Introduction: Blog Talk Radio.
Milford: Hello, everyone. This is Joe Milford and welcome to the Joe Milford Poetry Show. Any moment now Ernie Hilbert, our guest, will be calling in. I just spoke with him on the phone and he’s just to called into the switchboard, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, I’ll go ahead and start his bio.
Ernest Hilbert is the editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review. He was educated at Oxford University where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He later became the poetry editor for Random House’s magazine Bold Type in New York City. He is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, an archeologist. He hosts a popular blog and video show, www.—looks like it’s everseradio.com. And is a video curator at Ryeberg.com.
His debut collection, which we’ll start off with tonight, is Sixty Sonnets, and that came out in 2009, but he’s got two more books on the horizon that we’re about to discuss as well. So, he should be calling in any second now. Okay. Here he is now.
Milford: Hi. We just went live and I did your bio and you called in a perfect time because I introduced Sixty Sonnets as the book we’d start off with tonight, but I know you’ve got another collection of sonnets, I believe you told me as we spoke earlier.
Hilbert: I do. Yes.
Milford: And some other materials, so I want to welcome you to the show and I would like for you first if you would to kind of tack on what’s coming up in your publications feature, current projects, and also just a little bit quickly about if you would on being that we’re a radio program, some of the video and blog and online activity you do as well.
Milford: Go ahead.
Hilbert: Thank you very much. It is a real pleasure to be on the show. I have a book called Sixty Sonnets, which was issued earlier this year, in February. It’s a little over a year old now and I’ve been doing a lot of readings both here and in England for that book. And then, I have a second collection of sonnets which will also be issued by Red Hen. We don’t have a date yet.
That one is sort of companion volume called All of You on the Good Earth and, that is not a Pearl S. Buck reference by the way. Some people might remember the sort of—the radio transmission back to earth when they first saw the—the earth rise on the other side of the moon at the end of the 60’s, but that will be coming out. We don’t know, tentatively some crazy sci-fi date like 2013. But, I spoke with the publisher when she was in town recently and we may be moving that up.
Now, I also have a book called Aim Your Arrows at the Sun, which is going to be the first book issued by a new publisher called LATR Editions, based, I believe, in Brooklyn. That is an acronym for Love Among The Ruins and these are chapbooks that are done in editions of two hundred and fifty copies, fine letterpress, handsewn, and from what I’m told they will be beautifully designed as well. And also, reasonably priced, I think it’s $15 to $20 which is, you know, that’s very nice to have something so nice that’s not just mass produced or knocked off at Kinko’s or print-on-demand, although those methods have their merits.
And so, I’m looking forward to that, I’ll be doing a reading on the 5th of November at Melville House Books in DUMBO in Brooklyn and so I will be able to read few poems from that later on if you’d like to hear them.
Milford: Yeah. That would be great. I think we’re going to do some of the sonnets from the first book and then the companion book that you mentioned, All of you on the Good Earth. And then, I love to get some—some of that—that new stuff because I think you’d indicated that you were sort of breaking away from the sonnet form and with the newer stuff and oftentimes on the show by the time I get a poet’s book, ‘till I have their book in my hand, maybe they’ve toured for the book or tired of the book, you know?
Milford: The book will have 2008 on it, but that, you know, I have to—I’ve started taking into account the two years that the poet lived and breathed that book.
Hilbert: Sure. And aside from the creative aspect of the book and putting it together, I personally think that a book of poetry should have two or three years as a cycle of something that you’re promoting. It’s not something that jumps off the shelf; it’s something that needs that sort of care and tending of an author paying attention to it, doing interviews, doing readings and appearances, and what have you. So, no, I think it’s a slow cycle and I’m—I’m happy to do interviews about this first book for the rest of my life. So, thank you very much.
[0:04:51] You wanted me to also mention some other things I do. I have a blog called E-Verse Radio which I’ve had going for over ten years now. It’s also a video show. The blog gets about five thousand individual viewers or readers, if you will, each week, and it’s continuing to grow and it goes and goes. We do video shows every now and again. I have an Australian co-host who also produces those shows for me and puts it all together. And, we’re on iTunes and all over the place; Yahoo with video and Flicker and all of that.
And, that’s good and it gives me a chance to promote other people’s poetry and do some fun things as well and, you know, run my mouth and enjoy hearing my own voice.
Milford: Well, my wife is sitting listening to me—to this on the headphones and she’s hoping to pick your brains for new and better ways to promote our show, so I’m going to go ahead . . .
Hilbert: That sounds good and, likewise.
Milford: We’ve only been doing this for a little over a year and, you know, anyone who’s listened to the show . . . I’m constantly agonizing over the quality of, you know, my hosting ability because I’m just kind of, you know, I’ve got my MBA or what not, I love to write and so, I’m just—I guess I’m sort of somewhat educated enthusiast, but I have some really good luck getting people on the show and trying to find that balance, you know, between what’s too much theory to talk about.
Milford: What’s good for a layman audience and what’s the show in general, you know.
Hilbert: Right. I mean you have certainly made a name for yourself and I’ve done interviews with Poetry Foundation podcasts and NPR affiliate stations, and I think this is as good as anything else I’ve encountered so far this year.
Milford: Well, I appreciate that. It just made my day. I’ve been doing nothing but grading papers and entering grades all day, so . . .
Hilbert: That sounds like fun.
Milford: No. But, I was interested—what—but we’re going tell a bit of the sonnets, but I know it sounds like a kind of stupid question, but I was thinking: why sonnets to that degree? Obviously you’re versed in—in the forms, I mean there are comparisons to your work their echoes of, you know, [Marlowe] and, you know, and also Eliot. But, I mean, and you have this kind of I guess, it’s more of a—what it is? I guess maybe decasyllabic not always . . .?
Hilbert: It is. It is decasyllabic and sometimes as, Alicia Stallings pointed out, they resolve into—into a more of iambic lines, and I have a couplet that ties it together.
One quick note, I mean, this is my own form in terms of rhyme scheme. I have some like “Prophetic Outlook” which appeared in the American Poetry Review and was on the Best American Poetry website, and it’s also on the Poetry Foundation website. And that one is written in pararhyme; it’s a single rhyme fourteen times delivered higher and lower on the palate, so it registers slightly differently giving a sensation of just slightly rising and falling to sort of reflect the—the sort of anger and sense of entrapment of the speaker.
But, usually what I do is the decasyllabic line. Again, there are variations in my epitaphs, which are octosyllabic. But the rhyme scheme is usually two sestets followed by a couplet, so it’s ABCABCDEFDEFGG. And that is something that people have kind of picked up on and people started writing in it and Daniel Nester, ever joking, you know, in fun he called it the Hilbertian Sonnet.
Hilbert: Sardonically, of course. I mean he’s joking and I don’t take it that seriously myself. But, I am very sort of flattered that people have started writing it, and it’s starting to appear in magazines. And it’s being taught in some courses like at the New School, and what have you, and things appeared in the PN Review, The New Criterion, places like that. So, I’m happy that it’s starting to catch on and people like the sestets and enjoy, you know, sort of writing in them.
Milford: Yeah. I think and, you know, that’s a—I think that’s an honor to take that form, you know, and so there’s something new with it. In any case, I mean I think of several different types of reconstructed, you know, short and elongated sonnet.
Hilbert: Yeah. The sonnet has had many different forms. It’s generally been a fourteen-line thing, and there was a vogue for sixteen line ones for a period in history. But, to answer your original question, I wrote almost entirely in free verse for many, many years and then, the reason I started, I was in my early 30’s and I was actually writing for music and I was working with a composer named Daniel Felsenfeld through the Composer’s Collaborative [CCi] in New York City.
We are putting together operas that are performed in places like Symphony Space, in Bowery Poetry Club on a smaller scale, and at various places. And so, I was thinking—he encouraged rhyme and I started enjoying it and realizing that, when slowed down in song, rhyme has a complete different meaning. And then, while I was doing that and tinkering with that, and I wrote some things I didn’t like or what have you. I started to enjoy it more, and I realized that instead of me struggling to sort of work so much on the surface in order to be so mysterious and jagged, that sometimes I could be, in a more straightforward sense, rhetorical or funny. I could start to bring in psychology, humor, various effects that I wasn’t able to capture as easily without that form.
[0:10:14] And so, within the form within the sixty sonnets in this book, I have things that are in the first person, the second person, and the third person. I have poems that are from the perspective of a woman as the speaker, of an old person, a young person, all sorts of people who don’t have anything else to connect them except this form.
And so, while the form itself in its raw sense could be deemed arbitrary—why did I pick “ABC”—it gives me a structure within which to work and reflect and create and, as I said, capture all of these things and create these parameters. They are very helpful to allow you to think about other things that you might have been too hung up on style to think about.
Milford: Well, I think for me I was more intrigued not by the rhyme scheme, but by the shortened lines within—within the set, you know, parameters of the form that you chose because I like the way it did sort of quickened or, you know, made more urgent.
Hilbert: Sure. Sure.
Milford: The reach of the sonnet, you know.
Hilbert: Yeah. Once you start focusing on the line and the stanza, I mean, well—or rather the sestet, it’s not a stanza per se. And also, it allows you to think more carefully and more clearly about rhythm about the sound that you’re using and to which—to what extent you want to push different effects orally to bring across your point. And, one reviewer in Rattle magazine divided the sonnets of the book into those that are flat and those that are not, that have topography.
And, by flat, what she meant were ones that were rhetorical straightforward syntax that were not heavy on sound effects, that were not heavy on—and she preferred the latter, she didn’t like the flat ones, she thought I was simply being provocative, pushing people’s buttons, trying to upset people or shock people, whereas when I was using richer language, actually some of the things are just as, if you will, potentially shocking, but they’re cloaked in rich language that encrust them and sort of hides that I think, almost.
So, those are important lessons for me as well to have someone to do that. I wrote the last of the poems in this book probably four years ago and it took that long for the book to be signed and to finally come through the production schedule and then appear. And so, to me it’s a little strange, but when I go around performing them, I think, well, you know, here’s an analogy: If you were in band, are you tired of the song in your first album? Well, the people in the audience aren’t; maybe they haven’t heard them before live and they want to hear them.
So, you have to learn to live with these things even though you’ve since moved on and plunged forward. But I’m glad because if I had to keep reading things I wrote when I was twenty five, I really would get sick. And I think—I think I am mature enough as a person and as an artist by the time I started writing in this form that there are things that I can hold with and stay with for the rest of my life even if I am not writing that exact way anymore.
Milford: Well, one of the things that kept me going to—to the book and back to the book, I think I’ve read it may be around two-and-a-half times now and I love the characters in the book, the sort of beautiful losers, I’ve always been fascinated with.
Hilbert: Good. Yes.
Milford: You know I felt like you seem like the kind of guy that could, you know, be, you know, do the editor bit by day and then, if I needed you to back me in a bar fight at night, you know what I mean?
Hilbert: Probably true. Yeah.
Milford: So, I kind of, I was enjoying sort of, you know, both sides of—another poet I had on here recently by Greg Fraser kind of reminded me of that.
Hilbert: Greg Fraser. Yes, yes, I know him. I like his book. Yeah, Strange Pieta, is that right?
Milford: Actually, yeah.
Hilbert: Yes, yes, good. He’s a good poet and I like his book a lot, yeah.
Milford: But, you know, they’ve got their—those poets, they’ve got their mind in the ancient library, but they’re—they’re ready to, you know, go and chop wood.
Hilbert: Right. Well, that’s the thing is I’ve always, you know, I’ve always enjoyed living in cities, and I almost feel sorry for people who live in places where they don’t have anything to write about. I feel like I go out at night, and I see things, and you’re not just reading about it in the paper; these are people you know or it’s happening to you. And there is a richer life, not to say there’s not a rich life in the suburbs, maybe there is, but not much goes on outside of people’s houses, you know, whereas in the city, there’s a street. It’s alive and you can capture that.
I lived in New York for many years. I live in Philadelphia now, and I think that’s part of it as well. Dave Mason who’s actually in the new issue of the New Yorker that just came out today . . . I haven’t wrote him about it yet, haven’t written so, but he . . . I was talking to him out in Colorado and he kept saying “you’re a city poet” because he was way up in the mountains and we writes this sort of very serene, placid, well, you know, finely constructed poetry that has, you know, it does have a serenity and calmness to it that I simply don’t have.
[0:15:10] I’ve got things sort of dragging me in a million different directions every day and I think that, you know, that’s part of being a city poet where it’s like you’re ironic and you’re violent, you’re all these things that I guess the opposite of a country poet or a rural poet, bucolic poet wouldn’t think about so much.
Milford: Well, I guess that’s pretty much the best as good as any introduction we could get to the . . .
Milford: To the sonnet at this point, so if you want to jump in to—I know I had a few request, but if you want to . . .
Milford: Push things up just feel free to do what you like.
Hilbert: Absolutely fine. One of the ones you like is from “Failed Escapes,” which is the first chapter in the book.
Milford: Let’s do at some point . . . I’m sorry to interrupt, but one point, let’s try to do two back to back just for the audience to demonstrate . . .
Hilbert: We can do that.
Milford: . . . poem, you know what I mean?
Hilbert: We could do that because that makes sense when it’s two that are together. And so, the first—oh, there are—in the first section there are two double poems, if you will, and they are not structurally connected; they are thematically connected and dramatically connected. And the first of those two, if I can get this in front of me right now, is “She Remembers How they Fled the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico.”
Unleashed, we sped hard through the sunset rush,
To the west, still fierce like stung animals,
Blood honeyed, making for the dusty sun,
Our future seething to a raw gorgeous crush.
Flaming cloud-runs slowly thawed like candles
On the sad, unattainable horizon.
You’d been shot three times, soaked with tar and sweat,
But you gunned the grimy frame toward night,
Lit a smoke and cringed at the oily guts leaking from your side.
You could never let them win.
You winced and gripped my small wrist tight,
As we lurched off the road into dirt ruts,
Launched out to tether’s end, high from the pain,
The past dragging and chiming like a chain.
And that is followed by the next day, “The Fugitive Spends Christmas in a Las Cruces Motel Room.”
Stale tamales for breakfast with pale tea,
Cool daybreak fires over the bronzed valley.
Grizzled pink tatters down the jet-flaked blue.
The cruel moon curves and makes chaos of the sea,
Sways around again to drag night from me.
Time has ground me sharp, but I know I’m through.
He’s in a mound of stones and chaparral.
We didn’t get much cash. It’s nearly gone.
Life is gathered closer here, and death too.
I’m sad, and I have no one left to call.
I peek through blinds, sit on the bed alone.
These kind blue pills burn me up and make me new.
I’m wasted and true, savage, coarse, and far.
Winter smooths me away like an old scar.
Milford: It’s cool.
Hilbert: Shall I read another?
Milford: Yeah. And so, those are two sides of the same story?
Milford: Or the next day of the . . .
Hilbert: The next day, it’s the female whose perspective, it’s from her perspective both times and he’s died. Clearly, you call tell he was shot.
Hilbert: So, they got away and the sad, you know, there’s a lot of sadness there. The first one ends with the past chiming and—dragging and chiming like a chain, like a dog chained to a fender where a car has been sped away. You can only imagine, right?
Hilbert: All that’s left is this chain banging around behind the car. And then, she’s stuck in this hotel room, or, it’s a motel room to be more precise, running out of money and taking pills to stay awake and doesn’t know what to do. She’s trapped in this sort of hell, but it is a very quiet hell.
Well, so the noisy first half of the poem is very violent and action-packed and epic, if you will, cinematic.
Milford: In some ways the person begins quieter than its ending, so it does mirror the—the more violent end of the beginning of the second one with the quieter end.
Milford: And I think, you know, it’s easy to see just, you know, sonically how they mirror one another. I want to hear some more. Yeah.
Hilbert: Okay. Here’s another one that you like. This one appeared in last summer’s American Poetry Review. Not the summer that just past, the one before. It’s called “Poem Begun on the Autumn Equinox,” which we just passed.
Milford: Yeah, I guess that was just last night? Yesterday?
Hilbert: Yeah. So, it’s sort of passing of a meridian, passing of a phase.
The graveyard is as orderly and clean
As the playing fields and ballpark nearby.
I park the jeep midway between the two.
I wonder what this short distance can mean.
Partly gone from all that appears early,
At thirty-five, I’m at least halfway through.
One wine-red leaf sinks through the humid air.
At its end, summer still feels like itself.
Seasons start slowly. They end that way too:
One more check, one more payment, one less hair.
One may still add grains of learning and wealth,
But the mornings that remain seem too few.
There’s nothing to hear on the radio.
The river is low, foams white, and runs slow.
Milford: Yeah. I like that one a lot.
Hilbert: Thank you. And that sort of, I mean everyone reaches that point where they turn on the radio and there’s nothing to listen to, you know. [Laughs]
Milford: Right. It’s usually played in. Maybe it’s because I just turned 37 that there’s some sort of violent type of silence in that poem, a type of quiet accepting like, you know . . .
Hilbert: Sure. And I . . .
Milford: . . . listening in to that.
Hilbert: And I was sort of a near a river that was running very low, and at that time I remember, and it’s sort of like it’s the torrents of spring, so to speak, had passed from the fall and the mountains and then it reached the point where it was the end of summer and it was running very low and foaming and pushing itself along and still going where it had to go, but that’s something that struck me as a very poignant image at the time and of course, you know, parking, there was no jeep.
But, yeah, parking between a graveyard and a playing field for children, it might seem a bit heavy-handed, but I wanted to make the point. I think it’s a quiet tone that makes a good point. You can’t avoid writing the middle-age poem at some point. Some poets make a living out of it, that’s all they seem to do after a certain age.
Hilbert: Others, I think, fight it off and they want to be bad-asses their whole lives and they simply don’t realize that’s even happening. Maybe they’ll look in the mirror one day and see it too. But I wanted to be a little bit more in touch with it . . . it is sad . . . . and went to write a poem, and that’s my one middle age poem, and I’m done.
And so, in the poem of 35, I’m 39 now. Just to give a perspective on when I wrote it when it’s finally appeared in print.
Milford: It’s crazy when geography really does create the poem for you.
Hilbert: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Milford: You know, I mean, okay, you’re by this thing incredibly beautiful place, but like where we live is, you know, we did this poetry show which can read to hide stuff for sanity at times, you know what I mean? You know on the same block with two churches and a Free Masonry lodge. So, we’ve got the—more than likely a cult, the Methodist and I think the Baptist or something and then the poetry and all those four corners over here and civil war cemetery right across the street from a playground.
Hilbert: Right. And, sometimes you invest—you come into this sort of geography and you invest it with meaning and, poets have been doing that since ancient times.
Milford: Yeah. Just sort of self-mythology that you can do that it seems to be you trick yourself into thinking you’re—you are put there for a reason and all these things, right?
Hilbert: Well, we’d like to believe it. Poetry gives that lens a meaning or a momentary stay against confusion, as Frost once put it.
Another poem you like is “Photographs Above the Desk,” which I have subtitled “Amphisbaenics.” And that’s the type of rhyme which is actually just the word reversed. It’s a palindrome. So, “time” becomes “emit,” “step” is “pets,” “trap” is “part,” etc. And I went through a phase when I really was into palindromes, though I’ve luckily grown out of that.
But, there is the actual, if you could find this photograph; it was taken at the offices of Faber and Faber. And in the photograph, you have Auden, you have Spender, you Louis MacNeice, you have T.S. Eliot, and then a young Ted Hughes, the dangerous young poet looking completely bored.
[0:25:01] And it’s very funny because Spender and McNeice are perched off to the side as they would be historically and then Auden and Eliot sort of leaders of their respective generations are both talking at the same time; their mouths are both open. And, there’s Ted Hughes with a thousand-yard stare in between them wishing he was out in the mountains somewhere.
So, this is based on a real photograph and I have all sorts of photographs of my favorite poets on my walls at home and at work. Here I have an Auden, another Auden, I have a Whitman, a Dickinson, a John Donne, a Robert Lowell, even a Frederick Seidel, and, you know, a Geoffrey Hill, and they’re all looking at me very sternly, like “make something of yourself.” Yeah. [Laughs] So, I’ve always got them staring at me.
But, anyway, this poem is in the book. It’s called “Photographs Above the Desk.”
In the photographs, stark portions of time
Are stalled. The poets pose in snow, with pets,
Gripping drinks, arching brows, playing the part.
Possum, perched stiffly, can’t help but emit
Grim rays of disapproval. On the step
At Faber, young Hughes rests in the jawed trap
Of Auden and Eliot (the Raja),
Plotting his escape from their gray, regal
Company, and so (under which liar)
We see three whole generations ajar.
So thank God for gin, whiskey, and lager,
Publisher’s parties. Let the critics rail.
Too much chat of gyres, grails, gods, Rose, or Rood
Will leave a young man questing for the door.
Milford: That’s just a crazy puzzle right there. I love that.
Hilbert: [Laughs] Thanks.
Milford: You just had fun with that one.
Hilbert: I did.
Milford: I mean it stands on its own as, you know, just a good poem in general, but looking at those end words do those dances with one another really . . .
Hilbert: Well, you know, when I was writing the sequence and a little bit less in the second sequence All of you on the Good Earth, I was—I didn’t sit down thinking, and this is what cripples a lot of poet, “I’m going to write the great poem, I’m going to write “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror,” I’m going to write “Diving into the Wreck,” I am going to write The Waste Land, I’m going to write “New Year’s Letter.” You know these things, “Song of Myself.” You know many poets created what they thought were the great works of their careers and those are the things we don’t think of as good at all and sometimes it’s a little gem that popped up just with a moment’s thought that is the enduring thing. So, I say, why bet against yourself for one thing. So, I sat down to write these and thinking if one gets really serious and I’m fill it with as much emotions I can. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to have that correlative for someone else.
So, I thought of it more like songs, and I think even a great like a Bob Dylan, that has a lot of songs and they lack luster, a lot of boring songs, but he did so many that if you take the best fifty, they are outstanding. And so, my theory was not to make a direct comparison of myself with Bob Dylan here, but was to just keep doing it and out of the hundred I took the sixty I liked the best, rewrote them again and again. I showed them to a lot of people I trust and asked for their opinions and then sort of like, you know, took the balance of what I thought was right versus what other people would write and in the end came up with these sixty. And some of them are a little bit lighter fare, they are gamesmanship or almost a novelty or they’re meant to be funny or a diversion and others are incredibly serious, at least from my standpoint.
Milford: Well, for those of—for people you don’t have book in front of them, I mean you—it’s a rest part of that, you know, categorization problem or challenge in putting together a book of what some of which could be this first sonnets about the sections. So, you have “Failed Escapes,” “Examinations and Conclusions,” “Legendary Misbehavior,” “Satires and Observations,” “Small Consolations,” “Literature and Related Embarrassments,” “Elegies and Laments.” So, that—and there’s a sense of humor, a sense of seriousness, there’s also kind of a sense of taxonomy.
Milford: Okay, here is this form, you may or may not know everyone’s heard of the sonnet and thinks what a sonnet is and I have categorized it in the sort of encyclopedic form.
Hilbert: That is. I kind of sensed things that I thought made sense together in each other’s company a little bit. And also, sixty in a row, that’s just deadly. Who’s going to do that? So, I put my interesting chapters, it’s only fair to put the satires and the fun things into one section, so that you get a sense of my sensibility when you start right off, you know where I’m going with it. And, I mean the studio recording an album of spoken word music with the spoken word and this has been going on for a while and we have regular meetings and the band is playing music together.
[0:30:01] And, the section that I’m having the most trouble with—we’re doing four sections of the book—is the “Elegies and Laments” because it’s so serious; they don’t know what to do with it, so shall we bring in a chamber orchestra which they could, actually the producer does classical music and I was like, well, no, just be creative. With the “Legendary Misbehavior” section they can do a bouncy ironic thing. They can do something that sounds like rock, and it sounds like old country western, and it kind of goes with that.
And then, the last section is a bit more elevated and maybe the least successful section of the book for all I know, but I definitely put all the heavy stuff at the back.
Milford: For the listeners, I notice “Satires and Observations” is the longest section, right?
Hilbert: Yes, it is.
Milford: That speaks to where you’re coming from and I’m getting a sense of your sense of humor as we speak more that—I think I’d pick some more, but I had a hard time picking maybe also maybe throwing one or two of your favorites if you like.
Hilbert: Okay. Well, you know, here’s another one that you like called “Genealogies.” And this is one that is, again, it’s kind of light, but it’s also something a lot of people must be thinking, if you’re a middle class or lower middle class person, as I see myself, in America, you probably haven’t traced your family very far back. It doesn’t go back to the Mayflower. And, you’re wondering what were my ancestors like? Do they look like me? Do they act like me? So, this is called “Genealogies.”
I envy those who trace their families back
And back, to covered wagons, Bunker Hill,
The Mayflower, and Bayeux Tapestry.
Some can worm all the way down to the Dark
Ages, before which all bets are off. Still,
I know nil of mine and would like to see:
What’s back there? What’s burrowed in the wood lot,
What turnpikes of genealogy sped
My kin through ages and nations to me?
Two generations back my short file stops.
This slender family branch must have once led
To trunk if not root. What strange folk were we?
Gangsters and seamstresses, what bizarre links,
Smiths and sylphs, deacons and drunks, kings and finks?
Milford: Great last line. And speaks to some of your—does some of your, you know, incredible craftsmanship with sound as well.
Hilbert: Thank you. I mean . . .
Milford: You have a great—you’re a great instrument.
Hilbert: Thank you. What I often do is, you know, knowing the rhyme is not going to come up again for three more lines, if I like a certain jaunty rhythm that I feel going on, I will drop in an internal rhyme in the first half of the following line to reinforce that in an informal way because it’s not regular. And so, you probably heard that in that one when I said—the line is, “before which all bets are off, still”—next line—“I know nil of mine.” And then, when you put the whole thing together it’s a nice flow. And so, I do that in probably a quarter of the poems in the book at this point. And that’s just something I did because it feels good, you know. I think it sounds good.
Hilbert: And, here’s another one, “Symmetries,” that you like. This appeared in an online magazine called Ducts, and I have Amy Lemon to thank for that because she really liked it and she was a contributing editor for them and I said, well, I don’t know. It’s a very—this is a textbook sonnet. I have two love sonnets and the sonnet is often entirely devoted to love, whole cycles—famous cycles of sonnets are devoted to love.
Hilbert: But, it’s something that I did not strenuously avoid, at least I didn’t consciously avoid it. And, I’m glad that one or two popped in and I’m glad that one of them caught your eye and this one is called “Symmetries.”
Love, when mingled with doubt, runs much quicker,
And despair rivals delight at each turn.
The sudden bled juices of early May
Add thrills to life. Such persuasive liquor,
When dried on the wick, primes it to burn.
Something tugs night up like a sheet from day.
Bacchus, with a six-pack, comes for Sibyl,
And the hermit misses the city’s strife.
We blank out one future each time we decide.
The fulcrum of time demands so little:
Only that we give some portion of life
To love, or surely we have already died.
Death balances love on scales; goes up, then
What raises it pulls it back down again.
Milford: I like that one like you said it was a very straightforward version as far as thematically as a poem, but it did—it did call to mind some of the, you know, Shakespeare sonnets to me about, you know, love and death simultaneously or the change of seasons of being, you know, metaphoric of things.
Milford: But, you know, a contemporary way of saying it using terminology like we blank out one future each time we decide, you know, that’s like an opposed Heisenbergian way of saying it, you know what I mean like . . . ?
Hilbert: Of course. Because the language has to sound natural in order for the reader to be comfortable with it and feel that it’s modern. Archaic language has to be used with an ironic distance, if at all, almost in scare quotes. And so, definitely the language even if you’re addressing a classical theme like Thanatos and Eros has to be done with what sounds like a clear straightforward modern diction basically.
Milford: And you do that too with, you know, when you—when you do rewrite some of the myths whether it’s, you know, Bacchus, Andromeda, or what not, you know what I mean? That you are . . .
Milford: You do it with, you know, with a six pack, you know what I mean?
Hilbert: Right, of course.
Milford: You make them contemporary which I know a lot of poets are, you know, kind of fond of doing that, but sometimes it feels forced to a degree whenever it’s formed that way.
Hilbert: Oh, yes.
Milford: And yours don’t seem to be, so—so, you know, forced in that way, they seem more natural because I think the form actually went. Ironically, the form gives them maybe a little more gravitas to get away with something even that way. I don’t know.
Hilbert: There is certainly a type of poet in America today who loves to layer the Greek and Roman myths all over the place and it’s usually a sort of a flashy free verse and a little bit confessional as well. And it tends to be very serious, they are very somber, and they want you, they want to lay these myths on you, but they are so distant from us. But, instead of Bacchus with a bottle of wine or jug of wine in some shady bower, it’s a guy walking in with a six pack. It’s the same thing you know. I mean it is a one-to-one correspondence and it’s one that we can understand because Bacchus could be someone you know representing that figure at this time. You’ve got to modernize it.
And, particularly with the sonnet, I always knew people immediately are going to close me off, categorize me before they’ve even read the book. I’ve had people attack me and accuse me of all sorts of horrible things until they’ve heard it—heard it read aloud and then they say, well, I liked it. Okay, that was all right. They just assumed what you are doing, are you some sort of reactionary, why are you writing sonnets, you’re some sort of imperialist monster. I’m like, no, no, I just one day started fiddling with it and I liked it and I went with what I wanted to do instead of what I thought I should do.
And, of course, I spend years thinking, why would anyone write a sonnet, it’s old fashioned. And then, I thought, well, just do what you want to do. I’m not—I’m not teaching that stuff, I’m not making that much money from it, just do what—what you want to do.
Hilbert: And, I think that joy and the happiness and the energy comes right through in a way that none of my poems before that ever did, so I stand by it.
Milford: It’s got a lot of whimsy and there’s a lot of humor and whimsy and, you know, irony and, you know, some snarkiness throughout the book, you know . . .
Hilbert: It’s got to have that.
Hilbert: It’s got to have lighter . . .
Milford: You don’t take it so seriously, I don’t think—I get so sick of that type of categorization too, it makes me marvel at—I consider myself becoming kind of just tough and closed-minded, you know, in recent years just because of some of my teaching loads which, you know, I didn’t learn how to say no some of that. But in any case, I started, you know, sort of getting a little more cynical, but I still have never—if somebody is going to give me a book of sonnets, my first reaction saying, you know, thankfully, oh, hell, what is this, you know what I mean? I still . . .
Hilbert: Well, most of them are like that.
Milford: . . . something new. You know newer than old form or . . .
Hilbert: Sure. And most of them are like that. And I see a lot of questioning of the sonnet, so I feel like why I should bother? You just did it and I—this was not even—I called it Sixty Sonnets, I wish I called it something else. I never told anybody that these things even have patterns because people probably would have not even notice you know. But, I love the sound of Sixty Sonnets. It sounds like it kind of classic like Led Zeppelin IV. It’s just like Sixty Sonnets you know. Rolls off the tongue and I thought it sounds cool, so I did that.
Milford: People keep fiddling with the old version I guess . . .
Hilbert: I hope so.
Milford: . . . sonnet form it might, you know, end up, you know, you’ve got, you know, you might end up being what [0:39:37 Indiscernible] and then you’ve got the [0:39:38 Indiscernible] version.
Hilbert: Right. It has been—last week it was put in to sort of an impromptu book of forms that is of nonce forms and unusual forms assembled by the arch-formalist, Lewis Turco. So, I was glad that he finally accept it and it helps that some poets he admires like Bill Coyle and David Yezzi had published in the form and Moira Egan and people like that. So, that kind of help push it over, but that’s just a little online thing and the day I appear in the Princeton Book of Poetics, I’ll say, well, it’s just a joke and it went too far. [Laughs]
[0:40:12] Now, what I want . . .
Milford: The [0:40:15 Indiscernible].
Hilbert: Yes. So, I want to get away from that, I wrote a long three verses well, but I’ve learned so well from writing in form and it’s helped a lot when going back to free verse because the musical qualities, the rhythm and qualities are much stronger. I mean the originators of free verse in English, anyway, like Ford Madox Ford and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, saw it as the opening of infinite forms. And already by 1918 thhey were beginning to regret in print that they had, you know, pushed for this and promoted it because they said everyone’s doing it now and they’re not doing what we had in mind at all. We didn’t mean to throw everything out.
If you look at the Ezra Pound’s Cantos, if you look at HD’s poems, if you look at T.S. Eliot’s, even something earlier like “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there is rhyme, there is iambic content and there’s all sorts of things going on in there. It comes and goes, it’s just not rigid. And, even in Whitman, you can find things like that and that stuff is pretty devoutly free verse.
So, let me just go a little bit to the next book which is called All of You on the Good Earth and to explain what that is. At the end of 1968 which was, you know, a year of strife and tragedy worldwide, Apollo 8, and this is right around Christmas, successfully circumnavigated earth’s moon and the Boston Globe called it the first human voyage to another world.
On Christmas Eve, the crew saw and, this is a famous image now, right? Observed the earth rising for the first time over the moon’s horizon. No human had ever seen this before.
Milford: Can you imagine?
Hilbert: Yes, I can barely imagine. So, Commander Frank Borman, he described the earth rise as “the most beautiful heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia of sheer homesickness surging through me.” That’s when he came back to earth, he said that. But, he did the famous broadcast on Christmas Eve back to earth and they asked him, “Do you have anything to say?” So, he didn’t know what words could match the occasion, so he read a little bit from the book of Genesis and then, moved on to his closing which was, “Goodnight. Good luck. Merry Christmas. And God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”
And so, the end of 1968, which is a year of revolution, so a year of revolution and war and unrest, to see the earth as this sort of beautiful, calm, distant thing, I just thought was a beautiful, beautiful image. And I pulled that out for a poem that it was made into a fine press broadside last year, actually this year, for a New Year’s greeting for a science fiction publisher called Temporary Culture. And, they do sort of avant-garde science fiction stuff and so, I wrote a poem called “All of You on the Good Earth,” which they did a beautiful letterpress broadside of that is framed and is really nice you know. And I decided to go ahead and just borrow that for the title of the whole collection. So, I have a poem or two from that if you would like to hear them.
Hilbert: There’s one that was—this one is called “Ashore.” It’s originally the title of the book, “Ashore,” and so, I felt it sounded too much like antiperspirant. This was in—this was in The Year in Review in the spring and then, the Academy of American Poets contacted me and they said they were doing a shark week in conjunction with the Discovery Channel and they wanted to know if they could use the poem. Excuse me. And I said, “Yes, sure, of course you can.” I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily about a shark, although it begins with one to be sure. And then, I found it on a shark website where someone reposted it and said, this is an example of when a shark is on the shore and becomes, you know, merely a piece of rotting food that it would itself have savored. This is “Ashore.”
The harpooned great white shark heaves onto sand,
Nudged by waves, red cavern of dripping teeth.
A crowd comes. Loud gulls wreathe the booming mist.
Blue flies cloud the fishy sunset, and land.
One, sated, is slapped to a smear beneath
A child’s quick hand and then flicked from his wrist.
Compass and munitions are sunk with skulls
In wrecks beneath old storms, glass angels
And hourglasses, flint of sunlight through motes,
Violence of slit sails, drowned crews, split hulls,
Quiet draw of dust, too, and all that it pulls,
The slow leak and loss of each thing that floats—
Flail and wild eye, flecked spit of crippled horse,
Crust of diamonds on the throat of a corpse.
Milford: Yeah, I really I love the plays of consonance and assonance on that, so many great sounds where you really get that sort of push and pull.
Hilbert: Thank you.
Milford: Of the sea, really, there’s sort of a tendon-like tension between the beginning and the endings of some of those lines.
Milford: That’s really great you know.
Hilbert: I don’t want to be too obviously wave-like, but it has to be in there somehow.
Milford: Yeah. I mean it wasn’t overkill for me, I just felt like, you know, I don’t have that one in front of me, but the, you know, some of the sort of beginning of line with those, you know, long Es like a long E sound.
Milford: And the sharp consonance, but ending it with that S, a powerful S sound too at the end with the vowel, you know to a degree I thought was sort of put my foot solid and then pulled it back out from under me again.
Hilbert: Yeah. I mean the thing with using—the thing with using musical effects like that is it’s a matter of poise and it’s also a matter of taste because too much becomes gaudy, too much alliteration sounds like it’s an ad for a department store or something, right?
Milford: Baroque or something on the . . .
Hilbert: It becomes baroque, it becomes encrusted and it becomes sort of enthralled to its own sound. You know Charles Olson talks about the deities of sound and sense and that one must serve both. And to reach that organic unity of the two is ideally I believe what you should aim for. And let’s say I was giving a reading at the Newburyport Literary Festival earlier this year and, when we are doing taking questions at the end someone asks, “Do you ever cut back on your rhymes and do fewer?” And I said, “Actually, yes, I do.” Sometimes it sounds corny; it’s too much; it becomes vulgar almost.
So, I think with that poem I was lucky to get it right where I wanted it because a little bit too much more it will become baroque it will be Hart Crane. A little bit less and it would be boring and it sort of seeking its own subjects to justify itself at that point. So, I’m glad you like that one.
Hilbert: And, here’s another that has to do with the sea, and it’s called “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” and that’s also in this book. It has not been published. No editor has liked this enough, and I love it, and I don’t know why. I shouldn’t say that; I have a warm feeling. I don’t love it because I’m saying this is a great poem, I love it because I have a warm feeling for it, and I hope you’ll see why.
But, the title comes from Turner. When I went to the Turner retrospective, when he came to New York to the Met, one of his later unfinished paintings is called “Sunrise with Sea Monsters.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, and it’s sort of this washed out myth in sort of haze you know. As you get with him. And yet you see these big mouths. The same figures appear in his masterpiece, which is absent from this show actually, but you can see in Boston at the MFA, which is “The Slavers.” If you look closely into the sort of—not of the water in the foreground—you’ll see these big monster faces. They’re almost comic. You almost want to like them because they’re cartoonish, but they’re also sort of dreadful and terrifying as well.
Milford: Yeah. I’m looking at the image now. I’m looking at it with you or I’m looking at it here. Yeah. Okay, go ahead.
Hilbert: So, you see and then, my idea was, yes, it is—it is terrifying and also almost lovable. And that’s the way I think about monsters because I think, well, often if we just left the monsters alone, they wouldn’t be monsters. We often go to a remote skull-shaped island and drag the poor thing back to New York City, right? And then, it becomes a menace because we pulled it out of where it was supposed to be or we brought it to life with a lightning bolt or we did something to make the monster by re-contextualizing it, and it’s a monster to us.
And I would love to write a book someday just all about monsters called What We Called Monsters, because it’s a great line from Montaigne from his essays, which is “those which we called monsters are not so for God,” which when I was a boy was really touching to me because I was reading science fiction and there’s a genre called “bug-eyed monsters” where they’re half lovable and half something that you would have nightmares about. And I think there’s something essentially human about that, that it’s lovable and something you would hate at the same time.
So, anyway, I took that as my subject for “Sunrise to Sea Monsters.” I draw heavily on the films of Ray Harryhausen at times. And I, originally when I was first going around reading this poem, I was saying to everyone this is in memory of Ray Harryhausen.
[0:50:00] And of course, he did the great movies, you know, he did the Sinbad movies, of course, with the skeletons and then he did . . .
Milford: I love those, yes.
Hilbert: Clash of the Titans and he also did . . .
Milford: Cyclops with the horn on its head.
Hilbert: The Cyclops with the horn, he did . . .
Milford: Particularly pitiful in that movie.
Hilbert: Of course, I felt so sorry for him when he fell of the cliff. And then, you have—It Came from Beneath the Sea and all of these things, the giant octopus that attacked San Francisco, and he created some great monsters, The Valley of the Gwangi.
Milford: . . .on this because I remember the first time I ran into it in a lit class was a Epic of Gilgamesh, you know, Enkidu is not bothering anybody, so he goes to tame him and then he tells him, okay, we got to have an adventure so we go and kill Humbaba who’s not bothering anybody.
Hilbert: Of course, yeah.
Milford: My professor is saying, no, this is a metaphor, they needed timber, so they had to kill another tribe to get the wood to build another ziggurat or whatever . . .
Hilbert: So, it’s expansive it’s aggressive and it’s kind of like, you know, the sort of the Trials of Hercules and you think, oh, God that poor Nemean Lion.
Hilbert: But you only think poor lion because it lost. If it won, you wouldn’t think that. So, I don’t want to make it like all the monsters are victim.
Milford: You call it savage beast, you know and call on their warrior to kill it, right?
Hilbert: Exactly. Right. So, anyway, this is called “Sunrise with Sea Monsters.” I already finished my little [0:51:17 Indiscernible]. I would say this is in memory of Ray Harryhausen, then I realized he’s alive and well. He’s doing just fine, in fact, he’s just given his name to a new series of comic book called Ray Harryhausen Presents, so . . . he’s not dead.
So, it’s not in memory of Ray Harryhausen because he was . . . you think this man is from another era, it’s claymation. And the last great Claymation movie before Tim Burton started bringing it back was in the early 80’s, is Clash of the Titans. And now, it’s sort of become almost a fetish thing now where after, you know, Nightmare Before Christmas you’re bringing it back.
I’m getting too much off the topic here. But, I like Ray Harryhausen and I like his monsters because I feel that he always made them scary for the kids, but also so you would feel sorry for the monsters.
Milford: Yeah. That’s cool.
Hilbert: So, here it is after all that hot air. This is :”Sunrise with Sea Monsters” for Ray Harryhausen.
Huge Octopus Topples the Golden Gate!
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms skulks
Ashore, hearing a foghorn, lonely for friends.
Nessie slips from the Loch to seize a mate.
Swarming tentacles haul great, breathing hulks
From frozen deeps to clutch prey, then descend.
The clumsy frogman from the Black Lagoon
Gazes, glistening, from the giant sail
Of the drive-in screen, at nestled, flinching teens—
But these beasts don’t belong here, and soon
They’re beaten. They slink from our defended soil,
Sink in the cold whirl. We are their sardines. . . .
Sea birds, drunken on guts, hover over
Churned seas, watching for the next poor monster.
Hilbert: I don’t know if you like that or not. You can say no.
Milford: I’m going to ask you to—no, I enjoy it, I want you to send them to me, seriously.
Hilbert: Okay. I can send the book to you if you want.
Milford: I’ll tell you if I didn’t like it.
Hilbert: Good. I’m glad to know. I believe keep everything above board, keep everything honest because we got really nothing to lose.
Milford: I’m very slow, I’m slow with poems. I mean they have to stay with me, I got to read them three times, so . . .
Hilbert: I think the good one should always be that way.
Hilbert: Absolutely. If you think you got everything the first time around, there might not be anything else there.
Here’s—I’d like to read a few poems, this is from Aim your Arrows at the Sun. I have a book that is completed in manuscript that I’m going to start showing to publishers called Haunts and Other Poems. And, I met some—some very energetic younger publishers that I guess in their 20’s or would-be publishers, they decided they’re going to put this book out. There will also be a book simultaneously issued by someone named Heather Green. I haven’t made her acquaintance yet, but I look forward to meeting her at the launch party which, again, is November 5th at Melville House Books in Brooklyn. Stop by if you can, free beer and wine certainly, and the books will be for sale.
They extracted about twelve or maybe fifteen poems, I’m not sure exactly, from the manuscript of Haunts and created a book called Aim your Arrows at the Sun. And then the critic Adam Kirsch supplied the forward, a one-page forward about the book, very generously, and then, donated his fee back to the press to help them keep going. And I had to keep my fee because actually, things are a little tight. But, otherwise I would have been happy to give it, give that back as well. And these are fine letterpress editions that are typeset and it’s hot typed, you know, it’s rare these days.
[0:55:00 ] And, you know, Random House up until the late 90’s actually before they join with Bantam Doubleday Dell to become the new Random House, they were still putting out books on—on paper where you could, you know, you could see the chain lines; they had watermarks. It was beautiful paper. It was still letterpress right up to when they released the Blizzard of One by Mark Strand. And then—I was there at the time—I was publishing editor for their magazine, and I interviewed him, and I remember when his book came out I felt I’m like, oh, you know what? It’s just not as nice. This is the beginning of the cutbacks. Production costs were too high and they have decided they’ve got to, you know, squeeze some more money out of it somewhere and so, these really beautiful objects, I mean the books are still beautiful.
Hilbert: Just, they were not as nice as they were, so I’m really glad that someone is taking it upon themselves to start producing these books. And though, they’re not alone by any means, there are many wonderful small presses. And so, I thank them, it was very generous of them to—to do this for me.
So, if we have time, I’ll read just a few poems out of Aim your Arrows at the Sun if that will be okay?
Milford: Yeah. We’ve got—let me check our switchboard to be on the safe side, but I think we’re doing just fine.
Milford: I have, you know, thirty minutes, you know, logged in that, you know, so we should be fine.
Hilbert: Okay. I’ll do a short poem that begins it. It’s Selv’ oscura, which in Italian means dark wood and, you probably know it from the first canto of Dante’s Inferno when in the middle of the journey of life, the poet finds himself in a dark wood. And this is of course—anyway, I said I only did one mid-life poem, there’s another one. I lied. It’s shorter though, Selv’ oscura.
Milford: Well, the first one you wrote in denial anyway, right?
Hilbert: Right. Here it is. This is—and I’ve chosen this to begin the book which is why I’m doing it, it’s two—two tersests.
At midlife, I wallow in drink, sleep late,
Feast in the smallest hours, swaddled
In a Sargasso that turns slowly at the center
Of long empty seas. At the horizon
A bruising storm matures, though I still dream
And she says no do not dream anymore.
The next poem is one that is based on something—it was one of these images in my mind that I just never knew how to encapsulate in a poem. 1997, I was going across the Sinai. I was going from Cairo to Jerusalem, and there was a fair amount of violent activity going on, a lot of terrorism then as well as attacks on western vehicles and western tourists. In fact, a number of Germans were killed right in the spot where I had been standing not long before, machine-gunned in their tour bus in front of the archeological museum because someone mistook the Greek lettering on the bus for Hebrew, unfortunately.
So, anyway, we sort of pitched in, I was alone, but I met some people and we pitched in to hire an armed guard, an Egyptian jeep with a machine gun to sort of get our small bus through. When you go through the Sinai you still see the remains from the Yom Kippur War when the Egyptian forces advanced quite quickly in the first twenty-four hours and then were forced back. So, you see the large Russian tanks like T-62 battle tanks clustered out there in the desert and slowly becoming part of the landscape. And it’s just amazing that these husks are there and to think there was so much human violence there. Now, they are already sort of archeological. But, you know what I’m saying? Archeological artifacts like left behind from another period of history almost.
And so, I wrote a poem called “On Passing the Remains of a T-62 in the Sinai.”
At a tripod on the map, the armed escort slows.
Gears grind down behind. The crossroads mark a cutter
Where a battalion paused too long. It is proof
That armies advanced this far before in the baffling waste.
Look at this drab tank, out farther than the rest as if to flee
Or perhaps press an attack. Cased in deep armor
But punctured. The rocket holes that torched out these
Hard husks are dark pinpoints almost too small to see
It’s heavy as a dune, its patina matured to match neighboring rocks.
It looks like a derelict crab washed with shells onto sand, treads,
Spun out from rows of barrel-like wheels. Drive sprockets
Spiked stiffed like sea urchins, haul of rolled steel
The catch flipped up, blasted open, or lifted for escape.
All at the bottom for dried sea.
There is no other sign of men
For miles. Another has lost its turtle-like turret, a hallow
Husk skull dish for rare rainfall and one last, at an angle to the rest
Its glasses plate sunk forward probing smooth bore angled out
And down as if to acknowledge a long ago blow and lost and bow forever.
Milford: That’s awesome. Once again, another testament to your sonnet ability.
Hilbert: Thank you.
Milford: And the pacing and pause it the best, I want to see it on the page. Is that left justified as well or you?
Hilbert: Yes, it is, two stanzas. And the first sort of ends with all at the bottom of the dried sea and the next begins to draw back, it make it a bit more panoramic. And, of course I had “Ozymandias” in mind, one of the great sonnets, so that’s a great sonnet as well.
Hilbert: It’s an unusual form sonnet, but it is a sonnet nonetheless, and the notion that all of men’s aspirations and greatness and heroism, and what have you, and beliefs will in time, in cosmic time, come to nothing, as well as within perceptible history, as here and as in Ozymandias. And so, I’m glad that I was finally able to take an image from twelve years ago without, you know . . . no photograph, it’s just sort of whipped past us in the blinding white rays as we were chugging along in this rattling old bus toward the border with Israel.
And so, I had “Ozymandias” in mind, but also all sorts of things, I mean at the bottom of the dried sea, of course, would indicate I don’t mean it to be explicitly religious or political in any way, believe it or not. It’s the idea or Pharaohs’ chariots at the bottom of a temporarily dried sea for instance and the fact that there are three of them
, of course, could possibly evoke if not the crucifixion, then something like Francis Bacon’s terrifying studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion, these horribly mangled forms like in this hellscape, you know.
Hilbert: Which was how I—how I sort of perceived that. Okay. We have two more and okay, so, unless you have something else to say about that one.
Milford: You know three religions fighting over one . . .
Milford: One arena and then, at the same time also, one of the things I love about that poem and most of your poems free verse or not, the way you read them can almost be a set to a metronome.
Milford: Just great reading voice.
Hilbert: Thank you.
Milford: And, but at the same time, that one sort of the elemental language is crowding out almost, you know, annihilating all of the, you know, the matured.
Milford: Something our flesh can’t necessarily do you know and it’s crowding out all of humanity except for the voice in the poem itself.
Hilbert: Right. Like humanity has been washed out. Right.
Milford: Yeah. And it becomes this, you know, almost also kind of a ghost-like warning too you know.
Hilbert: Absolutely, it is and it ended as such and in fact I have a line about all our future wars in there. And of course, I had to think of Andy Warhol’s, All Tomorrow’s Parties when I wrote that, it shows just how much serious I really am.
And then, you know, everyone who read it was like, no, take that out, don’t be so explicit, everyone knows the stanzas are warning. And, when Adam Kirsch read it, this is from his forward he says, “Like Robert Lowell, Hilbert is drawn to scenes of carnage with the true face of humanity seems to reveal itself. A destroyed tank in the Sinai desert has weathered into landscape, it’s long ago blow and lost like an archeological reminder of the ways human beings in the Middle East especially keep returning to ancient patterns of violence.” So, yeah, the thought that you had about the religions was exactly right as well.
Hilbert: So, okay, so I can do it . . .
Milford: I was far off tonight. Okay.
Hilbert: No, you’re dead on, you’re dead on. Okay. So, if we have time on the show, I’d like to go ahead and do two more.
Milford: Sure. That would be great.
Hilbert: Do we have time for that? Is that okay?
Milford: Yeah, we’re all good. You go right ahead.
Hilbert: Good. Good. In fact, I don’t know how we’re doing for time, I mean there’s a poem by someone else that I would like to may be read if I can fit it in.
Milford: We still got twenty five minutes log in before it cuts us off, so that should be plenty of time for three poems depending on their length you know.
Hilbert: Okay. These are not—these are not long. And, Alicia Stallings who actually writes under the name A.E. Stallings, I’m sure you’ve heard of her in some capacity. She’s—there’s a new anthology out, this one is called The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets from Ohio University Press. She has a poem in there that I particularly like and I know I read this somewhere else. I don’t remember where. It might have been in Poetry magazine. But, if we have a moment I’m going to go ahead and read that because I love this and it’s one of these late night things that I went out on drinking beer . . . I just read with a novelist who has a novel out from McSweeney’s, and after the reading we were out drinking beer, and I pulled this down and read it to him and he said, “Ah, you know, that’s how I want to write.” That’s great, and that’s a novelist saying he wants to write like this, and I think you’ll hear why.
It’s called “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother.”
First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
And I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
Day & night, creatures with no legs
Or too many, journey to hell and back.
Alas, the burrowing animals have dim eyesight.
They are useless for news of the upper world.
They say the light is “loud” (their figures of speech
All come from sound; their hearing is acute).
The dead are just as dull as you would imagine.
They evolve like the burrowing animals—losing their sight.
They may roam abroad sometimes—but just at night—
They can only tell me if there was a moon.
Again and again, moth-like, they are duped
By any beckoning flame—lamps and candles.
They come back startled & singed, sucking their fingers,
Happy the dirt is cool and dense and blind.
They are silly & grateful and don’t remember anything.
I have tried to tell them stories, but they cannot attend.
They pester you like children for the wrong details—
How long were his fingernails? Did she wear shoes?
How much did they eat for breakfast? What is snow?
And then they pay no attention to the answers.
My husband, bored with their babbling, neither listens nor speaks.
But here there is no fodder for small talk.
The weather is always the same. Nothing happens.
(Though at times I feel the trees, rocking in place
Like grief, clenching the dirt with tortuous toes.)
There is nothing to eat here but raw beets & turnips.
There is nothing to drink but mud-filtered rain.
Of course, no one goes hungry or toils, however many—
(The dead breed like the bulbs of daffodils—
Without sex or seed—all underground—
Yet no race has such increase. Worse than insects!)
I miss you and think about you often.
Please send flowers. I am forgetting them.
If I yank them down by the roots, they lose their petals
And smell of compost. Though I try to describe
Their color and fragrance, no one here believes me.
They think they are the same thing as mushrooms.
Yet no dog is so loyal as the dead,
Who have no wives or children and no lives,
No motives, secret or bare, to disobey.
Plus, my husband is a kind, kind master;
He asks nothing of us, nothing, nothing at all—
Thus fall changes to winter, winter to fall,
While we learn idleness, a difficult lesson.
He does not understand why I write letters.
He says that you will never get them. True—
Mulched-leaf paper sticks together, then rots;
No ink but blood, and it turns brown like the leaves.
He found my stash of letters, for I had hid it,
Thinking he’d be angry. But he never angers.
He took my hands in his hands, my shredded fingers
Which I have sliced for ink, thin paper cuts.
My effort is futile, he says, and doesn’t forbid it.
Now, that’s a poem.
Milford: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Hilbert: And, I feel like I shouldn’t have read it on the show because mine is not going to hold up in comparison. [Laughs]
Milford: Well, I think it’s funny you mentioned that. I have her down as a potential. I’ve got a list of people I just haven’t even got around to contacting.
Hilbert: Yeah. I can’t recommend her highly enough. She’s really amazing.
Hilbert: So, anyway, now, I have to go back to my meager poems after that which feel—feel so embarrassing.
Milford: But, I doubt when you think your poems are meager.
Hilbert: I feel like I’m picking up a ukulele after Beethoven’s 5th just finished.
Milford: That is a beautiful poem.
Hilbert: It’s so nice. Yes. So, maybe she’ll read it for you and maybe read it more correctly or something, I don’t know.
Milford: Kind of hit me in the stomach to be honest with you.
Hilbert: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Milford: I’m on my third beer right now and I’m . . .
Hilbert: Good work. Good work. [Laughs]
Now, I’m going to read just two more, and I’ll end with something that is from the new book and still has a little bit of a light touch. Most of the poems in the newer book are more serious, I have to say. Maybe that is a function of my ageing; I don’t know what it is. I hope I will always have time and moods to do lighter things because when you’re reading to people it’s always a drag to just be doing depressing stuff. I try to divide the evening in two and least start with some fun things or sometimes end with them instead and leave people on a higher note.
So, here’s—here’s one that is actually a little bit more serious, it’s called “Bread and Circuses.” It’s after Juvenal, of course. He used “bread and circuses” to represent the largesse that the Romans used to keep the people in line.
Hilbert: Or as, again, to quote—it’s so pretentious to quote the Adam Kirsch introduction, but he does such a good job, he says “in the Juvenalian ‘Bread and Circuses,’ Hilbert sees TV Shows and fast food as the equivalent of the largesse with which Rome’s rulers stupefied her people.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
So, I’ll read this, “Bread and Circuses” and this is—this is in format, it’s in the form I just sort of created, but you’ll hear it.
Surplus grains surge down immense flumes,
And wine decants down marble stairs.
We hardly notice now their ancient tombs,
But brace to inherit much newer cares.
One thinks “My Lord” to stare at the TV:
A special report: “Help my fat bayby!”
It leans over like a tower of dough,
Tuber-fat fingers greasy from ground cow,
Vivacity of the innocent slurred.
On fenced plains, a head is culled from a herd.
And I should also ask for your mercy on that. I’m sorry, I had to use the Jerry Springer sort of general “Southern” voice. I did not mean that, and I love the sound of Southern, I have many Southern friends, but, you know, who I’m talking about when I ask these people.
Milford: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Hilbert: Sometimes . . .
Milford: Go ahead.
Hilbert: I feel like they are actually northern, so you just put that accent on sometimes and it’s unfair, but that’s kind of how I spelled it out is B-A-Y-B-Y, like my bayby you know, but it could be said any number of ways and I apologize for that.
Milford: We did the same thing down here where we’re making fun of people who—well, you know, the general stereotype as well you know. It’s still acceptable. [Laughs]
Hilbert: Okay. So, I just want you to know I have a lot of great Southern friends and I don’t mean it to be any kind of . . .
Milford: I have an uncle who can’t pronounce the word “bear,” which is the name of his German Shepherd except as “Bar.
Hilbert: Oh, I like that. I like that.
“Milford: That’s how he says it, but, you know, at the same time, he’s like an engineer and help build, you know, West Point Dam.
Hilbert: Of course, of course.
Milford: You know, but, you know.
Hilbert: Here’s one you might like. I saw Alicia Stallings at a picnic and she’s outside, she’s in this—she’s a Southern belle from Georgia, I believe and she’s got this beautiful summer dress and a big summer hat on. And, she’s walking up in the sunlight, I’m there under this tent, I said, “Ms. Stallings you are a Southern belle and I was wondering if you could answer about a simple point of grammar.” And I originally heard this one Oxford don on the lawn of Trinity Oxford ask a group of Southern women who are sunning themselves out on the college lawn.
I said, “Do you know what the plural of y’all is?” And, of course, she said, “Of course, it’s all-y’all.” And I was, “Ugh. She knew it.” [Laughs] Did you know that?
Milford: That’s awesome, yeah. Well, I know the possessive y’all . . .
Hilbert: I like that. I never even thought of that.
Milford: No apostrophe needed.
Milford: Actually, I read somewhere that one—I forget who said this, but one language theorist actually said, you know, for someone who, you know, was interested in sonnets for a while and a little bit still is that, you know, as far as, you know, classical old English, one of the closest sounding, you know, “languages” or dialects to that is the Southern drawl.
Hilbert: Absolutely it is. Well, that’s sort of a known thing. Yeah. Particularly as they say up
or sort of up, you know, up further that’s where it change the least and so, you have, I mean I was just I’m reading Tom Wolfe’s, The Right Stuff, he talks about Chuck Yeager and he says—I love how Tom puts this when you hear that standard airline pilot voices says, “It’s the Southern pokey relaxing to put you at ease,” but you can’t—everyone no matter where they’re from does it, that’s sort of a Chuck Yeager. It’s like “we’re cruising at about like that.”
Milford: Yeah. Yeah.
Hilbert: He swears it’s because Chuck Yeager was a big star and he, you know, never went to college and when he was talking back to headquarters the flight control, that’s how he spoke, he was spinning out of control at 80,000 feet and was just like, “I’ve got a little bit of a problem here and I’m just going to go . . .” And that, he was so widely admired that all of the pilots then who would leave and go into civilian work adopted his—his tone and general accent. So, you know . . .
Milford: That fast food monster you mentioned has actually been this now too. If you pull to a McDonald’s here, there’s an automated voice that comes on in the morning that says, “Would you like to have a café mocha today?” And then, when you pulled around the corner, you know, at our particular McDonald’s, near the exit where I’m about to go to work when we go to get coffee and it will have—I have may it we’re filling our babies or my baby already with hash browns, but [1:16:27 Indiscernible] she can see McDonald’s arch from a billion miles away . . .
Hilbert: Hey, I love the golden arches when I was a kid, oh, yeah.
Milford: Sixteen months old, but when you hear this this like Southern, “Would you like a café mocha today?” and you pull around and every time we pull around at our McDonald’s anyway, it’s, you know, it’s a young black female and she has a completely different voice when she . . .
Hilbert: Of course.
Milford: . . . is taking our orders.
Hilbert: Because it’s pleasing, it disarms you it puts you at your ease because Southern hospitality is a very real thing. It is real and so, I think the voices associated with that because if you go over Europe, you’ve got a typical Yankee voice, no one cares, it’s ugly, but they swoon for the Southern accent because that’s just beautiful. It’s exotic and it’s a real accent.
Milford: When you come to the Waffle House here and they’re like, “So where are you from?” They’re really asking what the hell are you doing around here.
Hilbert: Oh, no.
Milford: You’re not from here.
Hilbert: Where are you from, by the way?
Milford: I was born in Alabama, pretty much raised in Georgia.
Milford: Got out for—I lived out west for a few years in Arizona and a little bit New Mexico and then Iowa, of course for, you know, the Writer’s Workshop when I was there.
Hilbert: Right. Of course.
Milford: I’ve only been out of the country one time, but when I was in Iowa, I really did for just a short period of time lose a lot of my accent to where when I came home to visit, people are like, you know, you don’t talk the same and then, the minute I got around my relatives, it just completely went back to sort of amount of what I’m doing now I guess, but . . .
Hilbert: Well, you know, the funny thing is, you know, when Robert Lowell, and he had a Boston Brahmin accent where they drop certain things, you know. And, he—but when he went down south to study and he was down with John Crowe Ransom I believe, is that right?
Hilbert: And all those guys and Allen Tate.
Milford: I just spoke about him recently at a forum on Robert Penn Warren actually.
Hilbert: Right. Right. There you go, Robert Penn Warren. When he went down to study with those guys, he started picking up a distinct Southern accent that was laid on top of his Boston accent, and in the biographies I’ve read of him, a lot of people will be quoted saying they thought he never really lost that, that he picked up what may have been an affectation at the time. He’s following, you know, he pitched the tent on Allen Tate’s lawn when Allen Tate said he never have any room for him to stay, he’s like, well, you can always pitch a tent meaning “don’t come.”
And he looked out the next day and he was there in a tent and they thought, well, he’s got gumption, he means it, so, you know, they let him stick around. Robert Lowell was nothing if not persistent to be sure. But, apparently he picked Southern accent as a badge of honor because he left Harvard to go down to study with those guys. And so, it works all sorts of ways.
But, anyway, to get off that subject, I would like [1:19:16 Indiscernible] and I will go ahead and read—the last I’m going to read is from—also it’s from Aim Your Arrows at the Sun, and it’s another character poem. And this one is an 80-year old poet and I even gave him a name which you’ll see in there or here rather. It’s called “All I Got Was this Lousy T-Shirt.”
Here I am, 80,
Having outlived the joggers, whole-fooders,
And part-time Buddhists.
Come, let’s have a drink.
My poems never made the serious
Mags, the ones I admired.
My rhymes were louche, my titles, coy;
My metrics, where they appeared at all,
Deemed too rough to please.
The cool mags shut me out as well.
I was a dinosaur, too slow
To notice a comet had made me
Extinct. I wasn’t progressive,
And my name, Paul Posey, is not exotic.
I had a career, of sorts—
Best new this, exciting younger that.
Like Pluto, demoted from planet
To something less impressive,
I swim slowly, far from the sun.
I raise a toast, to all of us,
Who never made it. So few do!
Our words hardly deserved a second glance,
Who sang, and slept, and never stood a chance.
So, on that note, I thank you for having me on your wonderful show.
Milford: And, I want to tell you when we are talking on the phone, I’m like, okay, this gentleman is going to try to get out with a forty five to one-hour long reading, forty five to an hour long reading.
Hilbert: You don’t know me at all.
Milford: I have tricked you into—into an hour-and-a-half. Maybe you tricked me.
Hilbert: You never have to trick me into talking. I’ll tell you that. I don’t even have to be, if I had to be I’ll just keep going for four, five hours, I’ll tell you.
Milford: And, I wanted to tell you a little anecdote real quick before I let you go because I actually wrote a note down about it. My sixteen-month old daughter is just now kind of running around the last couple of months. What she calls running is more like the sort of have you ever seen a chimpanzee put its arms over its head and sort of like gravitate towards you.
Milford: But she found your Sixty Sonnets magnet.
Hilbert: Oh, good.
Milford: She was playing with that, you know, you have a magnet for the book. And she came into the room just, “Aaah, Aaah.” You know with the magnet and trying to form a word and say something.
Hilbert: Oh, I love it. I love it.
Female: She was reading it.
Milford: She was reading—well, my wife says she was reading it, but what I thought in my head was, well, my child now has Sixty Sonnets in her hands and she’s not even two years old yet.
Hilbert: Good. That’s great.
Milford: Sixty Sonnets is made out of metal and [1:22:23 Indiscernible] to me and saying like this is pretty symbolic.
Hilbert: I mean I actually, that magnet was meant to be—I do a lot of stuff for my blog, E-Verse including my magnets, beer bottles, bottle opener key chains, and pens and things like that. I wanted to do a magnet for the book and it came out double the size I wanted, and I don’t know because I punched in the wrong numbers or if they screwed up and I thought this is the biggest magnet anyone’s ever going to have.
Milford: Yeah, 3 x 5.
Hilbert: It’s the last—well, I gave a reading in London and there were all these young kids there and they were just like “our refrigerators aren’t even that big. We can’t even fit, it will be bigger than the refrigerator.” But, I love putting together merchandize for the book and the blog and giving that stuff away and they have, you know, I got to put together a funny little, you know, inspirational posters. It was a thing with his little daughter who is too young to read and she’s holding Sixty Sonnets like she’s reading it. And it was my slogan from the blog which I don’t want to curse online if you can’t do that, but it says, “Would it kill you to read an f’ing book?” you know and it was just the funniest thing . . .
Milford: We actually aren’t FCC regulated over here.
Hilbert: Okay. Our slogan is, “Would it kill you to read a fucking book?” And it’s so cute because it’s this little girl who’s like holding Sixty Sonnets and like she’s saying that. It’s just a funny thing, so I’m glad.
Did I send you any of the E-Verse tattoos for the—for her?
Milford: Yes, go ahead.
Hilbert: Okay. Yeah. Okay, I’ll send you some down.
Milford: And, when you send it, send me some of these new poems, I want to—I want to see these on paper.
Hilbert: Oh, absolutely. I’d be happy to do that. Absolutely happy. I just want to . . .
Milford: I appreciate that, Ernie.
Hilbert: And send me your address again, so I’m sure I have it.
Milford: Sure, no problem.
Hilbert: This is all wrapped up.
Milford: Thank you for doing the show. It’s a pleasure having you. I had a really good—I had a lot of fun talking to you, man.
Hilbert: This is great. I’ll tell you what. What I’d like to do is I’m going to promote this as much as I can, so let me know when it’s—after you edit it and then put it up or I know this is live, but it’s like this goes into an archive I assume, right?
Milford: Yeah. It will be archived after we hang up the phone, probably, you know, ten or twenty minutes afterwards.
Milford: It will go to JoeMilfordPoetryShow.com. Your reading will be featured until the next reader and, but you can always get to it into the archive and we featured you on Blog Talk. So, I’ve also promoted you on Facebook and you have several people listening right now and they’ve already commented actually on Facebook about the show and what not.
Hilbert: Oh, good.
Milford: So, we tried to spread it around as much as we can.
Hilbert: I hope the comments are positive: “this guy is a jerk. He’s a blowhard. Does this guy ever shut up?” [Laughs] No, this is great, Joe. I really do appreciate it, I’ll do my best to promote this as well. I think you’re doing a really great thing with this. I thank you. Thanks to your wife as well.
Milford: You know any suggestions you could give me to be a better host, I’m open-minded to you because I, you know, I feel like I’m still finding my—my, you know, sea legs on this.
Hilbert: Sure. Well, the blind do sometimes lead the blind, so I guess I’m happy to help you out in that regard. I’m just learning how to fly. This is great.
Milford: Have a great night. Thanks again.
Hilbert: Okay. I enjoyed it and . . .
Milford: You’re going to send me some more stuff, right?
Hilbert: That sounds good and I hope you can come out to one of my New York readings in the next few months.
Milford: That would be awesome. I got to talk to my task master over at . . .
Hilbert: Oh, she’s welcome too. I guess you have to find a babysitter.
Milford: I was speaking of my director not my wife.
Hilbert: [Laughs] Sorry.
Milford: I got smacked.
Hilbert: She’s giving me a dirty look through the phone I’m sure. I didn’t mean it that way.
Milford: I’ve been smacked on air. I’ve been smacked on air now.
Hilbert: I meant it in a gentle fun way. Okay. Well, thanks, Joe.
Milford: Have a good night.
Hilbert: All right. Take care guys. Bye-bye.
Milford: Take care, man. Bye-bye.
[1:25:55] End of Audio