Poet Sean Patrick Hill Invites Us Into His Introspection

Freelance writer, teacher at Indiana University Southeast, father and poet Sean Patrick Hill will take some time out of his busy schedule to share work from his collections of poetry Interstitial (BlazeVOX, 2011) and The Imagined Field (Paper Kite Press, 2010) as well as some forthcoming work at Speak Social Oct. 19th, 7pm (@ Java Bardstown, 1707 Bardstown Rd. Lou, KY 40205) with fellow poet Lynnell Edwards. Keep Louisville Literary sat down with Hill to discuss his poetic:

Keep Louisville Literary:    Highways surface as a recurring theme in your work, often juxtaposed with flight. Either could be said to hold connotations of freedom, or the transformation of journeys. What significance do these two forms of travel hold for you/why are they prevalent in your poems?

Sean Patrick Hill:    When I was young, it might have been true that “highways” represented freedom, but I don’t think they do anymore. To me, highways, interstates, roads in general are oppressive. Looking back over “White River Junction,” which is the long poem that ends The Imagined Field, I can see that it’s not about freedom, though it is about searching. In the case of that poem, which I wrote while driving around Vermont, it’s about looking for a job—with all the attendant philosophy the poem contains, of course: What do I do with this life? How does one live in the midst of such disparities?

The highway motif in my newer poems is equally negative. For example, the poem “Rimbaud at 40” doesn’t discuss highways at length, but it was written entirely while driving the long run to my teaching job in Elizabethtown, a two-hour commute. It’s a nasty rant I’m quite fond of. Whereas “Tannin” clearly identifies the highway with images of death, and in “Utah” the highway is equally ominous, a kind of failed searching. “Crossing Idaho,” another favorite, imagines a highway through the void itself.

I guess poems like this come from a lifetime of driving. Maybe it’s just disappointment: when I was young, I had the freedom to go, and so the “traveling” in my life was exciting, new and fresh. Now I just drive to work, to the store, and so on. But as a poet, that’s what I’m interested in now: the inability to escape the drudgery. I drive all the time but get nowhere, it seems.

KLL:   In some of your poems, such as “Tannin”, the effect of time on your own life becomes the untamed mystery of other natural forces through one or more extended metaphors. Tell us a bit about your process when writing these meditative poems.

SH:    “Tannin” was written in the fall of 2010 while under the influence of Jack Spicer, who I had only just begun to read. Spicer opened up in me a certain freedom, of language for one thing. In his lectures, he talks avidly about a poem being a “dictation,” something I’d always believed anyhow, only now I can borrow some of his terminology. I have a bad tendency to get stilted in writing, to try too hard, especially when it comes to the “lyric poem.” It’s a real nightmare. Still, as a former teacher told our class, 99% of what we write is shit. But we keep writing for that 1%.

I had also been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves. She’s the master of interior monologue, far more so to me than, say, James Joyce. Her style resonates in me. She has a sensitivity not only to language, but also to the depths of our emotional life. What she gifted me was a way to understand my own interior landscapes and to get them in words, in sentences really. I read recently, in an essay by Isaiah Berlin, that Virginia Woolf adamantly believed that “History” lies not in the doings of great historical figures but in the emotional life of ordinary people. That’s wonderful.

So to put these two influences together—and of course there were countless other influences at play—allowed me to just trust myself and let go. Now it didn’t hurt that, for a time, I was getting up very early, before the baby was awake, in order to write. Sometimes I’d be fresh from a dream, but in most cases I was just more open, and the internal critic wasn’t yet awake.  So with “Tannin,” and other poems, I just started writing, and the poem became a kind of happening. I looked out the window, saw the geese, and off I went.

Spicer believes the poem comes from outside, that it’s a message meant for us, the poets. The message comes filtered through a sort of cloud of language. The poem comes spontaneously, without our interference. To interfere with the transmission, to impose form or structure or idea or sensibility, is to kill the poem. He was against revision, though I know he revised to some extent. “Tannin” was a spontaneous gesture, not a constricted poem. It was received. It was also a gift. When I asked poet Kyle Thompson what he thought the secret was to getting a poem down, he just said it was intuitive, and he literally decreed it a Jedi mind thing. I went with that, and “Tannin” is hardly revised at all.

So I like what Szymborska said about poetry in her Nobel address; in regards to what poetry is, she simply said “I don’t know.” But you have to trust this “I don’t know,” what the French call the je ne sais quoi. Heidegger talks about poetry as a form of “unveiling,” a getting at the essence of a thing—how it happens is a mystery.

KLL:    Some of your presumably recent poems teem with images of wilderness. Can you tell us what draws your mind to memories of the American West, and alternatively, to the Kentucky wilderness?

SH:    A lot of my poems deal with the wilderness, and have for a long time. That comes from fourteen years of reading Gary Snyder and living in Oregon. It also comes from my inordinate love of American Transcendentalism—Emerson, Thoreau, all that.

At first I just wrote a lot of landscape poems. This interested me because, living in Oregon but having grown up in New York, I had no idea where I was. Different birds, different trees, different landscape, and hence a different culture that grew up out of that. I had to find a way for that culture to grow up in me, so I used my poetry to achieve that. The American West is a landscape that fits me, and Kentucky has never really achieved that passion for me. I don’t know why, though certainly it’s the fact of a flat Ohio Valley far away from any meaningful mountains. I’m used to living with peaks of at least 10,000 feet in view of my town, if not from my apartment window.

It’s challenging for me to write about Kentucky. Maybe it’s because my life has been difficult here, which takes me back to that highway motif. In Kentucky I write a lot more about urban landscapes, or even suburban. My poems contain garbage cans, rats, weeds, and especially clouds—I’m fascinated by the geography of clouds. Probably, I just want to escape into them. The struggle here has been one of trying to identify with this place. You know, I’ve only lived here three years. I was in Oregon nearly a decade-and-a-half.

So what I’ve been doing recently is working on two long poems. One I call “The Oregon Poem.” That poem is a way for me to cement that part of myself, maybe construct an interior world I can find comfort in. Maybe I just like to think about Oregon, but I suspect it’s more a case of me exploring the part of my identity that I associate with that place. Because I’m a romantic by nature, and I mean this in the sense of German and English romanticism, not to mention my long apprenticeship in American nature writing, I identify with the landscape I live in, or at least feel I belong to.

So to feel more at home, or to understand where I am, I also began writing “The Kentucky Poem.” It’s kind of thrilling, really. I find the poems are coming out spookier.

KLL:    In contrast, your works in Exquisite Corpse, Spork, and DIAGRAM seem more personal, the “I” often seeming to refer to yourself as opposed to any character. These poems are spiritual, perhaps existential and sometimes border on the metaphysical.  Tell us a bit about when and why you focus on philosophical problems.

SH:    Really, I am highly suspect of “spirituality” anymore, and I certainly do not trust the “metaphysical.” Now I loved all that when I was young, reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead and things of that nature, but I find that my more mature work has been concerned with trying to undermine those beliefs. To me, spirituality is like reading your horoscope. I don’t want to write poems like that.

The “I,” too, I’m learning to trust less and less. A lot of that comes of reading general readership books on neuroscience, which I find fascinating, and to which I can connect a lot of philosophy I’ve found meaningful, especially Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius.

Eliot talks about the “extinction of personality,” and I’m coming to understand that. To write a poem like “Tannin,” I have to let go of myself, the self that wants to control things, the self that wants answers. The metaphysical might creep in, but I’m trying to kick that habit cold. Still, some of the main things I have to work with as a poet is simply my own subjectivity and experience. I’m unfortunately self-absorbed and vain, too. So I try to subvert that by not being “confessional” anymore. Not being “self-expressive.”

Stream of consciousness is something I’ve found liberating, and that is a way to escape the personality, but of course even Jack Spicer would say that you can’t escape it totally. You have a mind, and that mind has what he called “furniture” for the creative force to arrange into art. His prescription is to read and read and read, and I certainly do that. You can write lots of poems free flowing off the top of your head but, to me, if there’s no concern, the poem becomes nonsensical, or threatens to. I think Stein’s Tender Buttons drives a lot of people nuts. It sounds great—though not as great as Stanzas in Meditation—but as an early review pointed out, there’s no deep ideas informing it. That’s not entirely true, of course, in that Stein was intensely interested in the power of language, but it does get old after a while.  I understand some people love that, but to paraphrase Sam Hamill, poetry is a mansion with many rooms, but I don’t feel the need to inhabit them all.

I read a lot of philosophy, and I want to absorb that so that my poems contain ideas, and big ones I hope. I struggle with what has come to be called “the history of ideas.” You should, as a poet, have a philosophical grounding. I think it was Stevens said that poetry is the philosopher’s art. Look at Gary Snyder: even when he’s being simple, his poems are weighted with the great concerns of humanity: family, justice, history, ecology, and so on. It’s not the meaning of life that interests me anymore, but HOW to live. I’m no longer concerned with metaphysical junk. Once you absorb the philosophy, you can write in a stream; your philosophical sense comes out in the poem—at least, that’s the furniture in my attic.

KLL:    These loftier poems also make reference to European and western histories and cultures, relating a distant past to immediate/eternal images of nature. Could you elaborate on your poetic intentions regarding these allusions?

SH:    Snyder, Eliot, and Pound all collage history to some degree. To me, Snyder does it best, or at least in a way that speaks to me: he links Chinese poetry, European history, and mythology to show that life is always life, that no matter the time, we are all humans with the same emotions, the same ambitions, capable of making the same mistakes. Which we do. This is what Nietzsche means by the “eternal recurrence.” It’s just the same shit over and over, regardless of empire or epoch. Nature is, I hope, always the eternal stage. Maybe that’s not ultimately true, for we know nature is mutable, but it has a solidity, too. It’s even dependable to a degree.

There is, too, the idea that your consciousness is a collage anyway, a patchwork; our understanding of the universe is necessarily a patchwork. We can’t grasp it all, but we can piece it together into some sort of meaning, something to keep us warm, the candle in the dark. If I make allusions to history I’m surely echoing the Modernists, and those allusions are there to show that there are constants in our human condition.

KLL:    In poems like “When This Freight Train Burns”, the reader is invited to glimpse the certainties of mortal existence between lines which contradict the certainties of nature. Do you feel that what is unstated, each reader’s own mortal fears and existential dilemmas, is evoked by your work? Or do you feel that this implied gravitas is focused on the images and immediate meanings?

SH:    I’m really just looking at my own existential condition. I’d like to think that there are similarities in our dilemmas, and there are, but I also doubt that. It’s a struggle to come to any convincing stand here. On the one hand, I contradict myself by saying I think we’re all human, and thus we have the same emotions, fears, etc. but we still have our own private experience. It’s taken me forty years to realize what Keats’ negative capability is about. There is no secret to life, much as it pains me to say. You have to hold the opposing nature of the world in mind, and in heart, without going insane—this is the bottom line of Keats’ philosophy of life, or maybe just his vision of Shakespeare’s genius. You can’t change the world. You can hardly change yourself! The new science says we’re hardwired, that we are destined for the life we lead not through karma, though there’s that, too, but simply through the notion of determinism.

So what does that have to do with my poetry? Well, that’s my “furniture.” These are the ideas that my own creative mind has to work with. You can only accept life for what it is. I’m trying to find personal wisdom, trying to “know thyself” and know that it’s impossible to do so. There’s the two opposing forces one must reconcile, and to me, the purpose of poetry, at least mine, is to seek that reconciliation, and at least to offer it to myself, if not a reader, to achieve a balance.

Additional biographic info from Sean’s blog: “Sean Patrick Hill is a recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. A freelance writer, poet, teacher and father living in Louisville, Kentucky, he is also a graduate student in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, studying poetry.”

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