Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 1

Welcome to the first of four great interviews regarding one of Montana's most enduring poets, Richard Hugo. All of these interviews come to us care of Kent MacCarter, who interviewed each of these four poets familiar with Hugo and his work. Kent MacCarter, expatriate of Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, former resident of Florence and Sienna, Italy, is now a permanent resident in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, son and two cats. MacCarter came to Australia in 2004 to study poetry and writing. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, is published by Transit Lounge Press. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well as a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. His career in Australia has chiefly been in educational and academic publishing as a developmental editor for multimedia, online resources, and ebooks. He currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. MacCarter is Managing Editor for Cordite Poetry Journal and an active member in Melbourne PEN.

The first interview is with David Wagoner. David Wagoner has published 18 books of poems, most recently A Map of the Night (U. of Illinois Press, 2008), and Copper Canyon Press will publish his 19th, After the Point of No Return, in 2012. He has also published ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola. He won the Lilly Prize in 1991, six yearly prizes from Poetry, and the Arthur Rense Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2011. He was a chancellor the Academy of American Poets for 23 years. He edited Poetry Northwest from 1966 to 2002, and he is professor emeritus of English at the U. of Washington. He teaches at the low‐residency MFA program of the Whidbey Island Writers Workshop.

Interview with David Wagoner on 2 April 2006, revised 5 May 2011

KM: Beneficial or not, yourself, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford have been typecast as the poetic progeny of Roethke – at least large portions of your and their work has. I feel that statutes of limitations on that possible fact have run out. Can you tell me about an early interaction you had with Hugo, his work and what of him/it made his a voice to be independently reckoned with?

DW: Hugo and I were both students of Roethke, both grateful to him and admiring of him, but Stafford was a product of the U. of Iowa writing program and never had much good to say about Ted's work. I don't believe any of the three of us show even slight traces of direct influence from him. Dick and I lived and worked in the University District and saw each other fairly often, sometimes with Jim Wright, and exchanged critiques of our poems over beer. At the time he was a technical writer for Boeing, a long‐time Seattleite, and I was a newcomer from the Midwest who'd never encountered such a bewildering primitive world as the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific shore. Dick helped me begin penetrating those places by taking me fishing.

KM: Your poem “A Valedictory to Standard Oil of Indiana” utilizes the social and economic environment of your youth in the greater Gary, IN area. Hugo’s poem, “Duwamish Head”, does the same for him. Philip Levine has poems of similar ilk. Do you think that being enveloped in working‐ middle‐class environs at such a young age provides a poet with any truer (or heightened might be more apt) sense of being and writing about being part of the human condition?

DW: My "working class background" was a complicated mixture. My father had a degree magna cum laude in classical languages and worked all his life in a steel mill, winding up as melter foreman in the open hearth. He was too shy to teach, he said. We lived in one of the most intensely polluted areas in the country, where everything natural had to struggle to keep existing. The change to the Pacific Northwest was a major shock to my feelings about nature. Earlier, I'd had the shock of leaving small‐town Ohio farmland at age 7 and trying to cope with a polluted swamp across the street with Standard Oil of Indiana (then the world's largest single refinery). My psychotopes have been struggling with each other ever since.

KM: Hugo consistently visited and revisited Pacific Northwest moods, socialization, and landscapes throughout his writing career, albeit from fresh angles as he grew both as a writer and a human. Do you think this is indicative of a poet with limited ability (no matter exemplary that poet’s niche is) or is this support for an unarguably gifted poetic voice, one able to mine similar themes and locations over a lifetime with largely successful results?

DW: Dick was never much interested in the natural world except for fish. He didn't know the names of birds and plants and never looked at any of them closely. He didn't like to walk, let alone hike, and to my knowledge never went anywhere he couldn't reach by car. He wrote about his relationships with people, his disappointments with them and himself and the towns and districts they all tried to get along with. He had almost no interest in mythology, Indian lore, history, politics, or environmental issues. In a review of one of my books in a local weekly, Dick called me "the most Elizabethan of our poets" and went on to praise my versatility, the wide range of my subject matter, forms, voices, etc. He himself almost never lightened his tone. He was very funny in conversation, but wrote very few funny poems. He never, as far as I can remember, speeded up the tempo of a poem for more than a moment and almost never tried for a voice other than his own. As far as I know, he never tried to write a play or a song lyric or dramatized somebody else's problems in a poem.

KM: You were editor of Poetry Northwest from 1966‐2002. To what degree did you glean Hugo mimicry from the submissions you received? Is there any one attribute that stands out?

DW: I received many poems from Dick's students at the U. of Montana, and they were almost always recognizable without my having to check the return addresses. They were all caught up by his dogged, downright, blunt iambics and had a hard time branching out. Some were very good at it, but few had any idea how to be lyrical. Hugo was very briefly one of the early sub‐editors of Poetry Northwest. I remember he told me he had told them he wanted sometimes to use what he called a Permanent Rejection Slip. The other editors didn't allow it.

KM: Can you recall of any town or particular place, recently, where something in the manner of ‘This place would have triggered Richard’ occurred to you? If so, what or where?

DW: I haven't seen any places that Dick missed.

KM: As Thom Gunn and those in The Movement did for English poetry, do you (or did you) feel at all brethren with Hugo in bestowing similar affects and themes on American poetry? Not solely writing in a confessional sense, but writing about the more visceral and honest tendencies of humans ‐ boozing, working, fucking, hurting, insecurities of the everyman, etc.

DW: I can't answer this one coherently. I write what's possible for me to write and often try what's impossible. I've never taken drugs or had a drinking problem, but I've been a newspaper reporter, part of whose beat in the Chicago suburbs included two of the most corrupt towns in the country: East Chicago, Indiana, and Calumet City, Illinois, and I've used them in fiction and poetry ever since, not just the natural world.

KM: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work, but David Plowden’s photographs move me in directions that many poems do. When I see Plowden’s prints of cantilever bridges over the Ohio River, my knee‐jerk sensation is that I have been transported to James Wright Country; Plowden’s photographs of an empty, straight‐as‐an‐arrow by‐way in Montana teleport me into Richard Hugo Country; countries that exist at the intersection of word and image. What do you think the dangers and rewards are for a poem being, ostensibly, a written photograph of place?

DW: I can't recall ever having written a poem based on a photo except one taken of a family reunion. The danger of the practice is probably the most obvious: if you don't have the photo beside the poem, the reader may have a poor idea of what you're talking about. You can be tempted to rely too heavily on somebody else's vision.