If you’ve already read my review of The Spring Ghazals by Jack Hayes, then you know that I really admire this book. So, as an added bonus, I was able to ask John a few of the questions that I had around his creative process and his work.
From what I’ve read on your blog, The Spring Ghazals has a really interesting back story. Can you explain your inspiration for the book and why you chose to write it?
First, I want to say thanks, Jessica, for making the time & space to present this interview to your readers—much appreciated!
The inspiration for the book came from emotional pain, frankly—an old pain that dates back to the 1980s; an old love affair that I never got over, one that ended badly & abruptly & with a lot of unanswered questions. The woman & I went on to lead very different lives, & were never in touch from the late 1980s until she contacted me by email in 2008. In ’08, I’d not written poetry for about 12 years, but shortly after she contacted me, I began writing what would become the “Kitchen Poems” section of the book.
Sadly, the friendship that I hoped would develop didn’t work out, & once again, almost exactly 21 years after the first rift, there was a second one—again, abrupt & harsh & with a lot of unanswered questions. I was devastated & I felt distinctly “unstuck in time.” It was as if I was simultaneously living in 1987 & 2008 & at various points in between. Also, being in touch with this woman started me thinking about other people I’d known in my “past lives,” people with whom I’d lost contact for various reasons, & I began to really experience regret about this perceived gulf between my current life & my past. In the “every cloud must have a silver lining” department, I’ve since been able to contact many old friends & rebuild these relationships.
Why I chose to write the book? Thru much of the process the only choice was whether to keep going or not—I felt compelled to do most of the writing in the book. Not long after this second rift, I ended up in therapy, & my therapist told me that I would need to “create my way thru” the depression. The Spring Ghazals ultimately was an attempt to do this & an attempt to communicate feelings & experiences that seemed almost overwhelming at the time.
Those who are curious can find a bit more of the “back story” on my dedicated Spring Ghazals blog here.
What is your favorite poem in the book and can you please describe the story behind this poem?
This is a challenging question! For one thing, I tend to see the Ghazals, Helix & Grace sections as each being a unit more than individual poems. But perhaps a good poem to discuss would be the ghazal entitled “What Can We Talk About That Will Take All Night” (the title is a quote from Kenneth Patchen, a favorite poet of mine.) This poem looks back not only to the relationship from the 1980s that briefly returned as friendship in 08, but also to an earlier love/friendship in the late 70s—a situation that in many ways resonated with the later relationship—many of the same issues gave both relationships an amazing vitality & also made them extraordinarily complicated.
So this poem essentially exists in three time periods: Burlington, VT 1978; Charlottesville, VA 1987; & Indian Valley, ID 2009. The poem is also characteristic of the book as a whole because it contains some of the motifs & images that recur throughout—the book contains many repeated images. In this case, the “skybluepink porcelain/Blessed Virgin,” red rose blossom on a white/pergola,” & the mandocello’s low/C-string tremolo” all connect the poem to other moments in the collection. Also, the poem’s conclusion: “the echo of unsaid words” not only encapsulates (I think) something that’s consistently true about regret, but also encapsulates a lot of the book’s raison d’être—the book itself is “the echo of unsaid words.”
When reading the book, I was given a sense that I was peeking into a very specific emotional time for the narrator, even though the poems seem to span many calendar years. Did this make it difficult to create an order of poems for the book?
Yes, the book is mostly concerned with events, both physical & emotional, that took place in 1986-87 & 2008-09—how those events resonated with each other. But as mentioned in the previous question, the poems also branch out into other losses I’ve experienced in my life—not lost loves & friendships, but also to the loss of my father who died in 2005 after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. As far as the order goes, the sections were almost all written as discrete entities in discrete periods of time: the “Kitchen Poems” were written in late spring/early summer of 08; the ghazals in the spring of 09, & the Helix & Grace poems in the winter of 2010. The “Cloudland” section is an exception—some of those prose poems were written as posts on my Robert Frost’s Banjo blog in the late summer of 08, while a few were added in January & February 2010.
Why did I order the poems as I did? It’s true that some of the “Kitchen Poems” are a sort of major chord contrasting with the overall minor chord feel of the book. I believe if I’d placed these first in the book it would have created a narrative arc along the lines of “first I was happy, then I was sad.” & that seems to me not only too tidy, but also false to my experience. All in all, I’d say the order seemed pretty clear—the Ghazals, Helix poems & Grace poems all appear in the order they were written, because I see them as all incremental.
One of the major elements of this book is the amount of things (objects, flora and fauna, food, etc.) that you reference in the poems. What inspired you to include these specific details?
Interesting! It’s probably my lifelong mental skirmish with WC Williams & his “no ideas but in things” dictum! But seriously, I’ve always used observed objects & landscapes to ground my poems. As far as the food poems go, my old friend is quite involved in the “foodie” world, so there was a bit of an “in-joke” there when I began the “Kitchen Poems,” which she actively read & much to my delight, seemed to admire. As far as the many objects go: they all have personal associations, & as you mentioned to me on Twitter, they are each in themselves invocations of a sort—invoking them both takes me back to another time & place & also underlines the fact that I can’t physically access that other time—despite the apparent physicality of “object memory.” I suppose the floral & fauna work in much the same way, tho these often are invocations of the present time—I live in a very rural area, & invoking these things “brings me back” to my current time & place—tho there’s also a bit of alienation too, because there’s a tension between past & present. & despite the pastoral background—which I do find beautiful—there’s also a tension there because my past involved town & city life to which I’m probably more temperamentally suited. As Frank O’Hara wrote, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy….” I don’t go that far, but I do acknowledge an uncomfortable isolation in rural life.
Another intriguing element in this book is your use of received and created forms. Clearly you use the ghazal form, but you also use a created form in the Helix poem. What was your process behind using these forms?
The ghazals were much inspired by Adrienne Rich’s ghazals, both her sequence “Homage to Ghalib” & especially her “Blue Ghazals.” Sadly, these are now out-of-print. I’d been aware of the form for some time & despite being a poet who likes to tinker with forms, I’d never turned my hand to it before. The couplet form intrigued me—for one thing, I haven’t tended to write much in couplets, so there was a newness there. Obviously, the fact that ghazals traditionally deal with lost love was a major factor in using the form. & of course, I should say that beyond the couplet form & the themes, these ghazals stray far from the traditional form—there’s no set pattern of repetition (tho there is quite a bit of more random repetition) & no rhyme.
The Helix poems—I wrote the first two in late January, & I was originally thinking of a sort of classic Japanese poem except transplanted very much in late 20th century/early 21st century U.S. soil. I’d re-read Basho’s Road to the Deep North last winter. It wasn’t until the second poem in the sequence that I came up with the name “Helix.” I do see them as a sort of spiral of objects & recollection, & the thought of intertwining strands certainly made sense to me in terms of the book’s themes.