A Poethead’s Guide to the Galaxy: Talking with David Hernandez
For years, David Hernandez has been a literary luminary, shining his light down a path I am eager to follow. His first collection of poems, A House Waiting for Music (Tupelo Press, 2003), was published the year I summoned the courage to send out my first batch of poems. His second collection, Always Danger (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry the year I completed my MFA in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2011, we both released collections with Sarabande Books—mine a memoir called Small Fires, David’s the winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize whose title just happens to be my favorite verb, Hoodwinked: “Citizens, we were hoodwinked,” he writes. “They played our hearts/ / like funeral bagpipes so doom/ was in our blood.” The book is as prescient as it is profound.
Multi-genre wonder that he is, David has also published two novels, Suckerpunch (HarperTeen, 2007) and No More Us for You (HarperTeen, 2009).
Earlier this year, I met David at AWP in Washington, DC, and asked him to sign my copy of Dear, Sincerely (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), his most recent collection of poems. It’s the book I give to everyone now—people who love poems, people who fear poems, people who say they’ve never read a poem voluntarily in their lives. I read them, the naysayers, the thanks-but-no-thanksers, just a few lines, like these from “Dear Death”—Cool cloak. So goth. I dig how the pleats / ripple like pond water when you move—or these from “Master Sommelier Blind-Tastes a Glass of Water”—It’s positively tap. I’m also picking up / some witchgrass / and moneywort, it’s not / easy with all this sodium chloride / assaulting my sinuses—or these from “Comment Threat in Response to ‘100 Best Flowers of the Year’”: Fuck larkspurs! I’d rather trowel out my eyes / and fill both with topsoil / than look at those dumb, jumbo/ pipe cleaners. And what do you know? All of a sudden, they’re interested.
The Rumpus: We all know poets who say they’re intimidated by the plots of novels and novelists who say they’re intimidated by the plotlessness of poems, but you’re a poet and a novelist, and I’d like to ask right off the bat if you consider yourself one of these things first, or foremost, or quintessentially. In the old riddle of the chicken and the egg, which came first—David Hernandez, Poet, or David Hernandez, Prosaist—or perhaps David Hernandez, Hybridist? (Nota bene: This question has everything to do with your instincts as a person and your history as a writer and nothing at all to do with the order in which you wrote and/or published your books.)
David Hernandez: Definitely poet. That being said, I still feel embarrassed labeling myself one. I’d rather meet someone and have that person inform me there’s a giant piece of cilantro stuck to my tooth. I’d be okay with that moment because in the back of my mind I’d be thinking, At least she doesn’t know I’m a poet. This is a roundabout way of me saying I prefer the general term “writer.”
I think poets are generally more intimidated by the length of novels rather than how to handle plot, no? At least that was my experience writing the two Young Adult books. Same goes with the flawed third novel I wrote afterwards that is now sleeping comfortably in my hard drive. If I was a prosaist or hybridist or masochist, I would’ve woken up that book years ago and worked out all its problems.
Rumpus: I know what you mean about poetry. I’m never sure how people are going to react when I say I’m a poet, either, though I do feel more like a poet than anything else, even when I’m not writing poems. Let’s try this: Who are some of the writers who made you realize you are a writer, or who affirmed your sense of yourself as a writer early on? Was there a particular literary experience that made you want to write in the first place—or perhaps a non-literary experience that made you want to write? In other words, how did your writer-self hatch?
Hernandez: That moment happened in 1996 when I was an undergraduate at California State University, Long Beach. I was an art major and only had a few classes left to earn my degree, but I was also coming to the realization that language interested me more than visual art—apparent to anyone who flipped through my last sketchbooks. So I switched my major to creative writing. My professor at the time, Hayley Mitchell (an aspiring poet herself), saw something worthy in my surreal first poems and suggested that I read Charles Simic. It wasn’t long before I was at the campus library, pulling down one of his earlier collections—Classic Ballroom Dances or Austerities, I don’t remember which. That, I would have to say, was the turning point: Simic, a quiet aisle, cross-legged on the floor, one magical world after another unfolding between my hands. I was like, Yeah, yeah, this is it. This is what I’m going to do. Not necessarily write poems like Simic, but simply write poems.
Rumpus: You know it’s funny the doors we come through to enter a creative writing life. The first time I read Charles Simic I was also in college, but the context was different. I was taking a seminar called “Writing the Personal Essay,” and one of the essays I remember most vividly is Charles Simic’s “Dinner at Uncle Boris’.” A few years later, in graduate school, I read a poem by Charles Simic and asked the professor, wholly sincere, “When did he start writing poems?” The professor looked aghast, and so began my education in the poetry of Charles Simic.
Since it’s not uncommon for poets to write creative nonfiction and vice versa, I’m immediately curious to know if you’ve followed Simic’s lead and crossed over into the fourth genre at all. And of course the question behind this one—the eyes moving in the painting, as it were—has to do with the relationship between personal experience and creative writing for you, regardless of genre. Do you think of your poetry as “autobiographical”—in all or in part or in some percentage? And what about your fiction? In what ways does your life, directly or indirectly, inform your work?
Hernandez: My poems are partially autobiographical. To put a percentage on it: fifty-seven point four percent. Honestly, it depends from poem to poem. Some are more informed by events in my life while others are less so. Here’s the thing: when I’m writing a poem that’s based on an experience, from memory, I don’t feel beholden to the facts. That’s the job of journalists. I’m more concerned about conveying an emotional truth, with making art through language. If the poem’s telling me, “Look, I know you had bananas this morning in your cereal, but blueberries is sonically more interesting,” I’m going with blueberries.
This reminds me of the February 1918 issue of National Geographic that I’d purchased on eBay—just to find out if those photographs Bishop describes in “In the Waiting Room” are actually in that issue. Only the volcano, it turns out. Lots of pictures of pigs, yes, but no “Long Pig” (don’t need to see that, thank you very much). So Bishop either tweaked the facts or misremembered them. Whichever the case, it doesn’t diminish the glow of the poem for me.
As to whether I’ve written creative nonfiction before: Does this interview count? Let’s just say that I’ve attempted a few times to write an essay and each time I abandoned it. There’s something about the form that makes my sentences sound pedestrian or stilted. Now that I think about it, it’s probably this notion of getting the facts right. It looms too large and overshadows everything else I normally take into account when writing.
Rumpus: Yes! We’ll count this interview as creative nonfiction, which makes you a genre triple-threat! Well done. I share your commitment to the emotional truth of poems over a “just-the-facts,” Joe Friday attitude toward the poetic space and speaker. How does the idea of emotional truth translate into writing fiction for you? You mentioned earlier that you consider yourself a poet first and that Charles Simic helped awaken that sensibility and identity for you. (I’m guessing Elizabeth Bishop did, too?) When and how did the fiction-writing part of yourself step into the ring? Do you want to hazard an autobiographical percentage for your fiction as well? (Not mandatory, but could be fun.) Does fiction ever succeed for you because a poem failed or—more positive spin—because a poem transmuted into prose narrative partway through? Or perhaps you experience poetry and fiction like blueberries and bananas (note how I elided the more traditional “apples and oranges” here!), one more sonically interesting and beautiful, the other more something else?
Hernandez: The first time I wrote fiction was when I was an undergrad, and although I enjoyed the process of writing short stories, I was really a poethead during that time. (Just to be clear, that says poethead, not pothead.)
I’m not sure what compelled me to think that I was capable of writing a novel, but I started working on Suckerpunch around 1998. When I showed my wife Lisa Glatt (we were dating at the time) the first fifty or so pages, she offered praise and encouraged me to finish it and also let me know that she felt the novel was YA. Although I knew she was right, it still bummed me out. “Butthurt,” as the kids call it now. And we were on our way to the DMV when she told me. So there I was, in line at one of the most notoriously unpleasant government agencies, in full pout mode, just because the book I was hacking away at wasn’t a literary novel. I had a choice: Continue working on Suckerpunch or ease into the comfort of writing poems again. I’m sure you can guess which one I picked.
Fast forward to 2005. Lisa’s debut novel, A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, is up for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. During the award ceremony, as the finalists were being announced in the Young Adult category—which also included a description for each book—I was intrigued by one of the novels up for the prize: Adam Rapp’s Under the Wolf, Under the Dog. Days later I’m reading his book, completely engrossed by the story and Rapp’s lyrical prose, and coming to the realization that a YA novel can also be literary. Shortly thereafter, I started working on Suckerpunch again and didn’t stop until I was done.
I prefer to keep poetry (blueberries) separate from fiction (bananas). If a poem’s not working, I won’t take that material and shape it into prose, or vice versa. As for how I treat emotional truth in fiction, I’d have to say no differently than I do with poetry. I’m asking myself the same questions in both genres: Does this sound emotionally true? Does what’s being said or argued make psychological sense? In short, is the thing I’m wrestling with conveying verisimilitude? It’s a matter of being hyperaware of the world and human behavior, then rendering it with slanted language.
You’re absolutely right: Poetry is more sonically interesting than fiction. And since music has consistently been an important part of my life, it makes sense that I gravitate towards poetry above all else.
Rumpus: I love the idea of being a poethead, and now I want to claim that moniker as well! Truthfully, I didn’t think of pothead as quickly as I thought of parrothead when I read your word choice there, but that may have something to do with the fact that a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville hotel just opened up down the street from where I live. Here’s the thing, though: Should you choose to write it—and I realize this might be more of a treatise on poetry, a work of creative nonfiction, if you will—I’d like to read your Poethead’s Guide to the Galaxy. What I’d be looking for in that book is some insight and perhaps also some advice for how poetheads, their peers and students and all the future poetheads of the world can be, and can continue to be, relevant and even, dare I say, powerful, in a society that continues to chip away at the value of what they do. We’ve talked a bit about autobiography and emotional truth in writing already. I’d like to know how you think about poetry in relation to social consciousness, even to activism—if you do think about it that way—and if you consider your poetry a political enterprise as well as an aesthetic/artistic one?
Hernandez: It’s not a book, but here is my Poethead’s Guide on How to Be Relevant in America:
Do something else instead.
In all seriousness, I’ve always felt that poetry is its own subculture—one that is growing, for sure, but it will never compete (in terms of exposure) with any of the other creative expressions in the Arts. Except perhaps conceptual art. Although, now that I think about it… Marina Abramović is probably more recognizable than Robert Pinsky. In all silliness, that should be Abramović’s next piece: Sit across from Pinsky outside a café and tally how many times a stranger approaches each, asking for a selfie.
Most of us have received the memo about how small the audience for poetry is. However, this has nothing to do with its value. None. Poetry has the capacity to pull you out of the fog of autopilot, to see the world as if for the first time, not to mention nourish your spirit and keep your empathy tank full. The value of all that is immeasurable.
Rumpus: As you offered this response, David, I kept thinking about a poem from your newest collection, Dear, Sincerely, called “Anyone Who Is Still Trying.” This poem is one of my favorites in all of Poemdom. I read it daily now for comfort and inspiration, and it’s the poem I posted everywhere on social media the morning of the Inauguration. Here’s a snippet for our readers:
Any countryman or countrywoman who is still
trying, who still pushes against entropy,
who stanches or donated blood, who douses fires
real or metaphorical, who rakes the earth […]
But right before your speaker unfolds this powerful litany of ways of being relevant, of taking meaningful action, of participating in the good of the world, he—perhaps speaking as you?—addresses the reader directly:
Sorry, I get cynical sometimes, there is so much
broken in the system, the districts, the crooked
thinking, I’m working on whittling away at this
pessimism, harvesting light where I can find it.
So I’m wondering if making poems is one way—your way—of whittling away at that pessimism, harvesting that light?
Hernandez: I think the act of making anything—whether it’s a birdhouse, lemon poppy-seed muffins, a ‘68 Ford Mustang from scratch, or poems—is a kind of optimism, but only if the purpose behind its making is coming from a good place. When it doesn’t, you end up with crock pot bombs, legislation that discriminates, or another Nickelback album.
Where were we? Ah, yes—harvesting that light. Whenever I “finish” a poem, I don’t feel more optimistic than I did before I wrote it. I feel… light-er. What was in my head is no longer weighing on me with as much heft. Though it’s still there.
Do you feel more optimistic after you’ve written a poem? Is it okay if I ask you a question? Yes, it’s okay. (I’m a fan of hypophora.)
Rumpus: I’m a fan of hypophora, too! And anaphora! All manner of phoras, really. I have to say, David, I don’t feel more optimistic after writing a poem, but you’re the first person to make me realize this fact. I often feel my optimism is bolstered by reading poems—as it is bolstered by reading your poems—but the fact is, I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I’m always seeking to plug into additional optimism ports. Whether biochemical advantage or aberration it’s hard to say, but I’m so inclined to optimism in my disposition that my spouse calls me “Cherry Merry Muffin” with some regularity. (She doesn’t always mean this as a compliment.) I would say it is optimism that brings me to the page—and right now my mind leaps to that moment in Ann Lauterbach’s brilliant lyric essay, “Task: To Open,” where she writes, “Task: to confront this fact: to make something, say a work of art or a poem, that no one is waiting for, that no one actively wants”—so I think it must be optimism that allows me to make poems under these conditions of their not being expressly waited for or wanted by anyone else—but it is not always optimism I leave on the page. Instead, I find my deepest sorrow and outrage emerges. I am able to express pessimisms I am not as conscious of in my personality. The best-case scenario for me in “finishing” a poem is satisfaction at the level of craft and revelation at the level of theme, e.g. discovering what I really mean to say.
Hernandez: My reaction to that Lauterbach quote is quite different from yours. It means the pressure is off and the poem is free to go in any direction it wants to move. If I were to envision someone waiting for whatever it is that I’m working on, I’d become too self-conscious and second-guess myself at every turn. My aim is to be as unselfconscious as possible, to disappear into the work, and that can only happen by entering the silence of no audience. Also, no neighborhood kids yelling and swinging plastic swords and dying melodramatically outside my office window, which has happened twice this year so far. I don’t recommend writing under such circumstances.
Rumpus: So, in another poem from Dear, Sincerely called “Sincerely, the Sky,” your speaker—in this case, the sky—commands, “Do something with your brokenness.” Are poems an expression of that brokenness for you, or do they ever—can they ever—be the agent of reassemblage?
Hernandez: There will always be exceptions to the rule, but for the most part—yes, poems are expressions of brokenness. There should be some degree of ache in the material, a piece of shadow, or else one runs the risk of writing fluff. Fluff belongs in pillows, not poems.
Regarding this idea of reassemblage, that only happens when I’m reading a poem, not writing one. I identify with the poem/poet, and in that moment I feel less alone. Our ragged edges fit together, so to speak.
Rumpus: This conversation has been so illuminating for me already, David, and I think I feel this way because of your seemingly irrepressible candor. Now I find myself wondering: Are you this honest with your students? Actually, I’m wondering a number of things: what do you teach, how long have you been teaching, and how do your worldview and your writing view come to bear on your philosophy of teaching and your presence in the classroom?
Hernandez: Is this the speed round, Julie? Four questions—and the last one’s a doozy. Huh. I’m almost certain that was first time I’ve ever typed “doozy.” Now I have this urge to hold a blade of wheat in my mouth while rocking on my heels.
- I’m honest with my students, but I’m not brutal in my critiques or anything. I hope I’m not coming off that way here. I’m a gentle soul! I use a combination of kindness, straight talk, my experience as an undergraduate trying to do this difficult thing, and my experience as a writer doing this thing that is still difficult.
- I currently teach both poetry and fiction writing workshops at CSU Long Beach. I was just hired last year, so I’ll be teaching my first graduate class next fall, and am looking forward to that experience.
- Let’s see, I’ve been teaching for about ten years now—five years of composition at UC Irvine (where I also received my MFA) and five years of creative writing. There was a time when they overlapped and I was teaching at UC Irvine, CSU Long Beach, and CSU Fullerton. There were days I’d unnecessarily freak myself out, thinking I was on the wrong freeway heading toward the wrong campus, that it was Wednesday, not Thursday. It was the semester of repeatedly checking the date that verged on OCD.
- You’re really trying to get me to write a nonfiction book with this last question, aren’t you? Well, I’m not falling for it. A title is as far as I’ll go: Bad Buddhist.
I’m on team Transformation & Impermanence (though I’m not too crazy about our uniform colors) and try to embrace these two concepts as often as I can. When I do, the world is clear and beautiful and mystifying. That I’m here to witness it. That I—we, all of us—exist in-between two oblivions. However, when I refuse to accept that transformation and impermanence are constants and unavoidable, then I walk around feeling anxious. I should mention to our readers that it’s 2017, mid-April, and the world feels ripe for World War III. I’d say a great majority of Americans are feeling extremely anxious now, including myself—despite my wearing the T & I jersey. See? I told you I was a bad Buddhist. My mind is far from serene. Instead, I worry about our brokenness and write about it.
(I need to rewind about twenty years in order to make my point. I’m pretty sure there’s still one to make.)
When I was an undergrad, I was dreadfully shy. I could barely chime in during workshop, let alone imagine that one day I would stand before a classroom and teach. Or get on a plane. Even more preposterous: Teach, get on a plane the following day, fly across the country, then read to an audience. Whaaat? No way, uh-uh, forget it, never.
Spoiler alert: I changed. A decade of slow turning until I made a complete one-eighty. So naturally I feel strongly about transformation—not only in who we become, but what our writing becomes.
Last week during my upper division poetry workshop there were three outstanding poems from my students. After class, they lingered around my desk, gleeful. They saw that I had this big smile on my face. I told them, “I wasn’t even close to writing at this level when I was your age. You’re all ahead of the game!” And then I gave them my little speech about tenacity and hard work and what’s possible when you combine the two, how much easier it is when the hard work is something you love doing anyway. It’s what the big fella said way, way, way back: “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”
Author photograph © Lisa Glatt.