Stillness Moon: An Interview with William Heyen
by Bill Wolak
In July of 2015, Bill Wolak and Stanley Barkan traveled to Brockport, where this interview began. The interview continued during a visit with the poet to his archive and book collection at the University of Rochester Library, and then was completed by e-mail.
Bill Wolak: At what age did you first become interested in poetry?
William Heyen: You know, Bill, I was an athlete, even an All American soccer player in college, so most of my time was taken up with sports. But I remember being about nineteen and scribbling verses on the flyleaves of textbooks while in undergraduate classes. My doggerel was probably the result of being dropped by a high school girlfriend a couple of years before. I do believe in trauma as (sometimes) the spark for poetry. My hurt sounds trivial, maybe, but I was devastated. But we never know when we are having good luck. I’ve been married to my soul-mate for 53 years.
In graduate school at Ohio University, I began to get serious, began reading contemporary poets like Richard Wilbur and James Wright and saying to myself—competitive now but not in sports—hey, I can do that. I soon found out how hard it was as I lost sleep scratching and scratching. How was it possible to break through into a poem? It took me about five years of fairly obsessive work to have enough poems for a first collection (Depth of Field, LSU Press, 1970).
BW: Can you give us an idea about the poets who have had the greatest influence on you?
WH: Well, maybe I’ve been most influenced by individual poems—or prose (I think the greatest book I’ve ever read may be William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses—I get choked up reading many passages)—but certainly Walt Whitman is at the top of my list as the greatest poet who ever lived (except maybe for Homer). You’ll find essays of mine about him in a couple of my prose books. And a couple of sons of Whitman have been important, Theodore Roethke (subject of my dissertation) and Allen Ginsberg, as I always try to stay receptive to break-through, as they and Saint Walt broke through. Among the modernists, I knew and corresponded with Archibald MacLeish, and loved him and learned from him: “For all the history of grief / an empty doorway and a maple leaf.” But I think the modern poet who most helped me land and helps me still is Wallace Stevens, and this mainly for the way a poem can keep moving, keep flowing, forge a forward motion that penetrates and encircles the musical imagination. Poems like “The Woman in Sunshine” and that wonderful late poem “The World as Meditation” show the way for me. And there are the poets of exile, Paul Celan in particular—what voltage! Too many other poet influences to try to mention them.
But this caution. William Stafford—another poet important to me for myriad reasons—when asked about the greatest poetic influence on him said that it had been his mother, her voice. So, yes, we read and absorb and find poets and poems to help us create our own sense of beauty on the page, but family influences are strongest, and our childhood landscapes, and our teachers and teammates, and the history, in my case certainly, that enthralls and appalls us…. My book Titanic & Iceberg: Early Essays & Reviews is a good indication of what was on my mind in my early years, my readings I was hoping to become, as we say these days, “part of the conversation.” Also, Home: Autobiographies, Etc. (which includes a few other interviews).
BW: How would you define poetry?
WH: Well, any definition would seem to narrow it. Maybe it has something to do with that which exists beyond paraphrase, beyond interpretation and theory, beyond translation. But I do think that poetry is our only chance as a species to survive on this earth, and I’m not just talking about our lyrics, our word/language constructs, but about a way of thinking that might enable us, as Emerson requires, to “integrate.” The poet is the one who integrates, who makes us realize that we of all cultures are in this together, that the bell tolls for all of us, that all is One, in the end, as we move toward our common death. But I don’t want to preach about this, or to understand it to the point where I become smug. I just want, by way of sound/story/image/rhythm to find on my own page a poem that is smarter than I am, as Archibald MacLeish says it must be, that has within itself whatever it needs to go on thinking about itself (and us) and its meanings longer than any one of us will. I’ve written my best poems in a semi-trance, one line appearing after another, rave and dream and song-sound, and have later been surprised at how much has welled up from me into them.
BW: Can you explain a little about your writing process? How do you compose poems? Do you begin by jotting down the lines by hand or do you compose directly on a computer?
WH: Everything is by cursive, at first. I compose myself, and any poems I’m lucky enough to hit, by way of the handwriting I learned in grade school. New generations of writers I’m sure can feel the fusions of mind and word while their fingers are on a keyboard and their writing appears for them on a screen, but I can’t imagine this for me. I’m a thousand years old. I need a pen, ink, paper, the flow of letters from left to right and then left to right again. I type nothing up until I think it’s finished, though I do sometimes make minor revisions before printing something up for staring and hearing. These years, when a poem does come—I’ve 250+ new ones toward a huge book that will be called Chainsaw, and I’m in no hurry to publish it, and won’t be—it usually needs little revision, certainly not as much tortured rewriting as when I was in my 30s, 40s, 50s. And I have so many new ones now that I’m not afraid just to cross a poem out that has appeared in my notebook, and scrawl “forget it” below it if it doesn’t sufficiently complicate itself or if it lurches in ways I can’t fix. And I’ve been in poet’s heaven, thinking (maybe of course deluding myself, but I don’t think so) that my recent poems are my best, by way of natural voice and by way of the unconscious consolidations of craft over the decades.
BW: Do you have a daily writing routine?
WH: Not really. When I was young, I’d sometimes write all night when I should have been doing something more practical or sleeping, and then I’d be wiped out the next day. Now, I usually begin by writing in my journal each morning, & then maybe draft a new poem, or go through a sheaf of things, or write a snail to a friend. Then, for the rest of the day between whatever else is going on and helping to keep our house in repair and this acre of land not manicured but in some kind of order, and not to mention that my wife and I have four teen-age grandkids, my writing is hit or miss. But I’ve been very fortunate, and know this, because of my academic schedule over decades, to have had summers off, long vacations, sabbaticals, grants. And reading intensely for teaching literature classes has been part of the whole learning and writing process for me. I got into teaching when there were plenty of jobs. I’d not like to be getting out of graduate school now and looking for work.
BW: Hidden back in the woods behind your house on your acre of property in Brockport, you have a delightful little writer’s cabin. How and when was that constructed? Is that where you do most of your writing?
WH: Well, Bill, to call my 8′ x 12′ shack a cabin (as I’ve called it) is probably to flatter it. But, yes, I’m glad I’ve had it, and you can see artists’ woodcuts of it on the covers of the first volume of my journal. Anyway, about forty years ago my father and my older brother, Werner, drove up from Long Island and banged it together for me (I’d laid down the foundation blocks). It ain’t much, but is secluded, & quiet, and I used it a lot for decades. It’s only 250′ or so from my house, but I never did schoolwork back there, so by the time I walked back I was ready for journal writing and poetry and maybe some snail correspondence. I still get back there, but not nearly as often as when we had so much stuff going on in our home when our two kids were knocking about and the phone was always ringing . . . Look, all of us who belong to the tribe of scribblers try to place ourselves, like old dogs, where we are comfortable, and where we don’t have to be social every minute. And the cabin is a sentimental place for me, too: William Stafford and Joyce Carol Oates and Stan Plumly and publishers Bill Ewert and Antonio Vallone and my late friends Anthony Piccione and Al Poulin have sat in there with me. And even poets from China and Sweden. And all my family, too. And now you and Stan Barkan have visited the cabin. Maybe I should have kept a guest book!
BW: What was the best poetry reading that you ever attended? Why does that reading stand out in your memory?
WH: Interesting question, one I’ve never been asked. Several readings come to mind quickly. One by David Ray in the early 60s at Cortland, NY, where I was teaching at the time. A student asked Ray how he felt about it when someone didn’t understand his poems. He said he didn’t care. I was upset at the time, but now understand this better (as defensive, as not wanting to water down) but would have expressed this more gently than he did. Whitman said that in the main people had to come to poetry, that poets couldn’t go to the people (even as he had his arms wide open for all of us).
And a reading by James Dickey when I was in grad school—his stories around and within his poems. And a reading at Brockport by Galway Kinnell that dazed me for the command of such earned poems known by heart; and a few readings by that generative force Joyce Carol Oates, on whose every sentence I felt suspended; and a reading by William Stafford in Rochester when he said something that still reverberates for me in complex ways: “I love feeble poems”; and, to mention just one more among so many vivid recollections, a reading by William Everson where, in an uncomfortable science lab room, after being introduced, he didn’t say a word for a full five minutes, but tried to get comfortable, turned around & around, closed his eyes, & folks were even beginning to leave, but then he began, and was mesmerizing…. These days, I guess I most enjoy small readings, poets/folks in a circle, taking turns, kindred spirits communing. Over the decades I read or lectured at several hundred places, but am no longer interested in travel. I can travel while being at home. I might never get on a plane again.
BW: What role does stillness play in poetic composition?
WH: Yes, we have to reach, I think, even after agitation or fear or bafflement or any of a hundred unsettlements, some state of calm, quiet, stillness wherein, almost of its own volition, our poem can keep on its own course. A Zen teacher at Brockport, years ago, spoke of the moon being reflected on a river, the river (with its disruptions) flowing by, but the moon, the moon beneath our breastbones, staying in one place. I have an essay about this in Pig Notes & Dumb Music…. You know, Saint Walt could get angry at a dumb dog who barked even at a familiar neighbor, but he carried the moon of stillness inside himself.
BW: What is the relationship between your journal writing and your poetry?
WH: I don’t know. Maybe it helps me reach ease as I get my worries and angers off my chest, and as I keep hauling myself up into the present. You know, Bill, my journal might be the most extensive (I didn’t say best) in our literature. So far, I’ve gotten only three volumes into print, and keep typing little by little, but seem to write more new entries than I can type old entries. I’m typing 1999 now for volume four, and these are quarto-sized single-spaced 10-point 575 or so paged volumes. I might have to try, though I’m a semi-Luddite and creature of habit and reluctant, voice-into-print technology before long.
But I don’t draft poems in my journal. I talk of my reading, my family and friends, ask my journal what it might like to hear from me today, report my anxieties and successes and furies and failures as I try to become a grown man. I let memories arise. I think I’m pretty good at not being self-conscious—and being so far behind when an entry I’m writing today might eventually appear (maybe not in my lifetime) helps. But the most important thing for me is not to censor myself, and when I publish a volume I do not edit down to scintillant moments. I wish I had journals from poets important to me who talk not just about aesthetics, say, but about taking out the garbage and dental appointments, about how they live in the world when they are not reading Dante or are in the ethereal throes of inspiration. Maybe my journal is part journal and part just diary…. Look, we’re all scribblers—let’s enjoy ourselves and fill blank books (or computer files) with thought and feeling, with life. And I must say, I’m sort of surly about my journal volumes, thinking that I didn’t ask you to read them, so don’t look for them, and if you don’t like what you read and think me unworthy, just fuck off and find something else to read…. At the same time, I’d like to think that reading Heyen’s journals might become an acquired taste, that the often-asinine and puerile journalist might grow on you….
BW: How do you conceive of the poet’s role in America today?
WH: I don’t suppose it’s any different from any poet’s role in any society at any time. In any case, I wouldn’t want to freeze myself into any position on this. Let me answer with a little poem. It’s maybe too sentimental, too-too, but here it is, plaintive and resigned and maybe content and even happy. I call it “Evening Song”:
Now it is too late not
to kiss goodbye
to all I might have been & done
I’d not kept faith with you
& you with me
all my years, my soul,
I hope I’ve kept faith with my soul, my inner-self, my intimations toward … beauty, even when beauty is shot through with terror. I might have been and done other things, but I’ve no regrets. I do wonder what other life or lives I might have had, but I’ve needed to try to write poems, or, to put it better, to put myself into a position of reception wherein poems might emanate from my mind-pen. There’s a powerful moment in Emerson’s Nature when he says that “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put.” Maybe this says that I’ve had the life I’ve had and am now in this place where I am, doing what I do, because of the questions I asked myself, unconsciously, when I was a boy and young man.
BW: Part of your archive is now housed in the University of Rochester Library; many of the books that you’ve collected are now in a room surrounded with glass-front bookcases.
WH: Yes, for fifty years now I’ve collected first editions of contemporary poetry, and had books inscribed whenever I could. Association copies are very important to me, and I haven’t wanted them spread out on the rare books market as have been books from the libraries of Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Paul Zimmer, and so many others. Luckily, Peter Dzwonkoski, the head of Rare Books & Special Collections at Rochester about twenty years ago foresaw such an archive as it came to be, felt the way I do, and worked to buy my books, correspondence, manuscripts. Now, it’s as though I still have my books together—nothing can be placed in that room without my permission—and the institution is caring for them in a climate-controlled room where there are sometimes classes and readings where all my precious Wilburs and Staffords and Oates and May Sartons and Cynthia Ozicks and Seamus Heaneys and Ray Carvers and Robert Penn Warrens and Archibald MacLeishes and hundreds of other poets ranging from the very famous to the largely unknown listen in. There are long stories behind my obsessive gatherings of so many books, all my altruistic and selfish reasons. I was so glad that you and Stan Barkan got to experience that room…. Of course, I still have at home hundreds of gems, so am not lonely for books. I have for example copies of the anthologies I’ve edited, special copies inscribed by dozens of contributors to American Poets in 1976, The Generation of 2000: Contemporary American Poets, and September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond. Priceless.
BW: Can you describe a few of the unpublished poetic projects that you’re working on now?
WH: Ha, glad you asked…. Well, there are the journal volumes that will keep coming out as long as I live, knock wood. And I’ve mentioned Chainsaw. And I’ve enough essays to expand Pig Notes & Dumb Music. And I’ve got about 3,000 (no kidding) 13-syllable poems, my “scherzi,” to do something with eventually. And a letterpressed book of 28 baseball poems is coming out. And The Candle. And I’ve a folder building of form poems, non-free-verse pieces. And, come to think of it, I’ve written about 30 little plays, meant to be read only, staged only in the mind, that I haven’t typed up yet. (And there will be productions of June Prager’s Distant Survivors, a play which she built from my Holocaust poems.) And I’m fooling with a preface right now for the bibliography of my work by Michael Broomfield that he’s been at for decades (his two previous bibliographies, ahem, are of John Updike and Robinson Jeffers). And I want to do a book called, in homage to incendiary Emerson, Nature, which would reprint my books The Chestnut Rain, Pterodactyl Rose, and The Rope, nature/ecology books, and select such poems from other of my volumes. I’d like to find an editor for this who might do the typing grunt-work & write a preface. I think I have a publisher. Is there a volunteer out there? I’m at 142 Frazier St. / Brockport, NY 14420….
This interview was initiated by Cross-Cultural Communications.