Michael Heller was educated as an engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While working as a technical writer for Sperry Gyroscope, he met several former students of Louis Zukofsky, who introduced him to the work of a wide range of contemporary poets, which led him to begin writing poetry. In 1964 he won the New School’s Coffey Poetry Prize and went abroad to continue to study and write. His poems first appeared in print in the nineteen sixties while he was living in a small village on Spain’s Andalusian coast. In 1967, after returning to the U.S., he took a position at New York University. Since then, he has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction, including Accidental Center (1972), In The Builded Place (1979), Wordflow (1997), Exigent Futures (2003), Living Root: A Memoir (2000) and the prize-winning collection of essays, Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985). Among his most recent works are a volume of poems, Eschaton (2009), a mixed genre work, Beckmann Variations & other poems (2010) and Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (2008, expanded edition, 2012). His newest collection is This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Nightboat Books, 2012). Since the nineteen-nineties, he has been collaborating with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson on multimedia works including the opera, Constellations of Waking (2000), based on the life of the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, and the multimedia works, This Art Burning (2008) and Out of Pure Sound (2010), all of which premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. His writings on contemporary poetry, Judaic thought and on the intersections of Buddhist and Western philosophy and practice have appeared in various essay collections and journals. Among his many awards are grants and prizes from the Nation Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America and The Fund for Poetry. A frequent traveler to Europe, he resides in New York City and spends his summers in the Colorado mountains. He is married to the poet and scholar Jane Augustine.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a very small handmade and handsewn chapbook entitled Two Poems published by the anything but perishable Perishable Press run by Walter Hamady who made the paper, set the type and created these very beautiful works on a hand press in limited editions. That book of four or five pages of poetry now sells for hundreds of dollars, and I’m lucky to have saved a few for my old age. While I think of that book with great satisfaction and a feel of belonging to some kind of community—Hamady’s list was a virtual who’s who of modernist poets from Creeley to Duncan to Oppen to Schwerner—my life had been changed a bit earlier, irreversibly I think, not by my work but by reading other poets, in particular Oppen whom I had met and who gave me an example of a stance and being in poetry which I hope I have never abandoned. There was a short period in the mid-1960s when I thought of giving up writing poetry but that did not mean that I would stop reading it or turning to it for a pleasure and significance larger than any conception I can put into words.
Early work and late? In my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning, etc., etc. Despite my own sense that I am a writer without a definite program or even “poetics,” I was delighted when one reviewer of my work referred to it as “the new negative capability.” And yet I can look on previous work and see continuities, themes, linguistic codes of behaviour, shaping impulses. And possibly, there is a progression of these continuities, a deepening, added flesh on the bones and paradoxically more condensation and economical treatment of material, of technical impulses, but I think that is for readers and critics to determine.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In fact, I came to fiction first. I’ve taken a total of two writing workshops in my life, both at the New School in the early sixties. The first was a fiction writing course taught by the literary critic, Charles Glicksberg, a sweet elderly teacher, very enthusiastic about any piece of writing that showed even the merest possibility of talent. The other was a poetry writing course with Kenneth Koch, a marvelous teacher who drew many poets to his workshop. In my class were Kathleen Fraser, Hannah Weiner, Tony Towle, Mary Ferrari, visits by 16-year old David Shapiro and other young poets, as well as the occasional drop-ins by Ashbery, Gary Snyder and O’Hara.
The fiction course was a year earlier than Koch’s workshop, and while taking it, my father gave me one of those city histories of Bialystok, Poland where my father’s side of our family came from. The book was a chronological history with long lists of civic, social and political organizations, portraits and group shots of rabbis, famous people and movements, and crucial moments in the city’s existence. In the case of Bialystok, these were records of the city’s enduring sophisticated intellectual life, its prominence in European arts, sciences and politics and then, tragically, the destruction of all that in the Shoah. At first, I tried to write a “roots’ type of autobiographical novel, but I really had no skill for such an undertaking. After I had turned to poetry, I wrote “Bialystok Stanzas,” a poetic sequence. Much later, in the 1990s, after my parents died and I acquired a great deal of their memorabila, I wrote Living Root: A Memoir, a book-length work of prose and poetry in what I call “Jewish haibun” or proto-midrash. Haibun is the name for the Japanese poetic diary, a multi-genre work of poetry and prose. Living Root consisted of a weave of prose, poetry and commentary on the themes of tradition, poetry, family, history including that of Bialystok. One reviewer of the book referred to Bialystok as a “shetel,” but with a population of over 100,000 people (a majority Jewish), it was one of the richest intellectual and cultural places on earth.
But to return to the thrust of your question, I went from prose to poetry by a circuitous, blundering method, with no a prior thought of being a poet. In the early 1960s, after I had graduated from RPI with a degree in engineering, I worked as a tech writer for the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation and met some former students of Zukofsky’s, whom you may remember taught at Brooklyn Poly. They introduced me to his work and to the modernist lineage of American poetry, Pound, Williams, the Black Mountain and Objectivist poets, etc. It was then that I began to write poetry. I took Koch’s class, won a little prize from the New School, and that propelled me into a “career” as a poet. I gave up my good job in New York and went to live in a small village in Spain, publishing my first work while there, which I guess sort of sealed my fate.
Of course, now I find myself doing a lot of different kinds of writing, not only poetry and fiction, but memoir, essays, working on collaborations with composers and artists, activities coming naturally, seamlessly in the ongoing flow of one’s writing life.
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?
For me, the “start” of a project is a mysterious occurrence, usually happenstance or some jolt of an idea or incident, and not necessarily deemed a “project” as opposed to being a jotting, a poem, a bit of prose. I recently went over 30 plus years of rough drafts, organizing them for a sale of my papers and archives to Stanford and saw how work evolved in different ways and over different spans of time from being “finished” immediately to taking years of pondering, recasting and even abandoning only to reclaim again. This just happens to be my writing history and by no means any kind of formula or recommendation for anyone else.
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?
See my answer to questions above. In general, when I start on something, I have only a vague sense of how it will turn out. But, also, I’ve been writing long enough to know that eventually a book or project will result.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I very much enjoy doing readings. When I am writing something, I do listen for the sound of it, the cadences of the language as much as anything else I do as a poet or even lecturer. I hope that a reading expresses my working of the words and syntax and captures my thought with some clarity, and that an audience will benefit from the emotional and intellectual construct I’ve created. But ultimately I write for myself, out of my concerns. I write to see what I can learn or recognize, what can be embodied from the complexities of my experience, including, and I’m saying this in a very shorthanded way, that of language. One hopes the listener gets some of that and wants more.
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 directly address the question of theoretical concerns in two essays of mine in my most recent collection of essays, Uncertain Poetries just reissued by Shearsman, “Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words” and “Aspects of Poetics,” though elsewhere in my writing on poetry, I also discuss the problem of holding theories and a priori conceptions. I begin “Aspects” with a remark by Proust that “a work in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price tag on it.” As I see it, these heavy price tags delimit both a reader’s response and a poet’s act of creation. My belief is that poetry is precisely the medium which mounts a resistance to theoretical concerns, and that even where poets write with theory in mind, poetry, in a sense, defeats them, as poetry defeats discourses of all sorts. Perhaps, unavoidably, as I write in “Aspects,” we all hold, consciously or unconsciously, certain theories and conceptions about ours and others’ writings, but that one of the duties of the poet might be to find out what they are and overcome them, mainly for the sake of his or her poetry. The French poet Yves Bonnefoy puts it well in his little book on Rimbaud where he insists that poetry is first and foremost “the will to resist.” So for me, the current question, the perennial question, is the nature of resistance.
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?
The role of the writer is to write and through that process to make discoveries or enunciate discoveries about his or her life, our lives, our culture, our politics, our use of language, our histories. From that writing, mostly indirect (but sometime direct) social or political consequences may flow, unacknowledged legislation, etc. Naturally, being a writer does not preclude one from being a citizen or member of society and acting according to one’s social and political ideals.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t have much opportunity to work directly with editors, but there is a community of readers, commentators, friends and enemies who supply feedback, all to be taken in and processed.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Be friendly, be open, and when irritated or angry, as a Buddhist teacher once wrote, “change your attitude and relax.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I move between genres frequently, often having a number of balls in the air at the same time. Can’t speak for anyone else, but this just happens spontaneously for me, which is appeal enough.
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 tend to gravitate to my study after breakfast, but am easily distracted or easily bored and get up and go somewhere else. If something is on my mind or if some idea has begun to cook, I can approach it anytime during the day. In the evening, I tend to watch movies, listen to music, read books or head out for a reading, a gallery opening or dinner with friends.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t think or worry about being “stalled.” I like to wrestle with language—so I feel something will always turn up, will always turn on my linguistic engines.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Every occasion has its complex sensorium. If I’m by the ocean, I’m reminded of Miami Beach where I grew up. Woody or pine resin aromas take me to Colorado where my wife and I spend our summers. Yesterday, I made a Provencal cassoulet, which reminded me of my step-daughter’s wedding near Toulouse and how much better tasting was the cassoulet cooked in a tiny shed by the groom’s brother and served at the wedding dinner.
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?
All the arts impinge on the writer. As does everything else. I’ve written that language and poetry are not prison houses but clearing houses; everything gets felt and tested there. The whole world beats on the body of the poet and gives the poet’s language its particular tonalities.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
To answer this question, I’d have to reprint all the lists of Works Cited in my books, and that wouldn’t be even half of them.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Another endless list, dependent on my winning a Powerball lottery.
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?
While writing is a fulltime activity, I don’t classify it as an occupation. I have wished I were a jazz pianist on many occasions and also dreamt of being a chef.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Doing what? Since my late twenties, this question has never come up.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
“Great” is not a very useful concept for me. Every work now in every medium, even frivolous or genre-based, is instructive. The works that leave a beyond-my-understanding feeling of greatness are numerous, in poetry and literature, in film, in music and opera, in all the arts. I wouldn’t know how to explain or justify naming one over another.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A very big book of mine (over 600 pages), This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 has just been published by Nightboat Books. As I wrote to one friend, I hope this tome is not a tomb, so in addition to promoting the book, I am working on poems, some new prose and collecting yet another batch of published essays into a new book. At this exact moment, I am revising a talk I gave at Purdue in March on Walter Benjamin and developing a poetry and prose piece on the painter Max Beckmann to go with an expanded version of my “Beckmann Variations” published in 2010.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;