a poem as Baroque and phenomenologically complex as Velázquez’s Las Meninas).
The work ethic of Jazz musicians inspires me. The romantic images of Sonny Rollins woodshedding to the wind on the Williamsburg Bridge and Charlie Parker playing for the cows in a pasture belie a daily and total commitment to their art that is common to all of the artists I most admire.
The goal for me is to be always engaged in poetry, to dwell in poems the way I might dwell in the red ochers and umbers of a Caravaggio or the blazing hues of a Basquiat.
Another moment in The Gospel that moved me occurs after Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and then returns to the temple to teach; the scribes and pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery for whom Mosaic Law mandates death by stoning. The scribes and pharisees ask Jesus what they should do with this woman. Jesus’ lengthy response turns into a Whitmanesque (and Blakean) view of divinity and humanity—the godhead in the biosphere: “This is wholeness of life, to know oneself in and of the whole.” I am thinking of the section that runs from “I am the first and the last” to “I am xe who cries out and xe who hears the cry” (104-106). What do you make of Jesus’ discourse at this moment?
HH: I share your attraction to that passage, which comes from an amazing text called Thunder, Perfect Mind, part of the Nag Hammadi find, that gives a first-person address by a female deity. It does have that quality you point out, that is familiar to us from Whitman and Blake. I think what I am drawn to is the contrast with our more usual epistemology. That dominant epistemology (whose champions would include Descartes) posits that everything is in principle explicable to the human mind, everything is subject to human reason. But what if that’s just not true? What if nothing is subject to human reason? Who am I then? How do I stand in relation to the world? This passage seems to me to take those questions seriously.
That passage doesn’t fulfill the usual preconception, the norm that has come to be associated with gospel writing. “Brief Instructions for Drawing…” is not a “My love is like a red, red rose”-type love poem. (Nor are the love poems that follow it.) What impels the veering away from that “normal” approach?
DD: Because of the misogyny embedded in the courtly love poem, the English and American poetic tradition has always invited a subversion of the power and clichés associated with erotic and romantic themes; Shakespeare’s sonnets are, of course, a huge pivot in the tradition.
In my own life, I’ve found that nothing has been more productive and more challenging than the love I share with my wife. Being in love is a choice, full of daily unromantic tasks and realities. Being in love is a political and moral act; for me, writing about love should be too. Being in love is both the most transformative and the most mundane experience a human being can undergo. To return a phrase of yours I quoted earlier, love offers us “a landscape of renewal” like the field offered by a poem. In a poem and in love, a new self is made by making.
HH: A related question arises for me in relation to your “Epithalamion with References to Philip K. Dick, Paul Klee, and Gene Roddenberry.” Your titles seem to equal parts orientation for the reader and disorientation. What is the relation for you between a poem and its title? What do titles do for you?
DD: Sometimes a title is like a light switch in a darkened room; it’s the first place you go to illuminate a text. Sometimes it’s a dimmer switch. Sometimes it’s a circuit breaker. Sometimes it’s a live wire, exposed and sparking. Sometimes it’s not wired into the structure of the poem at all. Sometimes it’s a satellite, a dose, an antidote.
My titles tend to be expository, subversive, allusive, and metapoetic. I’d like any title to orient and disorient simultaneously.
The Gospel constantly reoriented me as I read it. The passage I mentioned (about the discussion between Jesus and the scribes and pharisees) also recalled the ways in which The Gospel nuances (challenges, confirms, reorients) my understanding of gender and misogyny in the Christian scriptures. Is The Gospel a feminist text? Did your synthesis of the source material reorient your understanding of gender and misogyny in the Christian scriptures?
HH: Readers will have the final say on whether The Gospel is a feminist text, but my intention was to compose it as a feminist text, and my hope is that it may prove to be so. I take this as a criterion: if there is gospel — good news — that any given Gospel (Matthew’s or Thomas’s or mine) tries to give an account of, that good news is equally available to all persons. If it’s good news for white persons but not for persons of color, then it’s not good news at all. If it’s good news for men but not for women, then it’s not good news at all. I don’t claim success, but I did attempt to incline my Gospel in the direction of that feature of the gospel. It’s the impulse behind the gender-neutral pronouns for God and Jesus, and the coinages such as fother and xon.
An impulse behind a work is susceptible to personification as a muse or spirit. Asked who has been appointed in heaven as presiding spirits over this book, I would guess John Coltrane and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Who have you requested as presiding spirits?
DD: Those are the two greatest saints in my litany. Others for Ill Angels would include: Marc Chagall, Katsushika Hokusai, Cy Twombly, Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Elizabeth Cotten, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, John Fahey, Django Reinhardt, Robert Johnson, Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, Hounddog Taylor, R.L. Burnside, Akira Kurasawa, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Christopher Smart, Christopher Gilbert, William Blake, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Thérèse of Lisieux, Theresa of Avila, Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard, Li Bai, Federico García Lorca, Kobayashi Issa, Matsuo Bashō, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges.
Some fictional spirits I’d invoke: Prince Myshkin, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, Pierre Menard, Bartleby the Scrivener, Malte Luarids Brigge, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Zebra, Helen Dewitt’s Sybilla, Tom Bouman’s Henry Farrell.
In your author note at the end of the book, you mention your retelling of the Book of Job in First Fire, Then Birds and your redaction and translation of a sayings-gospel in Rain Inscription. How did writing those poems prepare you for writing The Gospel? Why do you consider those texts as poems, but you don’t consider The Gospel a poem? How would you compare your book God Bless with your project in The Gospel? Aren’t both projects conceptual poetry? What makes a poem a poem? Where do selection, translation, and arrangement end and invention, imagination, creation begin? (Note: I’m also thinking of some of the things you say in Demonstrategy and As Easy as Lying here.)
HH: Just to reiterate: thank you for this level of engagement, putting The Gospel into a context that includes my previous work. It is an act of intellectual/spiritual generosity, and I am grateful.
For me, this relates to the question we broached above, about genre: maybe my sense that genres are not tidy boxes only reveals how bad I am at keeping my writing in those boxes! But it also has to do with how much of my life experience is mediated experience. I spend a far larger portion of my waking day reading books and scanning screens than I do gazing at where two roads diverge in a yellow wood or listening to gathering swallows twitter in the skies. Consequently, as an attempt to come to terms with my life experience, my writing is more curatorial than diaristic, more about selection and arrangement than about production, more to do with composition than with invention.
We love magical origin stories for our works, according to which the poet or evangelist is the vehicle of a Higher Power — the Muses, or God — who speaks through the writer. But even pop-culture bromides such as “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” work at debunking the magical origin stories. As a poet, I find it liberating to eschew such origin stories: I perceive myself as having more agency if I’m working, not only hanging out, waiting for a visit from the Muse. And the texts themselves of the canonical Gospels indicate that their writers selected and arranged material from sources: in that regard, my Gospel is simply following precedent.
In addition to “mediated” cultural presences animating your poems, there are “immediate” physical presences. Apples, for instance, recur throughout. But it doesn’t feel to me like apple-as-mythic-symbol; it feels more Cezanne-ian or something…
DD: You’re right, there is something impressionistic (or post-impressionistic) about the way the apple recurs in my poems. I love the geometry of apples. I love the sound of the word “apple” and the almost endless number of varietals and their evocative names: imagine an orchard of Empires, a bushel of Jubilees, an Autumn Glory held in the palm of your hand. I’ve always loved apples and being in an orchard. My friend owns an orchard and I helped him plant many of the trees in it. My father dreamed of owning an apple orchard. My grandmother always used to make homemade apple sauce. I don’t employ the apple out of nostalgia, but I am drawn to it; it’s a deep image for me, as it is for many other people.
Last month, I was reading As Easy as Lying, your collection of essays on poetry published by Etruscan Press in 2002. At one moment in that book, you mention that nobody reads your first book anymore, Perfect Hell (Gibbs Smith, 1996). Of course, I immediately bought a copy. I was struck by the way Perfect Hell contains all the wilding seeds that would orchard your oeuvre…Even The Gospel is there, and yet, in many respects, it’s a very traditional debut featuring short lyric poems. This assessment isn’t meant in a derogatory sense; it’s an amazing book, for the dialogue opened through your titles alone. And the poems! (I love “Another Winter, Farther Away” and “Reasons” and “1 Is the Point, 2 the Line, 3 the Triangle, 4 the Pyramid”). The point is, I would never guess that the poet behind Perfect Hell would one day write Chromatic or Rain Inscription or, indeed, The Gospel. Could you talk about your journey from Perfect Hell to The Gospel? How has poetry changed for you? How has poetry changed you? How has the poetry world changed?
HH: One way to respond to this would be to connect it to our earlier discussion of the beatitudes. Perfect Hell tries to perform (its poiesis is) ergon, the root of such English words as work and urge and orgy. The Gospel values mákar more, and seeks to do/be makários. That long-lost me wanted to secure a place in the world, and apparently thought he could. These days, the perplexity more present to the present me is how to let go the world.
When I was writing Perfect Hell, the metaphor of building would have seemed apt to what I thought I was doing; nowadays, the metaphor of mushroom-hunting seems more applicable.
There’s a moment in the Investigations when Wittgenstein says “The real discovery is the one that makes us capable of stopping doing philosophy when we want to.” In my Perfect Hell days, I wanted to be capable of doing. In my Gospel days I want to be capable of stopping doing.
Both books, Perfect Hell and The Gospel, aspire to the attention-to-everything that gives your poems such precision! (“… filigreed like the grip / of a cavalry officer’s pistol / in a black and white western…”) How does one sustain such precise attention?
DD: In As Easy As Lying, you mention that we might think of the training of a poet in the same way that we think of the training of an Olympic athlete (as an ongoing everyday process). You mentioned Fear and Trembling earlier and Kierkegaard’s insight from that book comes to mind: “faith is a process of infinite becoming.” The ongoing training, the infinite becoming, that manifests sporadically as poetry demands this kind of attention. Paradoxically, attaining this type of attention, if not sustaining it, drives such training and becoming forward.
Put more simply: to invoke the awe and wonder you also mentioned earlier, there is so much to love and to uplift and to be stupefied by in this world, there is so much strangeness and grotesquery and astonishment to be undone by in this world, how can a poem not recognize such richness (and such lack) in all its intricate particularity?
In your excellent book on W. S. Merwin, you mention Merwin’s notion that one should find a poet or two to read exhaustively and repeatedly. Besides Merwin, who have been those poets for you? Also, I know we share a love of G. M. Hopkins. I was wondering if you could share some thoughts about him?
HH: I’m sure we all have our lists of those poets whose work has had an especially transformative effect on us, and/or whose work has been an especially lasting presence for us. Hopkins is definitely one of those poets for me. I’ve tried periodically, though so far unsuccessfully, to write an essay about why Hopkins was transformative for me and remains a lasting presence.
At least one element of my response to Hopkins, though, has direct connection with The Gospel. I was raised in a religious tradition committed to the doctrine that divine inspiration has ceased. God spoke through the writers of the books of the (Protestant Christian) Bible, I was taught, but then, once those books were written down, stopped speaking. (I take the point to be, not that God is capricious or has withdrawn from involvement with humans, but that the Bible is complete and sufficient.) But when (in second-semester British Lit, sophomore year, sitting at the plywood desk in my dorm room) I read “The Windhover,” I felt that it was not so. This was the first clear moment of my departure from received religion, the sense “The Windhover” secured to me, that I could not have put into words at that time but did experience viscerally: that inspiration had not ceased, and that if any words were the words of God, those words were.
My religious beliefs are quite different now from how they were at that time, but Hopkins still exemplifies for me the principle that if I want to address what is “higher” than myself, I need to “elevate” my language. If I want to be in touch with what exceeds me, I’d better “language up.”
I hear in your work that same impulse to be in touch with what exceeds you. It’s hard not to take your question addressed to your daughter as a question any poet might ask, so I ask it back to you: “… these lines might not survive / their own inception, but so what?”
DD: For me, as for you, and for most other writers I am sure, we cannot live otherwise. I read and write because I know the truth of John Donne’s “Since I die daily, daily mourn.” I choose to live in the word because it allows me to enter more fully the greater mystery of being alive, in all its unbounded ecstasy and deep sorrow. My reading and writing lives lend me the discipline to try to move beyond the manifold vertiginous fictions of the self, to continue a turning outward, to love more, to more fully be.
What impact has translating, selecting, and arranging The Gospel had on your poetry? What project are you working on now/next?
HH: I hope they have informed one another, been integrated and reciprocal in their mutual influence.
By received distinctions (such as the genres we discussed earlier in this conversation, or disciplinary divisions as they are codified in university departments) my work is a discombobulated mess. And maybe that assessment is accurate! But I experience as unified and coherent the life commitment that received distinctions identify here as poetry, there as translation.
It all feels of a piece to me.