Monday, July 8, 2013

Interview with Poet Gary J. Whitehead

Michael T. Young:  Thank you, Gary, for agreeing to an interview. 

Your 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. WhiteheadThe 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. WhiteheadFor 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 cafĂ©. 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. WhiteheadWords are symbolic and so can never fully convey what we want them to, so I see writing¾and 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, fall short.


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. WhiteheadI 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 poetry?  

Gary J. WhiteheadI 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.


Please visit Gary J. Whitehead at his website and learn more about his work: http://www.garyjwhitehead.com/.

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