Why I didn’t write a Lit Crit Book

So many folks want to know about Hugo– he’s deeply compelling as a man and as a poet– that almost all of my discussions have been about him. Of all the “reviews” that the book has received, only one in RAIN TAXI has focused the book itself. So it’s refreshing to get to talk about what guided my choices as I wrote it. Thank you for prompting this.

First of all, this work connected with me on some very young, very primal levels. I was a forestry/environmental conservation major when I went into college. I wanted to spend my life outdoors. This was 1980 when Ronald Reagan came across our campus, touting his silver-tongued ways to the kids of New Hampshire. I ended up becoming interested in Barry Commoner, an environmentalist and intellectual who ran against Reagan. I was beginning to see how a person could write about the environment and make a difference. The outdoors was urgent and palpable; it connected deeply to my early writing. I always planned to write about torn apart landscapes. At that time, I was saddened by the strip mining in Appalachia, and had seen some of it.

But I was also getting interested in writing about poetry and poets. In classes with Charlie Simic and Mekeel McBride, I learned how to embed analysis and close reading into my prose. I loved that and grew absorbed in it as I grew to be a poet. These early experiences lingered inside me and tumbled out when I had the chance to write the Hugo book.

Really though, there were some constraints in working with Hugo. First of all, it wasn’t ever really going to work to do a straight biography. I wouldn’t have been interested in that kind of linearity. Plus, Donna Gerstenberger, a professor of mine from UW and friend of Hugo’s, had tried and couldn’t really get over the obstacles to write honestly and clearly about him. There was the matter of his first wife, Barbara, to whom Hugo was married for a long time. She won’t speak with anyone about Hugo. I tried and Donna tried. Plus, Hugo was married to Ripley those last nine years and they were productive good years. There are myths about Hugo, and they are upheld by his students, his colleagues and his friends. To break into his life and talk about alcoholism and difficulties with women– well, that would have to get awfully specific.

This book is a back-door way at getting to some of his biography without having to write an actual biography. I had the chance to be blunt– to address Hugo’s sexism and his drinking– without dragging it out.

One of my missions in my work, in life and in writing, is to further the reading of poetry and to instigate good conversations about the art form. I want to crack the safe that keeps poetry in academic settings and wrangle it free into the world. That’s why I started Richard Hugo House. If I could bear witness, as one would in a memoir, to the work and travels of Hugo, maybe I could make the close reading interesting and essential. I could be a character in the search for Hugo and his towns. In the process, I could really dive into his poems.

With that scaffolding, a sort of memoir journey into the poems and the places, I found that essays didn’t always match the subjects. In Silver Star, the town was too small and felt too fictional to accommodate an essay form, so I wrote it as a short story. Except the short story really happened. And in Pony, the most angelic of towns in my opinion, the place was far too sweet for a traditional prose inquiry. That’s why the Pony chapter is written in prose poems. They lighten the touch. I’m hoping that the square boxes of the poems are like chunks out of time, just as Baudelaire had done in Paris. The idea was to do a sort of drill sample into the history of Pony and mingle it with the present.

I didn’t start out to do a literary mash up of all these genres. Memoir, fiction, prose poems, an anothology of Hugo’s poems and literary analysis were just the tools I found useful in the writing of the book. I felt, along the way, that these offered better methods to get at the places and the conditions of the poems and the poet. It seemed simple when I started: write a book about the Northwest towns that Hugo wrote about. Then, it became more complicated, as good things do, when I got into the project.

I want to inspire more scholars and writers and journalists to read poems closely, to live inside them like places. I hope this book does that.