Seduction, Thirst: An Interview with R. Nemo Hill

It’s Animal but Merciful contributor R. Nemo Hill chats with Thomas Fucaloro

R. Nemo Hill is the author, in collaboration with painter Jeanne Hedstrom, of an illustrated novel organized according to the processes of medieval alchemy, Pilgrim’s Feather (Quantuck Lane Press, 2002),a narrative poem based upon a short story by H.P. Lovecraft,The Strange Music of Erich Zann (Hippocampus Press, 2004), and a chapbook, Prolegomena To An Essay On Satire (Modern Metrics, 2006). His latest full-length poetry collection, When Men Bow Down, was published by Dos Madres Press in 2012. He is also the editor and publisher of EXOT BOOKS.

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TF: So I see you have a new book out by Dos Madres Press called WhenMenBowDown. Can you talk a little about that process and how this book came to be?

RNH: Well, first the poems themselves 'came to be'. And that, of necessity, is a long 'process'—one akin to wine-making. And so the poems chosen for the book run the gamut from those begun maybe a year or two ago to those begun twenty-or-thirty-plus years ago.

And then there was the process of carefully collecting them. My main goal was to create a coherent structure, rather than just a catch-all container to hold everything decent I'd written in a given period of time. So many poems were excluded—saved for a future volume—because they did not fit the form I had decided on for this one. I think a book, even a collection, even an anthology, should have an arc, a sort of hidden narrative more complex than merely these are the poems I’ve written or collected. Whether that arc is immediately apparent to a casual reader, well, that's a point as endlessly debatable as whether any author's intentions in any individual poem come through to that same reader. We poets do what we can, what we must.

Finally there was the process of publication, the process of bottling the wine. I looked quietly around me, patiently, without unreasonable expectations—and loving both the insides and the outsides of two recently published books (Rick Mullin’s Soutine & Austin MacRae’s TheOrganBuilder) I approached their publisher, Dos Madres Press, with my own manuscript. You know, poets are so eager—too eager, really—to see their work in print that they often settle for far less than they should as far as quality and professionalism. With Robert & Elizabeth Murphy of Dos Madres I found both in ample supply. They accepted all of my input graciously, even going so far as to use my own art for the book’s cover. And they worked swiftly yet carefully. I will always be proud of our finished product, WhenMenBowDown, and that’s of primary importance—for in the small potatoes realm of po-biz, where remuneration is always negligible, such pride and contentment are really the only semi-tangible reward a poet can expect to receive for his or her labors. I am a publisher myself, of chapbooks for EXOT BOOKS, and I was thrilled to find another publisher whose own 'process' so paralleled the fundamental spirit of my own.

TF: I know you are not going to like this next statement, but there are a lot of form poems in the collection—yet they are so smooth you hardly notice. You're like the Barry White of form poetry! Why such a love for form?

RNH: As far as I am concerned, the once-productive Formal vs. Free Verse Poetry World War has long since ended. Like everything else, the course of poetry tends toward the cyclical, and sometimes one style of utterance needs to assail another, temporarily, in order to release new energies that have been bottled up for too long by unquestioned habits of expression. Yet by now the image of the over-fastidious formalist as a fusty archaic technician removed from the rush-and-tumble stream of modern consciousness has little to do with with what most formal poets are up to these days. If anything, the constricting shoe may be on the other foot by now. Perhaps the new norm that now needs a good shaking up is the poet so un-versed in the nature of form that he or she considers whatever just falls out of an always opened mouth as a finished poetic product. Perhaps that is the stale status-quo awaiting the next turn of the poetic wheel. And so round and round and round and round we go.

In the end, I'm convinced that a good free verse poem needs as much rigor and discipline as the heroic couplet or the triplets of terza rima—maybe even more. Given how hard it is to express oneself effectively and memorably, I find it strange to think that even a single one of the poetic strategies evolved over the centuries should be discarded: by any and all means necessary seems the better approach. But then certain wily poets have been taking this inclusive road all along, while others were busy congratulating themselves on the admittedly sometimes brilliant manifestoes of their exclusive clubs. Take a poet like Hart Crane writing in the 1920's: on careful examination, there isn't a single school of poetry absent from his work (some of which didn't even have names yet), all mixed up together in a heady brew that will survive many of the partisan single ingredient recipes which have waxed and waned so imperiously in the years since he jumped ship.

Ultimately all poetry has form, doesn't it? The question as posed most baldly in the 1950's & 60's was whether a pre-conceived form somehow diminishes one's freedom of expression. But language itself does that, a fact which Conceptual Art challenged us with not that long ago. I'm all for such rigorous challenges, whatever form they take! Each challenge is a new form—and even the newest forms gradually accrue a history. I'll confess that much of what is written today sounds, to me, more like talk than poetry. Talk is what I expect, and enjoy, in bars or at subway stations when the train is late. Poetry for me is something more deliberate—and for me, formal parameters are a sure-fire means to concentrate and re-focus language. Even a poetry as open and democratic as Whitman's is utterly formal in its rhythms. I would even go so far as to say that the current cadences of the slam scene can prove far more restrictive, formally speaking, than those of the so-called academy. Do those instantly recognizable intonational dips and rises restrict individual expression any differently than an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme or an iambic pentameter line?

The question of a form that is so 'smooth' that it slips by almost unnoticed is a thorny one for me. Of course, a poet wants content to be foregrounded; and yet in much good formal verse technique and content cannot always be so neatly separated. Certainly there is nothing so inherently suspect about a poem's formal qualities that they need to sneak through the shadows lest they offend the so-called modern ear with too premeditated a music. Even in hardcore formal poetry circles, much is made of the attempt to make language sound natural, even when it is metrical and end-rhymed. That is a very contemporary formal technique. But a more forceful form is a viable technique as well: one that wrenches language to its own ends. It's all a matter of taste, I suppose, as well as the needs of the particular poem. And while I would like to see more formal poets experimenting to a far greater degree with the improvisatory difficulties of free verse, I would also like to see more complacently relaxed free verse poets playing consciously with the rich variety of formal techniques…

For saying, just like playing—by form's rules— Is more than just the tyranny of schools; And careful action can, like careful speech Bring clarity of purpose within reach. The smallness of the given playing field Is no predictor of potential yield. And life itself, like meter and like rhyme, Demands that we be patient and take time To organize our thoughts, our acts, our diction, Within the bounds of this or that restriction. Then what is not allowed, what's thrown away, Reveals beneath its outer rind the play Of forces we might never have suspected— Small, perfect beauties we had not expected!

TF: I’m really into the poem In Distance with its nice slender thick passages of play and how each part rises and then at the end comes crashing down in a hush. Are dynamics important to you when it comes to poetry, and how do you control them without letting them get too grand like performance poetry?

RNH: I think In Distance may be my one of my best poems; it is certainly one of my own favorites. And it is a good example of the overlay of both free and formal impulses. It is formal, of course—with its solid tetrameter line. Though I love a long full line sometimes (the more byzantine the better), yet it is revelatory to me how a strategy as simple as adhering to a four beat line can pare down content, stripping one's voice of inessential ornament without lessening its power of evocation. It was in the rhyme scheme that I most relaxed my formal reins, letting the rhymes emerge and fall where they wished to, outside of any preconceived pattern. I mean I never forgot about the rhymes for a moment, and I searched for them as diligently as I would in a sonnet—but I let them place themselves at whatever intervals they chose. Again, different poems call for different levels of control and technique: this was a lazy boatride of a poem, and so it seemed fitting that the rhymes rise and fall with the current of the river beneath it.

By 'dynamic...too grand like performance poetry' I am assuming you are referring to that tone I mentioned above—those vocal cadences which can, in the course of freeing one's voice from societal somnolence, become so overbearing as to turn, perversely, into peer-sanctioned restrictions of a more personal freedom. In Distance is very much a poem of social apocalypse, of the loss of those anchors of life and communication we have grown accustomed to relying on. And yet they are not wrenched away, not flouted, but rather floated out of reach, reduced to unintelligible signs by dispassionate distance. The evidence of my almost spiritual belief in form is clear in this poem: rhyme is one of the few irreducible elements of reality here—when words lose their meaning, rhymes may disperse, but they endure. Indeed, they may be all we have left.

For rhyme, of course, is really the main point, The force that keeps the universe in joint, The harmonizing element, the pact That makes sure pairs of opposites attract. Be they two times, two people, or two places, Or two lines of a poem which rhyme embraces, It never fails, if given half a chance, To teach the tensest partners how to dance.

TF: Do you have any plans of touring this book and if so where will you be heading?

RNH: Ouch. I’ve sort of dropped the ball since the book was published. All sorts of real-life conundrums have raised their nasty heads and occupied my time and manipulated my whereabouts. I am planning to be in San Francisco in February, where hopefully I will do a few readings—but I haven't been very active lately on the New York scene, and so haven't done as much promoting as I should. I am an introvert by nature, and sometimes slip back into unadulterated grouchihood. Though I remain wide open to suggestions or invitations…

TF: So let's talk about the poem Thirst in our new anthology It's Animal but Merciful. Did the poem come first or did the Andre Breton quote come first?

RNH: The poem came first, or at least the first twenty or thirty versions of it. This is an example of a poem that has been kicking around up-side my brain for years, for about thirty-five of them, maybe more. It’s an example of a style of writing that pre-dates my fascination with more classical forms. I cut my poetic teeth on the Surrealists, and I retain a defiant loyalty to them. Many of the poems from my past were quite formal, but they adhered to the rules of self-invented forms, private and often inscrutable word games that I challenged myself to play with myself. I often return to such older poems, re-working them again and again. As I re-re-read those still fertile Surrealist tracts that I devoured as a young man I often lift quotes from them and attach them to these older poems. Then I re-work the poems again. And again. Sometimes the epigraphs then fall away, sometimes (as in this case) they stick like glue. Such poems always manage to stay fresh for me, they are veritable fountains of youth, and I should probably save all my different versions of each one. But I have always impulsively thrown away all my old drafts. I like to think, in some loosely alchemical sense, that the last contains all the ones that came before.

TF: The first line is breathtaking: “I am distance loving and you are as far as cat’s eyes”. When did you become such a romantic?

RNH: That’s a loaded word, "romantic", and one that everyone seems to define differently. But I can usually embrace it in all its multiple meanings. I guess the poem is romantic in its original impulse. I think it may be one of the hallmarks of romanticism that it moves from the specific to the infinite—along the whole trajectory of desire. The poem certainly sheds the personal as it proceeds; for it "does not believe in personhood," refusing to desire anything less than everything. I am quite enamored, apparently, of distance, of the gulfs between things and people, those abysses without which the delirious leaps of love and art might never have been inspired to begin with. Without thirst there’d be no myth of delicious water.

TF: You definitely convince me “to drink the rain”, is that something you are aware of when you are writing, trying to sway your reader into your domain?

RNH: Definitely. I think all art is a matter of seduction. If someone is not lured in, not mesmerized, then they will never listen what you are saying. In a way, that's all opinion is, no? —a willingness or a lack of willingness to be seduced? Ultimately, any negative critical review can be reduced to one simple phrase: "I am not convinced that I want to walk and talk with you." OK, that’s a strategic oversimplification. But it does contain an important grain of truth. And the truth is that you will never ever gain the ear of anyone who is not fascinated by the sound of your voice, anyone who isn't willing to suspend their own disbelief and enter into the world as you see it and speak it. The rub there is that if you are too concerned with that initial act of seduction, then the world you invite your reader or listener into may not be yours at all—but rather one constructed solely out of your own desperate insecurity to be heard. Unfortunately, I think performance poetry can aggravate that situation, feeding the need for instant gratification that causes a writer to pander to a particular crowd for the rush of the immediate accolade. For me, seduction is probably a more private affair. One of the true miracles of poetry is that it can, on the page, perform an act of seduction that defeats time. Centuries later, the Iliad still gets me hard; while just a few lines of Saint-John Perse can fill me with such a powerful wanderlust that my eyes dilate and I break into a cool sweat.

TF: Rhythm is such a trademark of yours. Does that develop over time, or is form a constant enabler of that?

RNH: Rhythm is meter, form. It's that simple. Along with rhyme it's the very fabric of the universe as far as I am concerned—whether conscious or unconscious. There's rhythm and harmony. And such qualities embrace, of course, their own opposites: the a-rhythmic and the dis-harmonic. As a thirsty practicing poet, I feel it is my vocation to consciously drink them in and let them flow back out of me at all levels of being.

Read R. Nemo Hill's poem “Thirst” in our anthology It’s Animal but Merciful.

When Men Bow Down and other books by our contributors may be found and ordered through our Book page.