Edited by ANDREA SPOFFORD | BARRY KITTERMAN | AMY WRIGHT
The Switch and the Faucet
An Interview with Bob Hicok
Amy Wright for Zone 3: In your essay, “My Listening Was Mumbling,” you define two mysteries in the writing process—“The Mystery of Initial Conditions” and “The Mystery of What Can Be Made from The Mystery of Initial Conditions.” I love these phrases and the tendency behind them to name such mysteries. You go on to note in the essay that facing these unknowns day after day is a “spiritual endeavor...in the sense that you’re constantly made humble because you’re reminded you can’t take credit for these origins.” Let’s talk about humility, since associating that word with your Pushcart Prize-winning, Guggenheim fellowship-earning, NEA-endowed work can pose challenges.
Bob Hicok: How to put this—walking around, eating a sandwich, listening to a bird, talking to my wife, picking my nose—I have almost no belief in myself as a writer. It’s just not there. I know it’s supposed to be, and that many hold the notion that you can’t write (or paint or make excellent snow cones) if you don’t have faith in your abilities. But again, away from the act of writing, I don’t see myself as anything special. And it’s not that I see myself as special while I write—more that I don’t see myself at all. There is a disappearance into the act, into the desire or need to speak, that erases—I mean, completely obliterates— the doubts and personal bullshit that tools around with me. Doing becomes being. Plain and simple, or fancy and I guess not so. And because of this, I begin most days having quieted my most cannibalistic tendencies. So yeah—give me that gift every day and I’ll treat it with respect and humility. And I give it all the coffee it wants.
AW: Yes, that is indeed a gift. Since you are a professor, do students ever look to you to help them manufacture such abilities in themselves? And if so, how do you advise them?
BH: I have no clue what students want from me. They don’t ask me about my poems or how I go about writing them.
AW: The dictionary tells me a now-defunct meaning of mystery was “a craft” or “a guild,” as if one might call a knot gathered at a conference “a mystery of writers” the way one might refer to a crash of rhinoceroses or a murder of crows. But the interesting thing about such word play, you note in your essay on why you write, is where it leads. Will you describe the role of foresight here? How—or perhaps when—do you recognize a successful writing thread vs. a meandering dead-end?
BH: Three, four, five lines in. By then, I can feel whether those lines are talking to each other or not. If they are—however formal or loose that conversation is—I know I have something I can run with to an end. The most important thing is being honest about what pops into my head at the start—if I’m honest about the first line and don’t think about where it might lead, the poem has a shot. Then a kind of bio-feedback takes place—I let the next line step out of the first, and so on. I’m primarily associative, so the roots of any one line tend to be found in what’s happened right before it. I think of it as hinging, one line swinging off another. There’s an inherent kind of order or relatedness to—a genetic resemblance—and also a wandering. By the end, the poem should feel both inevitable and surprising. Again, the start matters most. I want it to be my mind responding to itself, noticing its own condition, and reacting as one would to a Rorschach blot.
AW: What do you do when your mind returns a flat answer like “butterfly”?
BH: It never does. My mind seems to be naturally generative. All minds are, really. But I’m used to paying attention to that traffic, and it is busy and ceaseless—if I attend to it. Writing makes me attend to it, or asks me to. Writing has been very much like flicking a switch or opening a faucet. Best not to mix those, though. The switch and the faucet. Unless you want to write “The Book of Ouch.”
AW: In an interview from Gulf Coast, you disarm that tendency to label a poet only to dismiss his or her work by saying rather than being known as a funny poet, you would prefer to be known as a “totally-indifferent-to-angora poet.” But let’s face it. No one is indifferent to angora. Where, Professor Hicok, do you stand?
BH: I’m not even sure what angora is. It’s a word I like and I know people make clothes out of it. I’ll google it. This will take a minute—I had to turn the Wi-Fi on. Now refresh the network. Again. There it is. Now to Google—O my god—it’s rabbit fur. I did not know. Those are some weird looking rabbits. Angora sweaters would look really cool if they were made of the actual rabbits. A living sweater, of course. Which would mean a shitting sweater. Thus ends my career in fashion.
AW: So soon? There’s a photo of you on the YesYes Books site from perhaps the seventies sporting a sweatshirt in the “sun-faded” style J. Crew is currently marketing in their Sweats Revolution. With trendsetting skills like that, we might all have woolly bunnies climbing our shoulders by 2040.
What strikes me about your sense of humor is the agility with which you navigate lightness and gravity, as in Insomnia Diary, when you turn a leafy head of lettuce into a memento mori, contemplating “how readily the world shrugs us off.” I commend that nimbleness, but I have not yet had the opportunity to hear you laugh. Do you guffaw or snigger? Roar or chortle? Howl and slap your thighs, turn red and gasp for breath?
BH: No thigh slapping. My thighs would leave me. They would seek shelter in a home for battered thighs. Otherwise I occupy a spectrum, from smile to an avalanche of joy.
AW: What a great image. Did you know avalanches have toes? According to the Avalanche Institute, the “toe” is the furthest extent of sliding snow. If you had to give a name for that part of a poem, what might you call it?
BH: The end of the poem.
AW: I can guess from your poems that you laugh at those, including yourself, who take themselves too seriously, but what is your favorite joke, or kind of joke if you can’t choose?
BH: I. Can’t. Remember. Or. Tell. Jokes. To. Save. My. Life. Or. The. Life. Of. A. Fly. I’m not a fan of jokes, per se. I liked Richard Pryor, who didn’t tell jokes so much as the truth. And ran while on fire. Wow. And then made that funny.
AW: Have you ever run while on fire? Or set fire to the truth? Or doused the truth with baking soda? Or spilled the baking soda and run?
BH: No. It sounds like I've lived a sheltered life. Or not baked enough.
AW: I was pleased to find “that most crows sound like a claw hammer / pulling boards from an old shed” in your recent “A poem of place” in Agni, because I grew up about forty minutes from Blacksburg, Virginia, where you currently teach, and near those patches of woods and waterways Annie Dillard describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. How have the Blue Ridge mountains and their environs informed or inspired your writing?
BH: Well, I live smack dab in those mountains—on one and facing another—so they’re the backdrop of my days and consequently show up a lot in poems. It’s cool having the horizon limited in a way that lifts you closer to the sky. One thing is taken, another given. Someone told me when we moved that mountains are like the ocean—different every day. I’ve found that to be almost true. The world seems richer somehow when the earth is tilted up and put in your face. It’s harder to forget where you’re from.
AW: Do you think of Virginia as where you are from now, though you were born in Michigan? Or is place rooted for you in the “private, public space” of poetry, as you title one poem?
BH: I tend to settle in pretty quickly. Wherever I’m writing and wherever my wife is, that’s home.
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