Strange Routes with David Shook

Becky Hirsch talks life and learning with David Shook.

Visual art by Samuel Lee

[box]David Shook is a poet, translator and Idyllwild Arts Academy alum from 2004. His work has been published in Oxford MagazinePoetryPN ReviewWorld Literature Today, and others. He has translated many authors works into English, including Víctor Terán, Oswald de Andrade, Roberto Bolaño, and Mario Bellatin. Shook currently lives in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossushis online journal of international literature, and publishes Phoneme Books. Here he sits down in Birchard Writing Center to talk with Becky Hirsch, a junior at Idyllwild Arts Academy. [/box]

BH: As a translator, someone who’s had experience at Idyllwild and at Oxford University, and has lived in other countries, do you see any particular differences in poems from different languages? Do you think any language is better at expressing a certain kind of poem? And do you have a language in which you prefer to read?

DS: I believe in a basic universality of expression across all languages. I don’t support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language is entirely responsible for shaping thought. I think there’s a murkier relationship there. I do think, of course, that some languages have a greater facility of expression. It might be easier to write a poem in Zapotec about a traditional palm wine, but that’s mostly a matter of practicality. They happen to have a word for “palm wine” and every time I’m talking about it in a poem I have to say “palm wine,” which doesn’t sound very nice. In terms of reading, I love English language poetry. I think it’s the best in the world. That said, I’m not sure the best poets in the world write in English.

BH: English has a history of just being a conglomerate of languages, kind of thrown together with a thousand synonyms for every word. Is that what helps it write “the best poetry in the world”?

DS: Most languages absorb ideas, absorb words, absorb descriptive bits, even structural bits from other languages. Partially, it’s a socioeconomic thing. English is spread around the world. It was and still is a great language of empire, and [there’s a lot to be said] about that, there’s a whole political argument to be made. [That imperial history of the language has] produced art and enriched the English language. You’ve got Singaporean English (Singlish), where you incorporate Chinese grammatical markers into English and it works. It makes sense. It’s its own effective system of communication.

BH: You’re mind seems to jump around countries really easily. I know you’ve spent time in Mexico, spent time in Africa, and spent a good chunk of time in California.

DS: And I’m from Texas.

BH: That’s a whole other country.

DS: It is. It’s its own world.

BH: So how do you feel that all that movement, and all that personal experience with other countries and other areas and other kinds of peoples, writers, and writing has affected your world view?

DS: That’s a big question.

BH: Yeah, but you do seem as if you have a handle on it.

DS: I can’t say how it has affected my worldview but I know that it definitely has. All of these experiences, just in terms of basic subject matter in my work, come up again and again. I think that more than anything, and this sort of comes from my background in linguistics too, I’m sort of interested in the multiplicity of voices that surround us on a global scale but also on a much smaller scale, you know, the multiplicity of voices in Idyllwild, California. There are all sorts of people here, a radical mix of people, not just among the student body but the people in town. I was talking to someone in town this morning who buys forty pounds of peanuts each week to feed the squirrels, like an old squirrel lady, instead of an old bird lady. I guess there’s that same interest, ultimately, that I’ve been fortunate through circumstances, work and life, to get to experience and explore a lot of different places.

BH: Do you see a difference in the kind of people you’ve experienced in Idyllwild versus the kind of people you’ve met in other parts of the world?

DS: I would hesitate to say that I think specifically here there’s a great, respectful and supportive community for young artists, for the curiosity that’s required of the artist. There’s a sort of nurturing that creative people need and the freedom and the leeway that they need to experiment and explore, which is unique and admirable but certainly this isn’t the only place in the world that has that.

BH: You call it a nurturing and respectful place for young artists. How do you feel about your time personally at Idyllwild Arts?

DS: I reflect on it fondly. I haven’t been here in quite a while. I think I was last here in 2005. My time here was unusual. I was only here one year. It was a strange year for me but … I think a lot of my lifelong friendships, at this point in my life, were made here at Idyllwild. On my street in L.A. there are four alums and we all still dialogue about our art, about what we’re doing and it’s been neat to see everyone come into their own as artists post-Idyllwild, and not everyone has become an artist by profession but you can see the artistic growth in all the people I met at Idyllwild.

BH: How did you come to Idyllwild? What was your road to get here?

DS: It was my last year of high school and I’d been serious about writing poetry since the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I’d studied at Stanford with the Wallace Stegner fellows, with Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Matthew Dougherty, two great poets. Now Gaby’s actually in L.A. I see her all the time. But I’d been writing poetry, at that point, my junior year of high school, I was in Texas, really unhappy and I basically just begged my parents to let me come study writing. I was very much a student that wanted to be here, someone who was very invested in it. It wasn’t always easy. I feel like I did have some frustrating experiences. I felt like even coming here, I was very focused on poetry and I very much new what I wanted to do and the forced experimentation in other genres and in other things, although I now see it as very healthy and even then I recognized that as much as I might have grumbled and complained about it.

BH: It’s a difficult experience, coming here as a one year senior. I think it takes a while until the faculty are really convinced that your focus really is your focus.

DS: And rightfully so.

BH: How do you think the school has changed since you left? Do you feel any difference in the place being back here now?

DS: There’s been turnover in faculty, especially in creative writing faculty. I think you guys have a really good director [Kim Henderson], I think Katherine [Factor, the poetry teacher] is a really great poet, I really admire her work. She tells me about you students all the time, about what greats poets you are. Even having been a student here and aware of the quality of our writing, I was very impressed, especially this afternoon when we were doing our book blurbs and just talking about book reviews. It just continues to impress me, as familiar as I am with it. The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is that spirit of community and curiosity and creativity. It’s still here and I hope it will be for a long time.

BH: Do you have a favorite Idyllwild story from your time here as a student?

DS: I have a lot of good stories. I had a car. I was a boarding student but I had a secret car, because Idyllwild’s just too small, I couldn’t stay here on the weekends. So I had a car and I’d hide it in town and I’d leave. I’d go to L.A. or even all the way up to Santa Barbara, so there were a lot of good times. There’s once we almost got arrested in Hemet. We decided to come back up to the school during the day, which is a little riskier. We’d normally try to do it right at dusk so people couldn’t recognize us on the drive up the hill. So for some reason we got the idea that, to disguise ourselves, we should dress up in black face. And we got pulled over by the cops, in black face, at the train track in Hemet. And immediately we were surrounded by six cop cars and they called out on their speakers to turn the car off and put the keys on the roof. It was pretty scary. More than anything I was scared they would call the school to validate our story and then it’d come out that I had this illegal car. But it didn’t happen. We sort of talked our way of it.

BH: What were they arresting you for?

DS: Apparently that week there’d been a string of convenience store robberies in Hemet, perpetrated by men in black face. Incredible coincidence. But that’s a fond memory that took place just slightly off the hill. But more than events, I think a lot of the conversations that I had at Idyllwild still linger in my memory. And just laughing a lot, having a good time, enjoying the company of fellow writers and even our teachers.

BH: It seems like you have been able to make a fairly decent living in your art, which, you can tell from the experiences of other alumni, isn’t always the case. You can’t always make it in your art form. Whether it’s book reviewing or poetry, at least you are connected to writing.

DS: Certainly. I’ve also worked a day job in community-based development but I think I’ve always been fortunate in my ability to work and hold jobs that don’t inhibit my writing life. If anything they feed it, they teach me things, they allow me to keep curious. And tonight at the reading I’ll be reading an excerpt from an essay about dancing with the president of Burundi, and you know if I hadn’t had a day job I wouldn’t have been able to dance with the president of Burundi, so I think there are ways, as difficult as it is to sometimes admit to yourself, especially in an economically unfeasible field like poetry, there are ways to stay sane and to keep writing and to still make a living. But you’re not going to do it selling poems. I think it’s important to be realistic about that.

BH: And think outside of that straightforward path.

DS: Exactly. I think one of the biggest things I wish I had known as a student at Idyllwild is how important it is to be entrepreneurial and pursue all sorts of ideas. Most of them won’t pan out but every once in a while they do and I have silly stories, like writing my moustache wax sponsor and trading poems for haircuts, but there’s also more serious ideas. Presenting yourself as a talented poet or writer can land you a job writing copy for an ad agency, and making money for it. Just the idea that, as a writer, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur, a self-promoter, so that you can continue to do what you want to do is really important.

BH: From the work I’ve seen on your websites like Molossus and MANIFESTOH! and just going out and finding book reviewing as career path, it does seem like you have worked really hard to keep yourself in the writing business.

DS: I’m also very skeptical of the writing “business.” I avoid the writing mega-conferences. I’m somewhat repelled by the occasional, or more than occasional, provincialism of writers. While that’s great and it’s really important to support your work, I think we need to get outside of that and break the boundaries open. Why stay within any sorts of boundaries?

BH: Do you mean genre?

DS: I guess I mean more in terms of life experience. I mean don’t let being a poet or being a fiction writer limit. If anything, it should open up your life experience and possibility. It should open up your imagination not just on the page but in the way you live your life.

BH: I think for all writers, any job you get influences your work and it’s all educational.

DS: And I think it’s important to maintain that attitude.

BH: That sort of entrepreneurial spirit.

DS: Also just that the things that you’re doing that aren’t writing can feed into your writing. That they’re not necessarily contradictory.

BH: So what kind of other occupations have you had?

DS: I’ve mostly worked in community-based development, in East Central Africa and indigenous Latin America, but also in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Southern Mexico, which is also where I translate poetry, also in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa. That’s most of it. Most of my professional experience is in that development field. I’ve had other shitty jobs, of course. In college I’d evaluate graduate students from abroad, I’d evaluate their English to see if they qualified to be TA’s, which was a lot fun. But I’ve had all sorts of terrible, tiny jobs too.

BH: You had something of an unusual route through college to finally graduating from Oxford with an MFA. How did that come about?

DS: At Idyllwild I was an exemplary college applicant. I probably applied to fifteen schools, had a bunch of scholarships, and just kind of burnt out and decided to reject all of them. And I moved to Costa Rica and worked at an orphanage for about six months. But then through family and through my girlfriend at the time I wound up at the University of Oklahoma, which six months before I would have found laughable. But it turned out to be a great place. If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to intern at World Literature Today and start publishing in major literary magazines as an undergraduate, which is basically how I built up my resume for Oxford and also my early, large-scale publishing experience, beyond editing Parallax, was there. So it was a little strange, but it was great. And I think state schools are a great choice for writers. They’re so much cheaper and there’s a lot of great writers often in these regional institutions that we kind of overlook in applying to schools. Just the opportunity as an undergraduate to be conceptualizing issues of a magazine, to be in contact with Pulitzer winning writers was huge for me and it wouldn’t have happened if I had gone to a more brand name school.

BH: Since college and since graduating from Idyllwild, you’ve joined some pretty prominent literary groups like the National Book Critics Circle, you’ve been published in Oxford Magazine, involved with World Literature Today, and those are all pretty big name institutions. What would you say was your most valuable experience?

DS: I think most of my most valuable personal experiences have all come through translating. There’s a really deep bond that’s formed when you translate someone’s work and some of my sweetest and deepest friendships are with poets whose work I’ve translated. Especially people like Víctor Terán who writes in Zapotec, a poet who’s been marginalized most of his career because of his language, to be able to translate him and to make his work more widely available beyond the prejudices of the contemporary Mexican poetry community. It’s been really valuable. My friendship with Marcelo Ensema Nsang, the Guinean poet who was tortured in the 70s, is another really special friendship that’s come out of that. I think those are, if not my favorite or most meaningful literary experiences, definitely some of the most meaningful ones.

BH: You just mentioned the documentary you just made [about Marcelo Ensema Nsang].

DS: In Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Yeah, we made that in March. Hopefully we’ll have a first cut at the end of November and then submit to festivals next year.

BH: So is that what’s up next?

DS: I guess there’s a lot of stuff up next. That’s definitely on the docket. Also, I have a new non-profit publishing house that’ll publish books in translation, from Mario Bellatin to Stalin. We’re doing Stalin’s poetry that he wrote as a teenager, translated from the Georgian, the first literary translation. Then I’ve also got a new series of manifestos that I’ve been translating. Most of them are from the 20s to the 60s, more or less, but some later, 70s and 80s. The manifesto, it’s one of the most fun literary genres there is but because it’s kind of a strange genre it’s most often translated by academics with no real sense of poetry. So that’s been a really fun project and in November, I do a really big reading in L.A. And of course I’m still trying to place my own poems. I have a new book-length translation project as well and a new book I’m working on of travel essays. So, a lot.

BH: Your story is  excellent for someone looking to someday find a way into writing professionally and I just want to thank you so much for your time.

DS: Of course.

This You Have Learned

Someone is having a little existential crisis in Becky Hirsch’s poem “This You Have Learned.”

Visual art by Esther Chung.

This you have learned:
In some cultures they spear roasted pig guts on a stick;
They grip hard with both hands.
In the end times scenario that plays out in your head, you pray to be one of the saved.

This you have learned:
You have lost control.
In the end times scenario that plays out in your head, you pray to be one of the saved.
We have only been awake a little while but already begging gets us nowhere.

You have lost control.
In some ways there is nothing left that we can teach you.
We have only been awake a little while but already begging gets us nowhere.
In the night you clutch hymns to your heart like cluttering insects.

In some ways there is nothing left that we can teach you.
Where you go on vacations is not where you will go to die.
In the night you clutch hymns to your heart like cluttering insects.
In some ways there is nothing left but what we can teach you about yourself.

Where you go on vacations is not where you will go to die.
They grip hard –both hands!
In some ways there is nothing left but what we can teach you about yourself.
This you have learned.

Hands

A boy struggles with the death of his mother in Becky Hirsch’s short play “Hands.”

Visual art by Ben Mcnutt

SETTING: a quiet, suburban home.

CHARACTERS: MICHAEL, a teenage boy, wants to protect his family. RAYNA, his mother. Recently a robot.

SCENE ONE:

RAYNA

 (to audience)

There was a house fire here two weeks ago, on a Thursday. It began at 6:40 PM at the latest. It was contained to the kitchen. I was in the master bedroom at the back of the house. I had left the stove on without realizing. I had fallen asleep. The kitchen appliances have been fixed since then, but there is still some structural damage. Michael has worked hard to make everything good as new. (beat) No, Michael was at the library when it started. He studies all the time. At the library or in his room or at a friend’s house. Michael is very bright.

(Offstage MICHAEL hears his mother talking to someone and runs onstage.)

MICHAEL

Mom!

RAYNA

Michael?

(RAYNA shuts the door.)

MICHAEL

Who were you talking to?

RAYNA

The policeman, Michael. He was asking me questions.

(MICHAEL gasps and stares at her. RAYNA watches him passively.)

MICHAEL

What did he want to know?

RAYNA

About you, Michael.

(MICHAEL gulps.)

MICHAEL

Me?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand.

MICHAEL

Oh, uh, I mean: what did he want to know about me?

RAYNA

He wanted to know about why you haven’t been going to school, Michael.

MICHAEL

But what did you tell him?

RAYNA

I told him that there was a fire and that since then I have not gone to work and you have not gone to school.

MICHAEL

That’s it?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

MICHAEL

I mean, why was that it?

RAYNA

Because you called me, and I have to stop what I’m doing when you call me.

MICHAEL

Um, yeah. (beat) Is he still outside?

RAYNA

I don’t know, Michael.

(MICHAEL looks through a window.)

MICHAEL

(to himself) I don’t see anyone. (beat – remembers RAYNA) Well, I’m going to go back to my room. To study. (beat) Make me some dinner?

RAYNA

What would you like?

MICHAEL

Pasta.

RAYNA

By when should it be ready, Michael?

MICHAEL

Oh, just whenever you can.

RAYNA

Yes.

(Beat)

MICHAEL

Spin around.

(RAYNA spins in one circle.)

Jump up and down.

(RAYNA jumps once oddly, since she wasn’t built for jumping. MICHAEL laughs, honestly finding it funny. RAYNA watches passively. MICHAEL stops laughing abruptly.)

Laugh with me, when I laugh.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(MICHAEL forces a laugh. RAYNA copies him. He brushes it off.)

MICHAEL

Well, I’m going to go to my room. (beat) Look, don’t worry about dinner. Just… why don’t you go to sleep?

RAYNA

Whatever you say. Good night, Michael. Sleep well.

(RAYNA lies flat on the couch with her hands folded over her stomach, like a corpse in a coffin. MICHAEL sits down on a nearby chair, and watches her for a moment. Then he picks up a notebook from under the chair. He opens it up and writes in it, reading out loud as he goes as if he were reading from a script.)

MICHAEL

Her motor and cognitive functions are all fine. So is her vocabulary. Her response time is improving. I don’t think the policeman would have suspected anything. He probably just thought she was weird.

A lot of her responses are just the default programming. There’s a huge list of basic information, like who the president is and what order the alphabet goes in and stuff. And then there’s more specific things: my name, my allergies, my GPA. Sometimes it’s weird, because I remember entering all the information. I remember sitting and watching her download it all, but I try not to think about that. It makes it all too creepy, like I’m talking to my- (self)

(MICHAEL crosses that last sentence out.)

It was a truancy officer that came here today, asking why I’d been ditching school. Two weeks now, I think. I can barely leave the house, except to pick up food. I keep reliving that day. (MICHAEL gets caught up in the memory, gradually panicking.) There was this horrible smell coming out of the kitchen window and it got so much worse when I walked in the front door. Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen and I almost couldn’t see her lying curled up on the floor. Smack on the ground, hands all mangled and crunched underneath her, underneath her- (Getting angry) God, it was so- She died like that! Greasy and crumpled up and that smell-

(MICHAEL calms himself.) We stay up all night watching Jeopardy and eat home-made pancakes. I wake up late, sometimes after noon and find pictures of us up all over the walls, all down the hallway. We dig out my old yearbooks. We’re doing things the way we used to, with less class time, but it’s the way things are supposed to be.  This robot, she makes everything right.

(MICHAEL looks up from the notebook and stares over at RAYNA.)

(Worried)

Right?

(MICHAEL stares at her for a long time. Blackout.)

SCENE TWO:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL has fallen asleep curled in the same chair, the notebook open on his lap. He looks a little more disheveled. RAYNA is still asleep on the couch. She wakes up after the lights come on.)

RAYNA

Good morning, Michael!

(MICHAEL jolts awake, snatches the notebook and holds it closed against his chest. He stares at RAYNA. He has just woken up from a horrible nightmare.)

Would you like some toast? Some cereal?

MICHAEL

No thanks.

RAYNA

French toast, Michael? Pancakes?

MICHAEL

No, I don’t want anything.

RAYNA

(As RAYNA says this she begins getting up and walking toward offstage.)

You should eat something, Michael. Your brain needs nutrients and energy to keep working. Brain cells require twice as much energy as any other cells in the body, Michael. I have to take care of you. I’ll get you some fruit, Michael. Fruit is made up of long chains of sugar molecules that the body breaks down gradually to release glucose to fuel the brain over a long period of time. You should have some, Michael.

MICHAEL

I had a nightmare.

(RAYNA stops and turns back to face him.)

RAYNA

I’m sorry, Michael. Would you like to tell me about it?

MICHAEL

There was this lady, this really sweet old lady, and she told me that she was pretty, and I guess she was pretty but not like that because, you know, among other things she was old and related to me.

(MICHAEL looks at RAYNA to see if she makes the connection. She doesn’t.)

Anyway, I reached up to touch her face, and her whole face started sizzling and then melted away, and underneath it was this crazy, wrinkled old lady and she hated me—

RAYNA

(RAYNA kneels by MICHAEL’S chair.)

No one could ever hate you, Michael.

MICHAEL

But this lady did. I- in the dream, I’d- I shoved a knife through her stomach, so far that I stuck her to the living room wall. And in the dream, I reached out and touched her face, her wrinkly old face, and the whole thing just slid off and right underneath it was mine! My face, staring straight back. And then you woke me up.

RAYNA

I’m sorry.

MICHAEL

But it was just a dream. I used to be so terrified when I woke up from nightmares, but I woke up and you were here, and you asked me if I wanted toast, and God, Mom, it was just a dream, wasn’t it? It was just a crazy nightmare!

(Off-stage, a knocking starts and continues to the end of the scene, as if someone was knocking continually on the door. MICHAEL freezes up and grips RAYNA’S wrist. RAYNA looks offstage toward the source of the knocking.)

RAYNA

I think someone’s at the door, Michael.

MICHAEL

I know.

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door?

MICHAEL

No.

(beat)

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door, Michael?

MICHAEL

No.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

(MICHAEL closes his eyes.)

Yes.

(They stay where they are: RAYNA kneeling next to MICHAEL, staring offstage, MICHAEL, eyes closed, sitting and gripping RAYNA’s wrist. The knocking continues. Blackout.)

SCENE THREE:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL is sitting hunched in the same chair. He looks even more disheveled. RAYNA is on the telephone, standing near the center of the stage. She does not pace as she talks.)

RAYNA

Yes, I know that Michael has not gone to school these past few days. He has been home with me. (beat) I’ve been ill.

(MICHAEL stands up and starts pacing.)

I’m not sure. He’ll come back when he’s able. He loves school. He’s very bright.

(MICHAEL slumps to the floor. RAYNA immediately hangs up the phone and puts it on the little end table. She kneels by MICHAEL.)

Are you all right, Michael?

MICHAEL

No, Mom.

RAYNA

You should have some food. You haven’t eaten much lately, Michael.

MICHAEL

I don’t want anything to eat.

RAYNA

What else can I get for you?

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

Are you happy?

RAYNA

I’m with you.

MICHAEL

I know that, but are you happy? Here, with me.

RAYNA

Yes, of course, Michael. I love you.

MICHAEL

Well, why do you love me?

(beat – RAYNA is computing.)

RAYNA

I don’t understand, Michael.

MICHAEL

What?

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question.

MICHAEL

What about it don’t you understand?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question, Michael.

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

I would like some food, actually. Some soup. Would you us make some? We could eat together.

RAYNA

I don’t need to eat.

MICHAEL

I know, but I want you to.

RAYNA

You told me I wasn’t supposed to eat, Michael. That it would be very bad for me.

MICHAEL

No… I mean, yeah, that’s what I said but I think that maybe now… I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. For you. For both of us.

RAYNA

Of course, Michael. Whatever you want.

MICHAEL

Thank you.

(RAYNA exits. MICHAEL stares after her for a moment. Then he picks up the phone and dials 911.)

Hello? My name is Michael Dougherty, and I understand someone has been coming by my house? Yeah, I figured it’d be about that. Look, actually this is about my mom. She’s been sick, since the fire, she got hurt, and… she’s just died, actually. This morning. (beat) I know. I know, I should have. (beat) Yes, send someone over.

(RAYNA comes back carrying two bowls with spoons in them.)

Wanna sit on the couch?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA and MICHAEL sit down facing each other. They eat their soup. MICHAEL watches her.)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes?

MICHAEL

Are you angry with me?

RAYNA

For what, Michael?

MICHAEL

For what I did to you. I think I destroyed you.

RAYNA

You could never hurt anyone. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

You used to say that. All the time. It was ridiculous back then, too

RAYNA

I don’t understand. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

No, I did.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

Yes.

(RAYNA suddenly freezes and drops her spoon.)

RAYNA

Experiencing technical failure.

MICHAEL

Power down.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA slumps and then lays back on the floor. MICHAEL stares at her for a moment, and rearranges her on the couch, just like how she was when she was sleeping in scene one. He folds her hands across her chest.)

MICHAEL

I loved you, too.

(A knocking starts up off stage.)

I’m coming.

(He exits.)

END OF PLAY

 

Life and Poetry with Chase Twichell

Chase Twichell discusses life, poetry, Buddhism and more with Becky Hirsch.

[box]Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1950 and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1976. Her books of poetry include Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2010), Dog Language (2005), The Snow Watcher (1998), The Ghost of Eden (1995), Perdido (1991), The Odds (1986), and Northern Spy (1981). She lives in Keene, New York, with her husband, the novelist Russell Banks.[/box]

What writers most inspire you? What writers do you think your work is most like?

I’m most moved by writers whose expression of the truth is as straightforward as possible (as Einstein put it, “as simple as possible but no simpler.”) There’s a big difference between language that’s complex and language that’s complicated. I have increasingly little patience for complication. Human life is crazy enough as it is! For quite a few years now I’ve been reading the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets (in no particular order): Han Shan, Du Fu, Li Po, Basho, Issa, Ryokan . . . I love the way their voices feel intimate and confiding, yet could come from any century at all. That’s immortality! I’ve learned a lot from them about how much you can leave out, and how to keep the focus outside of the self and its private dramas. As for more modern and contemporary poets, I’m a huge fan of Robinson Jeffers for his ecological prescience, Elizabeth Bishop for her imaginative daring, and early Merwin, particularly The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders for lessons on how to write absolutely clearly.

No matter how much or how little autobiographical your poetry really is, your collection Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been reads like an autobiography at some points. How do you describe your work to friends or family who know the part your life that you have written about? Do you ever feel the need to explain yourself or your work to them?

Many people assume that the voice in poems is that of the actual poet. Funny how that same assumption is rarely made when it comes to novels. But poems are fictions too, and often get at their crucial truths by making things up. Lying, in other words! Although there are a few things in those poems that actually happened to me, most are either wholly or partially invented. Not in an effort to camouflage anything, but because there were better images, more direct paths to the mysteries I was exploring. Poetry is, after all, a form of exploring. We don’t write because “we have something to say” but rather to find out what it is we have to say. My mother once got quite upset about something she read in my poems. She said she’d had no idea I’d gone through X, Y, and Z. I said, But Mom, I make it all up! And she responded, O, I’m so relieved!

Have you ever written in another genre besides poetry? If not, what you imagine your fiction or dramatic writing would be like?

I tried to write stories in college. It was hopeless. My teacher said I began each one in the middle and ended it in the middle of the next story. He was completely flummoxed. My mind just doesn’t see the world as narrative, I guess.

With inspirational art teachers in your past and many years teaching experience yourself, what do you think is the role of teachers in a young person’s artistic development? What is your educational philosophy?

I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write good poems. It’s certainly possible to teach people to read, to be more sensitive to language, and to pay closer attention to their own. But the making of poems involves a weird kind of insatiable curiosity that’s very inconvenient, far too inconvenient for most people to pursue beyond the fantasy of being a poet. It’s a pretty strange thing to do, if you think about it: devoting one’s life to pondering minute distinctions between this phrasing and that. But a good teacher can speed up an apprenticeship, and streamline a young poet’s reading so that they don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. A teacher can also be an early audience, a reality check, a source of encouragement, which is hard to come by.

What was your scariest moment in writing?

My scariest moment in writing is (not was) every time I think I’ll never write another line, which is often.

Your work contains many memorable phrases – “horses where the answers should have been” and many others. In your writing process, do these phrases come first and jump start the poem or do you find them in the midst of writing the poem?

Both. Sometimes a poem begins with a rhythmic phrase, or a few words locked together for reasons still mysterious to me. Sometimes a poem is born of the sheer need to say something, though I may start with exactly zero in mind. I think everyone’s different. Most often, the right words will emerge after many false starts and wrong turns, but if I’m stubborn, they eventually make themselves known to me.

How did you meet your husband?

I was teaching in the graduate program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was about as far from my New England background as you can get and still be on the planet. I was disoriented and unhappy,  though there were many things I also loved about it. It was a great job with great people. Russell (Banks) came to town as a visiting professor, another Yankee in alien territory. So we naturally found one another. It took me the entire semester to figure out I was in love with him. We were best friends first, so it was like an old-fashioned courtship. I feel lucky to have met him that way.

Do you feel as if discovering Zen Buddhism has made any important differences in your writing?

That’s the big question! I could write a book about this (and may have to). My study of Zen has put me through the poetry meat-grinder. It has called into question just about every assumption I’ve ever had about the self, memory, and the making of art. Zen holds (this is the bouillon cube version!) that what we regard as our “self” is a fiction that we spend a lifetime building and then maintaining. The only problem is, it’s a phantom. The work of Zen is to learn to see the world (including the self) for what it really is: constant flux. If we can relax into endless change, we can let go of what we cling to in order to feel permanent. Impermanence is scary, after all! For a number of years now I’ve grappled with this alternative view of “reality” (for lack of a better word) and have fought an internal battle between believing in the truth of Buddhist insight (which seems intellectually obvious to me) and failing to be able to directly perceive it that way. The poems went through a sort of carwash during this time: only the essential, no decoration, no dust, no distracting stories! But now I find myself beginning to reassert my oldest convictions about things (which don’t contradict what Zen teaches, but put a radically different spin on it): that we are a strange and self-destructive species, that the earth was Eden, that the mind is the inventor of our reality, that we know next to nothing about our universe, and that poetry is the path I was born to walk on. When I came to consciousness, it was under my feet. Why me? Who knows? It’s just one of the things I’m stuck with, like narrow feet and a crazy love of dogs.

Miss Missouri

In this piece by Becky Hirsch, a woman returns to her hometown after her child goes missing. Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s How.

Visual art by Sarah Abrams.

Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s “How”

Begin by answering the phone, reaching into the mailbox, visiting your mother. Maybe you hear it over the radio. Watch a late-night special. Read the back of the non-fat milk carton. Outside your building, your mother will apologize repeatedly. She will cry. She will have had her long grey hair cut short. A gesture.

Four years, one month and three weeks. You left your daughter, husband, and high school sweatshirt in a dusty village – village, really – in east Missouri. Your mother tells you that you will have to go back. She’s full of bright ideas these days. Feel abandoned, frozen, terrified, frantic, and the hottest little brushes of rage. When desperate or alone, walk to the grocery store. Stare at the backs of milk cartons. Blink at her name, age, height and wide eyes or, alternatively, hurl the stupid Missing Person ad to the ground. The night manager drops your arm when he figures out you’re the kidnapped girl’s mother, or he fizzles out of the room when the police officer fills him in. Either way, they tell you that you get to go free and you spit on the parking lot floor. Four years, one month, and three goddamn weeks, but you’ll never be free.

Make attempts at finding your ex-husband. Remember: you left him not the other way around. The operator will ask you for the city and state, please. Tell him bitingly, bitterly. Add: it’s a hellhole, a fucking waste, I mean home and all, but a pit. Devotion, deep-rooted and hot, laps at your insides. Explain the lack of options, lack of exhilaration. Plan not to hang up until the call goes through, but have a text message of the number sent to your phone just in case.

And yet from time to time you will stare into the bathtub or a random tube of lipstick and bask in the life you have cultivated. You will feel nips of contentment, exultation, joy. Four years, one month, three weeks, and this is your family now. Let’s say your father is a troll. Your ex-husband is a magical turnip. Your high school classmates are spirits of the netherworld. They all still live in that primordial tar pit together.

Her name means rival. Once she leaned over you while you were flat on the floor between sit ups and kissed your forehead like she understood the gesture. She is velvet Teddy bear bow ties and creamed corn and knit hats and fly-away balloons. Once upon a time a tiny fist pounds into the carpet and you dance over to her spot on the floor, into her bright little soap bubble, “Up Mama I wan go up.”

Lie. Tell your ex-husband you work in a museum, one filled with taxidermy animals. He wants to know about health risks. He wants to be sure that you’re, you know, all right. He breathes heavily into the receiver. Lie, repeatedly. Say you never have to work night shifts, that your darling grandmamma of a boss never makes you. Darkness. Glass cases. Chrome door panels. They all still scare you. He wants to see you. He wants you, ravenously. Do you still only fly United?

Don’t put on music. Don’t wear lingerie. Take off your clothes, shyly. It’s a craft. You will lie on the bathroom floor naked, watching, your fingers beseeching bare skin of his insecurity. Hair: fool away from his face. Buttons: charm out of their hidey-holes. Chuck his shirt in the corner behind the toilet. Roll him over on your old bathroom floor barely three hours after your night flight lands, just past dawn in Hell.

Go to the front porch. His neighbors. Everyone will look at you and then go back to what they were doing. His best friend’s wife will be jostling a toddler over her shoulder as she walks past. She will introduce herself as Tammy. Try not to laugh. She will want to know if Harold is home. She will ask you, “Are you house-sitting for him?” Faintly, distantly, she’ll remember the junior prom when you stuck celery sticks and Ranch dip down her dress, and look quickly away. You’ll smile. The toddler will spittle over the back of her pink and yellow blouse: gurgly, gaping mouth and hazy eyes push up into her neck. Feel sated, to the point of excess. “Is Harry home?” she’ll ask you again. Smile. Shrug. Swat the door shut behind you.

It intoxicates you. Self-satisfaction. A slurp of tequila. When you pass women your age on the street, giggle and stare them straight in the belly button, straight in their bulbous, lactating breasts.

One day – in a movie theater or a hardware store – see your father. He is either balding or sun burnt. He still has his special belt buckle from the car show at the fair and this will seem almost spiritual . Have sex with him once and lay spread thin on the floor of your childhood bedroom, since converted into his trophy room. Or: don’t have sex with him. Hide behind the shelves of all the different sized hammers and then run for your life.

In the kitchen that weekend feel loud and relentless. Sit on the counter and tell him he’s ugly. That you bet he doesn’t know shit about cars. That you’ve come back to find him freckled and spineless. He will give you a momentary view of his hunched back, vertebrae poking through his shirt almost like fingers stretching through a balloon. He will start to shake. Rub your hand up and down his arm. Run your fingers through his hair.

When you get out of the shower, damp and smooth-skinned, conquer his chest with hard, heaping bites. Trace your big toe against his ankle. His inner-knee. His uniform is slopped over the bedpost. He will push you so hard you stumble and smack onto the floor.  Say something like: What the fuck is wrong with you? Or maybe that’ll be his line. Go back into the bathroom. Tighten every cap.

This will be the tough part: her name repeats on the radio, at least on the station your ex-husband always plays; her name, age, height. On restaurant windows you see the posters. In line at the pharmacy you get furtive looks. They form a support group for you. They touch their own children’s heads. Bang the toe of your boot on the corner of the pew on accident. A cuss shoots through your lips like a little fish. He ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, standing in front of the pastor sputtering search plans and statistics. Stare him down the next Sunday. Dare him to invite you to church.

Your ex-husband will have a sister named Susan. Or maybe an ex-girlfriend who wears socks with white lace around the rims, even though she’s like thirty or something. At visits she will touch her ponytail and repeat herself. She will tell anecdotes about your daughter’s childhood when he goes to get you two girls something to drink. And she’ll call him honey pie. He will agree with her: yes, the police should be much more involved; yes, there should be television advertisements too; no, no, they should never give up hope. She will take out her hair tie and shake a hand through her thick strands, glancing at you. He will invite her to stay for dinner and walk her to her car when she declines. He is the best honey pie in town.

Think about leaving. About standing in a damp-smelling elevator and being all drippy. Think about them: the endlessly illuminated street signs.

But it’s cold, New York, and it’s wet. And he tells you his mother cooks this unbelievable roast turkey, somehow you never got the chance, back before you left, to try it.

No, you wouldn’t leave before Christmas.

Escape into movies. When he calls and asks you what you’re doing, say “Keeping busy.” Let your eyes roll back to the screen. At around 6:40 start listening for his car and when he pulls up, switch off the TV. Head back into the bedroom. Leave the DVD in, though. If he checks, he’ll catch you doing nothing wrong at all.

He will seem to be drinking Vodka, tentatively, glancing quickly at you for approval.

At work he will spend company time in the exercise room.

He will ask you if you want to go to the fair.

He will ask you what the symbolism means.

Well?

Four years, one month, three weeks – more now. Tell him it’s complicated, what with your daughter and your job and your forwarded mail. You no longer know what you want from your life. When he brings his arms to you, open, tell him you don’t even know what you want. Don’t fucking cry. Get a little carried away. Plan to regret this moment, someday. Pace around the kitchen and tell him you are anxious, all the time afraid.

But this is your home, he will say, in a voice that rights wrongs and slays dragons, that dies off after the Middle Ages or maybe exists eternally in the bottom drawer of the pantry where you keep plastic bags for unforeseen situations that might require plastic bags, a voice that shoves the door open with its head, knocks back its visor and wails, knocks you out of mental tangent, wailing: How long has it not been enough, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t enough?

You will forget the last time you went barhopping in Hell, but pretend you do. Reminisce until your pupils shrivel up. Choke up. Say: I’m going out. And when your ex-husband catches you at the front door, add: Just out. His limp smile will palpitate like an upset stomach and you will hate him. Don’t bother to shut the door. It’s the Pig’s Squeal and it’s just how you pretend you remembered: smoky and wooden and dim like a copper penny. A bulky jukebox and a half-empty jar of straws. A man in a red tie will catch your attention and then drop it. Someone on your right will start mewling the lyrics. Swivel on your barstool until she’s finished. Spit heartily in her drink when she goes to the dance floor. Spit and liquor swirling in foamy white loops. Swirling, honey pie, like piss down the drain.

Next there are eyewitness reports. Sightings: Barton, Benton. He will pound his fist onto the kitchen countertop, phone pressed wet to his face. A gust of hot wind blows into your eyes and your nose spasms.

This is no time for miracles.

There will be police interviews, statements and co-signatures. There will be nothing for you to do. He has already posted signs everywhere conceivable: on desktops, over freeways, over other signs. Someone will call from the police station: relatives’ names, phone numbers, addresses needed. Ask where his parents live nowadays and he’ll just go grinning from ear to ear. Smile back. He will laugh at something, hours later, completely unrelated. But wheezing. Rioting. Roaring at the television screen in the next room. Bolt in and ask him what’s wrong. Roll together on the floor in front of the TV stand. Afterward, there is nothing else to be done. Afterward, he will dangle half off the rug, completely used.

Continue to pace. Despite fake New Jersey accent, feel unamused by his antics. Look at your wrinkly knuckles. If ever you would leave him. Glance at your cell phone. It wouldn’t be in spring.

There is never any news, just a telephone rocking endlessly in its cradle.

Once a week you will bring up her name in casual conversation, in public. Manage expectations. Tell the old ladies huddled around you that the police have made no promises. “We do what we can,” you tell them, never looking away from the tight, anxious circle, never quite meeting his eyes.

The thought will occur to you that you are waiting for her permission to flee.

You will pass your father on the street, or maybe back at the hardware store. Begin by calling him “Pa”. Begin by asking what he’s been up to lately and walking him back to his house. Meet his wife. She will talk in a thick, European accent. She will respect only the working man, eat very little, eat only on divinely immaculate plates. End it the second time he shouts at you to get the hell out.

There is never any news, just a telephone wailing endlessly for its mother.

Fantasize about a dead body. It is a study in exhaustion, an examination of the end of the rope. You would be comforted by his bony sister and his sobbing ex-girlfriend. The three of you in the depths of the morgue would hurl yourselves at the steel table, then surge backwards. You, especially, would kick your feet, stumble and howl, bare your wrists. Your mother would be proud

After dinners with your father: slink home. Your breasts will ache, your knees will lock. Neighbors will be rocking on their front porches, staring over you as you cringe past. You recall. Remember: nine years ago, a night like any other night in January, your mother already three hundred miles away in a scrubbed clean Chevy, your father stalking through the deserted streets, you following after like a famine. Damn it, he bellowed, god damn it, Lorraine! Lights snapped on in houses, then blinked out with swift apologizes. The two of you were the spooks haunting the streets that night. Lorraine. Mama. Lorraine. It ran cracks through the midnight stillness. Lorraine.

If you could only love one woman in your life you would choose your mother. If you were being introspective, you’d say it’s because she was gone after you were six years old, but you’re not like that. You are a runner and a bailer and a grudge-holder and a tongue-holder. You ignore him studiously, lying next to you in bed calling you baby. Calling to you. “Baby, we have to figure this out. I can’t lose you again. Baby?” You spend the nights under his heavy, stuffed quilt playing out fantasies, that your mother spent five years in Africa before settling in Queens. She called you one morning: Heard you got out too. How’d it go?

Recently she’s gone on these little pink pills that make her consider her shrink her best friend and watch movies only to pre-curse a tearful rehash of her childhood, but god dammit, if she’s not going to act like your mother than you will.

Roll over to face him, but don’t move an inch closer. Don’t tell him any of this, anything. Instead: promises. Promises out the wazoo.

Slink. It won’t matter. Your ex-husband will be pacing the living room looking fearsome. He will slap you, bite you, taste you. Kiss him, soothe him. Make love to him without batting an eyelash. Splash water on your face in the bathroom at four in the morning. Nothing will matter.

Make him breakfast. Your ex-husband will ask quietly about your work. Lie. Tell him you build model boats for tourists. Smoothed, streamlined little things. He will ask about selling, marketing rights, inflation. Lie, always. Tell him, no, oh no, you aren’t involved in any of that. You have a friend in Seattle who takes care of it. You just build them, beautiful little boats. He will not eat your French toast. He will stir it on his plate with the butt end of his fork, and then hurl it against the wall.

At night you will be anxious for the weather to warm. You will pace the front porch like you are waiting for a package, for justice, for sunrise. He will not wait up for you.

When you go out, leave him a list of groceries that need purchasing, dry cleaning that requires his attention. Wait outside. Lie beside the porch and watch the clear sky darken. You could lie there until the end of time. When he lumbers to his car, count to sixty before getting up. Go back inside. Go to stand in front of the wide kitchen windows. Stand stalk still. Watch cars and bicyclists zip past. Lie, when he comes home again. Tell him you wanted to go visit your father for once, just to see how he’d been. No one was home.

There is never any news, just the phone sucking absently on its toe.

This is how you go.

Flossing and primping in the early morning, with the bathroom door open, staring at his shape on the bed in the bedroom.

Peanuts and a 7-Up. Leaning your seat back almost into someone else’s lap.

You will never see him again. Or maybe you will, whatever. But her you’ll see daily. Her picture you put on your refrigerator, above your mantle, clamped in a locket. It becomes a conversation piece. When men come over, they ask questions. You tell them you named her Agatha, after your grandmother, after your best friend in college.

The phone will roll and roll in its cradle.

Four years, one month, three weeks, and so much more. They found her bones buried three miles outside of town. Call your mother back. The sun rises outside your window, out on the curb. The fog rolls in, but it dissipates. One of those mornings.