Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 2

Welcome back for the second part of our Poets on Huge Interview Series, where we'll be featuring interviews of four poets reflecting on their relationships to Montana great Richard Hugo. If you missed our first part, find it here. These interviews come to us care of Kent McCarter. 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 interview for this second part of the series is with Jonathan Holden. Jonathan Holden has published 17 books, a mixture of poetry and literary criticism. In 1986, he received the Kansas State University Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2000, he was a member of the committee that selects the Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. He has twice received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. In 1995, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa chose Holden's poetry collection, The Sublime, for the Vassar Miller Prize. He was anointed Kansas’ first poet laureate in 2005. He is a former Hugo student and has written widely on Hugo.

Interview with Jonathan Holden, 12 January 2006, revised 12 May 2011

KM: What was your relationship to Hugo when researching for Landscapes of the Self: The Development of Richard Hugo’s Poetry? Were you a student of his? What drew you to Hugo and his poems?

JH: I think that I was always temperamentally inclined towards Dick's poetry, toward "confessional" poetry, though "personal" poetry might be closer to le mot juste. After The New Criticism of the Fifties, fashioned in the impersonal will of T.S. Eliot, who was so dogged in keeping his own and the poet's personal life out of poetry, personal poetry, begun in 1956 with Ginsberg's "HOWL", was a breath of fresh air. Dick Hugo was one of the first American poets to write confessional poems. But fashions change: now they look old hat and somewhat self-indulgent. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, a male poet could be mobbed by female fans. But the decorum of the business – po-biz as Louis Simpson termed it – has changed.

KM: Hugo repeatedly visited and revisited Pacific Northwest moods, socialisation, 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 how 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?

JH: Hugo's ‘stock’ has, since the seventies, lost considerable value, though some of his poems like "Degrees of Gray …" are eternal.

KM: You have been bestowed the honour of Poet Laureate of Kansas. In what manner have you felt at all encouraged or hindered from exploring landscapes foreign to that region from this label? Early on in your research, did you find Hugo (and his oft bandied tag as Pacific Northwest poet) drawing similar or perpendicular conclusions to those you’ve developed?

JH: I was always attracted to the Pacific Northwest and its writers and always will be. For whatever reason, probably because I'm from New Jersey, I have always looked west for "the real world".

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

JH:Probably the most aesthetically attractive place I know of is Santa Fe, New Mexico, but I have always ruled out "place" as factor in creativity, believing, as Stevens did, in the Imagination.

KM: I am particularly interested in Hugo’s varied uses of landscapism. To what extent do you feel that Hugo’s "triggering towns", (most importantly his general necessity of their anonymity) and the resulting poems those towns catalysed, mirror reflections of Hugo’s visceral id, let alone his psyche as a whole? Hugo, Stafford, and Wagoner all wrote with the "commoner" persona aesthetic in mind for much of their work. Is there anything, now, that you might expound upon regarding this that you did not include in your book on him?

JH: Hugo was a formula poet, always looking a formula. This is what "The Triggering Town" is about. It's a decided weakness in Dick. And he knew it. Folks like Bill Stafford knew it; and one of the things about Stafford which I keep rediscovering is the power and range of his mind. It was encyclopedic.

KM: You have authored numerous volumes on rhetoric, style, character, etc., on contemporary American poetry. In what manner do you consider Richard Hugo’s poems relevant and timely within the sphere of contemporary American poetry? Hugo has been more overlooked than embraced by writers today – why do you think that is?

JH: Hugo's poetry has fallen out of fashion, except for a couple of poems like "Degrees of Gray". This is probably inevitable. But to have even one poem last like "Degrees …" is no mean feat. But today poetry itself is an increasingly marginal art.

KM: Hugo labeled himself a regionalist poet (going so far as to attest he didn’t much care for those who weren’t). Do you agree? Or did he manage to transcend many of the shackles that label feeds upon with his successful Italy and Scotland books?

JH: Hugo is a regionalist poet.

KM: Via poetry, Hugo was a superlative delivery man for the very grounded, very "real" aspects of the human condition and messages therein. What is something unique only to Hugo (versus, say, Stafford or Levine who also did this well) that made his poems so effective?

JH: Of the three folks you mention, Hugo, Stafford and Levine, Levine continues to have the highest market-value; and he has won the highest awards. He was always the most ambitious and hence has stayed au courant.

KM: Hugo is an author with mesmerising control of both lineation and word choice, pillars of a poem’s overall sound. Beginning with his early poems and their imperfections through to his peak career poems (such as the macho tirade of "Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir") and on to the more emotionally content and staid later poems, Hugo’s collected works reads much like a symphony with three discernible movements. Excluding all else, can you comment specifically on Hugo’s progression and changes in poetic sound over the course of his career? Or, do you find the sound of his poems relatively static over that duration?

JH: I think that Hugo’s iambic music has been one of the constants of his life. The positive? A "style" that is inimitable. The negative? A style grown complacent.

KM: In a recent interview, you mention how, “The ability to be totally original in poetry is limited, the students and grown-up poets I know, 98% of their poems are stolen in the sense they rehash older music … just think of the line of descent from Guthrie to Dylan to Springsteen. There’s a very solid line of descent there”. We can add Jimmie Rogers and Jeff Tweedy before and after this list too. Endless. However, I feel that every artist, writer, etc., leaves distinct marks that are forever and only theirs. What would you say was Hugo’s unique mark?

JH: What will Dick be remembered for? The Last Good Kiss You Had Was Years Ago, the novel by Jim Crumley by the title "The Last Good Kiss" and "The Triggering Town". If, as seems unlikely at this historical moment, the art of poetry acquires significant cachet again, Hugo could come into fashion again. We’ll see.