The Colorado Poet, #26, Spring 2014

Interview: Joe Hutchison

 (Marked Men (Word Tech Communications, 2013)

Bob King: Joe, your Marked Men consists of three sectioned poems, one about Christopher Columbus, one about an attack on an Iroquois village in 1788, and a longer one about Silas Soule, the soldier and lawman who testified against Chivington regarding the Sand Creek Massacre. I know you’ve said they’ve had a long history in the writing. How did these ideas start and what developed over that course of time?

Joe HutchisonJoe Hutchison: I’ve told this story at readings, and it’s a true one. I had been pondering Louis Simpson’s poem “Indian Country,” in which he refers to Sand Creek as “a swept corner of the American consciousness,” and I realized that I knew very few details about Sand Creek. So I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. One night—this was back in 2001, before the attacks in New York—I dreamed that I woke with a start in the night and found John Chivington standing the end of my bed. A contemporary had described him as “of herculean frame and gigantic stature,” so that’s how I saw him. He didn’t speak, but only glared down at me. The next day I started on a poem about Chivington, but it turned out I was less interested in him than in his primary nemesis in the whole Sand Creek affair, a man named Silas Soule. Soule refused to order his men to join in the massacre—a principled violation of duty—and later testified against Chivington in the federal inquiry that looked into the action. The more I read about Soule, the more he began to take over the poem—and the longer the poem grew! It went through dozens of iterations and ended up 40 pages long, with multiple characters and points of view. I pretty much finished it in 2010, though I tinkered with it throughout 2011, and if it’s ever reprinted there a handful of changes I want to make even now!

BK: If someone asked me to write a poem about Columbus I’d automatically, and naively, think of writing a poem about him. You write it ‘about’ a painter of the scene of his death and the painter’s mistress. Or, instead of telling directly the attack on the Iroquois village in the poet’s third-person voice, you have a speaker who was there. Throughout this book you must have had many choices, many voices, possible in presenting your subject. Was this difficult, to find the right speaker, or did you quickly identify how you were going to start?

With all of these poems I found myself groping for point of view, form, tone—always with an eye on the actual history.

JH: With all of these poems I found myself groping for point of view, form, tone—always with an eye on the actual history. It’s easy to invent—at least it’s easy for me—but to write historically restricts your ability to invent. You can’t have Soule in Kansas when he was known to be at Fort Lyon in Colorado. Well, you could—not a lot of people would know. But I felt a duty to the facts
as we know them.

The poem about Columbus, for example—well, I didn’t want to write about Columbus directly because his actions and legacy are so contentious. I was appalled by the history, but what interested me was not Columbus as a man but his impact—what he represented. There’s a great line in William Carlos William’s book In the American Grain, in the chapter on the destruction of the Aztec capitol Tenochtitlan, which was one of the results of Columbus’s voyages. Williams says, “Upon the orchidean beauty of the new world the old rushed inevitably to revenge itself after the Italian’s return. Such things occur in secret. Though men may be possessed by beauty while they work that is all they know of it or of their own terrible hands; they do not fathom the forces which carry them.” This was a the Columbian reality, and I couldn’t see a way to get at it through Columbus himself, who was blind to the forces that carried him. That’s why I chose to write from the point of view of someone a generation later, an artist and descendant of the first Taino captives brought back to Spain by Columbus. His distance in time combined with his personal connection to the impact Columbus had allowed me to deal with the forces that expressed themselves through Columbus and the Europeans who came after him.

BK: Okay, this is connected to the previous question. You end with a 4-page “Afterword” where you supply some of the specific historical details, a way—it strikes me—to get some of the history in a prose account, leaving more room for the poetry. How conscious of this were you? I’m wondering if you tried to put some of the historical material in the poems and then decided it would be better to just give it in another form. Or did you know from the start what needed to be explained in prose and what needed to be presented in poetry?

My goal was to put it all in the poems and in this—if nothing else—my model was Ezra Pound.

JH: My goal was to put it all into the poems, and in this—if nothing else—my model was Ezra Pound. Pound pours all manner of history—real history, crackpot history—into the Cantos without explanation of any kind. It’s a challenge to the reader: if you want to get the poem, you have to get familiar with the history. It’s arrogant, in a way, but poets do tend to be arrogant, or they wouldn’t put pen to paper in the first place. Anyway, I decided to write the prose piece because most of my first readers, friends and fellow poets, told me that they really struggled with the history—with their own lack of knowledge about it. So I caved and wrote the Afterword. Several people told me I should make it a Foreword, but I didn’t want it to get in the way of the poems: I wanted the challenge first, the poetic experience, and if a reader needs more of the historical context, the Afterword is there—afterward!

I struggled with everything!

BK: You use blank verse, prose, longer or shorter lines, and the like in different poems here. Did these choices seem easy or did you struggle with getting the right touch in terms of line-length, rhythm, sound, or other poetic values? What was
that process like?

JH: I struggled with everything! My first poem, the one about Chivington that I abandoned early on, was in free verse. When I first wrote about Silas Soule the poem took a classic ballad form—alternating lines of 4 beats and 3 beats. “The Ballad of Silas Soule.” Well, it stunk! As the poem developed, and more and more historical and invented characters snuck into it, I began to look for rhythms and forms that reflected the nature of the person whose point of view dominated the poem. The forms range, as you say, from blank verse to 8-line stanzas slant rhymed a b a b a b c c to what I think of as a Whitmanesque line to outright prose. When I finally came to write the poem about Chivington that got included in the sequence, I used a line that gestures toward Middle English alliterative poems with the caesura in the middle of the line; I did that because I came to view Chivington as a deeply divided man: a Methodist minister and abolitionist addicted to violence, a man who couldn’t see the similarity between the slaves he wanted freed and the indigenous people he wanted to destroy.

I’ve always felt that a poem’s form, whether it’s traditional or organic, should be part of the poem’s meaning, and that’s what I tried to do in Marked Men--

Anyway, I’ve always felt that a poem’s form, whether it’s traditional or organic, should be part of the poem’s meaning, and that’s what I tried to do in Marked Men.

BK: Let me give some examples so the reader knows what different modes I’m talking about and maybe you can extend your answer. Here’s a sentence of prose: “Our saddle gear made a crisp little music, and for some miles our horses’ tails brushed the snow, till we came to a stretch where the wind had raked it thin.”  And here’s a narrative poetry: “He dabs / a forefinger and thumb / with the tip of his tongue, pinches out the candle flame, / then eases toward the front door, / feeling his way forward in the dark.” And here’s one more focused on description: “”the woven / fragrances / of bakers’ stalls, abattoirs, horse/ farts, the carcasses / of pigeons crisping on spits.”

JH: Some years ago, after a poetry reading, the poet and essayist Reg Saner and I were catching up on each other’s current projects. I was working on the narrative poems that would become Marked Men and Reg was working on the prose that would become Reaching Keet Seel. I remarked that his prose was more poetry than prose, and he answered, “I’m of the party of Aristotle,” referring to Aristotle’s statement that poetry can exist in both verse and prose (what I would prefer to call paragraphs). Form—verse or paragraph—matters a lot, but it’s not the essence of poetry. Poetry deals with those forces Williams talked about: the forces that animate human actions. Whether in verse or in prose, writing that focuses fundamentally on those forces—intellectual, emotional, spiritual, psychological, etc.—from an experiential rather than the analytical point of view tends to be poetic. This focus is what “heightens” language from the prosaic everyday to the poetic.

Of course, you can heighten language artificially, rhetorically, but it will lack authenticity; the reader will now that you’re sacrificing truth to beauty. The best poetry doesn’t make that sacrifice.

Of course, you can heighten language artificially, rhetorically, but it will lack authenticity; the reader will know that you’re sacrificing truth to beauty. The best poetry doesn’t make that sacrifice. It insists on allowing the truth to shatter accepted standards of beauty if it must. There was no way for me to deal with the truth of Sand Creek—the forces that produced that atrocity, I mean—without making formal choices that to some readers may seem anti-poetic.

BK: Were there difficulties in writing poetry based on history that you hadn’t anticipated or thought of? What is the difficulty of writing poetry based on history or did it seem like just another subject and there weren’t any particular problems?

When I began these poems I had no idea what an obsession the history behind them would become.

JH: When I began these poems I had no idea what an obsession the history behind them would become. One of the reasons they took so long to write is that I had to wrestle with every detail. It’s possible to treat history like some kind of scaffolding that lets you build a visionary structure, as Dante does; or to write a poem that essentially critiques and illuminates history itself, as Thomas McGrath’s great Letter to an Imaginary Friend does. But if you invite a large amount of history into the poem, every line becomes a challenge. My tendency was always to include too much, and most of my revisions involved cutting this or that detail, or inventing fictional details that stood for a whole network of ideas and feelings. At one point Soule tells a young boy this story about an Arapaho talking an otter into bringing him a fish, which Soule claims he and the Indian ate together. I invented this to get at the romantic aspect of Soule, what we today might call the magical realist in him; it was this aspect of the European imagination that allowed us to feel sentimental about the Noble Savages even as we were t genocide upon them. The historical Soule refused to participate in the genocide, and for that he was assassinated. In my view, he died for putting his romantic sympathy for the Indian into action—his violation of military orders. His act didn’t stop the slaughter, of course, just as my artist’s painting of Columbus didn’t compensate for the horrors Columbus brought with him to the “new” world. Art doesn’t stop or compensate for history; it can only raise our consciousness about it. And maybe that’s enough.