A crossing point for ideas, words, images, and energies

To See with Different Eyes

A Conversation: Katerina Stoykova, David Caplan, H. L. Hix

Katerina Stoykova, How God Punishes (Broadstone Books, 2017)

David Caplan, Into My Garden (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020)

HH: When I went back to re-read these two books, one thing I noticed that I hadn’t noticed before is the presence of the question.  David’s poems often pose questions (by my count, six of the first seven poems in the book, for example, include a question); in Katerina’s book the very first page of poetry identifies erasing the questions as one of the ways God punishes, and the very last page takes the form of a Q&A.  Am I overemphasizing the presence or the importance of the question in How God Punishes and Into My Garden?

DC: I think you are right: questioning is very important to the poems of Into My Garden. Many consider life in a yeshiva, an institution devoted to the study of traditional Jewish texts. The speaker of many of the poems is both like and unlike me. He struggles to understand how he might live a life faithful to the ideas he wrestles with. In this context, questioning does not violate religious belief. It is an important part of it.

Many of the books that the speaker studies, Chassidic discourses and Talmudic tractates, involve questioning and debate. In Chassidic discourses, the leader of a Chassidic sect might raise a number of questions about a seeming anomaly in a Biblical passage. The Talmud presents generations of sages debating issues that range from the technical to the theological. In the yeshiva’s study hall, partners read and translate these texts from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. They pose questions to each other in order to understand what they are reading. A good question, the precise, searching raising of a telling difficulty, is highly prized. I was attracted to this environment because the concerns that drive the yeshiva students struck me as profound. Why does the soul descend into this world? Why is holiness so deeply concealed?

KS: In How God Punishes the title itself could be considered a question. Each poem in the collection silently refers to the book title and offers an aspect of the answer. Those answers, however, instead of quieting the questions, create more. I see How God Punishes as a book about the ego and its universal filters that cause us to destroy ourselves. It’s a book about learning to make different decisions and learning to see with different eyes. Despite the frightening title, the book was supposed to be ironic, if not funny at times. At least I see it as such. Questioning is important, whether the questions are implicit or explicit.

HH: Various elements of what you’re saying (e.g. that yeshiva students pose questions in order to understand, that How God Punishes is about how to decide differently and see differently…) strike me as dispositional.  Your observations start a chain of associations for me.  A month or two ago I read a book, The Scientific Attitude, in which the author, Lee McIntyre, argues that science is not characterized primarily by a method, but by an attitude of caring about evidence and being willing to change one’s understanding on the basis of evidence.  And I find myself often applying James P. Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite games, games “played for the purpose of winning” and games played “for the purpose of continuing the play.”  And (of course?) Keats’s “negative capability,” the capability of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

I’m not trying to equate those ideas, with one another or with what you’ve just said, but they all seem to me related to disposition.  Both books, Into My Garden and How God Punishes, seem amenable to description as manifesting and cultivating a disposition of openness, curiosity, flexibility, and so on.

DC: Harvey, I certainly hope my poetry shows what you call “a disposition of openness, curiosity, flexibility, and so on.” At the same time, it is useful to distinguish between a poetic method/ attitude and the Torah study that the yeshiva students practice.

My first time at yeshiva, I found myself falling behind in our study of the Talmud, a challenging dialectic text written in concise, allusive rabbinic Aramaic. I organized some extra practice study to the already long day and diligently charted the argument (the various sides, issues, etc.) between the sages that we had been studying. After several days, I was finally caught up and very eager to see how the argument we had been working through would conclude. We translated a new passage in the text until I got a phrase that roughly meant, “When Elijah comes” then the section concluded. I asked my study partner what this curious phrase meant. He said that we will know the answer to the debate we had been studying when the Messiah comes. We won’t know until then.

Of course, I found that conclusion to be frustrating at the time, but it also offers an important lesson. From a traditional Jewish perspective, to study these texts is to immerse oneself in God’s will and wisdom. It also to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom. There is a limit to “playfulness” and “openness.” When a student studies a Chassidic discourse and thinks he sees a problem (a contradiction, for instance), the assumption is that the student does not understand the text; the mistake is his. That is not to say the students don’t struggle with the sacred books they read. They struggle mightily with them, but they struggle to understand the complex wisdom and make it a part of their life.

The poems in Into My Garden try to combine these two modes of inquiry: the poetic and religious. To see how they might align, of course, is also to understand how they exist in tension.

HH: Aligned, because both the poetic and the religious attempt “to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom”; in tension, because they differ in how they make the attempt.  Or something like that?  (I assume we’re speaking here of healthy forms of the poetic and the religious, not more debilitated forms: advertising jingles, dogmatic fundamentalisms, and such.)  To register yet one more voice in relation to our conversation, your phrase “to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom” evokes for me this sentence from Simone Weil: “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.”  Poetry and religion as animated by recognition that I am more comprehended than comprehending?

KS: Reading Into My Garden, I enjoyed walking into the world of the speaker. I did encounter both the poetic and the religious and I admire very much what David has been able to do. Inhabiting this book is like spending time in a temple. Prayers, books, constant questioning of one’s own life in an attempt to lead a life closer to God. I felt these poems close to my heart, even though I encountered words and terms foreign to me. I implicitly trusted in the intergity of the speaker to lead me from one light-filled page to another.

As for How God Punishes, my hope is that each page acts as a mirror to give the reader a permission to recognize and accept aspects of their own “flawed” humanity. My hope is that the reader feels the relief of “me too”, followed by “and that’s okay”. Often we don’t want to really know ourselves, because we’re afraid of what we might find. I want to quote a line from Into My Garden here: “Don’t be afraid. You are always afraid // of the wrong thing.

HH: And that line from David’s book reminds me, Katerina, of this aphorism from your Bird on a Window Sill: “Things look different when we do not defend ourselves from them.”  Maybe both of the modes of inquiry David identifies in Into My Garden, the poetic and the religious, are breakings-down, or at least, willing suspensions, of our normal defense mechanisms?

KS: I think so. To me, faith (in anything) implies openness. Defense mechanisms are, by their nature, closing mechanisms.

DC: I agree that faith (and the incorporation of it into one’s life) requires openness: “the will to change,” to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich. Also, faith involves grappling with its limits, with doubts, struggles, misgivings and mistakes. In this sense, lyric poetry offers an attractive means to express faith (as I conceive it) since lyric poetry most powerfully expresses an argument with itself. (In the canonical demonstration of this principle, a sonnet’s sestet often turns against the opening octave’s argument.) Katerina, one aspect of your poems I admire is their doublemindedness. Beautifully lines turn against themselves, the liveliness of their lack of resolution. “The need / to endure // and the endurance / of need // have never / made peace.”

HH: What a precise and elegant characterization of that quality in the poems.  I would never have gotten to that description, but it seems exactly right as soon as you say it.  That quality of the poems is there throughout, so the passage you cite, David, makes me think of this one, in which the second instance of being “given / everything” occurs as a replacement of, rather than an addition to, the first: “everything / you’ve ever wanted // for everything / you’ve ever had.”

Katerina’s poem makes me think of Wislawa Szymborska’s “Nothing’s a Gift,” in which the speaker identifies the terms as having “to pay for myself / with my self, / give up my life for my life,” and later in the poem says, “We call the protest against this / the soul.”  And that reminds me of David’s hypothesis (introduced with an as if) about the soul in “Chassidus by Telephone”: “as if that were the reason / the soul descended into this world, / to link arms with friends and sing.”

I don’t have a conclusion or a point here.  I’m just trying to notice what I take as connections across some of the ideas and questions at play in this conversation and in Into My Garden and How God Punishes.  Because the “moments” in our conversation so far (“learning to see with different eyes,” “To see how they [poetry and religion] might align, of course, is also to understand how they exist in tension,” and so on) do seem connected to me.  In a way that invites openness, that welcomes more answers and more questions.  That enables us to have an “argument” with one another, not in the animosity-poisoned mode of contemporary political speech but after the manner of David’s description of lyric poetry as “an argument with itself.”  (Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, and the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”)  Argument with oneself as a method of openness, a breaking-down of defense mechanisms, a form of faith.

KS: Perhaps ultimately, at the most internal level any argument is an argument with one’s self? Even if we argue with others, or our own circumstances, we would have to check in with ourselves at some point. In How God Punishes there is a moment where the speaker decides to not believe in God in order to prevent embarassment upon potential discovery that God doesn’t exist. This is the opposite of openness. This is defense. Contraction of one’s life. 

HH: Another echo for me.  Your insight here, Katerina, about openness in preference to closure, expansion in preference to contraction, calls to mind for me the words that in Middlemarch George Eliot puts into the mouth of Dorothea, as her description of “a belief of my own”: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”  Not that poetry or religious faith as embrace of sound doctrine achieves the opening/expanding/widening, but that poetry or religious faith as argument with oneself, as checking in with oneself, sustains the disposition toward opening/expanding/widening?

Keying in that question mark recalls for me the opening of our conversation.  I hope, and I believe, that our placing question marks sometimes where a period could have been placed is not a writerly tic the three of us happen to share, but one manifestation of an attitude we share.

From One Wound, How to Navigate Another

A Conversation: Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Dan Beachy-Quick, H. L. Hix

Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Rain in Plural (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Yin Lichuan, Karma, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Tolsun Books, 2020)

Dan Beachy-Quick, Arrows (Tupelo Press, 2020)

Dan Beachy-Quick, Stone-Garland: Six Poets from the Greek Lyric Tradition (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

HLH: I have the feeling reading these books that any one moment contains all the others, so I have the sense that even my starting us with a very simple observation won’t prevent the conversation from leading somewhere interesting.  When I read Fiona’s “Never Once,” I immediately associated it with Dan’s “The Made Thing Considers Itself,” for no reason smarter than that they both employ anaphora.  But even if my initial basis for associating those poems is superficial, I wonder if either of you has a sense that there is something deeper there to be seen.  Each feels to me as though it is significant to the collection it’s in: do they “talk to one another” across the books?

DBQ: “Never Once” is a poem in Rain in Plural that strikes me deeply, as so many do, but does so for slightly different reasons, not the least of which is the most obvious—that the anaphora works the poem toward a different formal stance than the others. Somehow that opens a means of consideration, the “wound open to interpretation” that difference might mark. This is a large thing to say, and I’m not sure it’s right or true or even responsible, but I feel in that ongoing “After” of the poem an aspect of your work, Fiona, I’m just apprenticing myself to—and it is a profound kind of afterness. By that I mean I can feel the poems finding themselves at the far advent of the mind having formed, having collected within it the strange facts of experience and history that build a resource of unconscious possibilities, and much of the pleasure I find in the poems comes from the deeply strange resonance of the images, that feel to me simultaneously emerging and submerging back into that source, that resource, made of a kind of afterness. In this way it could be that the poem of mine you mention, Harvey, acts as the opposite side of the same fact, where the poem feels to me seeking after an origin, a beginning, found nowhere, but hidden in itself, in the poem—or, another way to put, a beforeness. I feel this contrariness, this harmony (“jointure” in the old sense) in the translated work as well, just so struck by how the direct, liberated, bodily work of Yin Lichuan’s poetry bears in it an ethos I find in some of the ancient Greeks I’m translating—Anacreon, Archilochus, both coming most quickly to mind. It makes me think there are ways as poets we are continually retrieving, renewing; or maybe it is truer to say, some force moves through the poet writing the poems, and turns our attention where the form needs it to go. I feel this somehow, Fiona, in your elegies, eulogies, requiems that haunt your book.

HLH: Just to tag on, Dan, to your observation about retrieving/renewing.  The combination of afterness and beforeness in retrieving and renewing makes me want to add restoring to the list, by association with an entry in the daybook of a poet I know that you and I both admire, George Oppen: “A poem is written to test, salvage, restore — two or three words.  Or one word.  More likely one word.”  I am led back to the two poems, to read Fiona’s poem as a retrieval/renewal/restoration of the word “after,” and to read Dan’s poem as a retrieval/renewal/restoration of the word “made.”

DBQ: & this from Emerson: “Genius is the repair of the decay of things.”

FSL: Having poems converse across books—or languages, for that matter—can be a dynamic and fluid experience.  It tests boundaries, mobilizes them, erases them . . . and opens up spaces.  It allows us to think of poetry as an expression beyond form: what does it want to say or offer?  What has it now said?  Given what is said, what can be heard?  [What do we hear or not want to hear?]  And what does the making of a poem mean in our and others’ lives?  At its best, such conversation—very much a travel—brings poets of different time-spaces together, not just in consensual contexts or agreements, but also through differences.  Dan has picked this up from the start: the “wound open to interpretation” that difference might mark.  It is such conversations that teach us to trust one another, and even transform reciprocity.  Mutual trust is a powerful mirror: it helps us look into our own poetic vulnerabilities, unmask ourselves [when or if we hide behind the poems we read or write], and learn from one another as well as the ancients.  This may be what you both meant by retrieval, renewal, and restoration.  I, too, think you are hinting at processes that are much more organic and sometimes inexplicable.  

These three constructs become pregnant and meaningful once we identify them with realities—the actual, the emotional, the complex, and the unknown—which aren’t quite as “neat” or “straightforward” as they seem in theory or dialectics.  They don’t come free or without risks.  For instance, the renewal bit might work very well, but the restoration part could fail, maybe only to make the retrieval more relevant.  Or all three phases may happen asynchronously, who knows.  They probably don’t need resolution as much as we want them to bring us resolution.  More and more, I come to realize how an existence simply can’t always “make sense” as societies would like, or induce “results,” “plans” and “productivity”… even though as someone fairly Cartesian by temperament, I don’t wish to let artistic generosities and humanness make room for confusion and ambivalence.  It is in times of chaos that time sees who resists and is lucid.  That is how I try to see creation—the making of some-“thing” for instance—and a soulful life.

“Never Once” indeed relates to my commitment and attraction to the “ongoing” and its unpredictabilities.  The poem began with a thought that in itself carries a doubt or question: perhaps a poem cultivates an afterlife, and if so, might this afterlife sustain its [or any] present?  Could it generate ongoing possibilities—visually and/or behaviorally as “circles” or “curves”… plastic forms or the so-called irregular, “clouds,” and so forth . . . rather than “lines,” “squares,” or “points”—in turn dismantling the “one-way” unity of time and dimension:

After reaching different planes of existence during an induced sleep

                                                                        for science and mainstream journalism

After the dismissal of a caregiver

After listening to the last stretch of Callas: her aria and its antipositivism

After a duel in Umbria, in which the maestro lost his secret

After nonthought/nonaction via a nonself/nonmoment—preferably with some emotion

After every king, his children, and their revised list

            of queens, plays, and errors

After after, après, dopo . . .

                               in English, the word was used before the Middle Ages, the fall

of Rome

and a wound open to interpretation—

By extension, a translation can be an afterlife of a poem.  I tend to have a difficult time intellectualizing the choices of interpretation to justify a translation.  It takes away much of its inner beauty and silence.  Seeking a poem’s afterlife allows me to live by the less materialistic endeavors of language, the spiritual grounds of aesthetics.  I still have a long way to go.  How a poem once written reflects a certain way of life—concrete conduct and course of action—seems more vital to me than it being a product of thought to regenerate thought.  Ultimately, what one says or writes has no or little value if it is not being practiced or acted upon—or worse, if contradicted and negated by action, a marker of decision and thought.  In this sense, its philosophy aside, I read Dan’s poem, “The Made Thing Considers Itself” as demonstrative in precise ways.  The incantatory feel of the piece—its accomplished music—follows up with the title and its intent or doing. 

More broadly, though not to simplify or generalize, Arrows expands mind and thought to the larger—nature, the divine, and then to other surprises and invitations.  It is a deep book with deep respect for language.  In “Eidos,” I am offered room, and a sense of the pace and setting:

While rain gains weight at the window

Frame the ever lessening portion

Still mine

                of mind

Called the open sky

In another, “The Oracle at—”, the poetic voice seems to snap back at [or to] a plain fact—mortality:


Has a savings account for future

Travel called the mind. Called mind

To mind, but not much was there.

This poem stopped me: life and money.  It is darkly funny and serious and efficient.  The gravity prepares me for others such as “Drone.” 

I should add that earlier on, when I mentioned “circles” or “curves” or “clouds”… instead of “lines,” I thought of lines from Dan’s opening “Primer: astronomy”:

     spin darkly to say

I I I your kind

    stutter waits

          for one line

               to break so

           sky tilts, cracks

     and clouds tumble

into the gap

HLH: Already this conversation has stirred much into circulation for me.  I am drawn strongly to (drawn strongly by) Fiona’s praise of mutual trust, how “it helps us look into our own poetic vulnerabilities, unmask ourselves … , and learn from one another.”  That we need help regarding our vulnerabilities seems inherent to vulnerability.  And vulnerability has everything to do with our collecting, as Dan puts it, “the strange facts of experience and history that build a resource of unconscious possibilities,” and with, as Fiona puts it, our practicing or acting upon what we say or write.

Helping one another look at our own vulnerabilities feels urgent to me, always, but never more than in our present historical moment, so charged with mutual distrust, so bent on the pretense of invulnerability.  Fiona’s words call to mind other recent beckonings toward helping one another in our vulnerability.  In Hiding from Humanity, Martha Nussbaum calls for “something that I do not expect we shall ever fully achieve: a society that acknowledges its own humanity, and neither hides us from it nor it from us; a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private.”  Adriana Cavarero in Inclinations advocates, against the centrality of rectitude as a moral metaphor, with its implications of autonomy and self-sufficiency, choosing instead “vulnerability as a paradigm of the human,” with its permission for us not to have to stand upright but to incline toward one another, depend on one another.  And with specific regard to poetry, not to mention concord with Fiona’s Cartesian temperament, Lyn Hejinian in her essay “Reason” presents theorizing as “the very opposite of theorem-stating,” describing it instead as “a manner of vulnerable, inquisitive, worldly living, and it is one very closely bound to the poetic processes.”

All this leads me back into the books, in which, alerted in this way, I see vulnerabilities everywhere.  The “white and round and so quiet” vase “shrouded in dust” that in “Vase” evokes from Yin Lichuan’s speaker the experience that “dust is so moving and tender.”  The call in Julianus’ epigram for Archilochus to the passerby to be quiet near Archilochus’ grave, not to avoid disturbing the person buried there but “so that your step doesn’t wake / these wasps sleeping on the poet’s tomb.”  Dan’s evocation in “Personae” of the moments “When I see what I can see / No more,” Fiona’s in “This winter…” of the moment of giving “the sun my bones to lick, glad to feel mortal before salting the bean curds.”  I experience such moments as offering trust and inviting trust.

DBQ: It feels so much is at hand, there is in the conversation so many paths one could take, so many threads one could try to weave together, I hardly know how or where to begin. Some thoughts angle weirdly in the echo-chamber of the mind. I hear so distinctly Fiona—your question of the poem cultivating an afterlife. I feel too that the poem might contain an afterlife, the undergrove of the poem, in which words come to us bearing the entirety of their utterance, have heaped within them as within an urn the fragments of consciousness that have informed them across, but an unlike an urn, the fragments are able, or are learning, to speak. Maybe it is truer to say they are teaching us to speak.

I find something of this nearly impossible lesson articulated so succinctly in one of my favorite sequences in Rain in Plural. In section V of “Sea Ballads,” “Late Shower,” you write, as if in apostrophe: “Nostalgia, heal my lacuna.” I feel a profound ethical plea here, and one tied to the various forms of trust and vulnerability Harvey speaks so movingly of. It is as if you’re teaching us how one wound might help us learn not to heal, but to navigate another. (Here, too, I hear your encouragement to think toward action, toward a poem manifesting itself in how we live our lives.) The wound of home, the wound of memory, the wound of life and what life has lost, every trace still within us, or traces enough, to help us reckon with that lacuna—the gap, chasm, synapse, abyss of other sort. What has gone missing from us, or in us, in a different way. This positing of absence within absence, the subtlety of feeling difference where most would find none, it feels nearly redemptive to me.

As do other aspects of Rain in Plural. The “Cyclical” in “Sea Ballads.” Moon & Ocean & Womb. These patterns cosmic that govern our lives when our lives are vulnerable enough to admit to them. How desire, lust, sexuality offer themselves as aspects of macrocosmic motions in the microcosm of the self. (I could even feel numbers, the letters of the alphabet, moving through as the grave pull of the moon does. Pythagoras.) Such motions occur then, just as Fiona says, by also manifesting in the ways we live our life, and in the quietest of ways, I often feel myself most moved:

I made a bowl of sakéd ginger,

looked for a sail

in and out of its horizon, and prayed

without Amen.

The domestic here is also the realm of the philosophical, ontological, and theological—that feels right to me.

HLH: Your term highlights for me one thread that runs through this conversation, and it sends me back to read the poems (and the books, each in its wholeness) as ethical plea.  By contrast with ethical imperative.  A plea, as much as a charge, to “take stock of the endings of those lives you left behind” (the fifth of Fiona’s “Nine Solitudes”); a plea to search for what one holds in one’s hands (Dan’s “Some Rules of Grammar”); a plea for hearts to “think the same as the world they encounter” (Archilochus, “Two Fragments”); a plea to love in one’s fingers rather than in the tip of one’s tongue (Yin Lichuan, “Truth”).

The poem as ethical plea recalls to mind Audre Lorde’s sense of poetry as something that “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

FSL: Dan can no doubt speak better than me in terms of the ethical urgency of writing.  His experience and corpus of work—I was also thinking of his prose book Wonderful Investigations, my introduction to his poetry—consistently brings up the big question of “the church of mind,” to borrow his words.  By extension, to suggest ethics as associated with thought, or so “the rational thought” that Dan would mention, and to suggest poetry as a vehicle for all of these through beauty, that is a honorable vision. 

These seem or sound obvious, one may mock, but our current political chaos should be lessons enough to make us come closer to the earth than to cling to egos and intellect and technology and the material knowledge, and to find solutions through similar channels: “But men are infinite generations of fools” is truer in my opinion, than “It’s difficult to cleave to goodness,” says Pittacus in “Fragment” (Simonides).  For if so, should “goodness” be easy then?  Isn’t it supposed to be difficult, anyway?  These are my questions and doubts, and some of the ways I seek to improve myself.

I realize how varied yet generative our work put together can be read.  Both of you translate, too, on top of your own writing.  So the vehicle of poetry can run on different engines, different “rational thoughts.”  I am keen to know about Dan’s ways of seeking songs in songs for his writing and translation, and Harvey’s nimble approaches to intertexuality, his ways of weaving song to song—and how all of these nourish and keep alive one’s engagement with the work, the ethics of the practice, and if I may, the vocation of creating.

DBQ: This notion you give us, Harvey, of plea—an ethical plea, so different from an ethical demand, so different than the imperative. (I hear in my mind Whitman: “Poetry judges not as a judge judges, but as sunlight falling on a helpless thing.”) And this quiet and disquieting reminder Fiona offers us that beauty is part of this plea. And more, Fiona so honestly, so nakedly, reminding us that being good is difficult work, and that in some way, poetry still invests us in the possibility that we can better ourselves, be more worthy of the world we are given. I hear in plea a way of speaking this is ever-opening itself, ever more vulnerably, to the possibility of another. A plea is made not using force, but surrendering to it—surrendering to the possibility of it. I suppose I think of it in such ways in part by Fiona’s wonderfully nested question to me—of how to seek songs in songs. There is a line Susan Howe writes in an essay, something to the effect of: “I have risked my whole life on the possibility of an immense pattern.” I suspect my own searching bears in it the same faith, and the only way I can seek out what I most need to learn is by a kind of singing, a kind of song, that cannot be discovered as something original in myself, but only as an origin in another. To learn to follow in the drift of another. To point at wanders away up ahead. It is a kind of audacious reticence—to step toward and yet also step away. I find this paradoxical quality (I almost want to call it a virtue) in the last poem of Fiona’s Rain in Plural.

Sprit, I don’t tell myself you control our field,

            the random face

            of a god who leaves us old,

            an alley to somewhere hypnotic,


            and curved at each turn.

& just below:

I don’t tell

a soul—what you intuit

on a peak. I won’t tell others how storms heal

            or stop the countdown,

why echoes blink

to preserve drift.

I won’t paint your dream in this portrait.

I find in that moving forward only to refuse a form of wild care. Of leaving possibility open so as to preserve…preserve something…what, I don’t wholly know. Maybe, to steal from one of Fiona’s titles, to preserve the the saying from the said.

HLH: This moment in our conversation, its particular harmony (Fiona’s “vocation of creating” and Dan’s “audacious reticence”), makes me think of music.  We seem to be rubbing here against the “common-sense” distinction between activity and passivity.  In “ordinary life” we typically treat them as mutually exclusive (you’re either active or passive, not both), but music performs a counterexample to that exclusivity.  Music invites (demands?) a receptivity that is personal and interpersonal.  I think of Wallace Stevens’ “… she was the maker of the song she sang,” and Jan Zwicky’s “Musicians,” which describes musicians after a rehearsal “still breathing almost in unison, like people / the searchlight has passed over / and spared…”  Or Paul Woodruff’s account (in his book Reverence) of an amateur string quartet’s rehearsal as an example of the virtue of reverence, because:

(1) The musicians have been engaged, more or less harmoniously, on a project as a group; (2) their project involved ceremony; (3) they have felt themselves largely without ego; (4) they have felt themselves to be part of a clearly defined hieararchy that was painless for all of them; and (5) they have achieved in the end a shared feeling of inarticulate awe.

I know that Fiona is a musician, and that I’m a failed musician (a few years of lessons in classical guitar, to no effect!); I don’t know, Dan, about your musical experience.  But I see in the poems attunement — that musical metaphor — to this concern.  In Fiona’s “The Problem with Music,” activity (“I broke my guzheng, string by string”) meets passivity (“I did nothing”), and culminates in a paradoxical merger: “Telling myself I must do nothing.”  Dan’s “music” ends, too, in paradox: “clarity / will not ever / cohere.” 

Coherence seems to have (to be?) a fragility that can be summoned (Fiona’s word “vocation” — a calling) but not owned.  Property rights are rights of exclusion: owning my house means I can keep others out of it.  Ownership closes us to one another, but what can’t be owned, can’t be kept, opens us to one another, and to ourselves and our world.  Again Stevens: after the song, even “The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there” fix “emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”  And Zwicky: after rehearsal, “even / the gravel dust stuttering at their feet / is coherent.”

FSL: Doing nothing can be a state of passivity.  Doing nothing can also be the most active state of being and consciousness—Taoist “nothingness” is far from being nothing, for instance.  So in that sense, doing nothing is doing something.  Is silence music?  Yes.  Does it need to be music?  Of course not—yet that doesn’t mean it can be allowed to mutate to some kind of “noise” or “lies” or “flattery” or “pollution.”  More crucially, Harvey has highlighted one of the most problematic realities that we humans face in our constructed societies: ownership and the sense and privilege of proprietorship, and why people who need to own simply cannot arrive at a certain spiritual profundity.  At that end of the day, it is about giving up what we can give up in order to seek further the unknown.  I think that is what poetry is about.  That is what writing and translating as forms of poetry and expression are about.  Let me read these lines from Dan’s translation of Theognis:  

. . . those who do not die give

Sudden gifts of many kinds to those who do.  Submit,

You must.  Wed yourself to the gifts the gods give,

Whatever those gifts are.

And these from Dan’s beautiful poem, “Some Consequences of the Made Thing”:

Feel a silence there that reminds you of a scent.

Crushed grass the hooves galloped through

Or is it the binder’s glue?

Some silence never not real finally can be

Heard. Silence before the first words.

Precedent chaos. Or marrow work.

Or just the sound of the throat opening to speak.

Like those scholars of pure water

Who rode through mountains and meadows

To drink from each fresh spring a glass

And then with brush and ink wrote poems

On the differences of sameness,

You too feel yourself taste the silent page

Of the end and the silent page of beginning.

They taste so much of whiteness never more

White than white that’s been lost.

DBQ: I might only add, though “add” feels the wrong word…I might only quickly and quietly pick up this thread that feels most dear in that it feels it weaves this conversation, and so weaves us, most together. It is in that sense of “ethical plea” you mention, Harvey; and it is in this question of ownership you mention, Fiona, the necessary and true: “it is about giving up what we can give up in order to seek further the unknown.” That the gift of this conversation, its humble demonstration of what it is to open one’s thinking always in relation to another’s thought—not to do the work for oneself, but with, and in ways, for, another—feels also to me the most truthful work. It’s learning to share a silence that does not deny or erase, but opens, and invites those who can listen to it in. A reverent trio, apprentice still to their instruments, hardly knowing yet each instrument is. But how learn, but play them together? & I’m no musician at all. I can’t even carry a tune.

Into the Hands of Readers

Susan Aizenberg, First Light (Gibraltar Editions, 2020)

Rupert Loydell, Cathedrals of the Soul (Ravenstongue Press, 2020)

HH: Of course we’ll let this conversation go where it wants to, but there are some obvious points of contact that led to associating these two books as an interesting basis for conversation, so let me open the conversation in that vicinity. If you set the two physical books side-by-side on your desk, what is the first thing you begin to think about?

RL: Well, the first thing is that I don’t want to leave First Light on my desk, it’s a very tactile object that needs picking up! And then I started thinking about the physical differences, that perhaps First Light fits into a tradition of fine printing and poetry, whereas Cathedrals has more of a handmade, craft feel to it. That’s not to elevate or lower Denise Brady or Angela Annesley’s work, just me thinking aloud. They both work with print (Angela is also a painter) but perhaps situate their publications differently? Other Ravenstongue booklets are on sale in National Trust property shops and craft outlets, and feature stories to do with Cornwall. I offered my poem sequence to Angela as something she might be able to work with, and although I saw and agreed the prints and proofs, it was very much her project and is her press, though I should emphasize I’m very pleased to be part of it!

Maybe that’s me projecting on to the books though?

SA:  Hello, Harvey and Rupert. Sorry to have taken so long to reply. The first thing I want to say is that I enjoyed your poems very much, Rupert. And the chapbook is lovely.

On to Harvey’s question:

I agree with you, Rupert, that these books are situated quite differently and part of two different publishing traditions—which, as you so rightly point out, is not a knock on either—a craft tradition, as you say, for Cathedrals, and letterpress/fine arts for First Light.

The obvious physical differences are the first that struck me as well, especially the tactile differences. First Light is hand-set letterpress, done on an historic Vandercook proof press. The books are hand-sewn and the endsheets are made by hand from recycled fabrics.  Each copy is numbered.  

I’m struck, too, by the differences in the relationship between the visual artwork and the poems in our books. In Cathedrals there is a clear pairing, whereas First Light includes only 3 linocuts, none of which are intended to match or illustrate specific poems. The reader’s experience of the poems and art will thus be quite different, I think.

Finally, this difference as far as the physical books and their making: Angela is both the artist and publisher of Cathedrals, while Kevin Bowman, the artist who made the linocuts, was commissioned by Denise Brady and Gibraltar. Denise, with the help of an assistant, did the actual making of the books– setting type, printing, sewing, etc. All the choices as far as paper, typeface, etc., though she kindly shared them with me for my opinions, are hers, and of course she had to approve Kevin’s work.

Briefly, the process was this: I asked Denise if she would be interested in considering my manuscript. She was, obviously, and also obviously, happily, decided to take it. After accepting my poems, Denise reached out to Kevin, whose work she knew, because she thought his work would be a good fit with mine. Kevin read the ms. and then made his linocuts; his intention he said, was not to illustrate the poems, but rather to make art they inspired.  I think he did an amazing job, by the way –when I saw his work I was thrilled at how the linocuts felt so right with my poems.  

I too, am very pleased to have this book, to be a part of this tradition, and honored to be a Gibraltar Editions poet. The press has a storied lineage – Denise’s co-publisher is Guy Duncan, the son of Harry Duncan, who is widely considered one of the masters of the fine arts books movement, and they founded the press to honor his memory. And I am beyond thrilled with these books, themselves – when I opened my box of copies and held the first one, I cried at its beauty.

Having said all that about First Light, let me say a little more about Cathedrals of the Soul.  I like the poems and the accompanying illustrations very much. I love the pocket-size of the book and its feel in the hand. I love the idea that an individual artist makes these books and that they are so widely available in the kinds of settings you describe. I imagine your work gets into the hands of readers who may not be traditional poetry-readers in this way, which I think is wonderful. The book feels very personal and very reader-friendly. It’s truly among the best-made and best-looking chapbooks I’ve seen. 

Also, Rupert, I’d like to hear more about your working relationship with Angela, because clearly your process was very different from Denise’s and mine, and especially than mine and Kevin’s. 

You didn’t ask us to discuss the poems yet, Harvey, but one thing that struck me is that there is at least one large difference there, too – in Cathedrals the poems are all thematically related, and the book works as whole in a lovely way. In First Light there are some poems that relate in that sort of direct way, but the collection as a whole is not intended to have a single theme and the subjects and styles of the poems differ.

I’ve asked myself, what are the similarities between the books? They, too, are obvious, I suppose, but thinking aloud – both are very short collections and offer readers something different than a traditional full-length collection, no? They’re more of a glimpse into our work, and of course they not only include visual art, but are works of art themselves. I think, too, they have in common that those who buy these books include different readers than those who buy more traditional collections. I suspect at least some are interested more in the artwork, and in the books as lovely objects. 

Thanks to you both!

RL: This is interesting stuff Susan, thank you. I’m actually pretty ignorant about fine art letterpress, although a tutor at my Art Foundation Course, John Easson, published a letterpress chapbook series – as The Quarto Press – which my friend and mentor Brian Louis Pearce was the poetry editor for. Otherwise, I own a limited edition of Ted Hughes’ Crow with art by Leonard Baskin, and a few William Everson and Robert Lax letterpress editions. My world has been more utilitarian: I started Stride magazine using my mother’s Gestetner duplicator, learned to staple booklets then make paperbacks using bricks and glue, bought a photocopier, learnt to screenprint, etc. Now of course the magazine is online, and I ceased Stride Books (which for the second half of its 30+ years life used commercial printers and then print-on-demand to produce paperback editions).

You ask about my working relationship with Angela, and I have to inform you I pretty much handed over my poem sequence, which was originally entitled ‘Thirteen Cathedrals’, to her as an offering for the press. Angela has worked at Falmouth University for most of my time there, but I have only got to know her better through my friend and colleague Kingsley Marshall, now Head of Film, who I collaborate with on book chapters, academic papers and conferences (about Brian Eno and Twin Peaks, since you ask).

Angela paints and prints, and also runs Ravenstongue. The small format and different audience appealed to me, and as ‘Thirteen Cathedrals’ didn’t seem to fit into any of my planned poetry books, and had been published in the online poetry magazine Amethyst Review, I wondered if the brevity and visual components of the series might inspire her. After that it was pretty much Angela’s project, although I saw the her prints and then proofs of the book, and also allowed her to retitle the sequence.

I tend to work in sequences and sets of work (like Harvey, up to a point), and this sequence was inspired by Giles Gordon’s novel Ambrose’s Vision: Sketches Towards the Creation of a Cathedral. Gordon is a fairly neglected post-war novelist who was part of a loose group of experimental writers which included Eva Figes, Ann Quin, Alan Burns and B.S. Johnson, although he later abandoned writing and became a publisher. I have an interest in this group of writers and use them in my teaching; they are slowly becoming more known again and brought back into print.

One thing I struggle with is when things become too ‘precious’. This isn’t a charge I am raising against First Light by the way, and as an artist and writer I know that framing, context, production and such all affect the reception of the work, but part of me thinks poetry and painting have to be ‘tough’ and stand for themselves, which is why I still sometimes produce stapled photocopy pamphlets as Analogue Flashback Press, and folded sheets as Smallminded Books.

I guess, I want it all: lo-fi chapbooks, the sharing of digital texts, mail art projects, commercial paperback books and beautiful print editions too.

HH: It’s interesting to me that what suggested thinking about these books together was their shared difference from “regular” commercially-printed books, but actually beginning to think about them together has led us immediately to much more subtle and fine-grained points of similarity/difference.

Both books are handmade limited editions, rather than commercially manufactured, yes, but the handmade-ness realizes very different artistic values, and is realized through very different processes.

The word “precious” does seem to me to help toward articulating those different artistic values.  “Precious” can have positive connotations, and apply to something very good, and it can have negative connotations, and apply to something bad. The positive sense indicates successful assignment of value: I hold something precious in this good sense if I rightly recognize its value (its rarity, say, or its association with a person I love). The negative sense indicates a misassignment of value: I hold something precious in this bad sense if I assign it a value that properly belongs somewhere else (emotionally substituting it for someone I love, for instance).

I’d want to say of the physical books that First Light aims toward the positive sense of “precious” and Cathedrals of the Soul aims away from the negative sense of “precious.” And it seems apt, too, about the poems. Susan’s poems seem to me to try to achieve preciousness in the positive sense of the term, and Rupert’s poems seem to me to try to eschew preciousness in the negative sense of the term.  So even though the word “precious” could be used in a characterization of either aesthetic, it doesn’t refer to the same thing in the two uses. It’s not that Susan’s poem try to do what Rupert’s poems try not to do. The aesthetics are different, but not so simplistically opposed. Does that characterization seem apt, to you the poets?

RL: Yes, that seems one possible way of describing the two books, and a very interesting one as such. One thing I think I was looking for in offering my poems to Angela and Ravenstongue was a solidity to accompany fairly abstract poems. Despite the fact some of the poems mention materials (feathers, glass, paper, mercury, bones) others are more abstract and less literal with their use of fire, alchemy, dreams and sound. Although I am a writer who believes in the reader doing some work, I was also interested in how the mass and bulk of cathedrals, their very real, weighty architecture and history, could be reconciled with my abstractions, without images becoming too illustrative. I think by her imaginative use of pattern, form and focus on details such as gargoyles, something new was brought to the sequence of poems.

They are perhaps an aid to reading in this instance, a way of contextualising the provocation and abstraction, without – I hope – compromising the inherent doubt and confusion of the poems.

SA: Thanks, Harvey and Rupert. 

First, Harvey, to answer the question you ask above: if in characterizing the physical book of First Light as aiming towards the positive sense of the word “precious,” the term is understood to mean a book that although, yes, beautiful and finely made, is first about the poems, and meant to be held, read, and well-used, then I can see that. It’s not a word that I’d have used, however, and I have some reservations about the idea, because for me, when “precious” is applied to an object, unlike say, to refer to a person who is precious to us, it often connotes a Faberge egg or the like, which would be inaccurate in describing what Gibraltar aims for.  Denise says for her the poems are always the first consideration, and she also is very clear she means for her books to be read and touched. I know, Harvey, you don’t mean the term to imply otherwise, but it seems to me a tricky abstraction. As far as thinking about aiming towards the “precious” in my work – again even in the positive sense of the word – I have to say I don’t think about my work in terms of overall characterization. I try not to think too much about that sort of thing.  Having said that, if I did, I don’t think “preciousness” would feel right. 

Rupert, thanks for telling me more about how you work; it was very interesting. I’ve never done any

publishing myself. Along with writing poems, I’ve taught creative writing, been poetry editor for a

couple of journals and co-editor of an anthology, and have written a couple of essays, but I’ve never

had an interest in publishing a journal or making a book myself. 

I hope all is well with you both & look forward to continuing our conversation.

HH: I think what I’m trying to sort out with the two-different-meanings-of-”precious” question is the inclusivity of the differences between the two books. Because we’re engaging in this conversation during an historical period of deep, violent division, I’m very aware of divisive differences, that are in themselves (or are presented as) either/ors.  They divide us into opposing teams, and create conflict. So it seems profoundly important to me — lives-are-at-stake level of importance — to get at this quality of difference that does not divide.

The books feel very different to me: I feel different when I experience the books, different conceptually, emotionally, even physically. But I feel invited by both books, welcomed, even beckoned. Each material difference (sewn binding, stapled binding…) signifies, because each realizes an aesthetic commitment, but nothing makes me choose sides. 

Different aspects of myself are invoked in different ways. If I just open each to its exact middle, Rupert’s “The mercury cathedral” invites me to apply my wit (in the Elizabethan sense) to pick up on the double entendre of the last line “a heavy metal heaven.” I’m challenged to be conceptually nimble. Susan’s “Eleanor Remembers Her Soldier” invites me to feel the “something” that “hovers in the dark between us.” I’m challenged to be emotionally available.

I’m sure I’m not saying this well, but even if it’s not something to be explicated, it still seems worth wondering over, admiring, this quality of invitation and inclusion that, precisely because of their differences, the two books share.

SA: Harvey – I’m up in the very early morning, still dark, and opened my phone to find your email.  I think you’ve said this more than well, beautifully, in fact; thank you. I love so much the ideal of – and deeply believe in – the “difference that does not divide.”

RL: As I get older and reflect on several decades of writing, publishing and making art I become less and less convinced of publicity & marketing, and more persuaded by the notion of offering work to the public. I was going to say gifting, but of course financial transactions are involved, so perhaps offering is a better word.

What I mean by that is that once I have produced a finished painting or poem all I can do is place it somewhere, be that a book or magazine, art gallery, or Instagram and see what happens. The work must find its place in the world. Different methods of publication (different strategies if you like) to do so are interesting and different times of offer. One hopes that they are all inclusive, but of course an academic journal may not be accessible to non-academics, magazines are read by different audiences, there are different types of galleries, from community arts spaces to high-end commercial ventures.

For me, having previously published the Cathedrals poems in Amethyst Review, an online poetry magazine of ‘new writing engaged with the sacred’, Ravenstongue was a way of reaching a new audience. The sequence may also end up in a paperback poetry collection in the future, which means I have three different audiences covered.

SA: Thank you, Rupert.

For some reason, perhaps because today would have been her 93rd birthday, what Rupert writes here has me thinking of my mother. She was a painter who put aside her work for most of her early and middle adult years, until at around age 50, she began again to paint. For the next thirty years, she painted every day with a devotion and joy as great as that of any artist I know, and with only rare public showings. Please feel no obligation at all to look at the attached, but in case it’s of interest, I wanted to share with you a few of her paintings and a little piece I wrote about her and her work.

Best to you both—

HH: One concern (perhaps among several) that runs through all the issues we’ve touched on so far, from books as tactile objects through Susan’s mother’s paintings, is the many pressures on communication: who gets to communicate in what way and about what to whom. Economic pressures (you can communicate more freely if Google or Facebook or Amazon make money from your communication), political pressures, legal pressures, social pressures, and so on.

The things we’ve noticed in this conversation (like the conversation itself) all seem to me to be instances of trying to create tiny “breathing spaces” for liberty and autonomy in the systemic pressures, tiny intimacies in the pervasive surveillance. The decision to make a book by hand and in limited quantities, when the system imposes mass production and enforces economies of scale. The decision to write in rispettos when the system says to tweet. The daily practice of painting when the system says that’s not what mothers do.

There’s a connection, I think, between Rupert’s impulse toward offering work and Susan’s disclaimer, “Please feel no obligation at all to look at the attached.” Both contrast (for me, powerfully) with the ultimately threatening “listen to me” and “look at me” and “do what I tell you to” of so much discourse now, of advertising and business and politics…

RL: Well, there are two (probably more) things here. Firstly, the commitment to practice, to keep painting and writing, an idea which seems to be unpopular these days. For me it’s about engagement rather than a daily routine. I have never been a 9-5 studio painter, nor a poet who writes every day, but I am constantly reading and editing my poems, drawing and using a sketchbook with and about my paintings; even the daily act of going to studio each day (even for a quick 5 minute peek) maintains my relationship with my work. I am also keen to not go with the first idea that comes to me but to spend time refining and adapting ideas, often in series or sequences of either poems or paintings, which may perhaps be a way of hedging my bets!

The second thing which is really important in my writing is to get away from the ego in confessional poetry. I don’t want to go as far as some of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and reject what they decided was a hierarchy of grammar and syntax, but neither do I want my poems to be about me, the poet, sharing something I have felt or done so that a reader can empathise with me. This very much seems to be what Harvey is calling a ‘look at me’ writing. I’m keen to use disrupted syntax and experimental processes, along with different – perhaps conceptual or philosophical, theological or abstract – themes and content to write about the world; and, of course, narrators and characters rather than the personal. (I am not, of course, so stupid to think I am not in the mix!)

I must also say, within this conversation (having previously privately emailed Susan) how wonderful her mother’s art is. Some of it reminds me of Andrew Wyeth at his best (which, for me, is his empty rooms, house exteriors and landscapes), and Susan has an informed and interesting way of writing about both the artist and her work.

I sense I may have avoided replying to Harvey about his idea of making space being a form of resistance, an idea which I can only agree with. I also think that for me it is a way of processing the world, helping me sieve through and deal with the huge amount of images, words and ideas that come our way each day, despite my best attempts at dodging it by distancing myself and not engaging with the likes of social media.

SA:  Harvey and Rupert: It’s Election Day as I write this—I voted weeks ago, so nothing for me to do today but hope. I half wish I had the discipline not to watch as the results come in tonight, but I will watch. I remember watching CNN four years ago, late that night and deep into the morning, stunned at the results. I won’t be stunned this time, and I’m determined not to become depressed, either, as I did four years ago, if Biden doesn’t prevail, but I am hoping, fervently, that he wins by a landslide.

But that’s not what I want to write about here. First, so much of what you’ve each written, above, resonates for me –the idea of “breathing spaces” and “offerings,” the notions of our work as practice and a way of processing the world. And thank you Rupert, for your kind words on my mother’s work. What you’ve shared, above, about your own practice, Rupert, has me thinking, as I write this afternoon, about the welcome turn mine has taken over the last few months and especially since this summer. I have always been an extremely slow writer. Muse came out in 2002 and Quiet City not until 2015. During the years I was teaching full-time I often finished only 2-4 poems a year.  This did not change immediately when I retired in 2016 because although lack of time to work played its part, it wasn’t the only issue. I don’t know that I know all the reasons I worked in this way, and I’m not sure why it changed, but beginning sometime last fall I began to work more freely and more regularly. I can’t overstate how happy this made me.

Then, this summer, Leslie Ullman proposed that she, Betsy Sholl, and I do a poem-a-day exchange during the month of August.  The arrangement was that we would send each other a new poem every day and that we would not comment on them except very briefly and only in terms of encouraging the process—no workshop-style critiquing. Given my working history, I was very unsure I would be able to do it, but I was excited by the idea. I knew of other groups of poets who did this sort of “grind” and had wanted to try it. It turned out that not only was I able to do it; I loved doing it. Harvey, you heard me speak of this at my reading. It was exhilarating, exhausting, unpredictable—it was fun. And to our surprise, we each wrote a good number of good poems, some close to finished, which was especially unexpected.

So I now have a thick folder of drafts from August and the months before, and I am working daily on revisions, moving from poem to poem—which also is new for me. I have almost always worked on one poem at a time, even though I’ve always believed working on more than one at a time is much healthier. I love to work, and I feel lucky and deeply grateful to be able to work as I am now.

Well!  Talk about writing in a “look at me” way. I’m hoping you both like talking process as much as I do. I enjoyed reading about your practice, Rupert, and Harvey, I would love to hear more about yours. 

Thanks & best to you both—

HH: Our conversation seems to me to be addressing very clearly why and how practice, and the commitment to practice, matters. I think of Iris Murdoch’s succinct insight that “it is a task to come to see the world as it is.” What we are calling here “process” and “practice” might be performed as writing, but they are performances of recognition and valuation.

When Rupert says he is “keen to not go with the first idea that comes to me but to spend time refining and adapting ideas,” that is a mode of resistance. No pressure is stronger or more pervasive in contemporary society than the pressure not to refine and adapt your ideas. You are a data point, a consumer, a demographic. Or, as my employer insists I am, “human capital.” To spend time refining and adapting ideas is a radical defiance of the status quo, the existing world order.

It appears to me that the same is true about Susan and Leslie and Betsy exchanging poems. To listen to other persons as they refine and adapt ideas is to recognize them as persons, not to regard them as data points, consumers, a demographic, human capital. Again, this seems to me a radical defiance of the status quo, a dwelling in possibility.

RL: It’s interesting to see my practice framed as resistance, as it’s not something I would have consciously used as a way of thinking about my work. But I do think you are right, Harvey.

I do a lot of collaborative writing, and have learnt to surf the wave of energy that produces and to trust my collaborator(s) and work quickly and responsively. The editing can come later! I confess that is pretty much my attitude towards solo writing, get something written that I can then work with: collage, free write, steal phrases from books or CDs on my desk, whatever; but get a first draft down. Then I can spend weeks and months tinkering and refining.

I’ve never found workshopping very helpful, I confess, but I do have trusted writer friends (some who I have never met apart from emails) I can share work with and get intelligent feedback. And one thing that gets my goat is an editor trying to edit my poem during submission. I would just like a yes or no, an acceptance or rejection thank you. The poem is finished, of its specific time, and is no longer available for tinkering with, especially by someone I do not know. I’m sure I am not alone in having finished bad poems (which are not submitted) but I am not someone who is endlessly revising 30 years of work. (End of rant)

Various poet friends have taught me the value of planning projects in advance, with Sheila Murphy in Arizona being the person who most challenged and informed me regarding that, when we taught a residential creative writing course together. I have found a commitment to exploring a theme, using variation and differing voices, approaches and ideas, consistently rewarding, be that for a small sequence like the cathedral poems, a chapbook, a full collection or – as in the case of my annunciation poems – something that spills into several books.

Harvey and I have spoken before about ‘occasional poems’, which he appears not to write. The hardest thing in the world for me is to gather up and shape a book from my occasional poems, an exercise I have just started doing, well aware that many readers are put off by any exploration of faith & doubt, or spirituality, however cynical, questioning or witty that might be. A very different set of people responded to Wildlife (2011) and The Return of the Man Who Has Everything (2015) than Dear Mary (2017) and A Confusion of Marys (2020), let alone the chapbooks and more fugitive editions I have published. I guess both fugitive editions and daring to try and discuss belief away from either new age or militant belief systems might also be seen as a form of resistance, just as trying to argue the case for a broadminded and questioning liberal arts education system might be?

HH: There continue to be exciting and beautiful continuities — “threads” — running through this conversation. These descriptions of process have many points of contact, no doubt, but one that seems to me especially worth highlighting unites Susan’s word “unexpected” with Rupert’s “responsively.”

It’s a basic problematic of life, correlating expectation with outcome, adjusting the two to one another. We have ways to describe poor correlation: e.g., I’m delusional if my expectations are too loosely correlated with outcome. And we value certain correlations more than others: for instance, “hope” names an especially prized correlation between expectation and outcome, a correlation we find worth “clinging to.”

In poetry, it’s a point of identity between form and content: a poem creates expectations, then fulfills or subverts them. And the same with collaboration. So Susan’s exchange with Leslie and Betsy, and Rupert’s various collaborations, Susan’s with Kevin Bowman and Denise Brady in First Light, and Rupert’s with Angela Annesley in Cathedrals of the Soul, create unexpected outcomes in part because they heighten responsiveness.

Responsiveness only to oneself is a feature of tyrants (Creon or Trump) and one contributing cause of tragedy. Responsiveness to the world around one, including and especially the persons around one, is an urgent human need. Poetry and collaboration both seem to me valuable as forms of responsiveness practice.

All Writing Is a Confrontation

All Writing Is a Confrontation

A Conversation Between Walter Cummins, Stephanie McCarley Dugger, and H. L. Hix


Stephanie McCarley Dugger, Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications, 2017)

Walter Cummins, Death Cancer Madness Meaning (Del Sol Press, 2019)

HH: One moment that I returned to in Stephanie’s book was the sentence in the dissection poem, “It was discovery, learning the internal, / what carries life.”  Of course “learning the internal” appeals to my ear (the earn/ern sound with an l on either side), but I wonder what you think of my inclination to see “learning the internal” as a project in both books.  Does that resonate for you in relation to your own book?  In relation to the other’s book?

WC: I was also struck by that image and the entire poem “Dissection Day, Biology Lab” and the way it captures the vulnerability of the internal and the precariousness of a knife slip that would ruin the revelation of what’s inside. First, I should confess that I’m one of the few Americans of my generation who did not dissect a frog in high school biology, glad I escaped that burden. Poor frog. But without a real memory of that experience, I can only envision what I was supposed to discover, imagining the creature’s insides organized as a fleshly example of Newtonian clockwork, something like the precise schematic diagram of my MacBook. Yet, the visceral sense of the human interior that the poem’s lines immediately conjured were those of Snowden and my own.

Although I haven’t reread Catch-22 in decades, I’ve never forgotten the character of the wounded Snowden whose memory reappears to Yossarian, the novel’s protagonist, again and again, each with increasing information about that wound. At one point, Yossarian, under the illusion of control, uses his first aid kit to bandage a wide gash on Snowden’s thigh. But in Snowden’s final appearance, Yossarian unzips Snowden’s flight suit and discovers a gaping hole in Snowden’s middle, the man’s innards spilling loose in a tangled heap. I recall that the novel has Yossarian thinking, “Here was God’s plenty.”

In contrast, my own insides are less vivid to me, more a concept than objects I can picture. I was aware of that particularly when being wheeled into surgery after a malignant spot was found in the muscle of my bladder, about to undergo a cystectomy and prostatectomy, along with removal of my seminal gland and a few lymph nodes. I had no idea of what these organs actually looked like or where they were located in my belly. Before the anesthesia put me under, the term that kept repeating in my brain was “medical waste.” Afterward, I wondered what would fill the empty space—the gap—created by the missing organs.

What does this indulgence of references have to do with Stephanie’s “learning the internal”? Within the whole of Either Way, You’re Done, the final line of that poem speaks to what I consider the overall goal of the collection—“the release of what’s inside.”

Returning to the point of the prompt, “learning the internal,” I agree that Stephanie in her poems and I in my essays want to penetrate to the essence of “what carries life,” our own and everyone’s. But we employ very different tools of dissection. This contrast occurred to me before I received Harvey’s prompt. Stephanie evokes, I explain. Or attempt to explain. The open spaces of the majority of the poems slow down the reading, allow the impact of each line and image to linger and resonate, to facilitate—using a word from the poem—“discovery.” I hope my prose is more controlled than Snowden’s innards, not verbal waste. But, even at best, how deeply can we decipher the internal, excise the malignant spots?


SD: I’m immediately drawn to that question you just posed, Walt: “But, even at best, how deeply can we decipher the internal, excise the malignant spots?” It seems the impossible task in writing (and in dissecting, too). I write primarily about my personal experience as a way to decipher the internal, and I suppose since I write mostly about trauma, I’m in some way trying to excise the malignant spots, too. Of course, it’s something I can’t fully decipher or excise, can only hope to control, which is why I choose the very structured discipline of writing. Writing about trauma seems much like dissecting to me: we open up the body, see the mechanics of what is inside, but we still only see through to a certain layer of the body’s functionality. Without seeing the internal living body as it performs—as the blood is pumping, the organs acting, the neurons firing—we still can’t decipher the whole picture. Writing about trauma is like dissecting in that way; we do our best to recreate the moment but can’t fully (truthfully? accurately?) recreate it. The goal is to get as close as we can to what Walt describes in Death Cancer Madness Meaning as “the core of the experience.”

I am fascinated by the choice between writing trauma in poetry and writing it in prose. I write both poetry and memoir, with poetry being my primary genre in part because of that notion of the “core of the experience.” I’ve struggled a lot with the Truth/truth quandary (as you know, Harvey—this is the conversation that has lingered throughout our friendship). I want to reach that core of the experience, but don’t trust my own notions of truth (with a lowercase “t”). I imagine much of that comes with being a woman writing about trauma (considering how our society often questions a woman’s version of a story, demands a different level of “evidence,” or silences women in general), but I also think this is a consequence of being raised by a mentally unstable person. In some ways, poetry allows more room for that insecurity, a broader way to reach the core of the experience. In my own poems, because of the form, it leads to a very literal reshaping of the trauma.

Walt’s book does such a beautiful job of helping us understand that reshaping or rearranging that happens in writing. When he writes about his surgery and how his body is reshaped so that parts can serve a new purpose, I can’t help but see that same consideration applied to his discussion of memory and the reshaping that has to occur in order for that event to serve a new purpose. He tells us, “there is no ‘natural’ way to write about a traumatic event” (just as there is no “natural” way to excise a malignancy in the body—we must do so through surgery). Instead, we use memory as a place to start and “what results is, in effect, an inevitable reshaping that involves reimagining and re-detailing.” I agree with Walt that we use writing “to give shape to the circumstances that envelop us.”

I’ll admit, though, that I had a mini-existential crisis when I read Walt’s essay “Writing About Our Worst Experiences: Reshaping Memories.” In his discussion of writing about his own trauma, he admits that he, like all memoirists, “couldn’t avoid reshaping and, no doubt, recreating. Any of my attempts to remember those painful long-ago events are now inseparable from the details of my reconstruction.” Maybe that’s why I write about trauma! The act of recreating the event (and, therefore, changing it forever in my own future memory) is frightening, but it surely has some psychological pay-off.


WC: Stephanie brings up three related issues: Truth vs. truth, capturing trauma in writing, and prose vs. poetry. T vs. t is the overriding question. With my existential roots in Camus, I’m skeptical about the accessibility of the big T to human beings. He writes, “Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine.” All we can be sure of are small truths—the sun is shining, f=ma, the laws of Euclidian geometry, that Louis Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900. Wait! That’s wrong! It’s what the man believed most of his life until a discovered baptismal certificate recorded his birth date as August 4, 1901. At least, we can say that a man named Louis Armstrong existed and played the trumpet. Or was is cornet? That main point is that we can accumulate and even verify great masses of information but really don’t know what it all means.

Both Stephanie and I wrote about mental illness and the pains of living with someone close to us who suffered such illness. But what illness? What does mental illness mean? Specialists disagree about what to call the same set of symptoms. At one point the same behavior American psychiatrists diagnosed as schizophrenia was designated as manic depression by British. Beyond that the Scottish-born psychiatrist R.D. Laing, author of The Divided Self, denied that psychosis was a mental condition but rather the result of social circumstances and the resulting behavior a valid expression of distress. He even believed the state could be a transformative journey leading to a discovery of important insights.  Thomas Szasz, in the 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness, turned against his psychiatric profession, comparing it to alchemy and astrology and denying the existence of diseases of the mind.

Can we say even the term mental illness is truth with a small “t”? For me—and I assume for Stephanie—what I witnessed and what I had to cope with was hardly romantic and transformative, hardly a myth. Whatever the cause, the person was in great psychic pain with the results destructive to her and to many around her. I’ll never forget her haunted face.

As writers, Stephanie and I have the advantage of outlets to attempt to articulate the effects of trauma on our lives.  For her, a goal of the writing is “my reconstruction.” In my prose and her poetry we are both seeking the “truth” of our experiences. It isn’t any other person’s truth, even those who lived in the same houses and witnessed the same phenomena day and day. We hope our words will resonate with readers but also with ourselves as we attempt to make sense of all that we went through. My ultimate hope—I won’t speak for Stephanie—is that I’ll surprise myself with a realization of an ultimate Truth, what is all meant in some Big Picture. But I fear even the small truths we stumble on are more like Louis Armstrong’s birthday. We go along thinking July 4 and then find it’s August 4. But he had documentation of the latter, and I have only verbal stabs in a darkness.

Finally, prose and poetry. It may be my lack of any poetic capability, my prose limitation, but I’m often overwhelmed by what a good poet can achieve, at best intimations of what might be a capital Truth, an evocation of a realm far beyond the words on the page. Camus considered poetry an evasion: “You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.” Maybe not. But even if poetry cannot be definitive, it can give us access to a deeper understanding.

Camus expressed our human limitations: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. … This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me.”

Stephanie’s poetry, like all good poetry, seeks to elucidate the indefinable, finding images that resonate, that convey her quest to place herself in this world, to make connections with the unknowable. In doing so, she gives voice to our own quests in our own worlds.

In the conclusion to “Counterpoint” she writes:

Swimming in the ocean,

almost deeper

than I can see

I listen to the click

of fish gliding by.

Here, sound is concentrated,


I extend my arm,

try to reach further

down, but my breath

is running out.

For me, these lines echo Camus and help me visualize my own intellectual and emotional seekings, the want and the limitations. Stephanie has provided a small t truth.


SD: And here’s the Louis-Armstrong-truth in “Counterpoint”: I wrote that poem after a snorkeling trip. I asked the guide about the clicking sound we heard underwater, and he informed us it was fish eating (their teeth scraping rock), though he didn’t know exactly what kind of fish. After the book was published, I learned it was more likely snapping shrimp, who snap their claws and release air bubbles into the water (a much more interesting image, given the context of the poem). So, I missed that small t truth in that detail.

One of the things writing has taught me is that, in agreement with Walt and Camus, we can’t really get to a big T truth, if there even is such a thing. But the struggle with what was “right” or “real” was a central motivating factor for me writing these poems (and for choosing poetry over prose). My own mental health issues became apparent when I was around 30 (the same age my mother had her first break down, the age, as Walt points out, both Zelda’s and Judy’s mental illnesses came to light). I returned to writing as a way to try to parcel out what was and wasn’t my own experiences, what was real to me versus what was real to my mother. Of course, now I understand there is no untangling of all that, but it was important for me to try. I can see Camus’ point—in some ways poetry is evasion. But it is also an act of confronting—whether that is confronting trauma, the self, the other, or the small t truth.

I suppose all writing is a confrontation. Certainly Walt’s work is an act of confronting, which he does in each of the essays in his book. He confronts his loved ones’ deaths, the eventuality of his own death, Judy’s madness, commitment, other authors, writing, memory, the list goes on. So often we think of that word (confronting) as an act of aggression, but Walt shows us that it can be an unwrapping, a gift, an act of love and acceptance, understanding. In writing about trauma, we, as Walt notices, “use the page to recreate the awful, much like picking at a scab.” That recreating is violent, but it is vital to understanding, to confrontation. I think about the frankness and grace with which Milt faces death in “Ways of Dying,” the way most of us hope to face death. Walt’s prose mirrors that candor and grace in its many confrontations. Walt tells us that dying as a quick act—“a sudden end in the midst of an active life, without more than a split second of pain, without the angst of a death sentence” sounds like the preferred way to go, but then challenges that notion with the story of Frieda, who could “confront [death] with awareness, with the opportunity to take stock of all her years and to contemplate what lay ahead.” He then guesses at his own possible future: “the hurt that won’t go away, the blood test that brings a shadow to my doctor’s face.” There is no romanticizing here—just bold, confrontation of the inevitabilities of life so many of us spend most of our time trying to ignore. More of that small t truth.


HH: Trauma and truth, yes, to which I’d add trauma and time.  Maybe it doesn’t play out exactly as another capital T small t distinction, but I’m hearing the two of you (in this conversation so far, and in your books) questioning the usual assumption about how trauma is situated in time.  When Stephanie talks about recreating the trauma as a way of “changing it forever in my own future memory” and Walt questions an understanding of trauma as “romantic and transformative,” I hear you both drawing attention to something crucial that our normal, informal ways of speaking about trauma miss.

We often speak as if trauma were a self-enclosed, discrete, isolated event, something that happened once in the past but now is over.  I experienced a trauma, past tense.  That “folk theory” leads to misconceptions, such as our category PTSD.  Post-traumatic assumes that the trauma is over, and exists only in the past.  Disorder assumes that traumatic stress is wrong, a failure of some kind.  If the event is over, then my not being over it implies that I’ve failed to get over it.

But I’m hearing you both change the verb tense: not I experienced a trauma but I experience a trauma, continuous present tense.  That seems to me truer to the actual experience of trauma than the past-tense folk theory.  Trauma doesn’t happen as an event and end: it happens and continues to exist in our present lives.  It’s not something that happened once upon a time, so that I can just “get over it” and “move on”: it is part of me, I am as I am in part because of the trauma.

That relationship of trauma to time has to do with trauma’s relationship to Truth/truth.  If trauma were discrete, confined to one past moment in time, then my memory of it would be either true or false.  But if trauma inhabits a continuous present, then trauma and the memory of trauma don’t pull cleanly apart.  My trauma and my memory of trauma are one another, so that recreating the event really can, as Stephanie puts it, change it forever in future memory, but that change is not, as Walt points out, a romantic, magical transformation but an ongoing labor.  And that means the writing, as you both point out, is not disinterested description but a way of coping, a coming-to-terms-with.


WC: Harvey certainly is right when he says of trauma, “… it is part of me, I am as I am in part because of the trauma.” In that sense, someone who has experienced a trauma can never be in a post-traumatic state. At best, with some form of therapy, the sufferer may be able to mitigate the most severe consequences of the trauma, the nightmare state that compromises normal functioning. For many, even though they may be able to get though the day unscathed, the nightmares continue to haunt. For example, we know of those who have survived military combat but decades later are still unable to talk about what they went through. More commonly, it’s childhood memory that festers. Just ask Freud.

The other day I heard from an old friend who reacted to an essay I wrote about my father by revealing how he always felt he wasn’t good enough for his father and, as a teenager, overworked in his father’s store to prove himself. This friend, put down for being a bookish boy, holds a chaired professorship at a major university and has received international recognition. Still … It’s hardly only sons. I’ve never forgotten the time I was the only male at a table of women during the wedding reception for the son of one of the women. These were people who knew each other well and I also knew well, or thought so. Loosened by a few drinks and the escalating revelations, they began ranting how much they hated their mothers, citing chapter and verse, even those who, in my company, had expressed great affection for their mother. Trauma lurked in them, exposed in mutual outbursts.

As Harvey notes, trauma is more than something that happened to us and went away like a nasty flu. Real trauma embeds in our psychic DNA, shaping who we are. While most trauma is vivid, unforgettable from the time it happened, there may be traumas we don’t even realize are marking us. Or am I just talking about myself? It’s taken me decades to finally understand the effects on me of my father dying when I wasn’t quite eight. His was one of the family deaths I wrote about in the essay “Ways of Dying” that Stephanie refers to. During that writing, I thought I was just reporting details I remembered, too young to have an emotion reaction. But writing a later essay about my lack of memories of him, I—at last—grasped how being fatherless had shaped who I became. Perhaps determined more than shaped. At this point in my long life, its’s an intellectual comprehension. I can’t summon emotional reactions to the man or his absence as I can for the impact of other traumas.

Stephanie conveys a need to know in the final lines of her collection’s title poem, “Either Way, You’re Done.” After depicting the details of a grizzly bear’s diet—moths licked from its fur, pine nuts stolen from a squirrel stash, and finally flesh torn from an elk calf, she captures her identification with the experience—bear and elk, the craving for an understanding:

I imagine what it would be like

to be part of such faithfulness

and decide I want to swarm

to be ripped open

—to know you.

And, perhaps, to know me by knowing you, to know not only what happened to us but what it all means. Harvey sees our writing about trauma one more attempt to achieve “a coming-to-terms-with.” We’re willing to rip ourselves open to seek the portents in our verbal entrails, the signs of who we are and the role of trauma in that becoming.


SD: When Harvey says that writing “is not disinterested description, but a way of coping, a coming-to-terms-with,” I think of the distinction between writing as therapy and creative writing—and I do believe there is a distinction. There is writing that does what Walt describes in “Writing About Our Worst Experiences: Reshaping Memories” with the woman in primal scream therapy—writing as “a raw, verbal outpouring.” Walt says serious writers “seek the language and the craft strategies to present our greatest unhappiness.” It’s the “craft strategies” that make the difference, and what are craft strategies but a means of control, a way to define—redefine—the trauma in our own terms, under our own command. No matter the motivation (whether it is to resonate with others or give voice to the experience), it is a coming-to-terms-with through controlled creation—recreation—and that control is the key to coping.

It’s interesting to me that psychologists also diagnose ASD, Acute Stress Disorder, which is similar to PTSD but occurs directly after the trauma. It becomes PTSD when there are symptoms after a certain amount of time has passed since the trauma. They do make a distinction between the length of time between when the trauma occurs and when we should “recover” from the trauma. But as you’ve both pointed out, trauma changes us fundamentally. As Walt points out, “In that sense, someone who has experienced a trauma can never be in a post-traumatic state.”

For myself, in many ways, writing is an explanation for who I am. Early on, maybe it was even an apology for who I am. I think about Walt’s comment about how “real trauma embeds in our psychic DNA, shaping who we are.” There are theories about epigenetic marks of trauma, that trauma experienced by our parents (and earlier ancestors) impacts their DNA and, in turn, our DNA. We can pass down trauma in DNA memory. Of course, it isn’t memory as we know it, but it does affect our being in ways we don’t yet understand. Wanting “to be ripped open—to know you” changes depending on who the “you” is here: a beloved, my mother, myself. It feels impossible to muddle through the chaos, to be able to process all of our own trauma (and know ourselves) and the echoes of traumas of those who came before us, too, especially without the stories to go along with them. Writing gives us a means to control all of that chaos, a way to understand our own (and perhaps others’) actions and reactions. In Walt’s essay “My Father in the Attic,” he writes, “Once I’m gone, which will be sooner rather than later, my father will become one more totally forgotten being, one of the millions who once existed since the first homo sapiens,” which is Walt reminding us all that we will, in our own time, be forgotten. But our traumas will keep riding along the DNA tide. Writing in poetry and memoir can leave a paper trail for those who come after us, a way to say “this is why I am who I am” to those who will be, in part, who they are because of our traumas.


WC: Stephanie brings up my point about “craft strategies,” which led me to think about an example I experienced eight years ago. That memory connects to a phone conversation I had yesterday morning with a man about to undergo combination cystectomy/prostatectomy surgery for bladder cancer. As a survivor of the same surgery (though his will be robotic and mine involved a long semicircular slashing), I occasionally am asked to call others facing theirs with fears that I consider pre-traumatic anticipation. Yesterday, the man told me he had undergone back surgery and knee and hip replacements. But this one really frightened him—“a matter of life and death.” Unlikely, I told him. The cancer was in the muscle of the bladder—as mine was—with a high percentage of survival.

In fact, I was calm before my actual surgery, curious about the procedure and knowing it would give me something to write about. But because of that slashed incision and a long healing process that involved more than two weeks in the hospital and rehab with pain and weakness and initial agony just to sit up, I found myself post-surgically depressed. Even two months later, I lacked strength and energy, sulking because I wasn’t normal—or what was normal for me.

One evening my wife and I went to my first meeting of the local ostomy support group, where I whined and felt sorry for myself. A young woman there gave me advice. When she was upset by something, she wrote about her feelings, released the emotion in words, and felt much better. All the time she was talking, I kept thinking of the stress such a writing attempt would place on me at that time. I’d have to come up with an opening paragraph to set the thematic direction for the piece, conscious that I needed a fresh approach to a subject many had written about before. I didn’t want to be redundant and hackneyed. Then, assuming I finished my piece about my condition, where would I submit it? I’d want to add this hypothetical essay to my oeuvre. But would it be good enough? I thanked the young woman and left the meeting even more depressed.

A happy ending. Several months later I did write the essay, and it’s been reprinted several times, including in the collection Stephanie is commenting on. My cancer also led to a long review essay in which I compare my experience with that of the author. I did lose a bladder, a prostate, a seminal gland, and some lymph nodes; but I got two publications. Oh, I didn’t die either. Not yet. At least, not from that cancer.

Stephanie notes that writing about our traumas leaves a paper trail (or a digital trail) for those who come after us. A number of people told me that my essay about my own surgery helped them prepare for their pending operations or to reconsider their own past surgeries. In a conversational sense, I did a version of that yesterday speaking to my new pre-traumatic friend.

But isn’t much great literature about trauma? Fiction, poetry, memoir. Hamlet and King Lear, for two. Greek tragedy? Those dramas are the sources of Aristotle’s theory of catharsis—the pity and fear aroused through empathy with the downfall of the hero leading to purification and cleansing. For those of us who have suffered personal trauma, such trauma is our version of a tragic fall, graphic realization that, like Oedipus, we are not in control of our own destinies. Cancer is not as severe as murdering your father or having a ghost reveal how uncle murdered yours before he seduced your mother. But cancer, like Dr. Johnson’s hanging, does concentrate the mind. So does an artistic vicarious experience.

Many years ago, I saw the late actor Morris Carnovsky play Lear at the now defunct and, I believe, destroyed Shakespeare theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. Carnovsky was so powerful that at the end the audience was too shaken to do more than applaud politely and shuffle out to the parking lot in stunned silence. Were we, several hundred people, sharing a collective catharsis? I’ve never forgotten those minutes.

Could it be that writing about our own traumas, despite the advice of that young woman at the ostomy group meeting, is less like to achieve a catharsis than the work of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare—or even many good poems, novels, stories, essays, films? I believe that because we aren’t distanced from the experience by our groping for words and craft strategies. When moved by the works of others, the experience is pure. It emulates our own emotional traumas, captured by someone who grasps the core of human suffering. Even if it doesn’t purge and purify, it reveals that somebody understands. There may be a profound comfort it that.


HH: Writing as explanation and apology, reading as purification and cleansing.  To me, both sound like continuations of our “learning the internal” theme.  I suspect that a lot of people have as their primary (or exclusive) expectation about literature the conveying of a moral: a practical life lesson about making advantageous decisions, or compact moral counsel.  That does seem like one valid possibility for writing, as exemplified by books for very young children and by homiletic treatment of sacred writings.  But a limited possibility: if that were the only thing available from literature, then the whole “takeaway” from reading Oedipus Rex would be not to kill Dad and marry Mom.  Good advice, but the play seems like more effort than necessary to get there.

I’m hearing both of you push toward a more capacious sense of what literature offers us, as writers and readers.  Scholars in the field of “affect theory” emphasize that emotions are not rigid givens, opposites of reason.  It’s not that we educate malleable reason (gather and apply information, learn and employ patterns of inference…), but simply endure inflexible emotion.  Emotion and reason are complexly interconnected, and we participate in shaping both.

It’s not surprising that we have to learn to play piano or calculate compound interest or splice DNA, so probably it shouldn’t be surprising that we have to learn (possibly by teaching ourselves) how to manage (how to survive, and make meaning from) our experiences of trauma.  I’m hearing you both give accounts of how writing literature and reading it both can participate in that never-ending process of emotional (self-)education.


SD: Yes, and that (self-)education is inherently tied into our interconnectedness; otherwise, we would write all of this out in a journal and keep it to ourselves. But writing an essay or poem or short story is about reaching for that connectedness with others. We write for a public audience. Why? Trauma feels lonely; even systemic traumas can feel deeply personal. In the act of writing to publish, we are reaching beyond that personal traumatic sense into something more universal. Writing literature works as Walt shows us in his point about the phone call: a way to talk to someone else about what happened (the motivation, whether that is to allay their fears or process our own, isn’t important in this consideration), much the same reason we read literature. The outcome would be quite different if this were private writing, journal writing. It’s in the reasoning—the very logically-oriented crafting of the piece—that we find the connections to emotion and, hopefully, get some semblance of (self-)education. I wonder if that connectedness in the act of writing is a way of achieving catharsis? Perhaps not in the same way as reading, (because someone else has articulated our own suffering there), but a different kind of catharsis when we imagine an audience understanding the emotional core of our work. Though that’s not a thing I’m conscious of when I write.

Even in writing as confronting, that it is still a matter of connectedness. Writing about trauma is an act of bravery. I’m always amazed when I read work like Walt’s that leaves me thinking, “I wish I had the courage to be that honest, to face things that head-on.” Work that confronts trauma gives the audience a voice, too. It articulates our fears and angers and puts the circumstances directly in front of us. No one wants to face trauma alone, so we reach for those works that help us feel braver, less alone. Or we write those works in hopes of feeling less alone.


WC: Stephanie’s notion of “feeling less alone” applies both to the writer hoping to capture and communicate a personal trauma and to Harvey’s citing of emotional “(self-)education.”

As I’ve speculated in an essay, I believe that the act of writing about trauma—once we decide to make ourselves vulnerable—involves a detachment from the trauma itself while we are absorbed in the strategies of choosing words and details and organizing the story, essay, or poem. There’s an interaction of literary creation and memory. A metaphoric image pops into your mind and can’t help but influence how an event is remembered. While writing we are literally alone amidst a complexity of images and emotions for our past, the words and structures the come to us in the present, and the influences—conscious and ingrained—of works we’re read and seen. But, while we are alone with a pen in our hand or fingers on a keyboard, we are immersed in externals in our minds, perhaps even to the point of feeling overwhelmed.

Assuming that we succeed in completing the work and have it in front of us on a page or a screen, we change our relationship to it and become readers, especially as time passes from that of the original composition. Of course, our own reading can’t help but differ from than of anyone who was not part of the original experience. And we’re aware of reminding ourselves of the decisions we made during the writing. Still, when I reread pieces about my own traumas, part of my mind engages with them like that of any other reader, informing myself what it was like for the persona who bears my name. In effect, I share with myself. I suppose that could be considered a form of “(self)education.”

Sharing the writing with others involves the hope of what Stephanie calls “an audience understanding the emotional core of our work.” We want to connect with readers and in that connection feel that we are not alone, especially when we have revealed a painful and perhaps shameful experience.

If not the exact same experience, a reader probably has equivalent memories that prey in the dark night of the soul, and in knowing ours can know that they are not alone. Previously, I speculated on the catharsis of reading, even when the material is fictional rather than biographical. Literature allows us to share human experience, not a simplistic moral of the sort Harvey rejects, but a richness of emotional complexity.

His comments reminded me of several studies of the effects of reading serious literature on the emotional development of readers. I did a search and found information about several, but I’ll quote this abstract of an article by Keith Oatley called “Fiction: Simulations of Social Worlds” that appeared in the August 2016 Trends in Cognitive Science. (I assume fiction can be expanded to include poetry, nonfiction, and drama.)

Fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.

That’s both “(self-)education” and “feeling less alone.”


HH: And the connectednesses are connected!  The connection between elements of an experience, the connection between parts of a poem or story, the connection between one’s writing self and one’s reading self, the connection between oneself and others, the connection between one’s own experience and the experience of others…

As this conversation establishes its own interconnections, one that I become conscious of now is that between our present attention to connection and our earlier attention to time.  It seems to me that, here and in the books, we have been alerting one another to the paradox that what secures us to one another is itself insecure, that the feeling of durable connection is time-bound.  I think of moments such as Stephanie’s lines (from “Marking the Body”)

The apple scent of shampoo

before I fall asleep—               this is when I think

I know you.

So the moment of knowing another, of loving another (Iris Murdoch: “Love is knowledge of the individual”), is fleeting, the “feeling less alone” that ushers one into the aloneness of sleep.

And I think of the horrifying image of the nursing home in the first essay in Walt’s book.  Even in the good nursing home, those who were not comatose

were aligned in front of blaring TV sets gaping at programs so far removed from the state of their existence that they could have been beamed from Mars.  Or they might be in a dayroom where chipper entertainers were trying to lead group sings of tunes like “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” all sound emanating from the people at the piano, a few toothless mouths barely moving.

Again, a time-boundedness of interconnection, in this case how interconnection can become impossible even before death arrives.

In this conversation and in your work, I receive from both of you a sense of how very strong, and strengthening, interpersonal connection can be, and also how tenuous and fragile and fleeting.


WC: We can consider degrees of connectedness that can vary from day to day, even minute to minute. Existence precedes essence, and it’s the vicissitudes of our lives that shape the nature of our connections. The deepest and most enriching personal connection is love. But even love can be fragile and fleeting, as hundreds of torch songs bemoan. And we don’t need the songs to remind us of the times we thought we were in love and even may have been for long periods. Then, the relationship ends in indifference and, at worst, animosity.

Other connections, free of the intensity of love, can be more enduring, far less fragile, probably because much less is at stake. I’m thinking of a friend I first met when we had different wives. The marriages ended, but the friendship continued for decades of frequent contact. But I’m also thinking of friends I see or hear from sporadically, some going back to college. Years can pass between encounters, and each new time we pick up as if continuing a conversation from the day before. Such connections help us recognize that we are part of something beyond ourselves.

My wife and I, the other day, were speaking of times in our lives when we felt a profound loneliness, the despair of disconnection, and we wondered about the statistical findings of increasing aloneness in society, the repeated opening line of the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”—“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” The Kaiser Family Foundation in 2018 concluded that “22% of Americans often or always feel lonely.” Why? Do they crave something deeper than just human contact?

Harvey refers to Iris Murdoch and Stephanie’s poem to consider the possibilities of loving someone, and therefore truly knowing someone, the “fleeting knowledge of the individual.” But does loving mean knowing? (As I type these words, our cat Pip (Philip Pirrip) is digging claws into my thigh because he—I think—wants food. I love Pip but hardly have any idea what is going on in his cat brain other than the fact that he demonstrates what we call affection toward us and his cat brother, Jeoffry.) But, when it comes down to it, I don’t know that is going on in my brain much of the time. Writing is an attempt to do so. And that only produces a form of simulacrum.

I take my not knowing and understanding as a given rather than a defeat. Life offers many compensations—the feel of Pip or Jeoffry rubbing against me, the fall colors outside my window, John Coltrane’s “Wise One,” reading poems by Harvey and Stephanie, sharing this conversation with them. These are just some of the connections that make us far less alone, even though an ultimate aloneness awaits. But what’s the point of dwelling on that inevitability? Enjoy the moment, the sharing of it.


Tony Diaz, author of The Aztec Love God (Fiction Collective, 1998), interviewed by Gerald A. Padilla in Latino Book Review:


“It seems that Democracy needs to be rebooted every 50 to 60 years. That duty has fallen on the shoulders of Chicanas, Chicanos, and Latinxs this time around. However, we’ve been prepared for this. What our community used to do to simply survive, will now help us thrive, and together we will overcome this oppression and lead the nation into an era of Enlightenment.”




Ralph Clare, in Electronic Book Review, reviewing Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), 2017):


“Surely there are dangers with any system of thought that relies solely upon logic and scientific truth, as well as with any anti-systemic or purely mythical thought that throws science out entirely. Both lead to the possibility of gross manipulation, be it by warmongers and technocrats or cult leaders and snake oil salesmen, or a mixture of both—i.e. Donald Trump.”




Andrew Joron, author of The Absolute Letter (Flood Editions, 2017), interviewed by Barbara Claire Freeman in OmniVerse:


“Stopping this cycle of violence means radically changing the world system. But we first have to set fire to our minds—using words, the stuff of poetry—before we can set fire to a system based on capitalist greed, on the one hand, and cultural xenophobia, on the other. Poetry—which has no market value, and whose operating principle is xenophilia—wants something other, makes a space for the other.”



Assotto Saint, author of Stations, interviewed by Charles Michael Smith in Book Maven:


“I deal with black gay issues because my art right now is an answer back. It’s a reaction. The world is still fucked up and why not have it coming from a different perspective and see it from there?”



Veronica Golos, author of Rootwork, from her Artist Statement preceding a selection of poems on the Best American Poetry blog:


“Ultimately, what we mean to do, I think, is to ‘break the ice’ that surrounds the reader, and the poet.”




Elizabeth Jaeger, writing in The Literary Review about Gary Fincke’s book The Darkness Call (Pleiades Press, 2018):


“Sometimes it is too easy to observe history, science, and current events as separate from our personal lives.”