from Kathleen Kirk’s Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Musings on what we read and why
Friday, November 5, 2010
Fault Lines & Risk Taking
Day 270 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project, and I told you a while back that I was reading Fault Lines, by Tim Hunt (Backwaters Press). Yesterday I mentioned him again in the context of the literary journal Fourth River, and I have also enjoyed his poems over the years in such journals as RHINO and Spoon River Poetry Review. Today and tomorrow I’ll share with you an interview about Fault Lines, with some discussion (tomorrow) of his books Redneck Yoga and White Levis.
Tim, I love the title of your book, Fault Lines, and identify with its earthquake connotations, as we live here in central Illinois on the New Madrid fault, and my brother lives in Santa Cruz, California, very near a fault line there (and previously in a house on the fault line, designed to resist a major earthquake, as it did). Your poems go back and forth between central Illinois and California. Can you explain the title Fault Lines, in terms of the geography, geology, and central metaphor of this book?
I grew up in several small towns north of San Francisco, and the lore of the 1906 earthquake was part of my heritage, as was an occasional quake. So the figure is partly literal, a matter of geography and geology, but it’s also partly figural. We shape our reality by setting things aside. We can’t inhabit everything at once. We filter things out; we operate in terms of structures that are necessarily partial. From time to time that wholeness we’ve so carefully constructed and has come to be reality fractures. In a geological sense, the ground is never fully stable or permanent; neither is the psychological (or the social, if that’s more what it is) “ground.” Sometimes we remember or bump against what we haven’t included. It’s like a child who falls and breaks an arm. Sometimes the arm heals stronger, sometimes not, but we each time the ground shifts, the terrain is not quite the same.
I love the light in this book, its variations. I love how you set up that there are kinds of light in “The Language of Light,” a poem for your son, who sees these differences. How does he like this poem? And can you tell us more about the importance of light in your poetry?
John is both a visual artist and a writer, and his comment quoted in the poem evokes both his eye and ear. That of course is really the poem. I think he likes the piece well enough. At least he’s been very good natured about my co-opting his line. We lived on a ranch in the White Mountain Desert of eastern California for several years. In the high desert country, light is a part of the landscape, not simply a backdrop. It’s part of the landscape’s language. That’s true everywhere, but that became clearer to me at Deep Springs, and John’s comment helped me realize that. It’s a matter of listening. We live much of our life indoors and in constructed environments. Those environments are rich and meaningful, but it’s also important to step outside, to step aside. Light, it seems, can help us do that.
“The Language of Light” for me connects to Prescript (Poetry) at the very beginning of the book, where it sits like an epigraph for the whole contents. So, two questions:
1) Is there an actual name for that kind of pre-poem?
Not that I’m aware of. The poems in Fault Lines (as with many first collections) were written at different times from varied perspectives. That was a poem I wanted to use, but it wasn’t fitting elsewhere in the book. Then I hit on placing it as a kind of preliminary or introductory piece, which is when I added “Prescript” to the title.
2) Is this prescript poem your ars poetica, or statement about the nature of poetry?
I mistrust the notion that poems say something, and I especially mistrust the notion that they are complicated codes for saying something simple. My sense is that poems are often ways we attend to things that matter but that don’t fully resolve or allow themselves to be reduced to statements that we can file away under various tabs. If poems were statements, Spark Notes paraphrases would not only suffice, they’d be better than the poems. To the extent that that piece reflects this sense of things it could, I guess, be seen as a kind of ars poetica, but a partial one. My hope, though, is that the piece might function more as an ars readica.
To be clear about the connection I see here, Prescript (Poetry) includes a memory, precise and clear, of light on a puddle of water, and is about the sensibility of someone who would indeed notice and remember such a thing. In “The Language of Light,” the small boy speaks of light in a precise way, and one senses he must grow up to be a poet or artist because that’s the way he sees.
Right. The world is fuller, richer than our understandings of it, which necessarily are entangled with the ways our awareness is filtered through our cognitive adaptations. When we see something intensely, clearly, we sense both our connections to this fuller reality and our inability to completely comprehend it. Our consciousness is both heightened and we are taken beyond consciousness. Poems can do and be many things. One thing they can do is enact a kind of witness to things that outstrip our ability to express and contain.
You and I have a similar aesthetic sense, I think, in that we believe simplicity of language can express complexity of thought, ambivalence in feeling, and mystery or paradox in meaning. Is that correct?
Yes. Complexity of perception, not complexity of expression.
There are several family stories in Fault Lines, and some elegies. Two questions here: are you ever hesitant to expose too much about a family member, and how do you handle privacy issues like this? My second question is a version of one that editor Michael Latza asked me, in Willow Review. How do you avoid sentimentality in family poems?
Family is another word for history and region. The poems in Fault Lines that draw on family material are, by and large, less about psychological foibles or eccentricities than they are attempts to explore how we relate to region and time through the lens of family. Urban life opens certain kinds of awareness, but rural and small town life open others. As the urban and digital domains become more and more the only worlds we know, I think there’s some value in attending, also, to this other terrain. The sense of space, of time, of connection, isolation are different in the hills than they are at the El stop or the megamall. Seeing the fire burn the mountain is different than sound bites and video clips on the evening news. Knowing how people can struggle with their interconnected histories is different than the exhilaration and emptiness of feeling as if one has no history. Family is one way to access that, engage that. As to “sentimentality”: that’s a matter of perspective. Some people seem to think that feeling and responsiveness are “sentimentality.” If the emotional dimension of a poem is an escape rather than an engagement, that’s a problem. But poems aren’t simply thought acrostics. I stopped worrying a long time ago about being sentimental. If my relationship to the world is sentimental, the poems will be, as well, and they’ll suffer for it. But that’s a risk one has to run.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Day 271…and here is the rest of the Tim Hunt interview. He is the author of several books, including scholarly works on Jack Kerouac and Robinson Jeffers, but the three discussed here are his own books/chapbooks of poetry, Fault Lines, Redneck Yoga (just now coming out from Finishing Line Press), White Levis, and ‘Til Twangdom Come. This will be of special interest to poets figuring out how to put a book together.
You can hear “Redneck Yoga” here at the WGLT Poetry Radio page! Read on and you’ll find another poem at the end of the interview.
Is Fault Lines a book you set out to write? Or did you find yourself writing poems that linked up with each other and wove themes? Or something else? How did it come together as a book?
I stopped writing for many years, partly because the logic of what poems were supposed to be (at least as I’d learned that from my schooling) left me little sense of there being anyone on the other side of the page. To make poems seemed wasteful and empty. After a time I came to see that this was in part because I’d let myself be talked into believing that poems are things that we make—writing on the surface of a page. I realized that poetry could also be, instead, acts of speaking stored in writing—that poetry could be (in spite of the page and writing) an attempt to speak to and with other people. That’s one factor that’s shaped Fault Lines. Another was a sense that the past dies if we don’t express it, and if we lose the past (or rather some sense of connecting to a past) the present becomes terribly thin. The past is one aspect of how we orient ourselves to be fully in the present and to find our ways forward. The poem “When the Back Steps Seemed Very High” touches on this. The things we remember and find through the process of remembering are the proverbial mixed blessing, but a mixed blessing beats no blessing any day.
Can you compare and contrast it a bit with the book just now coming out, Redneck Yoga, in terms of process and content? And White Levis?
The chapbook White Levis mixes a handful of pieces that refused to braid into Fault Lines with newer poems that extend the direction of the fourth section. The chapbook Redneck Yoga is more of a veer—poems where I let my lippy inner redneck off the leash and he went off chasing squirrels and rabbits. The new book-length ms., ’Til Twangdom Come, sort of splits the difference between Fault Lines and Redneck Yoga. It’s out knocking on doors looking for a home. A main difference between Fault Lines and these newer projects is that I’m writing more quickly. I guess that’s partly a matter of trusting the process more. It’s probably, also, partly a matter of being able to focus more on the poetry, having shut the door on some other things in my life. It also seems as if I’m more apt now to see things as possible multi-poem sets. The sequence “The Further Adventures of Poem” in Twangdom, is an instance of this. When we’re first writing, especially if we draw in part on personal material, it can seem like material is precious and that it can run out—only so much ore in the mine, that sort of thing. It takes a while to learn, and to trust, that each poem can call up the next one. Poems aren’t like fossil fuel; they’re a renewable energy like solar and wind.
I love “Train Window.” Can I quote it in full in my blog?!
From the train, the clothes
lines and empty fields
are a motion, far away—
as if in black and white.
Then, through the rain spattered glass
someone is riding alongside, a bicycle—
a second motion falling slowly back,
and we are here, now.
The rain gives these gifts,
unwrapping the red
and yellow branches
to open the passing ravine,
where a pickup
noseless like a rusted skull
gleams in the skin of water.
And now I’m off on the train to Chicago, to do the release reading at The Book Cellar for Fifth Wednesday. Wonder what I’ll see out the window!