Chris Hosea on Craft, Rejection and Travel

 

 

 

Chris Hosea on Craft, Rejection and Travel 

 

Interviewed by Matt Staley

 

Chris Hosea is a graduate of Harvard College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst MFA. John Ashbery selected his first book, Put Your Hands In (LSU Press, 2014) for the Walt Whitman Award. He lives in Brooklyn. See chrishosea.com for more.download

 

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                                  Photo: Chris Hosea

INTERVIEWER

 You have said in previous interviews that you started out wanting to write fiction and screenplays.  How did this evolve over time towards poetry?

CHRIS HOSEA 

My first love is pop music. When I was seven my parents gave me a Fischer-Price record player and three or four LPs, including Abbey Road. I was bowled over by the melodies, but frustrated when it came to understanding the words. I thought knowing the lyrics would unlock the siren-like mysteries of the songs. There was also the out-and-out nonsense of John Lennon singing “One and one and one is three,” to take just one example. That knocked my socks off. I mean, it gave me a giddy feeling of permission, that it was okay for Lennon to just sing words like that and be a very respectable rock star at the same time. But often, even when I finally could understand the lyrics to a song, their riddles just got worse. Films delivered spiritual shocks. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gandhi, two movies that came out before I was ten, marked epochs in my life and in the lives of my little friends. Here were legendary quests for justice set in dangerous, thrilling, complicated worlds that bore no resemblance to the New Jersey suburb where we lived.  So I dreamt of making movies. Play-acting with my sister, I would pretend to be a film or theater director, with a row of stuffed animals for an audience. If I couldn’t be a director, I decided, I would write the kind of books that are adapted into films. I remember trying to read William Goldman’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which was a book that was written after the movie, and being very bored but also very curious: Who was William Goldman, and how did he get a job like that? It was only after reading Whitman in high school with a wonderful teacher, Joan Goodman, and after trying and failing to direct a student film while at Harvard, that I became a curious reader of poetry. Soon writing poems felt natural enough. At first I wrote imitations to better understand my favorite poets. So I wrote pastiches of Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg. But Pop music stayed with me. I think all pop music is poetry, and vice versa. Even the worst pop music should be counted, at least, among the worst poetry. And Bob Dylan, Skip James, and Karen Dalton are surely some of the greatest poets who have ever lived.

INTERVIEWER

When I read your poetry, the lines and words feel intimately personal.  From where do you draw your inspiration?

CHRIS HOSEA 

I take notes every day. That’s my inspiration. Writing longhand on paper. Not poems, not poems at all. Just anything. Quality is not important, but quantity is. Sometimes I just write the same phrase over and over. It feels good to ink up another notebook page. Inspiration for me is refraining from judging my notebook writing. Inspiration is being tired and scattered and writing some random crap by accident. I carry my pen and notebook with me, and like a lot of poets in New York, I read and write on the subway, in my cubicle at work, in a park, or waiting in line at the supermarket. Later, I type something up, drawing from these notes. I don’t recognize a whole lot of really personal content in my poems, but if you say it’s there, I guess it is, some uncanny, intimate feeling. That sounds good to me. I guess I get that up-close feeling when I read Creeley, and I get a more private vibe from a poet like Ashbery. Yet both Creeley and Ashbery are virtuosos of artifice, so who is to say whose work is really more personal, more intimate? It’s like when people say Morrissey feels one way or another because of how he sings a song. I mean, shouldn’t it be obvious that Morrissey is playwright, director, and actor at the same time? In art, the illusion of sincerity is usually the result of the greatest artifice and technique. I think most poets are detached enough from their themes that they can apply all manner of effects, mess with the truth, and create fictional speakers, just to begin with. Whatever is factual in my poems has gone through a lyrical meat grinder. Even poems like “I Too Am Gay” or “The Great-Uncle Dead” are so far removed from actual memories or real events that to me they come off like pure fiction. The same is true of all the poems in the book. Basically, I’m not making an observation or comment about a real person anywhere in the book. But maybe all poems are personal, if only because a poet’s decision to keep a poem is intimate, intuitive. I mean, a poem is never logically defensible, thank God.

INTERVIEWER

I have read that you lived and worked in the Czech Republic and Pakistan.  How has living abroad changed your perspective, particularly in your writing?

CHRIS HOSEA 

Traveling was a political education. Between 1993 and 1996 I backpacked and worked in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, the Czech Republic, and other places, and everywhere I met generous people who showed me great hospitality. They also made it clear that, while American people were welcome almost everywhere, a lot of foreigners despise the American government and its policies, from the pervasive global footprint of US military bases, to client dictatorships, to unjust WTO and IMF restrictions, to our ongoing support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and many other problems. At first, I was taken aback by the polite but persistent anti-Americanism I met with on my travels. I even attempted to defend the US government, at least at first. Then I came to see how blinkered many Americans are, myself included, insulated within our borders and fed a diet of junk news and entertainment that is, to say the least, unfair and unbalanced. My political education is ongoing, but traveling has helped me see American policy differently. Just considering how the rest of the world experiences the ongoing tragedy of American individualism and American exceptionalism has greatly affected my writing and my life.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give us a sense of how you take an idea and craft it into a poem?  What is your creative process?

CHRIS HOSEA 

I don’t find an idea until I’ve finished a poem. Even then, there usually isn’t an idea, not a clear idea. Maybe enough for a title. I’m skeptical of ideas in poetry, unless they work to generate confusion or a nice chiming of phrases. That said, I do think there are new ideas to be found. It’s just that poetry is not about new ideas, not for me. It’s about old ideas, and they kind of take care of themselves. It’s better for me to be concerned about how words sound. I use books for writing. There are the books I’m reading at a given point, and also the books I am flipping through, and I steal a phrase or two. When you consider that some poets copy down an entire newspaper, I think I’m rather demure just lifting a phrase or two. Also I go for walks. Walking around New York City, say from Long Island City to Red Hook on a Saturday, just brings up a lot of things, contradictions, sudden fleeting crushes-at-first-sight, little blossomings of neighborhood distinctions. Poets who use the walk as a running metaphor, such as John Clare and Wordsworth and Stevens and Leslie Scalapino, are important for me. I think it’s important to not write too. To refrain from talking about writing. Definitely to avoid making social media posts about writing or not writing. Ugh. That stuff makes me want to hurl. It’s better to just kill time. Listen to music. Or get beneath your obsessions. I spend a lot of time consumed with thoughts of the person I’m in love with at the moment, daydreaming like the last novice of a soon-to-be extinct cult. I also spend time each week looking at pictures and sculptures and installations. For one thing, I work a few blocks from the Museum of Modern Art, and I go there often on my lunch break and bring my notebook. Kind of like Frank O’Hara Lunch Poems in reverse, except for the amazing poems. I also get to the theater when I can. Dan Safer, a primary school friend, happens to be one of the best and most daring choreographers in New York City, and I try to see everything he directs. And it’s good also to seek out places where language happens institutionally, whether that’s a church or a mosque or a synagogue or a courtroom or a recovery group. I am completely abashed when I hear people speaking in accordance with ritualistic language rules.

INTERVIEWER

Many aspiring writers fear rejection, which can paralyze them from submitting their work.  How has rejection affected you, and what do you do to overcome it?  What advice can you offer to aspiring writers?

CHRIS HOSEA 

Sure, rejections can be painful. But the more rejections you get, generally the easier it becomes to deal with them. Anyway, the more slips you get, the closer you are to the next acceptance. Grow a thicker skin. Detach yourself from your poems. The main thing is to keep writing, whether you submit or not.

INTERVIEWER

Your book of poetry, Put Your Hands In, was selected by John Ashbery as the Walt Whitman Award winner of the Academy of American Poets.  What does it mean for you to receive such an honor from a noted poet?

CHRIS HOSEA

It’s a dream come true. I had been sending poetry manuscripts to presses and contests for about fifteen years, so it’s been a thrill and an honor to have a manuscript selected and a book published. Even more, the fact that John Ashbery chose the book lifts my spirits. Like so many people, I am always poring through Ashbery’s books, looking to him to be amazed and excited, to see things fresh, and I owe him an enormous debt, before the prize and after. In college, when I was in my early twenties and started “getting serious” about poetry, it was The Tennis Court Oath and Flow Chart that challenged me to make attempts at new forms. It’s probably true that I wouldn’t have kept going as a poet without Ashbery’s books, which I have been reading ever since. Ashbery is the greatest American poet since the Second World War, and his influence is as varied as the many different poets devoted to his books. But Ashbery has kept on doing his thing, charting the turns of his ambient muse. It’s probably true, what people say, that he is impossible to imitate. Ashbery’s poetry is a goad, a lodestar, a boundary, a deep pleasure. I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying endorsement, and feel incredibly lucky and deeply humbled. I continue to hold Ashbery’s example fixed in mind, now more so than ever.

INTERVIEWER

Now with Put Your Hands In published, what next?  What are you working on now, and what can we expect from you in the near future?

CHRIS HOSEA

I’m working on a new collection. I expect to have the manuscript ready in 2015.

INTERVIEWER

Where will writing take you in the next five or ten years?

CHRIS HOSEA

Back to India, I hope. I miss traveling. If I can save up, I’d like to take a year or more off and go see a bit of the world. Lately, I keep thinking of Varanasi, in northern India, which is one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. It’s where the bereaved cremate their dead and scatter ashes on the river Ganges. Sometimes, when you sit on the shore of the river, it seems like there is no far bank, because the low mudflats on the other shore are so hard to see. So the river can feel oceanic, like the edge of the universe. It’s calming and exhilarating.

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