for John Hilgert
With your cock-eyed rhythm you couldn’t play your way
out of a 12-bar blues with your eyes closed,
so we’d strum a minute and spend the rest of the night
sighing and telling lies. Drowsy from pot roast,
we’d sprawl across the back porch and guzzle
Rolling Rocks like children eat chocolate,
though even then you complained of stomach pains,
and though I’d smoke a pack of cigarettes,
you would be the one we’d lose to cancer.
One night my backyard neighbor built a bonfire,
burning what must have been a decade’s worth
of newspapers and phonebooks, who knows what—
wedding pictures, love letters? In a month
he’d sell his house and move. “Gee,”
you said, “that must feel really really good.”
We watched his silhouette stalking back and forth,
tossing more and more things onto the fire,
each time sending up a fountain of sparks
blinking orange then drifting over the fence
into our yard, winking out and whitening
as they fluttered to us and settled on the porch
like a flock of grizzled gulls, a silent ash-storm.
We breathed and tasted ash, and you lay peppered
and unperturbed, an empty on your chest.
“You asleep?” I wondered. “No,” you said,
“just taking in the night. And your neighbor’s past.
But I wouldn’t mind another beer.” Inside,
I scrounged another stale cigarette,
bleeped the messages from my own ex-wife
(“Who cares,” you’d say, “she’ll still be pissed tomorrow.”)
and grabbed a few more beers for each of us,
but back out on the porch I found you gone,
drawn to the dying fire like a moth
or child, pushing your way through leafy greens,
my dogwoods, further into the dark. Below me,
the whole porch mottled in white and gray except
the blank space where your body had lain, your outline
in ash, and you, covered in the ashen remains
of what can only cling to us, the living.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I inherited this big bear of a guy, John Hilgert, when I started editing River Styx. He had been the magazine’s Art Editor when it was about ready to collapse. Together we changed the look and feel, size and format. Subscriptions had plummeted to double digits, so we wanted to make the magazine more compelling and appealing, livelier and more visual, with color covers and illustrations and art—as he said, “so the words and pictures talk to each other.” John was great fun to work with (great ideas, epic water gun fights in the building), and he soon became one of my best friends and drinking buddies.
Several years later, although I knew he was fighting a losing battle against cancer, his death stunned me. His wife, Betsy, asked me to write a poem for his memorial service, which I figured would be packed—John was not only a talented artist but a popular teacher. I’m sure the pressure is nothing like being asked to write an inaugural poem for the president, but it felt claustrophobic for me. I had no ideas, nothing that didn’t feel tired, obvious, sentimental, clichéd, and stupid, and I was about to call Betsy and apologize, but then the day before the service I was looking at his picture and suddenly I could hear John’s voice saying some of the funny things he used to say, particularly one time when we were grilling in my backyard and he looked over at my neighbor burning all of his stuff and said, “That must feel really good.” I got the image of the ash and the whole poem came pretty quickly from there, pretty much one draft with a little light editing months after I’d read the poem at the memorial.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
My best poems either come all of a sudden, almost out of nowhere, in pretty much one draft, or I have to work and work draft after draft until I get it right. I tend to hate revising after a certain point, and if I don’t feel there’s much potential, I won’t waste any time working on it. It’s easier to throw it away and start something else. That’s not to say most of the poems from Borrowed Towns or Domestic Fugues haven’t gone through a number of drafts—it’s more accurate to say I wish those sudden one-draft moments came more often than they did, but then who doesn’t. “Ash” feels like a lucky gift to me—all I had to do was unwrap it.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
“Ash” is in a very loose blank verse, written back when I was playing as much with five-stress accentual lines as regular iambic pentameter. Though I enjoyed an erratic iambic pulse, I cared much more about beats than feet, and I found strict accentual syllabic patterns unnatural, boring, and plodding. Since then, maybe because my own temperament has evened out, my meter has grown more regular. Maybe I’ve grown unnatural, boring, and plodding.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It’s funny that you ask. “Ash” is the one time I published my own poem in River Styx. Several board members asked me to include it, and since we were dedicating a whole issue to John, featuring much of his art on the covers and inside, I agreed. The funny part is some people’s reactions to me publishing my own poem. We even had some River Styx interns who were in a poetry class taught by an MFA student who apparently didn’t think much of me as a writer or editor. The interns told me that he sanctimoniously told the class, “Newman must be very proud to be notching his publication belt by publishing his own poems.” To that guy, I’d like to send out a very hearty fuck you. Publishing that poem in that issue, with so much of John’s art, was one of the better decisions I’ve made as an editor, and it reached a lot of people, which is the best we can hope for in this business unless we’re out for prizes, awards, and belt-notching publications.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Regarding how much of that poem is true, I honestly don’t remember. The events in the poem certainly didn’t happen that way—it’s more a hodgepodge of different scenes and quotes from different places, all stuck together with some outright lies to make a central narrative. Some of the quotes John says in the poem he actually didn’t even say, but I can’t remember which ones anymore. After I read the poem at the memorial, dozens of people came up to me or emailed me and said, “You really captured John’s voice in that poem—I could really hear him.” He may not have said those things, but those are exactly the kind of things John would have said, likely even the way he would have said it. As with most poems, I felt I needed to tell some lies to get at a greater (more universal and more entertaining) truth.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I’m certain at the time that I was reading Frost and Larkin, because I always go back to Frost and Larkin. At that time I was also reading and reviewing books by Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, and Lucia Perillo.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I always have an audience in mind when I write a poem—my wife, various friends, family members, a colleague or neighbor, the people in my workshop group, favorite living or dead poets. With “Ash,” I assembled in my mind a handful of specific people, friends and colleagues who knew and loved John and keenly felt his death. With the dialogue and images, particularly the last image, I wanted to move them the way I was moved by John’s absence in the world, unite us, I suppose, in a communal gesture around this poem and his absence. Of course I also hoped, although probably later, that the poem had a more universal appeal beyond John’s circle of friends.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
The first group I shared that poem with was probably the 250 people at the memorial. These days, I usually show early drafts to my wife, who is also a poet and a good close reader. I was in an online workshop group called KFM. It was formed by a bunch of Fellows at the Sewanee Writers Conference and named after a game we played on the porch at the French House—“Kill, Fuck, or Marry.” We sent poems to the group once a month over the last three or four years, but we’re currently on hiatus.
What is American about this poem?
The opening 12-bar blues reference makes it American, right? Despite the Larkin influence, I do think that my speech rhythms and lines are distinctly American, specifically Midwestern. My work is influenced by the Midwestern landscapes, many of which are flat, bleak, and dreary, yet sometimes wondrously expansive. That’s actually another thing John Hilgert and I shared. Many of his best photographs were these huge breathtaking rural landscape images. Coincidentally, while I was writing about people in rural southern Illinois, where my people come from and where I spent much of my childhood, he was taking pictures of it. A couple years before he died, we did a collaborative show together at what they now call The Contemporary—his photographs and my poems on the walls, along with watertower and grain elevator sculptures by Christina Shmigel. We called the show Bottomlands. That’s one of his pictures from Bottomlands on the cover of my first book, Borrowed Towns—a picture of Carmi, Illinois, where my family comes from, where my mom was raised, where our family cemetery lies tucked between silty cornfields, and where my brother still lives today. I don’t think John knew all that when he took the picture, and we discovered we were working on similar projects from two different ends after we’d already known each other and liked each other’s work for years. I have other images from that show in my study behind me where I write.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Both. It came out so fast as an organic whole, and I wanted to retain much of that spontaneous voice, spirit, energy, naturalness, and original architecture. Rereading it now, I want to fix the meter, which in some places could probably be done easily enough by shifting some line breaks. But what’s done is done, and it’s nothing like what I’m working on now—very impersonal, very formal, very much a kind of poetry that looks closely at the world, not gazing at the self. We have to learn to live with the flaws.