there must be a lot of power in that quiet space for there to be an all-out onslaught against it in our culture

Another Couplets interview, with Jeff Hardin, author Fall Sanctuary. His work can be sampled here.


Joanne Merriam: What is your writing process?

Jeff Hardin: I keep a notebook with me at all times and try to write in it every day. In my teaching of creative writing, I stress what I call the calisthenics of writing. I do several exercises that I think, as habits, improve how the mind works in regards to crafting poems. In the same way that a baseball player, for instance, practices laying down a bunt so that, when a bunt is needed in a game, he will be prepared to do so, I think that certain practices, certain exercises, prepare the mind for what a poem might need at any given moment. Some days I write lists: objects, memories, titles, questions, opening lines, aphorisms, and similes. I tell my students (and myself) that we are writing for now, and we are writing for later. That’s my process: now and later. Sometime now for later. If I have five or ten minutes waiting on a class, I will sit and write as many titles as I can generate in that time frame. I’m not committing to any of them yet. I’m just imagining what might be possible. Or I place myself somewhere (at a campsite where I grew up, for instance) and list every object there. Why? Doing so teaches me to think concretely, to imagine specifically, to ground myself in details. Other times, I will sit for twenty minutes and write as many questions as I can think of. Think of how many great questions exist in poems: “What did I know, what did I know/Of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Think of Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Think of how many poems you love that begin with a question or that turn on a question. Questions can be central to poems, and if I’m writing my own poems, I want to have the history of questions at my fingertips, all of my own and everyone else’s. Sometimes items from these lists make their way into my poems, but more importantly I think they exercise the mind to think in these ways. Yes, everything begins in my journal. Sometimes I even write whole poems in there. These are sometimes typed up on one of the three manual typewriters I still use, with revisions occurring during the process. Eventually, some of these poems are typed again on my computer, inevitably revised again.

Writing, of course, is really about revision, about examining possibilities and coming to an ever sharper understanding of how everything in the space of a text works to shape or illuminate the text. One draft turns into another draft and into another draft until I have the draft I can take no farther. Even my published poems are no more than drafts because they are just versions of what might have been, incomplete and partial—they are glimpses of glimpses. I doubt my process is any different than it has been for any other writer. I love the process, though. I’m still smitten with sitting down each day with a sense of expectation, of a word leading to a phrase leading to line break leading to a thought I’ve never had before. A poem feels like some kind of unexplainable wholeness set down into my life. My poems may never gather a wide audience, even among poets, but I am not the same person I used to be because of my daily encounter with language.


Joanne Merriam: Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write poetry?

Jeff Hardin: I like to think that I’ve sacrificed many useless selves, many parts of who I once was, in order to write poems. The part of me that thinks that things don’t matter, that events in my life don’t add up or lead to a larger design, I’ve sacrificed in order to write some poems. The part of me that leans in the direction of despair and futility, in the direction of arrogance and envy, in the direction of what I’m sure I know instead of what I don’t know, can’t know, may never know; I’ve sacrificed in order to write some poems.

I used to sacrifice sleep in order to write. In my twenties and thirties, I often stayed up very late, especially if I had not written anything that day. I’ve always been a determined and driven person. I refuse to give up my quiet time. I decided a long time ago that there must be a lot of power in that quiet space for there to be an all-out onslaught against it in our culture. More and more, we are able to spend our days totally submerged in noise and gadgetry, in email and Facebook, in one more episode of Criminal Minds. I just keep remembering that there is a word for “a clearing space in the middle of being.” I’m trying to make that space my permanent address.


Joanne Merriam: Southern writers often seem to get lumped together into a single category, as though geography were all that’s needed to understand their work. Can you comment on what it means to you to be located in Tennessee, both for your own work, and for its reception outside the region?

Jeff Hardin: Like anyone else, I am a product of my upbringing, and of course I had no say in this placement. I was born into my specific circumstances, into my place and age, and I have been shaped by my environment. My childhood was spent mostly in the woods, near creeks and rivers, near fields and front porches and old people with minds that reached back into the previous century. I knew people who worked menial jobs, who lost fingers in mill accidents, who never had enough money, who drank and raised hell and sang hymns and shot guns, and who seemed bent near the earth under the weight of their lives. I think, even as a child, I knew I was both part of, and separate from, the people I loved. There was just simply something else going on inside my mind unrelated to my geography, and I could not explain these thoughts to anyone. Resonate moments in poems, stories, movies, and songs seemed to point me toward another existence. They had everything to do with some “truth” outside of my experience, outside of my geography. When I was sixteen, I used to go into Wal-Mart and find the same album, The Unforgettable Fire by U2, and read the lyrics on the back cover. The song was “A Sort of Homecoming”:

And you know it’s time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning,
Lights in the distance.
And you hunger for the time,
Time to heal, desire, time,
And your earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape.

I used to stand there and read those words like they were another one of the Psalms. I realize now those words were like poetry to me. Later in life, in graduate school in 1990, I used to read and reread the passage on the back cover of Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems: “To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.” I may be southern by birth, but like so many other writers in the south, my influences are far-ranging, from Milosz and Szymborska to Transtromer and Neruda. I’m as influenced by Dave Smith’s Cuba Night as I am by Basho and Issa, by Merwin and Heaney, by Simic, Bly, Grennan, Hirshfield, Valentine, Saramago, Stafford and countless others.

I have no allegiance to a southern tradition per se. I have an allegiance to what Saramago’s philosophical sentences produce in me when I read them aloud. I have an allegiance to the meditative mind of Charles Wright sitting in his backyard in Virginia or to the evocations of failed towns in Richard Hugo’s northwest or to the empathetic sensibility of James Wright looking at his beautiful Ohio. I have an allegiance to the space that opens up in me when I read Stafford’s “Thinking for Berky” or “Serving with Gideon.” I love the novels and stories of Lewis Nordan and the southern landscapes and characters that inhabit my life now because of his words, but I’m just as enamored with the poems of Albert Goldbarth, whose mind sometimes makes me want to shake my head with wonder and disbelief. The ending refrain of Coldplay’s “Politik” exerts as much pressure on my work as do certain passages in Flannery O’Connor. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a kind of Acts 17:28 (“For in Him we live and move and have our being…”) set to music for me, a kind of “Amazing Grace” amped up to fill a stadium and capture the soaring, internal feeling that sometimes overwhelms me. I guess I don’t believe in a region, except as a place the mind can inhabit as a conversation down through the centuries and across the cultures, from Odysseus to the Misfit to Thoreau to Sophocles to Milton to Ritsos to Amichai to Ghalib. My poems, for good or bad, have entered into a conversation with voices outside the south.

I don’t know any other way to approach my own poems except within the context of everything I’ve read, which does, of course, include southern writers, many of whom I find central to my life. Tennessee has produced many splendid poets, among them George Scarbrough, Bill Brown, Lisa Coffman, Katherine Smith, Danny Marion, Linda Marion, Wyatt Prunty, and Bobby Rogers, to name only a few. My friend Wilmer Mills who died in July 2011, though not originally from Tennessee, spent more than half his life here, so I claim his work too. I can’t imagine my life without his poems or his friendship, and our twenty-one year conversation creates a context through which I still perceive the world and language. Even the absence of the poems he will never write creates a context for me.

As for how my poems are received outside the region? I suppose one measure might be the number of journals that have published my poems for the past 25 years, ranging from The North American Review to Poetry Northwest to the Hudson Review to Hayden’s Ferry Review to Ploughshares to the Café Review. These journals are not in the south. My first chapbook was published by GreenTower Press (Missouri), my second chapbook by Pudding House (Ohio), and my first book by Story Line Press (Oregon). I haven’t made a study of my publication history, but I suspect my poems have appeared as often outside my region as they have within my region. I suspect most poets find this reality to be true.


Joanne Merriam: What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Jeff Hardin: Poet Dave Etter once wrote me a letter where he said that writing poems was closer to inchworms than to cheetahs. I think he meant that the process is slow and straightforward, that a writer builds toward a vision slowly, that a writer mustn’t be in any hurry, even that success (however one measures success) doesn’t come quickly but through diligence. I think I’ve always been drawn to that model. When I was a child, I saw the movie The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. What I took from the movie, or what I valued as a message in the movie—aside from Gehrig’s humility and gratitude—was this idea that through one’s indefatigable work ethic greatness was within reach. Babe Ruth might have been the better player, the more natural talent, but Gehrig put up worthy stats. He became my hero, my measure of what a man might aspire to be. His famous speech I count as an abiding advice in my life. I’ve never been too sure about my own talent, but I’ve always dug down and persisted, and the idea of being thankful, no matter what happens, has been central to my thinking.

Michael Stipe, the lead singer for R.E.M., said in an interview one time that a hit song is just the song you write that day. That idea has been important to me. I figure that if I just show up and write each day, then one of those days a “hit” poem will be there. I certainly can’t will a good poem into existence; I just have to be faithful to the process and do the work. Besides, who can tell which poem will matter to another person, much less matter to a journal or anthology editor? I’ve written probably 2000-3000 poems in the last decade. I’ve had five entirely separate manuscripts place in book competitions, not including my book Fall Sanctuary, which received the Nicholas Roerich Prize and appeared in 2005. The poems I think are “hits” sometimes take years to find acceptance. Back in 2004 I wrote an abecedarian (“How Many Lives Do You Have?”) using authors’ last names to begin each of the poem’s 26 lines. As far as I knew, no one had ever published such a poem. I thought the idea was one of the most inventive I’d ever had. The poem was rejected for five years by ten or more journals until it found a home at the Hudson Review. Was the poem a “hit”? Well, it appeared in a prominent journal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it found a reader even among the other poets in the same issue. I’ve received more feedback regarding what I consider to be “lesser” poems that appeared in so-called “lesser” journals. For that matter, I’ve received more feedback from audiences hearing poems that have never appeared in print. My point, I suppose, is that I shouldn’t be overly concerned with whether a poem is a “hit” or not. The poem just is. Once upon a time, it did not exist, but now here it is in the sound of my own voice, which sounds like a voice I don’t quite know in full. If a poem finds a readership, then I can’t really escape the fact that the poem is simply the poem I wrote one day, nothing more, nothing less. The day, though, at least for me because I wrote the poem, was definitely a “hit.” What a cool day it was. I was alive, I thought about my existence, I entered the rhythm and immensity of language, and I put a few words down on a page. Sometimes that simple fact astounds me. To quote Gehrig, “I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth.”

I know this example is probably corny, but several years ago I saw the remake of the movie Sabrina, with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond. I was struck by the moment when Harrison Ford is at the airport, finally on his way to pursue Sabrina after she has left for Paris. The woman at the airport counter asks him if this is his first time in Paris. He says, “It’s my first everything.” When I am writing, I want that feeling of experiencing language and life as if for the first time, in newness. Edmond Jabes tells us that a word has a meaning which leads to another which leads to another, which makes us finally realize that we are only at the threshold of the word. Neruda, at the end of “I Ask for Silence,” says, “Let me alone with the day./I ask leave to be born.” In the original version of the song “Mercy,” Bono repeats, “Love is come again. I’m alive again. Alive. I am alive. I’m born again and again and again and again and again…” Isn’t that a kind of advice, an aspiration, an acceptance, a celebration of who and what my poems might be, who I might be or become? I am born, and I am born again, and I am continually born again, seeing the world around me at the level of love. I am alive. Again and again.


Check out more poetry-related interviews, reviews and guest posts at Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour.

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