Interviewed by Claire Eder and Andrew Donovan
Why did you choose a wren and a bear for your poem “Wren & Bear” from Subtropics 14?
Because I was very proud of a photograph I’d taken of a Carolina Wren perched on a tree limb and singing with its beak to the sky, I emailed that picture to my young poet friend, Tasha Graff. I don’t recall exactly why I sent the photo with no explanation or accompanying text. By way of response, Tasha sent me a photograph she’d taken of a bear munching what appear to be dandelions at the edge of a meadow. Tasha also sent her picture without any explanation. It occurred to me that this exchange might be a way for people to communicate in the future—instead of sending conventional messages, they could simply email images back and forth in a kind of visual conversation. That thought led me to the tantalizing idea that perhaps my wren and Tasha’s bear might have a conversation, and so I began to imagine their voices more or less as their photographic images suggested they might sound.
I have a theory that every writer, knowingly or unknowingly, yearns to bring a bear into his or her writing. Some of my favorite literary bears are in Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear,” William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Marian Engel’s little-known but wonderful novel, Bear, and—from my childhood—Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I’ve written another bear poem that’s about to come out in Shenandoah—“Bear Goes Metaphysical.” That one is a third-person bear, whereas the one that converses with the wren in Subtropics is a first-person bear. However, I suspect they’re the same bear. My advice to any writer is that if you haven’t yet brought a bear into your writing, it’s about time you did so.
As a multi-genre writer, you’ve described how your work doesn’t always know, at first, whether it will turn out to be a poem, story, or essay. Many of the poems from your latest book, Glory River, have the feel of stories in their narrative texture, and your poem “Wren & Bear” plays with characters. How did these works let you know they wanted to be poems?
My first attempts at serious writing were short stories, and so that’s pretty much my default setting. The first poetry reading that I ever attended was given by James Dickey at the University of Virginia in 1968—and it made a powerful impression on me. My inclination as a writer, however, has been to try one thing and another. I’d also say that almost every writer of any kind yearns to write a novel and also yearns to write poetry. And now that creative nonfiction has expanded the possibilities of the essay, that’s a relatively new (but strong) interest of mine. When I start a piece of writing, I always have something in mind—a first sentence, an image, a character, a scene, a voice—but then I also have a great deal of mental blank space on the other side of my initial impulse. What I love about writing is the thrill (while my fingers are moving over the keys) of something coming to me to use in the next sentence or the next paragraph or the next scene. My education as a writer has taught me 1) to be ready to use thoughts that come to me in the act of writing and 2) to be flexible in every possible way. My novella Tenormanbegan as a poem, and I struggled for several days to make it work as a poem; it was liberating for me to realize—because the line-breaks weren’t coming naturally—that the damn thing actually wanted to be a prose narrative. I’m a strong believer in the dynamic of my writing “talking to me,” as I’m composing it. I’ve gotten better at listening to what it has to say.
More generally, what do you think poetry can gain from a strong narrative approach; or, how would you describe the benefit of writing poems that aren’t mired in their “poem-ness” (if such a thing exists)?
For better or for worse, I’ve come around accepting the fact that I’m about ninety percent narrative and ten percent “other.” The bias against narrative among contemporary poets causes them to write a lot of boring poems. Those poets, however, very likely find narrative poems uninteresting. I’m okay with the standoff. The secret for any writer is in trying to realize who you are as an artist; the mistake for any writer is in trying to force yourself to be something you’re not. But then I also believe that artistic evolution is essential. I’m this kind of writer this year; five years from now, I may be an entirely different kind of writer.
Histories, personal or national, meet the present often in your work. To what extent do you think it’s a poet’s job to capture both the time they inhabit and the past acting upon our lived experiences? Is there a single historical event, personal or otherwise, that has guided the trajectory of your recent work?
Difficult question about “the historical event…that has guided the trajectory of [my] recent work”—because there are several possible answers. Here are a few of them: Serving in the US Army in Vietnam in 1966 and ’67 saved me from being a Goldwater Republican and led me to the salvation of being a Kennedy-Johnson Democrat. The election of Barack Obama made me hopeful about American politics for the first time in my life; the recent slide of the country toward the hard right has led me back into a state of anger and despair. My having grown up in Ivanhoe, Virginia, and having a rural childhood is probably responsible for my inclination to work pretty hard and for my hunger for authenticity. My domestic life with my wife and two daughters has deepened my understanding of just about everything. That I’ve had a career in academia has allowed me great artistic freedom. I had an extraordinary high school English teacher. I learned music—and had some talent for it—at an early age, and I was twelve years old (in 1956) when I first heard Elvis Presley. I had loving and supportive parents, who were serious readers. I’ve been astonishingly lucky.
As to “a poet’s job”—yes, I think it’s a poet’s job to go beyond the merely personal. But my experience has led me to be cautious when it comes to what I call “wisdomizing.” And now something tells me I’ve said enough.
David Huddle’s poems “Linguistics 101” and “Beautiful Aunt” appeared in Subtropics 13. His poem “Bear & Wren” appears in Subtropics 14.