An Interview with H.L. Hix

John Poch | May/Summer 2010

H.L. Hix
H.L. Hix

H.L. Hix is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, philosophy, and criticism, and has edited numerous other collections. He has an NEA fellowship, and he has won the KCAI Teaching Excellence Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry from Truman State University Press in Missouri. In 2006, he was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. He teaches at the University of Wyoming, where he was the director of creative writing.

John Poch: It's obvious by reading your criticism that philosophy and literary theory are important to you. It's obvious by reading your poetry that art and music shape your aesthetic. With so many interests that you take to heart by pursuing deeply and reading extensively, how does a singular book of poems take shape for you?

H.L. Hix: For me the book is a more fundamental unit than the individual poem. This is partly just getting and spending: I buy many books of poetry, but I subscribe to few journals, so the "unit" through which I most often gather poetry is the book. But it's more than that. My first acquaintance with contemporary poetry wasn't until graduate school: my undergraduate degree, from what was then a small college, left me with the impression that inspiration had ceased in England with Browning and in the U.S. with Whitman. For all I knew, being a poet was like being a tinker: they had 'em in the old days, but not any more. From my first awareness of more recent work, I loved books that tried to be more than "a heap of random sweepings": Merwin's The Lice, Ted Hughes's Crow, Berryman's Dream Songs. To this day, I tend to fall for books that are, or that I can read as, a single poem rather than a collection of discrete poems: C.D. Wright's Deepstep Come Shining, for example, or Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely.
So for me the "architecture" of the book precedes the writing of the individual poems. It's not even that I write a few poems and early on develop a sense for a possible shape, which then gets filled out with more poems: the shape comes first, and only then the poems. The shape of the book usually changes radically over the course of its development, but there's always an "architecture," a "project," at the start of things.
Which is where the philosophy and art and music come in. I'm less interested in poetry as a means of "self-expression" than as a vehicle for exploring the human condition, of a piece with (rather than in contrast to) the sciences, philosophy, the other arts, and so on. My life history and my personality, the aspects of myself that are uniquely mine, seem to me less dramatic than the norm-more good fortune than bad, few personal tragedies (and none I'm not guilty of helping bring about), few lapses in personal safety and health, not rich, not poor. Not much to bind the attention of others. I accept such attentions gratefully, even greedily, when they are gifts motivated by the giver's friendship or love, but I don't see in my life history or personality any basis for exacting attention as tribute. My humanity, though, the aspect of myself that I share with others, is every bit as interesting as anyone else's. So I try to keep my life history and personality covert in and accidental to my poems, and to make my humanity-our humanity-overt and essential. That's one way of saying why the making public of poetry, its public-ation, doesn't make it feel to me any less intensely private. And why those other vehicles-philosophy, theory, art, music-pervade my poetry and help shape it.

Poch: In both your poetry and your criticism, you often have sections of epigrams/aphorisms making up a part of the book. Why are you attracted to this form of language and where do you draw the line between poetry and philosophical prose, if there is such a line?

Hix: My response to this will be a little like my response to the first question. Just as I am influenced by, and side with, those who don't assume that the self-enclosed short lyric confessional poem is somehow the standard for poetry, I am similarly influenced by, and side with, those who don't grant the deductive syllogism status as the pinnacle of reasoning. Plenty of philosophers, from Aristotle on, have been guided-productively enough-by that ideal, but the presocratics and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein wrote with some other norm in mind, a norm that invited them to more aphoristic writing.
I feel more welcomed as a reader into this aphoristic philosophy than into "syllogistic" philosophy, more like a participant in a seminar and less like an auditor at a lecture. As a writer, I don't want to be the harumphing codger, arms folded across his chest, condescending to the untutored masses who if they just knew a little more would see things my way. I'd much rather be leaning over the radiator with the author when I'm reading, or with the reader when writing, both of us with wrenches in hand, mumbling and grunting as we try to piece things together.
The piecing of things together may be the point of connection between my response to the first question and my response to the second. I don't think of life as something that's dark until one finds the light switch, finds the syllogism or lyric insight that will suddenly illuminate the whole. There's something more apt in a Lego metaphor: we're constantly having experiences that need assimilation, experiences whose relation to previous experience is not given or self-evident, always inviting assembly and re-assembly. In the light-switch metaphor, one truth illuminates once and for all, but there's no once-and-for-all quality to the Lego bricks. There's always more assembly to be done.

I want to distinguish between two kinds of activism, one I'd call coercive and one I'd call persuasive. Both are needed, but they operate differently. Coercive activism operates on the effects of power relations.

Poch: Do you consider yourself a "philosopher"? Is this term any more difficult to take on than that of "poet"?

Hix: There's a stronger tradition, I'd say, of combining the practice of philosophy with the practice of fiction writing than of combining philosophy with poetry. A person practicing both philosophy and fiction has Camus and Sartre to look to, and Iris Murdoch, and more recently William Gass, Lars Gustafsson, Lynne McFall, and no doubt others I'm not thinking of at the moment. But what poets have formal training in philosophy? There's T. S. Eliot, of course, and among our contemporaries Jan Zwicky, whose work, by the way, is very important to me. But I'm not aware of many others.
Surely many practices open possibilities for inquiring into and attempting to understand our humanity. I've chosen philosophy and poetry, but I would practice more than just those two if I could manage it: I wish I could figure out how to be a mathematician, too, and a cellist and a sculptor and a botanist... It has seemed important to me to try to maintain active inquiry through more than one practice, by analogy with binocular vision, hoping that the two practices, philosophy and poetry, will work together to create a conceptual "depth perception," the way a person's two eyes work together to create sensual depth perception. I've published more in the field of poetry, but so far I've taught more philosophy courses than creative writing courses.
You're right, though, about both terms being difficult to take on. Both practices invite pretension: I've known at least as many smug philosophers as self-aggrandizing poets, and no doubt I'm guilty myself. But I try to pay double attention to Louise Glück's maxim that "'Poet' must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation." The same warning might usefully be made about the name "philosopher."
But maybe this answer is starting to drift. The short, direct response is, yes: even though I'm wary of the assertion of essence implied by "poet" and "philosopher," I do still consider myself fully engaged in the practice of poetry and fully engaged in the practice of philosophy.

Poch: See what I mean? Even after saying yes, you qualify it. It's hard to take on those titles.

Hix: If this were a cocktail party, I'd be perfectly comfortable saying I'm a poet, or saying I'm a philosopher. There you'd be asking just to be polite, and all I'd be telling you is I'm not a surgeon or a garbage collector or a senator. Here, though, your question's partly rhetorical, asserting a healthy skepticism: "Do you really think you're a philosopher?" At the cocktail party, your question would be about me, what I do for a living; here, the question is really about the categories of 'poet' and 'philosopher.' The question isn't treating those titles as occupational designations but as honorifics. The subtext isn't "Why are you wearing a turtleneck and a sport jacket instead of a suit and tie?" It's more like "Do you think you deserve a place among the Worthies?" That I'm nervous about, and feel compelled to qualify!
I was reading an interview with Lisa Robertson in the Denver Quarterly, in which she gives an interesting reply to a similar question. Robertson says, "I am not as interested in writing 'poems' as I am in continuing to participate in a fabric of intellectual life and relationship.... Poetry is the frame of my engagement with the world, not the substance of it." I wish I'd said that.

Poch: You've written prose text for a few art catalogues and you used to work as vice president of academic affairs for the Cleveland Institute of Art. Can you talk a bit about how the visual and the verbal intersect in the best poetry? And in art?

Hix: I feel fortunate to have "grown up" among visual artists at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Cleveland Institute of Art. Part of what I learned from my colleagues at those two colleges has to do with the practice of an art. My studio colleagues model, for instance, an immersion in their work that I find inspiring. Next time you feel stalled out in your writing, figure out a way to spend a couple of hours with the artist China Marks. It's not just that she's always thinking about her work, though she is always thinking about it, but that she's involved in the work, submerged in it, as a whole person: her mind, senses, spirit, her whole body. I feel moved, transported, every time I'm with her, overcome by her urgency.
But maybe that gives me a way to square up to your question more directly. For me, the intersection of visual and verbal hasn't been conjunction so much as analogy. In other words, it's not primarily that I've tried to mix the two (though my poems are often ekphrastic, at least in origin, and of course I always want the imagery to be effective). Instead, I feel that my attention to the qualities of poetry has been trained by what my colleagues have taught me about the qualities of visual art. I'll never forget asking Carl Kurtz about his peculiar set of passions: calligraphy (his studio practice), but also ballet and drag racing. His answer had to do with totality of purpose: every element of a dragster is designed and assembled to make it go faster for a quarter mile in a straight line, and there's a similar conspiracy of detail and completeness of synthesis and insistence of craft in the composition of one of Carl's calligraphic pieces. I want my poems, like his visual work, to have that quality.

As a writer, I don't want to be the harumphing codger, arms folded across his chest, condescending to the untutored masses who if they just knew a little more would see things my way. I'd much rather be leaning over the radiator with the author when I'm reading...

Poch: In As Easy as Lying, you spend a decent amount of time traversing the "seemingly" disparate poles most commonly called "New Formalism" and "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry" or the "Avant Garde." You are severely critical of books by Jarman and Ashbery, yet praise Gioia and Bernstein. What aspect of each group/school do you find most appealing? Beyond the fiction of "schools," which poets do you find using the best of both worlds?

Hix: Insofar as the fiction of schools has any value-and I think you're right to call it a fiction-that value seems to me to lie in its provoking critical thought. Members of a school spend time and energy defining the school by genus and species, placing it within a tradition (the genus part) and distinguishing it from-asserting its superiority over-other contemporary approaches (the species part). So, of schools themselves, I'm most interested in the theorizing. The results of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for instance, that have mattered most to me have been the critical works. Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry is very important to me, as have been all of Charles Bernstein's essay collections, and Leslie Scalapino's Syntactically Impermanence, and others. It's not that I think any one school is better than another, but that I'm interested in the way rationales for the superiority of schools help to identify and clarify value judgments about poetry that otherwise we tend to make without thinking them through.
In theorizing, I'm interested in the thesis and antithesis; in poetry per se (I say this knowing that contrasting "poetry per se" to theorizing is tendentious and misleading), I'm more engaged by synthesis, by work that seems to have assimilated various conceptual frames, and to manifest an identity that resists resolution into or identification with something that antedates it.
In part, I'm sure this preference of mine-which I put forward only as a preference, with no insinuation that others ought to share it-comes from a sense I have about the practice of poetry. Probably I shouldn't even say "the" practice of poetry. I find that in my own attempt to practice poetry, there's an alternation between conscious and unconscious, reflection and projection. I find it important to think about poetry, to try to understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, but I also find that this happens mostly as rationalization, after the fact. I construct a few paragraphs of theory as a way of reconciling myself to what I've been doing in lines. By looking back and looking around, I try to make conscious what has been unconscious in me. I start acting differently, though, when I reframe my past actions. Refiguring what I have done reconfigures what I want to do. It's not that I start writing poetry primarily as a conscious activity or to prove a theory-god forbid!-but that a new consciousness changes what is happening unconsciously.

Poch: In God Bless, your quirky critique and poetical response to our recent decade of war and terror in the Middle East (and also a dialogue with a host of writers/thinkers), you confront the failure of both Bush and bin Laden to see an(other) perspective. The poems could be categorized as "found" poems in that you cobbled together various quotations by these men to form villanelles, sonnets, ghazals, etc. Right after the poems, in the first interview, there seems an admission to the possibility of dishonesty through re-contextualization. What were your doubts and beliefs in this work as it proceeded? And where is H. L. Hix (your language and voice) in all this?

Hix: It's different enough from anything I've done before that I worried throughout the process about what in the world I was doing. I had belief enough to see the project through-or energy enough, or obstinacy enough. But, as your question intuits, I had plenty of doubts too.
Still, I think the found-ness and collage-ness of the work doesn't make me any less present in it than in anything else I've written, and I hope the work questions assumptions about poetry that would suggest otherwise. For one thing, I want to assert that "emotion recollected in tranquillity" may suggest something about some poetry but is by no means an exhaustive definition, or a universally applicable one. It might be adequate to lying on one's couch in vacant or in pensive mood, recalling a host of golden daffodils, but it doesn't address The Iliad's immersion in history and social identity and the inexorability of forces larger than ourselves, or Job's struggle with the grating of what is over what ought to be. In God Bless, I'm not trying to recollect my emotion, so I'm not in the poem in that way, but that doesn't keep me from being in the poem as a citizen of a belligerent nation, fretting the causes and effects of that belligerence.
To put this another way, I suspect that the poetic imagination might manifest itself in any number of ways, not only by "making things up." By comparison to prose, I'd say that God Bless is more like nonfiction than like fiction. Or by comparison to other media, I'd appeal to documentary film. Ken Burns and Jane Campion aren't doing the same thing, but I wouldn't describe either director as being more present in his/her films. In most of my work, I'm probably after something more like what Campion does, but in God Bless, I'm being more like Burns.

Poch: In all honesty, I have to say that I'm skeptical of exactly how much can be achieved socially through poetry. In a country of over three hundred million, if a poet sells over one thousand books, she is deemed a success. Isn't Auden right when he says in "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," "Poetry makes nothing happen"? Throughout his own writing, Auden insisted even more so than Yeats on that differentiation between rhetoric and poetry. However, despite his accusation that Yeats was "silly" (probably referring to his political work that did nothing but leave Ireland with "her madness and her weather still"), that mercury falling in the thermometer at the beginning of this poem is transformed, by the end, into "the healing fountain" issuing from the human heart, it seems to me that Auden hopes something can happen personally through poetry if it is given a human voice to "say" it. But social change?

Hix: In one sense, I share your skepticism. I'm not expecting a call from the U.S. President saying he's read my book and he's going to do things differently from now on, or an article in the Times about the national groundswell of support my book has provoked for more pacific foreign policy.
But I think there's another angle on this, too. I want to distinguish between two kinds of activism, one I'd call coercive and one I'd call persuasive. Both are needed, but they operate differently. Coercive activism operates on the effects of power relations. Strikers don't expect to change management's mind about the rights of laborers; they want to cut the cord between current treatment of laborers and the profit of management. The "argument" in a strike is: keep treating us badly, and you'll lose money; you'll turn a profit only if you treat us differently; you don't get what you want until we get what we want. Persuasive activism operates on the causes of power relations. Management treats labor badly partly because it awards itself greater entitlement than labor to goods and privileges. The "argument" in a poem (or other vehicle of persuasive activism) is that you should reconsider-and change-the valuations on which you base your actions.
I suspect poetry can support coercive activism (as when strikers unite in chanting or singing verse), but whether or not it is supporting coercive activism poetry can itself only engage in persuasive activism. It's one way to make sense of "poetry makes nothing happen": poetry cannot coerce, cannot withhold capital from the greedy. However, it may persuade; that is, it may alter the value judgments from which the greed of the greedy derives, so liberating the greedy to be other than greedy.

Poch: I do have to say that I am persuaded, at times, that poetry can function, in some small way, to bear witness and raise awareness and call us to action. When I read a book such as Peter Balakian's The Black Dog of Fate, I come to the understanding that his poems about the Armenian genocide do something. But then I get skeptical again, because I see that maybe it's not the poems, but the memoir and Balakian's tireless activism that gets the word out. I wonder about God Bless in this way. What would these poems be without the interviews at the end? And seriously, how many copies of God Bless have been bought and read? Aren't most poets overly romantic in the way we believe our work matters? I mean, it matters deeply to me and to you, but to the world?

Hix: I wish God Bless would alter U.S. foreign policy, but you're right that it's doomed to total failure if that's the only criterion for its value. I don't think it's sold any more copies than the usual hilariously tiny number of copies my books sell. It may not be a legislator, but it's certainly unacknowledged! But poetry isn't only about effecting social change; it's also about personal and civic integrity. It can be a way of "going on record." In committee meetings, I'm often in the minority on an item of debate, and sometimes the circumstances are such that I want to go on record as opposing an action taken. I do so not with the expectation that it will have any effect at all, but simply from perceived obligation. Similarly, though I don't anticipate my book having any effect on public policy, I nevertheless felt obligated to write it, to go on record. It doesn't release me from complicity in the actions of my government, but it complicates that complicity.
This could also be stated by noting the value we attribute to minority opinions in law. We consider the formulation of the minority opinion in Supreme Court cases important, but not because it changes the decision at all, or changes who the decision affects. I think of God Bless as something like a minority opinion. I'm influenced here by Iris Murdoch, whose argument in The Sovereignty of Good asserts, in the terms of your question, that something's mattering deeply to you and to me might impose obligation, even if attending to the obligation has no effect at all on others, or on one's own circumstances.
As for the interviews, I don't worry about their worth: they were very interesting to conduct, and the interviewees have important things to say. I do worry about the relationship between the interviews and the poems. In a very smart essay in Pleiades, David Caplan criticizes my inclusion of the interviews as too explanatory. He's probably right that, by making the project more palatable to a wider potential audience, publishing the interviews in the same book also normalizes, and so weakens, the poems.

Poch: Well, if I may argue in your defense, what doesn't explain a book of poems? The cover, the blurbs, the press that publishes it, the author photograph, even snazzy introductions by Robert Pinsky or some other institution: all these "explain." I haven't read Caplan's essay, but I'd argue that your inclusion of the interviews is a much more interesting "explanation."

Hix: It's a tough balance to hit. How much of the apparatus is a helpful welcome for a reader entering a complex text, how much is greasy salesmanship, how much is valid teamwork with the publisher (who, after all, has to sell books to stay afloat), how much is condescension to a reader perfectly capable of "getting it" without being told what's going on? At least with the interviews, I do feel that they have independent validity, whatever their relationship to the poems.

Poch: Now that I think about it, most of your books try to bridge territories that most folks would rather separate: Poetry/Philosophy, Postmodernism/New Formalism, Poetry/Politics, Poetry/Music, Poetry/Religion, and even Christianity/Islam. You seek out commonalities rather than differences. Beyond commonalities, "harmony" might be the right word. Would it be safe to say that this is the thrust or mission of your work?

Hix: Harmony, definitely. Though with emphasis on a particular aspect of harmony, namely the tension in it, the reconciliation of opposition. It's a religious urge for me, the wish for what in Christian terminology gets called redemption; it's social, reflecting my admiration for citizenship like that of Jimmy Carter, with all his efforts toward reconciling conflicts between nations; it's existential, an attempt to reconcile myself to the multiplicities and incoherences of my life.
For me, this harmonizing of tensions is a metaphysical concern. I'm skeptical of the Cartesian premise that the cosmos is unified in such a way that in principle complete Truth is available to us: Descartes thinks if we would just work together and if we had enough time, we could know everything, and when we did we'd be seeing one integrated whole. My guess is that Heraclitus was getting warmer: "Nature loves to hide"; "Humans deceive themselves about the apparent..."; "...a thing is homologous by difference from itself; its harmony is tensile, like that of the bow and the lyre."
It's also a psychological concern, reflecting the aspect of inner experience that such pre-neurology psychologists as Plato and Freud portrayed metaphorically. I'm thinking of the charioteer in the Phaedrus, the soul depicted as two willful and untamed horses yoked together. Or the id and superego butting heads. My primary interest is not, like neurologists, in identifying the genetic basis or locating the neuronal event-site of internal conflict, but in describing what the experience of internal conflict feels like and what it means, and exploring ways in which movement toward reconciliation might be possible. Camus famously described suicide as the only philosophical problem. I might say it slightly differently: it is by no means self-evident to me how to live with myself. Poetry is one of the ways in which I try to figure that out.

Poch: Certain commonalities don't harmonize. For instance, Bush's view that God is directing him and Bin Laden's view that God is directing him. I suppose we have to find those things in Islam we admire (devotion, reverence, discipline) and even the commonalities we had with the Bush administration. I mean, most people believe in the idea of "just war," but I hardly hear of anyone going back to Aquinas and Augustine to measure how far we might have strayed from their ideals. Are our military leaders investigating this? Our citizens? Our poets?

Hix: The interviewees in God Bless certainly are. Asma Afsaruddin works hard to go back to the Islamic siblings of Aquinas and Augustine, to remind us that extremism is anomalous in Islam, both historically and demographically. Mary Habeck and Peter Bergen identify points of commonality between the Bush administration and those of us with more liberal sensibilities. Paul Woodruff measures current Christianity (and other religions) against an earlier religious ideal in Reverence, and current democratic practice against democracy's earliest ideals in First Democracy.

...poetry isn't only about effecting social change; it's also about personal and civic integrity. It can be a way of "going on record."

Poch: In your most recent collection, Legible Heavens, the work in the section "Synopsis" arises from your readings of the gospels and other apocryphal works. Each poem seems to take its own approach in "translating" a particular passage of scripture. By the end, the lines seem to become quite personal, making the voice of the Apostle James your own, saying "I, Harvey...solicit a miracle." What were your most surprising discoveries in doing this work? What is it within you that wants a miracle?

Hix: I spend a lot of effort denying self-expression, confession, autobiography, and certain other vehicles of the personal any place in my poetry, but not because my poetry is not personal. I just want to construe the "personal" differently. For me, the metaphysical is personal. The conceptual or theoretical is personal. So you're right that the writing of that sequence was very personal, even though the poems are "translations" or "appropriations" of gospel passages and narratives.
I was surprised to discover-or to be reminded-how much power the mythos or lexicon of the gospels retains for me, though I stopped believing any of it many years ago. I suspect we all want a miracle. The realistic side of me, the side that knows better than to watch for a miracle, wrote "A Manual of Happiness," my retelling of the book of Job, one take on the brute fact that the world is not arranged to fulfill our needs and desires, is not as we wish it were. "Synopsis" is its obverse, written by the side of me that holds out irrational hope, that still watches for miracles, or reads experiences as miracles, brute fact be damned. Job stares down brute fact; the gospels peer around it.
I'm particularly interested in the mode of acknowledging the brute fact that contrasts faith to belief, rather than conjoining them. It's the mode of Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, of Kierkegaard, of Simone Weil's positing of disbelief as a criterion for the purity of faith when she suggests that one pray with the thought that God does not exist, and reminds us that "we are subject to that which does not exist." That's one subject/subjection I worry in "Synopsis."

Poch: Yet Job, perhaps the oldest text in the scriptures, seems to be a very New Testament kind of book. Not the ending, where he gets everything back (which to me seems beside the point), but the fact that God respects Job's brutal honesty and condemns the "friends" who seem to be quoting directly out of the Psalms/Proverbs, saying, You reap what you sow. Job is a book of grace in that way, like the gospels. Jesus objects to "religion" just as Job's God does.

Hix: The ending is a late addition to a work that seems to me much more interesting without it. The redactor who added the ending wanted to preserve deuteronomic theology, denial of which is pretty obviously the point of the rest of the poem. So I get what you mean about the similarity between the God of Job and the God of the gospels. You don't have to look around to see that in this world good does not consistently follow good or bad follow bad. If grace is to come to us, it will come as, well, grace, rather than as reward that God's contracted to, that we can claim. God, or the demiurge, or the cosmos: put in the way you just put it, Socrates and his pals in the Republic search for grace no less urgently than Job and Jesus do.

Poch: You do a lot of wrestling with God/god/the gods/the lack thereof. And you admit to being somewhat of a nihilist? Where are you, personally, in this struggle and where do you see it going?

Hix: It is a struggle for me, partly due to personal history. I was raised in a Southern Baptist household that took its religion very seriously, and I myself was earnest enough that as an undergraduate I was licensed (the first step toward becoming a Southern Baptist minister), though I was never ordained (the second and conclusive step). But now I'm the only person, I think, in my extended family-on either side, as far as the eye can see: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews-who does not identify with, practice, or at least accede to some version of fundamentalist Christianity. I absorbed a lot of the values espoused by that household (respect for others, tempering of self-interest by the interests of others, etc.), but the purported facts that, for the others in my family, ground the values (there's a beneficent God who cares about individual humans, and so on) now appear to me to be wish-fulfillments, obviously false. So-since we've been talking about the personal-a number of basic spiritual and philosophical problems (Why should I be good? Why do humans suffer? and so on) feel very personal to me. I inherited from my religious upbringing a sense I can't quite shake, that-like it or not-one's very life is staked on how one answers metaphysical questions and projects oneself ethically.
That's another take on what I was trying to get at earlier in backgrounding life history and foregrounding humanity. There's not much in my life history to depict by way of events: no emotional or physical abuse, no overcoming of addiction, no perilous youthful sowing of wild oats, no struggle for survival in a war-torn city. Good little boy becomes black sheep of family. Ho-hum. Yet the situation I take myself to share with all other humans feels wildly dramatic: lives, including my own, hang in the balance. That probably also explains why my numerous attempts at fiction have all failed. I don't feel conflict most deeply through event, but through situation.

Poch: Wish-fulfillments, you say. But just because someone wishes something doesn't make it false.

Hix: Granted. So I should correct myself by saying that many of the propositions asserted by fundamentalist Christianity appear to me to be wish-fulfillments and to be obviously false. These range from literal interpretations of narratives that appear to me to be figurative (the sun stopping for a day), to conceptual notions I find utterly implausible (a beneficent and omnipotent deity requires a blood sacrifice to be appeased for perceived wrongs; a human sacrifice alleviates guilt of yet-unborn persons; etc.). I still draw heavily on those funds, but for different purchase. The fallen condition of humanity once helped me manage my sense of dependence, explaining why membership in a particular community assured me of a future well-being that others could not expect; now it helps me deal with my complicity in issues larger than myself (my enjoying the benefits of citizenship in a nation that harms and exploits other nations, my receiving a salary from a state treasury partly filled through massive ecological irresponsibility, and so on).

Poch: You write in As Easy as Lying that "Belief suffocates imagination." The word "suffocate" seems rhetorical here. You could have easily said, "Imagination suffocates belief." Can't we have both?

Hix: I'm sure you're right that we can-and probably must-have both. But my apothegm, for all its hyperbolic rhetoric, its condensation of the "big" issues of belief and imagination we've just been talking about, is probably after something fairly modest, a preference for the provisional over the final, for process over conclusion, for exploration over conviction, originary over derivative, discovered over imposed, and so on.

Poch: You directed the creative writing program at the University of Wyoming. In your experience, what is the most important role of a director?

Hix: Surrounded by a bunch of very smart and energized writers (faculty and students alike), my "leadership" consisted mostly in not meddling. I felt as my first responsibility the enabling of community. I mean by that something very straightforward. In workshop or out, the teaching of writing depends heavily on dialogue, and dialogue depends on the people engaged in it: the knowledge and perspective they bring to the dialogue, but also the goodwill, mutual trust, common purpose, respect, and commitment. I count myself fortunate to be part of an MFA that really is a community, made of people with diverse backgrounds but with shared goodwill, who are deeply engaged with one another's work.
So we're very clear about the professor's autonomy, for instance. It was not for me to try to "manage" or regularize how workshops are taught, or even enforce that they be taught as workshops. If Alyson Hagy wondered one semester whether fiction writing might best be taught by learning to line dance, and she wanted to hold her "workshop" at a local country/western bar, my job was to share the students' surprise and trust, not to tell Alyson she has to make everybody sit down once a week around a conference table in the classroom building. I thought of directing these writers as a little like caddying for Tiger Woods. Things are not going to go better if I try to tell him how to swing. They're going to go best if I walk beside him down the fairway and hand him the 4 iron when he asks for it.

But that makes my approach to directing the MFA at Wyoming sound more magnanimous and less self-interested than it was. Really, I just tried to follow Roethke's advice: "Surround yourself with rising waters: the flood will teach you to swim."


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