David Huddle was born in Ivanhoe, Virginia, in 1942. He attended, flunked out of, and--after serving in the US Army from 1964 until 1967--finally graduated from the University of Virginia in 1968. He holds an MA in English Writing from Hollins College (1969) and an MFA from Columbia University (1971). He began teaching at the University of Vermont in 1971, from which he retired in 2009. Currently Visiting Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University, Huddle also teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and The Rainier Writing Workshop. He’s published two novels, a novella, five collections of short fiction, and a volume of essays called The Writing Habit. University Press of New England also published A David Huddle Reader in 1994. Huddle’s poetry collections are Paper Boy (1979), Stopping by Home (1988), The Nature of Yearning (1992), Summer Lake: New and Selected Poems (1999), Grayscale (2004), and Glory River (2008). He is currently finishing a novel called Nothing Can Make Me Do This and a poetry collection called Blacksnake at the Family Reunion.
Boy about seven’s hanging
around outside the sauna.
Naked, pale, thin-chested,
he steps back, startled,
when I reach for the door,
looks up at me with ostrich
eyes, glasses that magnify
so much he must be almost
legally blind. What’s funny
is just before I step in,
I notice the kid’s pencil
stub of a pecker, such a joke
I almost want to say, Hey,
kid, don’t worry, it’ll grow.
Inside, there’s a beefy guy,
sweaty slab of meat reading
a newspaper. I don’t know
what it is about the sauna,
the heat, I guess, or being
naked in that coop of a room,
but I get a little hostile
when I’m in there. Somebody
once told me he’d never met
anybody from Texas who wasn’t
an asshole. I never shared
a sauna with anybody I didn’t
suspect was an asshole, too,
and I know this doesn’t shine
the brightest light on me, but
anyway, right off, I don’t
like this guy, don’t like
his pink skin, his moustache,
his posture, or even the way
his prick and balls hang,
which of course has nothing
to do with what kind of human
being the man is, and I’m used
to such sentiments arising
in me when I’m in the sauna,
I can stand it in there only
about ten minutes anyway, so no
big deal, this Texan and I
settle into sweating in silence,
when the door opens, and the boy
outside holds it open while he
addresses my sauna partner
who must be the father.
The boy’s voice is too low
for me to hear what he says,
and the angle of the room
keeps me from seeing the kid,
so the data I get is his dad,
who says, “Tie your sneakers
for me, will you? Why don’t you go
on upstairs and find your mom?
Find your mom, will you?”
The guy speaks over his newspaper
and doesn’t move, the door stays
open while the boy murmurs something
else, the cool air streaming in
all the while. I expect the guy
to say, Shut the door, will you?
but he doesn’t, he just repeats,
“Go upstairs and find your mom.”
The door does finally close,
and the boy’s dad and I are alone
again, naked, silent, and sitting
three feet away from each other.
I have this urge to say,
Did you know that your voice
makes it evident that you hate
your kid? And if I can hear it,
you know for sure that your kid
hears it, too. I don’t say that,
of course, though the sauna
makes me nearly crazy enough
to say it, but I have in mind
this cautionary tale a friend
told me about getting the shit
beat out of him in a Jacuzzi
by some guys he’d insulted--
he said it was pretty mythic.
Naked, he got pounded bloody,
and they almost drowned him.
I’m way past the age of wanting
to fight, even though hostility
still has its little condo
in my emotional village.
Also, I’m a father of daughters,
girls who often enough give me
looks that say, My God, is that
how it is with you men? You’re
all crazy! I know they study
me, their model male, the one
by which they’ll measure all
other men who approach them.
So I stay quiet enough to hear
my sweat drops hit the bench slats
and the boy’s dad’s breathing.
What I don’t hear but feel anyway
is how this guy’s ashamed
of his boy, this guy wishes
his kid were bigger, louder,
had a prick that didn’t make
him want to laugh out loud,
and for Christ’s sake didn’t
have to wear those stupid bug-eye
glasses. That’s what I hate,
when my good buzz of hostility
turns into this pissy pity.
I’m down off the bench and out
the door and into the shower,
taking the water as cold
as I can stand it. But here’s
what’s weird here, the guy
just keeps staying in there.
I’m out of the shower,
toweled dry, dressed, and combing
my hair, when it occurs to me
that he’s got to have been
in there half an hour by now,
which to me would be torture,
assuming I could even force
myself to stay in there so long.
I’ve got my gym bag packed up
and my coat on when the boy,
dressed now in a hockey jersey
that makes me notice how thin
his shoulders are, trudges by me
on his way back to the sauna door
to have another word with his dad.
I don’t hear it. I’m out of there.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
“Men’s Sauna” was composed within days after I had the experience on which the poem is based. I might even have started it the morning after I lived it. It’s a very autobiographical piece of writing. It’s been eleven or twelve years since I wrote it, and so when I read it now, it seems to me to be about ninety-eight percent “true.”
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
“Revisions” meant one thing to me when I composed my poems on a typewriter—and each revision was tangible—and another now that I compose on a computer. Nowadays when I work on a poem as long as “Men’s Sauna,” I make hundreds of changes that disappear into cyberspace before the poem ever is printed up and becomes a “hard copy.” On the one hand, I revise much more extensively than I did when I composed on a typewriter, but on the other hand, there are significantly fewer tangible revisions. “Men’s Sauna” is not one of my formal pieces, which require a great deal more tinkering than a free-verse piece like this one. The discipline here is pretty loose—short lines in four-line stanzas; it requires some attention to matters of form—most of them having to do with line-breaks—but it’s a relatively easy discipline, one that feels very comfortable for a narrative piece like “Men’s Sauna.” How many hard copies might I have made of it? Maybe as many as five.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration—but only in the kind that comes to me while I’m writing. If the chemistry is right between me and the thing I’m trying to make, then many good ideas (or poetic decisions) come to me as I’m writing. I write five or six times as many poems as I ever try to publish, and the ones I publish are always “inspired” in this regard. “Men’s Sauna,” however, is a “gift” poem—meaning that not a great deal was required of me other than trying to fashion a poem out of the experience as I had lived it. My mission was to make a poetic documentary. This is a kind of poem I’m lucky enough to write every now and then, but not very often.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Very early in its composition—most likely in my tinkering the opening lines into that first stanza—the poem found its way into short-line quatrains, and that relatively easy form greatly enabled the writing of it. I wasn’t concerned with meter or rhyme or syllable count. The loose form generated a natural narrative cadence that kept it moving and that allowed me to be mostly concerned with the voice of the speaker. He’s a “persona”—someone who’s a very slight exaggeration of me—and in that regard I was probably practicing (without thinking about it) something like the technique of writing a short story in the voice of a somewhat cantankerous-minded narrator.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I don’t remember that it appeared in print before it appeared in Summer Lake. Because of its length and its being an overtly narrative poem, it would not have been easy to place it in a journal, and so I probably didn’t even send it out.
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 try not to send a poem out right away, because in the days after I’ve initially declared a poem to be finished, I often find myself making little changes in it, usually ones that don’t make a great deal of difference in the overall success or failure of the poem. But sometimes a small change can make a huge difference in a poem’s success. So let’s say I try to wait until it’s been at least a week since I’ve done any tinkering on the poem. And even then—I confess—sometimes I’ll find myself doing a last little bit of tinkering just before it goes into the envelope and I seal it up so that I can’t see it any more.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
In the case of “Men’s Sauna,” this is an easy question—and it usually isn’t an easy question with my work, because, regardless of what genre I’m writing in, I’m almost always mixing fact and fiction. In this case I pretty much went with fact. There’s a slight bit of unintentional fiction in the voice of the poem’s speaker, but not enough to really count.
Is this a narrative poem?
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is also yes. Which is not to say that the poem wants to preach or to offer moral or ethical guidance. It is only to say that the generating force of this poem—and most of my writing—is moral and ethical anxiety.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Probably Stephen Dunn. Maybe Tony Hoagland. I’m not sure who else.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Tough question. I used to claim I thought about audience only after I had finished the piece of writing and had begun to wonder where I should send it. In recent years, however, I’ve been writing with my students, and in that case I’m writing for the immediate audience of the writing class where I will present my poem alongside the other poets presenting theirs. I do still like to think that I don’t write “to” any particular audience. This is sort of like confessing that one is somewhat promiscuous but one is not a complete slut.
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?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve had a longtime reader, Ghita Orth, a former colleague in the English Department of the University of Vermont, a poet who writes only occasionally nowadays. She’s my first reader and the person whose opinions, suggestions, and corrections are essential to my work. Before it was possible to exchange manuscripts by way of email attachments, I used to drive my work the eight or nine miles from my house to Ghita’s house to get her response as soon as possible. I claim that some part of my creative mind resides within her skull.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Though they were written years apart, “Men’s Sauna” has a “brother” poem, “Is There Anybody Here I Can Say Goodbye To?” that appears in Grayscale. Both of them use my experience in men’s locker rooms as my subject matter. Most of my work in all genres has to do with my being a man (or having been a boy)—I claim that what I’m trying to do in my writing is tell the world what it feels like to live as a man. So maybe these two locker-room poems are the most direct and candid (and naked) treatment of a general topic of mine. For a while in my life, I claimed to be the poet laureate of men’s locker rooms. If such a position ever comes open, I expect to be a leading candidate for it.
What is American about this poem?
Nothing more than it describes an ordinary little piece of American life.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I’d say finished—mostly because of its nature. Other poems of mine are abandoned because the complexity of the subject matter means that “completing” them is impossible. In this case, there was a tangible assignment—to describe my encounter with that guy in the sauna. I did it, and as far as I’m concerned, I did justice to the experience. Reading it over these years after I composed it, I have no inclination to make even the smallest possible change in it. Finished.