Photo Credit: Carol Shillibeer, “Bird on Industrial,” Issue 8
In the second and final section of our interview, Sean Patrick Hill tells Adroit about his manuscript Discountry, experimental writing techniques, and the importance of connecting with nature. Intruiged? So are we.
If you missed the first part of “Conversations with Contributors: Featuring Sean Patrick Hil,” what are you waiting for?
Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: You’re working on a manuscript, Discountry. What led to your choice to work with Wendell Berry’s Country of Marriage, and why did you choose that specific text?
Sean Patrick Hill, Issue 9 Contributor: First, in 2013, I interviewed Wendell Berry for the Kentucky Monthly. The conversation was about farming practices, primarily; I had read his groundbreaking book, The Unsettling of America, an important book. In the course of that interview, or else my research, I understood that Berry wrote a book called The Country of Marriage, which I assumed, incorrectly, was a book of essays on marriage.
A year later, I was in the downtown library to get some books by Robert Creeley, who I’d been reading closely then—Pieces was the book. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t see Wendell Berry’s book just lying on the shelf there, and I realized The Country of Marriage was a book of poems. At the same moment I saw it, the word Discountry came to my head, and in that moment I knew—I actually knew—what I was going to do. So really, the amazing thing is that finding the book happened, to a degree, by chance.
It may be helpful to know that, when I found the book, and it was only earlier this year, I was in the middle of a divorce. So this “Country of Marriage,” whatever it was, I wanted to know how Berry defined that. That country, for me, had proved difficult for many years. At the time of my picking that book up, I was grieving. Divorce is a long death, and it’s amazing how the mind, and the heart, struggles.
I should say that one of the reasons I was reading Creeley, too, had as much to do with his subject—some of which are love, relationships, and the inability to communicate—as his style, that terse, fragmentary style that really compresses emotion to the point it seems flammable. That Creeley-like brevity certainly came out in the poems of Discountry, as well as a kind of abstraction and dissonance I find appealing in his work.
AS: Describe the process of writing a more experimental poem for Discountry. How does this compare to your typical writing process?
SPH: Long ago, when I was at the University of Buffalo, I took a workshop with Charles Bernstein, one of the main minds behind the idea of “Language Poetry.” He had us reading stuff at the time I could barely understand or appreciate: Bob Perelman, Juliana Spahr (she was still a grad student there), Rosemarie Waldrop. He gave us a worksheet of some 50 or 100 experiments intended to generate poetry. I still have that worksheet packed away.
I essentially used one of his tactics, or something related to it, which is this: I took Berry’s book home and, without actually reading it, instead scanned each page, each poem, rapidly, allowing my eyes to fall where they may, gleaning words as one would glean leftover garlic cloves from a picked-over field. As those words accumulated, I just listened for any other phrasing I heard in my head. I wrote everything down.
I also kept in mind a kind of idea, and that was that I was, in a very real sense, arguing anything Berry had to say. My experience of marriage was different. Is different.
What my main concern was then and is now is the idea of articulation. I’m noticing now how the word “art” is contained in that. A poem is many things, or else a poem can be one of many different things: it can be a song, which is the lyric; it can be a story, a narrative; it can be compellingly abstract, something that stirs its own meaning. For me, with this series, what I was fully cognizant of was the need to articulate the devastating feelings that the end of a ten-year marriage stirred in me, or else assaulted me.
This was, as many of my poems have been, a psychological experiment as well as a poetic, linguistic one. By letting go, by letting the mind wander in the textual field, gathering ideas, phrases, and words that it felt important, beyond my “will”—whatever that is—I could see beneath the level of what I assumed to be my understanding, into a deeper, more significant knowing.
I’d say such an idea as this is also related, come to think of it, to my reading of Jack Spicer as well, who influenced me deeply—and continues to—from a number of years ago. Spicer’s idea, simply, is that the mind is filled with “furniture”: ideas, words, emotions. A force, whether you call it “creativity” or “the breath of God” or “inspiration,” flows through that room of the mind, ordering the furniture. Which is to say, we as poets don’t do the ordering, but rather this force does. It is, to my mind, the very force of life, “the green fuse that drives the flower,” what Spicer called in turn the “Martians” or “X.” He claimed that force came from outside, which he also pointed out was the equivalent of deep inside.
Williams, too, when he defined “mimesis,” said that scholars and the like had gotten that term wrong. A poem should not “imitate” life, which is to say capture a moment of life, a “spot of time” perhaps, but rather a poem should be life, be an actual force of energy that was like the force of life itself because it is that force of life.
In this sense, a poem is apocalyptic, which is what I needed then. A poem, in short, is a revelation—I wanted the poem itself to teach me, to explain what I was feeling. This means one has to learn to interpret the dream, the poem, the vision—which goes back to the shamanistic idea, see? A poet is a kind of seer, I hope. And primarily, poetry—above publication, so-called literary fame, awards and all that—is for the poet themselves. It’s an ordering, after a fashion, of experience into a kind of myth that one can hold as a “momentary stay against confusion,” I suppose. Or, as I once quoted Marvin Bell quoting James Merrill in one of my own poems, “poets choose the words they live by.”
AS: As opposed to a country, what do you think a Discountry would be like?
SPH: A Discountry is a place where people are not connected to the landscape in any meaningful way. Are we paying attention to the weather, the phases of the moon, the seasonal cycles? Right now, as I write, the full moon is setting in the west. Black walnuts are falling on my porch. Fledgling robins have largely flown from the nest. The redbuds have long-since flowered and are producing their pods. My heart is tied up in this. I understand, too, that for many people on the earth, they are not afforded the privilege of being able to attend to this kind of life because they are struggling for survival, as in Syria or East St. Louis or the slums of Brazil.
Nature grounds us in attention, and in that way it is the teacher, the shaman, the guru. Life is constantly moving, passing us by. I meditate and do yoga, and I do so to get a grip on my attention. What inevitably rears up is the fact that one becomes attentive to the increasing decay of life’s fabric. You see that people are suffering as clearly as you see that there are many who don’t see this. So I write a poem like “Discountry” or “History of Snow.”
AS: Would you classify any modern nations as discountries?
SPH: “Dis” means, essentially, “Hell.” The “City of Dis” appears in Dante’s Inferno, another influential book. It is also a Latin prefix, and a somewhat negative one, whose meaning is “apart” or “away,” and is also, grammatically, a reversal; think “disbelief” or “discontent.” Note, too, how Discountry contains the word “discount,” where one of the meanings of that word is to “disregard.” To “leave out of the account.” That’s how divorce made me feel, in the end. It is hell. I felt discounted, disregarded. The word itself is probably the best poem I could have written.
Therefore, a “discountry” can only be an antithesis, the City of Dis. I’d be hard-pressed to find a nation that is not a “discountry.” Here, again, my readings into the history of the small tribes and bands that lived in the Northeast prior to colonization—or any small tribe at all—tend to be land-based, truly of the country they are in. They name things, like Adam, and discover their uses for everything: medicine, art, and basketry. “Country” means not only landscape but the people of that landscape, both of which ideally unified. when one truly is of their country, then we’d be at peace. This is not to say living would be easy, for survival is always difficult, but we’d feel a part of it.
This is not to idealize any culture. Every village or nation contains the negative, contains death. A “country” is balanced in this way, just as an ecosystem balances birth and death, growth and decay. But a “discountry” is outright dying. Look at what’s happening to the Palestine because of this attitude of death, or sub-Saharan Africa, or inner-city America. Our neglect is killing people and causing suffering.
When I pick huckleberries, or poke among burns looking for morels, I feel I’m far more attentive than in ordinary life. Sure, I can be attentive to my job, to looking for a parking spot, but despite the exercise in attention, those things seem rather dull. I find food in the forest, and I eat. I learn the behaviors of certain animals and I can build a relationship. By understanding rabbits in my neighborhood, I can perhaps keep them out of my garden, or offer a truce.
AS: Tell me about the oddest experience you’ve had in the literary world.
SPH: One that jumps to mind was when I was reading a poem at Portland State University. I had just moved to Portland, and there was some sort of open read, a “poets against the war” reading. This was 2004. So I read “Sullivan’s Campaign,” an early draft of the kind of poem I’d talked about here. it wasn’t excessively long, but it was a poem pointedly attentive to the act of war, and so had value to me. Anyway, as I was reading it, one of the local Portland poets, an older woman, gave me this horrid water-wheeling of the hands “hurry up” gesture. I wouldn’t say I was offended, but the impulse behind that gesture seems to me incredibly arrogant. I thought, is this about “time”? I’m speaking to our history, about war. Should I hurry? Are you annoyed? Is what I’m saying unimportant? Readings are where ego, mine included, come out to rampage a bit.
AS: If you were a poem, what kind of poem would you be?
SPH: There was a time when I thought I was a lyric poem, a little song. But now I think of myself as a long poem. If I may quote him, because I’ve never forgotten this, Jake Levine of Spork Press said I was a “long poem kind of man.” I had sent Spork a number of short, terse lyrics, and they thought that the poems didn’t really get off the ground, didn’t have the room to fly. They accepted “Hibernacle” almost immediately, and said I had given myself “space and time to accumulate a just amount of meaning.” This idea of space is also very important to me lately.
In yoga, you are essentially stretching your body to make more space for the breath—the prana—to infuse your body. You’re opening yourself to more life. Well, that’s what I’m trying to do in all my life. The things happening in my life—nasty jobs, divorce, anxiety—are crowding me, and I can’t breathe. Poems are a way of creating space. I’ve often thought that someone should do a critical study of contemporary poetry and determine if there is a correlation between the busyness of a poet’s life and the writing of short lyrics.
But within me I feel this long history, webbing outward, everything interconnected. I know, for example, the history of the Hill’s in America, my direct family line at least, and how they got into upstate New York and when. They came into a land with history already, much of it bloody. And so I’ve come to understand the interconnectedness of not only myself and nature, but myself and family, culture, history. I am who I am because of Sullivan’s Campaign into what is now upstate New York as much as because of the fact one of my ancestors was a carpenter who built pilot houses on ferry boats, another a farmer, or still another a manufacturer of music boxes. I am who I am because I grew up listening to katydids in the trees at night, because I grew up by the Chemung River. I am, as we all are, the gyre Yeats speaks of. We are the center of that gyre; all of history funnels down to us, and all of future history whirls outward from us. We are conduits, and that’s karmic, as well.
I have an impulse, and one I often resist, to narrative. I resist it because, in the lyric form, narrative poetry bores me. I don’t want poems to tell a story, but rather to sing to me of feelings I have no map for, whose dimension I can neither gauge nor sound. In the long poem, I can indulge somewhat in that narrative form, and I can tell my story, drawing on all the elements of lyric poetry, as well. A long poem sings a long story. I have space in me: “I am large, I contain multitudes,” as Whitman says. We are all of us individual cosmos. A long poem is an intense meditation—one is on spiritual retreat, and in it for the long haul. A long poem is not “a spot of time” because sometimes that spot is not enough. Those wonderfully rich moments where something is revealed doesn’t always reveal the whole truth of life in all its complexity. Truth deserves exploration. As Jake said of “Hibernacle,” itself a longish poem, the long length “allows the reader to permeate your poem, your language.” It allows me, as the poet, to do the same.
Or maybe it’s just that I like to talk, or always wanted to write a novel but probably never will. Who knows. It may simply be that I want some order, or else have an impulse toward ordering, a “maker’s rage to order words of the sea,” to quote Stevens again. Well, I’m raging now. To close this thought, I’ll simply quote a wonderfully terse meme (do the opposite of what I just talked about, that is): “Don’t die with your music still in you.” I don’t want to do that. This song, in all its complexity, wants out. I’ll take my time.
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.