“Poetry, for me, is a kind of yoga, a discipline, a practice of awareness. It involves, for me, scrutiny, meditation, arguing.”
Partners in Truth and Beauty: Sean Patrick Hill
interviewed by Christopher Luna
I know few people as dedicated to the craft of poetry as Sean Patrick Hill. Since we first became acquainted, he has challenged me and the other writers around him to learn more, push harder, think deeper.
Hill grew up in upstate New York before moving to Oregon, where he lived for many years before settling in Kentucky with his wife, Erynn, and their daughter, Teagan. Sean has earned degrees from the University of Buffalo and Portland State University, and is currently a graduate student at Warren Wilson College. He has been the recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center and Montana Artists Refuge. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi, Bookslut, Redactions, Gulf Coast, and the Oregonian. You can find out more about him and his work at The Imagined Field
Sean Patrick Hill’s poetry recovers the forgotten landscape of our collective history as it bears witness to the fall of the American empire. He wanders the ruins as a solitary figure, perhaps the last of us, observing the desolation as he longs for a past that preceded even his birth. White is a common color throughout The Imagined Field (Paper Kite Press, 2010), evoking not clarity but the confusion of snowblindness. Hill inventories our broken promises, laments our failed relationships and faulty memories. He takes us to task for failing to value the land as well as the people who reside upon it.
Interstitial (BlazeVOX [books], 2011) is filled with melancholic, dream-like observation of small towns including his hometown of Elmira, New York. Poems such as “A Road We Cannot Travel Without Damaging” (Interstitial, page 33) wrestle with the legacy of manhood.
A Road We Cannot Travel Without Damaging
Flagstone makes as good a paving stone as token of a grave.
Everything here is stone—the ruined abbey.
The megalithic tombs worked by men like us.
Rather, the stone works us.
Our ancestors hardly filled their clothes.
Your mother cooked potatoes; your father worked
nights in a glass factory.
You married young and had a stranger for a son,
It is the palace of our blood.
I too have been proud of my vicious hands.
Hill’s poetry is the inner dialogue of a man in search of himself, and his country’s broken promise. The book is a devastating portrayal of failed marriages and the consequences of unregulated capitalism.
The poet’s voice resembles the inner monologue of the seeker, hoping to recover what has been lost, and fearful that it may be too late. Poems like “Down in the Flood” (The Imagined Field, page 48) represent an endless search, and a tireless desire to discover the answers to the big questions. The journey is marked by rich imagery and precise, imaginative phrasing that will linger long after you’ve finished reading. Spend some time with Sean Patrick Hill’s work, and you will come to understand that we are fortunate to have him as a guide.
Is The Imagined Field inspired by Robert Duncan's Opening of the Field? If so, what does that book means to you? How has it informed your writing?
There are a lot of things behind the title, Duncan being part of that, yes. As a matter of fact, it is you yourself who first loaned me the book and turned me onto Olson. So really, the title is inspired more by Olson's essay on Projective Verse. I had that idea in mind (and I had read [Olson’s] "The Kingfisher" a number of times), but Duncan is also working out the same ideas.
But James Galvin is there too: I love the title of his first book, Imaginary Timber. The idea of imagination, I think, is a concern in the book, if not one of its central themes. A lot of the poems are either directly from the imagination or else grappling with it, as Stevens was. Stevens, in fact, is also evoked by the title; the line "The imagined pine, the imagined jay" from "The Man with the Blue Guitar" haunts the book, as well. But Olson's ideas about, especially, the breath in relation to the line are, of course, dead on for me.
from The Imagined Field, page 57
In this room, some odd dollars a night, shades drawn,
I am invisible.
The television, a mute.
What I want to determine is how I can be comfortable
in this skin.
There’s been many things said about stones—
that they can’t laugh.
That they are without pity.
I’m too tired to right.
You see what I mean…
Each room has its display case of attractions.
The factory tours, the factory outlets.
A thousand ways to earn rewards, free nights…
Lobbies are all the same: a case of maps to all things
irrelevant. Here’s where to park. Here’s where to sleep.
I want the one that says where to sit by Lake Champlain
and watch the sun
drag the sky into the Adirondacks.
A quarter for the view in this antique machine.
How has poetry helped you to “determine how I can be comfortable in your own skin,” as you write in “Coin-Op Binoculars”?
Oddly, I had to go back to that poem to see exactly what I was thinking of; it’s been a while since I thought of that poem. But one thing to acknowledge is what that poem is, what it is a part of, which is a long sequence I wrote while I was driving through Vermont, doing job interviews, staying in motels. At the time, life was unstable. I had no full-time job. I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I had dreams of living in a place like Vermont. In short, I was not comfortable in my own skin.
First, I don’t know if I am comfortable in my own skin, even now. I doubt it. So I keep writing. I was thinking about this, and I remembered Wallace Stevens saying “poetry is the philosopher’s art,” or something to that effect. Some poets vehemently disagree with any sort of marriage between poetry and philosophy, but for me, poetry is part of a pragmatic, practical philosophy, in that I’m trying to write my way into a philosophy of living. To put it simply, many of my poems simply ask, “How am I to live?” The longer sequence White River Junction, of which “Coin-Op Binoculars” is a part, endeavors to answer that question. In a way it does, but I’m still not satisfied.
So many of my newer poems, especially, become rhetorical, arguing for a way of looking at life that is sane. I’m trying to articulate to myself, even more than an abstract reader, that I can carry on. I’m trying to rewrite the last stanza of Ammons’ "Gravelly Run" for myself, I suppose.
But, of course, you know how it is: I can read an old poem and get a sense of “Yes, I remember making this discovery, this insight,” and the poem’s language contains, incredibly, that feeling, but at the same time I’m compelled to move forward. Poetry, for me, is a kind of yoga, a discipline, a practice of awareness. It involves, for me, scrutiny, meditation, arguing.
Who are you reading these days? Is there anyone who you would like to insist that others read?
Well, being enrolled now in the Warren Wilson College program, I’m reading a lot, both poetry and criticism. One person I’ve been reading and been amazed by is Randall Jarrell; consequently, he is one I’d insist others read. He’s fabulous, very contemporary, too, especially when he gets to talking about the media, you can see that even in the 1950’s and 60’s, he understood where the whole television trap was headed. But he’s also a close reader; his essays on Frost and Williams, to name a few, are enlightening.
In poetry itself, I’ve been reading James Dickey, and I’m quite taken by him. I’ve also been interested in August Kleinzahler and Charlie Smith. I’ve even gone back to Dylan Thomas. And I reread Sylvia Plath who, I realize, is far more of an influence than I’ve ever given credit to--she may be my biggest influence. I suspect this is so. Tonight I read Flannery O’ Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I also faithfully read Harper’s every month--I’ve been subscribing for years, and it informs my sensibility consistently.
Did Richard Hugo’s essay on the triggering town influence the writing of these poems in any way?
Oh, yes. In fact, many poems from The Imagined Field were written when I was at the Montana Artists Refuge, pretty much in Hugo territory, on his home ground. “The Hours,” “Don’t Bother Asking,” and some other published poems were written there, and I was rereading “The Triggering Town” during my residency there. That stay in Montana, only two weeks, did more for my poetry than the nearly twenty years before it. I really did take his ideas in, and I’ve kept them. Many other poems in both books respond to his “tour guide” aesthetic, especially when, after Montana, I did a few more residencies: out by Hell’s Canyon, in the Oregon Coast Range, Vermont. I’d find myself in new places, and I would try to find my world in them. In fact, I originally had slated a quote from that Hugo essay for the book, but I eventually decided against it. I figured it was too obvious a reference. It is very perceptive of you to notice. I think it’s safe to say that this single essay is one of my most important points of reference.
What other writers do you look to for inspiration and guidance?
Who do I turn to in poetry for wisdom? This is a list that remains pretty steady, but one I keep returning to is James Galvin, especially those first four books as collected in Resurrection Update. An incredible book, and one I have to patiently and pointedly keep from imitating. James Wright, of course. I also find a great deal of power in Jack Gilbert, as I do in Robert Bly, or Rilke. Whitman has always been a foundation for my sense of hope, as has Wordsworth and Emerson. William Stafford is probably the single most inspiring poet I know of, and I’ve read him for years. Of course, they inspire and guide not only my sense of life, my life, but also the writing which is my life, as well.
When This Glacier Burns
from Interstitial, page 22
you’ll know there’s always something stem cells won’t reveal.
Even the imagination can play the tyrant.
Building monuments to itself with its arm saluting…
salute, solution. Salud. Is this the root of your inner
gorilla? Is this the latex mask you pull over your mouth?
The costumes my father constructed for me lasted
longer than he did as a father. There’s your animal.
There’s your natural history. Of course I like zoos, but I also
like the idea of clouds climbing mountains. The milk river a result
of something dying on high. An eroding slope. Brutal spade.
Tell me about the process of writing “When This Glacier Burns.” How did it begin?
In Interstitial, there’s a number of these poems, “When Such-and-such Burns,” and I call them--though not in the book--The Fire Sermons. They were all written in the same fashion. I started with one, just absolutely raging onto paper, venting. The first poem fell into the ten-line structure they all follow, three tercets and a single line coda. When I saw the potential, I thought I had found a form I could work in, and so I did.
“When this Glacier Burns” remains, as they all do, its own entity. Actually, this poem is pointed at a particular contemporary poet, and it’s more or less making fun of that poet. It’s a jeremiad, in that sense. How was the poem written? In a mad rush. I allowed myself absolute freedom to say whatever the hell I wanted. I don’t always do that, though I’m trying to get better at it. Self-editing has been a problem for years, an unfortunate legacy of workshopping, I think. Also thinking too much, over-learning, all the stuff Pound said one must forget. So, this is how I unlearned it, at least in part.
Did you intend to write about your father? Did the first line come first, or later?
My father is omnipresent in my poetry, and all of a sudden there he was. I was thinking, during the writing, of a poem I had read that involved, if I remember right, a gorilla costume. From there, it was all association, and then there was my father. The rest of [“When This Glacier Burns”] launches from that. As you can probably tell, I was thinking of my father quite a bit in the course of these first two books. But at the outset, it was not about him.
I should say, too, that the poems are written exactly as they appear, start to finish, very little editing. Generally, if a poem is terrible to me, and feels beyond fixing, I abandon it. I suppose I’m ruthless in this regard. I’m reminded of the golden eagles nesting along the cliffs of Britain; there are two birds hatched in the nest, but the parents only feed the strongest one. The other they toss out when it starves. That’s how I write, especially when I’m utterly busy. This is the one interpretation of Ginsberg’s "first thought, best thought" I take away: the poem that comes forcefully, and nearly fully formed, I know if it’s a keeper.
That summer I went to the mountain, a fire smoldered beneath Ghost Ridge.
I drove the dirt road past abandoned wagon tracks, past Inspiration Point.
I know there are many places with that name.
But this overlooked the branch that tore the mountain from its roots.
That washed clean the road and carried off the bridge.
By day I climbed into the cinder fields to the shelter on Cooper Spur.
Its door was covered by a heavy black fabric that could not keep deer flies out.
I climbed above the smoke to where I could hear ice crack like gunfire.
That night I slept in the hemlocks, moonlight shining on the glaciers.
I went out when I heard horned owls and tracked them with my flashlight.
Two men circumambulating the mountain sat on a knoll above the campground.
They smoked dope; I could smell it.
The next day I left money in the padlocked, iron post.
I drove down from the peak, the sun bright red.
Later I saw the fire on the news: photographs of the burning mountain.
Point is it burned, of course, close to where I slept.
I won’t go so far as to say I was lucky, but I will say this.
Where I sleep now there is no mountain, no dirt road, and no fire.
The poem “Interstitial” demonstrates the power of gratitude. Tell us more about how this simple but essential practice has affected your life and work.
That’s an interesting way to look at it because I often find myself being ungrateful for the things I have in life. Bad habit, I suppose. To mention Stevens again, I remember Harold Bloom’s writing about him, saying how Stevens felt “grateful” to have achieved a poem, especially after that long silence between his first two books. For me, as for anyone I’m sure, just receiving a poem is enough to make me feel gratitude that I have been found worthy by the muse at least once more.
What I’d really like to do is to write about gratitude, to write about the things I should be thankful for, to try to hold them in place. But I’m such a complainer, I harbor such negativity that it’s difficult to have faith in the positive, and it’s especially difficult to have faith in writing about good things without the poem seeming affected, cliche, ridiculous.
I’ve often said that love poems are the hardest to write, yet I continue to try. It works, sometimes. I also try to write about my daughter, but I feel like I carry such a persistent, nagging fear that I’ll write something unworthy of her, that maybe I don’t. Or worse, it can all be about attention: I simply need to focus on her, unswervingly. Yet, I’m selfish, as many around me know.
Here’s what I’ve learned, though: what you write about ends up being what you preserve. For me, it is the struggle I write about. The doubt, the fear, the battling. I think this is why Dante hangs around me, and that’s certainly why I used his first tercet from Inferno as the start of The Imagined Field. The greatest gratitude is just to get through these terrors, this self-doubt, this spiritual crisis, and get some meaning from it, some blood from a stone, and enshrine it in a poem that I cherish because it speaks the truth. It makes, to some degree, the whole struggle worth it.
Many of the poems in Interstitial feel like a tour of the ruins of the American landscape. What is your opinion of where we are and where we might be headed?
Yes, I am fascinated by ruins. Again, this brings up the Triggering Town: the ruins are within myself, and I project them onto the imaginative landscape, and that is “the imagined field.” I’m fascinated by the American ruins, which happened so quickly. The Industrial Age declined so quickly, and now we have these weed-ridden tracks, empty warehouses, decrepit steelmills along Lake Erie, and so on. I find it both frightening and lovely. To me, it’s the human condition.
I have to admit, at least in terms of America, I have little faith in where we are going. I only see us as going down. I carry Gary Snyder’s "For the Children" in my head: “the steep climb / of everything, going up / as we all / go down.”
Right now, I’m in a position from which I feel what many Americans are going through: I have part-time jobs, no health care, a car that is literally going to pieces, without which I cannot get to any job, living in a house with virtually no insulation and winter a-coming. Money is a constant worry. I’m in debt to my ears, and I’ve been looking for full time work for years. All the poems from my books speak directly to this.
Sean Patrick Hill with his daughter Teagan
Has becoming a father changed your attitude about such matters?
Being a father only heightens this awareness. And I mean awareness; I feel the presence of disaster, a void, where a single accident can slip us into bankruptcy, into ruin. This scares me. Still, we have things good. We can, at least, afford good food for our daughter. We are never without money, even though we have come perilously close. My daughter makes me laugh. She’s so smart, so bright, she loves reading, very imaginative. If there is hope for the future, even if it’s only my future, it’s her.
In the end, my wife and I are lucky to be educated, and to be able to continue that education. Tonight, I pulled the broken serpentine belt from my car, and the neighbor helped me recharge the battery and get the shorted-out window back up before it rained. People go through worse, yet I know what they feel, I think. Because I feel that panic often. I worry about not providing for my daughter, so it’s no surprise that my poems, the ones I’m now writing for my MFA (which seems ironic to say, privileged and middle-class, though I’m certainly not all that) are rather condemning of the economic situation. I’m writing from the perspective of the underemployed, the marginalized.
Down in the Flood
from The Imagined Field, page 48
My father keeps his own small house with a phone
he rarely touches.
When I tell him I want to come home
he says, I don’t know what you think you'll find here
after all these years.
But one summer, on the mudflats,
I unearthed a parking meter from his town,
twenty miles upriver.
No matter how I shook it,
its face registered nothing but a thin red flag
My mother says, You’re too much like your father--
I don't know what you expect.
Let me put it this way:
I always wondered what else got buried.
Describe your thinking during the time period during which you wrote these poems. How has it changed since?
My main thinking during these poems has been, “What the hell am I going to do?” It’s been pure frustration: with the job search, with loneliness, with alienation, with marriage problems, with money problems. Robert Frost has been a larger influence of late, and especially during these poems, simply for his grim, stoic view of life. I’m more or less middle-aged now, and where am I? Will I ever be stable? Secure? I’m having my doubts. It’s amazing to me, simply amazing, how easy life was only ten years ago. Then the recession, which has gone on and on. The only difference between this and the Great Depression is that we have television. No Dust Bowl, but rather flood upon flood, storm after storm. New Orleans under water: an American city virtually destroyed! Neverending wars, political corruption, media circuses, and lies and more lies, and I’m just trying to get a job and maybe someday own a house. How can this not power poetry? Why do I not see more writing dealing with the bare, unadorned issue at stake?
My thinking has only deepened. I look at America in light of Rome, Carthage, the empires of dust. It’s our turn. It’s hard to admit we may be on the permanent decline now, but I fear the peak is passed, the circuit rounded. Things are only going to get fiercer, and where will each of us be? What will the struggles be? Being modern, with microwave ovens, has nothing to do with the decline of a civilization. Technology won’t save us from ourselves. I worry for my daughter, and I am incredulous as to why the public conversation is so negligent of the facts of our situation.
If anything, I am strengthened in my resolve to find a way to write a poetry that just tells it like it is: this is the situation on the ground, no romanticism of poverty, no bootstraps pulled to the crotch, just the undeniable fact that people are jobless, angry, desperate, despairing. No amount of media spin can change that, unless it is in our perspective. Poetry, my poetry, has to act against that, has to insist on the truth of the matter, and give voice not to generalized “people”--I can’t accomplish that pretense--but rather to speak for myself, who is decidedly in the position of this desperation. Only in this way can I claim to speak on anyone’s behalf, those in the same boat.
Assess your experience of the Portland poetry scene. How is Kentucky different, and what do you like about it?
Man, Portland had so much going on, but in the end I just couldn’t give myself up to attending every reading and reading every journal. I’ve always been suspect of poetry communities, groups, schools, cliques. I don’t trust them. But then, I’m somewhat of a misanthrope anyway. I like to be with friends, not to be a part of a scene. My friends know this. I guess I’m a romantic, living the lie of the lone poet, the rebel, all that. But there is some truth in the simple, Confucian idea of working in obscurity. At first I was engaged, but I grew disenchanted with the whole scene thing. I’d rather sit in the backyard with a beer, look at the moon, listen to crickets.
On the other hand, when I look at, say, the Vancouver readings, I see the people and audience there as just very fine, very ordinary, very rich people. Those are the people I feel comfortable with, the kind of people I’ve always known. Not to be crass, but the hipsterism of everything about Portland--including poetry--just sickened me, frankly. It wearied me. So I stayed home, or went hiking with my friend Andy, and he and I would walk the Columbia Gorge, talking life, philosophy, literature. With him, we might as well have been Tu Fu and Li Po, wandering the mountains. I like that simplicity.
Kentucky is very different. Still, I’ve involved myself. I wrote a bit for the Louisville weekly, the LEO, even doing a cover story about the literary community here. It went over well, drew a lot of response. I’ve met other writers, publishers, organizers. I’ve gone to the InKY readings, the Sarabande series. I’ve met Adam Day, Kyle Thompson, Nickole Brown, and others. I’ve done a few readings myself. Still, I tend to keep to myself now. I have a family that needs me around, there’s work I have to do, so going out is a luxury.
What I like about Kentucky the most is the Red River Gorge. Wendell Berry wrote a great book about it, The Unforseen Wilderness, which I read prior to hiking out there. As far as writing goes, I’m working on a trail guide for the Gorge, and that’s a writing I’m interested in now. I enjoy it as much as poetry.
So I should take a moment to say that Kentucky has, like Montana, triggered an immense change in me. After working in an urban high school, struggling in adjunct jobs, commuting for hours, and trying to keep a writing career afloat, things have been tiring. My writing has thrived on the conflict and tension. I think I’m writing better than I ever have now, and I’m grateful for that. Some of the poems in Interstitial--”Crossing Idaho” or “Poem” or “The Indian Pits on Wind Mountain” and others--were actually written here in the Bluegrass State, and couldn’t have been written anywhere else. Kentucky has been slow to get into me, to root in my heart, but it’s building itself a nest. I’m glad, sometimes, for the stress, for the Sturm und Drang. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to speak from this vantage, to say what needs to be said.
Published in The Diagram 11.2
From where I stand, I could kill the wolves with sleep.
Could pull highway roses to dust and hope that hope abides.
But water stale as cake in boxes often feeds rootless weeds and I am rootless, too.
But nothing, ghost, nothing.
The bear came, snorted, scared the piss out of me at night while I almost slept.
I drove two days to find her.
I gathered sunflowers from the median and kept them in water.
I’m halfway to Denver by morning.
There’s enough of me to light a few twigs, sometime, if necessary.
It’s not like the nights are colder than the worst of winter.
But this late in the game your game face is not all that’s found wanting.
It’s anything you make, anything you say, anything you trouble under the sky.
If you enjoyed this interview, please take a look at the previous articles in Christopher Luna’s ongoing series, Partners In Truth and Beauty:
Derek Fenner, writer, artist and co-founder of Bootstrap Productions
Ryan Gallagher, Bootstrap co-founder and Catullus translator
Sage Cohen, author of Writing the Life Poetic and The Productive Writer