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Paul Hoover in conversation with
Paul Hoover’s most recent poetry collections are Sonnet 56 (Les Figues Press, 2009), consisting of 56 formal versions of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number, Edge and Fold (Apogee Press, 2006), and Poems in Spanish (Omnidawn, 2005). His collection of literary essays, Fables of Representation, was published by University of Michigan Press in 2004. With Maxine Chernoff, he edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin (Omnidawn, 2008), winner of the PEN-USA Translation Award. The two also edit the literary magazine New American Writing. With Nguyen Do, he edited and translated the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008) and Beyond the Court Gate: Poems of Nguyen Trai (1380–1442), was published by Counterpath Press in March 2010. Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University since 2003, he edited the widely adopted anthology, Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994) and currently curates the poetry reading series at the deYoung Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco.
Paul Hoover’s Sonnet 56 mixes Love, Poetry and Shakespeare in a marvelous grab bag of form, wit and playfulness. Starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 56 — Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said / Thy edge should blunter be than appetite — Hoover writes 56 poetic variations, turning Shakespeare’s sonnet into a series of new (and traditional) forms, including: Villanelle, Noun Plus Seven, Limerick, Blues, Course Description, Flarf, Imagist, Tanka, Answering Machine, Rilke, Morse Code and Bad Writing. The result is tender portrayal of love and an excellent survey of the possibilities within contemporary poetry.
Sonnet 56, by Paul Hoover: Art by VD Collective: Introduction by Ian Monk: Book 2 of 5, TrenchArt Maneuvers Series: Poetry / $15.00: ISBN 10: 1-934254-12-6 : ISBN 13: 978-1-934254-12-7 : Pages: 81: Binding: Softcover, Perfect
JJN: Why Sonnet 56?
PH: This project began when I asked my graduate students at SFSU to write a poem in imitation of Aaron Shurin’s Involuntary Lyrics, which maintains the right margin words of Shakespeare sonnets and replaces the rest. The graduate students at SFSU created such wonderful poems in response that I decided to write one, too. I call this activity “End Words” in Sonnet 56. I selected Shakespeare’s 56because it had modern end words, with the exception of “allayed,” which I changed to “red” for the purpose of the class assignment. My instructions to the students were notto imagine they are writing a sonnet, even though the rhyming end words lead to one.
JJN: How did you decide on the 56 forms? What poetic form(s) did you not include that you may have otherwise?
PH: I created a list of possible forms for what I knew would be a long and systematic work. Among the first were those associated with Oulipo: N + 7 (each noun replaced by the seventh to follow in any dictionary), Homosyntactic Translation (all major parts of speech replaced by other words of the same kind, nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, and so on), Homophonic Translation (a poem that sounds like the original), Haikuisation (the original reduced to a haiku; one could also “haikuise” War and Peace), Redundancy Left (words taken only from the left margin of the original), Redundancy Right (likewise from the right margin), and Word Ladder (one letter changes per line until “summer love” becomes “winter love” then back again by the same process to “summer love” ).
Some of the forms are of my invention, at least as poetic forms: Course Description, Chat Group, Answering Machine, Personal Ad, Digression, Mathematical, Gloss on the Text, Bad Writing, and Workshop.
The other major group contains traditional forms, such as the Villanelle, Free Verse, Blank Verse, Imagism, Blues, Ballad, Prose Poem, Sestina, Epitaph, Epigram, Tanka, Haibun, Qasida, Limerick, and Ghazal. The concrete poems are Christmas Tree and Binocular (two circular shapes like eyeglasses containing the original Shakespeare work). I especially enjoyed writing in pop song forms like the Jingle, Blues, and Ballad. This development surprised me. Once at a reading in the Bay Area, the audience was wary of the Villanelle version, until they realized it was not comical or parodic, but rather lyrical and serious. Early into the series, beginning with Homosyntactic Translation, I wanted to signal that seriousness was possible even when the concept seems whimsical. Several works including the Limerick and Gloss on the Text are sillier than I usually allow myself to go, also a stretching of the limits.
I found the Morse Code version online. Someone had already converted all Shakespeare sonnets to dots and dashes. I simply provide the web address.
When I realized I had produced a book length manuscript, I counted the number of poems, and it was 56, which of course is perfect, so I stopped at that number. I lost the original list of forms, but I remember Novel was on it, far too exhaustive.
JJN: How long did the book take to complete? How “organic” versus non-organic was the writing process? Which poems were hardest and easiest (fastest/slowest?) to write?
PH: As I recall, the book was written mostly in one summer. I recall working on it every day, happy to have a sustaining project and, with each new form, a fresh puzzle to solve.
I’m not sure I can answer the organic versus non-organic question. Despite the many good things written on the subject by poets like Charles Olson and Denise Levertov, not to mention the English Romantic poets, I don’t believe that the prose poem and free verse are any more “organic” than terza rima (a form sadly overlooked by me) and the villanelle. Poems are neither organic nor inorganic; they are constructions built of desire, language, pre-existing conditions of the genre, models of consciousness available to you, and the present occasion of writing, with its red leaf falling past the window. If we translate “organic” to “easy to write,” I would say N + 7, Epic, Jingle, Course Description, Qasida, Erasure, Morse Code, and Personal Ad. The more difficult forms included Crossword Puzzle, Digression (four pages that never quite get to the point), Gloss on the Text, Sestina, Preface, Confessional Poem, Prose Poem, and Haibun. I don’t see a pattern here, unless it’s the comparative difficulty of prose.
JJN: Your favorite and least favorite Shakespearan sonnets are… .? because… ?
PH: Sonnet 56 is not among my favorite works of Shakespeare. It’s too elliptical and its conceits are overextended and confusing. But it does provide the summer / winter dialectic that’s useful thematically in several of my versions, as well as formally in Word Ladder. As I recall (my complete Shakespeare isn’t with me), there aren’t many lightning strikes in the sonnets until the often-anthologized sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?). In his book on the sonnets, the publisher Robert Giroux credits this development to Shakespeare falling in love with the future Earl of Southampton, whom he had been hired to convert to heterosexuality, by means of a series of persuasive love sonnets. However, around sonnet 18, Shakespeare was himself converted. Those in doubt about Giroux’s theory should study sonnet 20, which plays with gender reference. I’ll quote the octave below. Coincidentally or not, the Earl of Southampton later funded the construction of the Globe Theater.
A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,
Has thou, the master mistress of my passion —
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
I love sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”), especially for line four, which uses only one-syllable words (“And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste”), and, most of all, 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”). I can’t speak very well to my least favorite; however, in the anthology I do have with me, there’s a bad patch in sonnet 3: “For where is she so fair whose uneared womb / Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?”
Why? The great sonnets address time, “Death’s second self,” as the poet writes in sonnet 73.
JJN: If you could choose to be either yourself or Shakespeare you would … because …
PH: What can I say? Every poet is “a little Baudelaire burning in Iowa City,” to misquote Karl Shapiro. I just gotta be me.
JJN:About your book, what do you expect Shakespeare would say (in 14 lines, preferably)?
Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.
So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.
JJN: Which line from your book best captures your current state of mind?
PH: Candlelight: white birches.
JJN: What you are most pleased about concerning this book is…
PH: That I completed the project, which had been a notebook idea for years, to update Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, 1947. It took the discovery of Shakespeare’s sonnet to give me the procedural focus. That the book has tonal variety, including lyrical brightness and gravity. That suits my goal to be unpredictable from book to book.
JJN:On page 63, you mention being “notoriously snubbed” by Ed Paschke. Can you tell more, and/or elaborate on your image of the Midwest (cf. the West Coast) that begins on page 62?
PH: In the Fall of 2002, I went to breakfast spot on Chicago’s Gold Coast and found myself in line behind the noted painter of Harry Who and Chicago Imagist fame. I’d never spoken to him before, but we had a friend in common, Paul Carroll, my professor in graduate school. Paschke didn’t care for my approach and gave me a withering fuck-off look. The quote you mention comes from “Preface,” which contains my newly written manifesto for the Chicago Imagist poets, as follows:
The credo of the Chicago Imagist poets is:
1. The image is neither still nor decorative; like a thought, it is constantly in motion.
2. Images are not “things,” but forces of knowledge and feeling.
3. Except for the stumbling of the sea, nature has no rhythm. The measure of the Chicago image is that of traffic between two yellow lights.
4. The world is full of things but devoid of poetic images. They exist only in our minds, in the form of language.
5. A poetic image never unfolds completely.
6. Truth is closer to irony than to direct statements of fact.
As its poetics is published here for the first time, news of Chicago Imagist activity, 1977 to 1988, has been delayed. As a practice of “anticipatory plagiary,” however, it can be located in the work of Sappho, Busōn, Pessoa, and Niedecker, among others.
I use the minor Paschke incident at my own expense and present myself generally in “Preface” as a Nabobovian character (see Pale Fire) of comically inflated self-regard. However, the credo is completely serious as a statement of poetics. I wanted to tease history; to resurrect an actual historical moment from its time-amber. In the late 70s or early 80s, I had a conversation with Elaine Equi and Maxine Chernoff about announcing ourselves as the Chicago Imagist poets. We decided against it after breakfast, and that was that. Besides Maxine, Elaine, and me, the movement would have included Sharon Mesmer, Connie Deanovich, Deborah Pintonelli, and the now deceased Lydia Tomkiw.
As relates to the city of Chicago, here’s the beginning of “Preface”:
The author of Sonnet 56 long been known for his uses of irony. In part, this is due to his many years as a Chicagoan and Midwesterner. Though not native to that city and no longer a resident of it, he is one of the pillars of its comedic history, which includes Second City and the notoriously entertaining Poetry Slams. Chicago audiences want to laugh, feel indeed an almost desperate need to applaud. They are disappointed and even a little resentful if they can’t applaud every poem. Perhaps this is why he departed the city in the dead of night, January 22, 2002. The laughter had become too insistent.
Chicago always loved performance and humor. But in recent years it appears to have gained some postmodern weight — see Ray Bianchi’s website, www.chicagopostmodernpoetry.com. In San Francisco, where I’ve lived since 1994, the dominant literary culture is French-influenced: high avant-garde, language poetry, intellectual engagement, obliqueness preferred to direct audience address. Oulipo and Flarf are acceptable, if a bit too carnivalesque. The admired poets include Barbara Guest, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, and Leslie Scalapino. This description does not take into account that Robert Hass and Thom Gunn, whose poetics display no avant-garde leaning, are more widely recognized. The leading Chicago poets of the same period were Gwendolyn Brooks and Lisel Mueller.
JJN: What’s next?
PH: I’ve produced two recent manuscripts that are not yet published: Gravity’s Children, poems based on the 38 Books of the Old Testament, and desolation: souvenir, containing two long poems, one of 50 pages based on Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole one of 25 pages that is a “thinking-through,” in accessible and homely phrasing, of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The Bible work is ambitious and mostly serious in tone, but a manic voice appears with the first prophet, Isaiah, and is sustained through Malachi, the last. The prophetic tone was so convincing that I used it in rewriting the Genesis poem. The serial poem, “desolation : souvenir,” is lyrical and dark, but its companion, “The Windows (The Actual Acts),” is a bemused work of sustained irony. I’ve also written a long manuscript of minimal poems, With All Due Negligence(example: “A rose is arroz is eros”) and a manuscript, The Windows, that contains my other Oulipian and proceduralist works. The most exhaustive is “The Windows (The XYZs of Reason),” a rolling liponymy (no word repeats) consisting of 26 abecedarian poems. The first poem, “A,” is:
American boys can distribute equidistant forks,
grant hieratic inflow, jack Klansmen, labor
many noons. Oases parody queasiness
rarely; smitten teenagers understand vacuous waiters,
xenophobic Yankees, zealots.
Originally from the U.S., Jane Joritz-Nakagawa works as associate professor at a national teacher training college in central Japan where she teaches pedagogy, gender, American and British poetry, and other subjects. Jane’s fifth poetry book, incidental music, was published by BlazeVOX in 2010. Many of her poems, essays, and interviews appear in international journals and anthologies, including earlier issues of Jacket, HOW2, and elsewhere. Jane co-organizes poetry events in Kyoto. Email is welcome at janenakagawa at yahoo dot com.