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:

Review of A Glossary of Chickens

Click on the image to order
A Glossary of Chickens from Amazon.

A Glossary of Chickens.
Gary J. Whitehead. 

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, March 11, 2013. 72 pages, ISBN: 978-0691157467

The first thing to strike one about Whitehead’s poetry is the simple beauty of its language.  He clearly knows language as a tool to create art, to create beautiful objects.  Beyond the meaning of what is said, there is a profound pleasure in reading something like,

. . . . . . . . . . flecks of pepper atop the soap dish soup
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Drosophila Melanogaster”)

or, with a more delicate touch, something like
. . . . . . . . . . Autumn, with its globes, the gold and silver saved,
. . . . . . . . . . hanging here and there like something to reach for,
. . . . . . . . . . has become this time to walk through
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Warren”)

These are the kinds of linguistic graces that feed the more rarified elements in the sensibility, the depths that only a handful of prose writers ever reach, and even when they do, do so only as they approach the province of poetry.  
The second thing to strike a reader of Whitehead’s poetry is the simple pleasure of following his mind through its connections, both serious and humorous.  For instance, his latest collection (his third), A Glossary of Chickens, opens its first section with a poem called, “The Wimp.”  But this “chicken” is such, as the poem says, because “I lack wherewithal.”  And so, one of the primary thematic threads is established and probed, which is the question of purpose or intention and how it threads or thwarts true living.  This motif is introduced along with others in the opening proem of the collection, “Oyster.”  
The negative image of the oyster as “all abductor-muscled,” filtering the world, the “as-yet/with now instead/of then,” leads into questions of the past and present crisscrossing as they do with the attempt to understand life.  But the poem ends with advice to this tightly closed animal,
. . . . . . . . . . Better to be rent apart,
. . . . . . . . . . all jiggly and liberated,
. . . . . . . . . . than to fret an irk until it’s pearled.
And here we have the seed of thematic contention: how what appeared to be a needed vessel – like a shell – can come into conflict with inspired living.  Such vessels can be in many shapes, they could be people we once cherished or plans as simple as naming things that mislead us into thinking “that by naming we can understand,” or certain desires that are part of “the unrealizable certainty/of the way things should be.”  What often shocks us out of these ruts is death, or the threat of death, the various kinds of loss.  All the shapes of that threat wake us to living as it is meant to be, or to the simple pleasure of being alive.
. . . . . . . . . . Why overprioritize long-term plans
. . . . . . . . . . at the expense of our present enjoyment?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Drosophila Melanogaster”)

But it is not a simple insight to live by, about as easy as making a flower bloom by yelling at it to do so.  The root problem is “we are pinioned by whatever we are.”  The tragedy that often shocks us back into inspired living becomes nothing but a season to the quotidian, as the salt pile of “Lot’s Wife,” by the end of that poem, and after people have moved on from the tragedy of the city’s destruction, becomes nothing more than “salt with which//to season for a while their meat, their daily bread.”  
From beginning to end, the collection is a transformation of the idea of death, from a tragedy that we try to elude or which makes us cherish life, to a shedding in the form of all loss necessary to life as it moves forward.  The why of living gives way to the what as life is embraced in the moment.  Or, as it says in “Death Watches,” “Not why, then, but when to bite/and what like.”  This transformation is also reinforced by succeeding poems.  Thus, in the final section, the poem “Death Watches” is followed by “In the Butterfly Conservatory.”  Apart from the butterfly being a timeworn image of transformation and renewal, the poem concludes
. . . . . . . . . . There must be room for joy,
. . . . . . . . . . a door to the other side.

This transformation is mirrored in the full arc of the final section, which opens with a poem called “Slaveship” and ends with a poem called “Ararat” where Noah contemplates the remains of the ark years after it served its purpose.  The slaveship becomes that discarded ark that carried the needed cargo for the world to survive.  Now that its purpose is served, it is not needed.  Any plan that has served its purpose, if we continue to follow it, becomes a prison, a trap, a slaveship.  It would be as if Noah had kept his family and the animals on the ship after the waters receded.  Wisdom and this collection teach us to abandon the plans that have served their purpose, the various stratagems that enslave us, just as the poem “Ararat” concludes with the observation
. . . . . . . . . . Above the green plateau there is always grief,
. . . . . . . . . . which, inspired, becomes the breath of life.
Throughout, this collection is a pleasure to read.  Only one puzzle piece did not fit: its section breaks.  The coherence of the collection is so clear and the progression from one poem to the next so strong, even when crossing from section to section, the section breaks seemed rather forced to frame the thematic development unnecessarily.  Thankfully these section breaks don’t do any harm to the collection.  
A Glossary of Chickens is one of the more beautiful and subtle collections I’ve read in some time.  In fact I haven’t even touched on the nuanced distinction the collection makes between memory and the past or explored the significance of how the collection’s third poem is about Lot’s Wife and the concluding poem about Noah and the seeming bridge between them is Melville. But I will leave these for readers to search out themselves since there are simply too many connections to explore in a brief review.
Though it is never said, A Glossary of Chickens suggests that life is truly lived when it is lived like good jazz rather than as an agenda.  In fact, we need to break free of agendas, free of the plans that have served their purpose, in order to truly live.  This may be the reason for the underlying sea imagery throughout the collection.  Perhaps that connection to the sea suggests the importance of flowing, of letting go and moving on, like a river, like water.  The collection is a quiet carpe diem, not shouting it, as so many literary works do, as if seizing the day were only possible to the loudmouthed and frantic.  Instead, it seems to say that enjoying our daily bread with full awareness is the profoundest form of seizing the day.