Ernest Hilbert Interviewed by “Musings” Host Ken Michaels on NPR-Affiliate WDIY 80.1FM, April 2013
Hilbert: Thank you.
Michaels: This is your second book of poetry?
Hilbert: It is. It’s also my second time here at WDIY and, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Michaels: How—when did the poetry bug bite you either as a lover of it and a reader or when you decided that, yeah, just putting pen down and putting words or you probably use a keyword or something, but when did you . . . ?
Hilbert: I do usually write on the tongue as they say and then I’ll write it down later either by hand, sometimes, or type, and that’s when extensive revisions begin.
But, to go to your question, when I was young I was aware of poems because I grew up in a house filled with books, and I always thought of them as being somehow magical, and that’s largely because I was too young to have a sophisticated comprehension of what was going on in them, so they seemed like magic spells; and they just seemed sort of wild and exciting to my mind. But, my background is really in music and I grew up in a musical household. And my father . . . I would wake up hearing my father play piano every morning, and he always had music on, including all night long. And so, I played a number of different instruments, and I was in bands; I was in rock bands and all of that.
So, I would write lyrics for the bands, but when I was around nineteen, I thought I’d had enough of being in bands because it was just so much tension of different egos pulling in different directions and different levels of commitment or vision, if you will. And so, I decided to do a less collaborative thing for the next twenty years, which is write poetry. I also write opera libretti. That’s collaborative, but on a different level. And, as you know I recently put an album out, Elegies & Laments, with my backing band, Legendary Misbehavior. So, back into the collaborative world: I learned to extinguish my ego on those and just go into it, ride the trip out and let the musicians do what they wanted to do and trust their instincts.
I started writing poetry in earnest when I was about nineteen. I’m forty-three now. And I started publishing pretty quickly in various small magazines, and they were genre things like science fiction magazines, horror magazines, and they would pay . . . I would get a check for small amounts of money. I still have the very first $4 check for a poem from a sci-fi magazine and my father said, “Don’t cash that check, you should keep that check because it’s going to be worth more to you some day than $4 will today.”
Michaels: It probably . . . initially that was, you know, great impetus that, you know, like right away . . . maybe that’s why your father said, yeah, you need to frame that one, you need to save it, you need to look at it because that’s . . .
Hilbert: [0:02:42 Indiscernible]
Michaels: Well, no, I think—well, maybe that’s what he meant, but I’m thinking more he probably meant, you know, this is a good thing to remember that . . .
Michaels: That first spark that first recognition of you’re on the right path.
Hilbert: Absolutely. And it’s—and it’s sort of a concrete symbol of it, where here’s something very real someone was willing to part with: money, very little in return for my artistic efforts, modest as they were. So, then I’ve been doing it ever since then. I’ve gone through many different, you know, different phases, it wasn’t until my early thirty’s that I started getting into more of the style I write now and if in a less formed way.
It was because I was writing for music. I was writing for classical composers to set songs for opera libretti and so, I started rediscovering rhyme and enjoying that. So, I went from this Allen Ginsberg-style free verse that I’ve been doing for ten years and went back into more traditional styles and that’s led me more or less to where I am today.
Michaels: So, you think the pieces that you’re composing now have music in them? Do you hear music when you’re writing? Do you hear since you had all these background in music since—it sounds like childhood that when you’re beginning to compose a poem when you’re beginning to formulate that idea into something that’s a whole piece to you, do you hear the music that goes with it even if there’s no music? Although you —do you like to melt the two together as well?
Hilbert: Oh, later, yes, it brings it to a new level. Well, Max you’re absolutely right. I’m always—it’s all about the sound and the different phrasing and the passages. I don’t always write in very strict, I am bit pentameter or other meters, you can hear the ghost of it behind what I’m doing. And sometimes I do write rather strictly if that’s the rhythm I’m looking for or the rhythm against that meter rather.
But, more importantly is something more akin to harmony, which is different types of rhyme; assonance and consonance and alliteration, even on rare occasions onomatopoeia, where I’m trying to make the sound of the thing I’m describing. The sound is absolutely paramount, and I don’t begin with ideas; I begin with sound. It begins with a line that has a teasing hint that there’s something behind it. You know the famous line is, you know, poems are made of words not ideas. You know, just like paintings are made of colors and lines not ideas.
[0:05:00] That doesn’t mean there are not ideas inherent, and it doesn’t mean you can’t contain ideas or examine ideas or question ideas in that, but to me the sound is absolutely the thing that sets poetry apart from prose and is really all about when you hear it on the tongue, when you hear the person reading it, it should have a richness without being outrageous, without being what they called purple. You don’t want to be too ornate by any means or too poetic in the negative sense. You want it to sound direct, casual, modern, but also powerful in terms of the word choice and the flow of those words.
Michaels: That’s a lot of stuff to have on the same plate for what you try to get across.
Michaels: But, I would think some people as not words not ideas that, you know, they either I think some people probably do start with ideas, but you’re literal you start with the sound first and you—and that sound then lead you into the room where the germ or the ideas, it sounds like you got one . . .
Michaels: . . . you got one in mind to illustrate that?
Hilbert: Well, I’ve got a few here that I can sort of two different things. I mean . . .
Michaels: But initially there’s a sound that you’re teasing out of it, that then gives you that?
Hilbert: Sure. Absolutely. And when I say a sound to be clear, it is a sound of words. It is something that is in language, but there’s a certain flow, there’s a tone, there’s an attitude to it. Sometimes by the time I’m done, the thing that initiated it is gone, it’s been taken out and you’re left with the thing that grew around it.
And so, it’s never a clear-cut thing. It has to be a combination of being inspired—I see something, I hear something, I think of something, I remember something—and then, I have to be in a receptive mood for it, because that can happen and it just bounces right off me, my mind isn’t open to it. I don’t have the physical space to be in; I don’t have the silence; I don’t have the relaxation; there’s too much going on in my mind. And if I can calm that noise, push it down, get it out of the way, have the time and the inspiration at the same time, that’s when I hit. If I can write a poem a month that I can keep, I’m thrilled with that level of productivity.
And, if you’d like me to read a poem?
Michaels: Yeah, sure. We recently I think able to illustrate what you just talked about.
Hilbert: This is from my new book. This is from All of You on the Good Earth, which was issued in March of this year, 2013. This is called “Gravedigger’s Song.”
The white will yield its flaws in ruthless time
Banks of snow will bead read with bright berries
Burgundy of buck’s blood dragged by hunters
Memory bends violet to smoky wine
Revives the fall and swell of distant seas
Craves soft green cut grass and calm harbors
Noon spills light in spring fine forest
Summers blond light receives hues in church windows
Rain rinses dust from autumn’s olives
Orange is a slow song of insects and rusts
Scratches of light gold carp in pale shallows
Blue roar of oceans chocolate of blown leaves
Memory bends violet to smoky wine
The white will yield its flaws in ruthless time.
Michaels: That really is like a small song. There are these beautiful flowing hues that are coming through it. It is very colorful poem as well. There are a lot of hues in there. We’ve got all of the color wheel going.
Hilbert: I was using color in sound.
Michaels: Yeah. Yeah.
Hilbert: When you get to the ocean, it’s a booming big ocean and other things are calm and quiet. And so, I’m using a level of almost onomatopoetic language to match, and then the colors match with different sounds on the palate; high and low in your voice. And so, I wanted to use that. I’ve never even read that in front of an audience much less on radio, but it is I think a perfect example of the sort of musicality you were mentioning.
Michaels: And those musical notes, those tones that you hit are also for the audience a great doorway entrance into—into the . . .
Michaels: . . . where you are looking to lead them. So, the two blend nice hand in hand, you know, the onomatopoeic or the sibilance or any of that as well as the colors and the tones of each one and how they—they have a nice marriage between the two of them.
Hilbert: Right. Right. I mean it’s—I want to put someone in an emotional state, not merely a mental state. You can tell somebody two plus two equals four. That’s fine, they comprehend that, but it’s something else to summon emotions or different sensations; nostalgia and memory or a sense of loneliness or happiness. Those have to come in a bigger artistic way. It’s the same thing with music as well. You could play a scale for someone and everyone says, great, that’s a diatonic scale. That’s not the same thing as that—that note that makes you want to weep or get up and dance. And so, I’m trying to do with music—I’m sorry, with language what I’ve spent my whole life listening to and trying to do in music as well.
Michaels: And, you’ve also been doing this marrying the two together again which is interesting. So, you probably did—did—was it inevitable that the twain would meet again?
Hilbert: I think so. You know I’ve done interviews in which I mentioned that the idea started probably twenty years ago with one of the gentlemen, Marc Hildenberger, who wrote the music along with Dave Young and Christopher LaRosa for this album. We had an idea when we were young. We didn’t know what we were doing and, you know, when you’re young, you have all these ideas that are much bigger than your ability to actually accomplish them.
But it disappeared for a long time, it didn’t even go on the back burner, it was, you know, thrown out to the back forty. But then, years later we came together. It was timing. They were a band that was breaking up. We went to the studio. The album took a long time. The title . . . we didn’t even have a direction for many, many months and even years, no fixed budget. But, once they started realizing what they could do with that album . . . it’s called Elegies & Laments from Pub Can Records with my backing band, Legendary Misbehavior. We have played live, but it’s really a studio band and a smaller orchestra was assembled as well.
And it’s—so, that—I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable, I think it’s a happy coincidence of meeting up with old friends and still believing that things are possible that you’ve dreamed of when you were young.
Michaels: So, it’s a marriage of two disciplines, you know, two loves that you have. It would seem and they’re very comfortably next to each other.
Hilbert: Right. Absolutely. You know and I also have poems that are more built around the rhetorical argument. They are less sound-oriented. The sound is always there, but they are more of a logical progression in order to get an insight into life and why we do different things. I think poetry can be beautiful. It can also be profound by connecting with people on—on a level that deals with their everyday lived lives.
And this is an example. It’s a poem called “Sportsmanship.” And I was questioning, you know, we always have good sportsmanship and we see so many examples of bad sportsmanship not just on the playing field or the diamond, but in real life you see it all the time. And where did we get this ethic of good sportsmanship when it comes down . . . you’re just supposed to win. So, it’s win, win, win, but then be nice about it when you do. And they’re almost like conflicting emotional states toward your fellow human beings.
So, anyway, it’s this a bit of a light topic, but also with a serious concern underneath. It’s called “Sportsmanship.”
The character of a gentleman rests
On his never needing to get ahead.
High-school quarterbacks pummel losers
100-nil to push personal bests
Of players (not of teams) whose stats are read
By eager scouts and college recruiters.
What’s really proven on the fields of Eton?
Little that would win battles anymore.
And what of those who never had a chance
To do much but avoid being beaten?
Standards decline, true, but who were they for?
Not for those who are obliged to advance.
Even without gentry, there’s still conduct,
For what it’s worth, and there is always luck.
Michaels: Is that something that you tumbled around in your head for a long time? It sounds like that was something that was, you know, one that was a personal burr under the saddle of a sort that you needed to . . .
Michaels: Yeah, pare it down to exactly what?
Hilbert: Two things. I mean one, when I was in the marching band and so, I was in band. I was a band nerd. So, I watched all the heroes running up and down the field ramming into each other and throwing the ball. So, I was around sports a lot even though I didn’t play it. But, also, you know, Wellington—General Wellington who after the—he won the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon, he said, you know, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, meaning the private—the very first private boys school in England, meaning that they learned the discipline and the leadership skills to go on and be officers and win this battle in playing rugby and cricket at Eton.
And so, that’s why I have the line, what’s really proven on the fields of Eton? Little they would win battles anymore. I mean wars aren’t even fought on the level like that anymore. And also, when you just see that it’s more about individual players than teams often and things like that. So, yeah, I think a lot of these to speak directly to what you just suggested. So, as people say, “Well, how long did it take you to write that poem?” And I’ll say, “well, twenty years, ten years, five years,” because you’re right, it is a bit of a burr under the swaddle. It’s something that bothers you and you’re thinking about it and then it finally finds a voice or a moment when you feel you’re mature enough to have something to say about it.
Michaels: And I imagine being on the—on the sidelines in the marching band, you got to witness that hero worship hero adulation and observe all that for long time and then . . .
Hilbert: Sure. I mean girls were not into tuba players. [Laughs]
Michaels: You played sousaphone in the marching band?
Hilbert: No, I played one of the brass ones. Tuba is not even a sousaphone. They wanted it to be really large with high march with the giant brass. Hey, that builds muscle. [Laughs]
Michaels: Yeah, I know. Yeah, most of those have puts a permanent kink in one your shoulders.
Hilbert: Those are tough, tough. Yeah. Absolutely, tough instruments. But, so, yeah, no, I was around that for a long time. Yeah.
Michaels: I remember asking a long time ago, but you never answered it. Favorite poets as a life or was this something where you kind of marched into it on your own with your love of music and it sounds like for the longest time you had that love of words. You loved how one word rubs up against another, made that dissonance or made a nice, you know, flowing noise and stringing them together with pleasurable and from there you—but you could tell a story with it.
Hilbert: I think so. I do tell stories, and the poems as well, and I love reading short stories and novels as well. And there were the poets I liked, the anthology poets when I was younger, my only access to poetry was something that would appear in a big school anthology. I didn’t know where to get a book of poems.
So, [0:17:46 Indiscernible] ones, I mean I think the first individual book of poems I bought was the City Lights pocket edition of Howl and Other Poems. I went absolutely nuts with that and I think to this day I own like six of them because I’d be at a yard sale or place like that or bookstore and I’d pick up another, so I had twelfth printing and a twenty sixth printing and, you know, the thing has sold probably million, million copies at this point if not more.
And so, no, I had that and I bought all the City Lights’ Allen Ginsberg. So, when you’re young you sometimes need to have a hero worship thing to stay on that topic and you find one writer or musician and you want everything that person did. And so, I was like that with Allen Ginsberg for a long time. And so, I was into the, if you will, vatic prophetic pouring out of trance-like language was how I used to write and I don’t think it’s—I was very good at it. [Laughs] He’s sort of like launched a million followers or more, so that’s how I started.
So there were big ones like that, and as I got older, I’ve got a million poets I admire and that I take to. And I’ve been compared generally by critics in the past decade to more like Robert Lowell or John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, that sort of generation or two generations back of American poets. Anything more sounds a bit grand. They’re not going to compare you to Wordsworth or Whitman and so, so there are those and those influences are very much real.
But, I read so much poetry. I read poetry everyday so many different poets, and I listen to so much music. I mean so many different kinds of books. The influences are just from all over, but I don’t—and although I take literary influences and they do exist and there are allusions and what have you, I don’t try to write in a literary style that way. You don’t have to have read other books to get what I’m doing is what I’m saying.
And so, I don’t have one giant hero or guiding star. There’s just thousands of stars and I’m letting them all soak in in different ways, and I write in this fourteen-line sonnet form with a slightly different rhyme scheme that’s known now as the Hilbertian Sonnet as a bit of a joke. So, what I have is this one vessel to place all of the different influences into and different impulses at different times. And so, I think it’s helped me to have two books written in a single form to contain those—those multitudes to allude to Whitman for a moment.
Michaels: So, you have a giant bouillabaisse soup pot of ideas and sounds and notions. And it sounds like you have now become mature enough in your sight that you don’t have to . . . I’m not going to write like Wordsworth, I’m not going to write like Ginsberg, I’m not going to write like Ferlinghetti.
Michaels: Well, when you mentioned . . .
Hilbert: I love to.
Michaels: I do too. When you mentioned the fifty five-page run on . . .
Michaels: . . . sentences, I just remembered a Lawrence Ferlinghetti novel which I love a lot and I actually read it out loud long time round-robin on a radio program.
Michaels: That was when I discovered the musical, and that was an amazing, amazing insight, amazing moment because I read the book several times. It’s Her by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Hilbert: I know it. Yeah.
Michaels: First time I read it out loud, all of a sudden this grand, I don’t know if it was quite an opera, just left all of it at us, you know, it’s like, well, this is interesting.
Hilbert: Well, one thing I didn’t even learn, when I was younger I didn’t read poetry for the sound; I read it for the weirdness. I read it for the sense of freedom or, you know, something like that.
Michaels: Was that it was with Ginsberg and Howl, was that just because he kind of . . .
Michaels: . . . broke doors wide open with poem or with that notion?
Hilbert: Static possibilities that, you know, that he’s throwing everything in it. He even puts a joke, you know, in Howl, about the kitchen sink, you know, because he’s putting everything in there. And I didn’t get into the sound until I was a bit more mature. And when I was at Oxford University, I was studying with Jon Stallworthy, who is a famous poet who also wrote an equally famous essay on versification for the Norton anthology. So, it’s something that’s been absorbed by generations of English students, English language and English literature students, that is, here in America.
And, the point he makes is that you can see the poem as a score like a musical score waiting to be brought to life, waiting for it to be performed, to be played. And his point is it doesn’t have to be read out loud, that’s a good way of hearing it particularly if you have someone who understands it is as sensitive to it as an actor or a poet or just a very good reader. But, you should learn to hear it silently and, you know, when you’re reading a novel, you’d go crazy just trying to think of all the words out loud. You’re following the story and the characters and you’re just disappearing into that world.
The poem when well done, most poetry that’s well done, it has the sound. So, you have to learn that even when you’re sitting alone in a room silently to start hearing the way these things wrap around each other, chime against each other, where there’s dissonance to produce a sense of tension or anxiety and where things are more—there’s more of a euphony because there’s beauty and wholeness.
And so, it’s like to bring those effects out, one has to become a sensitive reader, and that is something that actually has to be pointed out to most people. It had to be pointed out to me, for certain. And now, I just, I hear poetry in a very different way and I tend to judge it on how well it can be read aloud.
Michaels: I think that would be a pretty difficult skill to acquire. I personally, to get it, I have to read it aloud. I have to hear those things out loud. I mean, you know, you would drive yourself crazy if you’re reading a novel and read every word out loud.
Hilbert: I couldn’t do it.
Michaels: Yeah. But, with poetry I guess maybe with the audience with people that aren’t real attuned to the sounds that you’re looking to construct and, you know, seeing the works behind what was made there that they still need that out loudness, but when the poet reads it out loud, then it is like singing the song finding…
Hilbert: Yeah. And I try to do things where it’s very—it can very personal. It might sound personal, it might not even be about me, and so I write in the first second and third person, male and female perspectives, and from all different sorts of walks of life. I create characters for a single poem who then disappear or might come back or there might be two poems in a row that are two different phases of that same person’s experience.
And then, I do some that are—but even when they’re personal, I want them to have universal recognition or connection, and this is a poem called “Simple Instructions,” and, you know, one of the first reviews to come out about this book pointed out that this poem should have been the closer, it should have been the last poem in the book, and I kicked myself because I realized the critic was right . . . instead of finishing it the way I did, which I’m still satisfied with largely. If it were to get, you know, re-issued in another edition, I would probably move this to the end. It’s called “Simple Instructions.”
Bury me with a book open on my chest,
As if I’d just fallen asleep reading it.
Bury me on the couch where I napped.
Please, aim my muddy feet toward the east
So I fail to enjoy one more sunset.
[0:25:00] Leave the grave soil loose, so I won’t feel trapped.
In the spring, I want to hear bird and toad.
Bring my tabby, the one with toffee streaks,
When you visit, so he can hear them too.
Death collects a debt you forgot you owed,
And he does his job for both strong and weak.
He runs out the clock and then he comes for you.
After you leave me, remember, for a bit,
How we were young once, and joked about it.
Michaels: Yeah. I think he was right. [Laughs] That’s a great poem. A great . . .
Hilbert: Nice rounding out.
Michaels: Well, I was about to say what—what’s really nice with a good short poem like that with short pieces is when they tie it up at the end, tie it up in a nice little bow. I mean you set things out to the east and the west in that poem and, you know, brought in some colors and a nice cat.
Hilbert: And then, I round up, so, yeah , there’s . . .
Michaels: Tied it into a little bow and handed to the—and handed to the audience, handed to the reader.
Hilbert: I believe there is a compact with the artist and the audience, and that doesn’t mean you can’t take risks, you must. It doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative and original; you should be. It’s your duty as an artist, but also to reach, there’s a sort of avant-garde streak in all the arts which doesn’t seem to care about an audience, and I find that frankly entitled and privileged and arrogant. And I am not those things, and I have sort of fought against those things my whole life.
And, that doesn’t mean I didn’t write that way, there was a while when I wrote poems that were just a smack in the face. You don’t understand it? Well, then, huh, that’s because language is just a construct, it’s an illusion it’s a way of controlling you, it’s a bourgeoisie whatever. I grew up kind of . . .
Michaels: You shook that off eventually.
Hilbert: I shook that off and I saw it for what it was, and it’s a game.
Michaels: Is it really important to have a—to have maybe not your audience like this ubiquitous huge art, but to have a mind in my mind while you’re creating that you’re sending that thought out to sending that focus of your ideas that you’ve tied up into a little bundle.
Michaels: Sending that out to a person even if it’s a person you’ve made up in your head?
Hilbert: It’s a good question, and people have asked me that for years. For people who wanted to be writers they’d say, “Who do you have in mind when you’re writing?” And I’d say, oh, that’s—oh, I feel really unprofessional because I don’t have anyone. I’m just writing, and it’s not true. You’re right, there’s a notion of three or four people whose, —whose opinions you respect and would they let me get away with this. And, in a much more real sense, all of these poems go through a lot of revision and to get them the way I want them to be.
And, I have a group of first readers, I call them. And so, a poem might never get past to them to the point where I really want to show it to an editor to get into a magazine to eventually make it into a book. It has a whole long journey. It’s like the way a bill becomes a law, you know. And so, you’ve got this legislation that you’re proposing which is this poem, you know, and Shelley called the poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, so maybe there’s something, there’s some connection there.
I’ll show it to a small handful of people whose opinion I respect a great deal, who are very good poets themselves or critics and hear what they have to say. And so, in a sense, even if I didn’t start out writing for them, they’re going to give me their opinions. Now, I don’t have to accept them. I can say, you know what? I disagree with you. I really feel strongly at this point that I think that line is fine the way it is, but thank you for your input, but you were right on the other thing. How did I not notice that, it was hiding in plain sight, it’s a big mistake. So, there are, in a very real sense, people I show it to who are my first audience before it goes out to as you said the larger public and posterity.
Michaels: It’s a lot of work?
Michaels: Typically, a poem takes, you know—and people think of these poems as page, one of fourteen lines—how hard can that be? But, this is something where it takes months, a long time maybe more, and how do you keep the thread going from “I had this idea I had this notion I had this feeling that I want to convey” and then, you’ve got to get in the trench and really work at it.
Hilbert: You do.
Michaels: Work at it a long time, and hopefully it still looks a little bit like that shining object that you had in mind the first moment.
Hilbert: Right. And what you want to do is keep that—that glow of the original thing even if the thing that gave the glow has to go, so to speak. You know my Saturdays and Sundays are when I get up in the morning, I get a cup of coffee, I sit in my desk in my office at home and I really have, I start looking through the scraps of poems. I mean whatever comes to me I write it down. Things come to me all the time.
Michaels: Notions just little . . .
Hilbert: Notions, lines, phrases that I don’t have time to work more on because I’m at work. You know, I’m doing something else and I keep them in a sort of a day book, if you will.
[0:30:06] Actually, I have many different books that I scribble things into. And then, I’ll take those and then slowly work them up and hopefully get them into the shape that I wanted. It’s a lot where you lose track of time and when you’re a writer you can’t worry about how much time, like it’s just, I’m in there and when it’s—when I’m done it’s done. It could be hours, you don’t know. And then, you come back and look at it again two months later and you think, oh, I have some distance on it now, I’m hearing it as a whole thing instead of piece, piece, piece, piece. Now, I have the organic look to make it go organic, go like this, just turn it there. You just couldn’t have seen it at a time. You were down in the trench; you couldn’t see far enough.
So, you’re looking at it with different states of mind, so to say it takes several months, well, yeah, it could be a lot of time—time one day and then three months later just like that you can see the thing that you couldn’t see before. And then, even then some that’s been around for a year, I might pull it out again and make a few changes here and there, then eventually if I feel I can show it to magazine editors and newspaper editors and then, and hopefully put it into a book and not be embarrassed. I mean, I had many collections finished to my mind in my twenties and I’m so happy they never got published.
Michaels: You look at them now and shudder?
Hilbert: Oh, I would buy them all up and destroy them if I could. I was really, I think Ethan Hawk, the actor, has a book of poems that he bought all the copies of and destroyed that he released when he was young. And because, you know, you’re young you don’t know any better and so, unless you have a really fabulous mentor who can coach you through the process, which I did not have. I was really on my own. Unless you have that, you really should be careful what you put out there for posterity.
So, I’m glad I was thirty-nine when my first book appeared, aside from little chapbooks that people put out. And I was actually, now that I look back, I’m happy. I’m happy that it took that long, so I finally got what I wanted.
Michaels: That’s good exercise as you’re moving along and, yeah, thinking of the notion of, well, I’m just going to do this. No, no, it’s you learn the basics, they take five minutes and then it takes longer than your lifetime to get really good at it, so you just have to start exercising, you have to do it every, I mean . . .
Michaels: Do the workout, do the workout, do the workout, and . . .
Hilbert: Right. And, my father would wake up and he’d be—I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’d say, “I’m doing my finger exercises. If you don’t do them, as a pianist, you lose it.”
And, you know, Malcolm Gladwell, the popular science writer has one of his essays elaborating someone else’s theory I think that you need so many thousands of hours to actually just—just grunt work and mistakes and sloppy things to get to the point where you are a master. And he points out for instance the Beatles when they were in Hamburg and they would play these ten and twelve and sixteen-hour days of just cranking and cranking through it and learning jazz and country and rock and rockabilly. And they just went from knowing nothing about music to when they came out of there, having hammered so much into their fingers and their brains and their ears that they could sit down and start writing those absolutely amazing songs. And his theory is if they didn’t go through that period, they couldn’t have started out so well so young.
And he talks about athletes having that and different people. And I think to a certain extent it’s the same way with poetry. You had to spend years reading. I mean there are rare cases of young protégés and sort of like, you know, did it and then disappeared. But, usually I think people write their best stuff once they’ve had some experience, they’ve had some loss, they’ve had some fear, they’ve had failure, and they’ve just spent so much time thinking about it. They spent time thinking about it. So, when I’m getting on the subway I’m thinking about the poem as my own or someone else’s or it’s just always floating. It’s not something I do once in a while and then go back to my life. It is my life, really. I’m just dragged away to different realities constantly just to survive and get through.
Michaels: Probably one of the nice things too having all that years now of having, you know, honed—honed those muscles toned them down a little bit. You can probably, I would think and maybe I’m wrong, the idea and notions you had when you were very young can suddenly come back now and . . .
Michaels: . . . by God you got the tools to hammer that into a real piece of something to show people . . .
Hilbert: That’s true. I mean I have—I have a very selective perfect memory, so I mean I can remember just like an embarrassing thing that happened to me in eighth grade as if just happened yesterday and those are—those are things to write about. And you get those scenes, but also like you pointed out some certain ideas that prove unworkable at the time because you didn’t have the right language, you didn’t have the words you didn’t have the structure and also, you didn’t have the authority.
And, when I say authority, I just mean as an artist like to really say, this is my way of doing it. You know they talk about an artist’s mature work or there’s the juvenilia and then you see, you know, Jackson Pollock doing all these different things until he starts doing those huge magnificent drip paintings and that’s his thing. Or Andy Warhol started doing the big celebrities in the silk screen. He tried lots of things before that and was good at them, but then he became sort of great and, I’m not referring to myself in quite such grand terms, but my point is when you find the voice, you don’t even realize that you did. You just do, and you have this authority. So, I’m trying to basically couch my term “authority” in those terms. You get an authority which is not to tell other people what to do, but to figure out how to tell the words to do what you want them to do if you’re a poet.
[0:35:07] And, it’s a good feeling to know that you work toward it and you finally achieve it because I think a lot of people start out wanting to be an artist including writers, and they fall away and they give up. And, you know, when you’re twenty you know a lot more people who want to be an artist than you do when you’re forty. And it’s just, you just got to face the ugly realities of it and keep going, and you have to over the years take a lot of rejection and a lot of disappointment in yourself and others, but it pays off.
Michaels: You don’t read them out loud because it was interesting as you’re working on the same because I know other poets, I’ve talked to, other poets about this, that they say that, yeah, they read them and read them and well, if that one word keeps bumping them, if they keep stumbling on them, then maybe they need to cut it out. They read their own poetry out loud to themselves and walk around and that’s how they start to . . .
Hilbert: I do that as well.
Michaels: . . . to hammer on.
Hilbert: I do that as well, but as I talked about that earlier, I can hear them—I can hear it clear as a bell in—without actually, because I’m a little embarrassed, my wife walks in and say, “Who are you talking to?” you know like aaaaahhhhh, you know, like Gene Roddenberry’s wife used to say, the Star Trek creator, like, who are you talk—why are you yelling? He said “that damn Spock won’t do what I want him to do.”
So, I get this sense of trying to keep it just in my head, but I do read it out loud many times before, not so much you’ll hit an open mic and just so, you know, try it out in front of some live people before you do a bigger reading. But I tend to sort of like roll them around so much in my head, but it’s all about the sound as I was saying. It’s definitely about the sound.
Michaels: Addition to poems you’ve written a couple of libretti. Did I get that right in here?
Hilbert: Yeah, that’s right.
Michaels: Is that different? Is that really a whole—totally different hat that you put on to get to that?
Hilbert: There are some similarities.
Michaels: Are they cousins?
Hilbert: Yeah, sure. I mean poets used to write libretti all the time. It was a good sideline way of making—making money and usually was adaptations. When opera first came about in the sixteenth century, Europeans were attempting to recreate what they saw as ancient Greek musical theater. It was usually based—like most art at the time—on either biblical stories or on classical Greek stories. And then, you reach the point of when we think of the higher levels of more sophisticated opera, it was based on poems and novels or plays that would be adapted. They would take the existing story and characters and they switch it over.
What I do, I’ve written a number of opera libretti, and none of them has been an adaptation. We did a big one last year called the Red Silk Thread,and I did it with a Chinese-American composer named Stella Sung. It is set in the court of Kublai Khan, and it’s about Marco Polo, and it’s a story of thwarted love and betrayal and dangerous missions and things like that.
So, what you do, the way you combine these things, is when you write an aria, when you write a song, you can write in verse with rhymes and regular measured lines, because then it’s written more like, the action stops, and one of the characters sings an aria or a duet or a trio, and they’re expressing something. They’re self-expressing. They’re either heightening the tension of what’s happened, or they are expressing something that’s on their mind. They’re expressing love for each other.
When you get into the recitative or the general dialogue going back and forth, you want it to be well-written compact language, but it’s not as poetic anymore. It’s just getting the job done. It’s getting, you know, as J.D. McClatchy, a famous opera librettist, he said that you’re trying to get a story and words across to people through—it’s being sung at a high C by a woman to a group of people in tight-fitting clothes who have just had two drinks.
So, you know, you’re trying to get a lot of information through a very difficult mechanism. And so, the compression of poetry comes in handy, learning how to take an idea, a sentiment, and move and just keep packing it down smaller and smaller and smaller to ideally you can have the person saying two words and get huge amount across. With melisma the composer can then stress three words to be thirty seconds, those three words, if they’re just the right three words, they can sing them all over the place.
So, to answer your question, there are connections, and those are the connections, the thing you don’t get so much in poetry really is the big dramatic structure. So, I have a big court scene, and then I have, you know, a big scene on a pirate ship, rather a pirate battle on the deck of an imperial Chinese junk [0:39:45 Indiscernible]. It’s wonderful when they put these people on costumes and they have big backdrops and they have swords and you see them doing these things.
[0:39:51] And, although I’m not supposed to—I shouldn’t mention it. We just got a big commission. Stella and I just got a big commission to do a companion piece to a famous work of music by the time you play this, it might be published, I’ll say. We’ve received a very large commission from the Dayton Philharmonic Opera and Ballet to do companion piece to Carmina Burana, the big choral piece, which is the most frequently performed twentieth century work of vocal music.
But, it’s only about, you know, an hour or so, so you can’t program a whole evening around it. So, we’ve been hired to write something that goes with it, so we’re writing a bit of a prequel, which will be a story about the gathering and the discovery of the medieval poems and the—and all of that. And I don’t want to give too much away, so that’s nice.
And then, the opera, Red Silk Thread will be performed again in Florida next year in a full professional production. We have a New York director coming down, and that’s at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida. And then, with luck it will be performed again in the 2016 season in Dayton, so that’s what I’ve been doing. It has been keeping me very busy because there’s more to writing an opera libretto than you might realize. Lots of compromise and swallowing your ego and also dealing with directors and conductors and singers and, you know, there’s a lot.
Michaels: Plus, if you try to marry the words to the music, you’re out of luck because the music has already been made. You can’t—it’s not like hearing your words and hearing the music that’s going to go with them, there’s already music that’s going to be . . .
Hilbert: And then, there’s simple practical matters they’ll say you can’t sing that word that high. You can’t sing those two words together. You’ve got to change one of those words because the human mouth can’t do that; the esophagus can’t do that. So, singers can sing in certain ways. If they can’t, the composer will tell you. And I’m learning more through intuition than anything else what to avoid because it’s—no to contractions, say “cannot,” not “can’t.” Because when you sing that, it just doesn’t come across as easily. So, no more, you know, contractions, I learned. You have to make everything as clear as possible that’s already being sung in a higher or very low register over a full orchestra with people moving around on a stage, so keep it simple.
Michaels: I would say that would be some stuff that would that would be a nice cross-pollination back in folding back into your poetry. The things that you’re learning there about how they clean it—keep it clean, keep it simple or . . .
Hilbert: That’s all of a piece, yeah.
Michaels: That would then also, you know, marry back into your poetry nicely.
Hilbert: It does, yes.
Michaels: Now, addition to, if you didn’t have enough already on your plate doing libretti, doing the books of verse, doing the sound constructions with poetry in the background that you’ve made, you also have a . . .
Hilbert: It’s a blog, really. It’s called E-Verse Radio, and the reason we called it radio is we used to do shows with Paul Fleming, who’s an Australian friend of mine, and he’s a good computer guy, and a fun personality. So, we used to do these little video shows that we would also put out on iTunes or what have you. But, it’s primarily a blog, and it has been around for a while, and it’s an arts opinion blog. I also put poetry on there, and I have people who write for me, and they do fun things like top five lists. I have a woman named Bethany, who writes those for me.
And, now, I mean this—I used to do just an e-mail newsletter for years. I started when I lived in New York. This blog itself, everseradio.com really only started in the fall of 2008, and we are nearing one-and-a-half million total readers to date. And we get on regular month is thirty or forty thousand visitors to the site, and they are all over the world, and a lot of them are in India and Europe and all sorts of far-flung places. So, that keeps me busy. I try to post at least two things a day, and I hope to do another video show soon as well.
Michaels: How about one more poem to take us out on? Do you have one that . . .
Michaels: . . . wrap up where we’ve been. Oh, boy, that is a tall order. No, it probably won’t work, but . . .
Hilbert: How do we wrap it all up?
Michaels: Well, it sounds great. Now, in addition to libretti and the poems, and you’re doing your blog, it sounds like that’s also something that can help color poems, things you’re working on.
Michaels: That all these things seem to live in the same room rather nicely.
Hilbert: Okay. Well, I will—I’ll read something for you. I have to avoid things that have curse words. I don’t want you to get an FCC violation. So, let me just do this one, it’s a bit of a philosophical one. It’s called “Seneca at the Baths.” And a brief word on that. The beginning of my first book, Sixty Sonnets, has a quote from Virgil from the Aeneid, which can be translated into English as “the decent to hell is easy” or “the way into hell is easy.” This book begins with the epigraph “Ad Astra,” which means “to the stars,” and it’s a longer dictum from Seneca, which is the inversion of that, which is “the way from the earth to the stars is not easy.” And so, I had a poem in which I imagine Seneca in the baths, in the steam room, thinking. “Seneca at the Baths.”
[0:45:12] Is the ideal ruler to crack knuckles
Or shaft sited to repair fractured bone?
A trellis to train vines through a season
Or a fence to divide, secured by patrols?
A ladder to scale or a pro scribed zone
Locked with razored gate for no good reason?
Perhaps, a lightning rod crackling softly
In gauze of humid air eager for pure shock
Rare moments of spine beaming brilliance
Or cigarette fired at the tip slowly smoldered
Drawn through lips not meant to endure.
Disbursed as smoke thinning growing immense
Never a fortress, but what serves as home
Vandal camp on the frail borders of Rome.
[0:46:53] End of Audio