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“Our relation to human precarity”: A Conversation with H.L. Hix

H.L. Hix’s recent books include a poetry collection, Rain Inscription; an edition, with Julie Kane, of selected poems of contemporary Lithuanian poet Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė, called Terribly In Love; an essay collection, Demonstrategy; and an art/poetry anthology, Ley Lines.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your stunning essay collection, Demonstrategy, will be launched in the fall by Etruscan Press. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

H.L. Hix: Thank you, Kristina, for talking with me about the book. The first thing I’d say is that the reader doesn’t need to know anything special: it’s not reserved for a narrow group of experts in some arcane enterprise, so there’s no secret password the reader has to know to enter.

Stopping there, though, would be a little glib, so let me add that, even though there’s nothing special the reader needs to know before reading Demonstrategy, I do suspect the book will have more purchase for a reader who arrives at it with a certain disposition: attunement to the precarity of human (collective and individual) well-being, and to the urgency of this historical moment in relation to that precarity.

My sense is that poetry is not a reprieve from that precarity, not a relief or diversion, like fishing on Saturday after a hard week at the office, but a practice through which we can influence (toward resistance and away from acquiescence) our relation to human precarity, to the structural violences that propel it. Demonstrategy attempts to think about poetry in this way.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as an essayist, you’re an accomplished poet.  What can poets learn from essayists about the craft of writing?

HH: Even MFA programs that are organized by genre typically have a curricular requirement to take at least one workshop in another genre, precisely because posing that question can be so instructive. A writer/reader can learn much about any one genre from any other.

But there I go glancing off of glibness again: you didn’t ask whether or how much poets can learn from essayists, but what we can learn. One what would be if not a lesson at least a reminder about structure, namely that it is not decorative, not a “special effect” added to a work, but a functional aspect, integral to the work. For some reason, poetry often gets treated as if its form and content can be pulled apart, as if the poet when writing first arrived at the poem and then tacked onto it the form of a prose poem or a sonnet. Essayists, though, seem to me typically to “get it” that one does not add “braiding” onto a “braided essay” after the fact, as a bonus, but that the braiding is the thinking. The braiding of a braided essay is a mode of reflection and understanding, and so is the rhyming and octave-and-sestet-ing of a sonnet.

KMD:  Your poetry often defies genre, using long, sweeping, Whitmanesque lines, and conceptualizing the page as a visual field.  Meaning, the work looks like prose on the page, which carves a space for memoir and narrative in the lyric.  In addition to your innovative work with the poetic line, how has your writing in other genres enriched your poetry?

HH: I suppose one could write in hybrid or cross-genre forms merely because it’s trendy, and no doubt some writers are just “catching the wave,” but I hope I’m a little more reflective about it than that. (And that the chapter in Demonstrategy called “Poetry for Hybridity” captures some of that reflection.) There is a reason for the trend. Our genre categories are not “natural kinds,” things that exist in the world prior to our noticing them. They’re made up. They’re constructed, and they’re not constructed in parallel: writing is not a pie that genre slices into discrete pieces.

I’ve been interested in reconstructing genre categories for myself. Occasionally, that has included renaming: for example, I called my works in First Fire, Then Birds not poems but “obsessionals,” and my book American Anger not a poetry collection but an “evidentiary.” Like others who are pushing back against received genre constructions, I am trying to perform the recognition that I can’t change what I think without changing how I think.

KMD:  For you as a writer, how do the structures of narrative manifest differently in poetry vs. prose?

HH: I’ve been focused for a while on the flip side of this question, on how they manifest similarly.

Once in a while I get to team-teach a workshop with my marvelous fiction-writing colleague Alyson Hagy. Our premise for the course is that all the structures of narrative manifest in lyric poetry, and that all the structures of lyric manifest in narrative prose (fiction and nonfiction alike).

So, for example, even though character gets talked about more often in relation to prose narratives, character is present in a lyric poem, too. It might sometimes be only a first-person speaker, but it is always present. Similarly, even though the sonic properties of language get talked about more often in relation to poetry, they are at work in prose as well. “124 was spiteful” scans no less that “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” does.

In addition to such similarities of structure, there are commonalities of function. So, for example, I take as true of poetry and prose alike Edward Said’s claim in Orientalism that narrative “introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision.”

KMD:  The poet and fiction writer Nick Flynn talks about writing the same book in two different genres, as companion texts.  In other words, he believes that some facets of an idea are only communicable using the tools of poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction, and so on.  Do you think that the artistic and philosophical discoveries of Demonstrategy will manifest in your poetry?  How so?

HH: You’re generously imputing to me more clarity of mind than I possess! I don’t experience the effect of my prose on my poetry as quite so orderly and sequential; for me, it’s messier, or (to put a positive spin on it) more reciprocal.

So, to Flynn’s observation at the scale of whole books, I’d add two observations at the scale of sentence and line: Heather McHugh’s insight that in poetry, where the unit is the line rather than the sentence, “meaning refuses to be single-minded: the transitivity of meaning splits, as we mean more than we intend”; and Lyn Hejinian’s that, because sentence and line “have different ways of bringing meaning into view,” the “interplay between the two produces countercurrents, eddies, backwaters, and swirls.” If Flynn is drawing attention to how two genres can parallel one another, McHugh and Hejinian are drawing attention to how one genre can be two.

Maybe there’s some other analogy to add to this. Something like: in Demonstrategy I’m testing my preoccupations in the lab, and in my poetry I’m testing them in the field?

KMD:  What’s next? What can readers look forward to?

HH: I know we’re not supposed to talk about really new things, for fear of jinxing them, but I’ve just started a nonfiction piece that I think wants to be a book, called The Buffoon. My idea is that our disastrous national and global political condition is not the incidental result of an outsized personality imposing itself on an unwitting populace, but a symptom, the epitome and apotheosis of a change in our collective discursive compact. So the danger to civil society is not the person who but the figure that currently holds the U.S. presidency, a figure for which existing concepts from history, such as “tyrant,” are imprecise, but which I am trying to characterize, and which I call “the Buffoon.” If I boiled my thesis to a ratio, it would be bullshit : language :: the Buffoon : society. As bullshit is to language, the Buffoon is to society.

Which may return us to the starting point of this conversation: the Buffoon lacks the disposition that I hope a reader of Demonstrategy will have.