All of us at Lost & Found are deeply saddened by the loss of the brilliant poet, fiction writer, performer, teacher, and visual artist, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who we were privileged to have worked with and published, and whose life and work remain a deep source of inspiration to us.

In tribute to the legacy of Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lost & Found editor Iris Cushing, who edited Hawkins’ The Sounding Word, transcriptions of two lectures at Naropa University, and visited and interviewed Hawkins in 2015, offers her reflections from her time and work with Hawkins:

“When I received the news of Bobbie Louise Hawkins’ recent passing, I instantly heard in my mind her voice asking me a question: “what is stronger than reality?” Bobbie’s investment in the real, in capturing the true cadences and rhythms of real life in her writing, gave her a power unlike anything else I’ve encountered. Recalling the profound power of Bobbie’s intimacy with reality didn’t exactly soothe my sorrow at her loss, but it did remind me that the pain of losing someone is part of reality—and as such, can be investigated, inquired into, known through language.

In my time meeting with Bobbie in the fall of 2015, I was also struck by how crucial the process of invention was to her. She spoke of intellectuals inventing their own lives, of inventing various aesthetic practices for herself, of inventing ways of directly transmitting voice and personhood onto the page. Her capacity for the real was matched in her capacity for invention. When I think of Bobbie, I think of the remarkable balance of inventive power and straightforward realness that emerged in her novels, stories, and personhood. It was an absolute joy to get to know her as I did, and witness this balance unfolding firsthand, in Bobbie’s singularly simple, elegant way.”

     – Iris Cushing, Lost & Found editor

Bobbie Louise Hawkins as a disc jockey at an Albuquerque radio station in the 1950s. Image from the Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

We deeply mourn the loss of Bobbie Louise Hawkins, but have solace in her writing, which reflects her deep love of language and the world, and to echo Anne Waldman, “Hawkins leaves a legacy of written work to be explored, performed and appreciated by a wide audience.” 

Below is the transcription of the interview with Bobbie Louise Hawkins and Iris Cushing from October 31st, 2015 which took place in Bolder, Colorado. You can also listen to the audio recordings of Hawkins' lectures at Naropa University which are transcribed in The Sounding Word, here:

Audio of Bobbie Louise Hawkins teaching at Naropa University in July 1989


Audio of Bobbie Louise Hawkins teaching at Naropa University in August 2005


 


Interview with Bobbie Louise Hawkins & Iris Cushing

October 31, 2015. Boulder, Colorado

   

I. “We write for us”: On Influential Writers and Life Experiences

 

Iris Cushing: How did you encounter Colette?

 

Bobbie Louise Hawkins: I don’t remember. At one point, her name was quite common, and I probably started reading her then. I imagine around the time the film came out, Gigi, and those things, that I came across her. But I actually did my most reading of her when I was teaching at Naropa, I suddenly started reading her there.

 

IC: I was thinking about that point you cite where she was playing the title role in a play adaptation of [her novel] The Vagabond, and she was the protagonist, right? The play is about her. So she was playing the title role in a play about herself that she had written. I thought that was so brilliant, the opportunity to tour around the world playing yourself.

 

BLH: If you look up all of her different plays, most of the plays she wrote were plays like, for instance, Chéri, an older woman having an affair with a younger man, that was her. All of them were her. She was very self-centered.

 

IC: There’s a big taboo against women writers writing about themselves.

 

BLH: Well, to hell with it. These taboos, if you let yourself be thrown around by them, then that becomes the definition of who you are. And if you mean to be yourself, it’s hard enough to be yourself without also being yourself carrying the multitude with you. And frankly, nobody gives a damn, you know? They really don’t. And we keep having the feeling that people ... women are really beset by the feeling that people watch us… It’s almost like, what really worked for rich people was the class system, because if you were upper class, you got a good education and it was taken for granted that you had qualities of intelligence that are the kinds of qualities of intelligence that belonged to having had a good education. Whereas if you’re poor, you’re just a dummy, and you’re lunking around… And that worked very well. In America, even though we have different classes, it’s not the same. We don’t have decades and decades of a system of class strata. And in America, if you can get on with it, you can create a niche for yourself. I mean, I can’t imagine how I managed to get to the places I got to.

 

IC: But you got there.

 

BLH: And how I managed to get educated in some sense, you know. But my education was very personal. I mean for instance, when I was in Japan I went to a Jesuit university, but I went to this Jesuit university in order to be in a room where everybody spoke English and where we were talking about literature.

 

IC: When were you in Japan?

 

BLH: Oh lord. About 1951-52-53. I had one daughter. My second daughter was born in Japan. And my husband at that time was with the United Nations. He was with UNKRA, the United Nations Korean Rehabilitation.[1] I was living in Tokyo, and had two children, and then decided I was leaving, and came back to the States, came from a household with a cook and house cleaner and baby nana, came back to the States, and paid my mother $150 a month to live in her garage, and got myself a job midnight to six disc jockey.

 

IC: The image that captivates me the most is the one of you at the radio station, this one. [holds up photo in Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins  of Bobbie at the Albuquerque radio station in the 1950s].

 

BLH: Oh, that one.

 

IC: It’s almost like a mythological, this beautiful young woman who’s a disc jockey in the middle of the night in Albuquerque…you can’t make that kind of situation up, and yet that was your life, your actual lived experience. But in The Sanguine Breast of Margaret, it’s portrayed as a kind of boring radio station where you have to just play whatever music they set out for you to play…

 

BLH: Yeah, they put out a whole shelf of tapes—well, records—and every tenth one would be one of the top ten, you know, and I would just play them and announce them. And then every hour and half hour, I would take the news off the ticker tape and read the news.

 

IC: And you were leaving a privileged life behind to go do that.

 

BLH: Well, briefly, you know, I mean, when we’d lived two and a half years in British Honduras[2] I’d had a staff, and moving to Japan, I had a staff, and then I decided I didn’t want to be married to this man anymore, and I came back to the states, and then shortly after that I met Creeley.

 

IC: I was raised by a single mother, and so I feel like I’m very aware of the judgments that single mothers face. What was it like being a single mother in New Mexico in the 1950s?

 

BLH: Well, it was sort of easy because I had two children, and I wanted a nighttime job because I wanted to go to university during the day. And my mother was right there, so that the two kids were schlepped back and forth between the two of us, and we were actually living in the house, but then I moved into the garage… One of the things that happens when you grow up without any money is that you learn to cope. And coping very often is not that much more than accepting what’s going on. So that’s what I was doing.

 

BLH: Let me show you this great picture. [brings framed photograph of Colette to the table]

 

Iris: Is this her?

 

BLH: Yeah.

 

IC: When is this?

 

BLH: She’s on stage. She supported herself in music hall and onstage a lot.

 

IC: In Paris?

 

BLH: Wherever she went. She toured.

 

IC: She looks like—I mean she looks completely like herself, but she also reminds me of someone like Pola Negri or Nazimova,[3]

 

BLH: Yeah, that kind of sense of personal drama.

 

IC: Which was so singular to that early, early era of cinema, but also of theatre.

 

BC: Yeah.

 

IC: So you have this picture out, you look at it every day.

 

BLH: I have it stuck over there, yeah. But it was like, when I went looking, I suddenly registered I have all my Colette books, I have all my—have you ever read Michael Ondaatje?

 

IC: Yes!

 

BLH: I love Michael Ondaatje. So, I have all my Michael Ondaatje…

 

IC: Do you perceive a connection between Colette and Michael Ondaatje?

 

BLh: They’re both narrators. And they’re both unembarrassed. It seems to me, one of the big things that has to happen with someone going into the public domain—which is what you do, to some extent, when you write—you don’t really write “for” people. That’s what “people” think! People think writers write for them! [laughs] And the fact is, we write for us. And we’re people! [laughs] So, it stands to reason that there are going to be some of them like us that want to see what it is that we’re working on.

 

IC: I’m very interested to talk to you about a writer leaving home. Leaving their home of origin and going out into the world, which involves having a public life. There was something you said about, when you go out into the world and you leave home, instead of having pretensions, you have aspirations. What is that aspiration?

 

BLH: All of my mother’s people were farmers in Texas. And all of them…their major, big-scale thing was God and the Baptist church. Not mine. So then, the thing was, if you decide—I mean, you know, when I was 12 or 13, I decided I was some kind of artist… I wasn’t sure what kind of artist, but I was an artist. Part of it was reading D.H. Lawrence. I got it from books. And it was like, the big thing that you then have in households and neighborhoods where people have not gone to college, have not particularly paid attention to the arts or such—what you’re doing feels pretentious. It just seems pretentious. And as long as I was in that company, if anything surfaced, it seemed to be pretentious. So, getting out of that company and getting into the world meant that your desires became aspirations. You aspired, and you aspired even if you’re stupid. It isn’t like your aspirations prove that you’re something special. They just mean that you’re en route.

 

IC: That strikes me as importantly different from having ambitions.

 

BLH: Having ambition feels more to me like an educated attitude. I mean an ambition means you can actually be trained for it. Stuff like that. One of the interesting things I think about art, is if you have no money, you can still do it. And I had no money… my family had no money.

 

IC: Do you think there’s something particular about writing, that it requires very little money or any kind of special equipment?

 

BLH: Well, actually, what I started with was, I believed myself to be a painter. And I still do pieces, but they’re like that [points to a nearby artwork]. They’re like, collages. It’s all glue and paper.

 

IC: Oh, wow…[Bobbie gets out other visual pieces to show]. Geez Louise! Geez, Bobbie Louise! Are you painting on them too, or is it just the paper?

 

BLH: Some of them I paint on after.

 

IC: And this was what you trained to do?

 

BLH: No, I invented this. Originally, I was going to be a painter. I went for six weeks to the University of New Mexico, met my first husband, who was a Danish architect in charge of an English firm’s West African office in Lagos [Nigeria]. We met when he poked his nose into the studio where I was cleaning brushes, and he was looking for the office. What he had done was he had been given six months leave, and so he had come to the States on it, bought a used car, and was going to travel around through all the states. And then when he was in California and decided it was time to head back, they told him a good place to sell his car would be Albuquerque. Now, as he was driving around, he was picking up additional money by making scale models for architects’ offices. Plus giving lectures on African art. So then he shows up in the studio, and he says, “There’s nobody in the office.” And I said, “Well, they’ve probably gone to lunch.” So he invited me to lunch. Now at that particular moment, I had borrowed money from a loan company to pay the first half of my tuition. The second half of my tuition was coming up, and I had no money. So him inviting me to eat meant I got to eat. So we went across the street to a restaurant and ate, and then he invited me out to a place where he was going that evening, to someone’s house, and we went there. And then the next day he invited me to lunch, and he proposed.

 

IC: The next day? [laughter]

 

BLH: And I said no. You know, at that moment in time, what a woman was supposed to do was make the best marriage she could make. Well I mean this was a marriage far above my standing, you know… But one of the things he said was, “I think it’s very important for you to get out of Albuquerque.” And that was bound to catch my interest. Because I knew that was the case, but I had no resource of any kind.

 

IC: So you had gone from Texas to Albuquerque?

 

BLH: When I was 12. We were on our way to California, my mother and father and I, and we stopped in Albuquerque. My aunt and uncle lived there. And ended up staying there. I went to high school there. Graduated with a D-minus in English. [laughter]

 

IC: How did you end up getting a D-minus in English?

 

BLH: Well, first of all, the English teacher and I hated each other. I mean, she was one of those women who glowered. But she was probably justified because I was skipping classes a lot. And one of the reasons I was skipping classes was because when I had been on a bus, going east on Central, I had seen this building down here on the left that had “Art Center” written across it. So I got off the bus and went into this place called “Art Center.” And what it was, was two huge studio rooms, each with a small grand piano, each with all kinds of different microphones, each with its own engineering room. And they were making records, right? And the sense of it was, this guy was setting up a company. And they were going to make soap operas. And he was going to unionize everyone. And he was going to undercut the East Coast-West Coast market. And so, when I’m looking around I thought, you know, it was really exciting… I was 16. And I said “How do you get involved with this?” And he said, “Well, you’d have to audition.” I said “I’d like to audition.” So, I auditioned, and I became the youngest member of this company of people, right? What I was registering was that this was where I could get rid of a Texas accent. And it meant that I was also gaining all of these skills working with microphones, working with a cast, working with scripts. And in fact that became pretty much the only job skills I ever had. So that when I was living in Japan, I was working at the Far East Network. I was the only woman in their acting situation. And they were writing five plays a week—serials, ongoing—and they had me written in as two women, one of them with a Texas accent, and one of them with a British accent. Olaf had a British accent. And at that point I had lived for a long time in and out of an English colony situation. Anyway, how did we get onto this?

 

Iris: I was just asking you about leaving home.

 

II. “Inventors of their condition”: On Beats, Hippies and Intellectuals

 

BLH: …The interesting thing is that most of the Beats were incredibly erudite, were really educated. I mean, at one point, I met Joseph Wood Krutch[4] who was an important educator of his time, and somehow Allen [Ginsberg]’s name came up, and Joseph Wood Krutch said he had had Allen as a student in New York City. He said Allen was the best scholar he ever had as a student. Of course Allen’s father was a teacher… One of the things, when I was teaching, and I was teaching students who were going on for master’s degrees, etc., one of the things that I registered was the extent to which university educations wipes out intelligence. I mean, it really gives you the didacticisms…the thing about the Beats was that they were all radicals. I mean, personal radicals.

 

IC: What do you think of as the limits of the Beat Generation, time-wise?

 

BLH: Oh, I don’t.

 

IC: You don’t think of it having limits?

 

BLH: It’s just something I never... I’d have to invent it, to think it. But really, what started to close down the poetry that was so heavy at that time, was music. When the Beatles came in, so when would that have been? Around the mid 1960s, I think the Beats went up to then. And they kept on for a while, because there was a lot of interrelationship between the musicians and the writers at that time. But when the flower children came in, the Beats were gone.

 

IC: What’s your sense about the difference between those two groups, between the Beats and the Hippies?

 

BLH: The Beats were intellectuals. And, the Beats had the artists, and Hippies had a lifestyle, you know. And so there was a lot going for them.

 

IC: I’m very interested in that shift from the intellectualism of the Beats, and their awareness of the cultural zeitgeist in America, the transition from that to the Hippies.

 

BLH: You see it was like, they were intellectuals almost inadvertently. They were inventors of their condition. The hippies then just got to have the fun. And the hippies also had a lot to do with spinoff from the music. The music was huge. You know—or you might not know— that at one point, Ezra Pound said “Genius flits.” And he really did think you could have the active genius of the world— and I don’t mean a person, I mean, the spirit of it— could be in a carpenter in San Diego for 15 minutes, and then go elsewhere.

 

IC: So he was thinking of it as a thing that moved around among people, that wasn’t in a person.

 

BLH: I think it’s something that’s gratuitous. I think it’s something that happens almost accidentally.

 

BLH: I think the spirit just flagged and went away. I mean, think of, at that moment in time, there were different people who generated whole hives of followers, like Warhol. Warhol had all these people who then interacted with each other. Ezra Pound had all these people who interacted with each other. So that for instance, when Edward Dahlberg—you’ve probably never read Edward Dahlberg... Make a note of his name, somewhere. Dahlberg. D-a-h-l-b-e-r-g. He wrote a book, Because I was Flesh,[5] and there was a time when no one who thought themselves up to things could be so without having read Edward Dahlberg. And when Edward Dahlberg mentioned to Ezra Pound that he was coming to Majorca, Ezra Pound immediately said, “Look up Robert Creeley,” you know? He just had this immediate sense of sending people places. Let me see, well, Allen was the biggest. Allen did more in his lifetime to consolidate English language writers in Australia, Canada, England ... he got them onto each other. And before that they had been much more stuck with their own country. And suddenly, there was a while when there was so much commerce between those countries and English-language poetry and writing, so that for instance the Vancouver Poetry Festival was a great historic event, and really meshed Canadians and Americans.

 

IC: Did you go to that?

 

BLH: Oh, my dear, yes. We were living in Vancouver then. And the three persons principle to the Vancouver poetry festival were Creeley, Ginsberg and not Robert Duncan, oh… see, it’s a huge drag being old, because names go first, and very often it’s important to know the names.

 

IC: Spicer?

 

BLH: Jack Spicer was the one I was trying to remember, and Robin Blaser. And the point at which Jack Spicer died, he and Robert Duncan had been in a permanent ongoing battle; when Spicer died, Robert Duncan spun his spectacles over to Robin Blaser, and Robin Blaser just didn’t have the chutzpah for that kind of relationship. And that’s when he moved to Canada.

 

IC: I’m used to thinking of Robert Duncan as such a gentle soul.

 

BLH: Robert Duncan loved to fight. He loved what he felt were literary battles.

 

IC: That’s interesting, there are literary battles that happen now, but they don’t feel like they’re done in the same spirit of growth and expansion, being a part of a larger mind.

 

BLH: Well, you just need more grandiose people. The last couple of decades I’ve been thinking, who do the young have now, who are exciting and generating. I don’t see it. I think it’s all been eaten up by television and texting.

 

IC: The person who really comes to mind, and she’s of an earlier generation but who really means a lot to a lot of poets I know, is Eileen Myles. Do you know Eileen Myles?

 

BLH: Yes, I know her well. She would come every summer to Naropa.

 

IC: She’s had a huge impact, and a very good one.

 

BLH: She’s very smart, very smart.

 

IC: She feels like a kind of national figure.

 

BLH: And tough.

 

III. “Speaking onto the paper”: On Being a Writer, Humor, and the Voice

 

BLH: I read something the other day. These two guys are talking, and one of them says, “How are you?” And the other one says, “Better now that I’ve given up on hope.” [laughter] And I thought, that’s a great line.

 

IC: Great response. Honest.

 

BLH: I don’t even remember at all where I found it. Another time that I was reading I found this thing. I thought it was so funny. “Often wrong, but never uncertain.”

 

IC: I just finished reading The Sanguine Breast of Margaret—there’s that recurrent theme of “hope springing eternal.” I had never heard the “sanguine breast” part,[6] only the “hope springs eternal.” It made me think of when Obama was running for president, and the motto was “Hope, hope!” It was the first time that hope had struck me as this projection into the future that was without action, without any kind of clear plan, but was more like, “alright, let’s imagine that something good is going to happen.” It was an early encounter with—oh, there’s an abstract level to hope. It doesn’t actually have a lot of substance to it.

 

BLH: [laughs] Oh, honey! When was hope ever solid? [pause] I mean, hope is an abstraction. It’s somebody’s idea. Actually, it’s a name put on something that’s a reality. People really do experience hope, and really do look for hope, and really do need hope. But at one point I decided, you know, when all the shrinks were saying things like… a shrink will tell you to stop doing anything that resembles denial. A shrink will tell you you’re supposed to “face up to it!” And I think, “to hell with them!” I mean, there are times when, if you don’t have denial, you have no life at all. I mean, when things go really, seriously bad, denial is what gets you through.

 

IC: And so what’s the relationship between denial and hope? Are they two sides of the same thing?

 

BLH: Denial and hope? Denial is refusing the thing that is so negative. Whereas hope implies a nice, open…[gestures with hands] you know? Hope is you going straight forward. But denial is, too. Denial is, “Yes I am continuing despite this stuff that looks rotten.”

 

IC: I think of that classic Beckett line: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I like “I’m better now that I’ve given up on hope.” There’s something strangely radical about that.

 

BLH: Well, I just take it as a great joke. One of the things I’ve been registering… well, lately I’ve been doing a little bit of writing about this place [the assisted living home in Boulder, CO where Bobbie lives], which is filled with mostly old ladies and a few old men. And this one woman, for instance, who’s about 95, said to me, “Well, my son’s gone.” And I said, “Did you have a good time?” She says, “With him?” [laughs]

And I was thinking, there is no way you can get what’s funny about that on paper, because what it is that it requires is the voice, the voicing. The voicing has always been really, you know…I think most writers are absolutely addicted to voicing. When I was teaching writing at Naropa, the students who would have the most difficulty were the ones who would get glamorized by text that used a vocabulary that wasn’t theirs. And then you would suddenly find them using words like “perused.” I hate “perused!” I think, “Where did that word come from?” I mean, that’s a weird word. And yet here they are, writing things like…

Most people who want to be artists, as soon as they start, it’s as if there is themselves, and then there is this larger scale. And that larger scale is “themselves, the artist.” And so when they start being “the artist,” they’ll do things like…they’ll want to use the words that artists, that writers whom they have adored use. And they’ll start writing stuff that’s really crap… one of the toughest things about young writers is getting them to actually give it up, and go along with it, that they are probably good enough. Just good enough, they’re already good enough. In fact, they’re as good as they’re going to be, until they get better.

 

IC: I wanted to ask you about this relationship to a kind of verisimilitude: with writing on the page to speaking, or the types of language that is exchanged in “real life.” That seems to be something as a writer that you’ve been really interested in.

 

BLH: When I decided to go into writing seriously, for me that really meant that I had to be as bad as I had to be until I got good, you know. When I meant to do it seriously, I registered that I was an inexperienced writer, but I was a very experienced talker. So I thought, okay, if I can talk it onto the paper, I’ll probably save myself miles of bad writing. And so that was what I focused on. I focused on speaking onto the paper.

 

IC: Is thinking different for you when you’re speaking versus when you’re writing?

 

BLH: I say just about everything that comes into my head. [laughs] …I can’t write fiction. I keep trying to write fiction because I hold it in such high esteem. But in fact, I’m incapable of it. And at some point I registered that all the writing I’ve done has really been that straight-out thinking. And getting it onto the paper with some accuracy. The accuracy matters. I mean, the accuracy being that you’re getting it down the way you’re really thinking it. But boy, it’s so…you’re a writer, right?

 

IC: Yes.

 

BLH: What do you write?

 

IC: I’m a poet.

 

BLH: Are you?

 

IC: Yes.

 

BLH: Oh, you poor thing! [laughter] The great thing I always found in poetry was simply the business it does of flashing off the page. I mean, three lines and you’ve got [gestures] BOOM! A dozen lines, BOOM! One page, BOOM! Whereas, prose is more a continuity. And the issue of the continuity with whatever that continuity’s rhythm is.

 

IC: Something that comes up in the “The Sounding Word” about speaking has to do with questions of: tone, timbre, tessitura. And you related that story of the woman who lives in this building saying “with him?” the subtlety of that, or the impossibility of rendering that tonal humor on the page. When you’re rendering your speech or your thought into writing, are you aware of rendering your tone—your timbre—those elements of your voice?

 

BLH: I think that the way I write has less invention in it. It’s more, I’ll get an idea, and then I’ll write it out. So that it isn’t as if…and I never have an invented character. Although at one point, I did write a story that I then sent to the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. And they published it! And they sent me some money. I published it as “Molly McGee.” I didn’t want it to be “me,” you know. But it was like, I sent it to them, and then the month following it coming out in the magazine, I was contacted by the Mystery Writers of America, who wanted me to join. And I was contacted by a South American radio company that wanted to produce it as a show. I said sure, and I want a tape. God only knows where that tape has disappeared to. They sent me a tape, but, I mean, look at… [gestures around apartment filled with books and papers]. I mean, the point at which I move house…everything is just destroyed. You know. I have no idea where it might be.

 

IC: The Sanguine Breast of Margaret has elements that are like a detective story, with multiple threads. Like when they’re going down to meet the family—I mean, I know that it’s you… on a narrative level it has a storytelling structure and tension, devices that make it compelling and move it forward…

 

BLH: Well, one thing. If you’re a writer, you’re probably a reader. And in the course of being a reader, there are these rhythms that somehow attach to your person. And those rhythms are like putting on comfortable clothes. So you start writing something, and you suddenly fall into—actually it’s something you want to watch out for, because that rhythm can be wrong for something you want to say sometimes. But more often, it’s the rhythm of you declaring something. Of you making a statement. Whether it’s storytelling or whatever. That, it seems to me, is about as close to truth as you can get as a writer. Because once you’re in your own rhythms—I think that’s one of the reasons I really loved Colette.

 

IC: From what I understand you’ve written a lot of your family stories; how is that for you, do you feel that it’s continuing on their narratives, preserving their narratives?

 

BLH: No, it’s stories I have in my head. And one of the things about growing up in farm families is evenings we would eat, and early on it was with coal oil lamps, before there was electricity on the table, we would eat and then, conversation was going on, but it would often turn into family stories, so that I heard the same stories often, over and over. There’d be, like my uncle Marin would say, “Oh, I’ve got a good one on Nora [Bobbie Louise’s mother],” and then he’d tell something about their childhood, and something. So, I grew up with a lot of storytellers, in that sense.

 

IC: Did hearing the stories repeatedly fix them in your memory?

 

BLH: No, it gave me more the practice of them. It gave me more the rhythm of them. And then the fact that I remembered them would mean that I could tell them now, later… I’ve tried at different times to write fiction. Fiction feels very trivial to me. It’s like something that’s watered down. What I really like is something that hits me like a thought, and then I can tell it… what is stronger than reality? So when there is a thing that really happened, and now it’s sort of, it’s, I know that feeling, you’re sort of feeling it buzzing inside you, or you’re walking and suddenly you come by a great line, and it’s a line that belongs in that story, it’s like you’re feeling something ripening, and when it ripens and you tell it, then you’re on the issue of being accurate. And, when you’re accurate, you’re accurate in the language as well, so that words come to you and fall into place in order to tell the story accurately, whether it’s a poem or prose, or whatever.

 

IC: Have you ever regretted or felt that you weren’t a true artist if you couldn’t fabricate a story, if you couldn’t make a fictional story, do you know what I mean?

 

BLH: No, that isn’t, whenever I’ve felt regrets, it wasn’t for something like that. It was more, I just wish I were less lazy, you know.

 

IC: Less lazy, say more about that! Were there things that you meant to do that you never got around to doing?

 

BLH: Well, like right now, I should be working, I’ve been working on a book I’m calling Gossip, and that book is, like during the years I was married to Creeley, and during the years I was active in that general society of people, there were a lot of stories that happened, that I saw happened, and that I was present to in the happening, and there were also a lot of stories that people told me that had happened to them, and then all those people died. I mean, the number of, you know, it’s like the people who were the great storytellers. At times I feel I’m the last repository for a big chunk of stories, and so I’m trying to get them down on paper, the ones I can remember, you know. But some of them aren’t my stories at all, you know, some of them are stories told to me. For instance, like Bob [Creeley], when he was living in Majorca with his first wife, and Robert Graves lived there at that time. And Robert Graves was a great womanizer. He loved young women. At one point, he got a great crush on Bob’s first wife, Ann, and he was trying desperately to impress her, and Ann was pretty unimpressable, and it just wasn’t working. And he came over at one point bringing the manuscript for his latest book which he had just finished, “Here is this book that I have just finished”— didn’t make an impression on Ann at all. And then he said, “Just feel how heavy it is!”  Now that’s an incredible story, “Just feel how heavy it is”! I mean, that’s a story I want to tell because it’s so hilarious, I mean, just for that final line. But a lot of people, like Gregory Corso things, I mean Gregory always came up with great lines...

 

BLH: …People who have a theory to back them up and stiffen their spine can get awfully rampant about themselves as justified in being bullies. We had regular meetings of the writing department at Naropa. So we were having one of those meetings, and two of those ladies got started on this whole PC language thing. Just for starters. PC? Anyone who names themselves “correct,” you have to question. “Politically correct”? You know? And I think, what? And it’s like, they were holding forth about how all the students… the students were required in a way to take on the responsibility of the language that would extoll this particular theory they were involved with. And everyone was completely flummoxed, I mean, looking at students, students are so easily persuaded by anyone who’s articulate. And the politically correct people have practiced articulation within that theory. And so here they were, sounding absolutely right, you know? And so, when they finished and sat down, I stood up, and I said, “You are planning to be writers, and as writers, you must question anyone who wants to manipulate your vocabulary. All you have is your vocabulary, and ideally the vocabulary,”— I’m extemporizing now, I don’t know exactly how I said it, but the idea’s simple— “but the vocabulary you have is within your own personal rhythms, for one thing. And that vocabulary is essential, essence, and to have to change that vocabulary for one that is a theory, that’s shocking if your intention is to be a writer. If you’re a writer you’ve got to fight to protect your words, you know.” When I sat down everyone applauded.

 

IC: They were probably so relieved.

 

BLH: Yeah, you know…it was like they were given their freedom back.

 

IC: And that carries over into thought too. I mean I’ve definitely experienced this feeling of “Oh, if I’m saying the wrong thing that means I’m also thinking the wrong thing.”

 

BLH: Right, and anything like that is going to stop you in your tracks… [these lectures were] not written, I mean it was all spontaneous speech, effectively. Have you ever met Junior Burke? — Well Junior, at one point, talking to a class he was teaching, said, “Now when you’re writing, this business you have [of] everyone speaking full sentences and full paragraphs and all nicely punctuated...” he said, “People don’t really speak that way.” He said, “Mostly, you have people giving phrases and dots... And no one speaks in full sentences, except Bobbie Louise Hawkins.” Someone told me he’d said that and I just cracked up. I thought that was very funny.

 

IC: It is unusual to meet someone who speaks in full sentences! William Camponovo, another student who transcribed the lectures, wanted me to ask you this: “How important is it to you to call upon numerous voices in making your original thought and language? Do you see the work as numerous pieces constituting one kind of harmony, one guiding voice, or as pieces, units, that ebb and flow?”

 

BLH: I would take it more as building blocks—as bits and pieces. Like a collage. Yes, like a collage. And so far as humor, I think humor expands intelligence. When you meet someone who has no sense of humor, you know that there are going to be whole areas that they’ve just blocked things off, whereas people with a sense of humor, you’ll have them suddenly expanding something in a way that never occurred to you just because they think it’s funny, and they go in all these different ... no, humor, I take humor to be a major component of an active intelligence.

 

IC: Oh, that’s great. It’s so surprising also because I think there’s a stereotype of the really intelligent person—the intellectual—as being like this staid ...

 

BLH: Well, guess who created that stereotype? You know what happens in colleges? For instance, I often had students wanting to think of me as famous. Now, I don’t think of myself as famous. I’ve known a lot of famous people, and I know I’m not one of them. But, they wanted me to be famous because it would add to their life, if they had someone of importance teaching them, then they could feel more secure. A lot of people can’t resist being made important, and as the students are making these teachers important, the teachers agree, and turn into these pompous assholes! …I mean we all would love to be perfect. We all would love to be fancy. We all would love to be more important than we really are.

 

BLH: When Richard Brautigan had sent Trout Fishing in America to sixty publishers and been turned down every time, Don Allen published it.[7] He published Trout Fishing in America first, and it just took off. And immediately of course, a big publisher moved in on it and took it over. I think they never properly gave him credit for what he had done.

 

IC: Why do you think Trout Fishing in America got rejected so many times?

 

BLH: It’s hard to know. I mean, I think it’s quite possible it was thought trivial. There’s a big issue around humor. People who are pompous treat humor like it’s embarrassing.

 

IC: And minor.

 

BLH: And minor, minor. You think of different artists, like [James] Thurber. Thurber was much more brilliant than he was ever given credit for. His brilliance was undercut by the fact that he was funny.

 

IC: Do you like Wallace Stevens, have you read very much of him?

 

BLH: You know, I have people who I respected adore Wallace Stevens, and I always have this feeling he’s someone I should pay attention to. I just have never, somehow, had the book in hand, and the chair to sit in.

 

IC: He has this long poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” with the comedian planting a seed, like a little joke, a little riddle that people far, far in the future long after he’s dead will catch onto, and his comedy is that in his own lifetime no one gets it, but someone in the future will get it and laugh. There’s several points where you offer a metaphor of cattle tick, something that hangs out on the edge of a branch and waits for thirty years for a cow to come by, or some kind of a germ, or some kind of a seed, that hangs out and waits for the right conditions to germinate. And I was also thinking about it in relation to influence, in relation to coming across a writer from the past, Colette, someone who is maybe not fashionable among your contemporaries but you encounter their work and maybe it sparks off something in you.

 

BLH: I love it when I come out with a writer I haven’t heard about before. It’s my writer. It’s mine. Nobody else gets to have it, you know. And particularly, if it’s a writer who’s written thirty books. So now I know I’ve got myself, I’ve dealt with reading for the next year.

 

IC: Did you ever feel a kind of anxiety where you felt you don’t have time to read everything you want to read?

 

BLH: Oh, there’s no point in it. I mean, it’s enough to...sufficient unto the day.                                

   

FOOTNOTES:    

[1] The United Nations Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA, 1950-1958) was an economic reconstruction program created by the UN to help rebuild South Korea after the Korean War.

[2] The nation of Belize was called British Honduras from 1862 until gaining its independence in 1973.

[3] Pola Negri (born Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec, 1897-1987) was a Polish-born silent film actress. Alla Nazimova (born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon, 1879-1945) was a Russian stage and occasional film actress.

[4] Jospeh Wood Krutch (1893-1970) was an American literary biographer, critic and naturalist. His book The Measure of Man won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1955.

[5] Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh was published by New Directions in 1963, and was nominated for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

[6] “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” is a line from Alexander Pope’s 1734 poem “An Essay on Man.”

[7] Donald M. Allen, editor at Grove Press, and editor of the landmark anthology The New American Poetry, founded both the Four Seasons Foundation and Grey Fox Press, essential sources for writers generally excluded from mainstream publishing.  

Contributors

Iris Cushing

Iris Cushing

Diane di Prima Fellow
Iris Marble Cushing is a poet and editor living in Queens. She is the author of Wyoming (Furniture Press Books, 2014). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Fence, the Boston Review and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series. A found...

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