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This piece is about 10 printed pages long. It is copyright © H. L. Hix and Philip Metres and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/36/iv-hix-ivb-metres.shtml
H L Hix in conversation with Philip Metres
November 2007-May 2008
H.L. Hix’s recent work, God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse (2007), comes almost entirely from speeches made by George Bush and Osama Bin Laden, which Hix transforms to create poems in various traditional Western and non-Western forms, from the sestina to the ghazal. It is a fascinating project, demonstrating an aesthetic attention that becomes a kind of ethical and political attention, a close reading of the first order. A document of close listening, God Bless aptly demonstrates the profound lack of listening at the heart of this administration’s decision-making process. Documentary poetry, in Hix’s rendering, becomes a kind of history lesson for the poet and his readers, a way of reading into the archive and thus extending the archive into poetry, poetry as “extending the document.”
Philip Metres: One of the things that struck me about God Bless in relation to your past work is the intense formal operation that underlies the book, its obsessive proceduralism. And yet, your work to date has not been quite this explicitly political. What procedural rules did you set for yourself to write these poems, and how did you try to make sure that you weren’t misquoting or manipulating your source material. In other words, for you, what are the aesthetics and ethics of collage?
H L Hix: The process itself, in some ways, was simple. I just hired an assistant to download from www.whitehouse.gov all the public statements Bush made in his first term and convert the text into a Microsoft Word file. I printed this giant document — several thousand pages of tiny type — and simply read through it, a month’s worth at a time, highlighter in hand. Then I would cut the highlighted passages and paste them into a smaller document, so that I would have everything in one place. So the gathering part of it was very straightforward — just reading and reading, collecting what seemed relevant.
Once I started composing, the primary rule I set for myself was that I could juxtapose passages, but not leave things out silently. So any time there’s a continuous passage with something that drops out, an ellipsis marks that it’s been chopped in that way. Otherwise, I’ve allowed myself to take a passage from here and from there and put them together. I’m sure this results in various forms of distortion — how could it not? — but my thought was that this project was in some way like caricature, where distortion of features is intentional: “yeah, your nose isn’t that big, but I drew it that big because it’s a prominent part of your face.” Even though the caricature is distorted, it’s recognizable. Maybe, in a certain way, it’s more accurate for the distortion. My objective was that sort of accuracy, that foregrounding of certain things. It’s too easy to take anyone’s words (Bush’s words, or anyone’s) and construct something just the opposite of what the speaker meant. I was interested in compressing things Bush said, putting together stuff said at different times but thematically connected, to test one by another. Political cartoons, a form of caricature, give one analogy for what I was up to.
One of the jokes of the book, in a sense, is that George Bush — a man who confesses his own inarticulateness — suddenly becomes someone speaking in sestinas, sonnets, ghazals. Particularly the ghazal. I’m curious about your own process of discovery as a writer, as a result of the procedure. One thing that critics often say about political writing is that if the writer already knows the outcome, the reader will not be engaged either (Frost’s “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”). What sort of surprises came to you as a result of the process?
Thanks for getting the joke of having Bush speak in a ghazal! I confess I felt smug for the rest of the day after coming up with that idea.
There were several surprises for me. One came out of my more or less arbitrary decision to write one poem per month of Bush’s speeches. I made the decision for practical reasons: a month seemed likely to give enough material to construct a poem, and yet seemed somehow manageable. What I noticed, though, in simply reading through everything that happened in a given month, was how typically some theme asserted itself. Education and energy, for example, are frequent themes prior to 9/11.
Another surprise to me was the difference between the Bush and bin Laden poems. The Bush poems began first. I set myself rules for them, and expected, when I then decided I needed the bin Laden poems, that I’d use the same procedures to make the bin Laden poems I was using to make the Bush poems. But I found I couldn’t. I took that as a revelation about both Bush’s rhetoric and bin Laden’s rhetoric, that one lends itself to a certain procedure, and the other does not. I don’t think it was primarily because I was working in the original language with Bush and in translation with bin Laden, or that I had access to more material from Bush. It seemed to me primarily due to Bush’s manner of speaking, which is very simple in its syntax and diction. It’s very paratactic: little short declarations with no integral relationship to one other. They can be rearranged very easily —
Bush as the New Sentence.
Anything can happen after anything else.
Exactly. They do that in his prepared speeches. During the campaign, the time leading up to the second election, when they’re doing a lot of similar speeches, there’s a lot of cutting and pasting going on. We’re talking to this audience today, so we’ll put these pieces together. It’s more or less fungible material, without any integral relation of subordination, and no acknowledgment of logical consequence.
Just as, in a sense, your poems are authored by Bush, Bush is also authored by something else, some discourse. I got the sense not of Bush the man, but Bush the machinery of discourse. There is a wonderful and very scary talk poem by David Antin in which he talks about the Black Box as the operant metaphor for way in which we view in the President a kind of omniscience or authority which is not tenable. Another way of saying this is that this book is not George Bush, but “My George Bush,” like “My Emily Dickinson,” Harvey Hix being possessed by Bush. Did you feel like he was getting inside your head, or least the ghosts of logic haunting you?
Yes. Partly because the process was so intense. Insofar as God Bless is an occasional book — related to a specific set of events in history — there’s a time period to it. It’s part of another less visibly occasional project, one that I hope helps orient it toward history in a (relatively) timeless rather than a (merely) timely way. I’ve been working for a long time on the modest task of rewriting the Bible; for example, my longish poem “A Manual of Happiness,” in Surely As Birds Fly, moves Job from ancient Palestine to modern Missouri and listens more to the seven sons and three daughters who get “disappeared” in the tale than to Job himself. When the whole Bible project is brought together, God Bless will serve as my Book of Kings. I hope that, just as the value of the biblical original was not confined to the time period in which the events occurred, so any value that inheres in God Bless will extend into the indefinite future.
Still, I knew the book had to happen in a certain time frame, so I worked on it very intensively: beyond my work obligations, all I was reading for four months was Bush. Night and day. I worked on the poems early in the morning and late at night. I imagine that reading anyone that compulsively — some marvelous literary figure, for instance — would make the author’s voice part of the reader. It was an odd feeling. Definitely what you’re talking about, a kind of speaking through, happened, a reciprocity between his words and my putting them together.
But it’s complicated by the question about when his words are his words. If you read all the public statements, you see a major difference between what happens in a prepared speech, where someone has written it for him, where he’s reading out what he’s supposed to say, and what happens in a press conference, where he’s off script and says whatever comes into his head. There’s even a difference between a formal press conference, when he’s at the podium with some leader from another country, and when he’s in Crawford, intentionally being “down home,” walking the reporters through the ranch. He works hard at fitting the discourse to the occasion, letting the occasion, the context, the needs of the audience heavily influence what he says and how he says it. I suppose we all do that, but it turns out to be very visible when you’re President, when your words are performatives that alter history and end human lives.
So when you noticed this distinction, did you find the prepared speeches or the off-the-cuff remarks were more truthful for you, or were they both in play for you?
They both stayed in play throughout. I think all the poems ultimately involve both of them. But I felt I had to watch out for the off-the-cuff remarks, because they were where he would make his famous malapropisms, and I wanted to be wary of making things too fun, too easy. It wasn’t the point, and there are plenty of people who can do that a lot better than I can. Bush does it himself, it’s part of his persona that he can make fun of himself. I wanted there to be an aspect of humor to the book — some of the things he says are outrageous — but I was much more interested in the deadly serious side of it. I didn’t want to focus too much on the off-the-cuff remarks: I wanted to attend to the prepared speeches also, and even such formal statements as proclamations.
In that sense, I think God Bless is really not caricature, it’s something else. The metaphor that came to my mind today was that you’re like an auto mechanic, and the car is discourse, and you’re taking it apart, and looking at the parts, and then putting it back together. But in sense, you’re putting it back together in a new way, you’re making it work. Maybe the discourse is a junk car, it’s not going anywhere, and you’re making it run again. What I found powerful about your procedure is that you’re paying attention to his words, which to me is a very political thing to do. There’ s this idea in Slavoj Zizek, quoting Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason — that the way to challenge or resist a discourse is not to take a cynical or ironic distance from it, but to take it completely at its word. That’s exactly what the project does, you take the President at his word. When you look at those words, you see them in a new way. So it’s a really serious project.
Definitely. One of the asymmetries between Bush and bin Laden is that bin Laden is paying very careful attention to Bush’s words and actions. He may be interpreting them wrongly or overinterpreting, but he’s paying very careful attention. In contrast, Bush is willfully not paying attention to bin Laden. Soon after 9/11, Bush is asked at a press conference whether he’s seen the latest video message from bin Laden: Bush laughs it off, and says no, he didn’t look at it. It’s an astonishing moment, in which we’ve received a statement from the person who’s claiming responsibility for an attack on our country, purporting to explain why it was done, and the President of our country is not willing to look at it?!? It’s astonishing, and typifies a real asymmetry between the two. I was interested in doing the “paying attention” part, rather than the not paying attention part. Whatever the result may be.
The bin Laden poems are sort of more complicated poetically, but you’re forced to reconstruct, in a sense, this other discourse, which you get in dribs and drabs, but obviously one of the critiques of those poems would be that you make fundamentally irrational ideology all too rational, you take the liberal self-critique to it, a la Christopher Hitchens, an irrational evil manipulating historical grievances. Now I could take the exact opposite tack as well, that this is “My Bin Laden,” that you’re trying to talk back to the Bush’s voice as much as trying to represent bin Laden.
Just as there is this odd reciprocity between my voice and the Bush voice in the Bush poems, so too there’s an odd reciprocity between my voice and the bin Laden voice in the bin Laden poems. The process is very different, using my words to recreate his arguments. But that means I’m making a lot of choices about the premises of the argument, what can be skipped, what seems plausible, and so on. So there’s definitely an element of my voice there. That doesn’t mean I advocate his views, but I do want to pay attention. One pays attention to the words of one’s opponent. Even if it is one’s enemy. Even if that enemy is evil. Out of self-interest, you still pay attention to their words, and try to see through the lies and understand the actual motives. One of the causes of the self-destructiveness of our policy decisions has been our refusal to do that work. We’ve substituted willful misattribution of motives to bin Laden, Hussein, al-Qaeda, etc., and we are suffering grievously the results of that willful inattention. Lumping them together is a mistake: their motives are not uniform, so the unwillingness to attend to what’s being said — even if it’s a lie, how are you going to see through the attempt to deceive if you’re not paying attention to it?
There is a minor genre of poetry in which poets publish in poetry books political poems that they refuse to call poems, as in Denise Levertov’s “Perhaps No Poem, But I Cannot Remain Silent.” Talk about the decision to subtitle God Bless a “Political/Poetic Conversation,” and the attendant desire to add the critical apparatus of interviews to go with it.
I identify with the refusal you refer to. I’m not sure how to speak in this time period, a time in which Kant’s notion that we have to assume each other’s honesty does not hold. We assume now that we are lying to one another, and that our speech is an attempt to coerce the other to advance our desires. Our representative speech act now is the advertisement; we take speech as inherently commercial. I’m interested in trying to figure out what it means, in a society that has suspended our agreement that we be honest with each other, what it means to attempt to speak the truth. I’m not sure how one does that, how I might do that, so the book is a stab in the dark, taking speech that embraces its corruptness and putting it into poetic forms that purportedly arise from and exemplify an ideal of purity and integrity in speech.
As for the interviews, I’m aware that my expertise in these matters is very limited. I’m not an historian, I’m not a political scientist, I have no special expertise in these matters. My ambition is limited to being a responsible citizen in a democracy, a democracy premised upon dialogue and conversation, upon language use. There came a point in the process of working on the book, after I had entered into a dialogue with Phil Brady at Etruscan Press, that I felt I needed to draw in additional expertise I couldn’t contribute myself. That was when I began to call on others who had some form of insight that wasn’t being represented in the decision-making by the administration. Through the interview form, I could give myself and the book’s readers access to these others’ various forms of expertise.
One of the ways in which civilian writers have written about war is to employ documentary modes, either using documentary texts or adopting the neo-objective style of documentary cinematic. That’s one of the things you do so well here, is write a poetry of the homefront, something that our poetic canon has real difficulty locating and articulating.
The initial motivation for starting the project was to create a chronicle. I think you’re right about the importance of documentary. C.D. Wright is teaching a course this semester on the documentary impulse in poetry, and I know I’m not the only poet who has felt obliged to respond to this administration, or the only poet who has arrived at the documentary mode as the closest thing to an antidote to, or an antibody against, this administration’s toxins.
One thinks of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, even though you’re thinking about poetic form in a way that he wasn’t.
Yes, that sense of simply recording what has been. I was made more conscious that we receive public speech in extraordinarily fragmented form. Even someone who is more responsible than I normally am will likely hear at most a few lines from any one of Bush’s speeches — and yet he’s said all this stuff. I thought that what I could contribute was a block of time to read everything he said, and re-present through compression some element of the totality, so that all those interrelationships show up in a different way. One of the realizations I had was, omigod, he was talking about Iraq and “regime change” obsessively from the moment he took office. He didn’t wait until after 9/11.
The poetry is indeed doing historical work, it’s a kind of chronicle of what we lived through but perhaps could not quite perceive.
I know all of this is flavored by my own political predispositions. If I were The Decider, things would be different.... But my hope is that there’s a strong element of simply reconstructing what was said, reminding ourselves of it, so that anyone, regardless of political predispositions, would find some insight as a result of this process. That’s a way in which the project is intended to be more historical than occasional. We need ongoing testimony to past wounds: the Holocaust, Vietnam, et al. I want this book to take its place among the witnesses to the events of our time.
I wrote a poem some time before 9/11 called “Enemigos,” that takes a Bush speech about the paranoia of the other, but after the terrorist attack, I was scared that maybe he was right, and that my liberal trust of others was naïve and misguided. When Colin Powell spoke in front of the United Nations about the dangers of Iraq, I felt as if I had to take it seriously, even though I had been working to end the economic sanctions against Iraq in the late 1990s, and knew that the country was in no position of being a military threat.
The fear they provoked put such pressure on discourse that everybody felt constrained in what they said. In this book, I asked whether a different kind of pressure could be placed on the discourse, a kind of opposite pressure. I don’t know if it works or not.
I hope that Bush’s actual voice could be spliced into your poems and done into an audio poem, in the form of the audio mash-up. Not as a parody of Bush, a Frankensteining of Bush, but as a form of reanimation.
I don’t know if all the passages that exist as text exists as video or audio, so it may not even be possible, and certainly I don’t have the technical know-how to make it happen myself, but it would be amazing to have that alternative Bush: the synthesized, synoptic presentation in opposition to the usual fragmented, excerpted presentation.
Why not call it poems? Why the hedging? What’s your best argument for this as poetry?
I have to hedge on whether my attempt in this particular book succeeds in achieving its aims: readers will decide that for themselves. But I’d be much more assertive in declaring that its aims don’t disqualify it from being poetry. Just because the book doesn’t present in pretty words any epiphanies over sunsets or lamentations of lost love doesn’t mean it’s not poetry.
Poetry has shown a lot of flexibility across time and across cultures to do a lot of different work. What Adrienne Rich calls the “columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem” may be what we’re most accustomed to recognizing as poetry in this time and this country, and it may be what’s easiest to teach in a workshop setting, but “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is not the only thing poetry can do. Homer thought poetry could record and interpret war, Dante thought poetry could synthesize human knowledge, Milton thought poetry could justify the ways of God to man, the participants in the oral tradition that composed Job thought poetry could orient us metaphysically. I think poetry can interrogate political ideals and actions, can engage in thought and critique, can chronicle and question. I don’t know if this book succeeds or not, but it’s trying to do all those things.
H L Hix teaches at the University of Wyoming in the U.S. His recent poetry books include Chromatic, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, God Bless, a ‘political/poetic discourse’ built around sonnets and sestinas and villanelles composed of quotations from George W. Bush, and Legible Heavens, forthcoming in November 2008. All are published by Etruscan Press: http://www.etruscanpress.org/. In addition, he has collaborated on translations of Estonian and Lithuanian poetry, and written books of criticism including As Easy As Lying: Essays on Poetry and Spirits Hovering Over the Ashes: Legacies of Postmodern Theory.
Philip Metres is the author, most recently, of To See the Earth (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2007), among other books. Forthcoming is an anthology of peace poems, Come Together: Imagine Peace (2008). He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. Were it not for Ellis Island, his last name would be Abourjaili. See http://www.philipmetres.com/ and http://www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com/ for more information.