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Steven Hind

Interview October 24, 2006  
          

When did I first write poetry? In a box of things Mother had kept I found a poem in my childhood scrawl, this just a few weeks ago after her death. I don’t remember writing that poem about geese flying over the farm in fall, but apparently I did. It’s sort of fourth rate William Cullen Bryant, although I’m sure I had never seen “Ode to a Waterfowl” at that time. So I guess I would have to say that occasionally I was trying to write poetry from an early age. I do remember trying to write short stories, imitations of the ones I had read in Sports Afield. (Yes, hunting magazines used to print fiction.) I remember showing a couple of those efforts to my eighth grade English teacher who was also the basketball coach. I doubt that he had much interest, at least I don’t recall any encouragement. (He had us memorize an alphabetical list of 42 common prepositions: about, above, across, after, along, among, etc.
I enrolled in a fiction writing course during my junior year in college. I don’t recall there being any poetry course, but I could not have conceived of myself as a poet then anyway. I wrote a story about finding a dead body called “Sing, Damn It, He’s Dead.” It attempted to deal with the same experience of “The Third of September in Sixty-Three” (p. 62 in Loose Change). So it’s only taken me forty years to find the form for that subject. I’m sure I wrote a few poems during my college days, and I read a lot of poetry, of course, but I didn’t sustain the attempt to write poetry until I began teaching juniors (thus American literature, my great love) at Topeka High School in 1965. I suspect that teaching poetry caused me to begin to understand the form of great poems more richly than I had previously, thus I began to “get it.” I went back to graduate school in Lawrence in 1969 and by that time had accumulated a small collection of things. None of those ever saw print, but I did show them to my major professor, John Willingham, who died not long ago. He returned them saying, “You know, some of these are pretty good.” I did not know that. Nothing could have been harder for me to conceive than being a poet. It was so alien to my formative experience.


On the way back to the farm after passing my oral exams for the M.A. degree, I heard something new in my head and began writing it down. It was the first version of “Getting Into the Act,” which is in Familiar Ground. Incidentally, “Excursion” (p. 58 in Loose Change) is a refinement of that first poem. I knew when I read over the first draft that I had hit upon a treatment that was mine in a way nothing I had written to that point had ever achieved. And I was off!

So I guess that gets into your second question: I should say that I was doing lots of finger exercises until 1970 when I first began writing poetry that felt right, then I began sending pieces out. The old Kansas Quarterly was the first magazine in which I was published. I would have to look up the year. By the mid-seventies I was committed to the craft with a sense of confidence: I was a poet. If vocation means you make your way doing it, then I have never pursued poetry as a vocation. Teaching has been my vocation, but the dividend is that, as a teacher, you are usually teaching yourself more than anyone else in the room. I was always “practicing” the craft in the sense of studying rather intently the question of how does the poem work. How did he/she do that? Not that you imitate others’ performances on paper, but it sinks into the mind and affects what comes forth in personal expression. Early on, I held the conviction that showing kids how poetry and fiction worked was more useful to them than trying to coerce acceptance of my interpretation of meaning.

As to my HCC teaching, at a community college the English department is essentially a service department. I spent most of my time teaching young people how to write straightforward nonfiction prose. “Essays” as they are loosely called. That is a kind of salt mine labor, marathon reading of student papers week in and week out. Often my best students were not in the least interested in writing for its own sake. More times than I like to remember I was told by students I was helping to enroll, “I want to get my English out of the way.” Like a roadblock, or a tooth extraction. But I caused a good many students to re-evaluate reading and writing, a most satisfying conversion when it happened. Since we taught some literature in the second composition course, it was heaven to show them things about poems, stories, and a novel that they had never understood. “I didn’t know it could be like that” can apply to more than sex. I did teach an introductory literature course from time to time, a creative writing course, and a course in mythology, a very useful exploration for me personally.


I guess I should confess that I found teaching immensely satisfying when it succeeded. I made a number of life-long friends from among my students, and I didn’t really want my writing to be a vocational necessity. I liked the privacy of writing, even of publishing. When I came here, no one else on the faculty was writing poetry, or publishing it. Now there are a couple of young poets on the staff. I don’t think publicity would have done me any good, and certainly not the pressure to publish which university writers feel. I’m just not built that way psychologically.

As to that home place, yes, the land where I roamed as a kid is still in the family. I (and my wife) bought some of it from my grandmother’s estate. My brother and his son eventually assumed a land contract on the folks’ place after Dad retired from farming in his late seventies. My nephew lives in the house where I grew up, but when my parents had to leave the farm, something irrevocably changed in my relationship to the place. You know, things change and you change with them, like it or not. I feel closest to a small pasture on the hill across the river and above the farm where I roamed with my dog as a kid. (Tom Averill knows the place.) I still camp there in good weather, but as I grow older I go there less and less. Yet it’s forever vivid in my head, or my heart.

I would say that my poetry usually springs from personal experience, treated by imagination, or laundered through imagination by the catalyst of emotion. Camping under a night sky, rambling in windy grassland in glorious privacy, and so on – the experiences generate a kind of ecstasy that I spin out into words as a matter of habit. Maybe it’s that sense of loss that motivates me most strongly. You know, to salvage something of the beautiful sense of being fully alive in unmediated connection to a landscape, and a part of that is always a consciousness of mortality. But since I’m not writing autobiography, I can allow the reconfiguration of literal experience to express some sort of performance of what the actual engendered as an end product of feeling -- how the experience felt. I mean, one has to find an equation for the richest states of consciousness. Otherwise, we are trapped in abstraction: I was happy, etc. I think of O’Keeffe, painting a visual equation for how a flower or a bone makes one feel if one truly sees it, sees it in the fullest possible sense of perception --- that’s what it’s all about. To wake up to that “o’erbrimmed moment,” as Keats put it, so that life isn’t wasted in the dullard’s quasi-perceptions. What did Adrienne Rich say, “The real question is whether or not human life is possible.” My prejudice is that many human beings never achieve it.

I think Stafford has influenced me in ways I can’t even explain. I know that I can be reading his poetry and suddenly have a flash of possibility in my own mind that has no discernible relationship to what I’m reading in his work. It’s strange. When I hear others talk about Stafford, I think I hear something of that from them too. No one I can think of offered such a generous invitation to participate in the art as he did. I think its causes are mysterious, maybe even metaphysical. No wonder some people think of him as saintly (something he would reject with that look of his). What people are trying to express is a sense of gratitude for his inclusive generosity. They are so coercive because the inclusion is so intelligent and authentic. There is no patronization in him, ever, no artificiality. The real thing!


But as for others who influenced me? Well, my mother, first of all. She read to us every night when I was a child. Since we didn’t know that children have short attention spans, we listened until she stopped reading, or we drifted off to sleep. I particularly remember the Thornton W. Burgess books, I think they were, these animal stories with neat little morals at the end. I don’t remember a one of the morals, but I remember the sound of the prose and the nature of the characters: wise Grandfather Frog and wily Reddy the Fox and the rabbit, a bit goofy, always stumbling into trouble. I don’t remember his name, but it wasn’t Peter. Mother had two years of college before she married and her unfinished teacher preparation had stressed the importance of reading aloud to children, so she did that. But other poets? I suppose we were all seduced by modern criticism and T.S. Eliot in college. It was not until I began teaching that I realized how far my sense of life was from his (and lucky for me). I remember William Carlos Williams writing in his autobiography that he felt betrayed by Eliot. You know, here he and other American poets of his circle were trying to make an authentic American poetry, and Eliot defects from the whole imagist/ no-meaning-but-in-things school to a filigreed language that requires footnotes. So I would say that W.C.W. was an influence, his example as much as his art perhaps.


I read the American poets -- Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, E.A. Robinson, and one way or another they seeped into my sense of poetics. I mean, of course there was the consciousness of academics, taking and giving exams, etc. but I’m not sure how direct that influence is on one’s own poetry. It’s more subtle than that, I think. Whenever I have realized that I was writing something that was perceptibly influence by another poet, I stopped writing it. Later poets provoking deep admiration, if not influencing me directly, include Elizabeth Bishop and Alan Dugan, even Robert Lowell. At one time I read a lot of poetry by contemporary Midwestern poets, but I can’t say they influenced me. At least I’m not aware of it. Harley Elliott of Salina has been a long-time friend, and we exchange poems in letters, have for years. I often take his suggestions for changes that a poem needs, much more than he benefits from mine, I suspect. I’ve just been reading a good bit of Jonathan Holden’s work, and his intelligence is refreshing, invigorating, but . . . I guess I’m too old to be influenced. The last book of poems I read that really set me back on my heels, and it’s been a while I confess, was Linda Gregg’s Too Bright To See. She went to Greece and took a little stone house and stuck to her business. What she did for that place is what I want to do for mine, would like to do for mine: create that charged sense of being alive in a particular locale. So it’s a parallel path of desire more than influence that I get from reading others’ work. It’s encouraging to see anyone succeed in doing the kind of thing one would like to do for one’s own life and time.


I see I anticipated your next question. That wasn’t the most recently read book, but it’s one that certainly sticks with me. I just re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer for a Kansas Humanities Council book talk in Kansas City in September. I value books that take up the real issues that face us, rather than the issues politicians use as distractions. She initially majored in biology and writes so well about our environmental dilemma, and it is a bit didactic at times, I admit. I just read William Kloefkorn’s memoir of growing up in Attica, Kansas, in the forties and fifties, At Home on This Moveable Earth – just a wonderful little book (from the University of Nebraska Press). I read Jim Hoy’s Flint Hills Cowboys not long ago. Great stuff! And I will add that many of Tom Averill’s short stories stick with me, rich in authentic detail and wisely humorous. I should mention a book that I re-read when I’m feeling trapped and defeated: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. E.L. Doctorow has a collection of lectures he gave at Harvard that I find reaffirming. And The New Yorker when it’s good. Holden’s poetry I mentioned. Michael Pollam’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma struck hard, a nonfiction book about our food production recommended to me by Tom Averill, incidentally. Well, you can see that I read as if at a Smorgasbord. As my daughter says, who reads twice as fast as I do, “So many books, so little time.” My favorite plays are Hamlet and The Glass Menagerie, since I’m naming names here.


I am not trained in music. My sister is, teaches piano in Des Moines and plays beautifully. So I confess that folk music still appeals to me most of all. As a painter named Walter Anderson said, “The first poetry is written by farmers and sailors who sing with the wind in their teeth.” “The Erie Canal” and “John Henry” and “The Old Chisolm Trail” – those kinds of songs have always appealed to me. So I like music that employs those American elements – much of Copeland’s work, and “The Grand Canyon Suite” – I reveal myself as narrow and unsophisticated. (“America the Beautiful” should be our national anthem in my humble opinion. And I’m so glad we have “Home on the Range.” Maybe I’m but a step or two away from General Grant who said he could only remember two tunes: “One is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other one isn’t.”) By the same token, I will add that I like a good deal of Stephen Vincent Benet’s attempts to make that raw American experience into art – “The Mountain Whippoorwill” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” etc. Celebrations of that American possibility caught me at a formative age, and I am entrapped to some extent. (I like Duke Ellington’s compositions quite a lot, an American original.) What I hear now seems too often about nothing but making money. I cannot shake that anachronistic conviction that we should aspire to something noble. How can one talk fanatically about the dignity of life on a planet where almost a billion people don’t even have access to clean drinking water? It’s ludicrous. The globe cannot sustain our numbers for long, and people talk about nine billion in another half century or so. I’m just as glad I won’t be around to see it. I think of Faulkner, someone whom I read almost in total once upon a time, and his Isaac McCaslin who sees the Big Woods going down to ax and saw, sees the land running out with his own life and speaks of the punishment of our free will turned to unbridled destruction. Deeply moving language; and you know, he wanted to be a poet first, and he is in a way

I have read a great deal of the literature about and by Indians (“feather not dot” as my urban nieces say for clarification). I feel a little bit like a reservation Indian, having lived a life that has vanished and is essentially incomprehensible to contemporary Americans. So Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses is a book of poems that has stayed with me. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain is, I agree with Tony Hillerman, an American classic. Sherman Alexie’s work is congenial, especially The Summer of Black Widows, which I realize now is the latest book of poems that really impressed me. – and it still some time back.
For all the criticism heaped upon it, I think Black Elk Speaks is an important book. “It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost,” Black Elk says. And what a life! He knew a life without white influence, was at the Custer slaughter, traveled to Europe with Cody’s Wild West Show, and lived into the 1950s! -- Well, there’s no end to this.

I don’t know that I have a favorite movie. It’s easier with books. The Great Gatsby is an American masterpiece that I cherish. It’s so good that it can’t be made into a successful movie. So I guess I’ll try to think of untranslatable movies. -- It would depend on the context, I guess. Of the world I knew? “Hud” brilliantly adapted from (as much inspired by, as adapted from) Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By is a superb film. No one else has gotten the Great Plains onto film the way James Wong Howe did in that movie, but you have to see it on the big screen to know that. (His wife, Sonora Babb, grew up in eastern Colorado, where my mother did, and wrote a fine memoir called An Owl On Every Post.) Apocalypse Now! is a brilliant failure about the horrors of war. I think of many movies I like. For the sake of brevity, since I’ve gone on too long about most of your questions, I’ll just name The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That seems to me as fine a performance of the film medium as any I can recall. Some of its effects may look crude now, but the shape of the story, the pace, the acting, and finally what it dramatizes about human folly – who has done it better? (Although I will add that The Hours just knocked me back on my heels, to name a recent movie that’s fine. I could almost quote Dickinson: I know it’s poetry when it takes the top of my head off. ) But I know little more about movie making than I know about music, so I don’t speak to that with much authority. – Oops, I see I turned questions eight and nine around.

I have written fiction. I wrote a couple of novels, neither of which ever quite worked, although I did have some interesting, if tantalizing, adventures with Harper & Row back in the eighties. From that I finally winnowed three long stories, one of which I thought really worked. I lost a novella competition because, the judge said, you can’t publish a book without a “sympathetic” character in it. My reading of that was, This is too dark for us. And it is dark, but I think it works. However, writing that much fiction and getting one successful story from it surely means you don’t really know what you’re doing.
I wrote a number of short stories, but only two of those have been published. I put copies of those in the mail for you. Both are inspired by actual experiences. My cousin and I did get thrown from a ran-away horse when we were kids. The narrator’s childhood self is an invented version of me, but I never said the things he says. What I was most interested in was a treatment of those movie fantasies from the six-gun westerns of my childhood, i.e., the loss of innocence, that most preoccupying of American themes. “Tricks” was an attempt to get my uncle’s genius with trick horses onto the page; the story line is probably inspired as much by Hemingway’s bleak failures as by anything. **
In short, I learned a lot about fiction from all that writing, and most of all, I learned that I don’t have the knack for it. But I gained greater respect for those who do.

Well, that’s a start. If something above doesn’t satisfy, send back another question in pursuit. I’ll offer what I can.

Steven Hind
October 24, 2006

**P.S. I took a graduate course in fiction writing when I was working on the novels, and “Tricks” was put before the seminar one week. An urban woman asked, about the boy’s insulting request that the stallion be made to stand on his front legs, “Isn’t that hard for a horse to do?” Yes, dear, very hard. (I sometimes got the feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.)
And speaking of formal study, I took a couple of courses with Bruce Cutler at Wichita State University in the late seventies – he later left and died in California several years ago. I learned a lot from Cutler about the mechanics of poetic construction.


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