"Bending Graceful Curves of Conduit": A Interview with Gary Hawkins

Gary Hawkins is a poet, teacher, and scholar. A letterpress chapbook, Who Do We Know Who Works? is forthcoming in 2014 from Trade Union Press. His poetry, pedagogy, and criticism have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Teaching Creative Writing in Higher Education, Emily Dickinson Journal, and other venues. He teaches and serves as associate dean at Warren Wilson College, and he thrills at having one of poetry's most enviable addresses in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

His poem, "Five (Occupational) Love Poems," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes about Walt Whitman's workers, stolen poems, and poems that build "in" instead of "out."

Could you talk to us about writing “Five (Occupational) Love Poems”?

Like much of my work, these poems are stolen. I mean that writing for me starts with reading, and in reading I’m constantly taking in the syntax, forms, and music of others. Here, I had been re-reading all of Edward Hirsch, whose work has long supported me with its emotional intelligence, with its song. Ed has a piece in On Love titled, “Two (Scholarly) Love Poems.” Here’s the first one:

I. Dead Sea Scrolls

            I was like the words
                        on a papyrus apocryphon
                                    buried in a cave at Qumran,

            and you were the scholar
                        I had been waiting for
                                    all my life, the one reader

            who unraveled the scrolls
                        and understood the language
                                    and deciphered its mysteries.

This was also a summer when I was up at our family property in Addison County, Vermont, where my wife and I go to write—and I was running myself through a poem-a-day diet. When you’re doing that kind of grind, I think you’re hungry for any kind of gambit you can find. So, when I heard this structure—I was…and you were—I ran with it.

Luckily, the provenance of these poems is pretty direct. While I try to keep good notes, I fear that there are countless undocumented thefts in other poems. Well, let’s call them homages or allusions.

I’m a little bit biased, because I just took this big MFA Exam, and so I also just read all of Walt Whitman in about a week; however, one of the things that I love that Walt Whitman does is look specifically at people with different occupations and investigate (and celebrate!) how they function in the world. Your poem also looks at love from different occupational standpoints. Do you see your poem at all in conversation with Whitman? If not, how do you see yourself differing?

I’m humbled to have this work associated with Whitman. And you are onto something. I think about Whitman and his workers often. Here, I absolutely have Whitman’s catalogs of workers, like “I Hear America Singing,” on my mind. Whitman has two simultaneous perspectives on workers (and really about humans). On one hand, he wants to inhabit and celebrate their singularity, “Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else.” Expertise fascinates me, including specific functions and private idioms. On the other hand, Whitman, as we know, is the poet of multitudes, and so he lays out these “varied carols” in a chorus of individual songs. As much as I’m thrilled by expertise, I see the dangers of sole identity and exceptionalism to work against dialogue and negotiation. Like Whitman, and like Hirsch, I’m proposing love as what can hold us (while allowing us our crucial individuation).

I always enjoy poems in sections, because I love how they build little boxes of language. This poem does something that I don’t normally see in poems, in that the sections get sparser and denser as we move through: first starting with a fairly fleshed-out scene with section one and ending with a flash of moment with section five. This makes the poem feel like an upside-down triangle, focusing in to a single point. Could you talk about writing a poem that builds “in” instead of “out?”

In contrast to my more conscious embrace of Whitman, the inverted triangle structure you describe was not intentional—although I love your depiction of it, and I learn a lot by seeing the poem that way. Still, I may have known that I needed to establish the rhetorical premise of this poem at the outset, and the fuller scene of section one allows the reader time to do that, with the turn of the structure reinforced by the stanza (as it is also in section two). You’re probably also picking up on a tension between the narrative and the lyric in my work. In the past, I set those two modes far apart in what I now see as a false dichotomy. Still, I am an uncertain narrator who defaults to sometimes too-great leaps of the lyric. In staying a few beats longer in scene, I’m learning that I’m often better able to define lyric predicaments.

What have you been reading lately?

Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, which lead me back to Autobiography of Red, through her Greek translations, to the abject Nox, and up to her new pamphlet “The Albertine Workout” (I’m writing on a review essay on her work). Christian Wiman’s versions of Mandelstam, Stolen Air. Maria Hummel’s House and Fire. Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Peter Schjeldahl’s and Dave Hickey’s art criticism. Robert Motherwell’s notebooks. David Foster Wallace’s tennis essays.

What other writings can we expect from you?

The worker persona poems continue to emerge, even beyond the two manuscripts, Worker and Who Do We Know Who Works? already filled with them. I welcome them. Meanwhile, I’m also working on a new manuscript, From the Suburbs, questioning the suburban American experience, including its promises of intimacy and solitude. Here, I’m trying to examine and inhabit the surprisingly coherent, if isolating, place of the suburb and empathize with those who live there, as I did growing up. Again, I’m using persona poems to enter into this space, and I’ve also adopted a prose poem form I’m calling a “short film,” a form that attempts to maintain a cinematic remove from psychic interiors but that will ultimately collapse into lyric.

Thanks for your smart and provocative questions—and for the chance to be part of The Collagist.