Poetry Spotlight: Jill McDonough Interviews Todd Hearon

Exeter, N.H., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015: assorted  (Cheryl Senter for Phillips  Exeter Academy)

Exeter, N.H., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015: assorted (Cheryl Senter for Phillips Exeter Academy)

Contributor Todd Hearon recently published his second collection of poems, No Other Gods (Salmon Poetry 2015). His first collection of poems, Strange Land (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), was selected by poet Natasha Trethewey as a winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, and Hearon’s poems and plays have appeared such places as Ploughshares, Agni, Harvard Review, Poetry, Literary Imagination, Poetry London, Salamander, and Slate. He is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award, a Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine, the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, the Rumi Prize in Poetry, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin.  You can sample some of Hearon’s poems in our pages, where you’ll find poems from Strange Land in Memorious 11, and No Other God’s significant monologue in verse “Persephone in Half-light,” which first appeared as “What Ghosts there Were” in our second issue.

Contributors Jill McDonough and Todd Hearon agreed to have a virtual chat about No Other Gods, and here’s what they had to say.

McDonough: This one isn’t a question, just the start of a conversation about Pasiphae. There is so much remarkable, surprising insight in “No Other Gods,” the title poem: I find it moving that it offers so much tenderness for Pasiphae, comparing “her desire for the Cretan Bull” to belief.  Not just belief=desire, but belief=desire for getting bull-fucked, getting not just “the mythic cock,” but “mastered, humiliated, inhumanly undone by a bruter force than our desire could dream of.”  

When I think of the myth and how it works in your poem, I’m drawn to the work it took to get bull-fucked—I see the contraption, “the magnificent and terrible apparatus,” as the visible equivalent of all the work we do to believe in our own lives.  Whole cultures built around prayer and faith and believing our beliefs are better than somebody else’s—and all the smaller things, the leaps of faith and the shreds of superstition.  So the tenderness for Pasiphae becomes a tenderness for anybody who wants to believe.  That’s how big hearted these poems are—they see the lady bull-fucker hot for bovine balling and say, “But aren’t we all like her, really?”  It reminds me of Mark Doty’s “Tiara”—

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it—
when all he did was go down

into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk

or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,

ravishing music of their hurry.

I get distracted by placing the order with Daedalus.  “So, I’m looking for a sort of cow outfit?  Something I can get inside and put my vadge up to a hole and then a bull will be like, ‘oh hey, a cow to fuck,’ and then I get fucked by a bull?  How much would something like that run me, anyway?”  But you connect it to belief, not the kinds of inconvenience we are willing to endure to get truly fucked.  Can you talk more about the kinds of belief you feel are represented in this smart, thoughtful, crazy-ass poem?

Hearon: I think what drew—and draws—me to the Pasiphae myth is its brute insistence on physicality as a conduit to the transcendent, to something beyond us, through its expression of taboo desire. And its suggestion, when coupled with belief, that you’d better be very careful what you ask for in matters pertaining to the god. The poem quotes Yeats, “Belief comes from terror and is not to be desired.” Virtually every experience with the god in myth is one of ravishment and undoing—you can no longer be the you you were after such an encounter—so it’s not my connection at all, bringing belief and sex together (Catholic mysticism is full of the iconography of ravishment and penetration). None of this is news. But our contemporary experience with religion or the divine or the spiritual—and I’m thinking mostly of the American protestant tradition, the tradition I come out of—has become so sanitized and sentimentalized and stripped of its carnality—a carnality that, despite its repressive puritanical roots, flares out in its poetry (think of Donne’s holy sonnets and Wesley’s hymns—heck, think of Emily Dickinson, whose thunder-hurling god “scalps your naked soul”—and apropos Pasiphae, there’s her god with the terrific “metallic grin . . . who drills his welcome in”). I love your connection, which I hadn’t considered, between Pasiphae’s apparatus—the cow disguise that she commissioned from Daedalus—and the structures of belief we construct to climb inside. But I think that often, these days anyway, we expect too comfortable a ride. We desire belief that will confirm our lives as they are, as we want them to remain, but the myth says, “No. You are going to be fucked. You are going to be ripped apart.”

McDonough: I love the Manwich memo.  It’s goofy and specific and charming and playful.  There’s a milk drunk badger.   It makes me happy that it’s not for anything.  It just likes itself.  Why do you like it? 

Hearon: There was a temptation when working with the material of this book, with its pantheon of mythological and literary figures, to drift into the esoteric, the somewhat remote, “the god who dreams the universe” and so on. But then a voice would interrupt and say, “Remember the Manwich. Remember Ohio. Remember Bobbi Jean Allsup, purveyor of Manwich product at the 7-Eleven in East Toledo.” The “Memo” voices, and others like the intransigent, stunted hick-voice in “Backyard Jesus,” I see primarily as sonic correctives, things akin to what Geoffrey Hill has called his “inner heckler.” They’re goofy and irreverent and playful and warped and provide an antidote to the otherwise rarefied experience. I guess in a way they’re meant to fill out the book’s collective consciousness.

McDonough: Can you talk about the inception and development of the central thousand-line verse monologue, “Persephone in Half-light”?  How do you see it working differently on page and stage?

Hearon: Memorious printed this piece some years ago under a different title, and it was staged at the Boston Center for the Arts back in 2000 or 1999. So it’s been knocking around for a while without a collection to give it a home. It was written at a time when I was active with a theatre troupe in Boston, writing and directing plays, working with actors, and I wanted to write a dramatic piece in which essentially nothing happens (a la Beckett)—in which there is no action except the inner movement of imagination, which to me constitutes an action, figured in the Nude who forms her own conceptual portrait for the reader/audience, which the artist painting her does not have access to (she’s been told, “Lie still. Don’t talk.”). I guess I was interested in all the unseen reality that the visual arts can’t capture, or that they try to capture in different ways; I was also just taken with this character and her story—was a little possessed by her, in fact: I remember catching sightings of her when walking around the streets of Boston; I had a real sense of being haunted. The hell she inhabits was an analogue to a hell I was personally in at the time, and she helped me give voice obliquely to that experience. The Persephone story lives in her, along with many, many others, as she is being painted in that pose by the artist—she’s making the momentary connection between that myth and her own life—and I myself was living something out through her. As to your question about the page and the stage, a good director will find compelling ways to make the inner world of the Nude’s silent reverie an objective actuality. I think film could go a long way towards taking us into her imagined, remembered world. In our production, we “liberated” her from the static pose the artist had placed her in and let her roam around the theatre, interacting with the audience, sharing her story with them, while the artist dumbly continued painting, fixed on the space where she had been.

McDonough: Your fellow-teacher at Exeter, Ralph Sneeden, talks about finding your Memo poems nailed to his classroom door. I feel like your friendships with other writers in the close-knit community of Exeter has to be good for your writing.  Tell me how.

Hearon: I think generally it’s just good to be around creative people and the irreverence they bring to stuffy institutional pieties. That’s certainly one of the things I love about you, Jill, and part of what I value about our friendship. I’m very fortunate not only to be married to a marvelous poet, Maggie Dietz, but to work with other fantastic poets here—Ralph Sneeden, Matt Miller, Willie Perdomo—and fiction writers whose styles and voices are all so distinct but who share this deep commitment to making. It’s funny, we rarely ever talk shop with each other, never “workshop” pieces together. There’s just this expectation that the good work is getting done and the toast to occasional successes. Mostly we just get together to play music and drink.

McDonough: What do you think are the pros and cons of being married to a poet?

Hearon: Great metaphors. Awful puns.

McDonough: “What Happened Next” is a nightmare of eyeless children who don’t recognize you as a parent.  “Aboriginal” ends with “Where were our parents?  Had we eaten them again?”  You have plenty of loving family poems, but these short sharp familial nightmares are particularly scary.

Hearon: Yeah. I was trying, in fashioning the different voices in the book, to give every voice and figure its counterpoint and complement. So the sacred will be hooked by the talons of the profane; the warm memory of childhood with the nightmare vision of your children who cannot recognize you, who have brutal designs on you. Mnemosyne, mother of the muses, comes twinned with Cookie, a toothless whore from Waco.

McDonough: How has having kids changed or not changed your writing, or your writing habits, or your focus, or anything about writing?

Hearon: What was the question?

It’s evening, and my seven-year-old daughter just walked into the room. She says she can’t sleep, can I come give her a snuggle?  There’s your answer. Life calls. Gotta go.

McDonough: Can you talk a little about how you decided which poems to include in this collection?  What got saved for the next book?  Which ones got written just to fill its poem-sized hole in the manuscript?

Hearon: Some of these poems have been with me for years—material I had imagined would form part of my first book.  But then the first book, Strange Land, took a life and shape of its own, and those other poems got orphaned for a while.  I had to conceive a shape that would contain them, and No Other Gods was it.  Once I understood what the new book was going to be, there was certainly a lot of “writing into it,” writing the poems that would comprise it.  But there was simultaneously the writing with the idea of containment in mind—how to find a shape that would contain the older poems that I wanted to keep.  Nothing got saved for the next book.  “Everything Must Go.” The next manuscript, Crows in Eden, was a completely different vision, is finished now and out making the rounds.

McDonough: So much cock, Todd.  These poems have bull-fucking, well-hung imaginary sons, “the phallus,” “testicular dreams”—I particularly like it when you pair genitalia and the MLA: the contrast of the vulgar and the tedious makes me happy.  Why do you think you’re so cocky in these poems?

Hearon: The real answer is I was working on a new version of Lysistrata at the time, and all the phalluses in Aristophanes’ play just took over—starting cropping up everywhere in my own work. What can you do when that sort of thing starts to happen? More cock! I just went with it.

McDonough: Your poems on your teachers made me want to make out with Christopher Ricks and David Ferry, but not at the same time.  I imagine your work as a teacher has kept those amazing four teachers particularly present in your mind since you were their student; can you talk about some of the ways you find your own teaching experiences keep them walking around with you?

Hearon: Your great teachers never leave you.  They become part of the way you think, the way you experience and articulate the world.  And, if teaching’s what you do, the way you teach.  That’s certainly true for me with Geoffrey Hill, Rosanna Warren and Christopher Ricks.  I came to Boston University at just the right time, a little Golden Age, when they all centripetally were gathered—though none of them in the English Department: another story.  I never had David Ferry as a teacher—I just know him as a friend and inspiration—though we had him here at Exeter some years ago to work with the students, and I loved sitting in on his classes on Horace and Virgil as a student myself. Maggie and I met in Hill’s course on Poetry and Religion. And I believe the three of us were enrolled in Rosanna’s translation seminar together, right?  That’s a class I’m always going back to. I teach the Shakespeare elective at Exeter, and I’m constantly having to edit myself from quoting Christopher (I was his TA in the Shakespeare course for years at BU).  Talk about honey in the rock.

McDonough: You know I admire that 19-line sentence that provides the runaway momentum in “Sail Away Ladies.” Can you talk about other places where you found a satisfying fit between form and content?

Hearon: I’m hoping I found that satisfying fit in every poem in the book.  That’s certainly what I’m trying for every time I write.  It’s different with every poem, you know?  And there’s the abiding question, does the content find the form or vice versa?  I love working with a long sentence, trying to stretch it as far as it will go and still hold up and bear its weight, for an entire poem’s length if possible.  I remember consciously working to stretch the line itself in some of the poems in this book—the title poem, for instance—to test the limits of what it could hold and still retain its integrity and remember being amazed at how that formal decision opened up unforeseen registers of voice, even content.

McDonough: “Palimpsest” and “Epilogue” both deal with “there are no words for the things we want the most to say,” while the rest of these poems deal with extraordinarily specific, even previously unimagined things, with great precision.  I think you are choosing plenty of the right words.  Why you got to beat yourself up?

Hearon: Well, you know if you’re honest with yourself, that you’re only scratching the surface of the total range of consciousness and human expression, no matter how long and hard you try, no matter how long and hard the book.  And even if there were some Shakespearian sui generis who was able to tap and articulate the total range, there would still be things left unsaid and unsayable, because those, too, are part of the human experience. The things we have no words for, that are “the things we want the most say,” those are the things that keep us writing and talking, right?

McDonough: And drinking.

Hearon: Right.

NoOtherGods HighResCover

Interviewer Jill McDonough‘s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012). Her poems have appeared in several issues of Memorious.

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For original poetry, fiction, art song, and interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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