“What Things Are Made Of”: An Interview with Charles Harper Webb by Nathan Moore


Here I get the chance to talk to Charles Harper Webb about his latest book, What Things Are Made Of (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). The conversation takes place mostly during April over email.

Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading The Water (Northeastern, 1997), Liver (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies (BOA Editions Ltd, 2001), Hot Popsicles (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), Amplified Dog (Red Hen Press, 2006), and Shadow Ball (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009). His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.

One of the first things that strikes me about What Things Are Made Of is the predominance of the first person. What are some of your thoughts about this point of view? What’s gained? What are some of the drawbacks, if any? 

I know that some poets avoid the first person for a number of reasons, including that it can seem self-involved and egotistical. If a writer truly is truly self-involved and egotistical, though, I don’t think that fact can be disguised simply by writing in third person, or trying to write “objectively” in no person at all.

My intent in writing is to communicate with my audience in the most intimate, direct, and believable way that I can. I think that first person is the most intimate point of view, and carries, potentially, the highest credibility. “I was there. I saw that.” First person is often the most efficient way to write, as well, involving the least confusion of pronouns and antecedents.

Writing in first person is almost always the best way for me to inhabit a character. I draft nearly every poem in first person, even if the speaker is a serial killer and a sadist (which, for the record, I am not), or lived hundreds of years ago, which I also did not. There may be good reasons for me to switch from first person after the first draft is written; but if there are not, I usually leave the poem in first.

Good readers understand that the first person “I” is no more or less a fiction than the third person “he” or “she,” and does not mean that I-the-speaker am equivalent to I-the-writer, or that everything related actually happened to me. If my poems speak to the human condition, and not just my particular one, I believe that the reader will participate in the poem as fully, and perhaps more fully, than if I wrote from some other point of view. If my poems do not speak to the human condition, only my mother will be interested, anyway.

One of the things that’s so fascinating about a work of art (and the poems in this book demonstrate this consistently) is the move from intimate detail to an insight into something large like “the human condition.” While the poems don’t shrink from the bleaker side of human experience, one of the things I’m most surprised by is the sense of gratitude I find here. I’m thinking of “At Lamaze” and “The Best Moment of My Life” in particular. What part does gratitude play in your work?

Ed Hirsch, in his preface to my book Reading the Water, called me, among other things, “a poet of praise.” I think that’s true. One of the things that moves me to write is the sheer amazingness of the world and being alive in it. Life is so compellingly wonderful and strange. The odds against any one of us being here are beyond astronomical. We’ve lucked into the chance to experience consciousness. Why not celebrate the fact, and be grateful?

Life is also, of course, nasty, brutal and (even at 100 years) short, not to mention frequently horrible, disgusting, unjust, tedious, and always tragic in the end. But that just makes it more important to be grateful when, where, and about what we can. The “default” position for any moderately intelligent person over the age of about 10 is depression and anger. Adolescents “discover” hypocrisy, unfairness, and heartbreak, and believe that expressing sadness and outrage at these things makes them special. But it takes no unusual intelligence/insight/imagination/awareness to be sad or outraged. Since good poetry should, I think, display unusual intelligence/insight/imagination/awareness, I don’t think that just being bummed out warrants a poem. Talk about “Been there, done that.”

My awareness of the world can’t support a Candide-like optimism, or the sunny disposition of a Polyanna, but I find the pursuit of the positive to be more challenging and more worthy than wallowing in the negative. (Humor, by the way, is an enormous positive—especially in the face of despair.) In “At Lamaze,” the speaker ends by celebrating things that “evolved” people are supposed to despise. He even celebrates the act of complaining. So yes, gratitude plays a big part in my work. I hope it always will.

I’m glad you bring up humor. It seems kind of rare to find it done well in a poem. What Things are Made Of is full of various kinds of humor that work. The poems “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be” and “Jackass: The Viewer” both find the humorous in tension with a kind of “official” language or culture. Do you find humor difficult to write?

I’m glad that the humor in What Things…works for you. Writing well is always hard; but I don’t find humor harder to write than seriousness. It would be hard for me to write without humor. It seems so fundamental to human consciousness—certainly to mine—that to lose it would reduce me to the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

I’ve always seen the world through humorous lenses. One reason, I’m sure, is that humor is a way to gain a brief ascendance over the tragic, oppressive, irritating, and awful. It’s a way to strike back against the ridiculous or the More Powerful. Another reason is that humor makes the world a more interesting and entertaining place—not to mention that laughter is one of the great pleasures of being human. Since I want my poems to give pleasure, I like it when humor appears. I rarely start out trying to be funny; I write what I see through my particular lenses, and sometimes what comes out is funny. 

How do you see your work participating in its cultural context? What I mean is that in both the poems mentioned (and in “Liar’s Ball”) there’s a sense that humor can assert personal freedom when aspects of the culture at large are repressive. I was wondering if you see your work in these terms—as making a claim for freedom.

I absolutely see my poems as making a claim for freedom, humor being one way to express and achieve that freedom. (If we can’t be free when writing in a non-commercial form like poetry, when can we be?)

I love humor’s subversive quality. When any sacred cow remains un-tipped, I think artists aren’t doing their job. It seems to me, too, that humor speaks to many of the “post-modern issues” that avant-garde poetry works so hard to address, but humor does it in a more readable and entertaining way.

A lot of American poets, young and old, seem virtually seminarian in their wish to be “good.” I miss the Id in their poems. I miss what Robert Bly calls “wildness.” Humor is great way to express wildness. I love the Monty Python sketch where morticians convince a man that they should cook and eat his deceased mum. I love the scene in The Trial where K gets a look at his judge’s law books, and finds one to be a pornographic novel, and the other to contain nude pictures too poorly drawn even to be good pornography. I feel closer in spirit to Monty Python and Kafka than to many of America’s most respected poets, who rarely if ever take real risks or say anything truly surprising, dangerous—or funny.

Every day, Law and Government prove themselves at least as inadequate as religion to deal effectively with the modern world. We’re surrounded by crassness, greed, self-satisfied stupidity, and idiotic rules, all trying to imprison our spirits and control our lives. The brilliant and gifted among us, of which there are many, are all too often either rendered powerless by the non-brilliant and non-gifted, or find ways to grab a good life for themselves, and drop out of the fray.

What can we do about these facts, and our own impotence to change much of anything large-scale? We can point out absurdities. And, if we have the courage to be free in our own minds (as the father in “Liar’s Ball” advises his son to be), we can laugh.

I love it when a work of art can surprise with its absurdity or “wildness.” You mention Kafka and Monty Python. What poems do you turn to for this sense of the wild?

The first poem I read that truly reveled in the wild was “Howl.” It led me to “America,” and Corso’s “Marriage,” which also had Ginsberg’s wild feel—the sense that no holds were barred—that anything could happen, even something shocking, antisocial, dangerous. I was in high school, playing in rock bands, and those poems felt very close to rock-and-roll. A couple of years later, I encountered Edward Field’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” Ron Koertge’s “Lilith,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and—more formal, but still wild—Dylan Thomas’ “Lament.” James Tate, Russell Edson, Thomas Lux, Tony Hoagland, and Dean Young are a few of the poets I turn to for a wildness fix today.

Yes! I think it was Edson who said in an interview “Poetry is uncomfortable in language.” This seems to me, in one sense, to be getting to a crucial interaction between poetry and music. The power of music figures heavily in many of the poems in your book. I’m thinking especially of the poem “Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh, Dah-Dah-Dah! Doesn’t Look Like Much in Print.” There’s a real sense of the conjunction and the conflict between the linguistic and the non-linguistic. As a writer and a musician, how would you describe the interaction of these endeavors?

Music and poetry have both had a huge impact on my life; and music has had a huge impact on my poetry. I think, though, that there is a lot of confusion about the relationship between music and poetry.

Music and poetry are often assumed to be the same, or close to it. This misconception holds just enough truth to keep it floating. (Plus, as “all art aspires to the condition of music,” most poets aspire to the condition of musicians.) It’s true that the word lyric is used for both poetry and song, and that both poetry and music count “beats.” Both arts also involve using sound effectively. But the sound-resources they deploy are very different. Poetry in English uses the rhythm and sound of words, but not pitch (to any major degree), and certainly not the range of rhythms and dynamics that music has at its disposal. Metered poetry is counted differently from music, too. The “music” of poetry is, in fact, best understood as a metaphor.

Song lyrics may be important to the overall impact of a song, or they may be incidental. In either case, they’re energized by the enormous sonic power of music, which plays on the emotions more directly and intensely than any other art. A song—especially a rock song—can have inane lyrics, and still be a terrific song. The words in poems, though, stand alone. If any heavy emotional/artistic lifting gets done, the words have to do it by themselves.

I’ve played music in front of thousands, and know first hand the handicaps under which poetry labors, by comparison. “Nuh-nuh-nuh…” acknowledges and tries to have fun with the fact that, for pure excitement and unmediated emotional wallop, words fall short of what music can do. On the other hand, when it comes to taking us deep into the human mind—its thoughts, feelings, and psychology—words have the edge. And good poems—powered by sound and strong imagery—can hit hard too, as “Nuh-nuh-nuh,” even as it pleads inadequacy, tries to do.

You can find some of Nathan Moore‘s work at Heavy Feather Review, Pudding Magazine, Everyday Genius, Menacing Hedge, and Fleeting Magazine. He posts paintings and other things at disorder1313.wordpress.com.

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