Friday, November 12, 2010

An Interview with John Hayes, Author of The Spring Ghazals

T.T. - You’re playing with the ghazal form here, adapting it, rather than adhering to its fairly strict traditional rules. What attracted you to it? Formal considerations? Thematic resonances?

J.H. - I suppose the only claim the poems in the “Spring Ghazals” section have to being ghazals at all—other than the fact they’re written in couplets—would be along the lines of thematic resonances. According to the definition of the form, ghazals (in addition to their strict formal construction) treat “melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions,” & in that sense, the poems certainly fit the definition.

Adrienne Rich wrote two ghazal sequences in the 1960s & 1970s: “Homage to Ghalib” & “The Blue Ghazals.” These poems, & especially “The Blue Ghazals” sequence, were an inspiration. In my reading, Rich is able to move fluidly thru time & space in her ghazals, & this appealed to me a great deal, as it has so much to do with the book’s central themes.

In formal terms, there seems a lot of potential for “space” in a poem composed of couplets. In a way, a couplet may seem more of a distinct unit than a longer stanza—the difference between a pithy quote & a paragraph. So in that sense, there seems to be more potential disjuncture & movement, both of which were important formal considerations.

T.T. - The landscape is everywhere in these poems, as is the wildlife. It pushes its way into the imagery of the pieces and also into the voice. Would you comment on the omnipresence of the natural world in your work? Is it as important in your non-writing life?

J.H. - W.D. Snodgrass has a line in his poem “Heart’s Needle” that states, “We need the landscape to repeat us.” This has always been true in my poetry. When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, I wrote a good deal of formal poetry in the midst of the formal gardens & brick walkways & trim dogwoods—& the landscape invoked in those poems was very much that of my surroundings. In San Francisco, my poems became distinctly urban—filled with cityscapes & on the whole quite gritty. Now I live in a rural location with almost shockingly picturesque scenery. The natural world is all around us in a sense that was not true in Charlottesville or San Francisco. In addition, my wife Eberle is a talented gardener, & so there’s a profusion of flowers on our property in the spring thru early autumn.

I love flowers & I love songbirds; we enjoy a diversity of birds in our location & I’m always fascinated to observe them. Temperamentally, however, I think I’m much more a town or city dweller than a country person. I’m always fascinated by juxtapositions, & I like to place the natural world alongside man-made objects—I think this is most evident in the “Helix Poems” section of the book.

T.T. - In my review I claim The Spring Ghazals is riff driven. The language and feel of music moves the verse in obvious and not so obvious ways. How would you describe the overlap between music and poetry in your work? What effect does one form have on the other?

J.H. - The “riff driven” comment is perceptive. There are of course the obvious references to musical instruments, to certain musical chords & tones. But I look at poetry as a highly improvisational art, & in that sense I often feel as tho I start with a theme & explore its permutations thru riffing. I’m also incredibly drawn to repetition both in my own work & in the work of other poets, especially when the repetition morphs into different shapes throughout the poem.

I do believe I have a good “ear” for verse—a good sense of verbal rhythm, which is connected to music. & I like verse that “sings” in some way—“verbal music” as it were. When I first read Robert Creeley as an undergraduate, I followed the path from his highly lyrical poems (in many senses of the word “lyrical,” including of course the idea of “song lyrics”) to Thomas Campion. Perhaps this was a logical conclusion for a child of the 1960s & 70s who listened to a lot of popular music at a time when all songwriters seemed to be Romantic poets. I also remember being quite taken by Pound’s writings on poetry & music when I was in graduate school, tho I now believe that Pound’s spin on how poetry is inextricably linked with music is ultimately just more of his reactionary politics couched in some otherwise interesting ideas.

Meanwhile, there has been talk of literally setting at least some of the poems in the book to music, & I’m open to that idea. Eberle is a talented composer & musical improviser & I’m pretty adept at the guitar. Eberle has a harmonium that I think might provide a wonderful background for some of the material, & of course a bass or bass guitar can always be interesting behind a voice.

T.T. - Some of your work, or perhaps most of your work to a greater or lesser extent, presents itself as an onslaught of sensory information, often an almost involuntary seeming synaesthetic tumble of information. “The past didn’t go anywhere’ is a good example. Sound triggers colour, triggers smell, triggers memory. You don’t necessarily mention all of this specifically, it’s as if the piling on of colour and sound make a brain connection that automatically evokes the smell, of grapefruit, of oranges, of iris or lilac, or dusty road, or horse manure. And often taste gets involved, as in the Kitchen poems in this collection, to mouthwatering effect. Would you comment on this tendency? Do you experience the world in this heightened way? You couldn’t possibly. You’d go a little mad. So what’s behind the device, if I can use do calculated a word?

J.H. - Yes, my poetry, for better or worse, does have its “onslaught” aspect! I believe some of this comes from formal considerations—I don’t like the way most punctuation looks in my poetry; I’ve long been obsessed with Charles Simic’s lines from his poem “errata”: “Remove all periods/They are scars made by words.” So there’s a breathless quality & a sense of fluidity—I hope! One has to sacrifice a bit to write with minimal punctuation, but at this point it’s the way my mind works when I’m in a poetic mode.

So, yes, if you have these very fluid & rarely ever end-stopped lines & you rely a great deal on sensory data (as opposed to abstract concept or pure language) to construct a poem, that sensory data may seem overwhelming. I also think this point goes back to the idea of poetic writing as improvisation; I try to start at a point & develop the idea in different directions.

As far as experiencing the world in this heightened way—no, in my day-to-day life I don’t. When I wrote poetry more frequently than I do now, there was perhaps one segment of my mind that did on an almost constant basis, but it was never as if my whole consciousness was processing sensory data this way. Another thing I believe is that when I do write poetry, in the actual time of composition, I am in a heightened or “distracted” state & there is some sort of tug between the internal & external “worlds.” As I look over the poem “the past didn’t go anywhere” that’s the tension I see—the tension between memory & the sounds & colors I’d absorbed thru observation (both active & passive) in the time around when I wrote the poem.

Your observation about going a “little mad” may explain why I don’t write poetry on any sort of regular schedule!

T.T. - “In every heart there should be one grief that is like a well in the desert.” Would you speak to the issue of poetry as a way, for both reader and writer, to deal with emotion? Poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, or as a spur, as the Wharton quote suggests, to writing. A kind of muse.

J.H. - I write from inspiration, it’s true. It’s not a fact I’m “proud of”—I can see that it might be much more effective to write in a workman-like, craftsman-like fashion. But the fact is, I’ve been writing in this way for a number of years & I’m now in my 50s; I don’t foresee this changing.

& I do believe in “the muse,” tho I also see that this belief has often been damaging to my life & relationships. When I say “believe,” I don’t say this in any apostolic way—I’m not like Robert Graves trying to convince everyone that “muse poetry” is the only “true poetry.” I think I mean it more in the sense of “accept the fact.”

At any rate, The Spring Ghazals as a series of poems written over time deal with sorrow, & they were written in a time of emotional turmoil, with sorrow being a major component. But I worry about sorrow as a muse because I do think Plato was onto something with his notion that poetry waters the passions. At a certain point, does sorrow—or whatever powerful emotion you’re dealing with in poetry—become an end in itself, necessary to keep composing? At what point is the poetry a release from this emotion? & do we sometimes artistically try to create an endpoint, an artificial moment in which the creation says, now there’s resolution? I mean, the prose poem “Grace #4” that ends the collection—& which was the final poem written—does that spell an end to sorrow? No. The sorrow continues. That’s the truth of Wharton’s quote. Such a sorrow is a well that can’t be drunk dry.

T.T. - If I remember correctly, you did a degree in creative writing at UVA. I can’t find my source for that, but I’ll proceed on the assumption that it’s true. What did a formal education in writing do for you as a poet, and for your work? Any downsides?

J.H. - Yes, I attended the University of Virginia in 1984 thru 1986, & received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry writing. I studied with Charles Wright & Greg Orr, & while I don’t feel a great affinity for their work, I respect both men as poets, & found them helpful & congenial. I certainly feel as tho I learned from them, tho whatever lessons I absorbed have been absorbed thoroughly enough at this point that I’d be hard pressed to articulate them. Perhaps what was most important to me was the MFA setting outside the actual classes & workshops—I actually have mixed feelings about the whole “workshop” process, truth be told. But I met some remarkably talented peers during my time in Charlottesville—perhaps a half dozen or more—whose work & whose relationship to poetry was inspiring & formative. I still maintain a few of those friendships, & wish I maintained them all—in fact, I’m married to one of those people! I also believe that my work inspired them some too.

So the overall artistic climate was nourishing, but the lion’s share of that took place in diners & restaurants & bars & peoples’ apartments. As far as the MFA itself, I see it (& came to see it at the time as well) as ultimately conservative & fostering a certain sameness of voice & perspective. The MFA is of course, the de facto college creative writing teaching credential, & with so few real professorships available, there’s a drive to write what will be published in the right journals & what will win the right prizes. I found myself incapable of doing that, & as a result, wasn’t cut-out for the academic career I’d expected when I decided to purse an MFA. I don’t have any real regrets on that front, tho I believe my poetry, however idiosyncratic, is actually quite good & deserves a readership; & I realize more & more that I sacrificed some opportunities by following the path I did.

T.T. - Influences? Favourite poets?

J.H. - Many & varied: I love Apollinaire, & I continue to work on translating Alcools, which I hope to publish at some point. Ted Berrigan & Frank O’Hara are both big influences—Berrigan for his emotional directness & his amazing sense of movement in lines & O’Hara for his humor & vividness. I love Mina Loy’s poetry—I believe Love Song to Johannes is one of the great 20th century poems. Kenneth Patchen also has been a inspiration to me—I love the fact that Patchen was his own man, & I love the way he wrote. He, of course, also was interested in poetry & music—after all, he performed with Charles Mingus! Among the Modernists (besides Loy, who is somewhat of a special case), I like Stevens, especially when he’s having fun & not so much when he’s being sententious; & I actually do like Frost’s poetry! As far as more recent poets go, I’d probably mention Robert Creeley as well. & I certainly have been influenced by songwriter/poets like Patti Smith, Tom Waits & of course Bob Dylan. But I also believe music (apart from song lyrics) & film have been formative & influential on the way I write.

The Spring Ghazals is available at Lulu.


  1. Thanks so much for this interview--it was a delight to respond to your questions. I really appreciate the effort you've made to make this happen.

  2. Very nice at last to get a sense of John (Jack) Hayes. He takes great pains to spotlight everyone else and we never get to see what makes HIS poetry tick. This has been an absorbing and fascinating interview and although I don't fancy myself in the same league as John, I share many of his ideals and I too, write from inspiration.
    I think HE is a contemporary poet who deserves to be read by many.
    Thank you for this.

    Kat Mortensen

  3. Interesting, insightful intereview.