Monday, March 25, 2013

1/2 Dozen with Elizabeth Hughey

Oh, the gems within this Q and A with poet Elizabeth Hughey! I love this one maybe most of all,
"Do not turn off your poetry brain after you’ve walked away from your desk. Whatever you are into, use the vocabulary from your work or your hobbies or your guilty pleasures. Nothing is too pedestrian or too trashy for your writing..." 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Agnes Varda 
Harryette Mullen (everything)
Gertude Stein (always)

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

It wasn’t a lightning bolt or anything, but I will say that the earlier editions of Emily Post’s Etiquette led me to start writing the poems in Guest Host. I already owned both the 1940 and 1955 editions, and then I found the first edition – from 1922 – online. Many of the poems in Guest Host live somehow in Post’s landscape. They borrow her imagery and language or just somehow explore human behavior. At that time, coincidentally, I heard a professor lecture on xenia, the Greek term for hospitality, in which “guest” and “host” are interchangeable. The title poem grew out of that lecture.

That said, I didn’t set out to write 40 poems about manners. The poems in Guest Host are only loosely tied together, and there are many “non-etiquette” threads in the book. However, I do think that you have to cultivate your obsessions. From Emily Post, I moved onto Dorothy Draper and Edith Wharton on the decorating of houses. I am a huge fan of Wharton. I love how she portrays New York society and that she doesn’t save her heroines from their prisons.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Do not think that any part of your life is unpoetic or can’t be put into a poem. Do not turn off your poetry brain after you’ve walked away from your desk. Whatever you are into, use the vocabulary from your work or your hobbies or your guilty pleasures. Nothing is too pedestrian or too trashy for your writing. Kevin Young writes with Judge Judy on in the background. I think that’s why Ashbery is so amazing. He lets it all into the poem. 

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. I have children at home with me most of the time, and I feel like I’m always missing out. My sons are young enough that they still love to be with me. So I’m sad to be away from them to write or work. At the same time, I sometimes feel like the literary world is speeding past me -- so much to read, so many conversations to be a part of! I try to strike a balance, though. I love being a parent. I love books.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar? 

I stole Elias Canetti’sThe Human Province from my husband’s side of the bed. You can open it anywhere and find something good: “Some sentences release their poison only after years.” There are a lot of books like this that I keep nearby to open at any page and sort of get my head in a good space for writing – The Making of Americans, the collected Tennyson, lots of photography books. My husband and I both like to pile books around the house. Nearby, I’ve got a stack made up of Julie Choffel, Nicky Finney, Rubén Darío and a book about how to stop yelling at your children.

Margaret Wrinkle’s new novel, Wash, is incredible!

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing? 

There is so much amazing poetry available right now. I appreciate the small presses that are fueled mostly by an editor’s vision or love of a certain kind of voice or aesthetic. Really, I couldn’t be more impressed or energized by all that there is out there to read. However, I don’t know that the industry of poetry really works for many poets these days. Most of us, I suspect, lose money writing books of poems. The most common route for getting a book published is to write a 70-page book of poems, pay to submit the manuscript to contests and hopefully find the book a home. Then, there’s the time and money you put into promoting the book, which writers in every genre must do, I know, but for poets, there’s just not a lot of return. I don't know how poets will sustain their work or support their families in the long run in this industry. 

There is something liberating about realizing that the traditional route may not work for you. I love what Chris Janke is doing – big poetry installations where poems overlap each other or a landscape or map. I think Kenneth Goldsmith’s book, Uncreative Writing, is really wonderful, too; it’s probably a book that every writer should read right now, just to get oriented in the “textual ecosystem” of our digital age.

Elizabeth Hughey is the author of Sunday Houses the Sunday House (University of Iowa Press) and Guest Host, which was recently published by the National Poetry Review Press. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she has been the recipient of Poetry Fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Hughey is a contributing editor at Bateau Press and a founder of the Desert Island Supply Co., a creative writing program for kids in Birmingham, Alabama. New poems can be found in American Poetry Review, 27 rue de fleures, Two Serious Ladies and the White Whale Review. She lives in Birmingham with her husbands and two sons. 

Sally Ball