Michael T. Young: Thank you, Gary, for agreeing to an interview.
latest collection is called, A Glossary
of Chickens. This is a funny
title. Would you mind commenting on
where it came from and what the general inspiration was?
Gary J. Whitehead: The
book is titled after one of the poems in the collection. That poem came about
several years ago while I was at an artists’ colony in the Adirondacks. There
were hens there, and each evening another poet and I would make sure the hens
got back in their coop before dark. One day, this poet handed me some
photocopied pages from a book on poultry raising. It was a glossary of terms
having to do with chickens. He gave no explanation. He must have known I’d
enjoy it. I wrote the poem as a thank you to him and left it tacked to the
swinging kitchen door on the day I left, knowing he’d find it. I’d raised
chickens myself for a few years, so the poem was meaningful to me, as well. It
seems to have struck a chord with chicken enthusiasts all over. It was the
first poem of mine to appear in The New
Yorker. When my book manuscript was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the
Princeton University Press Contemporary Poets Series, he suggested I change the
title to A Glossary of Chickens. I
liked the suggestion, especially because it sets a whimsical tone.
Michael T. Young: The collection suggests an opposition between
the movement of nature toward some kind of intention and man’s artificial
plans. For instance, the poem “Pastoral”
says at one point, “no theme/but the old/chance/of seeding again/a better
world.” Yet the poem “Drosophila
Melanogaster” concludes by saying “Why overprioritize long-term plans//at the
expense of our present enjoyment?” I’m
curious if you could talk about this opposition and what it means in the
context of the collection.
Gary J. Whitehead: For
me, nature has always been a refuge from the more oppressive aspects of
civilization. As a young boy, I spent a great deal of time in the woods. My
family got into camping when I was seven, and I loved everything about it. I’d
always feel a profound sense of peace getting away from suburban New England
and lying out under the stars, listening to a lake lap at the shore and loons
making their haunted calls. Several years ago, I had the good fortune of being
selected for a writing residency in the wilderness of Oregon, where I spent six
months living off the grid in a cabin tucked along the wild and scenic Rogue
River. There, I felt that opposition between nature and man’s artificial plans,
between the need for solitude and the pangs of loneliness. I remember making
the two-hour drive to stock up on provisions and being shocked and disgusted
walking the aisles of a Walmart; I couldn’t wait to return to the peace of my
canyon. Then, a few days later, I’d be pining for human contact, for mail, for
Thai food, for the society of a café. These conflicting impulses are expressed
often in my poems. In the lines from “Drosophila Melanogaster,” a poem about
aging, there’s a kind of cross-over between nature and suburban domesticity;
fruit flies have invaded the house, and the speaker, delighting in watching
them do their thing, has a carpe diem
moment. As a nature lover, I can’t help but have such moments, which occur
between nature running its course and man running his.
Michael T. Young: The title poem
“A Glossary of Chickens” concludes by saying “We think/that by naming we can
understand,/as if the tongue were more than muscle.” This is, of course, a very interesting thing
for a poet to say. Could you discuss the
importance of this insight and its relationship to the arc of the collection?
Gary J. Whitehead: Words
are symbolic and so can never fully convey what we want them to, so I see
poetry especially¾as a striving toward something
that can’t be achieved, yet, in the attempt one can create another kind of
truth, which is the essence of art. The title poem expresses this idea: we want the right words to describe the
quirky behavior of a chicken, but those words, as delightful as they may be,
Michael T. Young: A poem in the
same section as the title poem, “Tied Dog,” clearly suggests the struggle of
the writer to break out of the language that constrains him and grasping or
articulating something that is “just out of reach/of whatever’s worth snapping
at” just like a dog tied to a leash.
Could you elaborate on how this relates to the limits of understanding
suggested by “A Glossary of Chickens”?
What is the relationship between these poems and the overall theme?
Gary J. Whitehead: The
“Tied Dog” poem is perhaps more overt in expressing the idea that writing
poetry is an exercise in failure. The poet is restrained by the limited
language he has, and there is always this feeling of the right words being just
out of reach. I think this is true of all art. Perhaps great art, as subjective
as that may be, is the art that for a majority of people comes closest to a
“true” expression of emotion or experience. I think that what keeps the artist going
is that carrot he can never quite eat.
Michael T. Young: The poem “Trap
Door” says, ‘It is not the disappearance of the dead I grieve/but the way the
living abscond/into the past.” The poem,
especially when it evokes your mother “sitting across from me, chews chicken
with rice/but tastes the dish her mother made,” recalls Proust’s famous
madeleine moment. What do you see in
these excursions into the past and what makes it an object for grief? Do you feel the present moment is enriched by
or impoverished by these times when we abscond into the past?
Gary J. Whitehead: The
remembrance of things past is always a little tragic, because memory too is
flawed, is expurgated by the limited power of the brain, and it reminds us of
the inexorable nature of time and our own mortality. Of course, memories can
also be beautiful and profound, even the witnessing of one remembering in
grief. In “Trap Door” I tried to communicate how it felt to see my mother
grieving her own mother’s passing. I didn’t consciously refer to Proust’s
madeleine moment. The chicken with rice moment was real. Smell and taste can be
powerful stimuli for remembrance.
Michael T. Young: Is there any
significance to the collection starting with Lot’s Wife and ending with Noah
contemplating the dilapidated ark?
Gary J. Whitehead: A
poet friend recently wrote me asking why we poets agonize over the arrangement
of poems in a book when so often a reader doesn’t read from beginning to end
but rather just flips through randomly. I had to laugh, because it’s often
true. Are reviewers the exception? Arranging a collection of miscellaneously
written poems (i.e., not on one idea or theme) must be a bit like curating a
gallery or museum exhibit; one is forced to think about coherent flow, larger themes,
an arc. In arranging A Glossary of
Chickens, I tried to do my best to achieve these elements, and the
placement of the biblical poems was intentional. Both bible stories are about
destruction and human depravity and resilience, though in my recasting of the
latter I’m interested more in creation, in art, than I am in destruction. Noah
is the stand-in for the poet, and I see his looking down on the civilization
he’s made as my looking down on the poems I’d written. In retrospect, I should
have included a biblical poem in the second section, as well.
Michael T. Young: The collection
opens with a poem called “Oyster,” ends with Noah contemplating the rotting
remains of the ark and in between is Melville, a slaveship and a character from
a Melville story. What do you see as the
significance of sea imagery in the collection?
Gary J. Whitehead: As
the manuscript was coming together, its first title was Salt Variations, because of the preponderance of sea imagery, not
to mention poems like “Spice Rack” and “Lot’s Wife.” As the poems piled up, I
liked the idea of Melville as a recurring character in the collection. About
ten years ago, I had the good fortune of being chosen for a National Endowment
for the Humanities Summer Institute focused on Melville and Multiculturalism.
Along with fourteen other teachers from around the country, I studied Melville
with some of the leading scholars. I teach two of his shorter works every year
in AP English. Herman floats into my mind often. Much of the sea imagery comes
in the Melville-inspired poems; “Luminescent Jellyfish,” for instance, arose
from the NEH institute and a field trip we took to Mystic, during which we
spent a night on the Charles W. Morgan
whaleship. But my love of the sea is older. I grew up in the Ocean State. When A Glossary of Chickens was suggested as
a title, I let the sea poems become a sort of thread, just as the chicken poems
are, and the insect poems, the slavery poems. I liked that there were many
woven subjects in the book.
Michael T. Young: Do you have a
favorite poem in this collection? Which
one is it and what is significant about it for you?
Gary J. Whitehead: I
always have a hard time picking favorites of anything, because I change my mind
so often, but if I had to pick one, it would be the title poem. I admire that
poem for its rhetorical set up (I saw in The
New Yorker just last week that Charles Simic used a similar approach in a
poem called “Dictionary,” and I was glad I did it first!). I also like this
poem for its tone and for the character it suggests as speaker, a character I
see as true to myself.
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
Gary J. Whitehead: I
don’t think there are any specific prose works that have influenced me as a
poet, but there are prose writers I admire for their uses of language: Melville, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and McCarthy
come to mind. I’m a big fan of Kent Haruf, too, though there’s nothing poetic
about his writing at all. I admire his understated, simple, descriptive style
and the way he can communicate human emotion. I recommend him to everybody.
Some poems in my book were sparked by novels: “Lot’s Wife” by Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and “Babo Speaks
from Lima” by Melville’s Benito Cereno.
Michael T. Young: What do you
like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Gary J. Whitehead: I
enjoy gardening, painting, cooking, making and solving crossword puzzles,
walking my dog, and noodling around on the guitar. Almost all of these
activities, not surprisingly, are solitary and meditative, so maybe they do
have something to do with poetry or writing.
Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time and thoughtful
responses, Gary. Let’s close with your
favorite poem from A Glossary of Chickens.
There should be a word for the way
they look with just one eye, neck bent,
for beetle or worm or strewn grain.
“Gleaning,”maybe, between “gizzard”
and “grit.” And for the way they run
toward someone they trust, their skirts
hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:
“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted
after “blowout” and before “brood.”
There should be terms, too, for things
they do not do¾like urinate or chew¾
but perhaps there already are.
I’d want a word for the way they drink,
head thrown back, throat wriggling,
like an old woman swallowing
a pill; a word beginning with S,
coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”
And one for the sweetness of hens
but not roosters. We think
that by naming we can understand,
as if the tongue were more than muscle.
visit Gary J. Whitehead at his website and learn more about his work: http://www.garyjwhitehead.com/.