Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

Jennifer Michael Hecht

An Interview by Dennis Morton with poet Jennifer Michael Hecht

Dennis Morton:  These lines are from your poem 'Prologue':

      They should know, this time, how to approach the fact that as history
      unfolds, some people will describe the world as a struggle between good
      and evil and other people will insist upon caprice.
      This is the sort of advice I'm talking about.

Is this a warning, a plea for tolerance, what?  How should a society "approach the fact" that there will always be fundamental differences about etiology and purpose?

Jennifer Michael Hecht:  I think I'm always writing in part to speak widely, to society or to history, and in part to speak privately: I'm just writing to myself, reminding myself of things.   I note down rules so that I don't get too convinced by any given world-view to see the world outside it.   Of course, the reciting of a litany of worldviews is a device to unstick myself (and my reader) even more generally, so that we can float into the world of the poetry book.   So to your question about the fundamental differences between the world and our meanings for it, these are the cracks in the illusion of everyday life--that's where you put in the crowbar.   Art always operates at these cracks--that's where we need it (because meaning fails) and that's where we can do it, because there's more breathing room there.

DM:  What is the 'purpose' of poetry?

JMH:  Well, the good stuff is full of useful information: on how to be in love with everything, for instance, since after all, things are not always all that loveable at first blush.   Keats can hand over the trick to loving autumn even when you hate the thought of winter.   Also, if you escape something, it is more delicious if you have in your head Dickinson's

      Escape--it is the Basket
      In which the Heart is caught
      When down some awful Battlement
      The rest of Life is dropt.

Along the same lines, when feeling awful, it is sometimes pleasurable to feel worse still by reading really well-written misery.   Also I like a good laugh and great poetry usually has a few nice jokes in it.

DM:  You are a student of history.  Your poetry is often concerned with the future.   How do these disciplines affect each other in your work?

JMH:  Yes, interests I discover in my poetry carry over to my history work and vice versa.   Having two disciplines lets me try different things to check an idea.   I suppose that studying history gives me opportunities to assess how different lives and ideas can be in different times and places, to think about what is innately human and what is historically specific.   And I end up writing poetry that is both about those conclusions and that reflects the experience of studying history: an inundation of various potent ideas and artifacts.

DM:  What's the best advice you've ever received about poetry, and from whom?

JMH:  Well not to harp on Dickinson, but "tell all the truth" has meant a lot to me, as well as the proviso to "tell it slant."

DM:  Give us the names of 5 or 6 poets we should be reading but probably aren't.

JMH:  No.  Amy Holman's first book of poetry Vanishing Twin is coming out very soon with Mitki/Mitki Press.  Melissa Hotchkiss's new book Storm Damage.   Hal Sirowitz is wonderful too, he has two books out with Crown.   People might not be reading Wislawa Szymborska, although they might be since she did get the Nobel in literature, but still, if they're not, they ought to because she's fabulous.

DM:  What question do you wish I'd asked you?  Please answer it.

JMH:  Why do you write poetry?

I suppose to figure things out and get them down on paper.  I find when I've thought of or experienced something and I'm thinking it over all the time, it's a huge relief for some reason, to get it down on paper.   I mentioned above that I like the usefulness of poetry, the way it can do the work of thinking about, say, tears, idle tears.   I like that a lot of my poetry has uses like that, so if you wanted to inspire someone to be bold you could hand them "Villanelle If You Want to Be a Bad-ass"; or if you want them to reconsider their origins you could hand them "How to Go Home"; or to cope with some huge rupture in life, "History" or "So You're a Little Mentally Ill."   To allow oneself to fall in love again, despite what happened the last time, there is "Swamp Thing"; and to be happy while you're a little miserable, "September."   Of course, poems do different things for different people, and for the same people at different times, and sometimes they don't do anything at all, but still.   Of course, I'm also just pouring my heart out in ways I find linguistically and metrically entertaining, but with all poetry's covert and overt techniques, I am also trying to represent something I have figured out or noticed, so that I won't lose it.   As far as I can tell, poetry is the only way to structure information so that it comes in as experience, so that the reader (or even the writer, later on) can really own it.  I love that.

Jennifer Michael Hecht read with Aliki Barnstone at 7:30 pm on November 12, 2002 in Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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