Jeff Hecker and Laura Madeline Wiseman
"Poems are never finite:" Poet-on-Poet Interview Jeff Hecker and Laura Madeline Wiseman
Laura Madeline Wiseman: In Instructions for the Orgy inspiration and poetics play a big part of your series. How do poetic allusions inform your writing?
Jeff Hecker: Gracias for this chat. I covet a nicely placed illusion. I also covet a poorly placed allusion. The best lit device to convey to a reader how much we adore the world and how much World is a part of us is the allusion. One weekend long ago I made a dangerous vow to insert references—obscure objects, historical figures (dead or alive), groups/organizations, chemical/food brands, anything that interested me—into my work. I'm certain social media plays a part in my motivation. Please click here if you like Charmin Toilet Tissue. Examples in Instructions for the Orgy include The Bayeux Tapestry (depicting conquest), The Radio Flyer (I'm uncertain that ride is sold anymore, likely recalled by Toys'R'Us), Philip Larkin's Whitsun Wedding (boring), George Olsen (not appearing on MTV's VMA's), COBRA Insurance (nobody I know can afford), Indiana Pacers (a pro basketball team that usually loses but they're always on the cusp of winning), Wu-Tang Clan (I dig RZA). I say dangerous because there's a risk of rendering a poem completely incomprehensible in less than five months. It's also dangerous because, let's face it, it's Pop. Our culture changes too rapidly to keep up. One of the ways I combat that change is to pile on the change. I blend historical allusions with modern allusions as if there's no distinction at all. I enjoy an overwhelmed speaker who still tries hard to assert. It's my way of injecting and directing whoever is reading or listening to wonder about somebody else, anybody else besides himself or herself.
LMW: The media, brands, and pop culture does play a role in your poetry. Thanks for bringing that up! What does media represent for you—a communal voice, a Greek chorus, a collective unconscious, something else?
JH: Becca Klaver in her collection Non-Stop Pop (Bloof Books) includes the piece "B®AND LOYALTY" that sums up my feeling about it. It's extremely difficult to live in America without referencing celebrities, corporations, media, but I tend to use those references as a measuring stick or as a mode to assign value to whatever natural image I happen to be using in any given poem. It's a way for me to undermine and control the reference while soliciting some level playing field with the reader. Even a statement as declarative as "That car salesman was as easy to see through as his bottle of Sprite" is caught in several different stormy atmospheres at the same time. So the clearest answer is that I use pop references to take back as much power from them as possible.
LMW: Your collection Hornbook does what other poets do like Karl Elder and Katrina Vandenberg's The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, but in a way that may be perplexing at first, but is humorous and smart. Same with Instructions for the Orgy. When you first told me you'd written a chapbook with each poem in response to a particular poet's style, immediately I thought of the book Poetry for Cats. How did the inspiration for Instructions for the Orgy come to you?
JH: Thanks! I'm an advocate of the double-take and the head-scratch. I don't mind suffering for tone. Hornbook is fun and light, but it's also dark, disturbing, jolting, and completely irresponsible. I wanted readers to get the sense that collection is the extremely late homework turned in via Fax machine by the bad student. As for the orgy cycle, group sex as a concept has existed forever and I wanted the poem to reflect that orbital nature. However, the problem is all orgies, as weddings and funerals, must be planned, conceptualized, and finally agreed to wholeheartedly. I wanted the poem to speak to that difficulty, which is in fact the difficulty of mass agreement, a collective nodding of skulls. Agreement is something our country celebrates but fears. I like that paradox. I also wanted to talk "around" the orgy. It's never clear by the end whether it even takes place. I wanted to reflect the fact that the speaker finds the whole chorus more chore than pleasure. Nobody wants to be the person hosting the group sex. I hope that comes across.
LMW: In the July/August 2013 Issue of Poets & Writers, Kevin Samsell coordinator of events at Powell's books asked several of his favorite readers how they've gotten good at readings. Alissa Nutting explains that "I think you have to be willing to embarrass yourself…it's pretty difficult to get people to laugh with you. It's easier to get people to laugh at you, so I try to engage that as much as possible. I just want people to laugh" (74). Given that I have had the opportunity to attend one of your readings and know how entertaining you can be on stage, can you talk about how humor plays a part in your reading performance and how you elicit laughter from the audience?
JH: I'm split this late summer between 1) dead-pan delivery of material Mark Strand seems to have mastered in his recent prose pieces. 2) reading poems in an openly comical style: the way Jennifer L. Knox is successful. Some audiences understand dead-pan, others are already dead. There's no way to predict. I watch Stephen Wright stand-up and I pay attention. He delivers single file one-liners like the Tunnel Of Love ride in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. He follows up with a filler sentence which exists only to lead to the next one-liner. I trust such methods when I write because I think 90% of poetry is surprise and ultimately, it just feels like my natural personality. How many news articles could we save ourselves if we just scanned the headlines? Too many. I tend to flock to poetry to be misled and messed up, not informed. Stephen Dobyns has written not to forget the close proximity of poet and court jester. This is not an indictment of the serious poets, but they make a display of themselves for public reaction too. They probably don't think about that too frequently, or they might go nuts. Don't laugh at a serious poetry reading though, unless you actually find it funny. I was always the little boy on the playground who tried to make a friend who had sustained some minor injury falling off monkey bars giggle in midst of his or her sobbing. The only way I could usually pull off that act would be to lose myself in oddity, exaggerate words, use body language in ways Norfolk, Virginia's Navy-town parents would never approve.
LMW: Imaginary Friend Press is currently hosting a chapbook contest in which they seek "to promote voices that are often ignored and often dismissed" and that to enter they ask you to ask yourself three questions: "Are you white? Are you male? Are you straight (heternormative)?" and that if your answer is yes, they "whish you the best of lucking winning another contest." In doing so and much like VIDA, IFP raises important on poetics, on who is published, and how we are shaped by our culture. What is your sense of how your race, gender, and sexuality inform your poetry, especially, but not limited to your new chapbook Instructions for the Orgy?
JH: I'm an effective male lover of a gorgeous Cajun female, though I often wonder if our gender roles were reversed if we'd make a successful couple. Either way, I'd do all the dishes. I'm officially hapa haoli ethnic decent. That means my father's mother was Japanese and his father was German. My mother's bloodline is English/Swedish. I often tell people I represent every nation on both sides of World War II except Russia and Italy. I'm working on twisting those countries into my DNA eventually. I'll admit early in my writing career I was oblivious to the fact divisions existed by anything other than style. I wanted to believe the main goal in writing a poem was to ensure that artifact weathered solely through its own language and the person behind the poem was invisible, like Oz. The more I thought about that I realized Oz was a lonely old mean white man. It wasn't until I attended an AWP conference set in New Orleans (my wife's hometown) that I realized my "language trumps all" assumption was naïve, even counterproductive, because the powers that be still have a warped agenda when it comes to what voice types are published as well as the level of standardized education that modulates those voices. Part of the reason I wrote Instructions for the Orgy was to honor and spread the notions of our nation's own maturing gender and sexual awakenings. I hope after reading the poem the audience is left with the feeling that every dance is a Sadie Hawkins dance and Maksim Chmerkovskiy better get hip to that fact.
LMW: Let's talk about the work of the poet. In the September/October 2013 issue of Poets & Writers and in the special section on the MFA, Michael Bourne notes in his essay "Degrees of Value: What Happens After the MFA Program" that "roughly four thousand MFA students graduate every year" and job wise AWP "reported 282 full-time tenure-track positions, 130 of which were for teaching creative writing" (111). As someone who doesn't have an MFA, but has a book (an aspect Bourne notes that post-MFA grads do not necessarily have) and two chapbooks, what is the work for the poet and when do you—a man who works full-time in a nonteaching or writing capacity—find time to write?
JH: Great question. Most of this answer is a little luck and a lot of hard work and rejection.
Here's how this went down: I received an undergraduate degree from Old Dominion University where I studied under the watchful eyes of poets/wizards Tim Seibles and Scott Cairns. They taught me many different ways to approach the same parking lot. I also absorbed longer fiction with diamond Sheri Reynolds and pearl Janet Peery. That little program is loaded with All-Stars and precious gems. Ben Marcus was a visiting professor one semester too I believe. October literary festivals on campus brought the likes of Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, Stephen Dunn (with whom I played half-court faculty vs. students basketball) and Li-Young Lee. I also had the benefit of dating (knowing) most of the graduate workshop writers. If I remember correctly ODU even let me take graduate workshop classes for the hell of it as long as I paid tuition. After ODU, I applied and I was accepted to the low-res graduate program at New England College in New Hampshire, run by poet Chard DeNiord. Chard and I spoke by phone several times. Roughly a week prior to leaving, a long-term love relationship ended abruptly and, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I left myself devastated. Unlike Scrooge, I didn't seek an MBA and go on to wealth/misery. Instead, I told New England College thanks but no thanks. I wasn't emotionally or psychologically prepared for grad-school. I decided I was going to learn Microsoft Excel and Access, become a fantastic database manager, land a full-time job with great co-workers/benefits, read everything I could get my hands on early mornings and evenings, write weekends, and live a life outside of academia. Not having children has allowed much of this free-time as well. Having said that, I'm not sure I'll ever give up a flirtation with an MFA and perhaps one day teach at a university or community college. If that never happens to me, I'm still going to write. The work is all that matters to me.
LMW: In the October/November 2012 issue of The Writer's Chronicle in her interview Laurie Foos explains, "Writing nonfiction makes me uncomfortable—which is probably why I ought to do it. We should always write into the places that scare us" (97). What scares you?
JH: Writing non-fiction horrifies me too Laurie Foos. I believe the closer I get to writing events that actually happen in my personal life, the less comfortable I feel. My friends and loved ones won't like this answer, but I've always thought of the passage of time in my bodily existence is actually just a conduit for entering the fictive head space that's actually my real home. If I ever start to write about what Jeffrey Hecker did on Tuesday, somebody better pull plug The Matrix-style on me. This is not to say I don't enjoy personal poetry. Speaking of personal plugs, I'd follow around Frank O'Hara with an extension cord until he needed to use one. I'm just not very adept at writing that kind of poetry. I can't make stuff that happens more interesting, I can only make stuff that doesn't happen interesting.
Another thing that scares me is there's some message I'm supposed to be receiving in my dreams and nightmares that I'm not interpreting correctly and it's been going on 35 years.
LMW: What are the poetic rules you're seeking to break?
JH: They've already been snapped by many different steampunks. The mantra I remind myself is not to rule out anything. If a poem wants to be a sonnet, let it be a sonnet, then turn it into something else for fun. If a poem wants to run 88 pages long, allow it that track area. If I want to write in the voice of the entire cast of Little House on the Prairie, so be it.
LMW: As an author of two chapbooks that are tightly bound and crafted, can you talk about a couple of examples of chapbooks by other poets that you admire that are really well-crafted in terms of image and contextualization?
JH: So many nebulous chapbooks swirling in the ethos. I'll shout-out three hot ones I'm reading from fellow Horse Less Press available right now: Megan Burns Dollbaby, Laura Goldstein phylum, Aubrie Marrin Terrible + Powerful + Wondrous. All of these get funky fresh with form and negative space. I love how many young poets are making friends with white space. "What isn't being said" is always just as interesting as what is. Horse Less Press is a place for poets for whom language is neither easy nor breezy. It's a sanctuary for difficulty and experimentation. Jen Tynes and Michael Sikkema are editors who ax their own fireplace wood. They're also about to get MARRIED too, which should bring about a world revolution.
LMW: How important is it for you to craft and develop the individual poem, and then craft those individual poems into a chapbook, as opposed to simply having a chapbook length collection of poems?
JH: Each line has to breathe, survive on its own, like a baby cassowary. Even if I know a chapbook's concept, I don't think the motivation should be the chapbook, particularly when the concept is so magnetic. If a group of poems ends up collected, it's because hours of furious work went into formatting each piece. The movie Clue (I realize it was a board game first) would not have shined without each character having a valid stake in Mr. Boddy's 1st degree murder. Imagine it without Mr. Green. Now imagine Mr. Green is a triolet. Imagine Mrs. Peacock is a pantoum and Miss Scarlett is a tanka. Collections only work when each cog provides something essential to its wheelhouse. It is a gear system—no doubt. Collections I don't feel pulled in by are usually ones filler poems are inserted for no other reason than to make a book longer. That's not an intelligent idea. My goal will always be making each poem separate and unique. My first book Rumble Seat ended up being a collection culled from over two-hundred individual poems, whittled down, revised many times. I look back on that book and I still want to make alterations. In the new book, I purposely made each orgy instruction entirely different from another, tone, pagination, everything. They needed to be different directions to different people with different intentions. Poems are never finite. Aren't they always negotiations for a treaty we secretly hope never gets signed?