Getting To Know Hilde Weisert and her new book The sCHEME OF tHINGS
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My first passionate connection with poetry came late – high school, Edna St. Vincent Millay, also the first love of many of my fellow- and sister-poets. In fact, Hannah Fries has a wonderful post in Mass Poetry’s “First Poem Series” about falling ‘head over heels’ for Millay. For a contest, I wrote a poem shamelessly imitating “Renascence” – and won. Not a poem I’d want to remember today, but the response got me hooked on writing, and grateful for what early teachers can give. Like Hannah’s teacher taking her out for ice cream, my own Miss Kauffman and the National Council of Teachers of English said, Keep going!
Another factor in my coming to poetry was my love for music, and total lack of musical talent. As the daughter of a concert pianist, I was surrounded with music from babyhood, but when I took up piano lessons at age 7, I quickly realized it was simply too late! Now, that seems ridiculous, but then, it seemed very true. I just didn’t have the gift my mother or brother had. But I did have words – short stories first, then poetry in high school. This certainly contributed to my conviction that the best poetry is deeply musical and rhythmic, and although you may not get the visceral emotional power you get with music, you have the added value of layers of meaning as well as intellectual content. And metaphor. And rhyme, in all its on- and off-ness.
I am ashamed to say I put Millay away in my twenties for what I thought was more sophisticated poetry, but I’ve long since realized that her mastery of craft is second to none. What is found in her poetry – keen observation and acerbic intelligence, lines that sing, courage to say what hadn’t been said, and a pitch-perfect ear – is what I look for in any poetry. I think that rightness is why she’s so natural to memorize – “by heart.” One of her poems I recommend, not as widely read as the sonnets, is “Modern Declaration.”
Your question actually makes me want to spend the rest of this interview just pointing at poems I love. I would say that striving to enter into a dialog with those poems and poets is a major part of my desire to write – as is apparent in The Scheme of Things.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Ah – this is where Massachusetts comes in! I live about half the year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a wonderful town and area for writers, but for my own writing, nothing compares to my small writing room in my house in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. A wooden desk, a window looking out on trees and mountains, and quiet.
As for a routine – I do have one, but am often too easily distracted from it. But when I give the muse her due, the routine is to go the writing room in the morning with my second cup of coffee, usually start by reading some poetry – Ursula Le Guin’s Finding My Elegy and Michelle Gillett’s Blinding the Goldfinches recently, or criticism, usually not new stuff – Randall Jarrell is one of the best readers of poetry, and poetry enthusiasts, I’ve ever found. Just eye-opening. Then after an hour or so, I turn to my own lined pad and pen, if it’s something new or in early revision. I’ll often write a new-ish poem out from the beginning with each revision, to get the whole, new.
Since I still work full-time at a non-poetry job, this morning routine has to be early, or on Sundays, which are the best day for writing – a reverent and undisturbed time.
At some point when I don’t need the visceral feel of pen on paper, words in my left hand, I’ll type what I have into the computer – a laptop I keep separate from my work computer – then print out for more revising.
Another “routine,” for certain poems, is a morning walk, the physical rhythm of walking, and the noticing. I’m lucky to be in the Berkshires, where there is so much of the natural world to notice (and perhaps to be noticed by – trees, trillium, bears, coyotes, geese!). Though for some of the poems, the walk was city streets – “One Good New Poem” and “Coney Island Elegy,” for example.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Any of the above, but whether image, sound, phrase, or idea, it’s the ones that appear bearing a powerful emotional weight, something not understood but felt -- in my chest, in a lump in the throat, in an ache in my hands. Desire then drives the poem -- to understand, to grasp and know and honor the mystery that is just out of sight, a shimmer just past the horizon.
The images can be sound, taste, smell, as well as visual -- a balloon being held by a man in a jazz club, and music; the taste and aroma of soup in an apartment in Budapest; an outdoor funeral where the minister, the daughter of the man we were mourning, hung his clothes up on the trees around us. What is this? Why does it mean so much? Then the work of the poem begins, and the ancient power of our tools: Lines and rhythm, meter, sounds that echo or rhyme. Sometimes form itself, a sonnet or a terza rima, provides a way into knowledge that, on my own, I would never find. Along with challenges, of course. Sometimes when you’ve painted yourself into a formal corner, knowing you are damned if you don’t get a natural, honest rhyme (versus some artificial contortion), and the right (sometimes off-) rhyme finally comes, simple and true, it’s possible to believe in a poetry god. A god that says, words rhyme for a reason.
Or a poem may start as an unexplained conjunction of images that all at once show up together. What do these have to do with each other? Many of my poems start that way, kind of extended metaphors. How is this, like this? Reading Yeats, and working a farm? A rainforest, and our own imagination? I believe metaphor in poetry has the capacity to be more than pretty, to offer more than a momentary thrill or “Aha!”, but can shed new light on two seemingly disparate things in a way that changes each of them forever. “An apple, changed in its bright fall roundness by Newton, as much as by the cider-press.” (from “Guess Work, Scientists, Poets, and Bees”)
And some poems do start as a phrase, something said out of the blue, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, kind of like automatic writing, but spoken. “My chest’s a knothole and my arm’s a stick.” Or “Tuckerman was Bynner’s Bynner.” Or “They say there’s a place in the brain for faces...” Whoa! Where did that come from? If there’s something true there, then the line can kickstart a poem. Knothole, stick – a tree? Why does a human turn into a tree? It happened to the goddess Daphne – What does that have to do with me? A ‘conventional’ form, the sonnet, leading to a somewhat unconventional answer (“Mercy”).
In every case, it feels like poetry is helping me discover and reveal something, some truth, that has been there all along. When it works -- occasionally for me, more often for the best poets -- I think poetry has the power to open and help us know mystery, without losing the mystery. As Denise Levertov wrote, “For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience!) which the poet can discover and reveal.” (“Some Notes on Organic Form” in The Poet in the World.)
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I know as soon as I answer I’ll think of people I’ve left out, but these come to mind right now. The influence comes from reading, over and over, and sometimes takes the form of outright borrowing a phrase or a pattern, which I hope is obvious enough to be thought of as homage. Or, in how it feels when I write it, a dialog across the years. What I am describing here is probably more love than influence, but one can hope.
Wilfred Owen—How could he have written what he wrote and been so young? I look to Owen not only for his message and his combination of toughness and tenderness, but for his brilliant innovations in form, the off-rhymes that were so ‘on’ for his subject. During the worst of the Iraq war years, I turned back to Owen with an almost physical need to find him, to go to where he was, to honor what he honored. “Finding Wilfred Owen Again” shows me trying.
Walt Whitman—Can I claim Whitman as an influence when I’ve only read a fraction of what he’s written and have skimmed over even some of that? But he has lines, an understanding and a presence, that are as moving and real and immediate to me as something said by a person standing next to me right now. “…The certainy of others, the life, love, sight, heearing of others./Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore…” Yes, they have, they do. You can stand on the promenade in Brooklyn and see it. And they will, long after I’m gone.
Denise Levertov—Courageous, engaged, honest, deceptively simple but masterly poems. Her influence on me is also through her essays; I have read and re-read The Poet in the World and recommend it to anyone interested in writing or reading. Starting with the luminous “A Sense of Pilgrimage.”
Maxine Kumin—There’s no one I’d rather read on a Sunday morning, and re-read. She knows everything. Like Levertov, deceptively simple but a master of craft.
William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins—Not that they’re at all the same, but I found them at around the same time. I return to each one often, and find something new every time.
Edna St Vincent Millay, certainly influencing every sonnet I have written; Emily Dickinson, for her vision of the largest and the smallest things, for the amazing words; Richard Wilbur, who lives here in Cummington, Massachusetts, for a lifetime of masterfully-crafted poetry (yet crafted with such ease!) that is both intelligent and beautiful.
Adrienne Rich—I don’t really understand the later poems, but I admire them, and her writing them, and her evolution as a poet and a person, and her importance as a public intellectual. I loved finding this from Randall Jarrell, in The Yale Review, 1956, of The Diamond Cutters by “Adrienne Cecile Rich.” After praising her facility, her living “near to perfection (an all-too-easy perfection, sometimes),” he wrote “The reader feels that she has only begun to change; thinks, ‘This young thing, who knows what it may be, old?’” Dear Randall, I think he would have loved to be alive to see.
Ursula Le Guin—One of our finest American poets, and an accomplished translator of poetry, even if better known for her novels and essays. Unsparingly honest, clear-eyed, humorous, human, alive. She makes me never want to write anything facile. She makes me think that growing old can be an expansion, not a loss, of one’s powers, and entrance into a new kind of vision to which the young are not admitted.
In addition to Ursula, there are many other living writers I love to read and am happy to be influenced by in ways large and small. I won’t list them because once I start I won’t know where to stop. This is a great time for poetry.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
The collection takes its title, The Scheme of Things, from a poem inspired by a scientific discovery about evolution that I read about in a piece by Stephen Jay Gould: the notion of “punctuated equilibrium,” that evolution is not a steady march of progress but can proceed in leaps and bounds – punctuation – and then settle into equilibrium, until the next leap. And all these different beings of course co-exist. The concept intrigued me, since it seemed to match how our lives proceed, and certainly how poetry proceeds! Who am I, today? How is this person possible, given her predecessor? How do we understand what and where we’ve been, who has made us what we are, and the new and unexpected ways the making continues?
That frame seemed to work for a collection that includes poems that honor and revisit family and childhood to find new things in what I’d thought was settled history (the first section, “Three Stars”), poems about art, poetry, friendship, and the imagination (“The Truth of Art”), poems about music (“Skylark”), a sonnet sequence about illness and recovery (“Away”), and lastly, poems about living in the world we live in today, including some “political” poems that I hope are still poems (“Where We Were and What We Were Doing”).
Although the collection is not based on a theme or a project, as I put the sections and the poems together (with the help of a good friend who has a gift for narrative line), I found there was in fact a line, a progression, which I think the reader deserves, especially in reading the work of a poet new to them. (Leaving out some “darling” poems that didn’t fit with that line helped too.) Throughout, there is a strong sense of place, from New York to Paris to Budapest, that I hope grounds the poems.
The book ends, in a way, where it begins: The first poem in the book after the title poem is set in Brooklyn, the last poem is a walk in New York’s Coney Island, a peninsula at the southern tip of Brooklyn. And near the end of that poem, I found that the title phrase returns: “So they did violence to us, as we had done/violence to the scheme of things, like time-travelers,/the children knew, tampering with what was to be” (“Coney Island Elegy”).
I would like to end by thanking Mass Poetry for inviting me to do this interview, and for the wonderful, thought-provoking questions. The other interviews on this site are a revelation!
View a recording and read the text of a poem from The Scheme of Things here:
How Deep Is the Ocean
A balloon in a jazz room is odd, especially one
not gaily skimming the rafters but resting
like a big cartoon baby on the table, bobbing slightly
in front of an old man who sits waiting
for the first notes of a Berlin ballad
he once heard Lee Wiley sing. Tonight,
the singer is his granddaughter, and he’s deaf.
But as a word “grandfather” surely holds a child, and play,
as much as age and dignity, so why shouldn’t the old man
hold this red balloon, light and smiling?
When Alexis starts to sing,
he tips his head to it, lifts his fingers
so they barely graze its skin, and from then on
his smile and nodding head are right in time.
I know the song’s question wasn’t meant for an answer
(the rippling depths its marvel), but I think we are seeing it
in what travels from the stage to this table,
from one shore to another, from the young
singer to the grandfather holding a child’s toy and hearing
the waves as they arrive on the skin of a balloon
into the skin of his hands, into a song about love.