We first met as panelists for a session on the love poem at the 2013 AWP conference. The idea to do an interview sprung from our subsequent correspondence. What you’ll read below began online in April and May, continued in person at a table by a window at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place, and wrapped up with a massage at Thompson Square Park and a slice of cake on the way to the subway.
Timothy quotes from his book Bending the Mind Around the Dream’s Blown Fuse (Talisman House, 2009), the chapbook The Thames & Hudson Project (fields press, 2011), which he co-authored with Hansa Bergwall, and Joe Hall’s The Devotional Poems (Black Ocean, 2013).
Timothy Liu: Where did you grow up, Joe, and how did you end up at Buffalo? Consider that our first heroic-couplet interview question.
Joe Hall: I grew up in the woods in Western Maryland in a house my parents built around us. We slept there illegally at first on sleeping bags that could be rolled up in case an inspector came by. We were energetic poor people. The house in the woods got finished. My brothers and I stacked wood, my dad chainsawed, weeded gardens my mom planted. My grandparents lived next door and my grandfather, a second generation Italian immigrant, taught me manners and how to think graciously at his kitchen table. This kept me from fitting in with the rednecks on the schoolbus. How’s that for a sentimental beginning?
As for the second part of the question, I’m at Buffalo studying poetics, gratefully, after a 20s bouncing around Baltimore, DC, and a trailer park in Southern Maryland. I taught, wrote, went to school, and worked dumb jobs in offices, labs, and an industrial printing press.
Speaking of homes, Timothy, your poem in AALR (vol. 3, issue 1), “A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits,” charts the dispossession caused by the Rape of Nanking at so many levels—spirit from body, family from home, human from dignity, meaning from language. In Threads Jill Magi, on displacement, writes “cases slip into a present continuous.” Do you consider yourself a homeless spirit? Who do these traumatic displacements belong to?
TL: The “homeless spirits” in my poem are those who were murdered who have no actual monument to remember them individually by seven decades later, what Maxine Hong Kingston refers to as “hungry ghosts” who wander the earth, unable to move on. As Antigone well knew, part of the task of humanity is to give our dead a proper burial, to reconcile karmic incompletions beyond mere altruism. In that sense, when each of us are born, we slowly become acquainted with our “spiritual DNA,” the legacy of trauma both personal and collective that will shape our future, that which informs our “fate.” So in that sense, our individual psyches end up housing those spirits we will often never meet ourselves, the mind as a kind of hereditary hotel or halfway house. Jack Gilbert has a poem called “Haunted Importantly” in which he remarks: “When he put his ear against the massive door, / there were spirits singing inside. He hunted for it / afterward.” As poets, we are detectives. Your engagement with Pigafetta is an apt example, even to adopt this historical figure as a spiritual bride in the “present continuous.” What are poems but edifices we make to house what haunts us significantly?
JH: Given this idea of poem as a spirit-house, do you consider writing, then, as an exorcism, a purgative act? Or are these spiritual architectures something you build to revisit? I’m thinking here of the difference between Frank O’Hara typing out a poem and losing it in a drawer and the lifeworks of writers like Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Lyn Heijinian where particular language and structures of language become material revisited and reworked over decades.
TL: I don’t think of writing as exorcism, the sloughing off, the purge. But rather, what is worth holding onto. Preservation. Formaldehyde but without the stink. Mummification without the wraps, the organs moist, left in situ. I love the books I’ve written, the years they were published (1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009) especially because they mark/manifest a life on the one hand lived and on the other hand a thing made in time as a stay against time. My “Requiem” is less a house for the homeless spirits than a meditation on what it means to come after. Alice Notley has a wonderful book of prose called Coming After in the Michigan series that I reviewed for Talisman, her title capturing both a sense of legacy and pursuit. History itself is a dead weight on the shelves. It is the dusting off, the devouring and the digesting, that I’m more interested in than the regurge/purge. To revive! To reinvigorate! To reconstitute! Are poems monuments, memorials to the dead? Certainly! But they are also food for the living, that which we forage. Take Pound’s Cantos. For some, an artifact, a door stop akin to petrified fruit cake one cannot stomach (never having tasted the thing!). For me it’s scripture, the living word.
JH: Devouring! Yes, that seems to capture the immediacy and jagged sensuousness so many of the images in your poems radiate.
[The interview moves to Café Orlin, where Timothy, after devouring a Mediterranean waffle, is responding to the question “What’s the last poem that made you cry?”]
TL: I thought about it for half an hour and I was like, “Do poems make me cry? Movies do. Songs do.” So I guess the last one that made me cry a bunch of times at different points of my life would be George Herbert’s “Love (III).” Do you know that poem?
JH: Not off the top of my head.
TL: This was the last poem of his, to my knowledge, that he ever published:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
This poem kills me—the greatest poem ever written about shame. The invitation is an invitation to love, and you can’t accept because you feel unworthy. That’s one of the hallmarks and litmus tests of romantic love. You really know you’re in love if you’re in the presence of another person and you don’t feel worthy of their attention or love and you feel the shame of your being. If that’s not there, it’s not romantic love. It’s something else. It can be a stroking of the ego, bravado, people using each other, but love is a very awesome thing that gives us access to a sense that we’re nothing, we’re dust, we’re unworthy, filled with shame.
So I love how love has to coax this poor person three times to join him at the table, a guest who then says “Alright, well then I’ll serve.” No, you must sit down and taste my meat! That erotic overtone is pretty fucked up. [Laughs] The Savior commanding: “Taste my meat,” and Herbert complying: “So I did sit and eat.” Blows my mind.
The other thing, Joe, is that the poem shifts into present tense in the final stanza. It’s something inspired. There’s something fucked up about that shift, because maybe that’s what love does: converts our past into a consummate present. That little choice about verb tenses—I hadn’t seen it done before. Not like that.
JH: We were talking about love before: I think that idea about time is really an important one, being delivered into the present moment, a total alertness of the experience, which means leaving some of the baggage of the past behind, putting the future aside, and having an experience of total encounter.
TL: We were talking about surrender, about leaving the past and the future behind in order to be present. There’s so much desiring and resisting going on in this poem, and the resisting is because of the shame. Now, I think in order for a poem to make us cry it has to reach our shame, our sense of unworthiness. Why do people cry at graduations? Why do people cry at weddings? Tears of joy? That’s what’s explained to you when you’re a kid. I don’t think so. I think it’s that immense sense of passage. Everything is now about to change. A deep work of mourning. Parents cry because “we’re losing our baby.” All these incestuous dreams are out the window on wedding day. “I’m not going to be the one to share that bed after all”: that’s why people are crying.
Like the Bridegroom, Herbert invites us to give up our shame. You have to give up your unworthiness, and you don’t want to because you’re used to being this awful creature who doesn’t deserve to be loved! Feels horrible, but to feel otherwise would be worse, because then you have to accept the responsibility of having to change the world view you’ve inherited from very limited folks. That’s what brings me to tears. In this poem, we are invited to surrender to an intractable legacy. And it’s like a security blanket, to keep you from a free fall. And now you’re like, “What am I going to do?”
JH: And it seems like in order to reciprocate, to return love, one cannot if one feels shame, because shame is a very self-involved kind of thing, right?
TL: It’s not about otherness. Me me me me me.
JH: It’s a way to withhold.
TL: So maybe a poem also brings us to tears because you have to give up the self and embrace the otherness of this poem. This dead guy from four hundred years ago—that he could write a poem in rhyme and that it could move us!
I like the word “devotional” because it’s so historic and so liturgical and hymnal and not what we think of as a poem on the page necessarily. Truly great poems can be readily translated. I would say Ashbery is not easily translated because of all his tonalities, but then again, I don’t love Ashbery the way I love Yannis Ritsos. True that while I struggle with Ritsos in Greek, the available English translations do make me tremble! Not so with Ashbery, in English or in any other language. I remember Frost saying: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I do own all of Ashbery’s books, and he takes up two feet of shelf space! Does he happen to make you cry?
JH: No. It’s hard to say if it’s even a poetry of emotion. Is it trying to operate different registers? At the same time, that makes it harder for me to have the energy for the poem itself, because that’s not usually what I turn to poems for, at least in my private time and not my PhD course work time.
TL: Yet Ashbery fills me with awe the way that Stevens does. That’s a direct line there. His opening poem in April Galleons is called “Vetiver.” I’m going to read the beginning a little bit then I’ll skip to the end:
Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay,
As the flowers recited their lines
And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.
The pen was cool to the touch.
The staircase swept upward
Through fragmented garlands, keeping the melancholy
Already distilled in letters of the alphabet.
That’s pretty promising right there; then he ends—
And in some room someone examines his youth,
Finds it dry and hollow, porous to the touch…
O keep me with you, unless the outdoors
Embraces both of us, unites us, unless
The birdcatchers put away their twigs,
The fishermen haul in their sleek empty nets
And others become part of the immense crowd
Around this bonfire, a situation
That has come to mean us to us, and the crying
In the leaves is saved, the last silver drops.
I love this poem. He gets so collective and communal at the end and literally there we have an image of the natura rerum, the tears in all things, literally. This poem doesn’t bring me to tears, but I feel awe.
JH: I wonder if it’s as simple a function as it doesn’t directly address the “I” or the “you.” You are always a bystander until the end where you’re included.
TL: “Us to us.”
JH: Is it our egocentrism that keeps us from feeling as if the poem has its sights on us as opposed to its opening us up into the things for us to observe?
TL: I feel two ways about it. I think a poem can be completely other and open us up to what’s not us. I think of that Tomas Tranströmer poem “Vermeer.” Do you know that poem? Tranströmer concludes by looking out of a window in the painting to the sky, and some composite voice utters: “I’m not empty. I’m open.” A famous final line. Reminds me of Keats’s negative capability where we’re emptied out into a realm of tears filled with otherness. The reverse might be, say, a Neruda poem in which there is an “I” narrator you are asked to identify with. A poem can mirror a part of yourself that you’ve never seen before, and to feel that can also bring you to tears. In the end it’s the same thing, whether it’s nature doing the mirroring or a lyric “I.” How this dance of otherness moves us to tears by helping us recognize something within ourselves that we might have missed but was there all along.
The interesting thing about poems that make us cry is there’s also the element of performance. I’ve attended poetry readings where I’ve cried, where on the page the poem probably wouldn’t have pushed me over. So if the poem were a text or a script, sometimes it’s the performance itself, or perhaps the environment, or who you’re sitting with, what happened during the day, the quality of the air, the space you’re in, that can make you unexpectedly burst into tears.
JH: Do you have a performance in mind? Because I’m thinking of one now, and that’s absolutely right.
TL: What are you thinking?
JH: I’d been doing recordings when I was at George Mason and Jack Gilbert came there three or four years ago. I’d never read his poems and was new to the poetry thing but his reading was so vulnerable. The way that he would move through the poems and stop and stutter, it was rough.
TL: Must have been one of his last readings, when he was already losing his mind.
JH: Right. It must have been. And I’ve listened to that recording over and over again. It’s an amazing reading, and the whole time the entire audience—you could hear a pin drop, because there was this idea that maybe he’s not going to get through this poem. Maybe this will never end. We won’t get closure on this event. So it was fantastic every time he finished. It was an accomplishment. And the poems themselves were awesome.
TL: A memory like that is totally rare, will not repeat itself. He’s dead now from Alzheimer’s, and you’re left with that memory. An awareness.
JH: I was happy I recognized it at the time. It makes you wonder when you’re not being present to other things that are just as good but you’re not able to track them.
TL: Maybe sometimes the presence is so strong it just brings us in. It’s almost like we don’t have to take much credit for it, we just had to show up.
JH: Exactly. I don’t think anybody there could have ignored or overlooked what was happening.
TL: Of course you have to tell me the last poem that made you cry, because that’s such a great question. It totally disarmed me when I read it. I’m sure it has not been asked in an interview ever.
JH: Well, you know where I got the question?
JH: From you! In an interview you said you wished someone would ask you what was the last poem that you read that made you cry.
TL: Oh my god. That does sound like me [laughs]. So I just back-handedly congratulated myself. Well, you get credit for noticing what a brilliant question that would be to actually ask.
JH: Okay. Good.
TL: Now I’m asking you.
JH: It’s a hard question because in the last year I’ve been looking at poetry as a PhD of Literature, and a lot of what we’ve looked at has been really diffuse stuff that has more of a thesis than an emotional point. So when I think about it, I don’t know the last time a poem made me cry. But one of the most memorable times a poem made me cry was when I’d just graduated college, and I was back at home working in a book factory, an industrial printing press. I was reading John Wieners’ Collected. There’s a poem there about him sweeping a theatre with his dad.
TL: Do you remember the title?
JH: I wish I did. It spoke so directly to me. And I couldn’t tell you what the point of the poem is but it was registering this return to the family that is not triumphant at all but in which you find a place that’s always been reserved for you. He’s back at work with his dad sweeping theatres in his 30s or 40s.
TL: On some level you must have connected with a very primal father-son thing, right? You’re working in a factory reading a poem that has this sort of working class dimension. I think that’s it. Somehow that’s what we bring to it. We connect with John Wieners for writing this, where I think if someone didn’t feel that heartbreaking tenderness for his own father then I don’t think that John Wieners’ poem is going to take him there.
Do you know that little poem by Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” where he talks about his father getting up in the morning? It ends with something like “Love’s austere and lonely offices.” That poem doesn’t make me cry, but it makes me think of this primal—
JH: (Am I drinking someone else’s—? I’ve collected all the water.)
TL: I think it’s my water but that’s ok. I like that we’re drinking the same water. It’s good. The same tears of the earth.
You know there’s that little John Wieners poem I memorized, it’s just four lines long, and it almost brings me to tears. The poem is “Two Years Later”:
The hollow eyes of shock remain
Electric sockets burnt out in the
The beauty of men never disappears
But drives a blue car through the
This is two years after he got aversion therapy for being gay. It’s fucked up, because he’s put us in his electro-shocked brain so we can see the cosmos in his head. There’s still “the beauty of men.” It “never disappears / But drives a blue car through the stars.”
JH: There’s something that’s so direct about his poems, and I think that’s what I connected with. Because there are all these poems about working with your dad that are very overwrought or drawing on those neon-bar-sign-and-cobwebs kinds of images, but the Wieners poem doesn’t valorize work in any way. It’s: this is what I’m doing right now.
TL: It’s not a descriptive, working class poem. The poem is the lyric heart, and it just happens to be you could be writing about your father, you could be working somewhere sweeping, but it’s where it starts that is in a different place. The only way to be a poet is to read great poems and to think about how a poem starts, because otherwise you get people using sentences to describe or to be cutesy or funny or abstract or pyrotechnic, but if you don’t start a poem at a place that matters, then the poem can be all these things that don’t finally matter.
JH: So for you where is that place that matters located? What usually gets you started?
TL: Here’s the thing: there’s a lot of different ways into a poem, and we know most of them. You could walk around and get some sounds. We could be sitting here and someone says something and you say “I’ll use that as a diving board.” It could be “we drank from the same water glass.” Or it could be, I’m looking at you, and I’m thinking you look smaller in May than in March, when I saw you for the first time, when it was winter, and I remember your hair was longer and you had a really big beard. And I was thinking, “You’re a little scary.” And now you seem so friendly like we could be childhood friends, and all these things I’m telling you, these are all nascent poems already. How do I know that? Because I possess a lyric sensibility. I’m not doing that to make art, I’m living it.
Now, it takes a while for a youngster who reads a poem that takes the top off his skull to even figure out what is it like to be a poet, to live in that sort of lyrical space. Anything could trigger a poem, but are you going to stay with it and see it through to the end, whether it’s one draft or twenty or fifty? Because we get derailed all the time. Take this interview, for example—are we going to be present? Are we going to follow what it’s like, Joe Hall and Tim Liu, to be together, stay intimate? It’s the second time I’ve ever seen you in my life, and it feels different than the first time, because the first time was another context, at AWP for chrissakes! Panels are weird because we’re up there at a table, and from the audience’s point of view, we’re all connected. But from our point of view, there were only a few dumb email exchanges. We didn’t even have to like each other! But I ended up being very taken by a poem of yours, one where you were talking about a wound, and I was like “Wow, that’s a poem.”
And right now I’m noticing you’re left handed which is interesting, you sinister guy you. The point is: today is different than in Boston, and if you’re going to follow a conversation—and this isn’t really a double-interview for me, it’s day two of getting to know you. That’s actually what this feels like. That’s the reason I asked you why we’re doing this. You and I, we could have a million things on our plates—and I mean a million things of nothing.
JH: We could all be reviewing books.
TL: Or whatever. So here’s the thing: I’m a veteran of therapy. Lots of therapy. I’ve been working with my Jungian for six years. Before that, three years with a Gestalt guy. And before that I had a ten-year break where I didn’t do any therapy at all. Let’s face it, you walk in, you’re going to have your fifty minutes, forty-five, whatever—either you’re going to be present and you’re going to do the work in the moment in the room, or you’re not. And that’s the same thing as writing a poem. You’re either going to be in the lyric moment, you’re going to say, “You know what, I’m going to be here. The poem may not be any good, but I am going to see this through.” Like meeting a friend, going out on a date. Are you here? I don’t know if it’s going to be a good date. I don’t know if it’s going to be a good meeting, because we haven’t had it yet. But—are you going to be there? And that’s really the most sincere answer I can give you about how one starts a poem. I don’t know. There’s a million entrances but when you recognize that activity of initiating the poem, then all you have to decide is whether you’re going to stay with it. You can make a lot of wrong turns. You can lose the poem. You can write a stupid poem, but that doesn’t mean that you weren’t there to actually do it. You could write a poem that, pyrotechnically, is fabulous, and you could send it off in the mail and get it published somewhere. And you’re not there. You’re not home. You’re jacking off, and someone happened to dig your jazzy jizz. But it’s not soulful!
JH: I think that idea of entering that moment and saying, “I’m going to follow it until it’s done”—that’s kind of a scary moment. At least for me it is sometimes.
JH: Because it means that you have to put a lot of things aside. Sometimes that act of following keeps demanding and demanding. Things get ploughed away or you’ve been taken to a place that is going to not allow you to do the rest of the things that you thought you were going to do. Which is probably good.
TL: That’s it. What you’re describing there is like when you’re obsessed about a person. You’re stalking them 24-7 in your mind. And the relationship could be going well but you’re pushing everything else aside. It’s unhealthy after a while but only in the sense that anything to excess is both wonderful and fucked up. The line between things can be very thin. And in a relationship, feeling okay versus not feeling okay can be a very thin line. To be right there on that border, that’s where the poem lives. To be okay and not okay. If you can be right there, that’s where the poem lives. I’m sure of it.
JH: So you have to risk excess to find that line?
TL: Some say you can’t know what enough is until you know what more than enough is. That’s not a koan, it’s a saying.
I’m going to read you a poem, because this poem came from a little challenge that someone gave me. I have a new friend who introduced himself to me last week at a book party at the New School. He was selling books there, and after the reading was over, he came up to me and said: “Hi, you’re Timothy Liu.” [Laughs] I was like, “Hi.” He went on: “I heard you at AWP at the love poem panel and I’ve heard you read before.” And we started talking. When I went home I read three of his poems on a website, and I liked the poems, accompanied by his commentary. I really got a sense of his obsessions and shame and where his lyrical mind was. I was impressed. Oh incidentally, he showed me a poem that he made out of the panel that we did! I don’t have a copy of it, but it’s a three-part prose poem called “Love Poem” and I remember the first words of the final part are “Timothy Liu”! Wouldn’t you feel flattered to see Joe Hall make a cameo in someone’s poem? I was honored he did it but I didn’t think it was a poem. I told him, “These are thoughts,” almost like—what’s the thing that a stenographer does?—
TL: Maybe like transcription. So anyways, we were joking around. He said, “Well, I’m going to make a poem out of my prose commentary that you like.” And I said, “I’m going to do it too!” So what happened was I wrote this poem, and the rule was I couldn’t use any words that he didn’t use. Immediately I broke that rule. I think the first draft of it was maybe ninety percent his words and ten percent filler, these interstitial things to get from one thing to the other. Then after a while, after twenty drafts, he was in less than half the poem. Now, I’m telling you this because it was an exercise, but the whole time I was definitely square on my horse and riding. I was paying attention to “what the poem wants,” which is the same as being present in a therapy session. Even though I’m not writing a poem, I’m saying, “What does the unconscious want? What does the psyche want? What does the soul want? Behind all my defenses and whatever else I’m doing, what does the soul want to heal? Can you listen to it?” So I have this image of being square on one’s horse and riding. You can feel that in a poem no matter how successful or unsuccessful the poem is at that stage. I can feel when someone’s not on his horse. The question I often ask people when I see them or come close to them is, “Are you writing your poems?” “Writing” or “riding,” it’s the same idea, because either you’re drinking and getting high and being stupid, or you’re actually doing the work:
What were all those Diamond Sutras
compared to the blades of grass
our bodies crushed as we caressed
each other with easy fingers
under a big willow whose stillness
grew disturbed? Our boxers
thrown aside with so much careless
unable to free themselves from obligation
or guilt. Entirely too close
not to kiss, even his arms kept me
at a distance to preserve in us
an audience. We were sad sacks
robbed of agency, growing old a victory
worth giving away while winter
worked its way through boots splitting
at the seams. If only we had bought
a real coat rather than a bag
full of flatulent hand-me-down tricks
that forced everyone to sit down
and sulk! Forget about big windows
in that cold crabby room where we knelt
on an unmade bed. Old and fat,
who plumps the pillows now?
No way any longer not to get all
gussied up where the mind still
likes to maunder—drawn to psychic
trauma parading before us as a veritable
grande dame—the only questions left
so much smaller than our shame.
TL: [Laughs] It took me about four days to write this poem. I didn’t work on anything else. I was writing to my new friend. I was definitely writing about my beloved in Chicago and also my beloved in Brooklyn. They’re all in this poem. But what’s important about it was paying attention to where the poem was. So I felt good about it. I read this to Linda Gregg the other day. She’s very fierce. She zeroes in on what she hates. I now have to make a few changes, because she’s right about a couple things. So this isn’t the final version but there it is.
JH: I love the line “We’re sad sacks, robbed of agency.”
JH: I think because it takes the colloquial and then you can see the language of a statement about art. There’s a sort of double robbing going on there.
Do you think it made it easier to be attentive to the poem because the language was from somebody else?
TL: There’s a lot of language in the final draft that’s not mine, so I’ll say what they are: “Diamond sutras,” “mutable circumstances.” I would probably never put “obligation” or “guilt” in a poem. “Sad sack” is his. “Cold, crabby room” I would never say. I would think that’s bad poetry. I have used “gussied up” because my husband’s father’s name is Gus, so I like that a lot. But “maunder,” that’s not my word. I would never use that, but it became mine. Look at the music I make: “longer,” “maunder,” “trauma.” And then the “m” sounds of “maunder,” “trauma,” “dame,” and “shame”—that final clicking sound there. So it’s true, that’s part of the joy of the exercise: okay here’s something outside of my lexicon, outside of my comfort zone, and now all of the sudden it’s going to get worked in. Absorbed. And the way that I choose to do that, that’s my poetry. We’re always trying to digest new experiences. When was the last time you had Mediterranean eggs sunny side up? It doesn’t look that good, but there it is. You took it in. And we’re always doing that. Everyday our experience and our lexicon is being fucked with, right? So it doesn’t matter to me if I’m reading something online as part of an interview—it seems totally natural to me—that’s exactly how language might enter a poem.
JH: I love the idea that “maunder” was something you felt compelled to assimilate through rhyme.
TL: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know if I consciously said to myself: “I need rhyme to help me here.” The way you’re talking reminds me of The Borg: “You will be assimilated.” So we’re this big cube floating around assimilating everything.
JH: Not the most elegant of metaphors. I like the idea that being how you bring things into your economy of meaning is by finding rhymes for them both in poetry and also in life: “This is like this. This is like this.” I can represent it to myself. Seeing that literally happen through slant rhymes and full rhymes adds an element of play to that poem that I couldn’t access at first.
I’d collaborated with my friend Chad in this long poem, and we would basically take any of our language and tear it apart or insert words. One of the ways of dealing with language that I didn’t feel like belonged in a poem would be to rewrite it sonically, to morph it in that way, and put the original and morphed version beside each other. So it seemed like the poem was always punning on itself.
TL: That’s a deep thing. I haven’t really thought about this. I identify completely with what you’re saying about collaboration. Another way to think about art and artifice is the familiar and the alien, and there always has to be a mix there. The “familiar” I would call the “safety.” The “alien” I would call the “dangerous.” No relationship is all that fun if it’s just safe. It’s nice: “I love you. I love you. Hug me. Okay!” How exciting is that? Not very. But in a poem it’s sort of like that: there has to be enough of the alien that the writer is a little bit disturbed and kept off balance and trying to “assimilate” this thing that is disgusting, that cannot be digested. I really believe that, because I think all of the poems that I hate reading are the ones where the writer has not brought in some alien thing, something disturbing to be grappled with it. It could be a Mother’s Day poem, it could be a dead grandmother poem, but bring in the shadow, some necessary disturbances, or I’d rather be jacking off.
JH: That’s what’s so great about that Herbert poem. It has that sense of grappling and it returns to that moment again and again. But the weird thing is that it doesn’t end with a resolution of the weird and the otherness. The meat is—I don’t know.
TL: I don’t know. “So I did sit and eat”—what if we took it as food and not erotic metaphor? A meal to be consumed. Then what? What do you do with love? Is it inexhaustible? Does it get boring? Is sitting down to the moment where it ends? It’s all downhill from there. The meal is going to turn to shit. And maybe love is going to have a talk with you, and it’s like, “I’m not inviting you back to another meal.” Do you see what I mean? In that sense, it seems open to me. That’s the problem with religion, with the idea of heaven or paradise. It’s ridiculous, because there’s no end point. The only real end point is that we’re going to be dead and have no consciousness and that’s horrible. So that meal, it has to end there. Because what’s he going to say? And then I chowed down on his meat? And then what? That lack of resolution is remarkable—I agree with you—but to me there’s also a kind of sadness.
JH: Sadness because it’s not a complete ecology of what love could be?
TL: Maybe the whole point of Herbert’s poem is to surrender your shame and your unworthiness enough to sit down. It’s not really about the meal. It’s about sitting down and saying, “Yes.” And, frankly—I’m now going to now retrieve the erotic metaphor—sometimes when the pants come off, that’s the best moment. Everything else is about getting off. For some people, you might have to wait for something like sixteen months before the moment finally arrives. And you’re like, “Damn. Is this living the life or what?” Conscious in the moment, you know it’s not going to be about the orgasm. It’s about sitting down, and you’re about to eat.
Think about this. You were ordering from the menu today. Is this moment really better? Now that you’ve—
JH: Oh no. It’s the first bite.
I was reading something lately, maybe it was Agamben, and he was talking about these medieval philosophers thinking about heaven and whether or not your entire body goes. Does your body carry its organs? They were debating whether your body carries its shit to heaven.
TL: And your body at what age? Are you fourteen? Thirty-three? Sixty-five?
JH: Right. They decided you couldn’t carry your body because after a while heaven would be too full of shit. And so that was something that had to be negotiated.
TL: Do you know how the Mormons solved it? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I’m going to tell you. Your resurrected body is perfect, so it looks like your mortal body. But it’s different. First of all, it doesn’t have any blood flowing through it but what I’ll call resurrection fluid, whatever that is. A clear fluid, and you don’t shit because your body perfectly digests everything. There’s no waste. It’s completely used up, so you don’t have to worry about shit. Of course, I would say, if you’re omnipotent you should be able to shit if you wanted to. Because you’re all powerful. Otherwise you’re not all powerful. The resurrected body, is it composed of cells? Because if it is, the cells need to eat energy and shit. Every cell of our body shits. So how’s that? Are the cells also eating the energy perfectly and so there’s no piss? Obviously it’s a ridiculous question. The real answer is there’s no heaven. Or we could quote scripture and say, “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” They used to say in the Mormon church, “If you’re a little ant and you’re crawling on a globe, you can never experience the third dimension.” That’s why we can’t understand heaven. We’re on this earth like an ant on a globe and heaven is such a bigger idea, so these questions about our bodies—do we carry our shit up there—won’t finally matter. Your body will probably be a furnace. You could probably eat galaxies and stuff. [Laughs]
JH: Any attempts to rationalize it becomes a model for what do we value on earth. And so thinking out how heaven works and the economies of heaven and the need to have perfect economies and bodies which don’t produce waste is a way of thinking that we can achieve that somehow on earth. It’s something we should work toward: the perfectly efficient consumption of stuff. Which is impossible.
TL: Okay, I’m going to be indulgent now.
JH: Yes. I’m really interested in this question.
TL: First off, do you feel like if we met in third grade we would have been friends? Me and you? Tim and Joe?
JH: I think so.
TL: Do you think so?
TL: Okay. I don’t feel that way about lots of people, but I do feel that away about you. When I saw you sitting outside in the sun and you texted me, I was like, “Joe! You’re here.” [Laughs] Because I didn’t feel that way when I saw you in March. No Sirree, I was intimidated by you. You were so smart!
JH: I had a lot of time to prepare and present myself.
TL: Here’s the thing about indulgence: it’s a question of audience. So if we’re having a conversation and you’re going to try to make an interview out of it, in a way it’s indulgent because why would these people who are going to pick up this magazine—and if they’re going to read any of this interview at all, why would they care about me asking, “Do you think we’d be friends in third grade?” Of course we’re the parties concerned and it’s fun for us, but in a way it’s a way of saying fuck you to whoever might be reading this interview. We don’t care about you right now, because our conversation is more important than this interview. Because we’re alive! We were just talking about heaven and shit and now: “You’d be really fun in third grade, Joe!” Another indulgent thing is how AWP gave us a chance to actually meet on a panel but also later on the page and now back here. And I’m sure your AWP was a circus as well. You could probably make a list of one thousand things that happened, but for me I really liked that moment we were in the same room together. I would say you’re the only person I met in Boston that I would even imagine sitting down with today to talk poetry.
JH: To me, your talk felt like that was the other side of something I’d been trying to figure out about love, and it was presented in such a canny way that it was something that both completed something and left more that I wanted to follow up on. And it’s something we both care about. We weren’t talking about “How do you get hits for you poetry blog?” That won’t fix any of my problems.
TL: I think we were being indulgent on that panel in a non-pejorative way. There’s that Catholic idea of the remission of sin, buying indulgences, buying pardons, and, in a way, it’s the same thing: “Audience, pardon us, I know you’re here in this overly crowded room, but we’re going to talk about what we’re interested in. Maybe you’ll be interested, but we don’t even care if you are! Maybe you’ll get something out of it, maybe not.”
When it comes to poetry, being self-indulgent or excessive is like saying, “Look. You might be irritated now at what I’m about to do, but I am obsessed with this. I’m going to go off on it. And I don’t know if you’re along for the ride, and if you’re not, fuck you.” That is the indulgence of poetry, and that’s why we all have our really strong tastes and distastes for writers. There are trains we get on and trains we get off. Like the Mary Oliver train. When was the last time you took a ride on that one?
JH: Six, seven years maybe.
TL: I still get on the one called American Primitive she won the Pulitzer Prize for. I read that book at a certain time in my life, so I get this weird and potent nostalgia. Whereas Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, anything she’s written in the last twenty five years, is mostly dreck.
JH: So is all poetry indulgent in different ways? Is it an indulgent genre?
TL: All these art forms, like poetry, like opera, oil painting, installation art—I’m seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs tonight—none of them are indulgent per se. Now when Karen O gets out there and she’s spewing water out her mouth like a hydrant, some might say, “Yeah, she’s fucking indulgent up there.” But for me it’s a good indulgence. It’s like, “That’s fucked up!” I love Karen O. In fact, she’s like a poetry mascot, because I like how far out she goes compared to all those other indie rockers. She goes way outside of that stupid little box about what people might actually do on stage. When I sit down to the page, I want to remember Karen O and her performative spirit. Poetry is not indulgent, but rather, a sustenance. People who are watching really stupid movies and stupid TV, they’re the ones being indulgent, because they’re not even conscious of the shit they’re being spoon-fed by global capitalism. Poetry is not free from the mind-numbing machinery either, but in comparison, is often a lesser evil.
JH: The stakes are very low.
TL: The Real Housewives of New Jersey compared to John Ashbery, hello? It’s night and day. And I’d even prefer someone reading a moving Mary Oliver poem to watching American Idol. And I know there are going to be American Studies and Cultural Studies assholes at Buffalo who will say American Idol is like Wallace Stevens! Of course I can read a smart little paper on Madonna or whatever. It’s fine. I get it. Yes, I do enjoy things for what they are. So if we go to Crif Dogs—do you know Crif Dogs?
TL: We’ll have to walk by there, because the sign says, “Eat me.” And it’s a big hotdog. And also it has a secret speakeasy that you walk into through a pay phone booth, which we will do. Because I think it’s a great metaphor for poetry: both “Eat me” and then the whole secret speakeasy thing that you walk into through this phone booth. And there’s no sign, so if you’re not in on the secret, you buy your hotdog and leave. Never mind indulgences!
JH: Or excess.
TL: I’m thinking about a poem Hansa Bergwall and I wrote for our chapbook. Our collaborations have no titles but the opening line of this poem is “Please indulge this”:
Please indulge this.
Because the nettles only sting
when alive. Because
dead things are so easily
severed by a blade of grass.
Honeybees would rather die
than eat the last of the honey.
I try to find you amongst
the ruined combs—the spring
day that can’t help but burst
from carefully wrapped gifts.
There is no last of the honey,
only more to unwrap. Only
bodies underfoot to preserve
a kiss in wax—winter gone—
tongues cut apart by grass
where royal dandelions
hoard the sugar of the field.
But where is the lion’s mouth?
Where is the hero who lays
down for my pleasure?
I love the opening imperative of this poem, “Please indulge this,” because in a way it’s like we’re talking about our love and it has nothing to do with you. Yet somehow even if you listen to this maybe it’ll engage you too. I think all poetry is like that. You’re kind of saying, “I don’t know…I have to write this thing, and I am indulging you to even consider reading this.” In that sense, all poetry is indulgent. Every single thing we’ve ever written. To have the audacity to actually want someone to spend thirty seconds of her mortal life reading something you wrote is indulgent, I think.
JH: It’s outside economies of use. It’s not going to fix someone’s car.
TL: But it might! As Williams says, people die every day for the lack of what’s found there. Maybe you’re down. Maybe you need something to pick you back up before you can go out and fix that car. Or get sober. My beloved today is entering rehab. Today. It’s the first time in my knowing him for three years that we may not be able to talk to each other for…who knows how long. And poetry is in that equation somewhere.
Now, in workshop we all know when we feel like poets are being self-indulgent, and I think the pejorative has to do with not considering audience. They’re basically masturbating, and we’re not getting off. That’s it. And what we want is, go ahead and touch yourself but we want it to arouse us too! We don’t want to watch something that turns us off and makes us think, “What are you making us spend time on this for?”
Whereas if someone were being flamboyant, indulgent, excessive, it captivates our attention. Roland Barthes’ idea in The Pleasure of the Text is that all writing is a striptease. The whole object is to hold our attention. Every writer is attention starved. Our parents weren’t good parents. They didn’t give us the mirroring we needed, so we’re writers. It’s like: “Pay attention to me.” So you better do something. Do a little dance that will get us off, that will make us want to stick little dollar bills in your G-string. That’s a good performance! But if someone’s doing a little strip show right in front of your face and you keep on checking your phone, then I’d say something’s not working.
JH: There are two kinds of indulgence then, the one that is the pleasurable indulgence, the one that says, “This train is leaving, get on or get off.” And the one that—
TL: Or get on and get off [Laughs]. Or get off and then get on.
Speaking of indulgences, I want to talk about your Devotional Poems. Your “Christ-Beast” thing is really fucked up in that book. It’s an obsession that you carry all the way through the book, and it’s disturbing. Anyone who’d read this book would think you’re deranged. What I like about this book is that it doesn’t allow the savior figure to be robed and white and enthroned and healing the sick. It’s a composite Christ-Beast. It’s erotically troubling, because you won’t separate the spiritual from the sexual. You won’t do the little slice which is a sort of Christian thing that happens. This is now a new savior, which is—no. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to sanitize the erotic and the sexual. It’s also not the sanitized heterosexual virgin/whore Mary thing. This Christ is pansexual. It’s disturbing, because what you’re saying is the divine is a violation. It is like the beast, and it is like the Christ. It’s pansexual and fucked up. And if you’re not doing that, it’s not a god that interests you. This god doesn’t have the force: the Western god, the bearded god, the white robe, the guy who died on the cross is not enough for you. That image is not divine. So what you’re doing in this book is you’re presenting an image of the imagination. And I do think of Stevens, these sorts of supreme fictions. This is a supreme fiction. You’re saying, “Whatever God is”—and this is not high and mighty or arrogant. This is your vision, but you’re not foisting it or being holier than thou. It’s very humble, actually: “This is my image of the divine. It’s fucked up, but I have to write it. So these are my devotions.” When I read it, I was really with this book. And so what I would say is it’s very indulgent. What makes it such a good book is if you’d only written one poem, it would have been a good poem, but now it’s a good book. It’s not like going to church once on Easter or Christmas, it’s a practice.
When I read this book I think, you had to write this over a stretch. You did not write this book in a week. There’s no way. There’s just too much room in it. It is kind of a shocking book, because I read your books back to back yesterday on a park bench. I hadn’t read them like that, and I wanted to think, “What if I didn’t know who Joe Hall was, and I just read them like this?” One of the things that really surprised me is there are a few hidden seeds sown in Pigafetta Is My Wife but I wouldn’t have anticipated The Devotional Poems at all. Of course Pigafetta is very devotional because of the epistolary poems to Cheryl. One of the things that surprises me in Pigafetta is when I’m done I think, “He’s so much better about writing a love poem when he’s not with her!” Of course, Williams says we can’t start writing about a place until we leave it, so we can infer that people are also geography. So we get it, the whole idea of the elegiac: while it’s in our presence let’s enjoy it, and once it’s not there we’ll write about it. But the thing is, the separation of these people both in time, between the history and your lived life, and also between Spain and the New World, that gap is the metaphor that oscillates from page to page to page to page. Even when they finally get back and there’s eighteen survivors or when you’re helping the beloved move to Indiana or you’re actually with her, it’s actually a little bit of a letdown. Obviously they have to get back or they can’t tell the story, that’s what we all know about Moby Dick—it’s the same thing in this book. When they’re back and they’re writing, they’re not writing about being back. And once the speaker is back with the girlfriend, I lose interest. The writing is not that compelling. It’s well done. It’s the same artist. You’re making lines, using space. The music is very similar but there’s an urgency that’s gone. The thing that really captures your lyric heart in this book is really far away. This book can’t be called “Cheryl Is My Wife.” It wouldn’t work. But, obviously, this book also wouldn’t work if she weren’t in it on every other page, because that’s the whole construction of the book. This is a devotional to distance. It’s a devotional to helplessness, to the space of her woundedness. That’s what I feel like the devotion is. There’s a lot of poignant suffering in that. The Devotional Poems is very different to me.
JH: Writing The Devotional Poems felt more vulnerable in a way.
TL: You’re more exposed in this book. What does Cheryl think about that?
JH: She likes Pigafetta better.
TL: Of course. [Laughs] Could it be called primary narcissism? We all like to star in our own movie. I think so.
If I could have one of these books on a desert island I would take The Devotional Poems. It’s a more fucked up book. Pigafetta is beautifully written. But I don’t agree with the blurbs on the back of the book, I rarely do. [Timothy dissects the blurbs of Pigafetta Is My Wife]
I also don’t read the blurbs before I read a book. It’s not a habit I have. What I do is I read the book, experience it, and then I think, “What did those other fuckers say?” And nine out of ten times I think, “Uh-huh.” And every now and then I’m like, “Well, that’s a nice blurb. Someone actually read it and got it.”
JH: It’s rare that the blurb even sticks to my eyes. I guess I’ve accepted them as words, as filler.
TL: [Timothy dissects the blurbs of The Devotional Poems] Now I do love your chapbook [Post Nativity], because I’m one of those dinosaurs that has a huge CD collection.
JH: You could slide it in a jewel case.
TL: It’s the same size. I got all your shit. I went online buying your shit. So some day when you’re sixty-five years old, and I’m decrepit, people will be like, “Post Nativity, how did you get that?”
JH: Adam Robinson was really sweet about it. He heard me read the poem and was like, “I want to make this a chapbook but I don’t want to wait. We need to publish it right now, and that will be it.” It was an act of spontaneous publishing. I like the idea. We’ll talk until it’s done.
TL: What’s your understanding of the image on the cover?
JH: The image is Stephanie Barber’s image. It’s a bookshelf. Or, it’s a row of spines of books that’s been run through gray-scale a million times I think.
TL: Is it more like a bookshelf’s aerial view so some of the books stick out and you see the tops of the books?
JH: Oh yeah.
TL: That would make more sense to me than spine out. I feel like that’s what we’re seeing.
JH: She told me books and bookshelves.
TL: What it looks like to me is like cities on the horizon. So now we’ve completely lost the thread of this interview. Isn’t that great?
JH: Mission accomplished. But now my thinking on blurbs has evolved.
TL: Ok, so let’s talk about dicks in your poems.
JH: Ok. Dicks.
TL: In The Devotional Poems you open with a poem where the men are palming their cocks which is such a beautiful verb. I don’t think I’ve seen that done in a poem before, so you get all the credit. It’s also not a very pornographic word, verb-wise—“palming.” Whether it’s the guy circumcising himself at the art installation or this, there’s definitely dick in your poems in both books and in other poems that I’ve read. It embodies this homoerotic, bi-, pansexual realm. Often in American poetry, we get straight-male poets sort of posturing and writing about dick or something gay, but what they want is to score a few points for how metro-sexual they are. Hello Tony Hoagland. I get annoyed when it’s employed that way. An eye roll thing. But I do not feel that ever about your work. In fact, I find it sexy and also disturbing and so I was curious, has anyone ever asked you about dick in your work or do they tend to avoid the subject?
JH: It’s funny because the poem “Post Nativity” has all these gigantic genitals—gigantic balls and dicks and cocks—but then it ends on the torture stuff. And people, if they want to say something about the poem, they’ll talk about torture and not how do we get from one to the other.
TL: So there’s a little phobia of the pleasure. We can do the torture thing. It’s the same thing in a movie: you can kill off a gay character, that’s fine, but don’t linger too much on the erotic interaction unless you’re going to kill him.
TL: I mean, that’s in our culture, it’s not just film culture. It’s in the culture that we live in right here in America. Talk about indulgence: two guys holding hands down the street or kissing on a bench, a lot of people are still like, “Get a room. We don’t want to see it.” Do I like seeing anyone else suck face? The answer is, I often do. I like it fine!
JH: And that’s been one of the pleasures of reading the poems in public—testing out people’s reaction to them.
TL: Here’s the thing. I’m going to be tough on you a little bit. The “Beast, Christ” stuff is really obsessive and it runs through four-fifths of the book. But when you land on what I’ll call the “Mary” poems, the energy dissipates for me. It’s the same thing when you get to Cheryl in Pigafetta, when you’re finally bandaging up her wounds. It’s a little bit like the agitation has left the building. I’m wondering what you think about that.
JH: I think that is something that I was negotiating, putting it together. I think, in a way, the “Mary” ones are more logo-poetic or contemplative, and so it’s almost like a division of labor in that the “Christ-Beast” poems generate this energy, these different images and aggressive boundary crossings, and then the final ones are trying to make sense of all the material that’s been covered. But it’s interesting to hear that the energy feels like it has dissipated. So does it feel like those poems are a weird appendage that’s been attached to the end?
TL: No. It doesn’t feel like an appendage. I want more of the “Christ-Beast.” I want more of:
Your tongue moving
When all the horns do not blow
Or is this between two voids, passing?
Lord, are you the basin?
That’s really strong.
JH: The interesting thing is that those Mary poems were written first. They were my entry point into writing the book. And they end up being where the reader ends.
TL: So I guess when you do your tenth printing of this book, if you end with this long poem [“Even Iron Heals”] it would be a bolder move. Your book is not a mistake. It’s fine. These are all good poems. I’m just trying to tell you what it was like to read the book. Not analyze it line by line or poem by poem. It felt like “ugh.” What just happened? And I had a similar feeling with Pigafetta. It’s not that the energy entirely left the wine. There’s energy, but it flattened out. I thought, “Why are you flattening things out?”
JH: It’s an unresolved question for me of “What does a book do? And what do I want my poems to do?” Because I find myself producing both kinds of poems: ones that are trying to create what some people would call a structure of feeling, where it’s this big, messy, gestural thing that describes something that people recognize but couldn’t say, “This is its name”; and the other ones are trying more to think through things in certain ways, but the Mary ones—I don’t know. Huh.
TL: This is what I think. You wrote them and started things up. Then you got into the real meat of the book. [Laughs] So then in putting the book together, maybe it’s a mistake to put these initial poems at the end. I believe that now that you’ve explained it to me, because the first fifty-eight pages—which is, incidentally, the number of pages of Vox Angelica, which also starts on page three—maybe I like those numbers—are a complete experience for me. So the final section does feel a little bit like an appendage. And the wrong appendage, even if it sparked the book. It’s the seed but it’s not the tree. Even though the writing is good. Nor does it embarrass or disgrace the book at all.
JH: There’s a part of me that has a really deep distrust of climax I think.
TL: [Laughs]. Come again?
JH: Timothy, there’s a part of me that distrusts climax.
TL: Put that in a blurb: “Joe Hall has a deep distrust of climax.”
JH: Or ending with climax.
TL: Ok, so you grew up in Frederick, Maryland. Were you there all through high school?
TL: So were you conscious of living in a kind of homophobic world in addition to racism and the KKK? Because I think what’s really potent about dick in your poems, in fact, is that it’s very sensual and erotic, and you had to break through to that place. And I think it was brave, because you weren’t posturing and panting and wanting little merit badges. In fact, you’re kind of putting it out there and when you’re making this kind of Beast-Christ figure it has to include this kind of homoerotic, pan-sexual thing.
JH: When I grew up, I was living in a rural environment and living also in not necessarily a politically conservative but a working-class milieu. And all the jobs I worked as well. I moved from an environment that was actively racist to one in which gender roles were really strictly defined. For me, in these poems, there’s something about homoerotic feelings or pansexual feelings in the trailer park setting, in these spaces that are usually reserved as purely masculine, working class spaces, that I was really drawn to. Because that was not something that had a place. There were zero people in my high school that identified as gay.
TL: But what about when you were a kid, ages five to eight and exploring everything? A lot of boys diddle each other and stuff like that. Did you notice, did you witness or participate in, anything like that or not? Was it completely hidden from you?
JH: The thing with me is that I basically grew up with my family. I lived in the woods and I had two brothers. I lived next to my grandfather on one side and then my uncle after that. So most of the time when I was playing with people it was with my brothers and we did have very close relationships and share the same rooms. We knew each other in really intimate ways that people in their suburban bedrooms, everyone with their own walls, wouldn’t really know. But there was never any acceptable or non-massively taboo-breaking way to explore.
TL: So the people you lived around, there was no genital contact.
TL: So anything would have to be in the imagination.
TL: So when you moved out of the family realm—and that’s unusual, that realm that you grew up in, most people I knew did not grow up that way. So how old were you when you finally encountered genitals, people actually doing stuff to people?
JH: Because of how I grew up, it was later.
TL: Are we talking junior high, high school, college?
JH: Oh, high school.
TL: And so at your high school, no one was out?
TL: And were you aware that there was homosexual activity going on in your high school?
JH: No. That’s the thing.
TL: So for you it didn’t exist.
JH: It wasn’t something with any kind of name or articulation that I understood. Or it was a completely alien thing. In high school there are “fags.” But you don’t understand what that means in any rational way.
TL: What do you think about dick in your poems? Has your girlfriend ever asked you about it? “You’re writing about dicks, what’s up?”
JH: We’ve talked about it.
TL: So for you, how does cock make its way into your poems, into your imagination?
JH: Part of it is the desire to be penetrated, a desire I couldn’t admit to for a long time.
TL: So many men can’t! I mean, to say that [speaks to mic] on this interview. We’ve put ourselves in a risky place, to say that even now.
JH: You talked about the slice between sexuality and religion. I read this great story the other day. It was a creation story in which Adam was initially figured as having gigantic genitals. He was by himself and was a habitual masturbator. He was polluting heaven and earth via his excessive masturbation. And so god circumcises him, plants the parts of Adam’s dick he has cut off by the gates of heaven. This grows into a tree and that tree is where certain flora and fauna come from, animals and plants.
TL: Literally from the foreskin, after he circumcises him?
TL: I’ve never heard of that myth. That’s pretty interesting.
JH: And to me that perfectly summarizes this strange anxiety that exists between the religious and the sexual and how current religious tradition mediates sexuality in ways that are termed as environmental. God is keeping heaven from being polluted and from being overfull.
TL: You have a great poem I found online. It’s one of my favorite poems of yours I’ve read. I know the poem is about this long and the lines are longish but it’s the most erotic poem I’ve read of yours. It’s definitely homoerotic, and I wish I brought a copy with me. I’m going to have to email that to you, so we can talk about it. I read your poems, and I get all turned on. I do!
JH: That would be maybe the best compliment I could get.
TL: So that’s what I’m saying, “Even though Joe Hall clearly has a fear of climax, these poems turn me on.” [Laughs]
JH: Okay, good. [Laughs]
TL: “I get a boner every time I read this book.” – Timothy Liu. That would be my blurb.
JH: That’s a powerful blurb.
TL: So do you find crossing the line into alien territory, getting into the unsafe, the unfamiliar, is that for you a mental/theoretical activity or is it more of a feeling/body-centered activity? Because in your poems it does not feel intellectual at all. I don’t feel like you’re being funny or smart or something. I feel like the words are coming from a deep, embodied place.
JH: When I was writing the book, one thing that was happening was that because I had worked all these manual labor jobs and done stupid things with my body, I was having tons of nerve pain.
TL: Nerve pain?
JH: Pinched nerves in my neck so that my hand would hurt or my chest would hurt. I’d actually gone into the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack at the time because the pain was so intense. And so there was alongside the regular sort of grounding in one’s body from the erotic another grounding that was happening at the same time from that really visceral pain and that anxiety that my body was slipping out of my control. But in a weird way, those two things entered a really productive dialogue—the erotic possibilities of one’s body versus realizing one’s limitations as a mortal being.
TL: It makes perfect sense to me, because I’m reminded that physiologically, pain and pleasure reside on the same continuum. So you’re getting a blowjob and it’s like, “Okay! Stop! Too sensitive now.” Or, “More of that. Oh, a little less.” And that’s it. All from the same continuum. It doesn’t matter if there’s an eroticized pleasure or if you’re suffering nerve pain from work because somatically it’s all on the same line. Our mortality and our weakness, they speak exactly to the fact that we’re still alive and can still have pleasure. It’s trying to move the psyche along this continuum. Again, the poem lives right at that line. Where does it cross over from pain into pleasure? Back and forth. You can find and explore what that line is—I think that’s what the poem does. I’ll say to my therapist, “I can’t believe how thin that line is between feeling okay and not okay.” It’s so disturbing to me. I don’t suffer from depression, but I am sensitive to feeling. I could wake up in the morning and feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest. I can’t breathe, and I don’t know how I’m going to have a good day. It’s almost like this black cloud, the weather, is there and I have to negotiate it and say, “But I want to have a decent day.” I’m in charge. I’m the only person responsible for my day here, and when I get out of this bed and put my feet on the ground that’s the beginning of my day. I am going to take care of myself today and have the best day I can even if the line between being not okay and being okay is really thin.
JH: And it’s been strange to discover that, because depression itself seems to be this other thing: you’re living in this big fat margin between those things that you don’t see. You don’t even feel like shit and you don’t feel good. I think that’s one of the reasons that I was so drawn to your poems. That distance between violence and the erotic is traversed so quickly all the time, and I think that’s part of their power. To see how some of the images work together to show us something about excess, that there’s this excess that we’re always dealing with that your poems seem to deal with. And it’s how we’re mediating that excess, how we’re managing it, and how it manifests itself that defines that line between the erotic and the violent.
TL: Let me propose a different word which is “surplus,” in the Lacanian sense. Let’s go back to Freud and his idea of sublimation: we have these thwarted erotic energies, the libido. And so if it’s not expressed, we have to do something with it. And if it’s not expressed in sex, we can sublimate it, make art. We all know about this. That is why the erotic current is so important to any artistic creation, because we’re sublimating this energy when we’re not fucking, basically. Back to Lacan. He amplified this idea, said what life is really about is negotiating the surplus energy that we have. So in other words, there are these choices that have to be made, these expenditures. It becomes a moral choice, how you spend your surplus energy.
So in regard to my poetry, I don’t think I’m being gratuitously violent because I don’t need to fetishize violence. What I’m interested in is trespass, and I’m interested in transgression. Those are two things I am interested in, and I think the violence does come from that. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re making out with someone. You grab him by the neck, start licking him in places he’s never been licked, and he says, “No!” And you say, “No, you like it.” And he surrenders. So what’s happening in that moment there? No one’s being choked, no one’s being harmed. What’s happening there is this wonderful moment between desire and resistance and not even knowing what you want. That is where the erotic lives.
I remember wrestling around with my beloved in a hotel room not too long ago, and I wanted him to pin me down. Then my arm got stuck behind my back, and he crunched down! I’m like, “Get off me, get off me.” He said, “No.” And that was a really great moment. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Or was I? He went beyond what I asked for. That’s the kind of erotic violence I’m interested in. And I’m not just talking about writing poems, I’m talking about living our lives. I value that: when we don’t know what we want anymore. We think we know what we want. We want chocolate, we don’t want vanilla. It’s “O my god, get off me, get me off.” “No.” And you’re like, “Okay.” [Laughs] Because then, all of the sudden, you have to ask, “Who am I?” You don’t even know who you are. We think we know. But we don’t.
One of the most basic things a child does is decide what it will swallow and what it won’t. That’s it. There are a lot of neurotic folks whose parents made them eat liver and broccoli. It can fuck with the child’s psycho-sexual development horribly. You can’t do that to kids. The kid has to have the agency to decide what to take in and what not, unless it’s poison. You do not ever make a kid eat something that he doesn’t want to. I don’t care what it is. I do believe that, but then again, I see it happen all the time.
I was just with a friend of mine. He’s gay but sired a daughter. She’s six and a half. The one thing she hates eating is avocado, of all things. And he put a little avocado in her couscous and she could taste it. And he made her eat it. I couldn’t intervene, because you can’t intervene when people are parenting unless they’re beating their child. Or if they’re raping them. Then I might have to step in. [Laughs] But if they’re making them eat avocado Israeli couscous I can’t, but I was thinking to myself: “You fucker. This is evil. And the only reason you’re doing it is because your parents made you eat stuff you didn’t want. Otherwise, this would not be happening.”
JH: And it’s a tiny moment of bad faith.
TL: Remember, she’s a child. For an adult, it’s way more interesting. We can say “no,” but it is true sometimes that “no” means “yes.” And I don’t mean date rape. I don’t mean slipping a roofie into someone’s martini. I mean that wonderful moment when “I don’t know if I want this. Do I want this?” emerges. That zigzag across the line of now you want it, now you don’t, and now you’re not quite sure. And then the realization that you don’t even know who you are. That’s poetry.
JH: There are so many projects which I think are revolutionary projects that are not about the destruction of some system or whatever, but about how to create new desires. How do you get people to desire new things? Not to deny them anything but to have possession of that desire and in that to rearticulate who they are to change their path or vector in the world.
TL: If I can narrow this down to a concrete thing, I have a poem in Bending the Mind Around the Dream’s Blown Fuse called “The New York Lotto”:
A stack of strike-it-rich scratch games
discarded across the sidewalk but
my mouth’s not right. Kind of night
you end up snorting a line of coke
off a stranger’s dick, two boys hustling
in Union Square. Clubbed to death
by a sack of rocks, a baseball bat
knocking another one out of the park.
I have to admit I’ve never snorted coke. I’ve only smoked pot [to the mic] and didn’t inhale. But I love the image of “snorting a line of coke,” stanza break, “off a stranger’s dick.” You need that little delay there, because we normally think of little mirrors. I like to go from an image that is shocking to something more shocking—gay bashing. There are in fact hustlers who have been beaten to death by baseball bats in Union Square Park. It’s real. I didn’t make it up. And if you’re a hustler, you’ve probably snorted a line of coke off a stranger’s dick. I wanted to make that equation. In a news broadcast they’re not going to tell the audience, “Oh, by the way, before they were bashed, they were snorting lines of coke off strangers’ dicks…” That’s where poetry comes in. Poetry is about juxtaposition, about saying, “We live in a sanitized culture, but I’m not going to sanitize my poems.” I do believe that’s part of the job, to pay attention to all the weird little things that fly under most radars and to somehow bring them together.
The last thing I like about this poem is “a baseball bat,” linebreak, “knocking another one out of the park.” To take gay bashing, someone being murdered and clubbed to death and to actually make it funny, the whole baseball idea—“O, we knocked another one out of the park”—that’s shocking to me. To talk about murder and mayhem while punning on it like it’s a homerun. I’m thinking Yankee Stadium. And, also, the pun on the word “park” because it’s Union Square Park literally. Union Square—commemorating these United States of the Union after the Civil War. It’s odd. So what’s being brought together in this poem: snorting lines of coke off a stranger’s dick and a baseball bat killing a fag all united in this pun, which is a homerun. I want this poem to knock one out of the park, the pun as a fun linguistic act of violence.
JH: It seems so extreme that there’s kind of a wink at the end of the poem, which I think the whole poem depends on.
TL: Rather than use violence in a poem just to be violent, I want to upset expectations. Here’s an excerpt from a prose poem called “Five Rice Queens”:
phane, peanut oil, duct tape. Shave my hairy ass
and balls during daytime soaps. Serious only.
I would say the request for these materials and then the description of the shaving has a kind of inherent violence to it. It’s kind of a do-it-yourself violence kit. In this want ad it’s clear that the guy is into a lunch-break tryst and wants cellophane, peanut oil, and duct tape. We’re in for a little bondage session. And then if he wants to shave his little hairy ass and balls—clearly a precarious activity for any of us who have ever shaved someone else. “Serious only” comes across as a joke. In fact, it’s a very serious thing that people say in a want ad, but it’s funny in the context of this poem. The trespass. So the poem is an invitation. It’s a joke, it’s a wink, but it’s also, “Who would write such an ad? And who is Tim Liu to say that this is a poem?” And I do think there’s transgression going on. Whenever I read this poem, people do laugh. And it builds. It’s not humor in the Dean Young or Tony Hoagland kind of way. This is a different kind of humor, I think. I do. It’s not humor in the Billy Collins way either. The market for his poetry cannot sustain snorting a line of coke off a stranger’s dick.
JH: That’s a really interesting question: the line between a marketable humor and a transgressive humor. It seems like it has something to do with what that humor opens it up to. When I read those poems, it’s funny but then you do question what produces not just who writes the ad and who responds to it but also why. What produces the desire to put one’s self in those relationships that are on the edge of total objectification?
TL: And who is the reader of the poem in this situation as well.
JH: Right. I’m not supposed to have heard this.
TL: We’ve all looked at whatever configuration, whether it’s our thing or not. I’ve read women seeking women ads. Who doesn’t? But what does it mean in a book of poems? You’re at a poetry reading and here’s “Five Rice Queens.” Here we go. In other words, whatever that experience is, it has to be negotiated. And if you walk into a poetry reading or pick up a journal and read this poem—“I didn’t ask for this.” So I’m saying, you don’t have to like it but what are you going to do with it? There’s always the inevitable question: is it a poem? How is it a poem? Why is it a poem? Does it challenge your notion of what a poem is? Or do you move on?
JH: For you, is there a relationship between the content of your poems as regularly seeking to trespass and the form of the poems?
TL: There can be. I would say trespass can happen on a lot of levels. It can happen on the level of diction, on the level of narrative, on the level of image, and I suppose if you want to employ a radical form, you could. Although, truthfully, and this is going to be anathema to say this, if you’ve read enough poetry of the last hundred years, there’s not much trespass left to do to the page. There are so many poets playing with form, but too many are also out of touch with content that would be scary for them to write. They play it too safe. Things look radical on the page, but there’s nothing there.
JH: One thing I want to bring back from earlier: you drew a line from indulgence to practice. Some of the poems I’ve been interested in lately are poems that are almost directions. So you have C.A. Conrad’s poems which are recipes for your body or recipes for your digestive or erotic life. To me that is about a content which the poems don’t even describe. Their target is on you, the actual contents of your body. It does seem like there is this new pressure on content in a way that seems productive and has something to do with how one gets from indulgence to practice.
TL: Say more.
JH: His poems are concerned with practices which we’re used to and habituated to. There’s one where you go into an art museum and you look at the painting. Your normal intervention—your Kantian sublime—is you enjoy it and then something happens to your soul. Conrad’s poem asks you to go into the bathroom and think about the painting and masturbate instead. You’re taking this thing which is an indulgence—and it’s indulgent for him to ask you to do it—and inserting it into what’s a normal practice for the reader. So what does that do to the practice?
TL: Well, I would say, in a clichéd way, poetry is taking something normative or ordinary and making it new and strange. I think C.A. Conrad once posted on Facebook: “I can’t think of anything more interesting than fucking.” That was his status update. When I read it—serendipitously because it was the latest thing on my news feed—I shook my head. Because I don’t think fucking is all that interesting, just one of a hundred things you could do anytime. It’s nice, like eating. But seduction is endlessly more interesting. I love when Jean Baudrillard instructs us, “If you think seduction is to get someone in bed and fuck, you don’t know anything about seduction.” Seduction goes way deeper than that. To be interested in seducing people to the point that they think they’re seducing you when in fact you’re the one who has seduced them into thinking that in the first place.
JH: People are always disappointed when they meet me after reading the book. When they see me they say, “That’s not what I thought.”
TL: When I see you, I think, “You’re the guy who wrote this book, so you must be fucked up!”
JH: Okay, good.
TL: That’s another way into risk-taking. Trying to own your fucked-up-ness and having that in your poems. If you’re going to do radical artifice, fine, but that doesn’t let you off the transgressive hook. That’s not the heart of poetry. That’s not what Gertrude Stein was doing in Tender Buttons. She wasn’t just masturbating. It wasn’t just about little salons and Picasso. Hers was a major life decision: “I can be a gay woman in Paris. I cannot do that in America. I cannot do this thing with Alice B. Toklas in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Cannot.” It’s the same thing with the poems. The poems aren’t just about repetition and ooh ooh Gertrude Stein the personality and wordplay. It’s not. It’s really serious. I love teaching that book Tender Buttons. It’s written in code, so erotic to decipher. All those poems—it’s the marriage of invention with necessity, her struggle. I look for that now. If someone is going to write a book of poems, great, be inventive, mess with language, but what are the stakes?
JH: Risk is something I’ve been trying to be better at not just on the page, because I think it’s easy for me to take risks on the page. But also in interpersonal relationships, you have this thing where you’re trying to be nice. You’re trying to smooth edges, so that you’re not challenging people in any way. You’re a teacher of poetry. When you have students in class who are writing those poems, how do you say, “You need to take risks”? Do you feel okay telling them to do that?
TL: I do. I have a very particular teaching style. There are two philosophies: “The Fifty-Mile Hike” and “The-Work-With-What-You’ve-Got-After-School-Recreation-Instructor.” In a poem it might be the biggest risk for someone to talk about his grandmother’s pussy. There’s nothing else in the poem. It’s banal. It’s a hallmark card. But somehow Grandma’s pussy is in there. And I’m like, “Damn! I want to know more about your grandma’s pussy.” Start by praising what’s praiseworthy, then issue the challenge to take more risks.
So what is an After School Recreational Instructor? Look, you’ve got fat kids, you’ve got thin ones, you’ve got fast ones, you’ve got slow ones. Your job is not with a stopwatch. Your job is, “I’ll work with what you’ve got. And we’ll move you from A to B. Move you from R to S. And have a nice day.” That’s how I teach. It’s the same thing with risk. If there’s no risk in a poem, then I’ll talk about something else in it. There’s nothing in this poem to have a risky conversation about, so I’m not going to pull teeth and say, “You don’t take risks. You’re an asshole! You shouldn’t be in this class.” Let’s skip risk when the poem doesn’t merit that discussion. I was in Boy Scouts. Were you?
JH: No scouts. You’ve got rank.
TL: And plenty of merit badges to prove it! Look, I’ve been on quite a few fifty-mile hikes. I was never first to the finish. But I was never last either. I was mostly between the middle and the front. Even a fat-ass will finish a fifty miler. He’s huffing and puffing, stinking and wining. But he makes it. That’s what Boy Scouts is. That’s what it’s about: everyone gets to make it. When I teach a creative writing workshop, that’s the one metaphor I have from day one: “We’re going on a fifty-mile hike here. Some of you are in really bad shape, but I’m not going to shame you for it. You’re going to make it. And by the end of this term you will have written poems that will surprise yourselves! I’m not going to shame you through the term, but I’m not Mister Nice Guy either. I praise what’s praiseworthy, and then I say, now try this.”
With a great yoga instructor in a ninety-minute session in a room full of twenty people, she or he might come up to you and make a few corrections. You’re in a pose, she touches your shoulder blade, she sticks her finger in your asshole, or she licks your toe or something like that, and you can totally feel a difference in alignment. And you say, “Thank you, thank you, because you didn’t have to spend any attention on me at all. You could have ignored me this whole session, but you didn’t. You touched me three times over an hour.” And that’s all I’m doing as a teacher. You give me a poem. It’s a body. I’m like: [makes shaping gestures with hands]. I don’t know. You want to [gestures]. And show me again. Let’s see how you’re breathing, how your posture is. And that’s it. That’s all I do. And I’m a good teacher, because I know which places to touch where they’re ready to be touched. So that doesn’t have anything to do with being a nice person and wanting to coddle. Do yoga instructors need to be nice people? Not really. We respect them because of the way they’re centered, the way they’re breathing, and the way they touch us. We trust it. They don’t have to be nice people, they just have to be centered yoga instructors. And I think that’s true about teaching poetry.
Of course it’s all grease in the axle, these social courtesies and sensitivities. I like socialization. We look like normal people here. We haven’t been throwing wine glasses and screaming our heads off in this restaurant. That said, I feel like it’s pretty easy for us to be pleasant, but the focus is we can be ourselves here. We can be serious, and we don’t have to have smiles plastered on our faces. I’m going to be wrong some of the time. I’m a pretty good teacher, but part of the reason why I am is because I realize I can’t teach everyone. And even someone I’m great with on one day, on another day, we’re suddenly not connecting. Maybe I’m emotionally distraught over my lover entering rehab. Earlier today, I was wondering, how am I going to get through this interview? Stuff is happening all the time. I know you gave a reading last night, were up late, getting fucked up. Do you drink? Do you drink a lot? Like how much did you drink last night?
JH: Seven. Seven to eight drinks.
JH: It’s a fair amount.
TL: I’m sure you have all sorts of intimacy issues and you escape and all that shit. Because you’re thirty, going on thirty-one, you can do that for awhile longer, but in the end you won’t be able to. Anyways, I’m not going to lecture you! I’m bringing it up because we have these lives to live whether we’re teaching or whether we’re sitting around doing this. It can go well, it can go really well, it can be okay, it can be not okay, and it can be a mix. We’re trying to live our lives here, so I don’t need to be a nice guy when I’m in the classroom. I do think I want to be a decent person. There’s something in twelve-step programs called “Right Action.” It means that whatever we do in the moment, the next thing we do, let’s have it be something that adds something to our esteem rather than take away from it. And if what we mostly experience is a chain of estimable actions, at the end of the day, we’ll be in a good place. Even a better place. But if you’re being an asshole and shitting on people and doing these non-estimable things, it really adds up. It just does.
JH: If the imperative to act ethically and to act outwardly is to not feel shame—trying to square the circle here—then those estimable actions probably have a lot to do with one’s capacity to not feel shame and to seduce.
TL: I think to get in touch with one’s own shame is an estimable action. But to shame another person is not. It’s cruel. We’ve all been shamed enough for the rest of our lives. As far as I’m concerned, all human beings by the time they’re eight have reached their shame quotas. Socialization is dire unless you have great parents. And most of us don’t have great parents, especially if we’re writers. We’ve exceeded the shame quota. There’s no reason to add to it. But to get in touch with our own shame and to digest it, that’s very good. It’s the people who aren’t doing that who are acting out their unconscious shame. That’s how it becomes the gift that keeps on giving inter-generationally. But if you’re making a meal out of your own shame and getting in touch with it and becoming conscious, then one of the perks is you don’t have to do that to other people anymore. You can move onto something new.
JH: I like the making a meal out of your own shame. That helps me think about it in the “loving of one’s own shit” paradigm that I’ve been developing.
TL: Maybe that brings us sort of full circle to George Herbert’s “I did sit down and taste your meat.” What is that meal that they’re eating? It’s got to be a metaphoric meal, because he doesn’t say venison steaks or hotdogs. It’s, “Taste my meat. And I did sit down and eat.” And the meat is a metaphor. Beef. Cock. Anything tasty. And juicy.
JH: I’m starting to have some back pain sitting in this chair.
TL: Oh my god. Do you want to go for a walk?
 The Wieners poem is untitled:
I can’t put my head on the pillow
but all kinds of fear ensue,
doubts plague the morning
what will I do
watch for the mail man
I feel like a jaded movie star
who missed the big-time
and ended up mopping floors
on South Street. This actually happens
for that is what I do in the evening
with my father and I wish
that were good enough for me.
I am more geared for travel,
but afraid to go.