As many of you know, I’m teaching an Introduction to Literature this term, which includes on its reading list Hosho McCreesh’s collection of poems from Sunnyoutside Press. The theme of the course is hope, and we’re also reading Sapphire’s PUSH, Lydia Millet’s MY HAPPY LIFE, Dan Bailey’s THE DRUNK SONNETS, a poetry reader that I’m still in the process of putting together, and Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.
I asked my students to write down questions they had about Hosho McCreesh’s collection. They could either ask a question for the rest of the class to answer, or they could direct their question to Hosho himself. After I collected and read them, I thought I’d send them along to Hosho, whose friendship and email correspondence have become a welcome addition to my writing life. Kind enough to answer my students’ questions, with a turnaround of only one day, Hosho’s answers are published here, publicly and with his permission, because they’re too good not to be.
What do you think Hosho’s life was like when he wrote these poems?
These poems were written between 2003 and 2005. In January 2003, I returned from Europe, where I’d lived for about 1/2 a year. Life is different in Europe, the values, the culture–all very different than those here in America. In many ways this collection is a response to that return and that difference. I was happy to be home, but sad to be back in the U.S. I disagreed with the direction our country was headed in, and disagreed with many of the things we, as a culture, valued. To my way of thinking, beautiful things–even if imperfect, or insignificant–were being destroyed, and replaced with ugly ones. Thematically, the collection deals with the feelings associated with that. During this time I was working a 9 to 5, an office gig–another thing I hated after months of lazy, drunken freedom in Europe. All things being equal, I’d’ve rather been in Paris! So those two things surely prompted some of the emotion of the collection.
I can’t say I agree that all of the poems don’t have hope. I think it’s easiest to see the anger and the sadness in the work. But, as with life itself, the harder thing to do is to find hope when things are tough. I’d say the theme of the first half of the book is damnation, and the theme of the 2nd half is redemption. And they’re meant to juxtapose each other. The book is meant to be read in one sitting, and meant to end on a really hopeful felling–to mimic, in a way, what it feels like to work through a difficult time or problem. In that regard, the poems in the 2nd half are very hopeful. Many are meant to focus on an acceptance of our inability to change the world–accept that there will always be wars; and cruel, ugly people; there will always be difficult things we each must deal with–but what each of us must do is find our own way to be happy amidst it. To me–that’s a very hopeful notion . . . the fact that there is joy to be found, if we seek it out.
Why so morbid?
A reaction, I suppose, to an ugly world. To see the things humans do in the name of gods, and countries, and man-made borders, and these differences between each other that we imagine and nurture–that stuff disgusts me. And I write about it as a way to make sense of it.
Yes, of course. Homeless men sleep under bridges in Paris, and at bus stops in Albuquerque; van Gogh cut his ear off; Hitler gave up painting; a pig farmer killed prostitutes in Canada. Those things are all real. The poems are my responses to such things. What if Hitler had succeeded as a painter? What if he started selling paintings and he abandoned his political aspirations instead? Could art have prevented the worst 20th century monster from having ever been? Maybe. Maybe art is that important, maybe it could’ve been that important.
I’ve seen, or read about, or lived through almost everything I’ve written about. I obviously wasn’t part of World War II . . . but Poetry is no place to lie. For me, poetry is about finding deeper human truths, and illuminating them, such that hope to continue on.
Good question. I’d say it was a desire to make sense of the world around me, to connect to something spiritual and larger than the things that fill each day. It’s important to learn our own hearts, our own weaknesses and prejudices–and to do that we need to understand the world and our place in it. Writing things down has always helped me understand them. And understand my reaction to them. To me, that’s where it all started.
I hope they aren’t ALL sad. But I hope some are. I’d much rather a reader feel something, have some kind of response to the words, than simply gloss over them. We connect, as human beings, via all the things we think and feel. And if we share thoughts and feelings, we understand each other, even if we’ve never met. My favorite books are the ones I understand by connecting emotionally to them. So the poems are meant to be sad, and angry, and sometimes even despondent . . . and they’re also meant to be encouraging, to help readers feel less alone when times are tough.
Another good question. I’d have to say that the voice is pretty consistent poem to poem. Each poem is, to me, about a moment, or a series of small moments–and the larger implications of them. Something small and specific that illuminates something much larger, and hopefully more universal. You’ve probably never sat at a bus stop in Albuquerque–but you’ve surely seen a homeless man somewhere. What connects readers and the writer is the human experience, it’s life…and while the specifics of each moment we remember are different, the things we can learn from them are universal. So, yeah, I’d say it’s the same “voice” that does the talking in each poem.
Why do you break the lines of the poems up so much?
Line breaks are, I think, a purely stylistic decision–and are very different writer to writer. I feel like I break lines according to how I think the poem reads. I group them by parts I feel belong together, as well as how I’d like other parts emphasized or highlighted as they’re being read. But I could give you all a complex sentence, and have you each break it into your own poem, and while all the poems would have the same words, very few of the lines breaks would be the same poem to poem. The emphasis on the words that begin or end lines, the way each of your poems would be read aloud–it would make them all feel slightly different. Each would also probably highlight the parts of the original sentence that each of you liked best. So, by simply rearranging the same sentence–deciding what words went where–as readers we might learn a little something about you, about what matters to you as a writer, based on how you arranged them.Some poets like nouns, some like verbs. Some like to break sentences into readable chunks, or break them by punctuation . . . some even break the words themselves apart . . . all of these are highly stylized choices, and they say something about the writer. Another reason I break words the way I do is the pace I think they’re best read at–I like shorter lines, I like readers to move easily or quickly though the thoughts and ideas . . . sometimes I surround something important with a lot of blank space on the page, so it will stand out. These are the things that make each writer different, as they’re all done pretty instinctively. I dislike long, dense sentences, one atop the next–to me that feels more like prose…and the language just doesn’t stand out as much. All of that plays into how I choose my line breaks.
What is it about the desert that attracts you to live there?
I was born here, and to me, it’s home. I love it here–the beauty of a desert is something that’s hard to see at first glance. To me, there’s an underlying strength, a hope even, in all the things that live in such a place as this. Desert plants, desert animal–they have to be tough, rugged, and smart to survive. What is both beautiful and terrifying about life in the desert is how vast it is, how small you can feel. To see what makes this place beautiful, you really have to look . . . you have to dig deeper into it, work at it a bit. Just like poetry. Just like life.
In this collection, I’d say what’s constantly at work thematically is the balance of redemption and damnation. In life, we can find either–and usually do, depending on what we set out to find. So, to me, the question of damnation and redemption is an interesting one–as if our lives can go in either direction at any moment. Which is why the collection starts sad yet ends with hope.
I’m starting to think that you’ve all only read the first half of the book! And if you think these poems are angry–you should read my book of letters! Seriously though–I think poems should be an honest record of where we are as people when they are written. You might not believe it, but I think my earlier poems are even sadder than these ones! Again–those were an honest reaction to the things at work in my life and the larger world at the time. I’m not nearly as sad as the work suggests–as I said, this is how I make sense of things.
In our lives, everyday, there are things that affect us–something we see, or hear, something someone says or does . . . I find that many of the things that stay with me in a day I end up writing about somehow. So, with these poems, I saw something, read something, heard something–and it stuck with me. So I wrote about it, to try to understand it . . . and, in the process, understand something more about the world and myself. A the root of them all is a kind of curiosity in something I didn’t understand.
I can’t say that I’m out to preach any specific message, or convince anyone of anything. If anything, I want to build a record of honest reactions to the things that affect me. If there is a message, it’s that we’re here, we must understand the world if we’re to change it . . . and that the simple act of trying to understand it is inherently hopeful. Writing is inherently hopeful. You are putting something down, in writing, in the hopes of reaching someone else someday. That’s a joyous wonder–that you sitting there, in class now, could read something I banged out years ago, on a typewriter, under a naked 60 watt bulb, listening to Miles Davis . . . and you could understand, years later, that in that moment, I was sad . . . and, having been sad before, you too understand what that feels like . . . and understanding it means neither of us are ever alone…that someone somewhere understands what we’re feeling. And maybe it helps. To me, that’s what all the best writing does–it makes us feel like what we’re feeling has been felt before, what we’re struggling with has been survived, and that we–as human animals–are never alone. Someone somewhere understood or will understand. That is powerfully hopeful, I think.
Sure . . . only, as I said, we’re dealing with the powerful moments that affected me, and my response to them . . . so most of my daily life isn’t found in my poems. Going to work, paying bills, all that dull stuff–none of that usually stays with me. But it’s the things that do that eventually become poems…so, in that sense, my life does reflect my poetry. But I don’t walk around sad and mopey all the time, angry at the sun. I’m just like the guy in traffic next to you, on the way to work or school or whatever. My days are pretty typical–I work, go home, try to relax and regroup, then try to write or paint something . . . then go to sleep and do it all over again. So, in that sense–most of my life never appears in the poetry. But, yeah, some of it definitely does.
I was certainly angry when writing some of it. Other times I was sad, or worn down, or whatever. But anger is a perfectly decent thing to be filled with when writing, and a perfectly reasonable response to the ugly things in the world. Ugly things should make us angry. And we should say something about them. If we don’t, then we should expect them to continue. Again–responding to them is an act of hope . . . it’s believing that by doing so, we can lessen or prevent them from happening in the future.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, even when I was a kid. I would draw, tell myself stories about the things I was drawing, daydream. It’s the thing I like the most in the world, and the only thing I care about doing. Writing anything and everything. The only way to become a writer is by writing. I don’t really think of myself as a writer while walking around, or at work, or having a drink in a bar, or when I’m watching TV or whatever . . . in fact, in all those instances, what I’m usually thinking about is why I’m not writing instead. As to becoming one–I guess, years ago, I started writing seriously . . . I sent out what I thought was my best work to magazines and to publishers, and eventually some of them printed some of my work. If I ever become a “real” writer, with books on the shelves in airports, malls, and mega-books stores, maybe I’ll probably have a better answer how it all happened!
If these questions today have taught me anything, it’s that there’s really no way to anticipate how your work will be read, or interpreted! I think you can only be as true and an honest to the work and yourself as you can be. The thing that makes my work different from your work or Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s or Bukowski’s, different from everything else that’s ever been written, is the part of it that is specific to each of us. Aside from that–the things written about from country to country, and culture to culture, year after year are astonishingly similar. I certainly think that you can try to guess about the typical reactions to a piece . . . but you can never know how any specific person will react. I think that’s part of the wonder of writing. You hope that the readers “get” what you were trying to say. But there’s no way to make sure they do–without being dull and obvious. So the only thing I can do is make sure the work I’m publishing says what I want it to say, how I want it to be said . . . and trust that the readers will, if engaged by the work, dig deeper into it–look for the spirit behind the lines, look for the things the writer feels and believes. That, to me, is what happens with work I really love. I go back to it, over and over again, always finding something new I’d missed.
Thank you all for your questions, and your interest in my work. I appreciate the opportunity to answer them, and be a small part of this class.Tell everyone who’ll listen, everyone who is bored with the books they find in stores right now–the small press is where all the next writing will come from. You can find a writer you truly love and you can support them, right now…living, breathing writers. Their books are cheaper, and they are made with undying love by presses struggling to stay afloat . . . besides, the small press nobodies and publishers need the support more! If only the big stores out there can sell books, then they will decide what you can read. So support independent bookstores, publishers, and small press writers!
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Find more books by Hosho McCreesh at any of the links below. I can’t recommend his work enough.
Marching Unabashed Into the Weeping, Searing Sun (Bottle of Smoke Press)
Sunlight at Midnight, Darkness at Noon: The Cunningham/McCreesh Letters (Orange Alert Press)