The Rumpus Interview with Edward Hirsch
In the fall of 1990, The New England Review published a poem by Edward Hirsch called “The Welcoming.” The poem, about Gabriel’s birth, is also about the birth of Hirsch as a father. It remains one of the most ecstatic, most joyful poems I’ve read. 24 years later, Hirsch published a book-length poem entitled Gabriel, about his son’s tragic and untimely death. The book is one of the most anguished, most mournful poems I’ve read. Long-listed for the National Book Award, Gabriel has received a great deal of critical attention. The book and the author have been profiled in the New Yorker, the Guardian, NPR, and the Washington Post, among others. Most of these pieces have focused on Hirsch, his grief, Gabriel, and the occasion of the book. I was interested in the poetics of the book—how and why Hirsch decided to write a poem—after essentially giving up poetry for a period of time
Gabriel is like nothing I’ve ever read. It is a long poem comprised of 75 individual poems. Each poem is 30 lines—ten 3-line stanzas that take up one page. None of the individual poems have titles; there is no table of contents. Thus, each page feels like some middle-ground between a poem, a section, and a chapter. Woven into the fabric of the poem are stories about other writers whose children died too young, stories about Gabriel, lines from other poems, and lines from documents of Gabriel’s life and death.
Hirsch is one of the most important American poets as well as one of the best writers on and about poetry. His first collection, For the Sleepwalkers (1981), is one of the great debuts of twentieth-century American poetry, and his 1994 collection, Earthly Measures, is one of the best books of that decade. Winner of many awards, Hirsch is a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is the current president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. We met in his office at the Guggenheim in New York City in early October. Hirsch held a wad of Kleenex or a handkerchief in his left hand for the entire interview and barely spoke above a whisper. The interview lasted over 90 minutes; neither of us could believe how long we had talked. Ultimately, we had to wrap things up so that we could attend a tribute to Mark Strand, where Hirsch was presenting.
My thanks to Cassie Duggan for her help transcribing the interview, which has been very minimally edited by Hirsch and myself.
The Rumpus: I’d like to begin by congratulating you on the reception to Gabriel, including being long-listed for the National Book Award.
Edward Hirsch: Thank you.
Rumpus: You must have a swirling series of emotions about it. I suspect you’ve been contacted by a lot of people since the news came out. I thought I’d just ask you: how you are feeling about that news for this book?
Hirsch: I don’t know how to feel about it. There ought to be a philosophical name for people honoring a poem that you wished you’d never had to write. You never wanted to write it and you wished you had never been forced to. I can’t think of the name for what that would be, but that’s my situation.
Rumpus: Who or what do you think forced you to write it?
Hirsch: Well, no person forced me to write it. No one put a gun to me and said that I had to write this poem, but I felt that a tsunami had hit me and I needed to try to stand up. I wasn’t really functioning, so I decided to try to strengthen myself by turning my grief into poetry. Writing this poem gave me something to do with my grief. It was a relief not just to be thinking about my sadness but to be thinking about poetic problems. Because inevitably no matter how sad you are, how sorrowful you are, once you start writing a poem you also have to think about poetry. You’re engaged in technical questions, and those were a relief to me.
Rumpus: In August, the New Yorker ran an engrossing profile about you, Gabriel, and the book. In the piece, either the author (Alec Wilkinson) or you said that after Gabriel’s passing, poetry—the one thing you’d always turned to—no longer was there for you; that it no longer gave you the same sort of comfort that it had for most of your life. I’m curious if that was the case in terms of reading poems by other poets, writing your own non-Gabriel focused poems, or writing about Gabriel. Did that change somewhat in writing this poem about him? Did the quality of this book reaffirm your commitment to poetry?
Hirsch: After my son Gabriel died, I couldn’t actually read poetry anymore, which had never happened to me in my adult life. I don’t think I’ve gone a day since I was eighteen without reading some poetry. I simply couldn’t concentrate. There was about a six-month period where not only I could not write a poem, I couldn’t even read a poem. Poetry didn’t do anything for me—it didn’t speak to my condition. For about a year I cancelled all my poetry events. Then gradually I began to feel more like myself again. I became able to read again, and that was a comfort to me. Once I began to work on the poem about Gabriel, I was able to give my attention to poetry again. I don’t think I’ll ever believe in poetry in the same way I did before. I’m too aware of the limitations of what it cannot do. Yet there are some things it does better than anything else. I haven’t found anything to replace it. I’m just more aware of the ways that poetry is not life.
Rumpus: It is definitely not life. Maybe you could walk me through how and when you started writing the poem and why. What did that feel like?
Hirsch: After Gabriel died, I took a leave of absence from my job and moved down to Atlanta to live with my girlfriend. She held me up. During that time I began to compile a dossier about Gabriel’s life. I became desperate to remember what had happened to him, and to us. I spent about four months creating a prose document. I’d characterize it as a somewhat clinical account in chronological order of everything that had happened. I was terrified I would forget. I talked every day to my partner, my ex-wife, my two sisters, and Gabriel’s friends. I was trying to get a clear picture, to remember everything. Then after five or six months I came back to work at the Guggenheim Foundation, and I had my document, which was not yet a book because I’d left myself out of it. My grief was pretty raw. I was still in the deep throes of it. Since I’d cancelled all my poetry events, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself after work. I began to get the idea that I could write about Gabriel. And I would use the dossier as a kind of backdrop. I thought, I’ll try to write some poems about some things that had puzzled me in his life. I started to write those individual lyrics, and I soon became dissatisfied. The idea of telling a few stories in a few poems, or of writing a few poems about Gabriel’s life and death seemed insufficient. And the idea of including a few poems about Gabriel in a book of poems on some other subject seemed to me completely inadequate, impossible really. So then I began to get the idea that I should do something larger. I decided to try to write a long poem in sections. It would have the intensity of a lyric, but the narrative thrust of a full-length book. I hit upon the form and began to shape experience into poems. I had a notion of what I might be able to do. Over time, over about a year-long period, it began to come together. I started to understand what the poem would be like.
Rumpus: So when you say the form, are you thinking about the tercet and the individual thirty line sequences?
Hirsch: The first decision was to write a poem that was unpunctuated.
Rumpus: That was my next question.
Hirsch: That was the first move—to flow without punctuation. To create a propulsive movement, a poem that could turn quickly. Then I got the idea of writing unpunctuated lines in three-line stanzas. That would give them some kind of shape. And create an echo of Dante.
Rumpus: And Stevens.
Hirsch: I love those three-line poems of his. Then I hit upon ten 3-line stanzas per section. Each section was a kind of near poem. It was almost a poem. These lyrics weren’t quite as individuated as, say, the poems in The Dream Songs, but they were almost independent. I could then begin to structure them and begin some kind of sequence. Part of the book is Gabriel’s biography—it tells his story, from my point of view. It has a narrative arc. The idea of creating these intense near poems that would then accumulate in a larger narrative sequence seemed to me right for what I wanted to do.
Rumpus: You make a number of really interesting aesthetic decisions in the book. There’s no punctuation, which to me for you is an interesting move—perhaps something that someone who knows your work well would not predict. You capitalize the first letter of every line. You never waiver from the tercet. And you also do some interesting things with syntax. You don’t really end the syntax when the line breaks. So the unpunctuated lines are intentionally confusing; there’s a running together of sentences and sentiments. You also integrate into your story of Gabriel and your own suffering the stories of other grieving poets. And then you layer into that the voices of Gabriel’s friends and your own voice. It’s this mélange of unexpected choices that feels both individual and communal at the same time. I was wondering if that was intentional or if that sense of conversation just happened?
Hirsch: No, it didn’t just happen. As I began to write the poem I started to have the feeling of trying to create something multi-faceted, multi-vocal. The story was so unrelieved, and it begins with such tremendous grief, that I felt I needed some kind of move away from the story to give the reader a little bit of room, some emotional breathing space. I liked the movement of the three-line stanzas (each one has a beginning, a middle, and an end) and the syntactic ambiguity I could create by running on the lines. I liked the slightly formal feeling of beginning each line with a capital letter. It pulls against the running together of the lines.
I also thought the poem needed a little perspective or distancing—I’m not the only one who has suffered. I didn’t really do any research—I just started thinking about what other poets had done, how they had handled the loss of their children. I got the idea that that would be a kind of way of moving the story and creating a collective voice. Also, creating another perspective on my own experience. Each of the poets I write about at various points in the poem also reflects on my feeling and my experience with Gabriel. That was meant to be a leitmotif running through the book. It wasn’t meant to overwhelm the book, it was meant to be a secondary motif. But I think it’s important. I wrote many more of those poems than are included in the final elegy. There are many poets who have lost children, and I simply couldn’t write about them all. I began to feel that the leitmotif was overwhelming the book. It’s meant to be a secondary dimension, and so I began to take out the ones I didn’t think worked quite as well. Sometimes the stories of other poets were so complicated that I couldn’t do them justice in thirty lines. I’m also thinking in these poems about poets as parents. There’s a kind of reflection running through the book about my own vocation as a poet and how that was in conflict with my role as a father. This led me to other poets, too. I’m thinking about them not just as poets, but also as fathers and mothers.
Rumpus: And also poets whose work you clearly love, like Rilke and Akhmatova, who made questionable parenting decisions. Does that make you think differently about their work now?
Hirsch: No, I was already thinking about them as parents when I was raising Gabriel.
Rumpus: Parenting changes everything.
Hirsch: Yes, I agree. It changes and reorients you.
Rumpus: I hate the cliché, but I notice a difference with my non-parent writer friends. Being a parent changes how you think about responsibility and relationship and commitment.
Hirsch: But it hasn’t done that for everyone. Rilke and Akhmatova were my two greatest test cases. They are poets of the highest order. I love their work, but it really came at the cost of their families, of their children in particular. I wanted to reflect upon this aspect of daily life, which Rilke saw as the enemy of poetry. Yet dailiness is crucial if you raise a child. By writing about them I was also writing about myself—as a parent and a poet. I used to think about this quite a lot while Gabriel was alive—my twin conflicts—but this became extremely charged after Gabriel died. I felt a greater inclination to convict them—and myself—not as poets, but as parents. I quote those poignant and funny lines from John Berryman: “It is a mistake to marry with poets / or to be by them.”
Rumpus: Well I was trying to imagine Rilke sitting in a Dave and Busters drinking a Diet Coke.
Hirsch: That’s the image.
Rumpus: It’s not gonna happen.
Hirsch: It strikes us a kind of absurdity.
Rumpus: This is what you do. I take a book to my son’s soccer practice or to the playground.
Hirsch: That’s what we do, but that’s not what they did. They made different decisions. Rilke couldn’t handle the daily responsibilities of living with his wife and daughter. Akhmatova decided that she couldn’t raise her son. She dumped him on her husband’s parents. I’m not judging them exactly, but I am thinking about them not just as poets, but also as people, as parents.
Rumpus: It’s complicated because you often think that one of the things you identify in great art is compassion to something—language, human frailty, the human sense of being overwhelmed by everything. It’s that basic sense of humanity. Then when you discover that someone who seems to be tapped into that so well, who writes about it so beautifully, does not have that register in some other aspects of their lives, it makes me question the part that I was drawn to in their work in the first place.
Hirsch: I think it inevitably leads you to raising questions about that work, or at least interrogating it. I’ve had a life-long argument with myself about Rilke especially and his commitment to the Great Work, the way he removed himself from daily life and distanced himself from human intimacies. And yet the power of his work is tremendous.
Rumpus: It’s great. Almost nothing better. I also want to ask you about a decision you made to fold into Gabriel the poem from Earthly Measures about Gabriel, “The Welcoming.” You changed the line breaks and excise a bit. I was curious about those decisions. Again it’s this notion about the collage aesthetic in the book.
Hirsch: There are two poems like that in the book. I had not written very much about Gabriel while he was growing up, I considered the subject off limits. I had written one poem, “The Welcoming,” about adopting him. The other is called “Boy with the Headset.”
Rumpus: Where you’re following him through the streets of New York.
Hirsch: Yes, as a teenager. That was a shorter poem and I had to expand it, whereas “The Welcoming” was a longer poem. My book begins and ends in the funeral home. That’s the structure. But along the way it tells Gabriel’s story. The adoption was crucial to telling that story. I felt I had recorded the experience in “The Welcoming,” I had captured how I felt about it at the time. Now I was coming to it from a later perspective. So I decided to rework the original poem within the constraints of my new form. I found that although my poem in Gabriel doesn’t have the amplitude of “The Welcoming” I could capture some essential details in two sections that really tell the story of adopting him. In “Boy with the Headset” I was trying to capture something about being with him on the streets of New York as a teenager. I thought I could expand that a little to give the feeling of what it was to walk around behind him as he rolled through the city.
Rumpus: Gabriel begins with you looking at your son’s body in the funeral home. My father studied to be a mortician, and even though that wound up not being his job, he remained very close with our local mortician. As such, I spent no small amount of time with him at the funeral home, looking both at bodies and families looking at bodies. I remember the first dead body I ever saw was a boy I knew—Kevin Wright—who was killed in a mini bike accident. I think I was five or six. The scene of a funeral home, the scene of a casket, the scene of a boy in that casket sooner than he should be is something that resonates universally for sure, but it also carried a personally historical component for me. I felt I knew that moment emotionally. It is, as you say, a stark scene. It hits you immediately. Could you say a little bit about why you chose to begin and end the poem with these scenes? Moments of intense finality bookend the poem. I was curious about that as an emotional entrée and ending and as a formal component as well.
Hirsch: I didn’t want to be coy about what had happened. I didn’t want my book to be a mystery novel. I didn’t feel the reader should go through the book and discover near the end that the boy had died. I felt that I needed to announce right away that this was an elegy. My son had died. I guess I wanted to start dramatically, with the brute reality. It was a human decision. I decided early on that I wanted to write a poem, an elegy, without the traditional consolations of the elegy. I thought this would be one of the ways to do it. I didn’t want to shy away from the desolation that I felt. Part of the experience of writing the poem was seeing if I could articulate and embody that desolation.
Rumpus: There are just some absolutely fantastic moments in the poem. Simply devastating. I loved reading it (if “loved” is the right word). I cried two or three times. It’s like no other poem I’ve read.
You mentioned you tried to avoid traditional consolations of the elegy. I want to ask you about the poem on page 61 where you go through what looks like the autopsy report. You talk about how much Gabriel’s brain weighed, his heart, his right lung, his left lung. I don’t know why that poem hit so hard, but it was an anti-elegy in some ways. The elegy romanticizes someone’s life—his living—but what you do is reduce this person who you loved more than anything to the opposite of that, to pure physicality. It is a brutal moment and a very bold poem to put mid-book.
Hirsch: That’s the most desolate moment in the poem, I think. Someone you love has been reduced to a series of external facts. Reading the autopsy of someone you love is an incomparable experience, it is unbearably awful. You know there can be part of writing a poem that’s a bit cold-hearted. By the time I was working on this poem I decided to go all in, to put everything on the table. I tried to be brave. And part of me thought—and I’m not proud of this but it’s the case—I’ve never seen anything like this in a poem.
Rumpus: I hadn’t either.
Hirsch: And that’s compelling, why not try it? There are two sections like this. It’s a kind of found poem, but of the most awful and devastating sort. It was an indication to me that I was ready to go all out. I thought it would be striking to then counter the autopsy afterwards with several poems about what he loved. I was juxtaposing the report, the hard facts, with the subjectivity of the person, my kid, what he was like, how he was in the world.
Rumpus: And not long after that you tell this fantastic story about his birthday. You must have been riveted as his friend was recounting this night to you.
Hirsch: There are two sections in the poem that recreate the off-the-cuff eulogy of Gabriel’s closest friend. This is essentially the eulogy that Joe Straw gave at the funeral. I’ve just changed the timing of it, I’ve moved it forward in the narrative. Everyone at the funeral was completely riveted by this story about the night of Gabriel’s 22nd birthday. I didn’t know anything about it, and neither did Janet [Hirsch’s ex-wife]. If Gabriel hadn’t died we never would have found out. Kids just don’t tell you what they’re doing. But at the funeral Joe told the story and everyone’s heart lifted. I recalled it perfectly afterwards and recreate it in my poem. It gives you some relief because there’s so much joy in it. You feel the exuberance of youth in the story. It’s got that wild enthusiasm of youth.
Rumpus: Kids in the city.
Hirsch: Kids celebrating in the city, exactly.
Rumpus: Very urban.
Hirsch: Twenty-two-year-olds on the loose in the city.
Rumpus: You need that moment so much because you write candidly about how difficult Gabriel can be. How his own happiness might fluctuate. As a reader and as a parent, I kept asking myself the same questions: I wonder if Gabriel is happy? Is he a happy kid? You worry as a parent. My parenting instincts were set off throughout. Did he have friends? What was it like to parent him? Then you get to that story, and you think: thank god he had good friends. He experienced joy; he was compassionate. People loved him. You need that. You need it as a reader, you need it as a parent. It’s a fantastic moment.
Hirsch: There’s a key moment in the poem when Gabriel’s posse of friends starts to come in. And that becomes part of the story. I think that was a pivotal moment in Gabriel’s life. It’s a good moment in the poem, too, because I can truthfully portray the antics and adventures of Gabriel’s group of friends—their Shakespearean actions, their wild activities.
Rumpus: Fun, to be around that.
Hirsch: Some of the things they say are so funny. And they’re in the poem. I’m just quoting them.
Rumpus: The 7/11 line is priceless.
Hirsch: Yeah that’s from the movie The Boondock Saints.
Rumpus: Still. It’s great.
Hirsch: “We’re sorta like 7-Eleven / We’re not always doing business / But we’re always open.” In terms of things Gabriel said I also like “Dad, you’re the sort of person who needs to work a lot, I’m the sort of person who needs a lot of downtime.”
Rumpus: That was great.
Rumpus: The level of insight is staggering.
Hirsch: It’s very perceptive.
Rumpus: I also wanted to ask you about the decision to write about how difficult he could be. There had to have been incidents you didn’t write about, obviously. But you don’t really shy away from how much of a strain his challenges put on you and Janet and a series of therapists. Did a therapist really sit on him one time to not let him leave the room?
Rumpus: I probably know the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. I assume that goes along with your desire to undermine some traditional romanticism of the elegy, but what prompted you to talk about this aspect of his life, to write about your parenting so openly?
Hirsch: I’m somewhat uncomfortable about this, but it is part of the story. I had to include it. I’m telling Gabriel’s story from my point of view. I’m not pretending that I’m telling it from his point of view. I am a father. I’m writing as a parent. Our worry is part of the story, his difficulties are part of the story. I feel most nervous and apprehensive about this because he really didn’t want people to know about his disabilities. He wouldn’t have wanted me to write about them. I felt that if I was going to tell the true story of what Gabriel was like, how he operated in the world, then this has to be included too. It then became not just a human problem and a psychological one, which it was first of all, but also a literary problem. How do you write about a kid who has gone to eight different schools, how do you write about all the different therapists, how do you write about all the lists of medications? And one of the things that was absorbing to me was that I’d never seen anything like this or anything of this stuff in a poem before. I’d seen it in psychological manuals; I’d seen it in books about psychiatry.
Rumpus: Memoirs, creative nonfiction—I agree. Not in poetry.
Hirsch: I’d never seen it in a poem before. That became absorbing—how to write it, what to do. But I tried never to lose sight of the fact that I wasn’t just writing a poem. I was also writing about life, I was writing about my son. I had to try to be truthful and accurate, to find a way to capture him in language.
Rumpus: When you solved—I’ll back up and say—when you solve a poetic problem there’s virtually no feeling in the world that’s better. When you feel like you get it right. There are many of these moments in the book when you got it right. You had to know that you had solved an extraordinarily difficult problem How did that feel?
Hirsch: I have no idea how to feel about this. You’re at times writing something you think is really working. You’ve figured something out, you’ve hit a note that you haven’t heard before in poetry. But it’s completely dependent on what’s happened to your son. And your grief. This is an insoluble problem. I could not feel the joy that I felt at other times in figuring something out. There was some consolation I suppose in transforming it and trying to get it right.
Rumpus: Do you think Gabriel would like the poem?
Hirsch: I have no idea.
Rumpus: Do you think he would have recognized the aesthetic problems that you solved?
Hirsch: I don’t think so. He wasn’t very interested in poetry. I hope he would have liked some aspects of the poem. It’s hard to imagine that Gabriel would have ever read a long poem. I think he would have liked some parts of it. I’d say his adventures. Other parts I’m sure he would have preferred me to avoid. Some people in my life feel that Gabriel would not have wanted any of this written down. Others feel Gabriel would have felt great pride in being the subject of this poem. His charisma comes through, he was proud of his adventures. There is really no way to know. I cannot presume to say what he would or would not like. The people who knew Gabriel really well feel that Gabriel’s spirit is alive in the book. That’s important to me.
Rumpus: I was curious about how you landed on a voice for the book? Do you feel like the speaking voice of the poet in this book is different from that in your other books?
Rumpus: And if so, what would you, or how would you characterize that difference?
Hirsch: I don’t know exactly how to characterize the voice—it’s rawer and more urgent. It lives completely inside the feeling. It associates more rapidly and turns more quickly. It’s even more desperate. I’ve written some desperate poems before, but this takes desperation to another level.
Rumpus: Yeah, it is desperate.
Hirsch: It’s also more vernacular. It’s got a much wider range of diction. It includes all kinds of stuff that never made it into my work.
Hirsch: I was driven by Gabriel’s experience, which I was trying to write about with authenticity.
Rumpus: Desperation is an interesting word. There’s desperation that runs throughout the book. Gabriel’s desperation. Yours, as a parent. Maybe also teachers and principals. I wondered about your own decision to write about your parenting and your own parenting choices, which is something you’ve said you haven’t done in the past and I kind of haven’t seen that so much in poetry. Do you know Sam’s Book by David Ray?
Hirsch: I do; I admire it.
Rumpus: I do too. I hadn’t read it in years, a decade or so, but your book drove me back to that one. That too is a brave book.
Hirsch: I think so too. It’s a different book for a different kind of kid.
Rumpus: Different kind of kid, yeah, and I think Ray’s project is a different project than yours. But it made me think about writing as a parent and being open about parenting failures and mistakes.
Hirsch: Your flaws, your limitations, your guilt—that’s all part of it. You know I hadn’t seen much of this in poetry before. The poetry of being a father. I wanted to bring my own self-criticism into the story. I’ve always liked Dostoevsky’s idea, Convict thyself. That’s an ethical decision. I wanted to be truthful about my conflicts, my struggle between my vocation and my work as a parent. There’s the father up in his study, there’s the boy downstairs. The book careens between the street and the study. I cite my friend Donald Barthelme, who wrote, “Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, then at least ‘turned down’ in this generation.”
Rumpus: Wow. That’s a different generation I suspect. As I was reading the poem for the first time I also felt a kind of paternalism; you really want to protect your son from things. You in particular, want to protect this boy from so many things, and that comes through in the poem. There’s that one line I just loved, I’m going to get it wrong, but it’s something like “I am afraid of turning his life into a story.” I was wondering if that was somehow connected to wanting to protect him in some way from what the book might do or writing about the book and him might do.
Hirsch: “Lord of Misadventure / I’m scared of rounding him up / And turning him into a story.”
Hirsch: That’s one serious problem with writing a poem, especially a poem with anecdotes. I was telling stories about Gabriel, but while I was telling those stories I was also aware that they were not the whole truth. It’s difficult to capture what someone was really like. I’ve got the kid in my mind, and I’ve got the poem that I’m writing. That moment in the poem is important to me because it recognizes that I’m terribly afraid of turning him into a narrative, a story. I’m making a story about him. Of course he wasn’t a story, he was a person, my son. And yet turning him into a piece of literature, a poem, is part of what I’m doing. I want to be true to the conflicts and the contradictions and different aspects of his character. To have these stories somehow build up to create a portrait of him. I think that kind of moment of narrative self-consciousness is crucial. I’m narrating a story about him in Amherst and suddenly I break off the story to stay that I’m scared of rounding him up and turning him into a tale.
Rumpus: Can I ask you some more questions about individual poems?
Hirsch: Sure of course.
Rumpus: The rain poem: “It rained for twenty-two years / And two hundred and forty days / And all the days and nights of his life // The rain it raineth every day / From the midnight of his birth / To the early morning of his death.” I wonder if you could talk a little more about this poem.
Hirsch: It’s a type of magical realism. This section takes the fact that Gabriel went out into a rainstorm for the last time and it makes a kind of myth out of that. There’s so much of this poem that is documentary, but mixed in with this are surreal and semi-mythical lyrics. There may not be a name for what this poem does, which is probably why you’re asking me about it. It suggests that the rain fell through all the days of his life. It goes through that life, or at least all the places where he lived. It tells a true story of the rain in every one of his cities—what the rain was like in Texas, Virginia, Connecticut, New Jersey. It begins in Rome and ends in New Jersey and New York. It adapts a strategy from Garcia Marquez.
Rumpus: Right, I could see that. Sure. Almost biblical, well Marquez is pretty biblical as well.
Hirsch: That’s the idea. To create an incantatory biblical feeling. I also borrow a line from a Shakespeare song in Twelfth Night: “For the rain it raineth every day.”
Rumpus: I also wanted to ask you about the epitaph that you include “Away without a care / But instead someone picked it up / And laid it gently down / . . . Rest in peace at last hyperactive one / I will stand above you aghast.” Is that an internal epitaph, or is that actually on the stone?
Hirsch: It’s an internal epitaph. What is on the stone is the second-to-last line of the poem: “Wild spirit beloved son.” Those “Rest in peace” lines do have an epigraphic feeling. I was thinking of those epitaphs from the Greek anthology. In fact, when I first wrote this it rhymed the way epitaphs often do.
Hirsch: But I decided that wasn’t right for this and so I ruptured the rhyme. But it’s italicized and meant to have the feeling of an epitaphic statement.
Rumpus: It evokes that for sure.
Hirsch: That’s right.
Rumpus: It’s also one of the parts in the book that broke me.
Hirsch: It’s the same feeling you’re getting in the autopsy report. The moment that is most devastating is when you simply number the cemetery plot. There’s a terrifying coldness in the numerical system. You’re left juxtaposing the life of the boy, such a vivid spirit, with the coldness of the grave, its location in the cemetery. The section builds on the ritual of taking a stone and placing it on the grave.
Rumpus: Are there other poems that you wrote that you decided not to put into the book, but that you now wish were in here?
Hirsch: No. There are plenty of other anecdotes about Gabriel, but the poem isn’t meant to be a full compendium. It wasn’t meant to include everything about him.
Rumpus: Just to get more data about your son.
Hirsch: Exactly. I also have poems about other poets that I couldn’t quite bring to fruition: Sir Walter Raleigh’s instructions to his son, the story of Emerson and his boy Waldo, Melville’s two sons. I just couldn’t quite bring them to fruition. Maybe I’ll write them as poems at some other point. I had a poem about John Donne and his many children that died. I couldn’t quite make that work, either. But I don’t think that anything that I left out would have really contributed that much to the overall feeling or structure. Everything I left out probably should have been left out.
Rumpus: It feels like the right length.
Hirsch: That’s what I came to. I originally had the idea of trying to do one hundred sections. And then I realized they weren’t all of the same level. It seemed miscalculated to pad the poem. I wanted it to be as spare as possible. The poem has to move rapidly—that’s part of its charge. Each section has its own rhythm and structure, but it is also propelling you forward. It has to keep its speed, its forward motion.
Rumpus: It works. I also wanted to ask you about this poem that would seem to be a dream that you had that you’re sitting across from him in a diner. Can you talk a little bit about that? That too is a haunting moment.
Hirsch: Well, that recounts a dream I had. As you know, sometimes when you dream you see someone exactly as he looked. Details that are lost to your conscious mind come back to you from the unconscious.
Hirsch: Sometimes when you dream a person is delivered back to you—whole. That is what happened to me. But then you wake up. You’re left again with your conscious mind, your sorrow. The devastation of the loss comes back to you. I just tried to dramatize the experience.
Rumpus: After my grandmother died, I used to have dreams that she would visit me. The emotional presence of those dream visits is the closest thing you can get to recreating the actual physical emotional presence of someone—even more so than when you’re consciously thinking about them. It re-conjures them in some deep, deep emotional way, and I remember sometimes I would wake up crying. I guess I was reminded of that when I read that poem, and it was very effective in re-igniting that deep fire of grief that I feel is really burning low here but also high at the same time.
Hirsch: At this point in the poem the reader also knows quite a bit about Gabriel already. I was just writing out of life—the sense of his presence, the sensation of waking up to the loss.
Rumpus: Can I also ask you about the poem where you’re kind of saying goodbye to him, you’re leaning over the casket. That had to have been an incredibly difficult poem to write.
Hirsch: It was a devastating thing to live.
Rumpus: It’s an incredibly brave thing to write. I don’t know that I could have done it.
Hirsch: Thank you for saying so. I hope you never have to.
Rumpus: I guess I wanted you to know that.
Hirsch: It’s primal. I’m trying to write about something very close to the bone, very primitive, and to put it into language.
Rumpus: I find it almost, no it was, it was terrifying to read mostly because the rawness of that grief comes across so well, which leads to the very strong realization that I do not want to feel that level of grief any time soon. Then there is my grief for you having to go through that. And then I’m thinking about you having to write it, and then I’m thinking about that as a poet. I’m thinking: he had to revise this. He had to go back and look at this two, three, four, ten, twenty, fifty times. It’s not enough to write it down, but then there is our brain, our poet-brain, and the way it works means we have to go back to the poem over and over. So you’re revisiting it, and you’re revisiting it, and you’re revisiting it. I was reading it on the plane again today and I was tearing up on the plane. I don’t know. Writing a poem about this is not the same thing as a journal entry.
Hirsch: No, you’re making a poem. You are creating something. In order to write a poem, you have to remove yourself a little. It’s as if you’re looking at yourself from a certain distance. In the very last poem I say, “I was also looking down / At myself from a great distance.” Part of you is inside your grief, part of you is looking down and viewing yourself as a poor grief-stricken father. The pace, the pact, of writing is to try and describe this scene. When you’re writing it down later, you’re also revising it, trying to figure out the best way to dramatize it. You’re seeking the right words. This is your monstrous task as a poet.
Rumpus: That’s one of the things I was referring to when I said the poem is incredibly brave; because you’re setting yourself this task, you are committing yourself to the project of returning to this poem as many times as it takes to get it right, which means returning to and attending to that experience as many times as it takes.
Hirsch: You have to be willing to stay inside it. But for me I was already inside it. It gave me something to do with my feelings. It was my way of saying Kaddish. I was trying to do something with my grief, to create something out of it. But, yes, there is also something cold in us as poets. There’s something in us that’s willing to step back from an experience and write about it. We’re willing to hold things up to the light of day, to dramatize the most painful experiences, to try to find a language for them. It is important to me to keep the human side of things in mind. One is trying to be true to experience. When you write a poem you commit to a future reader. You have to do your best to dramatize experience for someone coming upon your work later.
Rumpus: You’re not going to remember this, but when we spent a couple days together in Texas, I don’t know, twenty years ago maybe, I asked you about “The Welcoming,” which is a phenomenally great poem. You said something like “I feel like that poem is a gift that poetry gave me after a life of reading and writing and giving myself to poetry.” I guess the question I want to ask you is this: do you feel like poetry gave you the gift of this book?
Hirsch: I can’t say I do. “The Welcoming,” yes, because it’s so joyous.
Rumpus: Ah, it’s beautiful.
Hirsch: I felt like I’d worked my whole life in poetry to be able to write that poem, to find a language to express my joy. My craft came to my aid. I registered it by switching into a biblical language. Maybe that’s true of Gabriel, too. But writing Gabriel was an entirely different kind of experience. Here was a book-length poem that I needed to write. I needed to rise to the occasion. Yet it was also a poem that I dearly wished I never had to think about.
Rumpus: Is it a poem you’re proud to have written?
Hirsch: Yes. I don’t know how to think about it, but I am very hopeful that Gabriel’s spirit comes through the book. I want to leave something lasting behind.
Rumpus: Tell me something great about Gabriel that’s not in the poem.
Hirsch: There are a lot of anecdotes about Gabriel’s outrageousness. One of the things about Gabriel that was extremely funny to his friends, but trying to his parents, was that he would say anything to anyone. When he was 12 or so, I took him to a poetry reading that I was giving at KGB bar. They set him up with a Shirley Temple. When I stood up to read, Gabriel shouted out, “Hey Dad, tell the one about the time Grandma came on to the basketball court. That’s really funny.” I said, “Well Gabriel it’s a poetry reading, it’s not time to tell stories.” Everyone in the audience started shouting, “Tell it! Tell it!” Every time I finished one story, Gabriel would call for another one. At one point he shouted out, “Hey Mom, why are you trying to kick me under the table?” By then I was sweating profusely. But it was amusing to everyone else. Gabriel often shouted things out that were startling, funny and sometimes weirdly insightful.
Rumpus: I’m sure.
Hirsch: Weirdly insightful, but socially inappropriate.
Rumpus: Kids can get away with that.
Hirsch: One of the things that lifted my spirits when I was writing the poem was getting some of Gabriel’s antics down. I liked recording some of his crazy opinions, his impulsivity, the outlandish stuff he did. It gave me a kind of joy to try and create it in the poem.
Rumpus: Thank you for talking with me.
Hirsch: Thanks for your deep empathic response to the poem.