Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Andrew Hudgins has published six books of poetry: Ecstatic in the Poison (2003), Babylon in a Jar (1998), The Glass Hammer (1995), The Never-Ending (1991), After the Lost War (1988), and Saints and Strangers (1985). His new book, Shut Up, You're Fine!: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children, will be published by The Overlook Press in March 2009, with illustrations by Barry Moser. Hudgins is currently Humanities Distinguished Professor in English at The Ohio State University.
DAY JOB AND NIGHT JOB
After my night job, I sat in class
and ate, every thirteen minutes,
an orange peanut—butter cracker.
Bright grease adorned my notes.
At noon I rushed to my day job
and pushed a broom enough
to keep the boss calm if not happy.
In a hiding place, walled off
by bolts of calico and serge,
I read my masters and copied
Donne, Marlowe, Dickinson, and Frost,
scrawling the words I envied,
so my hand could move as theirs had moved
and learn outside of logic
how the masters wrote. But why? Words
would never heal the sick,
feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
blah, blah, blah.
Why couldn't I be practical,
Dad asked, and study law—
or take a single business class?
I stewed on what and why
till driving into work one day,
a burger on my thigh
and a sweating Coke between my knees,
I yelled, "Because I want to!"—
pained—thrilled!—as I looked down
from somewhere in the blue
and saw beneath my chastened gaze
another slack romantic
chasing his heart like an unleashed dog
chasing a pickup truck.
And then I spilled my Coke. In sugar
I sat and fought a smirk.
I could see my new life clear before me.
It looked the same. Like work.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I began “Day Job and Night Job” after finishing The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood. After four or five years working on that book, my brain was still locked into the autobiographical mode, and I almost compulsively kept going into the time I was making myself into a poet. I liked the idea partly because it was perverse. Writers aren’t supposed to write about writing or being writers because it’s more than a bit solipsistic. Long before, I’d vowed not to do it for that very reason, which added the thrill of a vow violated when I did do it. A few friends got very upset with the poems, and a part of me agreed with them while another part was enjoying the intensity of their unhappy reaction.
I loved Lowell’s poems about being a poet in the making, but as I raced from school to one job to the next and then home to my parents’ house, where I lived through all four years at a small Methodist college in Montgomery, I was acutely troubled that Lowell traded on the fame of his name, his teachers, his friends, to give the poems cachet. It seemed like a logical devolution of the historical tradition of poetry being the province of the aristocrats.
My life, by comparison, was thoroughly devoid of cachet. I went to college a mile from my house, worked at a dry goods warehouse downtown for four hours every afternoon, drove home for dinner, and did a bit of class work till eight o’clock. Then, four nights a week, I drove to my overnight job, where I tended a bedridden retired man, a job I held for five years.
Could a life so mundane and stultifying be made into poems, I wondered. It didn’t seem so. It seemed more likely to keep me from writing at all. But the aesthetic question stuck in my head as something to continue thinking about. As I came to find out, a lot of other poets, before and since, have thought about it too.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Gawd, I don’t know. It seems to me like I worked on this poem forever. It began, if I remember right, as blank verse, and I put it through a good number of drafts that way, probably about twenty. At that time, with blank verse, I was writing about that many drafts to set a preliminary version, a version that allowed me to see the issues, shape, and direction of the poem. But the conversational tone of the blank verse wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out where the poem wanted to go. When I tried it in iambic tetrameter—to speed it up and move it further away from talk and closer to lyric—it started to have more energy. And there it sat for a couple of years, as an unfinished draft in a folder.
Around that time, I was also writing humorous poems in ballad stanzas, something I’d never done before. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of rhyme, and I wanted to see if rhyme might force me deeper into the material. Having an obstacle to overcome can make you think harder about a subject and examine more possibilities that maybe you hadn’t seen before. I liked the way the rhyme can tolerate a good bit of humor and seriousness jostling each other. Not that you can’t do that in free verse or blank verse, but rhyme is an intensifier, given its long tradition in lyrics and humor. And that, I think, enlarges the understanding of the poem—both taking seriously the anxious boy I was and acknowledging that I was overwrought and over-earnest. The mixed tone let me consider the me I was then a little more kindly that I often do.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don’t really believe in inspiration. Some ideas are better than others, obviously, and maybe we can call the better ones inspired. What I do believe in is that sitting down to work every day provides the opportunity for the many small and medium-sized inspirations that make a work of art work.
Now, as I think about it, I need to qualify what I said about inspiration. I do believe that immersing ourselves in a project allows our brains to work on them without our conscious effort. So I have made a rule for myself that if an idea flashes through my head in those moments before sleep, I will get up and write it down. A lot of incoherent notes—or notes that are merely obvious or dumb—get pitched in the morning, but that twilight of consciousness often enough permits good ideas to flit around in the shadows. My deal with my subconscious is that if it permits me to glimpse those shadows I will take them seriously by getting up and recording what I see, even if it costs me a good night’s sleep.
Sleep itself is another time the brain works without our control. Sometimes I get up and issues that were a mess are clear, or clearer, and I’ll try to focus the process a bit by reading my notes before I go to bed.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I have no idea. When I was in graduate school I was obsessive about keeping poems and essays in the mail because I hoped that publishing them would help me land a job. Without my realizing it at first, the submission process became part of my revising. I’d push into their preliminary shape, and thinking that was the final shape, I’d send them off for a couple of months vacation to New York. When they returned to me, rested and relaxed, I was able to see them with fresh eyes and begin the next round of revising. But after several years, the poems started to find apartments in New York before I thought they were ready to live on their own. And so I just started keeping them in a file till enough time had passed for me to see them with fresh eyes.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is true to fact. What the poem leaves out, though, is the anguish and anger, uncertainty and fear of that time of my life. That seems right to me now. Who cares that an eighteen-year-old boy was all those predictable things? One little prevarication is that I didn’t really appreciate Emily Dickinson’s vast intelligence and artistry till much later. At the time, I was too repelled by the cutsey poems I’d been taught in high school (“I never spoke with God/Nor visited in heaven;/Yet certain am I of the spot/As if the chart were given”—sheesh!, I thought.) to see beyond my own rage at what I saw as simple-minded sentimentalism. But at the time I wrote the poem, I was, as I remain, in awe at the range and complexity of her thinking.
Is this a narrative poem?
Not really. It’s more of a meditation on a time in my life.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
As background to The Glass Hammer, I read a ton and a half of autobiographies. For instance, after reading all the obvious ones—Ben Franklin, a couple of Frederick Douglass’s, Richard Wright, William Alexander Percy’s unappreciated Lanterns on the Levee, Tolstoy, Gorky, Gosse, and I don’t know what all else—I read all the books studied in Herbert Leibowitz’s Fabricating Lives. After reading an essay on Southern autobiography in The Southern Review by Bill Andrews, I wrote and asked him if he had a working bib I could borrow. With extraordinary graciousness he Xeroxed it and mailed it to me. Fred Hobson’s work was also crucial.
I’m not sure what poets I was reading then, though I remember re-reading Frost and Lowell, and studying several strong studies of Emily Dickenson around that time.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
That’s a question I used to struggle with a lot. The social impulse behind communication leads us to an almost journalistic clarity of expression. The pleasures of sound and language have their claims on the poem, and so, strongly, does the subject matter itself. And I still hold to the idea of a poem as an object that desires to live outside of time. The truest statement I can make is that the reader is a sort of idealized projection of me, which is not really an answer at all, but there you go.
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?
My wife sees everything but usually pretty late in the writing. I almost always take her suggestions, whether large or small, and if I don’t, I think about it long and hard before going my own way. I like criticism. I’ve always loved workshops and letting other folks slap the poems around, bruising as that may be. Now I mostly wait till I have a book ready to go before asking friends for help. It’s a tremendous imposition on friends’ generosity to ask that much work of them.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
To me, it seems very much of a piece with the rest of my writing.
What is American about this poem?
Just about everything. I suppose one could argue that the meter and rhyme make the poem British at the base, an idea that has never made sense to me since our language at its base is English. Hey, we stole the language, meter, and rhyme from them, and now they belong to us fair and square. And they have been ours for a long damn time. But the setting, the language, the sensibility, the humor—this poem is as American as soccer moms.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?