Q & A: H. L. Hix
This is, in a way, a narrative poem without a narrative, or at least without all of the contextualizing and propulsive details and events that we ordinarily expect in a narrative. It’s like getting a single scene from a movie (and the poem is itself very cinematic), but the reader/viewer is left wondering what, exactly, the story is. Why is this? What was your intention?
I’ve been interested for some time in the elements of narrative, and have a pet theory that all poetry, whether or not it calls itself “narrative poetry,” employs narrative. I just mean that, if we think of narrative as composed not only of plot (a sequence of events in a cause-and-effect relationship) but also of setting, character, “machinery,” and motive (Kenneth Burke’s act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, or journalism’s who, what, when, where, why), then we’re free to recognize narrative even where plot is not the most prominent element. I would say, then, that in this poem I’m more focused on setting and character than on plot. I’m less interested in the events that preceded or followed the events depicted in the poem (in, for instance, whether or not the killers were caught) than in the fact that the victim dies in this very specific place, a place that in some way archives his family history and his personal failures: the relation, in other words, between setting and character.
Narrative poems are very much out of fashion; indeed they are actively criticized in some quarters of the poetry world as being false to the chaotic, associative, and fragmentary way we experience our lives. Is this something you thought about at all when writing this poem? Is the poem in any way a reaction?
I’m sure this poem is a reaction to (against) that sort of criticism. The concepts “chaotic,” “associative,” and “fragmentary” are no more settled in their meaning, or in their relationship to lived experience, than is “narrative.” So I agree with anyone who regards our experience as chaotic, associative, and/or fragmentary (terms I find applicable to my own experience), but that doesn’t mean we’re unique in that. (Yes, I experience my life as chaotic and fragmentary, but the idea that my life as a middle-class poet and professor in the us in 2010 is more chaotic and fragmentary than that of a Soviet peasant in 1932, say, or that of a butler in Victorian England strikes me as a perverse and narcissistic delusion.) Even those of us who find our experience fragmentary and chaotic still seek to recognize our experience as narrative: to see events in our lives as valuable and meaningful, connected to one another in intelligible ways.
It’s odd how little terror the man on the mattress seems to have—less, really, than the reader feels. Why is this?
I’m curious about the frequent disproportion between the magnitude of an event and the scale or intensity of the feeling(s) it precipitates. We see this most often, in our particular culture and time, as sentimentality and melodrama: feelings are more dramatic than the situation warrants. I suspect that this gets played up for commercial and political reasons: I become more malleable, more susceptible to fulfilling the interests of others (buying a company’s product, say) if I overreact than if I underreact. So what about the opposite condition? We sometimes describe, for instance, experiencing “numbness” when we should feel grief. That, it seems to me, exemplifies a feeling’s being less dramatic than the situation warrants, and I want in my work to explore why we sometimes respond in that way, and what follows from that kind of response. That’s why the poem spends more time inside the bound man’s head than in the heads of the others.
Can you say something about the form of this poem—how you arrived at it, its necessity in terms of the poem’s overall effect?
I’m skeptical of the “Kubla Khan”-type, “this-poem-arrived-whole-while-I-was-in-a-laudanum-induced-reverie” tale about a poem’s origin, and no opiates were employed in the production of this poem—but, well, it did come to me in a dream. Not the words, as Coleridge claimed for his poem, but the images and the people: a man duct-taped to a mattress, three men watching from a hillside as a barn burns at night, and so on. The drafts experimented with various formal approaches, but having started as prose—my scribbled notations on waking from that dream—the poem seemed to want to stay in that condition, so it finally settled into a prose-like phrasal rhythm. I often apply “numerical” forms (lines with a certain number of syllables or a recurring metrical pattern), but here the lineation insisted on relating most immediately to the phrasing, and on reflecting rather than contesting it.
Can you say something about the style of the poem? It seems very deliberately “unpoetic” throughout, and yet there’s a slight but powerful tug toward lyricism in the title and in the last verse paragraph.
I’m intrigued by the relationship between “the poetic” and “poetry.” I think by “poetic” we often mean whatever it is we expect a poem to look like: whatever features we project onto a poem, whatever parameters we impose on it. But I’m more excited by the unexpected in poetry than by the expected. I’m excited when I read poetry that shows me what I didn’t know a poem could be, or does something I didn’t know a poem could do, or even does something I thought a poem couldn’t do, so I try very hard to be “unpoetic,” on the premise that, just as Socrates’ wisdom consisted in recognition of his ignorance and Jesus’s divinity depended on his defiance of the religiosity expected of him, so what poetry I am capable of will derive somehow from my being willfully “unpoetic.”
Speaking of Jesus, it’s hard not to think of Biblical language when one hears the word “handiwork.” There’s “the Heavens declare the glory of God/And the firmament showeth his handiwork” from the Psalms. And there’s “For we are God’s handiwork . . .” from Ephesians. Is the echo intentional? If so, why?
The echo is probably less intentional than inevitable. My first attunement to language, my first inkling that language conditions one’s relationship to other persons and to the world, and also conditions one’s spiritual well-being, came from the Bible and from the Bible-bound sermons of Southern Baptist preachers I heard twice a week throughout my childhood and youth. I feel certain that, though I no longer associate myself with any religious community and would now call myself an atheist, the language of the Bible, especially of the King James Version, will be for me, in some important sense, always my “first language.”
The word “handiwork” has a particular resonance for me. For all the aspects of my family background against which I rebel, one to which I have acquiesced is the valuation placed on work that connects it to character and to spirituality. Even though everyone in the generation before me (my parents, my aunts and uncles) worked at office jobs or owned a business, every last one of them, I’m sure, would describe him- or herself as “blue-collar.” I seem to have soaked up that fantasy: here I am at my desk, fancy fountain pen in hand, living out the effete vocation of writing poems, but what I claim is not to be more “inspired” than the next poet, only to work harder. (I’m told William Stafford did, and Ted Kooser does, get up at four o’clock in the morning to write, so dammit I get up at four o’clock in the morning to write; when I read about some poet who gets up at three o’clock in the morning, that’s what I’ll do.) So what terrifies me in the poem is not the threat of being duct-taped to a mattress but that one’s handiwork—that test of character and measure of spiritual well-being—might be, not beneficent and edifying, but idle or even destructive, which would make it true of me that “myself am Hell.”