Jeff Hardin interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I’m interested in what draws poets to certain forms. What in particular draws you to the narrative poem?
I’m drawn to many shapes that a poem might find, and only sometimes is that shape, in fact, narrative. “Narrative ought to be about people, event, and consequence,” Christopher Tilghman said in an interview more than two decades ago—a formula that I think works very well. I’m interested in thinking about people in situations, attempting to inhabit their experience and to see through their eyes, to enter into their most private selves, to be there as an advocate for understanding their motives and concerns.
I turn to narrative for all the big words—significance, meaning, value, insight, revelation. Narrative offers the comfort that there is, in fact, a purpose, an overarching design, to what happens or to what we can imagine happening. Narrative creates the space and the shape for the mind both to believe in and to discover meaning, which always feels as though it is just beyond apprehension. Maybe narrative provides a place where we believe that we can preside outside of experience in the kind of fullness of perspective we rarely, if ever, know.
“Blessed rage for order,” Wallace Stevens says in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Surely that desire for order which narrative enacts is both a rage and a blessing. It certainly feels that way to me. An experience, an event or span of time in a poem, is not just the event but is also what the event comes to represent. The event is but is also more than. It stands for itself, for the reality of its being, but it also stands for something else—a lesson to be learned, a moral to be reached, a change that may or may not need to be made. I think, too, that there is, in the attempt to write narrative, the desire to honor experience— to present it, to praise it, to increase its significance, to offer laments and affirmations and reproofs regarding what one can or cannot learn. Narrative provides a moral drama. Narrative tries to describe the shadow passing by while we stand in the cleft of the rock.
I admire that the speakers in your poems want to engage with the world, whether it be with "literalists" or an "old raggedy couple" from a classic movie. One of my favorite ways of engagement that you offer is the speaker in dialogue with others, which we see in "Holding On Underneath This Shroud." Could you talk about the use of dialogue in this poem, both with the reader and the literalists?
Our language these days seems more polarized, antagonistic, and dismissive than I remember when I was younger. I suppose, though, that there has always been a divide between those whose experience with language is expediency and those whose experience with language is curiosity? I want to assume that my reader shares my curiosity and that I can speak to my reader as an intimate. I’d like for the writer and reader to be “on the same page,” but of course that ideal engagement rarely happens. I’d like for a reader to look back at the title (“Holding on Underneath This Shroud”) and to know that it’s a line from Patty Griffin’s “Rain” and to hear her voice singing, “I’m holding on underneath this shroud.” I’d like for the reader to share in that same desperation of trying to keep oneself alive in a world where we are surrounded too often by “hard hard heart[s].” Poetry is, or can be, one of the ways we preserve our childlike wonder in the world. Poetry can be our way to stumble onto enchantment.
One day many years ago, at a local coffee shop, two year old Lily, quite ceremoniously, stepped in the door, surveyed the crowd, and then held two donut holes skyward as if nothing more amazing had ever existed in the history of the world. “Behold,” she seemed to be saying. I’m like a kid about some things, especially childlike wonder, so I leapt up out of my seat and gave her a standing ovation. Strangely, hardly anyone else seemed to take note of her. I don’t mean that they didn’t see her. They simply glanced at her and then went back to their tasks as if they hadn’t, in fact, just witnessed a small miracle in their presence.
I think of poems as an invitation to enter into a fuller kind of language, one where readers can come together in wonder. That’s the task as a poet: to engage a reader who may be bored. The student’s statement in “Holding on Underneath This Shroud,” sadly, isn’t fiction. I once asked students to make a quick list of everything that fascinated them when they were children, everything that made them think that the world was full of richness and discoveries and unforeseen mysteries. Minutes later, a student announced loudly (and rudely) that the writing topic was boring. I was taken aback by the student’s bold assertion, her tone of authoritative dismissal. How deal with such a mindset? How inspire her to look around and to recognize that “the season of curiosity is everlasting,” as Mary Oliver says? On my darker days I feel like I’m surrounded by such minds. A poem may be my only “reply,” my only way of attempting a conversation. William Maxwell once said, “Why people don’t walk around in a continual state of astonishment is beyond me.” Yes, yes, yes, I say. And then I add amen, amen, amen; and then, because no one is really paying attention to me in my anonymity, I go on up my hillside out back and leap up toward God like all those notes in “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I’m not kidding either. I’ve actually done that, and to say so means I assume an intimacy, a shared vulnerability, with anyone reading these words. It’s a risk I’m happy to take. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather have the boldness of Lily announcing her amazement before a dismissive world than to have the boldness of that student announcing her boredom.
I like your discussion of poetry sharing curiosities of our environments and keeping readers enchanted with the world. So much in our everyday lives keeps us from doing this, but I agree that poetry preserves a state of wonder. I notice these qualities in your poems and find them rejuvenating. As a reader of poetry, which poets inspire a state of wonder for you?
My first thought is of that wonderful line that ends Czeslaw Milosz’s “Encounter”: “I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.” Even the loss of those with whom we have shared this life—those who may have pointed out details in the landscape—turns to wonder for Milosz. That's a hard comfort to reach but one we all search for, I believe. Many of Milosz's poems reveal a mind that continually runs “forward, composing poems,” as he says in a late poem called “Prayer.” I feel that same rush forward, writing almost daily, still believing that the next poem will deliver me into a new mind, a new thought, a deeper appreciation for the unlikelihood of anyone’s miraculous and incomprehensible existence, especially my own.
I’ve never considered making a list of writers who inspire wonder. Couldn’t I just list the thousands of books in my library? Saramago, Szymborska, Heaney, Thoreau, Neruda, Transtromer, Lux, Goldbarth, Ritsos, and hundreds of others? Issa would be on the list. He tells us that we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers. Merwin has been essential to my reading life, and even though he inspires wonder for the natural world (trees, waterfalls, plovers, stars), his poems really inspire wonder for the gift of language itself, a kind of holiness that exists within the desire to know what is beyond ourselves, how we take our words—all that we really have—and step into the endless wordlessness that surrounds the smallness of our lives. The exuberance of Gerald Stern matters deeply to me, his affection, his joy. Sarah Lindsay’s poems help me to see with amazement the world I live in. Malena Morling’s poems often make me smile. Jean Valentine’s presence of mind has accompanied me for twenty-five years and suggests that wonder lives as much in the spaces between the words as in the words themselves.
I’d like to get to a point where wonder is not necessarily understood as an emotion but as a kind of philosophy, as worthy of rigorous criticism as existentialism or nihilism. I sometimes think that wonder, reverence, awe, and joy are wisdom. Maybe my poems can be seen as an attempt to convince Flannery O’Connor’s Hulga to change her name back to Joy.
Holding On Underneath This Shroud
I’m on a Funny Campaign, as I like to call it,
which should prove interesting
since I can’t remember jokes that well,
telling the punch line first
or somewhere in the middle before
the chicken’s halfway across the road.
But I think we’d all agree—something
needs to happen; it’s either soapbox diatribes
or mournful tones and not much in between
these days. Not to mention how
the literalists are taking over, mistrustful
of anything that smacks of deeper meaning;
I mean I saw a table of them not even smile
when a two year old entered the coffee shop,
a miniature statue bearing aloft in each hand
glorious doughnut holes, raised heavenward,
one of them already bitten into. Of course
much of this has to do with
the popularity of Britney while Patty Griffin’s
“Rain” is not our national anthem.
Not that it’s funny because it isn’t, not even close.
O how to turn “Where the Streets
Have No Name” into a lullaby, with that much
leaping toward God—that’s the question.
You know you’re in trouble when enough people
go around saying “apropos”
but never stumble onto “enchantment,”
when too many tether themselves
to mistakes from which they’re trying to turn a buck.
I think of the girl who said, “No,
you need another topic—this one’s boring,”
when the teacher had the class explore
what fascinated them as children. Bored
by fascination? Are you kidding?
I kept waiting for a punch line. It never came.
No Other Kind of World
Those fog-stalled streets of old movies—
that’s the world I want. And the one, too,
where the old raggedy couple who usually waves
decides, instead, to step inside the café
where I sit drinking coffee, having just imagined
I’m an echo fading out across a field—
and I find that I have money, enough to buy them
lattes and muffins; and the wife tugs her scarf
from habit, that slow let-me-get-settled-in-for-
kind of tug, which happens all too often but
without a word or glance. And there we sit
surrounded by so many spoons and sugar packets;
and smoke from fires that burn the forests
of the West will never reach us, nor the sounds
of table lamps switched off by widows of this town,
though it is true we have imagined them enough
that when we bow to sip from steaming cups,
we add their lamps and sudden dark to who
we are, since no other kind of world occurs
to us, no other kind of self but one who
doesn’t waste the crumbs that soften thumb
and finger, one who tastes a second life,
awake to prayers that course the crowded air.
Before the Whole Display
You can try to squeeze experience
into certain frames of knowing,
but some days, standing next to one person
opens unforeseen possibilities,
atypical conversations, a memory of larkspur,
and how you came to stand
in one place instead of another
has no answer beyond second guessings.
Each person’s preoccupations
with every other person’s,
which makes a workable graph
but nonetheless worth imagining.
On one axis the sound of a frog
a few minutes after midnight
in the deep of a night too proud of its moon,
on another axis
the swervings of waxwings,
the few hundred that show up one day
to search your lawn,
and that’s just two axes
flashing and flickering among countless galaxies!
Maybe those swervings are too much to grasp
—the multiples multiplying hysterical hunger—
and they remind us how
basically anything teems with so much
never to be traced or kept track of,
even though one can sit before the whole display
not knowing how many droplets fall
along the swan’s glide to readjust its wings
across an otherwise still reflection.