Mary Hickman – This Is the Homeland
A decade in the making, Mary Hickman’s This Is the Homeland (Ahsahta Press, 2015) feels like a masterful collage, words floating in and out of lines as echoes, ideas, and titles come to the fore and then fade. In every poem sound is at the center, the lyric a persuasive story of desire for wholeness and forgiveness for not just the self, but all of us, as she says:
Come. Get an elbow, a lovely morning, glory to God, old and secret.
Heart of my heart, laid at your feet, I’m stony. Today bards must drink.
The daughter of missionaries, Hickman grew up in Taiwan and China and had a brief career as a surgical assistant for heart surgeries before attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her poetic sound borders on invocation and wrestling with the body and its disappointments seem core concerns. Throughout This Is the Homeland she actually, and metaphorically, holds the heart of her subjects in her hand. With poems this evocative, we willingly allow it.
CLAUDIA F. SAVAGE: You wrote this book over the course of a decade. That’s incredible stamina to stay with these poetic ideas for so long. You’ve said in other interviews that Jack Spicer’s idea of the serial poem or, your summarizing, “poems as rooms that you enter and move through” influenced you. I find this idea fascinating.
MARY HICKMAN: First of all, thank you for your generous reading of my work! It’s an honor to have the book so thoroughly engaged. Peter Gizzi’s important work collecting, transcribing, and editing Jack Spicer’s Vancouver lectures has been such a gift! My own notions of the serial poem come directly out of the ideas Spicer touches on in these lectures and out of my readings of his books. Spicer is always interested in the physicality of the serial poem, its limits, borders, boundaries, geographies, and topographies, and he tells us that “…you have to go into a serial poem not knowing what the hell you are doing…. You have to be tricked into it. It has to be some path that you’ve never seen before….” (The House That Jack Built, 52). I find this to be the most rewarding way to work. I find it opens new terrain.
CFS: Your work as a surgical assistant for open heart surgeries comes in and out of these poems and seems a combination of wonder and anger at the body’s weakness. You have many poems that seem disgusted at the body’s fatness, as in the poem, “Territory,” where you say, “I’m so sick of their fat sternums./ Why save ‘em? We are unsure./ See this brain box—which box are we in?” And in the hysterical “Woodchopper:”
If you have abdominal fat
thighs! you’ll grow old you’ll grow
pink in a position we can’t expect
& force your habit at the waist.
And, yet, there is a sense of relish in excess as in “Locust II:”
Bright thighfruit raised & alternate the bounty
of increase. My desire immense
domestic, she says. . . Release your glands
Was your intent that level of dichotomy or did it come naturally from your own obsessions?
MH: I think you’ve nailed it—frustration at the breakdown and helplessness of the body on the one hand and awe in the face of its wonders on the other. I don’t intend a dichotomy, only some kind of utterance, a way to run the scales of what we experience.
As to my specific uses of the word fat, I hope the poems do activate the cultural implications—the contempt or disgust that often clings to the word. In heart surgeries, my least favorite part was the smell of the burnt fat as we cauterized bleeding. It’s indescribable. And, of course, quadruple bypass patients aren’t usually the healthiest people. But the disgust in that first poem is not disgust with the patients but with my own helplessness. It’s an attempt to be honest about the pain, yes, but also the resentment I began to feel waking up at 2 am for an emergency aortic dissection, working on the patient for hours and hours, knowing it was most likely a lost cause. It doesn’t feel heroic. It feels enraging. These bodies, what are they? Why do they fail so easily?
CFS: The repetition of the “William” poems and the “Remembering Animals” poems remind me of one of my favorite poets, Yves Bonnefoy. Do you know his “Une Pierre” or “The Stone” poems? He has written dozens of poems with this same title. Bonnefoy has said, “I cannot consider stone without acknowledging that it is unfathomable, and this abyss of fullness, this night sheathed by eternal light, for me exemplifies the real.” Can you speak to that notion of repetition? What is the primary concern in these repeated poems? What are you writing towards or in dialogue with?
MH: I suppose I have thought of these poems less in terms of repetition than in terms of correspondence. I wrote the “Remembering Animals” series after my brother-in-law shot himself. He was a very destructive person toward the end but it wasn’t some kind of inherent evil—he was very ill. And the ethics of human relation that I’d been thinking about while reading Akira Lippit’s Electric Animal and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am as I was writing another series in the book, “Totem,” resurfaced in my trying to work through the grief and anger of this event. The poems each speak to one another—no poem closes itself with epiphany or revelation and won’t even allow for direct sorrow or condemnation. But the poems do want to try to be honest about shame. And this is something that requires a network or web or some other kind of structure to begin to write.
CFS: These poetic dialogues occur on multiple levels in the book—with prayer, love, sacrifice, and the notion of needing caretaking floating throughout, as in this gorgeous excerpt from, “William Who Lives,” where you say, “Honey stop wrestling honey. I said I’d suckle for you. I said/ I’d Sabbath and scatter the wafers for you.”
You’ve said that, “Poetry fills in some ways the function of religion for me…. Poetry is the place where you think about what it is to be in the world.” Yet, these religious references fill your book and seem to be your touchstone. Can you talk more about this?
MH: I’m tempted to think of all my poems as quest narratives. Failed quests, but quests. And you need symbols for these, I think. Icons to engage, to shatter, to rebuild. I’m up for any of it entering the work when it can or when it must.
CFS: Your spacing and alternating short and long lines enhance the feeling of light and dark, interior and exterior body throughout your book. Some poets have said they write slowly and spaciously in service of certain poems; others talk about performing poetic Ikebana on their work—winnowing and winnowing until the shape reveals itself in both the words and the space between. I know this is an extremely personal question for a poet. What can you share about your form for This Is the Homeland or, maybe, for one of the series within the book?
MH: I would say that I try to work intuitively as far as the forms go—not so much a conscious construction of light spaces and dark spaces but feeling my way along the poem’s matter to find its seams. Some of these poems were written on the backs of envelopes and the envelope’s edge initially determined the break but later I reworked the breaks by ear. Some were written as large prose blocks and I introduced line breaks later for tension or emphasis. It changes sequence to sequence. I’m never quite sure what the poem needs—I have to try to be receptive to its registers, listen and adjust.
CFS: Continuing with form, I want to ask you about your early erasure project. Did you know that Yves Bonnefoy’s first book, Traite du Pianiste, was self-published and Shakespeare and Company put it on the table of recommended books next to James Joyce’s Ulysses? No pressure there! I read somewhere that you were a pretty ambitious young poet yourself and came to graduate school with an erasure project of Ulysses. Can you talk about that and how you formulate different projects?
MH: Ha! Yes, the ambitions of youth. I embarked on the erasure project while I was living in Barcelona. I was involved in a long-distance love affair with another poet and already knew it was doomed. For me, erasure is a scraping away to see the marrow of the text, a rebuilding to bring out what’s already there. But it is also the desire to fully experience and even mark the body of the lover.
I don’t actually have projects, as strange as that sounds in light of the fact that I work exclusively in series. The series occur. And recur. Poems begin to talk to each other, reflect, refract, and it can take a long time to see these points of correspondence. The erasure project is perhaps the exception in that I was consciously excavating the text day after day but I had no idea what I would find.
CFS: Reading your work, I was immediately struck by its similarity, for me, sound-wise, to Lisa Jarnot. That playfulness and adeptness in your work is apparent throughout, as in two of my favorite poems, “Gold Lake” and “A Moving Temple.” You write, “Brows of kites of cumin…/ your body coral blue” and:
…stretch my seven-rhythm breath
—per what’s electric—a bowstring row of bees—
Carve your wooden cheek in beams—
Youthful claps: luster [] sheen [] patina [] gleam []
Who are your musical poetic influences? Where did you get your phenomenal poetic pitch?
MH: I do love Lisa Jarnot’s Black Dog Songs so I’m excited about the comparison. I have watched my music change, settle, and then reverse a few times over the past fifteen years. The first real shift I noticed was after reading John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. I read it the summer I turned twenty. And then the next winter I experienced a shift in my syntax. Bouncy, exclamatory energies. But, I didn’t make the connection until a year or two later when I read Berryman again and thought, oh, wow, this stuff is infectious! Another shift happened when I read Cathy Wagner’s book, Miss America, about a year later. This book taught me how not to be too precious with my language. She smashes language in service of sensation—does violence to the language while always making it do more and better work.
I would also say that I’ve got Hopkins and Donne in my ear. Spicer, always Spicer. But also Eleni Sikelianos, Cole Swensen, Chelsea Minnis, Ariana Reines, Helen McDonald, and Geoffrey Hill. This is just kind of a short list of my musical greats.
CFS: That’s an amazing list—Donne, Sikelianos, and Minnis are favorites of mine as well. Berryman’s form and yours deserve a kind of poetic high five. On a completely different topic, as part of an artist-couple myself, I’m always curious how two poets (you and your husband Robert Fernandez) influence each other’s work? Do you read first drafts, compose in the same room, or avoid each other?
MH: Robert and I met in graduate school, in a booth at Dave’s Fox Head in fact (the writers’ bar in Iowa City where everyone from Vonnegut to Berryman has fallen off a barstool and which was recently featured on Girls). We talked about poetry until dawn. I remember reading his poems the next week in class and thinking, damn, this is what I came here for. So I would describe our artistic relationship as one of inspiration and excitement.
CFS: Your more recent work uses ekphrasis (reacting and interacting with art) in a kind of prose poem. It is wild stuff—a bit like an essay, a bit like a rant, poetic juice and confession everywhere. Can you talk a bit about these new pieces and what we have to look forward to in your work?
MH: I think my earlier experiences working in heart surgery continue to influence my writing and I find myself interested in dance practices such as Butoh, sculptors like Eva Hesse, and painters like Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville working at the border between spirit and flesh, figuration and abstraction. So, in my second book, Rayfish, I adopt the rhythms and logics of the artist’s statement in order to interrogate the nature of art, its relationship to vulnerability, mortality, and love. Within the collection, each poem speaks across genres, drawing heavily on the lyric, streaked through with autobiographical elements, and ventriloquizing the conventions of art criticism. Saville says, “If there’s a narrative, I want it in the flesh.”
Find a copy of This Is the Homeland here.
Born in Idaho, Mary Hickman’s early life was spent in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan with her missionary parents. She was an open heart surgical assistant before receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and beginning a Ph.D. in English Literary Studies from The University of Iowa. She is the author of two chapbooks, Ecce Animot (Projective Industries, 2012) and How to Be Healthy and Heal (Cosa Nostra Editions, 2011) and the book, This Is the Homeland (Ahsahta Press, 2015). Her second book, Rayfish, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2017. Her work has been featured as a Boston Review Poet’s Sampler and in the PEN America Poetry Series. She recently lectured and read in Turkey and Armenia as a delegate with the State Department’s American Writers on Tour program. Hickman is currently finishing a dissertation on 20th-century U.S. poetry and the artist’s book.
Claudia F. Savage once cooked for people recovering from illness and wrote the chapbook The Last One Eaten: A Maligned Vegetable’s History. A 2015 Pushcart nominee, she’s had poems and interviews most recently in The Denver Quarterly, Water-Stone Review, Iron Horse Review, clade song, Nimrod, Cordella, and Bookslut, and has been awarded grants and residences at Ucross, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Jentel, Hambidge, Brush Creek, and through Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. She is an associate poetry fellow at The Attic Institute and teaches privately. She is also part of the performing, experimental poetry/music duo, Thick in the Throat, Honey, whose first album, Love Letters We Never Sent, was released in 2015. Her greatest passion, besides multidisciplinary collaboration, is helping other mother-artists to keep making work. Her column “Leave the Dishes,” about balancing parenting and writing, can be found at voicecatcher.org and at claudiafsavage.com.