Experiencing the Language of Nature: Kyle Austin Interviews Robert Haight

1. What first drew you to poetry? Did the beautiful and complex variety of Michigan’s natural landscape play a role?

I was first drawn to poetry through my interest in music. I learned the words to a lot of songs and enjoyed the imagery, imagination and emotion that music was able to create. Michigan's landscape didn't play much of a role in my writing until I had graduated from college and moved north to teach in a small, rural school district. There I was surrounded by woods and water, lived in a cabin on the banks of a river, and the landscape became central to my life and my writing.

2. Your website says that you also dabble in writing essays and articles. Do you approach that type of writing differently than you would a collection of poems? Which do you enjoy writing more?

I do approach writing essays and articles differently than writing poetry. The work I do in prose is mostly intellectual in nature. There is still the sound of language, the enjoyment of a well constructed sentence and of a well made piece, but those elements are subdued compared to the development of ideas. In poetry, or at least in my poetry, the opposite seems true. The power of the piece arises from its imagery and musicality and depends much less on the ideas that are in play. I enjoy writing in all the genres but poetry is the one that provides the deepest experience one can have with language. It takes you to the edge of what is possible in language and in the imagination.

3. Many of the poems in Emergences and Spinner Falls are encapsulated scenes of nature in which the natural world seems to mimic, or evoke an observation about the human condition. Would you say that you turn first and foremost to the natural world for poetic inspiration?

Yes. I turn first and foremost to the natural world not just for poetic inspiration but for inspiration in my life. I think it was Thoreau who said that any problem one might face will seem a little less daunting after a thirty minute walk. When we engage with nature we are reminded of two important realities that can help us live our lives more fully. One is that we are not separate, we are not alone. We share the earth with an amazing variety of living things. The second is that we are interdependent. We are a part of this intricate web of nature. All of our interactions with the natural world will tell us a lot about ourselves, from efforts to save forests and animals to the greed we see every day in the exploitation of resources. So it reflects us on both a personal and collective level.

4. I love that many of the nature poems are not mere snapshots, but always include a human character that leads the reader to view the poems through the lens of human experience. You are not so much heralding the majestic, righteous qualities of the natural world as you are exploring humankind’s connection to it. What ‘nature poets’ (for lack of a better term) if any, have influenced your own poetry?

The poets who have most influenced me would include the Chinese poets, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Po, and others, the Japanese poets, Basho, Ryokan, Issa come to mind, Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth from years ago, and from more recent times Theodore Roethke, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, William Stafford, my former teachers John Woods and Herb Scott, and Joanna Klink, Janet Kauffman, Billy Collins, the list goes on and on. I think what you say about "not so much heralding the majestic, righteous qualities of the natural world as much as exploring humankind's connection to it" is really important. By avoiding aspects of nature that one finds troublesome or by discounting the violence we have done to the natural world, a writer would be failing in that primary obligation to convey truth. The writers who have influenced me have shown the complexities of their various localities but also the complexities of their connections to those localities.

5. I see in the collection an obvious focus on the natural wonder of Michigan. Are you a traveler, or is your experience of nature based primarily on your time in the Michigan outdoors? How important do you feel place to be in regards to the composition and experience of poetry?

I'm not much of a traveler of the world, at least in comparison to some of my friends who are zooming off for other continents every month, it seems. I spend most all my time in Michigan, both in the southern part of the state where I live and work, and in the north where I fish. To me, place is incredibly important to my composition and experience of poetry because it is important to my life. I want my poetry writing to come from my life, not my life to come from my poetry writing. So to me, place has to be authentically experienced and written. The writer needs to intimately know the places of which they write. I've seen but don't tend to remember some poems that are sort of like post cards from places people spent a few minutes: "Here I am looking down from Machu Picchu." "Diamond Head sits in green light beyond Waikiki Beach." They are a kind of tourist poem. As my mentor John Woods one wrote, "They fade like a tan." If a poem like that works, it's because its subject is really about something other than the place. I notice right away when a writer has authority when it comes to their subject or not, and when they do it makes me trust them as I read their work.

6. To step outside the collection for a moment, what ultimately led you to teach? Has your teaching career in any way changed the way you approach your own writing?

I enjoy people and I enjoy the subject of English, so teaching for me was a natural way to earn a living. I've enjoyed it my entire career, which is over thirty years in high school, university and community college teaching. I'm not sure whether my teaching career has changed my writing per se, but I know that it has required that I be patient with my writing practice. It is quite common to hear people say, "How can I find more time to write? I have to make a living but I want to spend my time writing." Some think education could be the answer, with its vacations and free weekends. Then they find out what teaching really demands and they wish they had taken a career in business where they would have not only more time to write but more money to buy pens as well. I don't divide my life into teaching and writing identities. They feed each other. My writing makes me a better teacher, I believe, more informed, more sensitive to how writing is produced, and my teaching has affected my writing in that I think about writing for others, to communicate something to people, as opposed to playing with language for its own sake.

7. Not all of the poems in Emergences and Spinner Falls pertain directly to nature, I’m thinking of “Baloney” and “Two Dogs with Children”. Do you write very many poems like “Baloney,” which take place exclusively in the ‘civilized’ (again, for lack of a better term) realm of the world? How much of your poetry, if any, aims at social dissection or criticism?

Well, it comes up now and then. I don't sit down with the intention of writing a particular type of poem. The poems find their own way into what they want to say. Some of the landscape pieces make social commentary as well as the other poems not directly about nature. When you're writing about what you care deeply about, the social message will tend to emerge in a natural way without it having to be imposed on a piece of writing.

8. Your sons are musicians, and your collection seems to hint at you being a music lover as well. Has music influenced your direction as a writer, as a creative person?

I have a son who is a jazz musician and a daughter who is a music therapist. And, yes, we are all music lovers. Music has been the strongest influence for me as a writer. I'm always thinking about the pace, the rhythm patterns and rhyming possibilities in a poem, the sonic experience of language. When you look at the different types of music people respond to, you see it is a big, big world of amazing variety, from classical music, to jazz, to reggae, to hip hop, all of them communicating to various communities in their different ways. Creative writing is similar in its constellations of styles and schools. I'm always reminded to approach those arts with some humility, without bringing a lot of judgment about what is the "best" or "most significant" or "good." If one is going to practice any art, it's necessary to know as much as one can about all of them.

9. How would you characterize your progression as a writer? How have your ideas, your ways of seeing the world evolved as the years have gone by? How much of your poetry that you’ve written recently can you say was born out of the experience of age?

I would say that my way of seeing the world has changed over time and that has probably changed my writing. I think over time I've learned to pay better attention. I've learned to concentrate. I've also learned what I could let go of, what I didn't need to carry around, and by that I mean especially ideas about who or what I am or might become. Robert Bly has a short poem in which he writes, "How strange to think of giving up all ambition. Suddenly I see with such clear eyes the white flake of snow that has just fallen on the horse's mane." I've given up ambition.

10. Lastly, as a teacher of creative writing, what advice can you give those who seek to make the practice of it a substantial part of their lives?

As Rumi wrote, "Let the beauty we love be what we do." For an aspiring poet, I think that means to write when one can, regularly, as a practice, and to read the writing of others, to pay attention to the world around them, not just the natural world, but all the many things we walk by every day, to love the gift of language and the abilities to think and feel and reflect upon experience through words.

Works by Robert Haight

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.