Wednesday, October 24, 2012

John Hoppenthaler

John Hoppenthaler’s books of poetry are Lives of Water (2003) and Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), both titles from Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays and interviews on the poetry of Jean Valentine, This-World Company—Jean Valentine (U Michigan P, 2012). His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Southern Review, among others, and the anthologies A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U of Akron  P, 2012), Blooming through the Ashes: An International Anthology on Violence and the Human Spirit (Rutgers UP, 2008), September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Etruscan Press, 2002), and elsewhere. His essays, interviews, and reviews also appear widely.  For the cultural journal Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, he currently edits “A Poetry Congeries” and curates the Guest Poetry Editor Feature. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East Carolina University.


ICE JESUS

And then there was Bernie Anderson,
who was my lab partner in high school bio.
He hung out with the heavy metal clique,
so when he etched a Manson-inspired cross
into his forehead we didn’t think too much about it.
We kept dissecting worms and frogs and fetal pigs.
He passed me a note once asking if huffing
formaldehyde would get us buzzed.  That winter,
because he wanted a stigmata bad but
couldn’t will himself one, he broke an icicle
from the eave outside his bedroom window,
pounded it clean through his palm with a rubber
hubcap mallet, and sat at his desk while it melted.
Blood and water ran together everywhere.
When they released him from psychiatric care
he was more elusive than ever, hard
to figure but, sure as shit, his right hand showed
the mark and everyone allowed Bernie a certain
eerie credibility.  Later that year he killed himself. 
Somewhere–maybe it was an urban legend,
or one of those stories he loved by Poe or De Maupassant,
but he bought a trunk full of frozen blocks
from the Nyack Ice Company when his parents
left for three weeks in Spain, tied a rope
to the back rim of his basketball hoop, placed
the noose around his neck as he stood barefoot
on the stack, handcuffed himself behind his back,
then strangled as ice dissolved beneath his toes.
Had it rained or if, as he must have planned it,
he wasn’t found until the dark stain dried
on blacktop, it might be mysterious still
how he died with no chair or ladder there,
and I’m sure he wanted that to be a secret.
He’d think his dying a failure.  I wouldn’t bring
this up now except for the fact that last week
I went to a friend’s wedding.  The reception
was at a Holiday Inn in Jersey, and I ditched
into the staging area to bum a choke
from a waiter.  We smoked out on the loading
dock and there, on a sheet of plastic behind
the dumpster, a chef was hacking out an ice
sculpture of Jesus for the First Christian Church
of the Second World Dinner/Prayer Meeting
with a chain saw, a chisel, and a rubber mallet.
It was warm for late October.  Jesus was sweating–
the chef, too, who was cursing and had just
decided to do the fine cosmetic work
in the walk-in freezer or else, he said, “Christ,
Jesus will end up in the storm drain.
It’s a mystery to me,” he muttered as he lit
a Lucky Strike, put out the wooden match
with a sizzle on the side of his creation,
“why anyone would want a melting Jesus
in the middle of their savory quiche tarts
and meatballs, but they’re paying a freakin’ fortune.”
Funny how ice dilutes good bourbon just
enough if you drink it with a little urgency.
Let me buy you another;
could I have a cigarette?  It’s scary
when so much wells up at once.
Got a match?  A lighter?  Drink up already;
I think our next round is on the tender.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

“Ice Jesus” dates back to 1997 or 1998, I think, since my records show that I had sent it to the Paris Review in December of ’98. As I recall, I never did get a response from Paris Review about that submission of poems. In any case, I next sent it out in October of ’99. It was rejected by thirteen journals before it was accepted by the then up-and-comer (now the-up-and-has-come!) Kevin Gonzalez for the short-lived Carnegie Mellon Poetry Journal in 2002, and it was published there in 2004. So, all told, it took at least seven years for it to get into print. During that time, I continued to dabble with the poem. The main problem with it was (perhaps still is) its prosiness. I try and insist that even my longer narrative poems have a musical texture that compliments the story being told; obviously, that’s hard to maintain over the whole of a longer poem, and I’m certain, still, that the poem could be, line by line, better crafted than it is. As I examine each line of the poem, I remain less than thrilled about the individual integrity of too many of them, what each line is doing as a line. I’m pleased to say, though, that this poem has found new life in a wonderful anthology, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Stacey Lynn Brown and Oliver de la Paz (Akron UP, 2012).
       
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration, but the fact of the matter is that most of what a good writer does transcends that momentary gift of inspiration and has much more to do with the ongoing process of revision, with the “sweat and tears.” This poem was first composed in one of the two basic ways my poems are birthed. That is to say, one way I compose is akin to what I presume a sculptor does in her creative process. First, she goes to a quarry to find a suitable chunk of rock, a hunk of raw material that speaks to her in some way. Then she brings it back to the studio, lifts it up onto the working space and mulls it over for a good, long time before taking up her chisel and hammer. Then she chips away all that is not the artwork. 

In my process, I find a quiet place and, if I’m lucky, the need to write will find me. When it happens, I just transcribe my shifting thoughts onto a sheet of paper. I don’t worry about syntax, line breaks, punctuation, spelling, or making much sense; I try to allow my synapses to fire at will, and I let the threads go where they will. I never know if the poem will be a lyric or a narrative poem. I try not to impose anything upon the muse; I want the muse to do its job, which then allows me to do my own. And my job is to then look long and hard at the raw block of language, try and discern what is and what is not the poem, and then chip away. 

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Well, as I said earlier, “Ice Jesus” troubles me for its occasional sonic and linear weaknesses. At one point I tried collapsing it into a prose poem—more out of desperation that out of any desire for it to become my first prose poem!—but I was unhappy with the loss of pacing, with the way the poem could no longer unfold line by line. A fair number of the lines are enjambed in ways specifically designed to take advantage of such unfolding; that is, I wish to withhold, for the split second it takes for a reader to move from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, some bit of information that is supplied in the line to come. This pattern of withholding and supplying can be very effective, particularly in a dramatic monologue (which is what “Ice Jesus” is) with elements of a mystery story in its DNA. So, I opted for the return to free verse lineation. I tried to impose a decasyllabic structure on it at some point—and, indeed most of the lines are in the neighborhood of ten to twelve syllables each—but that, too, messed with certain crucial breaks in ways that were not in the poem’s best interests; however, it did help me to rethink certain lines and this made them better than they were before this additional scrutiny.

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 firm rules about it, though I almost always wait at least a year before sending it out. I attempt, at some point during that year, to put it away for at least a month or two before looking at it again. It’s amazing how valuable that practice can be in allowing one to re-see a poem for what it really is, not for what one might be deluded into thinking it is while its seduction still has a hold on the poet. Once in a while, I give in to such seduction—don’t we all?—and send off a poem I am particularly high on before I should. Since I typically send my poems to the high-cotton journals first, I often kick myself when I get the poem back, rejected, because I wonder, “What if I had waited and revised it some more? Would Poetry or Kenyon Review or The New Yorker have taken it then? Sigh.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

A favorite topic of mine with my students, sure. “Ice Jesus” is fairly typical of my poetry in that it uses one or two details that are “true” from my life and weaves them together with complete fiction. A poem is artifice; as such, I feel no compulsion about having all of a poem’s details (other than historical or scientific facts) being the truth, since small “t” truth is a fluid and uncertain thing, largely dependent upon one’s individual memory and perspective. I’m interested in capital “T” Truth. What’s true about the poem is that I did have a high school classmate who went on to commit suicide, though the manner of his own hanging was in no way, shape or form consistent with the suicide described in the poem. Also true is the fact that, as an MFA student at Virginia Commonwealth University, I worked for a couple of years at a Hyatt Hotel in the Convention Services Department. One day, I did see a chef carve an ice sculpture out on the loading dock with a chain saw, but it wasn’t a sculpture of Jesus, and that dialogue is completely made-up. It’s also true that I have worked, and otherwise have spent a lot of time, in bars, and so I have a fondness for poems that are set in such establishments. But none of those “true” things are enough for a poem which, like any other piece of art, requires some sort of tension or desire or complication. In this case, I created the sort of speaker I might, on a business trip, say, find sitting next to me in the lobby bar of a hotel. The world, on this particular day, at this particular moment, is too much with him, and he’s dead set on telling the one story he knows, the one that seems to crystallize, for him, the whole of his life and what’s become of it.      

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, damn the torpedoes! Specifically, it’s a persona poem, a dramatic monologue. I find the general period disdain for the narrative poem a drag, don’t you? I mean, the poets whose work I love best these days are poets whose work doesn’t relinquish responsibility for the poem’s making to the “reader function,” as many poets of the “experimental lyric” set seem to me to do; that said, I find much to value in poems that tend toward the experimental lyric or the elliptical lyric, but I see no reason why we can’t have both and everything in between. In fact, this is the guiding principle behind what I try and do in my monthly feature at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Hoppenthaler’s Poetry Congeries. I have no problem at all with placing, in the same issue, work by Rae Armantrout, the Scottish formalist Douglas Dunn and the straight-up narrative poems of Shelby Stephenson. In fact, I find it desirable. Anyway, the poets I admire who often write in a narrative vein are, I think, poets who understand that the contemporary narrative poem works best when it approaches something like a hybrid between lyric impulse and narrative thrust. Larry Levis, James Harms, Laura Kasischke, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kathleen Graber, and on and on. 

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I can’t remember what I may have been reading then, but Michael Waters was certainly in one ear and Jim Harms was in the other. I relied a lot on these two friends and mentors during the writing of Anticipate the Coming Reservoir. What was great about the arrangement is the fact that these two wonderful poets have aesthetic ideas and impulses that are really quite different and grounded in different generational attitudes. Michael is the stickler for old-school craft. From him, I get the notion that every line, every word, every punctuation mark matters. I often worry each line’s beginning to death, as Michael has preached to me that the preponderance of my lines ought not begin with prepositional phrases, conjunctions, or articles but, rather, with strong verbs or nouns that draw a reader more effectively into the line. I also get the close attention I give to each poem’s musical possibilities from Michael, who is himself a formal poet whose poems are greatly informed by the music each offers a reader’s ear. From Jim I get freedom, the notion that it is certainly possible to overwork a poem. From Jim I learned how to allow a poem’s music and story line to lead me rather than vice versa. The tension of their differing styles and how I reacted to it is inherent in all of the poems in that collection. I guess that “Ice Jesus” is a poem that owes more to Harms than to Waters in more ways than one. Look at how many of the lines begin with prepositional phrases, articles and conjunctions, for example.
         
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? 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?

At some point I did, maybe; with most of the poems in my first book, Lives of Water, I probably had the teachers with whom I worked in mind, at least to an extent. They include Dan Masterson, William Heyen, Anthony Piccione, Dave Smith, and Gregory Donovan. With Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, it was Michael and Jim. Not anymore, though; now I just aim to suit myself, and I trust that I am representative of the sort of reader I wish to attract to my work. Intentionally, I’ve not shown most of the poems in my nearly completed third volume, Domestic Garden, to Jim, Michael, or anyone else. I think, at this point, I have to learn to trust my own impulses; that’s the final leap for any artist, to transcend reliance on one’s mentors.   

What is American about this poem?

I think that the speaker of the poem may well embody a kind of period, hmm, ennui isn’t quite right, lassitude? The contemporary American world is too much with the poem’s speaker and, as we all must, he’s doing the best he can to deal with the burden. The poem is set, given the circumstances of its birth, perhaps in the early nineties, so among the stuff that he finds so scary at poem’s end might be things like Tiananmen Square, the Lockerbie tragedy, the failure of Supply-Side economics, recession, etc. Juxtaposed with this is the speaker’s apparent inability to have found a balm for his condition in organized religion, metaphorically suggested by the ironically melting image of Jesus (melting like globally warmed polar ice). The “tender,” in the poem’s last line, is of course, on one level, “God.”

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Abandoned. All my poems are, finally, abandoned.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. One example of something that made me smile is, "...and send off a poem I am particularly high on before I should."

    As for the format of the poem, my humble opinion is that the poet chose the right format.

    I specifically wanted to commend the pause in between the chef speaking, lighting up his cigarette, and then speaking again. That was delivered just as it happens in life.

    I'm so glad this project's still going on.

    ReplyDelete