Interview with Paul Hoover

by Vittorio Carli


Vittorio Carli
May 11, 1995 (originally published in Letter eX)

Paul Hoover is a well regarded poet, novelist, screenplay writer, and literature instructor. He was featured on the cover of the July/August cover of American Poetry Review. His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic,Sulfer, , Hambone, and American Poetry Review. He wrote the poetry collections: Winter (Mirror), Rehearsal in Black, Totem and Shadow: New & Selected Poems, Viridian, and The Novel: A Poem.
In addition, Paul wrote the screenplay for Viridian, an independent film that was released in 1994. His next project, Fables of Representation is a collection of essays on literary subjects. It will be published sometime in 2003.

He is editor of Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994), a widely adopted anthology,

I interviewed Paul Hoover at his office at Columbia College where he teaches Creative Writing. The interview took place shortly after the publication of Postmodern American Poetry, which was released in 1994. We were surrounded by books and the most extensive poetry video collection I had ever seen. He was friendly, cooperative, and he had lots of insightful comments to make about his new anthology, teaching, and the state of the art of poetry. Hoover sometimes had a tendency to circle around the answers to my questions, but often the comments he made in between were as interesting as the actual answers.

The interview was done in 1995 and it appeared in the late, lamented Letter ex, which later became reincarnated as

Carli: How did you first become interested in poetry?

Hoover: I was working at Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Although I had written some fiction as a college student, I hadn't written any poetry up to that time; in fact, I had an active dislike for poetry. But at the age of 25 or so, I started going home from my night shift at the hospital and writing poems. When I had produced perhaps ten poems, I applied to the new graduate program in creating writing at University of Illinois in Chicago, directed by the poet Paul Carroll. This was around 1971. Working with Paul Carroll was great for me.

Carli: Was he your mentor?

Hoover: Paul was definitely my mentor early on. I didn't write poetry like Paul's, which was influenced at the time by Whitman and Neruda - - a poetry of wonder and celebration - - but acquainted me with new kinds of poetry. At the time, I was reading whatever I found on the shelves of the Chicago Public Library, such as Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella. I was also drawn to the "deep image" poetry of James Wright, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell. In the late 60s, Paul Carroll had published the anthology The Young American Poets, which contained the work of Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and Ted Berrigan and others. Padgett's work, also included in his book Great Balls of Fire, was liberating for me. My response was, "Oh, I didn't know you could do that." My own work started taking more chances.
Paul Carroll was associated with the Beat poets, whom he published and helped publicize through his magazine Big Table. Big Table, which was given its name by Jack Kerouac (who also gave "Howl" its title), was developed by Paul and Irving Rosenthal when, as student editors of Chicago Review, they published writing by the Beats that was dubbed obscene by newspaper columnist Jack Mabley. When the University of Chicago administrators fired the two editors, there was a lot of public attention, resulting eventually in an obscenity trial surrounding the suppression of Big Table by the U.S. Postal Service. Judge Julius Hoffman, later to preside over the Chicago Seven trial, found Big Table to be of literary merit.
In 1959, Paul Carroll organized a poetry reading at the Palmer House, of all places, attended by over a thousand people. Allen Ginsberg did a memorable reading of Howl, the same one later distributed on the Fantasy recording label.

Carli: When do you think that you found your own voice?

Hoover: I didn't find my own voice, at least as it exists today, until the early 80s. My first book, Letter to Einstein Beginning Dear Albert, was published in 1979, but it was with Somebody Talks a Lot, 1983, that my poetry got its idiomatic tone, changes of pace, and off-handed philosophical qualities.

Carli: Did you try to speak in the language of the common man?

Hoover: I always loved William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and others who use the American everyday idiom. But I've also explored more abstract styles of writing. The two poles in my style are essentially W.C. Williams for directness and Wallace Stevens for wit.

Carli: How did you first become involved with the new Norton anthology?

Hoover: I had taught a class called "Modern British & American Poetry" which focused on the Modernist period; the text was the 1973 edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair. When the second edition came out in 1988, I was surprised to see some of my favorite poets such as James Schuyler and Gregory Corso being dropped from the canon, thereby from literary history. I decided that something needed to be done to correct the situation. I know it sounds like a paradox, but there is such a thing as the experimental tradition in poetry. The new Norton Modern retained the first generation of experimental or postmodern poets such as the Ginsbergs, the Ashberys, and the Levertovs, but there was no one my age or younger that had any experimental character. My book includes these younger poets, as well as new kinds of poetry such as language poetry and performance poetry.

Carli: Why do you think the younger people were excluded?

Hoover: I don't know. The revised Norton had no Anne Waldman, Clark Coolidge, Nathaniel Mackey, Wanda Coleman, or John Giorno. It was as if they had never existed. Ellmann and O'Clair seemed to be saying, "Well, there was this experimental moment in the sixties, but now it's over and we have to go back to the way it was." You have to remember that the mainstream allegiance is to middle-class values in language: sentiment, meaningfulness, and domesticity. There is a lot of interesting writing that comes from other perspectives than the mainstream, but it meets with lots of resistance. I would cite the differences between Rita Dove and Wanda Coleman, Donald Justice and Charles Bukowski. Coleman and Bukowski, included in my book, are a little rough for mainstream tastes. The language poets resist centrist values at the level of the sentence; their difficulty works against an easy reception.
Carli: And your anthology is trying to bridge this gap?

Hoover: I approached Norton almost on a whim at the 1990 Modern Language Association convention in Chicago. They were sharing a table with new Directions, my publisher, and I suggested to Peter Glassgold of ND that there ought to be a different anthology for experimental or outsider poetry. Peter said that New Directions couldn't afford such a big venture. But he introduced me to Barry Wade of Norton. Barry was hesitant at first told me to send a prospectus. Next thing I knew, I got a call at Columbia College from Julia Reidhead, my Norton editor, asking for a possible table of contents.

Carli: Do you think your book will become the standard for this experimental poetry and is this type of poetry taught a lot now?

Hoover: People at many universities are teaching postmodern poetry, but they have trouble finding an anthology and have to order 6-8 books. My idea was to create a definite but also wide-ranging and inclusive collection beginning with Charles Olson in 1950. I organized it chronologically by the poet's year of birth. Olson was also the starting point for Donald Allen's New American Poetry: 1945-1960. This had been the standard, but now it has become outdated.
I should add that the anthology is designed to be read by the general public as well as for use in the classroom.

Carli: Some of the introduction in the anthologies is somewhat dismissive of the experimental poets that they included. In Ellmann's Norton Anthology, an introduction suggested that Cummings was a Robin Hood type and you can't challenge complacencies with a bow and arrow.

Hoover: Cummings came from a privileged background but he was a bohemian figure. In his own way, he was a precursor of the Beats. Ferlinghetti clearly took from Cummings' work. Anyway, it was great of Norton to take on a project like this. As you know, Norton has a very conservative reputation. When I called up the poets to ask for permission to include their work, they sometimes responded with disbelief. They said, "You mean Norton is doing this? How can this be?" But they are! There's a new generation of editors at Norton who realize that poetry has gotten so large that they need a variety of books to represent it. As editor, I act as an advocate of the literature rather than the keeper of the academy's keys.

Carli: How would you define postmodern poetry and how would you differentiate it from modernist poetry?

Hoover: Postmodernism was created by a cultural shift following World War II, just as there had been a shift to Modernism around the time of World War I. In the 1950s, the postmodern style was instituted by the rise of mass communications, especially television, and related developments in advertising related to consumerism. Rock and Roll is postmodern; so are minimalism, pop art, conceptualism, and performance art. Even though these trends became dominant after 1950, it's possible to trace them back to Dada and the Cabaret Voltaire.
People are sometimes dissatisfied with the term "postmodern" because they think it applies only to architecture or the most abstract kinds of poetry, but it shouldn't be defined so narrowly. I tried to show in the introduction and head notes that there is no one reigning postmodern style. Postmodern poetry includes the Beat emphasis on oral poetics, black poets influenced by Baraka and Coleman, and Hispanic poets such as Victor Hernandez Cruz. In addition, it includes the New York School, John Cage, and Black Mountain poets, language poetry, and performance poetry. For me, the word "postmodern" is a more useful and all-encompassing term that "avant-garde". "Avant-garde" has come under attack because people think it's militaristic (the first troops into battle, also the most at risk) or Euro centric. It's also under attack by conservative forces that despise the new.

Carli: Do you see yourself as a postmodern poet?

Hoover: Well, I included myself in the book. Anthologists always have to question whether they should include themselves. Donald Hall included himself in his Contemporary American Poetry because he was part of that moment. I very much consider myself to be part of the postmodern moment. My long poem The Novel is especially "postmodern" in its use of pastiche and appropriation.

Carli: Is there any indication what will come after postmodernism?

Hoover: People have also criticized the use of the term "postmodern" because they think it suggest exhaustion. They often ask, "What next, post postmodernism"? They think that because we're approaching the end of the millennium, that literature must also be at a dead end. In fact, literature is as exciting as it's ever been. There are people at the center of culture that want to make literature into a stable or even fixed form of expression. It's tempting to refer to these centrists as "academic". In fact, an academic literature is any institutionalized, or fixed, form of expression. Even bohemian literature can become institutionalized.

Carli: Does this create false separation?

Hoover: Yes. There are people teaching in the universities whose whole history is in bohemian or outsider practice. Then there are forces in the centrist tradition that are still suspicious of long-assimilated modes such as surrealism. My personal view is that you shouldn't limit yourself to only one means of expression - whether it's abstract or figurative. Why can't a poet do both? I try for a fullness of expression in my writing, and so do most of the poets I admire.

Carli: This is certainly true of Baraka's work; his style seems very flexible.

Hoover: Yes, he has gone through many sharp turns in his career.

Carli: Can you tell me about the reading that's going to take place for the anthology?

Hoover: I invited Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones), Wanda Coleman from L.A., and John Giorno, one of the founders of the performance poetry movement. I think that it's going to be a great show.

Carli: Wasn't Jim Carroll who wrote and sang "People Who Died" also supposed to be there?

Hoover: Carroll was on the short list of people that I was thinking of inviting. Did you know that he got the title of "People who Died" from Ted Berrigan? Berrigan had a poem in his Collected Poems called "People Who Died" about his uncle's death and his girlfriend's demise in a fire. He was always a very elegiac poet. Anyway, I first met Jim Carroll in the 70s at a place called The Blue Store where they held readings in the cobweb-infested basement with a platform and a chair set up. Jim Carroll read there before he was known for anything. He read from The Basketball Diaries when it was still new and it was great.

Carli: Is it difficult to balance the demands of being an instructor and a poet?

Hoover: Well, when I was in college I had a best friend who was a poet. When I began to take an interest in poetry, he asked, "Are you going to be a teacher or a poet?" I realized that he was trying to drive a wedge between the two and I replied, "I'm a poet first and I'll teach what I know as a poet." Trouble can arise if you're not careful and your identity as a teacher can take over. I'm an editor, and a parent of three children, as well as a poet. I also just finished my first screenplay. I've had to juggle a lot lately, but now I'm trying to ground myself as a poet again. I just wrote about 30 poems that I'm really happy with.

Carli: How did you feel about how poetry was taught when you were a student? Did you have some memorable poetry classes?

Hoover: I had three poetry classes when I was going for my MA at University of Illinois at Chicago. I remember that I had one instructor who was formalist out of a Southern agrarian perspective. He said that there was an organic reason why poems should rhyme. Remember, this was the early 70s and students were used to rebelling, and there was almost a riot in his class. I remember that he said something about a poem and a girl sitting next to me loudly whispered, "What an asshole!" Then he looked all around to see who had said the remark. There was open rebellion. I was trying to be a good grad student, but I didn't really learn anything in his class. Then I had Paul Carroll the following semester. It wasn't what Paul said, but his relaxed attitude toward poetry opened up the whole field. One minute he talked about Horace and the next he would talk about Ron Padgett or the beats. He would display equal enthusiasm for a wide range of authors. I responded well to this and I respected him. At the time, I was leery to even admit that I was a poet. I thought I'd have to start off writing great poetry. Then I remember that I saw Paul Carroll outside of class. It was raining and sunny at the same time and Carroll was dressed like a dandy. He had on a straw boat hat and a pin stripe suit. He looked like someone out of a Renoir painting. He said, "Lad you're a true poet. I want to include you in the new anthology I'm doing." I felt like I wanted to float up in the air. I thought, "I am a poet. I must be a poet." So you have to believe in yourself.

Carli: I heard a writer assert that in the past writers came from much more varied background than today. I think this was an attempt to discredit so-called academic or residential writers. What effects do you think that institutionalization has had upon poetry?

Hoover: Everybody has heard of the so-called workshop poem or even the Iowa workshop poem. The poetry workshop as we know it really didn't emerge until the 1970s and 1980s. Now there are over 250 of these programs - - with new ones springing up all the time. Now you have to ask yourself, "What exactly is a workshop poem?" I think they tend to be free verse, narrative, personal, lyrical, and elegiac. When most poets start out, they'll probably use free verse. They will probably start to write personal works in the form of confessional narratives - - possibly set in middle class houses. Somebody called this kind of work "dead animal poetry." You know, somebody runs over a frog with a lawnmower and that's supposed to break their heart.

Carli: Is there a tendency for confessional poetry to lapse into sentimentality?

Hoover: Personal elegiac poetry does tend to lose a sense of objectivity outside the self. Charles Olson was against the use of the ego and he talked about the lyrical interference of the individual ego. You know, the self-rushing in on a poem and saying, "Look at me, look at my soul." After awhile of course, Olson's work itself and the New York school became institutionalized. I tried to pick works for the anthology that are outside the centrist tradition. There's a tendency for outsider forms to become institutionalized, but in the anthology I wanted to frustrate the idea of poetry as closed expression and I included outsiders that don't really fall into any one tradition. For instance, where do you put Andrei Codrescu?

Carli: Isn't he sometimes put into surrealism? I know it isn't a snug fit.

Hoover: That's a bit like putting a square peg in a round hole. Anne Waldman is another poet who doesn't fit into any one category. She can be classified as a beat, as a New York school poet or as a feminist poet for her poem "Fast Speaking Woman".

Carli: Andrienne Rich once said in an interview that poetry in this country is perceived as "effete, elite, and marginal." She also suggested that Americans believe that poetry has nothing to do with the center of things.

Hoover: Elite, effete, and marginal? To some extent this sounds like a contradiction.

Carli: I think she meant that poets or artists in other countries are allowed take a more central role in politics, look at Vaclav Haval, for instance. I doubt that his rise could've happened here.

Hoover: That's because we live in a very anti-intellectual country. Some people don't like the term "intellectual" applied to poetry, but all of the arts are intellectual activities compared to something like business. Even if someone considers themselves to be an intuitive poet, they've probably read other writers and attempted to position themselves. The United States tends to be very pragmatic and poetry has traditionally been thrown in the margin. I do think it would be unheard of here for a poet to become ambassador to a foreign nation. Even the formalists are thrown in the margin in their own way. John Ashbery had the benefit of a good education. I've sure many people think, "Ashbery's from Harvard, so he must be an elitist." Yet, in his own way, Ashbery is outside the tradition. He's a kind of misbehaving, trickster poet. People like Alan Shapiro have complained bitterly about Ashbery's tricks. He tends to pull the rug out from under his audience. Every group tends to develop their own elites. Often, this is because the best people tend to rise to the top. I've even heard some people complain that the same people always win the poetry slams. But, there are always people who go against the elite and their conventions. When conventions become too fussy or refined, then it's time to break them. Poetry should be challenging. I think that the role of slam poetry is to challenge people to think about the public function of poetry.

Carli: Do you ever think that slam poetry tends to turn poetry into a contact sport?

Hoover: I'd much rather have it be a contact sport than a parlor religion.

Carli: Because of your output, I assume you prefer poetry to prose. What is it about poetry that you find liberating?

Hoover: There was a time when I couldn't get through a prose work. I like lots of energy and drive in sentences. I like prose to have high-energy sentences and the same kind of momentum as good poetry.

Carli: Which prose stylists have this kind of momentum or energy?

Hoover: Grace Paley's short stories are quite snappy. I also admire the prose works of Nabokov, Kafka, and Beckett. These are all great literary figures. When I started writing my first novel, I hadn't written prose for nearly 20 years. I wrote it in five months and I produced 15 pages the first day. I tend to like compressed, fast moving material that pushes forward. In my two novels I tried opposite approaches (the second one's still in manuscript form). My wife, Maxine Chernoff is also a writer. She had pointed out that there were no interior monologues in the first novel - - everything's externalized. So the second one is all internal monologue. It also has longer sentences, but they aren't flowery.

Carli: Does your need not to repeat yourself spur you on?

Hoover: Yes, I need to keep doing different things.

Carli: Your poems in Nervous Songs are all sonnets - - what about this form do you find attractive?

Hoover: I had just read a book of formal sonnets. Basically, I used the sonnet cycle as a means of training or working up to longer poems.

Carli: Is it better to start creative writing students off with rigid forms or freeform writing?

Hoover: If you start out with rigid forms you'll merely freeze people up. I have assigned sonnets with 14 lines and only one rhyme. If I assigned the Italian forms, I would probably drive them nuts.

Carli: I once had to do a sestina for a class, and it took me about twelve hours to get all the words in place.

Hoover: I wrote a sestina that appeared in my first book, Idea. I later found out that I had gotten the form wrong. One of my friends who is an expert on form said, "That was clever how you reversed the sestina form in stanza five." But it wasn't clever, it was a mistake. By that time, I wasn't about to go back and change the poem. I also like to teach the value of arbitrariness along with form. My idea of form is to have students fold a paper in half and fill half a panel with words. This forces people who are too careful to move on. It forces them to find new things that I hadn't planned on saying.

Carli: In what sense are your poems nervous songs? (This was the name of one of Hoover's books.)

Hoover: Marjorie Perloff came up with this phrase for the back of one of my books. I later found out that Nervous Songs was the original title for John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs. Perloff was commenting on my hesitancy (I mentioned this earlier) to frame myself as a poet. I'm speaking of the "I'm a poet wearing a purple scarf with the wind in my hair" attitude. I've always had this puzzlement toward the idea of authorship. I love being an author and one of the main themes in my work is "What does it mean to be an author?" At times, I will seize upon an image in my work and seize it firmly - - then I will glance off into the distance. I'll wrap myself around something warmly and then spurt off. This is sometimes called shuttling, indeterminacy or undecideability.

Carli: Speaking of indeterminacy, did John Cage have any influence on your work?

Hoover: Not directly. I was never really interested in Cage until the late 1980s. In 1990, I attended an acoustic festival in New York City and Cage read some of his poetry. I heard his voice and I understood his poetry, finally. His work isn't undetermined at all; his voice is a very determining factor. I experienced a mixture of the accidental method, which tends to blow everything apart combined with the gathering power of his voice. I wrote a Cage style poem called "The German Version". It was a cutup of phrases that appeared in the brochure for the festival. I also experimented with a computer program to construct a poem, which is also very Cageian. I used it in the opposite way that Cage did. I used it to push my poem toward lyricism resulting in the most lyrical poem I had ever written.

Carli: Sounds kind of ironic. It seems like there's recently been lots of cross-pollination between poetry, theatre, song, and video. Do you think this is a healthy trend?

Hoover: It's all fine. Poetry has always had the ability to cross genres. The tradition of poetry as performance is ancient, anyway. The Celtic people have always had a tradition of oral poetry. My new film script also includes poetry. It has many poetic elements and it even contains two poems for voice over narration. I'm interested in many kinds of media and I'm the biggest film fan in the world.

Carli: Do you see your own poetry as being cinematic?

Hoover: Some of it is very cinematic? I've also written works that work against imagery, but my inclination is to write imagistically. I always wondered whether there should be a Chicago school of imagist poetry. At one point, Maxine Chernoff was writing prose poems and Elaine Equi was in town doing her poetry. We were all applying a surrealist influence to our imagist poems. Overall, I think that we're becoming a spectacle culture. Some people would even say that we live in a carnival culture. Our culture increasingly revolves around audio-visual material. You even have to ask yourself whether the book itself is threatened. Ask yourself how many video stores there are in your neighborhood and compare this to the number of bookstores.

Carli: The bookstores in my neighborhood have a really miniscule selection of poetry and philosophy.

Hoover: It's possible that in the future, literature itself will become an elitist activity. People also worry whether technology will affect the quality of literature, but this concern isn't new. I even remember in the late 60s, Karl Shapiro attacked Charles Olson for his reliance on the typewriter.

Carli: Do you think that television has affected people's reading habits? Television shows tend to have 5-7 minutes of narrative followed by 3 or 4 commercials. Doesn't this tend to diminish attention spans?

Hoover: Yes, but this might have actually helped poetry because poetry can have an immediacy that the novel doesn't have. Performance poetry is also having a big influence. Even Associated Writing Programs now has presentations on performance poetry. It's definitely filtering down into the mainstream.

Carli: Is performance poetry helping to democratize literature?

Hoover: Poetry has always had democratizing elements. When I started out in the 1060s, William Carlos Williams represented the democratic potential of poetry and Walt Whitman did the same for earlier generations. Some people think that democratic poetry started with the rise and of the middle class who vied with the aristocracy for control of poetry. You can say that Wordsworth was a poet for regular people, but what are the regular people? The definition of people, but what are the regular people? The definition of the regular people keeps changing as technology and history changes. I've always placed the romantic tradition above the neoclassical. However, there are some people today who think of Wordsworth as an old fashioned elitist. He used to stand for openness. Getting back to your question, I think that performance poetry is good because it helps get people acquainted with poetry.

Carli: You wrote a long, extended poem called The Novel. Why did your meditations on the genre of novels take the form of poetry?

Hoover: Well, I found it shocking when people reacted in such a positive way to my first novel. Even my father warmed toward my writing. People who had ignored my poetry for years suddenly thought I was a success because I had a novel published. Frankly, it pissed me off because it alerted me to the low status poetry has in this culture. I also wanted to write a long poem that spoofed the different genres of the novel. After The Novel, I returned to writing shorter, more lyrical works and I got away from abstraction, and fragmentation. A reviewer actually wrote a long poetic, fragmented review in the same style as the poem. He was pissed off because he had spent his whole life writing novels and here I was poking fun at his form! The Novel was also an attempt to deal with language poetry.

Carli: Isn't language poetry sometimes associated with art for its own sake?

Hoover: There are some people who see it as a decadent, end of the century, art for its own sake movement. Language poetry also is a response to Russian constructivism and it is informed by the works of people like Gertrude Stein. I prefer the expressionistic wing, which leans toward a more normative type of expression. Bob Perelman is a language poet who writes trenchant social commentary. Tom Mandel employs Jewish theology in his poetry. He thrives on the heat that is generated between theology and experimental procedure.

Carli: Do you consider yourself to be a social or political poet?

Hoover: Most people probably think that my work has no political content. But my poem, "Desire", which was anthologized in one of the Best American Poetry collections ends with a commentary on Tenement Square. I think that poetry is politics even if you're not writing overtly political poetry. I take a Marxist line on that. On the other hand, I don't like poetry that's exclusively political argument. The best political poetry is persuasive and dramatic.

Carli: Is there anything that you wanted to say in closing?

Hoover: Up to now, there really has been no far-reaching anthology of this type of literature. I'm thrilled to be the editor of the book, which will represent this historical moment. I think the book represents the best work done in the various competing idioms. My goal was inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. What started out, as a 500-page book became a 900-page book. Because of its range, this book will present the best of the younger generation of writers and I hope that it has an impact.

Carli: I'm sure that it will.


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