[Town Creek Poetry] Writers of the American South are often called "regionalists" for myriad reasons, many of which have to do with southern history, identity, and culture. Do you detect any "regionalist" patterns in poetry of the American Northwest?
[Christopher Howell] Classically speaking, there are not so much patterns as tendencies in the work of poets who are or were native to the region or who lived here so long they became nativized: the likes of Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, Vern Rutsala, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, Gary Snyder and Tess Gallagher. I could name many others. The first tendency is to contextualize, ethically, morally, in terms of the scale of the landscape, often suggesting a simultaneous awareness of one’s insignificance in comparison with what surrounds us and a wonder, sometimes muted, sometimes ecstatic (as in Roethke’s “North American Sequence”), at the sheer luck of finding themselves here. But rivers, mountains, salmon, Douglas fir, beaver dams and the lore of fishing and logging are not referenced, much less featured, in every other poem. In fact, the poems are normally not “about” the region, nor are they addressed to it, as much of the work of southern regionalists addresses the “South.” The region, in all its facets, is that basis upon which the poems stand and from which they speak. Perhaps it is the foundation of that moral confidence, so often mistaken, by reviewers from other climes, for insufficiently post-modern parochialism.
Another tendency is the prominence of first person solitary, even in poems of strongly narrative character. Whether or not this has anything to do with the westerner’s vaunted self-reliance is anyone’s guess. Poets who write from the NW region tend to locate authority in the psyche rather than in any particular stance to which it might be adjusted. The speaker in Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” struggles alone with guilt, pity, sorrow, and a whole complex of practical concerns until he realizes that the struggle itself brings him into communion with others and he is able to say, “I thought hard for us all,” before pushing the dead doe into the river. But the solitude in which the struggle begins, and in which the final act is carried out, is the poem’s essential ground. You will find the same substantive core in Roethke’s greatest works, in Tess Gallagher’s stirring poems of remembrance and grief. Obviously poets from elsewhere around the country are doing the same thing, but it seems to me a particularly persistent aspect of the work of Northwestern or Northwesternized poets.
And both these tendencies I have mentioned are much less evident in the work of the great mass of poets who have immigrated to the region from the East and the Southwest in recent years, poets who are likely to view the psyche itself is simply one more social construction amongst all the others.
[TCP] What have you done to challenge yourself as a poet? What questions have you asked yourself and answered to complicate your work and "move" into more mature work? Is it merely time and experience or something else?
[CH] I cannot think of ways in which I have explicitly set out to challenge myself as a poet. I have tried to develop a professional approach to the work: writing every day, reading widely (including among the work of poets whose aesthetic differs from my own), sending the poems out and considering seriously the responses (assuming they were themselves seriously intended), doing a little translating here and there, writing reviews and essays once in a while, occasionally memorizing a poem I come across and particularly like. All of those things might, I suppose, be considered challenges.
Questions I have asked myself often have to do with whether or not I am sufficiently open to new understandings of my work and the work of others. It is the only way to maintain an active readiness to leap into the previously unimagined when the chance to do so arrives. This is what “maturity” actually means to me and why my work, any of it at all, might be adjudged to fall into that category, if it does—not for me to say, really. I do know that the poems “feel” more complete to me more often now than they did when I was thirty-five, say. But I keep reminding myself to be suspicious of that feeling, to pay attention, to work against my literary ticks and habits.
I should say, too, that the last thing I would want to do is to “complicate” my work. I actually strive to simplify it, to make it more and more verbally direct, and at the same time more and more resonant.
[TCP] Although uncontainably vast and separated into amorphous pools, do you think there are advantages to the American contemporary poetry scene? Disadvantages?
[CH] Well, advantages as opposed to what? If you mean are things better for poets now than they were fifty years ago? Yes and no. Yes, because publication is so broadly available, if a poet is able to meet a minimum standard of expertise; and also because what’s published can be so readily obtained, according to a whole menu of formats and prices. So one can listen to all these voices, all of these sensibilities frolicking among the languages and emotional intricacies of the living world. All this means that the serious writer can grow, in terms of craft and subtlety, at a tremendous rate. No, because it takes some strength and determination to keep all this activity from becoming nothing but a confused roar, a continuing world’s fair of anxiety, ambition, and side shows masquerading as profound achievement. There was some comfort, after all, in being able, in the early to mid-sixties, to read ninety percent of all poetry books published annually in the United States. One could kind of see the lay of the land and have some sense of how one might travel upon it or where one stood in relation to certain peaks and valleys.
[TCP] What is the process by which you construct a poem? Is it militantly similar for each poem, predictable, or entirely dependent on circumstances of the moment?
[CH] That is kind of an intimate question, actually. One doesn’t want to know too much about it, especially the initial, organic moment of a poem’s beginning. I will say that I sometimes simply begin writing to see what will emerge, what catches my ear, what lights up and begins to suggest something else. In this regard, I have always liked William Stafford’s advice: “Sit quietly and just wait, something will occur to you. When it does, simply follow it as you would any conversation. You don’t need to know where it’s going. If it dead-ends, well, not to worry, tomorrow or tonight or during your lunch hour you will write again. You will never exhaust this fund which is your life itself and your boundless curiosity about it.” He did not say it exactly like that, but close enough.
When I have a draft, I let it sit around until whatever intention I might have burdened it with has dissipated, then I go back to it, seeing not what I might have intended, but what I actually wrote. Then I try to identify and shape the poem, the secret, hidden inside it. As I say there is other stuff there at the beginning, but I choose to let that remain in a kind of comfortable darkness.
[TCP] Recently a relatively well-known writer posited that editors who also write dilute their own writing because of their focus on other writers. How have you managed to maintain a balance between editor and writer?
[CH] Focus upon the work of other writers does not, in itself, dilute the writing of the person who does it. It is not the focus, the unasked for influence, or whatever, that causes trouble. What is most damaging to the writing of people who edit the work of others is the immense amount of time it takes to do it properly, time the editor could be spending on her or his own work. Perhaps had I not been running presses and editing magazine all these years, I would have produced more poems, but neither the editing nor the teaching—which I have also done right along, since 1972—felt like much of an interference. I have loved bringing good poems and stories to print, loved teaching students committed to all aspects of the art, loved offering to other writers and to students such graces as my teachers and editors offered to me. So the time spent editing and teaching has never seemed time stolen from the writing; I feel that they kind of all fit together, that, in a way, I don’t have to worry about balancing them because they balance each other. This isn’t saintliness, or anything like. It’s just that, in the parlance of Lewis Hyde, poetry is a gift economy, and the thing you do with a gift is pass it on.
[TCP] Many of your poems seem to be rooted in autobiography. How does memory play a role in your work? How close do you try to keep to the “truth” of an event?
[CH] Though memory plays a role in many of my poems, I don’t care very much about the truth of an event; I care more about the truth of the poem. I think too much attention to verisimilitude stifles the imagination and frequently produces a plodding sort of pace, a pace consistent with someone anxious not to leave out anything “true.” But the truth, the factual, often lacks both drama and scale, while at the same time resisting the kind of compression that keeps a poem moving and keeps the tension in its language high enough to earn and hold the reader’s interest—and when I say “reader” I include, of course, the poet who is writing the poem and is its first reader. One must not lose interest in one’s own poem.
[TCP] In your experience as a teacher at Eastern Washington University, what are several bits of advice that you find most important and that you feel that students should carry with them?
[CH] Anyone who wishes to become a poet must write poetry. Sounds a little too obvious, yet somehow students sometimes still manage to do more agonizing about writing than they do actual writing. So the first thing is: write every day, no matter what. The second thing is, don’t worry. Worry, about writing itself, is deadly for a writer. I remember W.S. Merwin saying once that he felt terribly insecure about his writing for a time when he was in graduate school and he asked John Berryman, “How will I ever know if my poems are any good?” And Berryman responded gruffly, “If you have to know, don’t write.” That’s what it comes down to: do it or don’t do it, but don’t worry about it. Why not, in fact, rejoice that you have found something to do that enriches your life and that no one can take away from you, and simply embrace it?
[TCP] Who is it that you consider important forbears for your poetry? And can you trace a literary ancestry—a lineage of influence--through the course of your writing thus far?
[CH] James Wright has been my main man since I first came upon his work in 1970, though his teacher Theodore Roethke, and some of his other students, like Richard Hugo, have been and continue to be very very helpful to me. And I continue find Wright’s fellow Deep Image poets W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and Robert Bly both moving and instructive. When I was just starting to write I was reading Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Lorca, Frost and of course the Beat poets. When I got to graduate school there were the Moderns, Yeats in particular, and later my teachers James Tate, Joseph Langland, and Maxine Kumin, all taught me a great deal. Most of the people I have been naming are dead now, but their work is very much alive in my continuing appreciation of it and in its impact on the world. Truthfully, I think the whole matter of literary antecedents is much more chaotic and piecemeal than is usually admitted. As I said at the beginning though, the one poet whose work I am sure has influenced me quite persistently and directly is James Wright.