H.L. Hix Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

June 22, 2009

H. L. Hix’s poetry collections include God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse, Chromatic, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry, and Shadows of Houses, all from Etruscan Press. Translations include On the Way Home: An Anthology of Contemporary Estonian Poetry, translated with Jri Talvet. Other books include As Easy As Lying: Essays on Poetry (Etruscan) and Spirits Hovering Over the Ashes: Legacies of Postmodern Theory.

Honors & Distinctions:
NEA Fellowship
KCAI Teaching Excellence Award
T.S. Eliot Prize

1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, you are also a professor of English at the University of Wyoming. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?

The teaching, definitely. In my writing, I feel accountable, certainly, but to myself, to standards of integrity that feel as though they come from inside. In my job as a professor, though, I am accountable to the University that employs me (and ultimately to the citizens of the state whose university it is), and — more importantly — accountable to the students. I find those forms of accountability, which feel as though they impose themselves from outside, more difficult.

We live in a world populated by forces that conspire to reduce us to consumers (in which capacity it is crucial that we not think and that we not establish a unique identity), and, rightly or wrongly, I see the university as one of the few counter-forces resisting that conspiracy. Because the responsibility of resistance seems so vast, so far beyond the capacity of any one person to effect, teaching feels very oppressive to me. In the moment, conversing with students in the classroom, it is joyful, almost ecstatic, but as an ongoing fact and a duty, I find it intimidating, even overwhelming.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I myself have more interest in written poetry, because I want to be able to slow down, to re-read, to find my own path and pace through the work. And I do trust the expanded and clarified logic of the written, the complexity of thought it makes possible, which means that, yes, I think writing can/does invite tolerance and collaboration, can/does advance equality and liberty, in principle, though for various reasons I’m less certain of its doing so in fact. I’m influenced on this issue by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, and other works.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

My poetry results from my obsessions, but surely the world is a better place if I don’t find any additional ways to enact or announce my obsessions.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (e.g. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I used to, and I affirm the value of all those things, but these days I’m more interested in the challenge posed by work that seems inimitable, that creates its own criteria as if in defiance of how-tos or of group norming. Frank Bidart, Anne Carson, C. D. Wright, Jan Zwicky, Claudia Rankine, et al. Work about which it would be meaningful (if paradoxical) to say that it is not so much doing well what poetry does, but doing as poetry what poetry does not or ought not do, work the essential poetry-ness of which comes from its very other-than-poetry-ness, not from its fulfilling poetic precedent but from its testing or rejecting precedent. I’m not saying this well, which may be the point: I’m not persuaded that for poetry saying-well is the primary issue.
5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

I doubt that it’s a myth. This question recalls for me the opening questions in this interview. TV commercials are non-elitist and accessible; anyone can follow their logic, without effort. Coors beer, therefore Coors twins. Got it. What is most accessible is precisely that which does not merely fail to evoke my highest capacities of thought and responsibility, but actively seeks to suppress them, to reduce me to my most passive and malleable. Watching a TV commercial is easy; reading Kierkegaard is hard, but it is hard because it challenges me to exercise my capacities to their fullest.

The word “exercise” suggests analogy between spiritual and physical health. Smoking a cigarette is easy, and can be done by anyone, without preparation; running five miles is hard, and must be prepared for, built up to. One diminishes my capacity to distribute oxygen to my tissues, and the other increases that capacity. To borrow a phrase from Ivor Gurney, “I believe in the increasing of life.” I want to be physically healthy enough to run five miles, and (analogously) I want to be spiritually healthy enough to read Kierkegaard. Watching TV commercials and smoking are easy and accessible, but marasmic and poisonous. Give me the difficult and inaccessible!

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I couldn’t possibly write while listening to music. My first twenty years of teaching were in art colleges, and in that time I grew jealous of visual artists: most of them (in my experience) work while listening to music. I do have (many) routines and habits, all much too goofy and embarrassing to describe.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Many of my friends now are writers and artists. Probably this is natural enough, since so much of my life revolves around writing.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Thank you for the generosity of this question, its presumption that I am fit and healthy as a writer! I do try to stay physically fit and healthy, by obvious methods such as daily exercise, and I try to stay “writing fit” by equally obvious methods such as reading a lot. If there are any secrets, tricks, or shortcuts, I don’t know them.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I’m working to alter my diet, but for ethical and ecological reasons, rather than for reasons having to do primarily with my writing. I need ways to pump myself down, not up. I have far too many writing projects, more than I could tackle in a lifetime; I spend far too much of my life writing. I can’t remember the last time I had anything resembling writer’s block; I would be a better person if I had more writer’s block, not less.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I write at various places in the house (at a computer in one room for prose, at a different desk for correspondence, at another desk for poetry). My favorite spot is the “poetry place,” which has at least one thing in common with my ideal writing space: an old, beaten-up, solid-wood desk that belongs to my partner. Even though I live in Laramie, Wyoming, at 7,200 feet, my house is in town, so I see trees and other houses; my ideal writing space would have a view of the mountains.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

My projects always sound absurd while I’m working on them, as my abysmal batting average at grant applications attests, so I’ll sidestep your kind invitation to describe the (absurd-sounding) project I’m working on now. How about if I mention instead a project that has been completed but has not yet been published? Called Incident Light, it is a verse biography of a close friend, the artist Petra Soesemann. When she was 49 years old, she learned that the father who had raised her was not her biological father. The father who had raised her, and who had passed away some years earlier, was (like Petra’s mother) a blue-eyed German blond, but as she — quite abruptly — learned, her biological father, who is still alive, is Turkish, with (like Petra herself) dark eyes and dark hair. I got interested in the questions raised by Petra’s situation: questions of personal identity, of secrecy and disclosure, of passion, and so on. Her story is inherently dramatic and interesting, and the book tries to explore it, to understand (as far as possible) what it must be like to experience such incitement to re-view one’s life, to re-situate one’s origins and re-map one’s entanglements.

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