Yesterday was Robert Hass’s birthday. When I heard it was his birthday, I remembered all the unpublished material I have from my interview with the Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, which I dug up today.
I interviewed Hass in early May of 2005. We talked for a little more than half an hour, so the interview came to about 4,500 words; we could only publish about 800 in the Planet. We cut a lot of good stuff. Towards the end, Hass ended up interviewing me about my life and work experiences, and then invited me to speak to his Berkeley class. But he forgot to make time for me when he was planning the course, so that all fell through. Nevertheless, he was a good interview and I’m glad I could talk with him.
Robert Hass is also a great believer in encouraging people to write poetry. In this respect, he reminds me of Kenneth Koch, a favorite poet who also wrote a terrific book entitled Making Your Own Days that helped make poetry less intimidating and opaque to me. (I’ve found many people are intimidated by poetry, and I suspect it’s because we are very bad, in the culture and the schools, about introducing people to it.) Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac quotes Hass: “Everyone … wants to say in their own terms what it means to be alive. Poetry is the most common way, because the material of poetry is the stream of language that is constantly going on in our heads. It’s very low tech. Anyone can do it.” Hass is one of the drivers behind River of Words, a non-profit that encourages children to write and create art about their perceptions of nature.
What follows are some edited questions and answers from that interview. Even this is only a fraction of a fraction of our conversation. By the way, The Writer’s Almanac also quotes Hass as saying, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” Of which some people could stand reminding.
Q: You’ve written “Art hardly ever does seem to come to us at first as something connected to our own world; it always seems, in fact, to announce the existence of another, different one…” How do you link those worlds?
Hass: I think different artists link them different ways. An artist like Magritte is always playing with the difference. An artist like Gary Snyder is always saying, “Here. Here, here, here. The two can be one: the world of the mind and the heart, and the world of lived experience.” And I think I’m more in Gary Snyder’s camp. But I think all artists play with the difference.
Q: What are you working on now? [Remember, this is 5 May 2005.]
Hass: Gosh, I’m working on two things. One is—I’m just finishing up a book of poems. And I was supposed to have it off May 1st. Actually, the last poem I’m working on—I have two poems I’m working on that I can’t get right, and they’re both ones that have to do with the natural world. And one of them is kind of a public poem and one a private one, and I’m struggling with both of them in ways that I hope will be fruitful.
And the other thing I’m doing at the moment, I’m trying to finish up a book of essays and I have to go next week to Seoul, Korea, with Gary Snyder. We’re both to give talks, and he’s going to talk about poetry and the environment, and I’m supposed to talk about war poetry and the environment. These kind of big-think topics that daunt you when you have to write about them. That’s what I’m working on at the moment.
Q: Any particular reason that of all places you’re going to is South Korea?
Hass: I’m going because Seoul has an international literary festival. This is a new set of them. But I’ve spent some time there and I love the place. And I’m very interested in Korean literature. So that’s why I’m going. And I just finished writing an introduction to the translation of a sensational book of Korean poems by a writer named Ko Un, who was imprisoned in the Park dictatorship. And while he was imprisoned and in solitary confinement—I think he was in jail three or four times, he was really a jailbird—and he decided that if he ever got out—he was a Buddhist monk for a while and he kept himself amused while he was in solitary by trying to methodically picture everyone he’d ever known in his life. And when he got out, he decided he was going to write a book of poems about every person he’d ever known in his life. And he did it, it’s called 10,000 Lives and it makes, portrait by portrait, a little social history of Korea from the time of the war to the present.
Q: That’s amazing. Who’s going to publish that?
Hass: His work is just being discovered in this country, and there are two or three books, translations of his poems, coming out, he’s very prolific. But this one, 10,000 Lives, is coming from a press called Green Integer.
Q: A follow-up to what you said a couple minutes ago when you said you’re working on a public and a private poem—when you say private, do you mean for yourself, not for publication?
Hass: No. [The Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University] had this big colloquium on the state of the planet, and they got all these earth scientists and climatologists together. And they asked me to write a poem on the state of the planet. So I wrote this poem and I had to finish it on time, and I was not very happy with it, though it was published in the New York Times science thing, so I’ve been trying to find a way—you know, this is kind of the question of what is poetry for, after all?—to rewrite it so that it made sense. It’s the kind of poem that has large general themes, tries to talk about climate. Public in that sense.
And then you might, say, come away from the summer with the image of your granddaughter chasing a California turquoise butterfly through a field of corn lilies in a Sierra meadow with her hair streaming, while you’re thinking of time, life, love, and death, and how much time you have left, and what nature is, and, you know, trying to get all of that into a poem. And that’s what I mean by private.