Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 3

Welcome back for the third 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 the last installment, check it out here. These interviews come to us via 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.

Today's interview is with Paul Mariani, one of the preeminent academic scholars of working class literature in the United States. His honours include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of six poetry collections as well as five biographies and several volumes of literary criticism publications. He currently holds a Chair in Poetry at Boston College.

Interview with Paul Mariani, 18 January 2006, revised 8 May 2011

KM: In a recent correspondence I had with Philip Levine, he remarked that Richard Hugo once said to him that he “felt a kinship with him (Levine) since we shared a common goal” and that, “he (Hugo) once said to me that the two of us & Jim Wright were aiming at the same poem or were driven by the same concerns.” What do think that common goal was?

PM: James Wright of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Philip Levine from Detroit, Richard Hugo from Seattle and the West Coast: all with many of the same preoccupations, and haunted by working-class backgrounds. Levine I know the best of the three, though I’ve followed the career of the other two and am reading Wright’s letters at the moment. Franz Wright, I had dinner with last May, and you can see the man has been through a lot, and that he’s somehow squeezed it on to the page. I am going to send you by attachment an essay on class I wrote back in mid-1992. It may tell you where I am coming from. Also, in the last issue but one of Image, an interview I did with another working-class poet, B.H. Fairchild. Let me tell you a story. Years ago—when I was just starting out as a poet—around 1975—I sent a manuscript to UMass Press, because they’d published some of my stuff. They sent it to an academic who not only misunderstood the poems, but wrote back anonymously, of course, asking why anyone would even be interested in such a working-class family. That person, I assume, is now roasting nicely in the 9th circle of hell or thereabouts.

KM: What might have been the concerns driving these poets in whatever commonality they had?

PM: The desire to be given a chance to be heard, to lift from anonymity so many of the dead who would otherwise go under earth’s lid without so much as a nod. The desire too to raise to the level of the imagination (thank you, Dr. Williams) the language as it is spoken about us every day. To sing the inherent dignity of such people, while keeping an eye on the weasels and the foxes and the others. To carry on the work of Wordsworth and Whitman and Frost and Larkin and Langston Hughes—yes—Dylan Thomas—and others. To employ the language of Polish mothers, to hear those internal speech rhythms, and lift them to the level of music, where they belong.

KM: Do you think Hugo has been overlooked in the study of working-class poetics? Or perhaps given more credence than he deserves?

PM: What is immortality these days? Twenty years of posthumous fame? Dick Hugo, Charles Olsen, even Jim Wright—all seem to have suffered the loss of stalwart audiences in the years since their death. I have spent my life devoted to poetry and poets and the lives of poets. But even my best friends aren’t interested in poetry or poems, except when deep seriousness somehow strikes them. A few students and readers here and there, and that’s it. Or at least that seems to be the case. Thank God for seminars and classes in poetry where this all-important manner of speech still has breathing room.