Welcome to the first installment of “Conversations with Contributors,” in which we, well, converse with contributors!
Our first interview with Sean Patrick Hill, Issue 9 Poetry Contributor, comes to you in two parts. In Part I, Sean Patrick Hill discusses the relationship among poetry, history, and place, along with the impact that growing up in Iroquois Country had on his creative work.
What’s to come in Part II? You’ll just have to wait and see.
Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: Your poem “History of Snow” appears in Issue 9 of Adroit. What’s the History of Sean?
Sean Patrick Hill, Issue 9 Contributor: There’s a lot to that question. I was born in New York, and grew up in Kentucky, Texas, and New Jersey before returning to New York in 4th grade. I started writing poetry in my senior year of high school—mostly naïve stuff, but writing poems was important, even lifesaving, for me.
I went to college, ending up at the University of Buffalo. At first, I thought I’d study psychology, but that proved far too much for me, so I switched to English, and anyway, I wrote poetry incessantly throughout college, reading Blake and Yeats, Williams and Stevens, all of it. I won a small award and published a few poems in student journals, which was nice. So I kept going.
After college I moved west to Oregon, where I lived in various places—Eugene, Bend, Portland—for fourteen years. I was in the AmeriCorps there for two years and went on to teach high school for a number of years. Five years ago my daughter was born and we moved to Kentucky. Here I taught for a time and went on to get my MFA from Warren Wilson College.
This makes everything seem profoundly simple, but nothing was so. It’s been a somewhat difficult life, within reason. Unexceptional, really. For a long time, I struggled to find a teaching job and came up empty. My marriage failed under the stress of it all, and this subject has been the main concern of my poetry for a year, much to my consternation. Now I’m a single dad, working as a copywriter and writing for the magazine Kentucky Monthly from time to time. Things are somewhat better, I suppose; I love my neighborhood in the North End of Louisville, and my daughter and I have a good time. We make bread, pick blueberries, jar pickles, and pot our plants. We play a lot. I have a creative daughter who paints and has even written a poem.
AS: In “History of Snow,” you incorporate elements of Native American life. What’s your relationship with Native American culture?
SPH: I do have a relationship with Native American culture, as far as someone of my station can have a relationship of that sort. I don’t presume to understand Native American culture, which is diverse and varied anyway—there is no one culture. In college, if I remember right, I began reading some Native American myths from Erdoes and Ortiz’s American Indian Myths and Legends. I was, in fact, just reading from it the other night. At the same time, I was reading the Tao te Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita. Later, Barry Lopez’s Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter was important; I love Coyote tales. Who wouldn’t?
In the mid-90’s, I met a very generous man who showed me a few medicine wheels in the hills around my hometown of Elmira, New York. This is Iroquois Country, of course, the traditional land of the Seneca tribe, “The Keepers of the Door” as they were known. This man invited me to participate in a sweat lodge, a real honor. The medicine pouch I constructed that day I still have. He taught me many things that by convention I’m not to speak about, so I’ll honor that.
A year later, when I was in Oregon, I discovered the poetry of Gary Snyder. Snyder draws on a significant amount of Native American myths, especially of the Pacific Northwest and tribes in the region of California. For the past few days, for example, I revisited Myths & Texts, truly one of the great long poems of our time, and that poem contains quite a bit of lore.
Though it’s not specific to North America, I’ve long been interested in shamanism, as well as the relationship between shamanism and poetry. William Blake, I’ve always thought, was shamanistic. He’s certainly visionary. For my part, I’ve had a number of strange experiences, but that’s another story. In Oregon, I did a number of sweat lodges, again a real honor. But I don’t want to sound presumptuous; I’m smart enough to know that what we envision as an “Indian,” largely a 19th century image, is not true today. A relationship to Native American culture is far more than making a dream catcher, or hanging one from the rearview mirror. One reads Sherman Alexie or Joy Harjo or Sherwin Bitsui and one sees another whole side of that culture.
AS: How has this influenced your work?
SPH: It’s taught me a relationship to the land I live in. To be native to a place means to know, for instance, how to forage, and I’ve loved the times I’ve gathered huckleberries, or chanterelle mushrooms, or even stinging nettles that, when boiled, “can be eaten with impunity,” as I once said in a poem. But I don’t want to imply being native is merely extractive; it’s also knowing the names of the trees and the beings of those trees, distinguishing where they live and why. The same is true of animals, birds, insects. Poems can concretize that knowledge. And that’s it, right there: the poems themselves become native to their place. I love poems that attend to the place they are from, that are “local,” as far as that goes. I learned from poems by Gary Snyder where I was in Oregon. That’s how I learned what a rhododendron tree was, or the history of logging western cedar trees.
So poetry became a vehicle for me to simply pay attention. Today, cardinals and poplars populate my poems. And I’ve learned a bit about some history of prehistoric peoples here in Kentucky, like the long-vanished Adena tribe, for example, that lived apparently in the Red River Gorge area. They used the rock shelters along the river and creeks as burial grounds. To be in the field of that history is incredibly important. I see I’m part of a current, a flow.
AS: Do you think poetry can be a catalyst for social change?
SPH: When I think of poems being catalysts for social change, I tend to promptly think of certain poets. Muriel Rukeyser, for instance. Her poem “Absalom” is a triumph of attention—and this is the secret of so-called political poems, not to be didactic—as late Frost poems became in many ways—but to simply draw one’s attention to instances of social injustice. I hope “History of Snow” accomplishes something in the same way, which is undoubtedly as ambitious as it is foolhardy, but so it goes. Kenneth Rexroth, too, had a great deal of poems about the issues of his day. And then the 20th century European poets—I’m thinking of the Polish and Spanish poets. All of them were “political” but also poetic. You know, you can’t use the poem as a grandstand, and everyone knows that. The only argument is whether it does anything, but how can it not?
If the reader, any reader, one reader is moved by the poem so that their consciousness is expanded, however minutely, then something has happened. Auden’s statement, if I am interpreting it correctly, that “poetry makes nothing happen” is not entirely true—yes, the madness and weather goes on, as he says in his elegy to Yeats, but maybe it’s also that the poem has kept the world from collapsing entirely. Maybe the poem simply maintains a balance between the forces. Our consciousness is part of the force of the universe. It’s like saying Facebook makes nothing happen, but I’d argue it does. Something has changed on the earth, if only a bit or for a moment, in the right direction. I believe that because reading Gary Snyder’s poems on ecology, or Denise Levertov’s poems on marriage, has undoubtedly changed my consciousness. It makes something happen for me.
AS: Describe the intersection between art and history.
SPH: Of course, there’s the issue that art is history. William Carlos Williams talked of this: that an artist captures his time to the degree that the future will see that the artist’s time was no different from any other time, past or future. It universalizes experience. All the joys and disappointments, the love and sorrow of the ages are present in every generation, so to capture that authentically makes the art mythic, timeless. I got that feeling strongly when I read Renaissance writing, especially Cervantes, Montaigne, and Rabelais—and Shakespeare, of course. They seem incredibly modern, all those works.
AS: “History of Snow” is a longer poem by Adroit’s standards, but you’ve been working on even longer poetic works. Tell me about that project.
SPH: For maybe twelve years or so, I’ve wanted to write about the history of the place I grew up in, the Southern Tier of New York and the Finger Lakes region. The area has such an emblematic and rich history, as well as a devastating one. Most people don’t know, I’d guess, about Sullivan’s Campaign against the Iroquois, which happened during the Revolutionary War under then-General Washington’s orders. American soldiers torched villages and burned extensively farmed fields—pumpkins, corn, beans, squash, all of it. They did this not only to punish the Iroquois for siding with the British but to make way, in the end, for settlement, and once they had done that they set about creating the world I grew up in, a society that did much to ruin that place. Industry, canals, pollution on a colossal scale. In my town alone, there are two prisons, and there’s the New Jerusalem.
Mark Twain lived in Elmira and is buried there. He wrote some of his most famous books there. I’ve visited his grave many times. A lot of people probably don’t realize he’s buried there, and at this point, sadly, it seems like most Americans don’t even know who he is at all. And that’s what I want to do in a long poem: reveal the history of one place and show how it is the history of all places American. I mean, at one point New York was the frontier, as it was in James Fennimore Cooper’s stories. Now my town is a series of broken bridges, empty buildings, and intensifying crime.
AS: How large of an undertaking do you think this will be?
SPH: I think this project will take me some time. Years, really, because that’s what it deserves. I have to do a lot of reading. Today I was reading Williams’s Paterson. I have to probe about for some models, poke around for some initiating language.
AS: What have you written for this project so far?
SPH: Just this morning, I was writing a little “shaman song,” based loosely on the two numbered shaman songs in Snyder’s Myths & Texts. I used his fragmentary style, as well as his penchant for direct, concrete imagery. I was thinking about a time when, younger, I crossed the frozen Chemung River to the mouth of a glen, tucked back in a steep hill on the far side. I climbed this cliff known locally as the “Indian Steps” and, when I turned to look back over the river and over town, saw a hawk glide by, close, so close I saw its eye rotate in its socket to look me over.
That experience has stuck with me and is, in its way, mythic. There is dimension to that, and anyway this happened about twenty years ago, yet I remember it fairly clearly. So what I’m doing is following the stream of my mind and trying to locate and unearth these little memories that seem imbued with significance and power—they’re my songs.
I understand why Williams had to write Paterson, or even why Pound worked so long at his Cantos. I think it was Mallarmé who said that, essentially, we poets each have in us one overarching song—our arc. And each poem is a fragment of that arc. What I’d like to do, what Olson, too, was attempting, is to find the entirety of the arc, or most of it at any rate, and string it together into its fullness of song.
AS: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
SPH: It may be that the best advice I ever received was from Doug Marx who told me to read what he called “wisdom literature,” which turns out to be the Classics, essentially. I used Rexroth’s Classics Revisited as a guide, as well as books Doug told me about, and got myself a good deal of what Doug called “canned knowledge,” which is, at the very least, an inventory of our literary heritage and the ideas it enshrines. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was one he strongly recommended, and he was right about that. I read the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance writers, as well as classic Chinese poetry and Indian philosophy. The project—and it’s a life project—is to build a sensibility, a philosophy of life, an understanding of what it means to live in the world. Or, as Wallace Stevens says it, “How to Live. What to Do.” In other words, it’s what informs the poem as much as how you actually write it.
But as pure writing advice, Doug helped me here, too. Every time I handed him a poem of mine, he’d read it, smile, and say without fail, “Cut it in half.”
With the worst, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. How about, “Write like you talk”? You know, when I interviewed Wendell Berry, he insisted on going over the manuscripts I transcribed, twice. His defense was that he was not very articulate when he spoke. But in his writing, he could measure his words carefully, adjust the rhythm and so on. If I wrote like I talked, half my writing would be vulgar, half with too much flourish. I specifically write in a way that goes against the ordinary way I talk so I can get above, or below, myself.
Once, when I met the poet Gregory Orr, I told him that his one piece of advice that clung to me, for whatever reason, was to not repeat a word in a poem. I’d read that in one of his essays. He laughed at that, and said, “Oh yes, Writing Rule #162,” something to that effect. He was right to laugh.
Want more from Sean Patrick Hill and Conversations with Contributors? Read Part II of our interview right here, right now.
Sean Patrick Hill is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA program, and the author of three books of poems: Hibernaculum (Slash Pine Press, 2013), Interstitial (BlazeVOX, 2011), and The Imagined Field (Paper Kite Press, 2010). He has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Kentucky Arts Council, and the Elizabeth George Foundation.