Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 4

Welcome to the fourth and final installment of our series of interviews with contemporary poets regarding Richard Hugo. If you missed our last installment, check it out here. These interviews come to us care of Kent MacCarter. 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 Levine. Philip Levine received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection The Simple Truth. He has authored fifteen other collections of poetry as well as translations, essays, and criticism. He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000.

Interview with Philip Levine, 21 November 2005, revised 29 April 2011

KM: As precursor to this interview, you mentioned how Hugo, “once said to me (Levine) that the two of us and Jim Wright were aiming at the same poem or were driven by the same concerns” and that you “felt a kinship with him (Hugo) since we shared a common goal.” Can you explain a bit more how that kinship formed and what it developed into regarding yours and his work in contemporary American poetry?

PL: The kinship is obvious. It seems to me the three of us went about our work with encouragement from the other two but with that alone. (Dick wrote a glowing review of my work for APR, I believe. A letter Jim wrote me praising one of my poems is in the new collection of his letters. Alas, I never praised either in print though I must have in letters.) I can find no Hugo or Wright in my work and none of my work in theirs. Nor did either ever help me with a poem nor did they ask for my help. Our meetings were not frequent enough to suit me, but they were invariably warm and rewarding. I did work hard to get Dick an NBA nomination with the knowledge he wouldn’t win. The prize was split that year between Rich and Ginsberg (Allen got half only because of my stubbornness).

KM: What do you remember Hugo embracing as the same concerns fueling the drive to a similar goal as yours?

PL: You must have read our work.

KM: The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir was reprinted in 1999. Aside from this, it’s been a mostly quiet twenty years regarding interest in Hugo’s contribution to poetry. Do you feel that Hugo’s poetic project is strong enough (or resonates enough, now, thirty years past what he considered to be his prime) to instigate a renaissance in interest in his poems?

PL: Of course it’s strong enough. The job will either be completed by his former students and his surviving friends or it won’t happen. He NEVER got his due, but I know first-hand that there were many who loved his work. Loved and used by younger poets of the Northwest.

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?

PL: Oddly enough, the outskirts of Como, Italy is the first place that comes to mind: an abandoned industrial area and slum half a mile from one of the most gorgeous places in the world. Right behind that comes the small farms of the Hudson Valley which are no longer farmed & where the city folks have yet to arrive. Whenever I go to Seattle, I think of Dick; about 18 months ago I witnessed a man of 40 picking on a small kid of 16 or so, and I wondered what Dick would have done had he been there—this was in a seedy area near the Pike Street Market. Fortunately, the kid was too quick for this jerk & escaped unharmed. That simple case of injustice, bullying, would have roiled Dick’s heart.

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 a written photograph of place?

PL: The risks are the same as a poem not written to be “a photograph of place”.

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?

PL: I always though he meant he didn’t care for abstract work, or work that took place largely in the mind. He was—as am I—for “a local habitation.” I know he said regional, but he was writing for anyone who could read.

KM: Autobiographical or not, your poem “At Bessemer”, in A Walk with Tom Jefferson, very much affords me the opportunity, and rather believably at that, to place Hugo as the narrator even though the region and its specifics are quite different to his early environs. Can you think of any Hugo poems that would fit your experience in the same manner without too much tailoring?

PL: “White Center” comes immediately to mind, though I don’t have it here. My sense is my version would have been much shorter. I don’t honestly think I have that many details stored in my memory of those years; this may be due to the fact I’m now 77 & Dick was probably in his fifties when he wrote the poem. Even if I had that many details, my poem would be shorter. Mine would probably be constructed around a narrative of some sort. Different, but very similar in aim and in feeling. Maybe one day I’ll write it.

KM: Your poem “Soul” from A Simple Truth utilises the social and economic environment of your youth in the greater Detroit area. Hugo’s poem, “Duwamish Head”, does the same for him. 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?

PL: No.

KM: It can be argued that Philip Levine was to Larry Levis as Richard Hugo was to James Welch: established poets unearthing unlikely writers haling from unlikely locales writing extraordinary poetry; Fresno and Missoula vs. Princeton and New Haven, say. Can you proffer a guess as to what Hugo might think of the current state of creative writing, where the gems lay hidden, and how to mine (then nurture) them in the ever growing list of available university programs today?

PL: Dick was on one level a practical man, and he would have understood that the spread of MFA programs throughout the country had given his former students jobs. What comes from those programs can be amazing & can be hopeless, but it was always that way. Also, he might have been thrilled by the success of someone like Levis, a major talent from Sanger, CA, “The Raisin Capital of the World.” Are all the people teaching poetry writing in MFA programs as good at it & as dedicated as Dick was? No, but they weren’t when there were only ten or fewer programs. I team taught for a week at Emory with Dick, and later I inherited a few of his students; I know how good he was. He wanted very badly to teach well, he truly cared about that. I think our backgrounds had taught us that if you took a job, you gave it your all and that way kept your self-respect.