Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with Paul Hostovsky

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:

A Little in Love a Lot: A Review

A Little in Love a Lot. Paul Hostovsky.
Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, Aug. 2011. 96 pages, ISBN: 978-1-59948-303-0

(click the image to be taken to where you can order A Little in Love a Lot)

I first discovered Paul Hostovsky’s poetry when he was published in the now defunct online journal Jellyroll. I was immediately struck by the playful associative leaps his poems made. Since then I’ve come across his poems in many other journals both print and online, and have read his most recent collection, A Little in Love a Lot. The very title implies his poetic technique. A Little in Love a Lot is a dance with many partners, a desultory romp of affections. Sex and love are, of course, the subjects of many of these poems. But so also are the uncomfortable differences between men and women, young and old, even two individuals, and the way to bridge those gaps by an unrestrained embrace of all those differences.

The opening poem, “Uncanny,” says, “everything rhymes a little,” and as you somersault through the associative dances of Hostovsky’s poems you will dance into unexpected meanings and insights, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always engaging. In the poem, “The Debate at Duffy’s,” a man and woman argue over the root of the desire for sex. The woman says it’s a spiritual yearning and the man says it’s a compulsion of the body. The woman pours them another drink and the man

. . . drank deeply, felt the spirit
fill his cup. Then he looked into her eyes and saw
that she was beautiful, sexy and at the bottom
of the 9th, suddenly, surprisingly, irrevocably, right.

Of course the poem pivots on the wry double-entendre of “spirit.” The difference in opinion gives way to an agreement by a play on words. And we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that conclusion because it’s wordplay, since it’s also a way of thinking. We are following a train of thought not just a trail of words. Inherent in it is the playfulness that allows children to find joy and riches right where an adult sees nothing but “dead meat” and a “sad/parking lot ringed by a handful/of gimpy trees.” That is from the poem, “Poetry at the Burger King,” where the adult hating the scene because he’s “not poet enough/to call forth its riches” is redeemed the moment two children come in “very happy to be here” and

dancing to the song of the associate
which wasn’t a song until their dancing
made it so.

This ability to embrace that difference is the core of A Little in Love a Lot. In “Unlikely Love,” a man sees his girlfriend’s ex walking through a park. Watching the ex walk sadly and alone, the speaker of the poem says

. . . I felt
something for him, something in that moment
that I knew you wouldn’t understand if I tried
explaining it to you tonight when I saw you—
because I still don’t understand it myself—
it was something like pathos, but something more
like love, really—I felt a sudden rush of love
for this man whom you don’t love anymore.

Or in “Mozart in Your Armpit,” his aunt compares the phantom pain of her amputated legs to the speaker’s enjoyment of an opera even though he doesn’t know Italian.

You think you’ve taken care of a thing,
severed it from yourself for good—
then there it is again, what can’t be.
And feeling more like itself than ever.

Listen, you don’t need the words to know
when the music has changed; when the pain
has turned to pleasure; the pleasure
to pain.

It’s all vowels anyway—one
long dilating Italian vowel
sliding into another: orgasm,
agony, orgasm, agony again.

Sometimes the effort to embrace fails because it’s the effort and not necessarily the success that matters. It is where the poems express an unbridgeable distance between people that the pain of that divide is undercut by the playfulness and humor of Hostovsky’s voice, which make sense. If we are to fully embrace life, it may include embracing certain moments as being beyond us—moments when our efforts at inclusion fail. Those failure have to be included. For instance, in the poem “The Conversations of Men,” the speaker’s girlfriend wants to know the kind of conversations she would hear if she were a fly between two urinals. The speaker explains the last time a man talked to him while standing at a urinal, the man exclaimed “How about them Bruins?” The speaker could only say in response “Goddamn!” because

. . . he was trying to make contact
with his gender, and if I said I didn’t see the game,
or if I said I didn’t follow hockey or don’t
give a shit about the Bruins, he would probably
feel like he hadn’t made contact.

Of course, the man didn’t make contact. The speaker is sparing the man’s feelings, letting him have the illusion of connection. It is a kind of sympathy, a very good word for Hostovsky’s poems because “sympathy” means “to feel together.” A brief poem called “The Way Out” goes

The way out
isn’t under or
over or around
or even through.
It’s with. With is
the only way out.
In fact, out isn’t
the way out either
Out is a misnomer.

So here we all are. None of us are going anywhere because there is no “way out.” There is just being with each other in some way, and taking the whole vast space between you and me, East and West, orgasm and agony as a fact of life, and rather than narrowing the scope of our affections and loves to be for just this one thing, this one moment, this one person, this one activity, broaden it to as many moments as possible, as many people, as many worlds until you are A Little in Love a Lot.

Hostovsky is a refreshing voice in the landscape of American poetry because he knows how to dance and somersault with words and ideas, for him thinking is fun and the movement of a poem is a kind of acrobatic tumbling that ends in meaning. A Little in Love a Lot is a fun collection, an engaging collection, a collection that will both make you think and make you laugh out loud.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reflections on Reading The Quark and the Jaguar

The Quark and the Jaguar is a science book and, therefore, not the kind of thing I typically read, although I do venture into books other than poetry because I’m interested in nearly everything. A friend who is an engineer recommended the book and I’m happy I took the plunge. It is a great book, especially for the first 275 pages and then again for the last 45 pages—more about that later.

I could never connect the field of quantum mechanics and classical physics. In my mind, they were two irreconcilable worlds. Now I can say I understand how they relate to each other because of this book. If that were all I took away from it, I would be satisfied. But I have taken away so much more.

The title comes from a poem by poet Arthur Sze. So, this choice already has my sympathy. But more than this, that line poses a significant connection between a fundamental particle and an individual expression of the universe. This is an early question in the book: what is the relationship between the fundamental rules of the universe and individuality? It is an amazing question and one I have always been particularly interested in; questions of individuality and identity have been themes I return to since first reading Alan Watts when I was a teenager. But how do the fundamental particles that make up the universe and which are all the same (that is all electrons are identical and lack all individuality), finally result in something unique like a jaguar and even more, the particular jaguar you saw at the zoo with the funny way of walking? The connection the book makes between these two seemingly unrelated things is through probability and other elements of quantum mechanics such as frozen accidents, course-grained histories, etc. Of course, that doesn’t tell you anything about the relationship without reading the book and I’m not sure I could give a summary of such complex material even if I were a scientist.

One thing that makes that summary difficult is that the book is about a lot of different things, i.e. it is a summary of a lot of specialized fields. This is intentional since part of Gell-Mann's point is that there is a need for a more generalized view of our world that connects the many specialized fields. This is something general systems theorists like Fritjof Capra have been saying for decades. Gell-Mann is here making his own effort toward such a cohesive view. This means that, in some ways there is less detail than sometimes would be needed to fully understand a particular thing. But in the end and in spite of this flaw, the book does suggest the connection. Without explaining the science that the book explains, what becomes clear is a large scale view of how the universe evolved, how it could have been very different from what it is today, but by following certain paths among probable paths, in our corner of that universe, the path it took, along with chance events, lead to something specific, something unique like a jaguar . . . or even you. This is how Gell-Mann in the last pages finally comes to argue in favor of preservation and sustainability. He tries to root his argument for these important issues in science and in showing the fragility and uniqueness of what we know as our world.

However, there is another flaw in the book. The transition from the dispassionate and incredibly interesting explanations of quantum mechanics, quantum chromodynamics, complex adaptive systems, and super string theory to the arguments for preservation and sustainability is essentially a tirade against myths or what he calls maladaptive schemata. The ideological stance and the distaste he expresses is out of place tonally with the rest of the book and even somewhat belied by his later defense of cultural diversity. He also tries to argue that there must be a way to have the benefits of a religion without actually believing, by reducing the power of all religions to mere comforts of ritual. I have many issues with this which I will put aside and simply say, I felt he could have made a better, more amiable transition between the two sections. When he finally gets to arguing in favor of preservation and sustainability, his ideas are engaging and eloquent again, although no longer dispassionate. For here we are dealing with sustaining the importance of our fragile individuality that could have been otherwise and could be otherwise in the future.

Books like this always set off fireworks in my head as it might relate to ideas of poetry or social and political issues. For instance, as I contemplated the idea of branching histories in quantum mechanics, I wondered how this might apply to an individual life within a culture since I’ve always imagined a human life as a trajectory through time and culture. Is it possible that an individual life is also following a path that is at various stages made up of choices between mutually exclusive probabilities and as those paths are chosen, certain probabilities in the future are no longer available? Is an individual life also subject to entropy so that as a life goes along within a specific cultural timeframe, disorder increases? It seems to me that many Existentialist books are about just that fact. And it feels that way when I reflect on how full of potential life seemed in my teens and twenties and how responsibilities that have come with my choices along the way have limited the possible paths I could take in the present.

Gell-Mann gives an example of entropy with an image of a room divided by a partition. On one side is cold air and on the other is hot air. When you remove the partition, the perfect order of that situation breaks down as the two portions of air mix. This is so because, as he points out, there are more ways for the cold and hot air to mix than there are for it to stay separate. That tendency to get mixed together rather than stay neatly separated and in order is entropy and it seems true for an individual life. When young, you are just entering the world, the cultural timeframe of your life and as you mix with it, make decisions and choices, your life mixes with that cultural timeframe like the hot and cold air after the removal of the partition. The ways to organize that life then become more difficult as time goes on, as it gets more mixed up in the cultural timeframe and the consequences of choices made. That’s entropy. What dawned on me as I considered this was, if a government is going to have any real impact on something like alleviating the poverty of its citizens, it cannot treat all poor people as equal. A poor 20-year old is not the same as a poor 45-year old. In terms of quantum mechanics, the probability paths for them are different. They must be treated differently if they are to be truly helped out of their poverty.

Another thing that occurred to me had to do with what are called fitness landscapes. These fitness landscapes have to do with biological evolution but Gell-Mann also relates them to creative thinking. A fitness landscape is like a terrain of various pits with various depths. The pits represent different degrees of fitness. The deeper the pit, the more likely it—the biological creature or the idea—is to survive. An important feature of not getting stuck in shallow pits is “noise.” This is a kind of jiggling around along a path over the fitness landscape. The jiggling, if at the right level, will prevent being stuck in a shallow pit, or a place of low fitness. It occurred to me that this noise related to the playfulness involved in creating a poem and reminded me of something William Stafford said,

“If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world—you are in the area of poetry.”

That playfulness, that possibility of another world, that is the noise that keeps you from being stuck in the place of low fitness, the place where you are not likely to survive . . . intellectually, of course. Here I feel that what quantum mechanics calls “probability” Stafford is calling “possibility.” That “possibility of another world” is, in Gell-Mann’s book what he explains as the possible alternative histories of the universe. In poetry, in a very real way, you realize those alternatives, not as science fiction, but as actual emotional realities that affect our lives each day. Because the potential of what could be influences our days as much as the consequences of what has been. And Gell-Mann would understand this. As he says toward the end of the book, “As we try to envision a sustainable future, we must also ask what kinds of surprises, technological or psychological or social, could make that fairly distant future totally different from what we might anticipate today. A special team of imaginative challengers is required to keep posing that question.” Finding those unusual connections that are “hidden in plain sight” is what poetry and all art is about, the metaphors that even Gell-Mann admits “science might ignore” and yet which “often leads the viewer to new ways of seeing.”

As our great poet Richard Wilbur put it, “What would we be without/The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,//These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?” That is a poetic statement of the need for sustainability. Nature is the language for our inner reality. That is a poetic and even spiritual reason for trying to take action to protect our environment, to protect nature and to find ways to live in it and not just off it.

I may have strayed from direct considerations of the book, but I strayed into things the book prompted me to consider deeply. In the end, a book that provokes deep thought is a successful book and one I would recommend. The Quark and the Jaguar is a great read, a source of inspiration and contemplation. It is challenging for the non-scientist but in the best way: it challenges you to think about difficult realities and to consider deeply the importance of caring for our world and our future before it’s too late.