Minor Things Within the Major: Mark Halliday Talks Poetry

by Eric M.R. Webb

Here I was, driving to the airport to pick up a successful, award-winning poet, and funny guy. I was going to interview this person, and was beginning to get nervous. But I tried to reassure myself: after all, his poems are down to earth and insightful.

To prepare for the interview, I had spent the last two weeks readingKeep this Forever, Selfwolf, and Jab. Halliday’s poetry seems to melt into the world around in order to highlight the minutiae, to find the kinds of hidden non sequiturs in situations that most of us wouldn’t notice. It’s this excruciating attention to the details of life—the minor things within the major—and the way he approaches that attention in a conversational manner, that I find fascinating.

In Jab, Halliday writes:

you’ve selected
what doesn’t cut deep

in a poem called “Contents.” As the title of the book implies, he is not the kind of poet who will pull his punches, even when the target might be the person standing in the mirror, or his reader for that matter. Halliday makes no apologies about this. His poems don’t either, digging into the minutiae to examine why we would feel relieved when the neighbors down the street had congestive heart failure, tumorous kidneys, and pneumonia all in the last few months, as in “Not Us,” or what it means that at the moment your father dies, you’re standing in the next room on the phone with your wife instead of holding vigil, as in “Skein” in Keep this Forever. He does not shy away from these question or the details that trigger them in his poems.

I’ve often wondered if a poet who has managed to figure out this attention to detail worries what others think of him, or becomes nervous at meeting someone he admires. By the end of my interview with Mark, I realized that there was not so much to be nervous about, and that either way, I should be examining just that.

Eventually, we ended up at Borjo’s Coffee, which serves just about every English student on Old Dominion’s campus. The crowd was a little noisy, the background music up, but the coffee is good, and coffee is definitely a requirement for a poet. We sat down to talk, and Mark answered my questions with enthusiasm, treating this interview with graciousness, not just as a duty to be performed. His interest and honesty about poetry, and his willingness to share, helped me realize there’s a reflection of the poet in his poetry, and this is probably true not just for him, but for all of us.

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EW: I want to start with big-picture things. So, I guess the first question would be what you see as poetry’s big picture? Where do you see it fitting into society?

MH: Well, I tend to come at that question in kind of a small way. That is, I usually don’t feel convinced by the things that people say when they want poetry to be a more recognized national phenomenon, or to play a bigger role in the culture. Maybe it’ll get smaller. In the last 40 years now, there’s been such an explosion of people wanting to study creative writing at the graduate level that you could say the field has greatly expanded. But at the same time there’s that phenomenon which we all talk about, which is it can seem like the only people who are reading what you write are other writers. So, it’s a spinning little world of writers communicating with writers.

If you’re talking about poetry in the way most of us practice it now days, mostly free verse, and in some sense post-modernist, it’s not going to be like the kind of publicly palatable verse that was popular in the 19th century or the early 20th century. The readership for what we do is not going to get much bigger. So I really don’t worry about it.

If you look at it from the other end, there’s this amazing population of very stubborn people, like you, who keep going into the graduate programs, and insisting on trying to make poetry a focus for their life. Having a career centered on it is extremely difficult. And of course, for someone who has a job in a writing program, it’s wonderful that the students keep coming. So at any given moment, there’s what, ten thousand people in the United States who are so obsessed with it that they will keep doing it. And, I’m just happy that –

EW: It’s amazing that there are that many.

MH: I’m happy that’s true, but I’m not worried about the audience for poetry doubling or tripling in size. You know, in terms of audience, there are different kinds of poets. I try to write poems that a person who’s not part of our little world [writers] can read, can appreciate. When I read tonight, I’m assuming there’ll be undergraduates in the audience?

EW: Yes. There should be, a lot of the professors are requiring undergraduates to go several events.

MH: I try to imagine the intelligent undergrad, who the professor has made go, and I want that person to have an interesting experience. So often, my goal is to write a poem that is intelligent enough and sharp enough that it can get across to a young person like that. Or for that matter, an old person who is not part of our scene. But at the same time, is seriously interesting to someone who’s really into poetry. That’s my goal.

So I’m all for reaching lots of readers – but popularity is not the priority. The priority is to write the truest poems.

EW: You were speaking about how finding a position in poetry, and making that a full time thing, is difficult for up-and-coming poets these days. And we have examples like Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser, who were I guess both insurance underwriters, right?

MH: Well, Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. But right, there are examples along the way of really good poets who managed to make a living outside of universities and still keep up a serious writing career. William Carlos Williams was one. But I have to say that seems hard.

Because to me it always seems that being a poet involves a ridiculous number of hours of staring out the window. And just walking around and brooding, and remembering something that happened to you in high school, and looking at old letters, or a lot of hours that do not look like “work” to anybody else. Even to one’s spouse. You know, your wife or husband doesn’t really see that it’s work, but it’s part of what feeds into poems you might write that might really matter.

EW: It would be nice to be able to spend a life that way.

MH: You’re looking at it . . . I’ve been teaching ever since 1979, and I’ve done a lot of concrete work in that way, but I also feel that academia has given me that life that is very appealing where you can make your own hours a lot, it’s very attractive. That’s why, of course, there are so many people in MFA programs and so on who are hoping for that.

EW: I believe it was back in the 19th Century, poets would essentially have sponsors, who would fund them for their work

MH: Yes, if you go back in time, certainly in Shakespeare’s day, or the 17th and 18th century in England, there’d be rich aristocrats who cared enough about the arts to support a few writers or artists. And that kind of patronage, well, would it be right to say it doesn’t exist in our society, or it’s –

EW: More public?

MH: It goes through foundations, I guess you could say. But no one can count on making a living that way, you’d have to be very lucky.

EW: Speaking of which, we had two poets win the (MacArthur) Genius Grant this year. When you heard about that, what did you think of poets winning such a prestigious award?

MH: I suppose, ideally, in a society this big, there’d be a couple of other foundations that would have that kind of money so that it wouldn’t be singled out so much. I don’t think the MacArthur people ever use the word “genius,” but it’s become attached to their program. It’s great that that exists, that there is an effort at least, to make it be very anonymous and secret, how the decisions are arrived at. I myself have written twice, letters on behalf of a candidate, and it was kept very secret, and I respect that.

EW: You asked me earlier how I got into poetry, and why I decided to do the MFA thing, and I want to turn that question back to you, and ask how did you end up going into poetry, and why?

MH: I remember my mother vaguely talking about me going to law school, and I think I pretended to think that was a possibility. But I didn’t really feel it. I took some political science courses, and I was in college when the anti-Vietnam-War movement was huge – and I participated in that some on the edges. So I vaguely thought, maybe politics was some kind of life, but I didn’t really mean it, because when it got right down to it, I hated the types of work and activity that are required for that.

I knew I was going to be some kind of writer, maybe I thought I would be a critic, or an essayist or a fiction writer, but I was writing poems, and sending them to little tiny magazines, in the years after my BA. And then, one of my former professors persuaded me to enroll in the MA program at Brown University – sort of a precursor to the MFA – and I did. At that time, I thought Fiction would be my main thing, and the most wonderful teacher in the program was John Hawkes, a novelist. Under his influence I was very excited about fiction writing, I wrote a lot of not-very-good stories and he was very tough on me. But you know he was tough on me in the way of a great teacher where it’s kind of exciting that he’s telling me “You’re bad.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I committed myself to the idea I was a poet, and that went along with realizing that I was not going to succeed as a fiction writer. Then, when I went to graduate school for a PhD in English, I was lucky enough to meet Frank Bidart, who was a visiting professor at that time at Brandeis. And I immediately loved his way of talking about poetry, and everything he said mattered to me a lot. Then for about five years I was completely under his guidance. It was then, around the age of 30, that I finally was writing poems that I still believe in.

Because really, the poems of my twenties, they are kind of like imitations. I can see that I was imitating whatever I had been reading, and it wasn’t coming from ideas and feelings that I really believed.

EW: It sounds like you found your voice.

MH: Yeah, I think so, and I think that I owe a lot to Bidart, because I think he sort of heard my voice, when I wasn’t sure. He encouraged me in certain poems that another teacher might have discouraged, that were not like his poems; they were very conversational, and had a lot of words. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for opening that door and saying, “Well, you know, this could be good.” He might say “this poem is bad because you don’t really mean it,” or “it’s hokey,” or all kinds of things could be wrong with it. But the speaking voice might be the way it wants to go. So that was very helpful.

EW: What’s a piece of advice he gave you that you really kind of grabbed onto?

MH: Oh, god, there must have been so many . . . I remember phrases. One of his was, when he thought a poem was not working well, he would say, “the reader is way ahead of you.” And he has said that to me within the last five years, too, not just when I was younger. “The reader is way ahead of you.” Meaning, if you imagine a really smart, sophisticated reader, that reader already knows where you’re going, and is already bored maybe by the trajectory of the poem. So I try to watch out for that, I hear his voice saying that. And a related thing that he would say sometimes is, “the poem is too much under your thumb,” by which he meant, it wasn’t alive enough to the kind of mystery of the subject.

EW: When did you learn to let go and let the poem take over?

MH: I had successes during those years when he was my adviser, but… they might be poems that would go through five revisions. He was amazingly patient and generous with his time. And we’d go to a coffee shop just like this and I’d show him revision number three, and I’d want him to say, “okay, this is it.” And he would take his pen, make a little mark beside line seven, and then I’d think, “oh no, what’s wrong with that?” We’d talk about it, and it’d turn out that the voice was not quite believable at that spot.

So, how do you teach Poetry Writing? I know what Frank did – and I’m sure that I imitate this all the time – he’d just keep asking, “is that really how you feel, is that really true?” Because so often, we get going writing lines, and by the time three minutes have passed, we’re already a little bit off what the initial human impulse was. It’s very hard to hang onto that, or to fight your way back to it. There’s a way in which all of our “literariness” kicks in, and starts offering phrases…

It’s like Google nowadays. I hate the way Google now anticipates what you are going to type in –

EW: What you’re asking for.

MH: I mean, come on. Google was already a miracle ten years ago, and I was fine with that. That was a fabulous miracle. But now, it reads your mind, and the computer actually pauses while it’s deciding what you are thinking.

EW: It’s your brain kind of anticipating–

MH: Yeah, your brain starts supplying “poetic” phrases, I think. I could do something with this metaphor, let’s go down that trail, or we could have a little off rhyme here, or something. Which of course might be great, but it’s got to have a deep root in the feeling that was the inspiration for the poem.

EW: Where do you find those feelings coming from? You said earlier memories, and that thing that happened in high school, and old letters.

MH: Well, it’s usually some kind of disturbance. It could be that if we were truly psychologically healthy, we wouldn’t be writing poems. I’m not sure I believe that, but there’s something to it. Let’s just say that the impulse to write a poem comes from a sense that something is not enough in the world, that a response is needed.

One thing that’s not enough is we don’t get to live forever, we’re going to die. That’s already a problem. There is something to talk about there. So we’re constantly trying to respond to it, or come to terms with it, come to peace with it.

Very often the initial thing for a poem is something that’s just nagging at you, right? A certain memory pops into your head and you feel a little depressed, or anxious, or excited. Then sometimes you can pause and think, “Now why is that? Why is that image of going to the beach with my father connected with this feeling of anxiety? What’s up with that?” Then sometimes, you can tune in, and follow a pathway to that.

We lose most of the potential poems, right? They float in and they float out, but it’s like fishing, you try to grab some of them.

EW: What is your writing practice? Do you write every day? Do you have a regular exercise? You know, some people write in the mornings, but I am not a morning person.

MH: Certainly prose writers often say that they do that, and that it’s a discipline, and I know some poets who do that, but no, I’m very irregular . . . very. I can go four months without writing anything you could call a poem or even lines of a poem. It’s frightening, especially as I get older, because I know there are not that many months in a person’s life. So it is a little scary, but that seems to be how it is for me. Then I might get on a binge and draft – well, this summer I was on a kind of a binge, and I think I drafted at least ten poems – not all of which are keepers, but you know they have potential. So, it’s unpredictable.

EW: And what do you look for in poems to see whether they are keepers, in your drafts? How do you know?

MH: One thing that’s nice is if I feel that I’m surprising the reader, I love it if I can feel that I’m actually a jump ahead of the reader – meaning an intelligent reader. Mind you, I’m not just talking about a weird, metaphorical leap, but if there can be a surprise that is analogous to the way a friend of yours might suddenly, in a conversation, say something weird, that actually was revealing. Something analogous to that in a poem. If I see that, I feel good, and I try to build a spot for that in the poem.

The other thing is when you’ve published a lot over the years, there is the fear of merely repeating yourself. That really becomes scary. I’ve published five books, and I can look at them side by side and see a lot of echoes. Almost like, “this is the poem in this book that is really dealing with the same obsession that this one is doing in this other book,” and that, that is scary.

EW: But can you—I mean, obsessions are things that follow us though life—can you avoid your obsession, or turn it so it’s new?

MH: I guess what you can do maybe is sort of test it, or push on it. Try to see more in it than you did before, but it’s certainly true that you have got to have obsessions. I don’t think that there’s a great poet who hasn’t been obsessed. For example, if you think of a really mellow poet like Richard Wilbur – he’s famously mellow – if you really examine his poetry you’ll see some obsessions, and really some fears, underneath the calm surface.

So yeah, you have to have them, you have to drill down into them. Frank [Bidart] once said to me – he might’ve been quoting someone, I’m not sure – but he said, “Ultimately, you will only write the poems that you are given to write,” and I think a lot of people don’t realize that yet, because they feel like “Wow, I can do everything, and my next book will be completely different, and I can try everything.” But the funny thing is, the years will go by, and there’ll be a lot of books that you did not write. So –

EW: Poets aren’t Madonna.

MH: Yeah, that’s right. Are they? A poet that I really liked and got to know in the last years of his life was Kenneth Koch, and he’s an interesting example of someone who tried really hard, all his career, to be so alive that every new book would be a surprise. That he’d be trying something new in every new book. And he tried a lot of different stuff. Ultimately, the fascinating thing about his career, is that in his last two or three books, he started looking back, over his life. In other words, he became an old man, who had an elegiac feeling for his past. Forty years earlier, he laughed at people like that, because it seemed so trite. But you know, life has its way with us, and you get to be old, and the past is a huge part of your consciousness.

EW: Your last book, Keep this Forever, is your most recent, right? There is a lot of grieving over your father’s death.

MH: Yeah.

EW: And it kind of moves from there into another place. I feel like, over the—some poets call it an arc—it’s almost a story of the speaker? The voice?

MH: I know in a first draft of the book I had the father poems at section three out of four. Actually it was Frank Bidart who told me that that was wrong. It was like burying the most intense part, and undercutting the human significance of that subject, so I put it up front. My father lived to be eighty-nine, so he had a good long life. It wasn’t anything like the kind of tragedy that happens to people when someone dies young, or way too soon. But he was huge in my mind in a very complicated father-son way, so I did need to write about it.

EW: Did writing help?

MH: I’m sure it did. I mean, not in the sense that I would have been messed up or traumatized if I wasn’t a writer, I don’t think. But it felt really satisfying, and kind of calming, to be able to describe particularly the last days of my father’s life, and what that experience was like for me. You know, it’s a version of what we do with poems all the time, where you have this thing that is in your life that is kind of tangled and messy, and you give it a shape, and the shape brings it under some control, and you can kind of put it over there, at arm’s length, get a perspective on it, and it’s very calming. If you feel that you’ve really done it in the poem, then it can kind of give you some peace.

EW: How many versions of the manuscript did you go through?

MH: There were at least two full-scale versions before the final draft, plus some shuffling. There were five or six outtakes from the book that I’m glad are not in it, but I needed to get other people’s input because like a lot of poets I can be very stubborn.

EW: That seems like a common quality among poets.

MH: Oh, yeah.

EW: Stubbornness.

MH: It makes it scary to be an editor, too. As an editor of New Ohio Review, I’m quite a hands-on editor. I’ve been doing it now for three years or more, and I make a lot of suggestions. It’s dangerous, because some writers can feel insulted, and in two cases I’m very aware of, I really pissed off poets that I’ve made suggestions to. So you have to try to be diplomatic, but I actually find that very interesting and stimulating. Have ideas about someone’s work, and see if I can help them revise. We do it with students all the time, but to do it with a published poet is another thing.

EW: Did you have an idea what this manuscript would be like? Or did you know it was going to come together into a manuscript?

MH: Well, my father died in 2003. And within a year after that I had drafted about a dozen poems that pertain to him in some way. Meanwhile, other poems were showing up in notebooks and so on. What you want is for there to be a unifying theme to some extent, and have it not feel like just a hodge-podge. It goes back to obsessions: if you really have obsessions, there probably will be some unity among the poems.

The whole idea that literature, or art in general, is an effort to retain traces of our chaotic experience and not let them just dissolve. That is certainly one of my obsessions, and I guess I thought, “Well, the death of my father will be one focus of that, and I’ll sort of key the whole book to that.”

EW: Dealing with the subject of death and mortality, the things a lot of poets have gone into, did you worry about rehashing too much?

MH: I certainly did. Mortality is The Subject, for poetry through the ages, and more particularly, the death of one’s father or mother, has become just a huge central subject since World War II or since Life Studies (Robert Lowell), 1959. It’s interesting to remember that people like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, they never wrote poems about their mother and father. It just wasn’t something that you did, somehow it was not available subject-matter.

But in the course of history, partly in reaction to them, and maybe partly due to the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis, the whole idea of the complexity of family and childhood in relation to one’s identity, just blossomed in the 1960′s. Everyone who, let’s say, writes what gets called “narrative poetry,” sooner or later writes a father or mother poem, or maybe a bunch of them. Bidart, in his first book, had a couple of really good poems about his father, and a couple of very good poems about his mother in later books. The examples are everywhere. So, the danger of just saying what everyone knew you were going to say is huge.

That did worry me for sure. That danger was one reason why I focused very particularly on the last days and even last hours of my father’s life. I figured there’s a concrete subject there that I can stick with, as opposed to trying to write about the whole relationship.

EW: And you can write about the whole relationship through that microcosm.

MH: Yeah, I did try in a couple of cases. I have a poem called “Walking the Ashes,” where I pick up my father’s ashes, after he’s cremated. I bet we could find 20 or 50 poems out there in the world that are about somehow dealing with the ashes of one’s mother or father, so even that particular focus has a danger of being trite. But I tried to marry the experience of picking up the ashes and walking across town, and some of my father’s personality. Often that’s the way it has to be, like you’re implying. You have to go through the particular experience, and maybe that can open up into some larger truth . . .

EW: Somebody like Mark Strand might have written that poem in third-person or second-person – something with a little bit of a different lens on that. What makes you choose first-person for these kinds of poems?

MH: Well, I really wanted to be autobiographical in these poems. Strand has a couple of good poems in that book, is it called The Story of Our Lives?

EW: I believe so.

MH: – where he’s got elegies for his father. There’s a really good one in which there’s a repetition of his father saying “I am tired and I want to lie down.” That’s poignant while at the same time, very non-personal. That is, it doesn’t feel as if autobiographical details are sticking to that poem. It almost tilts toward a sense of the father being The Father, rather than Strand’s particular father. That’s a way to go, but I guess I tend not to go that way.

EW: What kind of advice do you give your students in the poetry workshop, and what’s something you would say to a beginning poet, maybe for a graduate student, somebody who is really serious about the work and learning where they fit into it?

MH: A couple things come to mind. I’m not sure if they’re the best ideas. There’s one school of thought that says, what young writers really need to do is play with language, and there’s something to that. As I said, in my twenties I was not writing poems that I now consider serious or worthwhile, I had to grow up, and I had to spend those years trying lots of stuff. With my personality, I was not ready to bear down on my most serious thoughts. Some people can do it by the age of 25, but I couldn’t really do it until around the age of 30. So for me, lots of play with language was good.

I’d imitate all kinds of different writers, prose writers as well as poets, and I wrote a lot of playful silly stuff. I think W.H. Auden said something that’s often quoted about how “If a young writer has big ideas, he’s probably not going to turn out to be an interesting writer, but if a young writer is really in love with language, there is a chance.” So there is something to that.

Still, I should admit that in my workshop, I might assign some exercises that are a little bit playful, but I tend to be more the kind of guy who’s coming on kind of heavy. Like the kinds of things Bidart used to say to me, like, “Do you really mean this? Do you really believe that? Is that really how you feel?”

EW: Digging up the truth of the poem?

MH: Yeah . . . what is the stuff down underneath this poem? That tends to be what I’m bringing up during workshop. Ultimately, if a graduate student seems like he or she wants to really stick with it, then I’m trying to encourage that person to think, what is it about you that is different from other people? There has to be something: something in your background, or some mixture of humor and sadness, or some mixture of anger and excitement, or ambition, or… some mixture of feelings that makes you a little different from the next poet. And to keep diving down into that and see what comes up.

Eric M. R. Webb is a second-year MFA candidate at Old Dominion University, where he serves as the Writers in Community Coordinator and on the Poetry Editorial Team for BSR. He has recently published in Thunderclap Magazine and has been accepted into the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts for 2012.