Michael T. Young: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. I’ve admired your work for a little while now and it’s quite a pleasure to have this chance to talk. You’ve been asked in other interviews who your influences are, but your poetry has such a playful, acrobatic voice, I’m curious if you see any particular influences in developing that voice. How did you develop a voice that so dances with words and ideas?
Paul Hostovsky: Thank you. I’m not sure where the voice comes from. Sometimes I think I found it in the boys’ room back in junior high. It has a lot of bathroom humor mixed with a little of the sacred. A lot of the profane and a little of the unnamable. Sure, I love to play. And I love certain playful poems by Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday, Denise Duhamel, Thomas Lux, Jeffrey Harrison, Stephen Dobyns, Stephen Dunn, Gary Miranda, William Matthews, May Swenson, Frost, and others of course. There are so many. I think all poets want to play. Writing is playing. It’s a serious kind of play, but it’s play nonetheless. And then there are those poets who you find standing a little stiffly, a little self-consciously, on the edge of the playground, outside of the game, and their poems often feel like work, not play. Of course, I don’t like to play all the time. Too much play can start to feel tiresome, glib, frivolous, stupid. I also want to be a serious poet. Just not too damn serious.
Michael T. Young: In your interview for the newsletter of the Embassy of the Czech Republic, your response to a question is the majority of the text of your poem “Prague” in A Little in Love a Lot. Were you quoting the poem in that interview, or did the poem come from your response to the question in the interview?
Paul Hostovsky: I think the poem came first. I think I was working on the poem at the time, and I sort of tried it out in the interview, in prose, because it seemed to answer the question. I often do that with poems I’m working on, i.e., take parts of them and try them out in letters, in emails, in conversations with people out there in the world. Why should we incarcerate our poems inside the poems? Let’s set them free, let’s get them out there into the world.
Michael T. Young: There are a lot of polarities in A Little in Love a Lot: East and West, open and closed, orgasm and agony. I had a sense of a kind of dialectical play. What do you see as the significance of extremes in this new collection? How does it function within the book’s overall theme?
Paul Hostovsky: Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I am an all-or-nothing kind of guy. For better or worse. I mean there’s life. And there’s death. Not much in between. I do like to laugh. But I like a good cry even better. And sex is great. Love is great. Death is also great, they say. And I’m usually thinking about one or the other. La mort, or la petite mort. But now that you mention it, yes, I suppose I am about extremes. I’m always jumping to my death. It’s been that way all my life. When I get sick, I jump to my death. When I fall in love, I say she is so beautiful I want to die. Go figure.
Michael T. Young: So many of the poems in the collection are about love and sex, did you set out to write a collection about these subjects or did the collection just come together after having written a number of independent poems?
Paul Hostovsky: I have never set out to write a collection. Putting a book of poems together, for me, is as Ted Kooser described it in an interview I once read: he talked about sitting down with all the poems he’d written over the last few years and trying to make a poem out of those poems. And yeah, a lot of these poems are about love and sex. My friend the poet John Lee Clark said he noticed the phrase “a little in love” came up frequently in my poems (not so much in this book, but in previous books). “You’re a little in love a lot,” he said to me. Boom! I’d been playing around with various titles for the book, and when he said that to me, well, I just knew I’d found the right title. I asked him if I could use it, and he said be my guest.
Michael T. Young: Occasionally a poem in one section seems to play off a poem in another section. For instance, the ending of “Hand Cream” seems to throw one back to the poem “Love and Death” with its talk of the illusion of sickness, pain, and death. Another are the two poems called “Open.” Was this kind of echo across the sections intended and what did you see as its significance?
Paul Hostovsky: I’m not sure what the significance is. I do repeat myself a lot. It can be annoying, I know: Did I tell you this before? Yeah, you did. I do sometimes use the same or similar lines in more than one poem. Some might say you shouldn’t do that. But it’s not intentional. I mean I don’t plan it that way. And yes, there are two poems called “Open” because it seemed a good title for the first one, and then it seemed a good title for the second one, too. It did occur to me that I already had a poem called “Open” and that maybe I should try to think of a different title. But then I thought, why not two? Where is it written? And anyway, Louise Gluck has at least seven poems called “Matins” and ten called “Vespers” in one of her books. But that was probably intentional. After all, she is a very serious poet. Though she does play nicely here and there, now and then.
Michael T. Young: Again, looking at the two poems, “Hand Cream” and “Love and Death” I was curious about the assertion that death is an illusion. Is this something you believe or was it an idea you were toying with in the development of the poems?
Paul Hostovsky: Well, both, really. Do I believe that death is an illusion? Helen Schucman said this about A Course in Miracles: “I know it’s true, I just don’t believe it.” That’s what I would say about death being an illusion. And, for that matter, life. There’s actually a lot of the Course in my poems. Or, rather, a lot of my poems are a reaction to the Course. I’ve studied it, on and off, for years. It says a lot of things, often very beautifully, but to sum it up, yes, it’s all one vast illusion. And then there’s Whitman: “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death…/ All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/ And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”
Michael T. Young: Two of my favorite poems in the collection are “Orgasms in Autumn” and “Battling the Wind and Everything Else.” Both seem to imply an acceptance of the chaotic beauty of the falling leaves of autumn. In “Battling the Wind” it’s called a party. Do you see the acceptance of that disorder, embracing it, as a key to happiness or a celebration of beauty or both?
Paul Hostovsky: Yeah, both, I guess. Fall is my favorite season, and winter is a close second. Frost’s poem “My November Guest” says it all. As a kid I wasn’t exactly a swinger of birches—I wasn’t that boy too far from town to learn baseball—but I was somewhat solitary and I do remember spending hours alone on blustery autumn days just running around and trying to catch the leaves as they fell, without letting them hit the ground. I didn’t actually do anything with the leaves—I didn’t collect them, or make something out of them—I just caught them and let them go. So all these years later, I made a poem out of that. As for “Battling the Wind,” I have this neighbor with a perfect lawn, and I hate him a little for that because my lawn is the picture of chaos and old age, with a big bald spot in the middle. He’s always out there with his lawnmower or leaf-blower or sprinkler or lime-spreader. I mean doesn’t this guy have anything better to do than work on his lawn? I mean if it were a poem, I could see that. But it’s not a poem. Or is it?
Michael T. Young: The earlier poem “Open” in the collection reminded me of a line from Paradise Lost where Adam says to Eve, “Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more.” It seemed to me your poem said, as Adam was saying, that love must always remain a free choice. What do you see as the relationship between love and freedom?
Paul Hostovsky: Well, that poem is sort of about a woman I dated who had the annoying habit of leaving everything open—doors, drawers, cabinets, the little cap on the tube of toothpaste—and it kind of drove me crazy. Nevertheless, I loved her a lot. She did not, however, want our relationship to be open, in the modern sense. But neither did I. I just put that in the poem to make it more interesting. I’m a little in love a lot in my poems, but I’m hopelessly monogamous in my life; in my life I’m about as sexy as John Milton wearing a wig and brandishing a feather quill, standing and waiting, for the turn in the poem.
Michael T. Young: The poems “ARS P.O.” and “If Not for Stephen Dunn,” talk about the power of poems, seeming to say they are even dangerous. What do you see as the power of poetry in American society? Do you see it as having any political force, social force? How would you characterize that power?
Paul Hostovsky: Jeez, I dunno. I like ars poetica poems. But I think poets can be very annoying people. If not for the poetry, I don’t think I’d have anything to do with us. And as for the poems, well, I could probably do without ninety percent of them. If not for the ten percent that I love, I don’t think I’d have anything to do with poetry. That being said, I don’t think I have much more to say about the power of poetry, except, maybe, that people who love poetry are like the people who love the rain: we’re in the minority. And sometimes it isn’t raining exactly, but sort of spitting, or misting, or sleeting. It’s kind of like that with poetry. Not exactly. But sort of.
Michael T. Young: Which poem in this collection is your favorite? What in particular about it is meaningful to you?
Paul Hostovsky: It’s hard to pick one, I mean I love them all (ha ha). And I hate them all, too. I guess “Miracles”, the first poem in the final section, is among my favorites. It’s one of those poems, as I’ve mentioned, that is a reaction to A Course in Miracles. I like the poem’s balance of humor and seriousness, playfulness and death. And the way it both resists and embraces the teachings of the Course. And I like the fact that you don’t have to know anything about the Course to get the poem. I like the poem’s physicality, its clear straightforward speaking voice, and its simple difficulty, or difficult simplicity, and how it refers to itself (writing teachers will tell you not to do that), how it uses itself as an example in the poem, to make its point. I wasn’t sure if that would work, and I’m still not sure it does. Some days it seems to. Other days not. Anyway, most days I like it.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Paul Hostovsky: Well, I read mostly fiction. I snack on poetry, but I live on fiction. Which may help to explain why my poems are so hopelessly narrative. But the fiction writers I like to read are the ones who use all the devices of poetry, except for the line break. Intelligent, gorgeous, humorous, heartbreaking, amazing prose. For example, Julia Glass, Margot Livesey, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan, T.C. Boyle. And many, many others. But who has the time? I’m a slow reader. I savor, I reread, whole paragraphs, whole pages. Recently, when I got to the last page of Ian McEwan’s little book, On Chesil Beach, I went back to the first page, and started over. And read it all over again. Because it was that good.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Paul Hostovsky: I like to whittle. I like to cut out a ball-in-a-cage, a chain-and-anchor, an acanthus leaf, out of a single block of wood. Yeah, I like to make these small, useless, intricate, beautiful things. Nothing like poetry. Wink, wink.
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Mr. Hostovsky. Let’s close with one of your poems, your favorite from the collection.
Spiritual texts are the most boring books in the world.
None of them mentions a bicycle
or a Ferris wheel, or baseball, or sea lions, or ice cream.
They just lump them all together into “the world.”
The “world of appearances.” The “world of illusions.”
You can walk through this world and not
believe it for a minute. You can get to the end of it
and not believe that either. The miracle is seeing
right through the world to another
world that’s right here, right now.
But you have to let go of everything.
You have to let go of everything—you can
start by letting go of these words, just let them
go. Let them fall through the air, skim
your knee, spill to the floor. How to read these words
when they’re lying on the floor face-down
like bodies? That is the seeming difficulty.
You can sit in a small room all alone with your body
and not believe it for a minute. You can
don the humble johnny that closes in the back,
and when the doctor comes in with his numbers
which are your numbers, you can
not believe that either. You can let them fall from his lips,
skim your ear, pool on the floor where your eyes
and his eyes have fallen. He won’t
mention the bicycle, or the Ferris wheel which is
taking up a lot of room right now in the little
examining room where a sea lion has clambered up
onto the table and is barking, and the baseballs are flying,
and the vendors are hawking ice cream—because he can’t
see them. He can’t perform a miracle.
Find more of Paul Hostovsky's books and poetry, and other information about him at his website: http://www.paulhostovsky.com/