On Poetry, Poets and Politics: an interview (conducted by actor-poet Bradley Porter)
BP: You published a book of poems, The Cartographers, back in the 1970s, but haven’t published any other poetry since. Why is that?
WH: The Cartographers was the culmination, rather than the beginning, of a particular project. I think I must have just decided that the world wasn’t in any great need of yet another poet. There were too many out there, and the form had hit an inflationary period. Then there was the fact that I was no longer interested in poetry as a public presentation. But I was still writing poetry in the 1980s and part of the 1990s, though I wasn’t not trying to publish any of it. Of course, I still continue to read poetry and I still have an interest in it. I recently heard an interview with the late great Gilbert Sorrentino, in which he said fiction writing is the last of the great vocations. But I would think that would go even more so for poetry. It’s really about obsession, as is all writing. Or, for that matter, all vocations. And I guess I just lost that obsessiveness. Or, to put it more exactly, my writing obsessions were to move elsewhere.
BP: To where?
WH: To writing about writing, specifically that intersection between reading and writing. Then in the late 1970s I began to get into hardboiled fiction from the 1940s and 1950s, and into politics and, of course, music.
BP: Where does your interest in hardboiled fiction come from?
WH: I’ve often wondered about that. Living in San Francisco, I became fascinated with the life and work of Dashiell Hammett. Then, of course, there was my father, who was a news photographer in Chicago, during and after the Capone era, who told me stories about various gangsters that he knew and photographed. Anyway, I became interested in the form and the narrative process of hardboiled fiction. And also the idea of the writer as a literary worker, who churns out books, some of which don’t quite make, but some of which are even better than the restrictions should allow.
BP: What poets do you read this days?
WH: I’m not as widely read as I once was, or as I would like to be. There certainly aren’t all that many poets I read with the diligence they deserve. So I guess I read the same poets I’ve always read. That’s a bit sad, I guess, or an indictment of how behind the times I am, but it’s nevertheless a fact. On the other hand, what newer poetry I do come across is so much the same that I lose interest in it quite quickly. A lot of it is interestingly stated, but, in the end, sounds as though it comes out of some creative writing department. Not that there is anything wrong with creative writing departments, it’s just that it makes everyone different in the same kind of way. There are, of course, exceptions. But if you go back to the 1950s and 1960s poetry was anything but institutionalised.
BP: And the poets...?
WH: Well, I’ve always been an avid reader of anything by Ed Dorn. Of course, that’s been the case for the last few decades. I’ll also read anything by Raworth or Prynne. Above all, what I appreciate about Dorn is his intelligence, his perception and his wit. And, of course, that iconoclast perspective. He can be hard as nails at one moment, yet lyrical at another. Moreover, he is also very funny. I like Prynne for his linguistic density and I guess I’d call it his scientific lyricism. Raworth for his sheet of nuanced sound that only he is able to produce. I still read the likes of Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer. I read O’Hara for his wit and conversational approach to the poem, and Spicer for his total immersion in the poem and the way he is able to create a poetic language based on units of speech. Or, as someone once said, language as image. And of course Olson’s human universe continues to intrigue me. Especially, the way he intertwines poetry and politics, from the local to the global. When I met him in the late 1960s, he was still talking about Henry Wallace and the 1948 Democratic Convention. To me, Olson is the foundation on which so much post-Pound poetry rests. Then there any number of others: Pavese, Celan, Cendrars, Kavanagh, Whalen, Berrigan, Blackburn, Oppenheim, Stuart Perkoff, even Richard Hugo, if only because he, like Spicer, once wrote a detective novel. Which brings to another crime writer and my favourite old school poet, Kenneth Fearing. I love the way he deals with narrative and his ability to use his noir perspective in the poem.
BP: Anyone more recent?
WH: I guess discovering Rae Armatrout was something of a revelation. Just at a time when I didn’t think I would ever come across another poet who would as much as those I’ve just cited. Armatrout seems to have that sense of paradox and discrepancy that Dorn has, as well as a very sophisticated line and sense of humour. There are no doubt others who I’ve missed out on or dismissed out of ignorance.
BP: So you’re interested in the politics of the poetry as well as its form?
WH: You can’t really separate the two. But what I’m looking for in poetry is that sense of paradox, discrepancy, politics, and perception, all wrapped within a political take, regarding the poem, the relationship between form and content, and, of course, the world.
BP: It sounds like you should be into LANGUAGE poetry.
WH: What was that old Goldwater line, extremism in the pursuit virtue is no vice. It’s not like I have anything LANGUAGE poets as such. What they did, and still are doing, is interesting, but it can only be interesting as far as the poem itself. The trouble is, for me, some of it isn’t all that readable. Though that might be because, though it appears as form best suited on the page, it might well be better suited as a public performance. I’m fine with the the politics and theory of it. In fact, I think in the end I’m more interested in the politics and poetics of it than in the poetry itself. So I like some of their essays better than many of their poems, though of course I’m probably wrong to separate the two. But if poetry is meant to be heard rather than read, it raises some interesting questions. Such as access. And voice. However, the likes of Clark Coolidge or Tom Raworth are better appreciated when heard. It’s only after hearing them that you can understand their work on the page. On the other hand, one wants to be able to take time over a poem. I guess, ideally one wants both worlds, and each gives a different take on things. I remember the first time I heard Olson read. It was amazing, because, however the poem looked on the page, here was poetry written in natural speech. I don’t think I’d ever heard that before. But it also put me in a quandary about hearing poetry as opposed to reading it. There is something public performance that, for me, is suspect, just as there is about the poet as some kind of unauthorised authority. Maybe it’s just that I prefer, to misuse Manny Farber’s term, termite poetry to elephant poetry.
BP: Meaning what exactly?
WH: Meaning I prefer the work of someone who is diligent, gnawing away at the system or the genre, than someone who declaims his or her genius, or writes in capital letters, if you know what I mean. Zukofsky would be a termite poet as opposed to Ginsberg who, as good as he may have been, was anything but. Though Howl clearly shows termite tendencies.
BP: Have you come across any poets who deserve greater recognition?
WH: What poet does not deserve greater recognition? At the same, I’m not comfortable with this thing about poets being the antenna of their culture, or whatever it was that Pound said. Poets perform a function, but no more so than a good plumber or carpenter. That’s not to denigrate poetry, but to merely put it in some kind of perspective. One can appreciate a good table just like one can a good poem. I think the book that most moved me over the past few years was the collected poetry of Stuart Perkoff. It wasn’t that it was the greatest poetry ever written, but what impressed me was the soulfulness and the commitment. Which is why I also was taken by the work of Richard Hugo, or, for that matter, George Stanley, who has been churning out incredible stuff for the past fifty years.
BP: So is there a specific relationship between your writing on noir film and fiction, your politics and poetry?
WH: I hope so. I like narrative, especially if it’s shaped in a certain way. I think a lot of it has to with formal concerns, how ideas are made, and how one can formulate a decent critique of the culture. In fact, I’ve never really given it a lot of thought. Maybe that’s intentional. Poetry, like noir film and fiction, can be used to subvert the culture, but it can’t be done in a frivolous way. The culture puts up all sorts of caution signs- one can’t do this or that, or one must travel certain speed, write in a certain prosody, or publish two novels a year. It’s all detrimental, yet it’s from within those restrictions, as abhorrent as some might be, that interesting things emerge. To formulate a cogent critique means working within the crevices. Politics in and of itself don’t really count for much. Nor does a novel that is simply about serial killers. But it’s workmanship that counts. The termite eating into the wood. Or that obsession that I spoke of earlier.
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