Tuesday, March 26, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Melanie Hubbard

Melanie Hubbard won the 2011 Book Award in Poetry from Subito Press for We Have With Us Your Sky (2012). A chapbook, Gilbi Winco Swags, was published by Cannibal Books in 2008. Poems have appeared in Fence, Swink, Typo, horse less review, Cannibal, and Strange Machine. Reviews, scholarly articles, and personal essays have appeared in a variety of periodicals. She has taught at New College of Florida, Eckerd College, and the University of Tampa. She received a PhD in literature from Columbia University and is writing a book on Emily Dickinson’s poetics and practices in manuscript.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
You know, with We Have With Us Your Sky, I have felt so very welcomed by other poets, as if the circle widened just a bit to include me, and I feel so connected now, nearly daily, through FaceBook (I had been a FB denier!), to peers I hadn’t previously known. It’s as if I had been waiting to be asked to the dance, and now that I’m dancing, I’m doing all these other things poets do, like interviewing, reviewing, and administering a reading series at my town’s cultural center. These were things I did sporadically or had the potential to do, and honestly I wish I hadn’t waited so long to sort of let myself be a poet. I am a recovering academic, and I think having the poetry book come out has been a tipping point: I need to trust this other vocation—not to make me a living but to be how I live.

My current project, conceived as a book from the get-go (which is unusual for me), has me working with found material—an outgrowth of my fondness for sampling. Called Auto-Suggestion for Mothers, it’s an erasure, and painted treatment, page by page, of a 1924 book of the same name, in the spirit of Tom Phillips’ A Humument and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os. I have loved A Humument for so very long, and hardly dared dream I might do something like it. Since the work has a visual-arts component, it’s very different from my previous. But these are poems, and there’s an air about ‘em that is probably all  mine. Part of the reason I chose to work on pages, I think, was to open my writing to an even greater range of thought and experience: the book, and my operations upon it, takes me places I wouldn’t necessarily go on my own, allows odder ways to say unsayable things, and fosters greater leaps between image-idea-feeling complexes. Also I get to blow up the lyric enclosure.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think it was probably through my religious upbringing; being read to from the gospels or psalms really puts a rhythm into you, and an appreciation for the piquant image: that plus the soulful side of rock in the 1970s. I was given Dickinson early, and felt (as one does) known by her. My family put a premium on both word-play and music, and everything about my adolescence was inexpressible; so poetry was a lifeline. That may be a poet-making formula.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Quickly, I’d say; no notes! I used to have to write very quickly before my aperture, as it were, would close up again; I was that uptight. I still think of writing as a process, pretty much a spiritual process, of being open, so a lot of it is getting myself into a relaxed and ready frame of mind. But I sure do revise.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Usually a poem will begin with a line, or even just a phrase. I once was out walking and an old lady on a bike crossed my path; we stopped to chat about the wind-storm and suspected tornado of the night before, and she said, “I just pray a hedge around me.” And I think I literally said “thank you,” and ran right home and began writing “The Supple Hellion.”

Usually I have short pieces that I can combine because they begin to want to be together. So this ‘book project’ lately is quite different for me. Still, I am in effect writing short pieces on each page, and I have to trust that they have something to say in toto.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I expect that my poems really need to be read aloud by a person, perhaps as Pinter’s plays need to be acted; many people who are not ordinarily poetry readers have told me that my readings helped them ‘get’ the poems, that the voice brought inflections, stops, and turns, attitudes and tones that they hadn’t, maybe, ‘heard’ in the printed text. At any rate, I cannot do without the sound of the human. I love speech. In fact maybe I’d state more strongly that the subaltern can speak, that there is no system and it is not total, that the imperfections and slippages of systems, histories, and languages are exactly where you put the spanner in the works. I identify with Caliban: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t. Is, I know how to curse.”

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’ve been thinking about linguistics lately—I read an article in the New Yorker about a fellow, John Quijada, who has invented a philosophically comprehensive and clear language, so that you can express anything expressible by meditating upon the essential attributes and inflections of your subject, picking the appropriate phonemes and particles, and in effect putting together a word or short series of words to articulate your perception. It’s as if he’s blocked out a periodic table of the elements of linguistic apprehension, and by the way mapped out all the empty squares. Poets are amateur linguists, because our task is to articulate the as-yet-unarticulated, to think the perhaps nearly impossible thing to think given our current structures of perception. But I’d say, too, that poets are actually expert linguists and philosophers, because the linguistic turn in our accounts of reality necessitates a self-conscious account of mediation, that is, the materiality of our systems of representation. Language is a thing, and it isn’t transparent, though a linguist like Quijada has done his best to make it so. So poets have an advantage in that for us language is already acknowledged as a material with a complex political, cultural, and philosophical history, and the task is to see how the tool has already shaped our consciousness, and to use consciousness to reshape the tool. Performing complex operations on ourselves in the dark, as Berryman says. The other thing is, poets recognize some basic brain-moves composing reality—we perceive by way of contiguity, resemblance, and cause-and-effect (metonymy, metaphor, narrative)—so that the metaphoric leap is not only a shorthand way of saying something, it is probably the only way; we fill in a square in the table of the unsaid, and we also experience a primal delight in perception. Furthermore (she said, warming to her topic), language isn’t static, and neither is experience; we do not use language simply for descriptions of reality. Poetry has the advantage, as an approach to understanding, because it plays with tone, movement, relationships, time—all elements of embodied, social being that a philosophically ‘clear’ language cannot hope to either model or intervene upon.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writing is one form of action, and politics is another form; for the good of the writing, it cannot become propaganda; and even engaged literary writing is not, from a political point of view, enough, by way of action. It might be a prelude to action, renovating the perceptions on a socio-political level, as analysis and critique, but written things tend to operate one person at a time. I do not underestimate the political power of attempting to ‘make’ truly enlightened individuals, who may then act with incredible finesse to move others. But so many problems are systemic and call for direct action, which often enough involves writing, but not of the literary kind. I think a poetics can hold or imply a politics, but I wouldn’t want to essentialize (or demonize) any one way of writing; writing has to be situated, rhetorical, in response—as does politics. So I am a pragmatist.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Helpful. And most appreciated. Probably the best editor I’ve ever worked with is Mike Wilson of the St. Petersburg Times; we found I could write personal essays, which he edited with a light but firm touch and much praise—praise is so important. I have had lovely perspicacious editing from scholarly colleagues, the kind that makes you make your sharpest, most thrilling case. For poems, my first editor is my husband, the poet A. McA. Miller, and it is usually both difficult and essential; he is ‘outside’ enough, because he’s a different sort of poet and a very demanding reader. Often enough he’ll get me to see something, and I’ll either be glad for the hand or, honestly, I get a little cranky! I seem to think that I should be able to see everything, every possible implication of the choices I’ve made on the page—when really another pair of objective eyes can point out that trail of toilet paper  . . .

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Learn a trade.” And I am eternally grateful to whoever first told me to read and do The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Recently I spent far too many hours poring over photocopies of archival material—people’s compositions and sermons from the mid-nineteenth century in New England—and really had a quiet little blast confirming my earlier perceptions of certain aspects of these writings. These minutiae are historical bedrock; my project seeks to go from certain physical traces and practices in Dickinson’s manuscripts to their cultural contexts and thence to the philosophical principles inhering in them—so I really am getting to be Indiana Jones and Daniel Dennett both; in my case I hope to detect what Dickinson thought about language, and more specifically writing, by a sort of deep looking into her practices and into the cultural contexts that fostered them. Serving Dickinson is a way of doing my dharma to the art, not to mention having an awesome guru, while clarifying, through the study of another’s poetics, my own.

It’s not that my poems want to be philosophical treatises, but I hope that by thinking theoretically, really learning what it is I think, I can leave behind any temptations to persuade. As Keats said, we hate poetry that has designs on us. But if the design is inherent, if it is truly a pattern, it is music not idea. Poetry is a form of thinking wed to its embodiment; there is really no other way to think. So I guess I think my way out of thinking to poetry. Or, poetry saves me from so much thinking.

I usually toggle back and forth, over months and years, between them.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I get up and do all my morning things, usually including a walk and journaling and some stretches, then do the scholarly writing or at least try for several hours before lunch. I read in the afternoons and evenings, or, these days, sometimes, I paint for hours on end (or try to) over an entire weekend. For a good while, I drafted poems (as erasures) for the first ‘good’ writing hour of the morning, then switched to prose. I felt so very productive! But now the poetry project really needs longer stretches of time, because it is revision, and so I’ll set aside a morning, and I wish it were every week, but it’s not. I’ll get two or three erasures into some kind of shape (in typescript) and then show them to Mac. When I had a teaching schedule, all the really heavy lifting had to wait for winter and summer breaks, and I’d tend to write poems on the fly, even during meetings and quizzes.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I need to take a break in the midst of writing, and this is the scholarly writing, which I find hardest, I get up and eat candy. I love Bit O’Honeys, and also licorice, real licorice, which you know generates this incredible liquor. It is disgusting, like chaw. I wander around a little bit, then I sit down again and see what I can do. Writing poems (and personal essays, I used to) is not hard in the same way; it’s like painting, it’s all in the (unconscious) prep work; once I’m there, it goes on smooth, which is not to say perfectly; but even revision is a pleasure, and I go hard until I have to take a break and then I’m just done for a while. The whole issue is really procrastination. Which is fear of failure, mostly, but also perhaps a certain temporizing until the elves on the inside are truly ready. B.F. Skinner wrote a slim volume called Intellectual Self-Management in Old Age, and that’s a handy term for both the discipline and slack necessary to bring art about. The trick is to know which is needed—discipline or slack.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Chicken shit. Alas. But the fragrance of my heart’s home is probably emanating from beds of brown pine needles, warm in the sun, on a light breeze, and the soapy musk of palmettos blooming, and later in the year, the ultra-sweet scent of hog plum blossoms by the river, and of course orange blossoms.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes. I was going to be cheeky and stop there! I love all of the above. Because of my current project, I’m especially tuned into the visual arts right now, crazy for images and ideas, and learning so much; I’ve been going to museums a lot more, but also just experimenting at home. In fact this art-making feels very like a chemistry lab, trying out cause and effect, and I feel extra-professional if I’m wearing my apron.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve been reading haiku for a while now, in R. H. Blyth’s translations, and it’s like fishing. I don’t need to catch the fish. I just sit out there and drift, track butterflies and birds, rather like a cat. I guess you could call that meditating! Or I get all into trying to read the Japanese, which Blyth provides both in transliterated syllables and in ideograms; nouns are the easiest to spot, and certain inflections such as the genitive particle, and sometimes I just enjoy the fact that, to me, the ideogram for rain looks like splats on a window. I’ve also been looking at Anne Carson’s Sappho in Fragments, and thinking about these as erasures, and the legitimacy of our constructions and impositions on this material over milennia; also I can’t help trying to learn the Greek, and will soon enough get the alphabet straight so I really can see ‘kallistos’ and think ‘beautiful.’ (Erm, I hope that’s right!)

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
That is the hardest question on this test! I would like to travel more, maybe even live in an entirely different culture for a while; that is the easier answer. My life’s deeper answers will, I think, reveal themselves the more I truly come out and play.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Perhaps ‘being an artist’ is the path I’ve never trusted to actually earn me a living; ‘being a poet’ I never expected to earn me a living. Teaching is so satisfying, so challenging, a spiritual path in its own right. If I were not a writer at all, I think I could still be happy as a teacher. I am happiest when I am doing and being both.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is very safe. You can hide. You can formulate your thoughts, or articulate your feelings, safe in your abandon cave; no one will bother you. Until, that is, you let others in. But still you can hide. I think I never got the hang of having and articulating feelings while I was having them, and being received with them fully and unconditionally, and so the whole ‘self-expression’ thing was thwarted, frustrated, complicated, impossible. There’s a saying that writers are people for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others. That fits.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Anvil: The Story of Anvil has a permanent place in my heart for its mock-doc and totally sincere depiction of middle-class, middle-aged artistic failure and striving. I just love those guys; and if you’ve ever been a ‘finalist’ for a prize, say, more than once, you begin to think you’ll never make it, and maybe you rethink what ‘making it’ really is. Lately I’ve been so impressed with two books: Michelle Naka Pierce’s Continuous Frieze Bordering Red, and Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say. Each is a tour de force. I believe we’re living in a very rich era for poetry, right this second.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Naming my perfectionism as the soul-sucking killer it really is.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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