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Poet's Corner
by Russell Bittner
Interview with Mark Halliday

  May is the month for flowers – assuming April has done its job – but even if it has, there’s always room in the garden for a few more exotic species.  Mark Halliday is here to provide us with just such exotica.

I owe my acquaintance with Mark also to Rose Carlson and Jim Schley at Tupelo Press.  They very kindly sent me Keep This Forever, I read a few pieces, and I knew we had an excellent candidate for May.  I e-mailed him, he eventually responded, and here we are.

As always, and before we begin, Mark’s bio (from Tupelo Press, 2008):

I asked Mark to select three poems from Keep This Forever, and he very kindly sent back “Down Here,” “Milt and Sally,” and “Special Heads” – and so, these are the three we’re going to discuss this evening.

RRB:Mark, you would appear to have been at this poetry business for some time – both as a poet, yourself, and as a professor of poetry.  Tell me something (and I promise not to share it with anyone outside this little amphitheatre) before we take a look at your own verse:  can you really teach the art of poetry?  Can you pick someone out of a line-up and say “I’m going to make a poet out of you!”?  Are poets born or made?

MH:Like dancers, opera singers, tennis stars, and anyone else outstanding in a special activity, poets have to be both born and made; in talent, there’s always some mysterious mixture of nature and nurture.  Meanwhile, poetry happens to be an art more “fakeable” than most – since everybody can put lines of words on paper.  You can’t fake opera singing.  This is why poets are so anxious.

RRB:So “anxious?”  Perhaps the good ones.  However, it seems to me there are literally millions of people writing poetry without so much as a nod at a collection of poetry they might’ve had to read in high school – never mind reading a book on what works in poetry and what doesn’t.  One of my favourite quotes on the art of writing poetry is by a guy named Michael Longley:  "If most people who called themselves poets were tightrope-walkers, they'd be dead."  A bit like wannabe opera singers, I suppose, but wannabes don’t get to center stage at Carnegie Hall unless they rent it.  It’s also a bit like parenting, although no one’s ever required to read a book or take a class on parenting before they decide to start dress-rehearsing the act – and by that time, it’s usually too late.

And yet, I’d rather live with the consequences of bad poetry than of bad parenting.  After all, those of us who are old enough to remember him and it survived Rod McKuen’s “poetry.”  And certainly Maya Angelou’s “poetry” is testament to our will to survive as a species.

But I’m getting a bit off-topic, and the topic is your poetry – which was what brought  us together in the first place.  Tell me please about this first piece, “Down Here”:  what brought it about; how long you worked at it; why you decided to write it in verse form; how you decided where to put the line-breaks….

MH:One kind of poem I've often done is a poem presenting an attitude or opinion or approach to life that scares or threatens me.  In each of my books, there are poems that try this – poems whose main character and speaker is someone very different from the way I like to see myself.  Such a poem usually comes across as satirical, and satire is part of the intention; I'm trying to bring out the craziness or the unkindness in the attitude of the poem so that it will be distinctly visible and also so that I can imply that I, myself, – myself when I'm "at home," so to speak – am not like the shallow or hostile or disturbed speaker of the poem.  Examples are "Another Point" in Keep This Forever or "Contents" and "Against Realism" in Jab.

What often propels such poems is my anxiety about the whole validity and worthiness of being a poet.  When I was writing "Down Here," however, I decided to try hard not to satirize the voice of the woman.  I wanted to respect her, to respect her view of life, and not to take cheap shots at it.

The scene evoked in "Down Here" never happened all at once or in a single evening; instead, the poem creates a dramatic epitome of many occasions when the painful difference between me and this woman I was very involved with crystallized as opposing attitudes toward poetry.  Writing the poem, I wanted to have the courage to present her outlook powerfully and to resist the temptation to "win" the argument via my poem.  I'm proud of "Down Here" because I feel I did respect her view while still showing my own temperamental devotion to art (poetry), even sometimes at the expense of interpersonal relations.  The point was not to refute her, but to dramatize the gap between our two sensibilities.

As for lineation – well, I usually feel that’s a swamp of a topic in free verse, so I may avoid it unless you press me!

RRB:I won’t press you.  Much.

Your next piece, “Milt and Sally,” comes from a very different place, a very different motivation – or so it would seem to me at least.  Tell us about it if you would.

MH:Born in 1949, I'm one of the older members of the boomer generation.  Lots and lots of us became poets; and nowadays, our parents are naturally very old and weak, or already dead – and this is what we write about.  Inevitably, there will be hundreds more poems about dying mothers and fathers each year.  My father lived to be eighty-nine and died in 2003.  Compared to the ordeals some other sons and daughters endure, my difficulty in coping with my father's extreme neediness in his last year was not a huge problem.  Yet it felt huge enough to me at the time.  Keep This Forever opens with a series of poems about my father's dying.  And then, of course, a parent's death – or anyone's death, for that matter – requires that you, the survivor, ask the excruciating questions:  What can be kept?  What traces of this unique person should be preserved?  What do you cherish, what do you throw away?

Since my father was a writer – he published a book about Thomas Jefferson and a book about John Berryman, as well (in earlier years) as some highly regarded critical essays – the sensation of seeing my own mortality in my father's mortality had that particularly frightening sharp edge.  It became impossible not to imagine my son or daughter eventually needing to throw away reams of my own writings.

Poets thrive on the illusion that somehow, someone – who? Posterity? God? – will insist upon saving our writing from oblivion.  Someone will rescue us from being forgotten because our poems will be so outstandingly memorable.  It’s when this illusion starts to dwindle or turn into a sweetly comic myth that the poet succumbs to moments of terror – and to longer moments of staring off into space.

RRB:We know what you mean, Mark.  Boy, do we know what you mean!

And now, to “Milt and Sally.”

RRB:You’ve given us one last piece – “Special Heads” – in which you play a bit with sounds that would seem to be of your own making.  At the same time, and to my ear and eye at least, there’s a bit of stream-of-consciousness at work here.

Have I got that at least partially right?  And, if so, would you tell us what brought you to this state of affairs for this particular piece?

MH:"Special Heads" tries to evoke the dreary and depressing familiarity of a certain sequence of thoughts – where I include nonsense phrases like "frum frum boojwacka frum" or "la ba noof la ba noof," the point is to convey my unhappy feeling that this sequence of thoughts has cycled through my mind so often it has become more a rhythmic noise than fresh thinking – like when some irritating pop song gets stuck in your head.  The anapestic swing of many lines in the poem is meant to match that sensation.  "Special Heads" is about how individuals want to feel special, want to feel importantly different from other individuals – and one way we try to demonstrate uniqueness is by having strong opinions, strong aesthetic preferences, favorites.  But in a depressed outlook, it can seem as if all of our opinions are flimsy, shallow affiliations, not deeply significant, and indeed sort of interchangeable because similarly insignificant.  I certainly don't like to feel this way, so the poem is an example of the strategy I was talking about earlier – devoting a whole poem to an exaggerated or comically garish version of a disturbing view or attitude, hoping to get this disturbing view outside of my head by enclosing it in a poem.

Anyone who walks around the Book Fair at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference for a few hours can't escape feeling something like the depression in "Special Heads."  There are these gigantic ballrooms filled with hundreds of booths and tables where writers and their books and journals are asking to be noticed, to be singled out.  The sheer number makes it so desperately obvious how extremely non-unique each writer is.

For me it can be very depressing to hear in one day hundreds of conversations about poets that take the form of "I like X." "Oh?  I like Y."  The opinions seem so weightless.

However, in "Special Heads," I try to break free from this depression where I say: "you are rather lovely at the moment when your caring/is truly focused and truly intense."  That's what we all long to believe!

RRB:It is indeed what we all long to believe, Mark, and I think you’ve done remarkably well with “Special Heads.”

I thank you for the privilege of this interview.  It’s been an enormous pleasure.

Mark Halliday was born in Ann Arbor, MI and grew up in Raleigh, NC and Westport, CT. He earned a BA at Brown University in 1971, an MA in creative writing at Brown, and a Ph.D. in English at Brandeis University. He has taught at Wellesley College, the University of Pennsylvania, Wilmington Friends School, Indiana University, Western Michigan University, and Ohio University, where he has been since 1996.

His previous books of poems are: Little Star (William Morrow, 1987, a National Poetry Series selection); Tasker Street (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992, a Juniper Prize winner); Selfwolf (University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Jab (University of Chicago Press, 2002). His critical study Stevens and the Interpersonal was published by Princeton University Press in 1991. He co-authored with Allen Grossman a book on poetics, The Sighted Singer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), and he has published many essays on contemporary poets.
“Down Here”

We tried being together; after a while it felt like a mistake.

We sat with tea in her kitchen.  She said,
"I know that poetry can be very interesting
and I know it makes some people happy and that's fine
but what I can't relate to, in the end,
is the whole thing of plucking something out of life,
the idea of removing some little piece of life
from the whole messy flow of everything –
the way you think you need to sort of isolate this one bit of experience
in this sort of glass box that you call a poem –
you want to put it in the box
and hoist the box to a top shelf way up
where grubby time won't smudge it –
time with its grubby money and plastic bags of garbage
and people who say they care about you and then don't
and skin fungus and gum decay and arthritis
and car engines breaking down and hospital rooms
and people getting addicted to things –
you think you can put even anybody's mother with Alzheimer's
or anybody's uncle with diabetes or any other piece of the world
into the crystal box if you just trim it to fit –"

(I could see from her face that she liked her metaphor
of the crystal box on the high shelf
and she hoped it was a good enough metaphor
so that I would remember it and remember her for it)

"– and what I can't relate to is the whole assumption
that you can do that and then things are somehow all better
when actually they're not because actually there is no top shelf,
I mean everything is down here and everything dies.
The poems you're always poking at are pieces of paper
that end up in boxes – cardboard boxes
and the boxes eventually get hauled to a dumpster
by the teenage boys working for your granddaughter's landlord
or the teenage boys helping to clear out a warehouse or a library
maybe thirty years from now, maybe sixty, and they end up as landfill
just like you and me and all our friends, we're all on our way
to being landfill – and what we really need
is for each of us to be decent to each other and if possible
to be generous and kind.  And those words are boring to you –"

(her voice was now trembling and she was striving not to cry
and I almost realized I was glad to be important enough
to make her nearly cry about this)

"– which is why what I'm saying is not a poem.
Which is why poems are not what I care about because
to me what counts is for people to notice how other people are feeling
and to respond to that right then and for people to give each other
little surprise presents and to phone someone and say 'How are you
in a real way and to talk to people about what matters to them
outside your own little world of crystal treasures.
That's what I look for in a person and what happens is,
we do our best and ultimately a few people visit us in the hospital
and then we die."

She stopped and looked away and calmed her breathing.

I thought:  I respect her; but I don't think I can love her.
Or, not romantically.  And I thought how much worse I would feel
if she had said all this without getting upset.

(She had a way of rapidly tapping her cheekbone with one finger
to keep back tears when she thought tears would be sentimental;
I remembered loving her for that;  I saw
how someone else could love that soon.)

I looked down
I gazed down
Down I gazed
Down gazed I into my cold cup of tea.


Twenty days after my father died I threw away
all the letters between him and Sally Pierce
written in the mid-Thirties –
all that yearning and uncertainty, admiration and doubt –
the love of Milt and Sally;
she was the one he didn’t marry
and in sixty-some further years he didn’t forget . . .
Sally died young.  Milt died very old.
Twenty days later I swam down into the files

and couldn’t keep everything.  Couldn’t keep.  Everything.

So I chucked the Sally letters, unread,
because I was not God.
God would be the Omnivorous Reader.
God might not see the little sparrow’s fall
but if the sparrow or its mate wrote an account of it –
My Lamentable Fall From the Sky –
God would read every page;
Our Lord would savor every sentence.
And never put it back on the shelf!

My father was quite sure God didn’t exist
and for most of his life he felt sure this was
a good thing, or at least extremely acceptable.
In his last two years I think he felt more
a sad irritation or that God’s nonexistence is (as he would say)
a hell of a note.

Not being God, I tossed the entire yellowed bundle
and a wraith, or invisible powder of old paper,
rose from the black plastic bag to watch me
from the ceiling of the littered posthumous apartment.
Surely the wraith could see my predicament.
Not being God, I had to be Nature.



Milt was confused by too many desires,
and more romantic than he knew.
Sally was more cautious than her flamboyance implied,
and less romantic than she believed.
Milt and Sally – like their friends,
a bit overcomplicated for this green and blooded world,
but a damned good read.
This one loves W. G. Sebald, and that one loves Joseph Cornell.
This one adores Preston Sturges, and that one devours Ruth Rendell.
Each one of them carries a special head
up on his or her shoulders, till she/he be dead.
To prefer, and opine, each one has a right
for this is America, where each soul shines bright.
Oh frum frum boojwacka frum –
I have my own views, but am feeling so glum.

I love doo wop, I do do do,
it’s something to me though it’s not much to you –
why should you worry what looms large to me
or why I admire Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie?
Da dink da da dink da da dink da da dink:
if I keep a deft rhythm I might make you think
you’ve encountered a Witty New Voice on the Scene
da da dink da da dink, but how long could I preen –
I love The Crying of Lot Forty-neen

and could tell you why with charming enthusiasm
if you were very ready to be charmed
but I suspect you come to the encounter armed
with your own identity-propping choices.
America, land of the too many voices --

Why too many, you ask, why not embrace all?
La ba noof la ba noof and we’re off to the mall,
everybody likes something, everybody’s a shopper,
you can write the latest poem about Edward Hopper . . .
My point is, the noise –

actually my point is that when you love
the isolated figure in the painting of the late-night diner
the pain of your love is the hard-to-repress understanding
that the profoundly respectful rescuing eyes of the painter
do not gaze from across the street outside
all the real diners, late, late on Friday night.
And my point is that when you come bopping to tell us
how much you love Fragonard or the Big Bopper
you want to be loved for your precious admiring

and you are rather lovely at the moment when your caring
is truly focused and truly intense (even if you’re just describing
Allen Iverson as he incredibly outwits and outhustles
all five of the New York Knicks and creates
a suddenly fresh sense of what one person still might do
in a world of violent towering alien forces)
but we’re about to be distracted, any second now,
by some other beauty or mere flurry of Chantilly Lace,
it’s just about to happen
before you even utter your last –