Everyday Absences: A Conversation with Walt Hunter
By Katie PetersonMay 22, 2023
And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.
A memory that delights and haunts. Such a simple thing to feel—there is no end of things in the heart—but such a hard thing to bear! Especially in its shapelessness, the life of feeling, of the heart, often has no place to go—no place, that is, but poetry. In Some Flowers, an intuition of loss isn’t a betrayal of who we are, or a sign of the hopelessness of our world, but the beginning of all conversation that matters, the making of a small space to be together. The poems are pastoral, embedded in a nature that is one part fantasy and one part real. But they are also social, calling in the lives of others to witness them, and even to live with them. Hunter’s voice feels just below the surface of speech, creating a dream world of what we could say if we could share our feelings with each other. Some Flowers reminds me how poetry dreams its alternative world gently, gradually, even invisibly, but persistently as rain—or flowers, falling at the end of the season—in its cadences of sound.
KATIE PETERSON: The title of your book seems a cousin to John Ashbery’s Some Trees (1956). I hear in its casual offhandedness a note of melancholy. Would you talk about the title and its relationship with the poems?
WALT HUNTER: You’re right that I was thinking of Ashbery and particularly of the title poem in that book. “Some Trees” is one of the poems that I’ve known by heart since college. I admire the insistence on being present that we can find in Ashbery’s poems, which, especially in the first few books, enact the sentiment that “merely being there / Means something.” I like it when a poem emerges from the ordinary occasion of being present with others, even if the poem ends up written for a solo voice. Maybe that’s also where some of the melancholy in Some Flowers enters.
I was also thinking of the medieval florilegium, which is a collection of extracts, a kind of anthology or commonplace book. I came upon that word in a translation of a book of philosophy that Lindsay Turner and I were doing. Later, that book of philosophy, [Frédéric Neyrat’s] Atopias (original French edition, 2014), made its way into one of the poems as well. A third “source” of the title I only discovered after I published the book: Vita Sackville-West’s Some Flowers (1937), which has little meditations on her favorite flowers, lovingly reproduced in beautiful plates.
There’s so much talk in the poetry world right now about community and social engagement. Can you talk about the tension in poetry, between “being present with others” and being a solo voice?
Many poems that I love and reread frequently aspire to the condition of a rite or a ritual. Sometimes they constitute a ritual themselves by questioning, praising, testifying, cursing, raging, mourning. That’s one way I would answer your question. When we use language, I’m not sure it’s possible to speak as an “I” alone. As for the notion that a poem is a confession—well, I would say that a confession is also a rite, a part of the social world we constantly recreate in religious and secular ways. The occasions from which poems emerge are shared occasions: an aubade celebrates the dawn, an elegy responds to a death.
Would you talk about the actual landscapes that inspired the book?
Many of the landscapes in the poem come from the northwest corner of rural South Carolina, just south of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Twice a day for seven years, I drove down Highway 123 from Greenville to Clemson, where I taught. It takes 40 minutes. For the first three years, I thought it was hideously ugly. I was not used to the colors, especially in the winter months, which I found nearly unbearable. February and March are windless and silent months, perhaps because the mountains act like a shield for the wind. These two months appear with almost comic frequency in the book. They supply the settings—the colors, the birdsongs, the quality of the light—for a lot of the poems.
Then a change happened. One day in November, I was sitting in my office at home, and I could see the street out the window for the first time, or so it seemed to me at that moment, and I quickly wrote several of the shorter, more sketch-like poems that went into the book, like “Profane Landscape,” “Immortality Ode,” and “Southern Eclogue.” A poem by Jorie Graham called “Tennessee June” helped me to look more closely at the landscape, and so, in their different ways, did Andrew Zawacki, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alice Notley, and Bernadette Mayer.
The poems that take place elsewhere still sometimes recall the ballad, as those initial poems did, but more often they have a longer, narrative structure. Part of that shift has to do with being in psychodynamic therapy for five years. Part of it has to do with the novel I wrote at the same time. A longer and looser form became necessary for roving through the past. The sequence set near Philadelphia, “The Ratings Period,” is located in the Philadelphia suburbs, while “Olomouc,” another narrative poem, is set in Moravia. I wrote these poems at 107 Water Street in James Merrill’s apartment during a residency there [in Stonington, Connecticut]. A change in place required a change in form. In the cases of these two poems, I gravitated towards a harder container for the wayward past (sonnets in the former, intermittent couplets in the latter), no doubt because I was afraid that it would slip away from me or else turn out to be made of material that was too flimsy and inconsequential to write about.
There are two significant places in the book in Denver: “Elegy on Speer Boulevard” names the road I drove again and again to the hospital during our first terrifying miscarriage. “Closing Days” is about the sky-high streets of Englewood, just south of the city. On Elati Street, which I could privately imagine was named after the Greek mountain range, you could see the Rockies spread across the horizon to the west.
I feel like poets are still asking permission to use narrative in their poems. What does narrative offer you in a poem? How do you fit it into poetic structure?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I love teaching poems that make use of narrative, like Robert Frost’s “Directive” or Natalie Diaz’s “The First Water Is the Body.” I like the way your poems, Katie, put narrative in service of truth, as though telling a story about an event is a way to understand it better, even if that story can only be told in fragments. I love the ballad for its delight in storytelling. What I want to conjure is that impulse to tell a story, the feeling of beginning and of continuing, and the dissonance or satisfaction of an ending. When I started writing poetry, I thought that the closest I could come to expressing an emotional reality was a lyric burst of emotion. Now I find that a story can lead me to unexpected places and to what I can only describe as a deeper understanding of myself. An example of this would be the final section of “The Ratings Period,” about the lavender festival, which is a poem that seems to have a strong effect on some readers.
What does it mean to write a pastoral in 2023?
The pastoral is an unnatural mode—a set of conventional figures, scenes, and phrases—that speaks of natural things. I think that’s the attraction for me: the pastoral relies on creating a distance from reality, which can either be a means of accommodating the situation or of critiquing it. Mostly I like the stock figures in pastoral scenes because they are archetypal characters defined in large part by their conditions. One of the lines I quote in “The Swimmers” is from Virgil’s first eclogue, in which two shepherds, Meliboeus and Tityrus, share a final evening meal together before Meliboeus, having been dispossessed of his fields and home, has to leave.
The theme of being forced off and forced out is the pastoral’s dark heart. Dispossession and displacement take up a lot of Some Flowers. I wanted the poems to testify, in their indirect ways, to the ecological devastation and economic development of the places I was living: the west of Ireland, the southeast United States, the mountain west. I felt, while I was writing the book, that a tone of finality, desperation, and outrage kept creeping into the poems, even when—perhaps most frequently when—they were not trying to account for our present.
Almost as soon as I began to love and admire the landscapes around Greenville, the poems took on a more bilious and despairing voice. I don’t know why that happened, but I think to write a contemporary pastoral might be to try to peer into the actual, physical landscape hard enough, and with enough love and attention, that you can begin to make out the skeletal structure of our contemporary pastoral conventions: violent displacements, mindless consumption, altered seasons, disastrously amplified weather patterns.
Okay, but it’s still true that the title calls attention to something apparently trivial—flowers—in a time when vast social changes, displacements, and crises demand our attention. Am I wrong to hear you calling attention to the smallness of poetry here? Does poetry’s smallness have its own power?
My first reaction to a good poem is pleasure, and the pleasure of a poem is inexhaustible. The impulse of delight in a poem can lead to action—moral action or political action. Or it can lead to meditation. Or it can dissipate altogether and be replaced by the task that needs doing. But regardless of where a small, beautiful poem leads, it doesn’t take away from our world, the way the most evil and destructive elements of our present do. That’s essential to its “power,” if you want to call it that. A flower is a decent analogue here: it is useless, and it is an inexhaustible addition to the world. Poetry does not extract essential resources, doesn’t devastate forests. I’m not at all downplaying the moments when poems are catalysts for dramatic social change, for protest, for liberation. But, again, that power comes from the promise of a poem to add to the world or to refresh it, not to deplete it, mine it, monetize it.
One of the things we liked to do together when we were first friends (you were in college, and I was in graduate school) was to sing in the Harvard folk music club. How has your work been informed by music, folk music, and other kinds? How do you see the relationship between music and poetry?
Over the course of writing the book I began to hear a certain music as internal to the form of each poem. The first poem in the book, “Profane Landscape,” really marks that moment for me, which is why I wanted to put it first. Trusting a poem to invent its own music came as a minor revelation. I’m not sure the difference is perceptible to a reader’s ear—many of the ballad-like poems sound like me now—but it was the method I followed while writing them.
My model was Donald Revell’s Arcady, a book which means the world to me and which I first read [when it came out] in 2002. It’s a book-length elegy for Revell’s sister, written in fragmentary glimpses of pastoral landscapes. Revell explains in the preface that he stopped writing poems, but then he “began to see poems: poems of mine, but hardly made.” It sounds too grandiose to write this, but I began to hear poems as they fell into place. The book was not prompted by a single devastating loss, but by a constellating series of smaller losses, by long stretches of total solitude, and by the everyday absences one must take from one’s friends.
Several of the poems in the collection are in quatrains—what does the four-line stanza offer a poet, even in the absence of rhyme?
The poems in quatrains, like “Summer Seminar,” “Account,” or “No Trees,” move forward by gradually developing their perceptions, memories, and observations. I found that the quatrain stanza was useful for this kind of development because I could bunch different thoughts together and then rearrange them or change them slightly in the next stanza.
Some Flowers is haunted by the ballad (by Emily Dickinson’s #1489, Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Ballad of Rudolph Reed”) but most of the poems do not really tell coherent stories. They try to follow the tracks of a feeling as it emerges in multiple ways at once: a bit of overheard speech, a name, a smell or a sound or a glimpse of something. The quatrain stanza was a means to hold those elements together in an uneasy correspondence or juxtaposition.
Katie Peterson’s sixth book of poetry, Fog and Smoke, is forthcoming from FSG in early 2024. She is the director of the graduate creative writing program at the University of California, Davis, where she is professor of English and a Chancellor’s Fellow.
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