Andrew De Haan Interviews William Heyen

You published your first book of poetry in 1970. In the past 40 years, how has your approach to writing poetry changed? How about how you read it?
 
Poetry in the main seems to come more naturally to me now, and in rushes, like the one I've had these past few weeks when about 40 sections of a Hiroshima suite just took hold and often seemed to write themselves. In the beginning, I struggled. Now, for better or worse, I don't. I'm aware that Yeats said--was it Yeats?--that easy writing makes hard reading, but these rushes, I think, were earned over decades.
And about how I read it? I probably read less for rational meaning now than I once did.
 
What originally prodded you to write poetry, and what's sustained your interest in it over the years?
 
I believe I was hurt into poetry, but won't go into this here. And, yes, there is still a passion in this almost-70-year-old-man to write, to make good sentences, to compose journal entries and poems and whatever else shows up, to build books. What is it about all this that gives pleasure, that seems to complete me? Another evasion: I don't want to know too much about this. I know that life, friends, can be boring, to paraphrase Berryman, but that I'm never bored by following a line and feeling it turn into another, or by the senses of musical and rhythmical fusion that occur when a poem is coming to be.
 
In one of your more recent volumes, The Confessions of Doc Williams & Other Poems , there is a poem based on a phrase used by the Sufi mystics titled "Fana Al-Fana" that I found particularly moving. Could you tell us a little about how you started writing this poem, perhaps what it was that inspired you to write it, and how you came across the phrase.
 
I don't remember where I found the phrase--Fana being that which passes away, and Fana Al-Fana being the passing away of the passing away--but I seized on it, on its being about a state free from fear, the state of love. I'm glad I was able to write a love poem. A third of my dissertation at Ohio University was on mysticism in Roethke. I've always been drawn to this subject, I think, because I experienced states of communion when I was young and by myself at ponds and in the woods. I think this is all connected, too, for example, with my interest in primal mind, Crazy Horse's vision. Even today, outside splitting wood, I reminded myself of what Evelyn Underhill tells us, that for the mystics eternity is now, and just swung. There is of course craft involved in splitting wood, muscle memory, experience over time, but as with a poem, sooner or later we just have to swing, in the now.
 
Your book Crazy Horse in Stillness draws parallels to the epic poem while telling the story of the life of Crazy Horse in a less direct manner than the epic poems of old, utilizing multiple characters and points of view throughout the collection. In some ways it reminds me of Gary Snyder's work, “Mountains and Rivers Without End” --an epic poem. Was the intention of this book to be seen as a single work, or a collection of smaller pieces. In a much broader context, how would you say your readers' reception of your work affects how you view your writing?
 
I certainly hoped that my book would achieve a wholeness, a oneness, even if this was a flowing oneness. You'll see from the table of contents that I imagine all its hundreds of poems as part of a tree, a living tree but a burial tree, out of time. I was tempted, sometimes, just to edit myself down to the best fifty or so poems, but opted for Whitmanian inclusion in the end (though I still did discard many pieces that didn't seem to have enough in them to continue being smarter than we are, as Archibald MacLeish says poems must be). As for its being an epic? I don't know. I don't sweat classifications.... By the way, within the next year after the book was published, I'd written another couple hundred of these poems, and a book called Crazy Horse & the Custers: The River of Electricity will be published in a year or three by Yarroway Mountain Press in California, with photographs by Suzan Jantz. I look forward. But, you know, Andrew, Rilke says that it's important for a poet not to know many things, chief among these being just what it is he has done. And I don't know, all in all, what I have in the Crazy Horse and the Custer poems.
 
Readers' reception? I don't know. Who can count on anything? I'm not one of the American stars, and don't have many readers, but if some of my writing friends--Michael Waters, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Todd Davis, Antonio Vallone, Patrick Bizzaro, Phil Brady, Harvey Hix, Phil Terman, Jack Matthews, Paul Mariani, Bob Siegel, Steve Haven, Tim Bowling, Craig Cotter, Karla Merrifield, W.S. Merwin, Leslie Silko, Richard Deming, Elizabeth Spires, Rosemarie DiMatteo, Paul Zimmer, Dan Masterson, Vince Clemente leap to mind because of their generosity, and from their other dimension now William Meredith, Karl Shapiro, May Sarton, Robert Penn Warren, Hayden Carruth, Archibald MacLeish, Ray Carver--if some of them appreciate what I've done am doing, then I can feel that glow of reception, and I'm grateful. But in the end it's all between us and the page as we try to make things that we ourselves truly care for, and it's hard to know even this. I like to think of Walt and Emily, and especially the one whose mind was so often on fire, Emerson, as company, too.
 
Another book of yours that focuses on a single topic is The Swastika Poems , drawing on your family's history with the Holocaust. Poems like "For Hermann Heyen"--written about the death of your "Nazi uncle"--are intimate and emotionally powerful. The book closes with the poem "The Swastika Poems" which speaks about using writing as a way to address the issues in your family's past. How does writing help you approach and digest what could be intimidatingly personal?
 
More than any other poet I can offhand think of, I seem from outside to be a poet of subject matter. But, and this is a big qualification, subject matter is sort of along for the ride in a poem as we have our musical say. This can't be understood until experienced. We are in the act of finding, as Wallace Stevens says, what will suffice. I am not boring into subject matter in any rational way, but in the process of following a poem wherever it might take me. I want to be judiciously on top of what is going on, but at the same time believe that it's important to enter a semi-trance, to suspend the critical faculties, to invite sounds and images and story into the writing.... This hasn't been a very good answer. I'm not intimidated or abashed by my family's history, though a poem might go in that direction, or in the direction of apology, or of anger, I suppose. I'm not trying to think my way through history by way of the poem. I hope that as a whole, through all my Holocaust poems, for example, something ramifying and worth reading has taken place.
 
Along with all your volumes of poetry, you've also published several works of prose, including the novel Vic Holyfield and the Class of '57. How do you adjust your writing from poetry to prose and back? Is it a conscious effort, or when you sit down to write does a certain genre feel more comfortable or fitting?
 
Another evasion. I just don't think about this. When I wrote the pieces in Pig Notes & Dumb Music: Prose on Poetry , or the reviews in Titanic & Iceberg , or the journal entries in The Cabin, or the autobiographical pieces in Home , or the stories in The Hummingbird Corporation , I seemed to assume some sort of genre, some sort of shape, some sort of sentence or form, when I began. W.C. Williams warned us about "the tyranny of genre," and I do feel like anything can happen when I begin to write, but, still, though I've written many sui generis pieces, I've known when I've made a poem or prose poem or essay or story. This isn't anything for anybody to worry about. Again, the thing is to make something on the page that we ourselves care for, whatever it is.
 
What would you say the revision process is like for you? How much do your first drafts look like your final drafts?
 
I'd say that the revision process, usually considered more rational than the sort of brain-storming process of initial writing, should be just as hypnotic, just as unconscious, as the first draft. Yes, writing is re-writing, but I've had the experience these recent weeks of feeling that all kinds of revision is going on even as I make the sentences of these Hiroshima poems I've been writing, and some of these poems--most of them 15 long lines--have come about as fast as my handwriting could handle them, and a few have required not one word of revision. This has made me smile. It's as though I've been rewarded by the powers that be for all my dedication over decades.... Years ago, I had the chance to look into many of Theodore Roethke's manuscripts at the University of Washington. He struggled and struggled to come clear, revised to the point of dizziness. How glad I was to see that at the end of his life, he wrote out the beautiful poems of his "North American Sequence" quickly, and these pieces needed very little revision.
 
If you could give any advice to a younger poet trying to publish her or his work, what would it be?
 
I don't know. Do what makes you happy. Surely it's easy these days to publish, maybe not with Farrar Strauss or Knopf but on some level. Maybe not in The New Yorker but on some level. The small press world is where it's at these days, I think. Just make sure that your books are attractive--you'll be living with them all your life. And make sure that you yourself care for what you publish. And sing.


Works by William Heyen

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