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3am Interview





LEGENDARY MISBEHAVIOUR



"Today, all art is immediately absorbed in a headlong rush by critics, publishers, record labels, and curators to recognize the latest trends. Styles or lack thereof become traditional immediately and are not permitted the opportunity to gestate as 'outside' or 'rebel' or 'avant-garde'."

Richard Marshall interviews Ernest Hilbert

COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

3AM: Can you say a little bit about yourself in terms of your writing -- when did you start writing, what were the reasons for writing?

EH: I began writing in earnest around the age of nineteen, chiefly short stories and poems. I surely lacked the necessary intellectual discipline to have attempted anything more ambitious at that age. I have always been a slow learner. I would spend hours, even whole days, tapping away at the keyboard of an old computer. I have always been a reader, but as a child I preferred books with maps and pictures to anything like a novel. I was enthralled by paintings of Spanish galleons burning off Caribbean islands, maps of the battle of Waterloo, aerial photographs of Berlin bombed nearly to dust in the Second World War, reproductions of the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, black and white photographs of Henry Moore's recumbent figures. I would pour over diagrams of Roman military encampments and descriptions of medieval witch burnings. I grew up in a house filled with books, stacked every way, shelves to the ceiling. If money was ever scarce, books certainly were not. Some of my earliest memories are of climbing the bookshelves like ladders, and someone, probably my mom, grabbing me down from the precarious heights where the spy novels and other paperbacks were kept in the narrow slots at the top.

Music also filled the home. My father was a musician, so I would wake in the mornings to hear him playing J.S. Bach or Sergei Rachmaninoff on the piano. When not playing, he always had what is called "classical" music on the record player or radio. Music played all night, all day, wherever he was. I am much the same. It is a rare moment that I am awake and music is not to be heard. I live in the hope, among many, that this music enters my writing, that it is the rain that yields later harvests.

I remember writing some terrible poems in high school and showing them to my father. He, being very well read and enormously intellectual, decided not to encourage me. For this I am genuinely thankful. He was very supportive of my reading, and would go to considerable lengths to help me get books that were unavailable in stores. Remember, this is before the advent of e-commerce; writers quite commonly available today, such as H.P Lovecraft and Leonard Cohen, were entirely out of print. My writing was too dreadful to allow for much comment, even by a most reassuring father. The sketches I scratched into my notebooks were, at best, derivative of misunderstood Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, even Anglican hymns and heavy metal lyrics. They were constructed in a manner only a simultaneously self-loathing and egotistical teenage boy could summon. I loved to read the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings; the fantastical gothic stories of H.P. Lovecraft; short stories by authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Matheson, Franz Kafka, mostly dark fiction, I realize on reflection. Intense orders of words, particularly poetry, seemed like magical formulas, religious incantations. Consider something like this on the mind of a young man or a child:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

That is one of a great number of poems I committed to memory while washing dishes for a living. Each day I hung a different poem over the sinks and memorized it. By the end of a summer I was really beginning to get the heavy metals of poetry into my blood. Once in the blood, they are inextricable. I was something of a poetry jukebox at parties and in bars in my early twenties.

In my late teens, when I embarked on one of my first serious writing binges, I decided—wisely I believe—to keep this activity to myself until I managed to get something published. I furiously wrote horror and science fiction short stories, when I probably should have been doing something else, looking for work or going to college. Within a few months, I was appearing in magazines in England, Canada, and the United States. Genuine, if meager, checks began to roll in. I believe I still have my first check, uncashed, a few dollars for a poem titled 'Crossings', from a little science fiction magazine called Figment. I sometimes wonder if it is still around. The check is probably stuck somewhere in one of these books here in my office. I never stopped writing after that. I later attempted novels, some of which came dangerously close to being published by big houses like Doubleday. Needless to say, I moved away from the horror and sci-fi angle by my mid-twenties. I believe that success as a writer arrives when you can read something you wrote exactly one year earlier and not hate it. There is also monetary success, but many of the best writers in history made little or no money from their writing. It all depends on what one hopes to achieve. If profit is the object, I would suggest real estate investment or computer programming, perhaps waiting tables at an upscale restaurant, instead of writing. I write to be read, not martyred. Nonetheless, I hold to the path I've chosen. I make very few compromises with my writing.

3AM: Poetry has been described as avant-garde with tradition attached. How do you see your own poetry in the light of this?

EH: The term avant-garde is troublesome. David Lehman contends in his very readable The Last Avant-Garde that after the era of the New York School poets and Abstract Expressionist painters, an avant-garde became impossible. Today, all art is immediately absorbed in a headlong rush by critics, publishers, record labels, and curators to recognize the latest trends. Styles or lack thereof become traditional immediately and are not permitted the opportunity to gestate as "outside" or "rebel" or "avant-garde". A sense of alienation from larger traditions once accompanied such endeavors and gave them a certain venom and playful energy, as exhibited by Tristan Tzara and the early Dadaists or the first wave of Beat writers in the United States. That sense has, to a large extent, been lost. As an opera composer recently put it to me: "there's no guard to be in advance of anymore."

Yet all poets are married to tradition, or at least to a tradition. Whether they act as though they are, or even recognize that they are, is another matter altogether. It might seem painfully obvious to bring up T.S. Eliot's essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', but it is absolutely seminal when discussing poetry after Modernism. Eliot makes the powerful point: "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead." As dismal and perhaps discouraging as this might sound, it is solidly the case, even if one is hesitant to rely on the heavily subjective practice of establishing "touchstones", as did Matthew Arnold in his 1880 essay 'The Study of Poetry'. Since the time of Eliot's pronouncement, the recovery and revaluation of previously submerged literatures and voices makes his assertion all the more potent.

Although I am hardly a formalist, I do often write in forms and always have a tradition in mind. I do not wish to appear unprogressive, but even at their most "experimental" — a term I detest when referring to the arts — poets should recognize that their presumably innovative attempts may well be innocent — which is to say unintentional — copies of styles already pioneered by, for instance, Clark Coolidge, David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Gustaf Sobin, Clayton Eshleman, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, even Jorie Graham (who in all fairness more likely colonized than pioneered the given style). I mention here only recent American poets. If one turns overseas and back in time, it seems that every path has been run down and back again by someone. There is litter all around, but at least the ways have been, for the most part, worn clear of thickets and brambles. This can come as a frustration or a great relief, depending on one's disposition.

Some politicize "form" itself, claiming for it all sorts of demonic powers, advising that ordered, symmetrical word patterns necessarily extend from hierarchical, oppressive intentions. This seems awfully unfair. Either a poet can write a genuine sonnet or he cannot. I do not understand why technique itself would be considered so threatening. Also, it appears to me that anyone who has faced truly difficult circumstances in life would hesitate before vilifying anything so harmless as poetic forms. In fact, forms can even seem quite reassuring to those who have emerged from chaotic environments. Also, new forms, including those arising from chance operations, were introduced into poetry generations back by authors very concerned with freedom of expression such as John Cage and Jackson Mac Low.

Another argument against poetic form is that it is inherently arbitrary, handed down from an era when literacy was limited and aural mnemonic devices such as rhyme and meter were common to many human pursuits (thus the financial accounting term to "audit"). It should be remembered, however, that structures begin to take on fascinating senses corresponding to the very limits they represent. Even an arbitrary design will promote internal patterns that would not otherwise be possible.

After Cubism, there was a tendency for poetry to depressurize, to relax, scatter itself visually on the page. There was a concurrent trend after Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, and particularly Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams to incorporate common speech rhythms and vernacular diction into poetic settings. While this may have become programmatic with Charles Olson's notion of "projective verse", Olson also placed great emphasis on the balance a poet must reach between the "twin deities" of sound and sense. More expressionistic varieties of poetry may stray into the shallow waters of nonsensical phonic textures or into pure "surface" sonic qualities — as in the case of "Sound Poetry". Others may be attracted to prose-like phrasings. In the first case, the reader (or likely listener) scratches the surface only to encounter more surface. In the second, the same reader is asleep before long and might feel some trees were unfairly cut down. I believe that the most interesting kinds of poetry being written today in English are those that fall between these two extremes.

For instance, when I decide to write a poem in blank verse — unrhymed lines consisting of five iambic feet each — it is impossible to ignore echoes from history. I immediately feel John Milton's comment upon his choice of blank verse for Paradise Lost: "The measure is English heroic verse without rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin, — rime being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre." Wordsworth's Prelude will leap to mind, along with dozens of other examples. Poets must ask themselves: how will a poem written today fit into and affect its own tradition? If I choose to write in octosyllabic verse, I can not very well shuck off the implications of former examples; there were periods of English literature when it was enjoyed largely by those penning satirical verse; I must consider the more elegiac use by Geoffrey Hill in the 1970s, and then how W.S. Merwin handled and modified the assumptions of the form in his book The Pupil, just this year, 2002. One must also consider its derivation from late medieval French poetry, as well as its use by voices as diverse as John Dyer's, Lord Byron's, and even William Morris's, if one can stomach much pre-Raphaelitism. There is also, for instance, the decision to use iambic or trochaic feet when writing in octosyllabics. Tim Donnelly, one of the two poetry editors of The Boston Review, recently convinced me to substitute trochees for iambs in one line of my poem 'World's Worst Harpsichord'. This change allowed me to rhythmically frame and extend a metaphor in which a harpsichord's keyboard moves "restless as the sea" beneath an impassioned performer's hands. Even if one chooses to write entirely in free verse, this very decision enforces the poet's responsibility to use what freedom is given, to focus more intently upon alliteration, word-play, etymology, musical phrasings, internal rhyme, improvised rhythmic figures, phonic associations. It does not confer license to write simply as one will, with complete disregard for the eye and ear of the reader.

3AM: Can you say something about the poets and writers who have influenced you or in some way helped you in your writing?

EH: I have never spent time in institutional settings such as MFA programs, workshops, or retreats. I owe a great deal more to other writers for their moral backing and friendship than for aesthetic guidance. This phalanx of writers includes Afaa Michael Weaver (Multitudes: New and Selected Poems), Andrew Zawacki (By Reason of Breakings), and Irving Feldman (Beautiful False Things). Having said that, I will rush to add that I do appreciate suggestions forwarded by fellow writers. I also enjoy working with experienced editors, whose direction is absolutely invaluable at times. These include Garrick Davis at the Contemporary Poetry Review and Danny Shot of Long Shot. In terms of direct influence, I suppose I derive the bulk of it from a diverse society of writers, living and dead. A large library will have thousands, even millions of books available. The sheer number can be overwhelming, but one can never claim to be at a loss for influences. The art of navigation becomes more important than the ability to absorb information. One must read selectively and with vigor. A course, complete with constellations by which to steer, will become clear in time.

3AM: Living now in the United States, do you think there's a difference between the poetry scene over where you are and the one in Britain you left behind?

EH: Both Britain and America are gifted with excellent publishers of poetry, such as Bloodaxe, Anvil, Carcanet, and Faber in Britain; New Directions, Black Sparrow, Verse Press, and Ecco in the United States. I mention here only a fraction of the prime poetry publishers on either side of the Atlantic.

The American scene is dominated by a system of MFA programs that whisks out armies of poets, each determined to publish a book, get into every magazine regardless of former interest in the publication. Some are successful. Some wind up returning to school for an MBA or law degree. The urge to get an advanced degree in creative writing, or even to be a creative writer under the aegis of a sterile bureaucratic institution, seems to be a rather effete and futile one. Success in poetry, for most, comes from years of hardship and compromises, from experience in life. It is nearly impossible to attain a characteristic middle class living as a poet, even if one teaches. If one does not, and has inherited no money, it's Charles Bukowski's bed-bugs and empty bottles all the way. It is generally a short matter of time before a young poet who meant to burst onto a scene slinks into the cubicles of the corporate world or back home to a parent's living room couch. Devotion to vision is rare, longevity still rarer. In Britain, I found the independence of literary magazines very refreshing. Many rely on Arts Council grants, but they are not generally affiliated with universities. I devoured such superb magazines as Agenda, Chapman, Dark Horse, Acumen, and Michael Schmidt's world-famous PN Review. I found British poets naturally attracted to traditional verse forms. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Concrete Poetry never really took hold on British soil, despite Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos anthology, the noteworthy international success of Ian Hamilton Finlay, and late-comers like Miles Champion. The BBC's Nation's Favourite Poems series yielded abundant evidence that Britons prefer traditional forms of poetry, even if the anthologies include handfuls of highly-stylized vers libre poems such as Stevie Smith's. In the United States, the best-selling poet at the moment is Billy Collins, whose shortish poems are very windy and unadorned, easy to copy and easier yet to forget. That is one difference.

Please understand, I do not have anything against advanced degrees in creative writing. I know little about them, having never been anywhere near one myself. They are not, however, without precedent. They can be seen as modern equivalents of the Singing Schools of ancient Ireland, which had their roots in Druidic learning. Poets were trained in a variety of skills over the course of years; the skills acquired included grammar, metrics, genealogy, law, Latin, dinnshenchas (place-name lore or geography), mythology, and history. Of course there were also designated roles for a poet in ancient societies, usually as wandering bard — who held recorded history and shared cultural knowledge in a memorized and partially improvised epic poem such as the Iliad — or attached to a noble court, to record — with great rhetorical and panegyric flourish — the typically violent and dull history of a ruler. The difference today is that only very few poets have any readership at all, and certainly very few have any political endowment. There simply is not any apparent need for poets, despite the endless polemics to the contrary poured out by poets themselves, usually addressed to other poets at readings or in prefaces to anthologies. If the role of the modern poet is to war with language, exist Sybil-like on the edge of a commonwealth and sing its praises or complain bitterly of its faults, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to glut a non-existent market with "professional" poets, even if they are in many cases excellent.

3AM: Did you go over to Europe because of these differences?

EH: I moved to Britain to attend Oxford University, first to complete a Master's Degree in Research Methods in English Literature and later a Doctorate in English Language and Literature. I was there to pursue scholarly goals. The choice had little to do with my imaginative writing. While there, I edited the Oxford Quarterly, which provided me with the opportunity to publish many very successful American writers who had only small audiences in Britain at that time, such as David Mamet, Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, John Hollander, Donald Justice, Marilyn Hacker, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, Charles Wright, W.D. Snodgrass, Charles Simic, Galway Kinnell, and Jorie Graham. I also published British authors such as Edwin Morgan, Ruth Fainlight, Charles Tomlinson, Susan Wicks, Michael Hamburger, and the current poet laureate Andrew Motion. Beyond that, I brought in continental European authors such as the Romanian Marin Sorescu and Australians such as Les Murray. I was also lucky to secure an advisory board for the magazine that included Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, John Bayley, and the late Iris Murdoch.

I was attracted to Oxford University because the graduate programs are flexible and allow for great independence compared to those in the United States. As an imaginative writer, I had no compulsion to move anywhere. I would have continued writing poetry and fiction anywhere I traveled, and I don't believe I would have written much differently than I have.

3AM: Are you in touch with other writers where you are?

EH: When I lived in New York City, it was easy to find other writers but difficult to keep track of them. New York serves as a terminal. I have heard writers refer to their "year" in New York, as though it were yet another degree program. New York City takes many years to saturate one's imagination. It is a modern day Rome. Few of its inhabitants, at least in Manhattan, were actually born there. The first two or three years I lived there after returning from Europe felt like an extended vacation, complete with endless drinks and hard drugs. After a time, the streets became so familiar it was difficult to imagine having lived anywhere else. Everyone seems to be in transit, particularly writers. Certainly New York offers many advantages to a poet where socializing and professional interests are concerned: the Poetry Society of America, big publishers like Ecco and Knopf, magazines like Open City and Chelsea, and a number of places to read aloud, such as Zinc Bar, Double Happiness, KGB, Nexus Gallery, the Poetry Project at St. Mark's in the Bowery, and now Bob Holman's impressive and very inviting Bowery Poetry Club, across from CBGB's. The harsher side of the situation soon presents itself, though. The rents are surreally elevated, and Manhattan has become even more money-oriented and status-dazed than it has formerly been. It can be a very unpleasant place for a working artist, particularly one who works in an ancient and underpaid field like poetry.

After a half decade in New York City, I recently moved to Philadelphia, to live with my girlfriend, a classical archaeologist. We live in a floor of a Victorian house near the University of Pennsylvania, where Kelly Writers House, founded by Al Filreis, has an active calendar of events and readings. Stylish new online literary magazines like Tom Hartman's Ducky are based in Philadelphia, and the editors can be found regularly playing darts in local bars. I've already met a number of writers and hope to meet more as time passes. Most importantly, I have the time, space, and pace to write as I like. New York has a vicious undertow that will pull a devoted writer under very quickly.

3AM: What is the writing scene about from your perspective over there?

EH: Well, insofar as there is a scene, it seems impossible to determine what the driving motives of the authors are. First of all, there is no one scene. Perhaps there are many scenes that fold into one other on any given night. Some are very disunited. For instance, it is unlikely that a poet who reads in the Red Room at KGB will also be invited to read at Gathering of the Tribes. Someone who is published in Tin House will not be published in Long Shot. It was my assumption growing up that reading, and therefore literature, was a largely private affair. I prefer it that way. I want to read a book my own way and in my own time. Likewise, I encourage someone to go off and read my writing, or for that matter listen to my spoken word recordings, in their own way and in their own time.

In most cases one will find a number of aspiring authors who should simply be medicated. Others might do with a jab to the kidneys. Others would be better suited to a regular job in the suburbs. Some are charming but untalented. Some are moody and behave badly. This is because they are sociopaths. That is why they are writers. Charles Bukowski has a wonderful poem about a writer's conference in which he explains that once you take a writer's typewriter away all you are left with is the mess that got him or her writing in the first place.

The urge to stand in front of a group of strangers and sputter off passages of painfully autobiographical pabulum is incomprehensible to me. Yet on any night in most cities in the United States one can find a group of such people. Often poetry becomes mixed up, confused I should say, with spoken word performance art. There are no hard rules where this is concerned, except that performance poetry relies much more on rhetorical techniques familiar to actors and stand up comedians, including throwaway material intended for one pass only, bodily movement, the incorporation of images and music, sometimes lots of shouting or pouting about sex and being dumped. The poetry, if it was ever written down, is likely to play dead on the page. On the other hand, densely-crafted poetry might not come across so easily to an audience in a bar or theater. It is meant to be read numerous times. Although I am very fond of listening to recorded poetry — I listened to an hour of Wallace Stevens recordings this morning — I don't enjoy being talked at, particularly at night and on the weekends. That is what a scene consists of: a group of people who gather in a particular place and read poems to one another. The more prestigious ones have better poets and waiting lists of up to a year or more, but most aren't so well organized. I like to have drinks and talk with other writers. I very much enjoy talking with people, particularly those of intelligence, warmth, and humor. I have attended hundreds of readings, but I have to make the confession that I usually glaze over after a few minutes, unless the reader is exceptionally electric. It is the same feeling I used to get from lectures when I was college. I felt I could have stayed home and read the material myself. Also, after a few minutes of information, my natural inclination is to be spurred to think for myself and use this information. This is why I learn so much in conversation. It moves and evolves. The better poetry seems to be doing just this. It is process-oriented. It describes its own making. A very popular term today is "kinetic". Of course language is comprehended in a linear fashion, but it can be made to give the impression of moving, being spontaneous and original, even if it is carefully designed to appear so. Conversationalism is a fine and by no means lost art. I am lucky to know a number of excellent conversationalists. It might not seem that such a common activity could easily be viewed as an art. It is a fine art, one that requires many years of practice.

3AM: Who should we be reading or looking out for?

EH: Younger American poets to be aware of right now include Tim Donnelly (Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit), Kevin Prufer (The Fingerbone), Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing), Matthew Rohrer (Satellite), Matthea Harvey (Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form), Joshua Beckman (Something I Believed Would Be Different), Suzanne Wise (Kingdom of the Subjunctive), and Andrew Zawacki (By Reason of Breakings). Those a bit older would include Ivan Argüelles (the brilliant ongoing epic sequence Pantograph), Susan Mitchell (Erotikon), and Franz Wright (The Beforelife). Novelists I would recommend might include Lawrence Krauser (Lemon), Benjamin Anastas (An Underachiever's Diary), Steve Erickson (Arc d'X), Adam Kirsch (The Thousand Wells), Aleksandar Hemon (Nowhere Man), and Alex Shakar (The Savage Girl). It is always difficult to recommend books, because there are so many that will end up going unmentioned. These are just a small few who leap immediately to mind. So far as established authors are concerned, I cannot say enough for the English poet Geoffrey Hill (Orchards of Sion) or the recently deceased German novelist and poet W.G. Sebald (Austerlitz). I believe both are, now were, possessed of genius.

I would also like to mention the painter Brian Knauer, whose growth as a painter and whose success as a gallerist have gone some way toward restoring my interest in art in New York City.

3AM: There's been criticism of the way poetry has been unable to take on the big issues of the day, Sept 11th, Israel, Afghanistan, etc. Do you see this as a failure of nerve, imagination, or is it a bad way of looking at what poetry is able to do?

EH: Certainly, there was the commonly held belief that the events of September 11th forced many artists to go blank. Actually, I felt there were far too many poorly-considered reactions to the attacks. The electronic and print mass media flooded the nation with a wall of images and information so dense that art, with its attendant subtleties, had difficulty squeaking through. Greater tragedies have occurred throughout history, certainly, but none yet compares to the September 11th terrorist attacks for their unexpectedness, sheer spectacle, symbolic weight, and massive news coverage. In these ways they are unique.

Having witnessed the attacks from my rooftop in New York City, and having friends in the World Trade Center and immediate vicinity, I went into a state of cold white shock. I worked in the World Financial Center, directly beside the World Trade Center, for two and a half years and wrote at least half of the poems in my book Entombment I, II gazing out those high windows over the harbor to the south and the city to the north. The World Trade Center itself was so close it seemed as though the sky had been shut out by an immense silver wall. I suppose there is a view of a crater there now.

I was unable to write about the attack for some time, but the attack changed everything. Even things written before that day took on a new clarity and weight. I was asked by Danny Shot to write a piece on the attack for his magazine Long Shot. He and I were at a memorial service held at the Arts Club in Gramercy Park for a publisher. Over drinks at the Gramercy Park Hotel afterward, he lamented that he didn't have enough pieces for a projected "9/11" section, and that those he did have were not particularly to his liking. Most wore the "you had it coming" element face out in the most obvious fashion. I decided that in order to avoid the overwhelming sense of dislocation and selfishness that would accompany any attempt to project my private experience of events, I would construct a prose sequence titled 'What Voices Arrived', based on the first things said to me by my friends in the city after the attacks. I modeled the opening of the piece on the King James Version of Lamentations, the desolation of the empty city, which is how downtown Manhattan felt that week. The bars were silent but not empty, and the streets were eerily devoid of traffic. Only sirens breached the breathtaking silence and sadness of those days.

I believe that one must consider several compositional elements when writing on topics of grave or terrible scope: there is the matter of craft, approach, finding the appropriate form (insofar as many poets in the United States today think of form at all). Particular caution, both aesthetically and morally, should be devoted to the piece. That is to say that more gravity and knowledge is necessary than if one were simply writing a poem or short story about a one-night stand. The poet begins to speak for and to a great number of others on deadly serious topics. Responsibility grows. Think, for instance: what is the poem adding to the thousands of impressions of the events already cast down on the public at large? What is the role of the poet at this point? Does the poet disjoin himself from history or attempt to engage it with the most handy tools available, politics and rhetoric? I believe one must find a footing at the center of the beam, somewhere between these. It is as easy to be callous by pretending that something did not happen as it is to forward brash accusations from either Left or Right. James Merrill — who may have remained a bit too far afield from the political world — once remarked that the foremost problem with "political or social writing is that when the tide of feeling goes out, the language begins to stink." I am inclined to agree for the most part with that statement. A lot of political poetry appears naïve or simply treacherous once years have gone by. It is hardly impossible to write on such events as have occurred in the past year. Perhaps it takes time. Perhaps it is simply the case that such prolonged periods of peace for the United States had cultivated a bored, self-involved type of writing that was not well suited to handle the historical and human scale of cataclysm, whatever it may be, on September 11th, before, or after.

The only poem about September 11th that has really stuck with me is Nicholas Christopher’s The Last Hours of Laódikê, Sister of Hektor. It concludes with this stanza: “both of us falling now / the room falling too and the city / and no one to hear our cries / just the dead waiting in a bottomless canyon / and the sound relentless / of the gods grinding this world to dust.” It can be located in Everyman Library’s Poems of New York, edited by Elizabeth Schmidt.

3AM: What new projects are you working on at the moment?

EH: I have been writing libretti and other texts for musical setting for about a year and a half now, and it has had a great impact on the direction of my writing. I work with a composer named Daniel Felsenfeld, who is remarkably talented. We were commissioned by the Composer’s Collaborative to write an oratorio for the Non Sequitor Festival, in the summer of 2002. We’ve since also had a song cycle on September 11th performed in Brooklyn. Our five-act opera, The Last of Manhattan, originally intended as a companion to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, will premier in early 2004 at the legendary venue The Kitchen in Chelsea, New York. I’ve also written a cycle of concert arias for Felsenfeld.

I continue to edit the magazine of new writing called NC (which appears in yearly installments numbered NC1, NC2, etc., corresponding to the name of the parent company, nowCulture.com). The second issue is currently in stores in the US and available from www.nowculture.com. The publisher, Martin Borosko, and I hosted an evening of readings for the second issue at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, titled The Future Knows Everything. We were brought in by the excellent Boo Froebel, who curates the series.

I am completing a fourth poetry collection in manuscript, Vertigo of Eros, which follows Entombment I, II, Removal of the Body, and An Opposing Music and will join them to gather dust in my drawer. I have recently published poems in The New Republic and Slope, and I provide below a series of links to my current recordings in different online magazines.

I also continue writing for Garrick Davis’s Contemporary Poetry Review, and I am writing a chapter for the upcoming American Writers from Scribner’s. I am also seeking a publisher for a 200,000-word book of commentary and interviews from my half-decade in New York entitled Legendary Misbehavior: Sketches, Conversations, and Counterattacks.




ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE

Ernest Hilbert's poetry has appeared in The New Republic, The Boston Review (MIT), Pleiades, LIT (The New School), The American Scholar, Fence, Poetry Daily, and Slope. He is the editor of the annual print anthology, NC. He hosts an annual evening of readings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City titled "The Future Knows Everything: New American Writing". He received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master's Degree and founded the Oxford Quarterly. He has worked as a contributing editor for Long Shot magazine, and he is also a librettist, with operas staged in New York City. He is an agent for Bauman Rare Books, the largest dealer of its kind in North America.

Recommended URLs:

Bauman Rare Books
The Contemporary Poetry Review
Bold Type Poets and Poetry
NC1, NC2

Ernest's recordings:

Posterband digital broadside and recordings
‘Memoria in Aeternum’, in three parts, in GutCult
‘Circe’ from The Cortland Review
‘Etiolational’, in ten parts, in Slope





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