Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
NF Huth: I composed a little response in my head this week that kept beginning with, “For me, poetry begins in music, in sound.” With words that make satisfying thunks on the floor. With the idea that “gooby-goo” and “babushkabean” can be terms of endearment. With repetition and percussion and heat hissing from a radiator.
And while that answer is absolutely true, I am compelled to include the more literal pieces, equally true. First, that as a young child, I was a frustrated visual artist. I drew constantly and was always vaguely unhappy with the result. I didn’t write poems until age 9, and then only for a Halloween assignment. I wrote a several-stanza-ish poem called, “Which Witch?” My teacher pronounced me a poet (to the entire class), and so I was, at least for a while.
Second, that poetry begins with Saturday morning, the day of the week (for those of us with full-time jobs, at least) with the greatest potential. Saturday morning is now, when I am finally writing this response, with my third cup of coffee next to me. The world is behaving appropriately; inside—heat coming on and going off, refrigerator compressor as well; outside, the absence of sound—my dogs are not barking to be let in, and cars on my street are moving quietly rather than screeching around corners.
I can keep a thought in my head long enough to type it out.
Poetry probably ends with Sunday evening, about 7:00 . . .
TB: “Which Witch” is a very witty title for a 9 year old. Do you still have a copy of it?
More recently you’ve released a full-length poetry collection, Radiator (Laughing/Ouch/Cube/Publications, an imprint of Leafe Press), and a chapbook called 3 Words (Serif of Nottingham). Both of these books evoke the quotidian domestic atmosphere you described in your opening response, an atmosphere in which everyday objects and observations morph into metaphysical discoveries. Your poem, “key”, exemplifies this process. I’m going to quote it in full (partly for the selfish pleasure of typing a piece I unabashedly love):
See a vase of flowers
pink and pointy
staring wide. See the
other vase full of
pink or not
some flower that looks
like a flower
in a vase sun
from a window bending
through water or
the only bright
spot on a table some
thing I can
not even imagine. See
a picture of me as I
fumble in my bag
my big leather one
with the several pockets
for my keys
and there. The jingling
is the key but to which?
See me reach
in and grab. I go
by feel not
sure what I have until
the bottom. Until
I hold it beneath
my nose in the palm
of my hand. See my bed
old with a cover plain
as a book. It is not
it pleases me and is soft
when I need
to sleep. See me searching
for myself in the words
between the lines
color which tree which
nose which place which moon
which skin which eye
I am. See a movie
of me as I sit
in the audience
for a glimpse of my wrist
or small of back or long
fingers in the frame. See
me reading all these: bed as brown
as book, flowers pink.
Black night. Jasmine tea and
star-gazer lilies, pink
not white but really blue
if they were my
color, like eyes
staring out and up. White
as sylph as snow as
beauty. Stems and leaves green
as tree as
eye as summer. See me
write a note
that spring doesn’t
it that some
red as scars
I feel a real kinship with this poem. It has a simple vocabulary but is not a simple text. It exists as the record of a rigorous meditation rooted in and jumping off from a world of tangible things. I particularly admire the richness of the juxtaposition of the vases of flowers, the searching of a purse, and the watching of a movie of yourself. “Key” is a spare and deeply moving poem. Could you speak a bit of your writing process? Perhaps with reference to this particular poem?
NH: “Which Witch” exists on an external hard drive somewhere, when I typed it out from memory a few years ago. My best friend Nora has just returned from Venice, Italy, visiting her 102-year-old mother, who spends much of her time asleep but talking. Sometimes nonsense. Sometimes nursery rhymes, but then, pieces of Dante’s Inferno. Nora was amused when most recently her mother kept repeating lines from the section about Ugolino and his children. We wondered why that particular piece remained in her memory, and we wondered what would remain with us in our very old age. I’m afraid that I will mumble lines from “Which Witch.”
Here it is, for your amusement.
Which witch is this? I always say
but before I can look she’s gone away.
I see her flying up so high
flying in the dark, black sky.
She always wears a tall, black hat
and she has a little cat.
The moon gives off an eerie light
for witch to see on her flight.
Sometimes I hear her kitten cry
sometimes, as she’s flying by.
The wind is whistling through her hair
I don’t see how her cat can bear
all the things a witch can do.
Sometime you may see her, too.
Certainly, a too-heavy reliance on adjectives, especially “black,” but I do remember being concerned with meter and being especially proud of that little bit of enjambment at the end, although I had no idea what to call it. All things considered, I think I’d rather mumble bits of Dante in Italian than “Which Witch,” but who knows what will remain after all? If I could choose, I think I’d mumble “bee-loud glade,” “I should have been a pair of ragged claws,” and “broken ghosts with glowworms in their heads/the things of night.” I’d be really happy with, “The time has come, the walrus said.” I don’t suppose we really get to choose, though . . .
Now that you’ve asked me about it, I realize that “key” was a sort of turning-point poem for me in my overall process. I’d been trying to wanting to needing to write again after years of not. After years of being one of four in a family, I’d begun to see that I had to be one of one. Everyone else had done that, except for me. So I began to reclaim that bit of myself. Poetry seemed necessary again.
I wrote “key” pretty quickly, partly in the car outside my school, speaking it into a recorder desperately trying to keep it before the noise of my school swept it away. I had chunks of image first—vase of pointy flowers, big leather bag—and then fleshed the thing out with sound later. In my first writing life, I always began with an image (no ideas but in things, you know), and “key” is both an acceptance and embracing of that, but the start of moving away from that as well.
Most of the poems in Radiator began similarly: an image, phrases or lines caught on a recorder, and then completed fairly quickly during a quiet time either at work (rare!) or at home. I revised them only much later as I began to have a few readings, and then, much much later, as I realized I actually had a manuscript to complete. I wrote the poems in Radiator to write—not to publish, not to read in public, certainly not to have as a book. But when I began to do and to consider these things again, I realized the poems did fit together. When I added the prose bits as section dividers, it became even clearer to me how the manuscript worked as a piece.
I wrote the poems in my chapbook, 3 Words, much differently. Each begins with sound rather than image. Early on, Gary Barwin agreed to publish them as a chapbook, and so I had a goal in mind for the first time, really.
I have usually needed quiet in order to write anything. My work as a teacher in a very large high school means that my days are filled with sound (noise, really), and as I get older I find it more difficult to filter out. My mother has dementia, which has not dampened her desire to speak, and often it is repetitious, occasionally loud and difficult to respond to. Normally, this would keep me from being able to focus, but I found myself listening to her meter rather than her actual words, and that gave me the poems in that chapbook, which I wrote from May until September this year, all at East Caroga Lake, most sitting on the porch overlooking the lake, with my mother as the background.
Another difference in process occurs to me, that I felt the poems in Radiator might escape me somehow, that I had to capture them on paper or speak them into a recorder. That I had to focus all my attention on them or they’d disappear. I never felt that with 3 Words. The meter of my mother’s words, and of the poems, became a kind of heartbeat.
TB: All kinds of interesting associations in your response: that charming childhood witch poem paired with Nora’s mother’s sleep-talking snippets from the Ugolino sections of Dante’s Inferno, for example. (NB: Dante particularly had it in for Ugolino, excoriating the Count as a cannibal, an eater of his own children.)
What do you think poetry’s capable of? What do you want your own poetry to do?
NH: I want poetry to stick. I want a line or phrase or image or word to stick. I want that line or phrase or image or word to burrow deep and hibernate, only to push its way back up and out years later. In a moment of joy. In a moment of need. In a moment of sorrow. In a moment of contentment. In a moment. I want poetry to become a heartbeat, a piece of life’s playlist, something that might make you dance. Or cry. Or cringe. Or walk a bit faster. Or sit a bit more quietly.
I want to need to remember the line or phrase or image or word. I want to know that I have a piece of it stuck inside me but that I’m remembering it wrong, that if I could only find it, the way it was meant to be, it would be so much better than the one my bad memory has provided. That when I find it, I think, O! Of course. That’s what it is.
I want poetry to make me hunt through 8 boxes of books so I might find the book with the poem in it I can’t really remember except for that one phrase.
I will admit that my first response is that poetry is capable of diddly squat, and I was sorely tempted to leave it at that.
TB: I, for one, have never been interested in hearing about what poetry can’t do.
Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?
NH: HD, William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson taught me economy, the weight of a word and a line. Beauty in simplicity. Beauty in homeliness. John Donne and Yeats taught me figurative language, the satisfaction of careful metaphor. Whitman helped me realize that poetry could be messy and big, oozing out of its lines. Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas taught me about sound, but so did my father and his side of the family. Some of my favorite words come from him and his mother and her sisters—nibby-nose, nuschle, scrooch—plain but beautiful, simple words to describe simple and homely things.
I see these writers clearly in my own work, but I realize I’ve still been heavily influenced by others—William Blake, Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, Stevie Smith, the anonymous poets of medieval lays—even if I can’t perceive their presence. Perhaps it’s easier simply to admit that I have realized I’m always trying to somehow rewrite these things I love: "Prufrock," “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day Being the Shortest Day,” "Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends," by James Wright, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Agee’s "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” Margaret Wise Brown’s The Color Kittens, and Harriet the Spy.
TB: And finally, Nancy, what gets you going? What keeps you interested?
NH: A long, slow kiss where you feel like you’re breathing for each other. Wait. You’re not asking about that. Although, as I think about answering your questions, I really think what gets me going and what keeps me interested are the possibilities for creation, and then the creation itself. So perhaps I’m not far off.
Even though I can’t really write with music in the background, music usually gets me going. Might be a song I love that I must sing with (badly and, when I’m alone, loudly and with feeling), a song or even a riff that suddenly makes me realize again all the amazing possibilities of this world.
Colored pencils get me going. Remembering, suddenly, something I used to love doing when I was young. Remembering that short time when anything, everything was possible.
Pens get me going. I’m very fond of Tūl pens, which come in a micro-fine tip.
Paper gets me going—beautiful, chunky, elegant, thick, rough, smooth.
Cameras get me going, and slatted light, and pointy blues.
Adversity keeps me interested. Struggling with or against something. Working toward something. Trying to finish something. Needing to finish something. And once finished, noticing again what got me going and wondering what new thing will next time.
Tom Beckett's Parts and Other Pieces was recently published by Otoliths. He lives in Kent, Ohio.
NF Huth is the author of Radiator (Laughing/Ouch/Cube, an imprint of Leafe Press), and the chapbooks, 3 Words (Serif of Nottingham Editions), A Space for It (from the This is Visual Poetry series), and sansound (dbqp). She publishes found sound at clickbuzzchirp.blogspot.com, and images that are pointy and blue at pointyblue.tumblr.com. She lives and writes in a strangely stone house in Schenectady, New York.