Interview: Tom Healy
The following interview with poet Tom Healy focuses on his recently published collection, What the Right Hand Knows (Four Way Books, 70 pp.), his first book of poems. But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the scope of Tom's experiences beyond the book.
Educated at Harvard and Columbia, Tom has played an active role in New York City's art scene, opening one of the first galleries in Chelsea. Later, after 9/11, he served as president for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, with a mission to revitalize an art scene that the attacks on the city had diminished. He's worked tirelessly as an activist for AIDS prevention and project financing, notably as a member on the White House Council on AIDS under the Clinton administration. He also flies planes.
What the Right Hand Knows demonstrates the multifaceted life Tom lives. We experience the cruel reality of a farm; we live the passion within a painting; we hear the annoying sounds of peacocks in Mexico; we understand love as an orbit.
We conducted the interview via e-mail. My questions for Tom cover many points on life and his art, all inspired by his great debut book.
David Svenson: In What the Right Hand Knows, you've chosen to use short lines and stanzas that develop their own distinct image. Your poem, "The View From Here," balances the ideal with the realistic view on life, with its "perfect hurt." In your writing process, do you rely on your own dictation to find the shape of a poem or do you find there's an organic quality of shape inherent in the subject?
Tom Healy: So little seems organic to me in the making of poems. Forget the death of a naturalist; I was never born one. Even actual gardening has always seemed to me less about the serendipity and marvel of going out in gloves and a sunhat to find something alive to shape than about having a cold confrontation with difficulties—all that hoeing and sweating, in hard soil full of rocks, just to clear a few square feet of possibility.
I also find that whenever I assume I have a subject, a thing to shape, even a place for a poem to go, I go perilously wrong. There isn't a houseplant I can't kill or a possibility I can't think into a dead end of sentimentality, self-consciousness or stick-figure rigidity. I have to start things—lines, fragments, a few stanzas—and then abandon them, only going back to scribbles in my notebooks and slips of paper when I've almost forgotten what they were about. Somehow, when I do that, when I go back to a text I had lost control of, I'm able to write into it and lose myself.
And then—the endless rewriting.
DS: In your poems "The Anesthesiologist's Kiss," and "Local or Strange," there is a great amount of tension between the desire to maintain a clear memory of events and the desire to forget. As a poet, how do you handle memory? How does poetry facilitate our desire to learn from where we've been?
TH: Oh no, memory. A book I come back to again and again is Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory. It's so brilliant, so controlled, so eloquent, and so unstable—which makes the rhetorical ease of that imperative in the title so amusing and ironic. Speak, Memory? As if there were a single, fixed identity to which we could address that demand.
Nabokov wrote and published different versions of many different scenes in the book in Russian and English, in magazine pieces and the full manuscript. He wove fiction in with the fact and he explained this by saying that the reality of his past wasn't something a reader could possess; it was only Nabokov's.
Perhaps Nabokov knew full well which versions of things were factual and which were inventions, but my own memory mumbles, tergiversates, deludes itself and traffics in outright lies. I don't start from anything reliable that I could consciously and easily manipulate. I'd be a terrible witness to a crime. Not only do I often seem to get important particulars wrong, but I see them so vividly and pronounce on them with great certitude in various retellings. And yet, if someone were to roll the videotape, I'd be truly surprised by what I'd gotten wrong. I'd think the tape had been doctored.
But poetry isn't documentation. It's only because we live in the cheap-trick age of easy technological capture that people have valorized a crude fact-checking method of reading—and judging—a writer's "personal experience." Poetry belongs to the urges of enchantment. Facts move through poems incognito—and then, if they've done their job, they disappear. What should remain is something stranger and greater than factual memory: words that can't help but be true no matter who reads them.
This doesn't answer the question of the tension between remembering and forgetting. Why the compulsion to write about trauma I've tried to escape? I shutter to go anywhere near the dreaded idea of writing as therapy. But because I feel increasingly free to tell the truth without the conventions of reportage, perhaps pain is easier to confront. Poems become themselves—and I chase after them, pester and menace them the way Hitchcock's birds go after Tippi Hedren until she finally drives off. My poems finally leave no matter what I've done to them.
DS: Your poem, "Phocion's Wife," is an ekphrastic inspired by the artist Nicolas Poussin. In the painting, Phocion's wife gathers his ashes, bones and heart and concocts her own tomb for him. Your poem beautifully brings together this 17th century painting and our contemporary language. What inspired you to write this poem, and do you see any trends in contemporary ekphrastic poetry?
TH: This poem is Sister Wendy's fault. I had first seen Poussin's painting at Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut. It was a brilliant act of stage direction on Johnson's part, such an arch and stylish move, to put one classical French landscape painting amidst the modern art, among the minimalism and cool severity of the place. It forced a question of what he was up to, to consider one's own philosophy of architecture, the questions of what a house is, what a landscape is, what a painting is, what civilization is—man within and against nature—the questions without the clichés of resolution.
So it was an eerie coincidence that only days after seeing the painting, I heard Sister Wendy wax and lisp and lilt about it on PBS. As she does, she focused on the story within the painting: Phocion's punishment, being sentenced to be burned at the stake but left unburied, his ashes scattered so that even in eternity he'd have no peace. What's unusual, what's so moving and almost unspeakably gorgeous, is his unnamed wife's solution to gather his ashes and swallow them, to give him a tomb within herself. Damn. I felt compelled to write about it. It obviously was quite compelling to Poussin, too, because he painted three different versions of the painting.
But here's my conundrum about ekphrasis: it's true that I probably only wrote "Phocion's Wife" because Poussin painted it. I don't think discovering the story would have been enough. I don't discuss this in the poem, but what Poussin does is so masterful: the scene of Phocion's wife gathering the ashes is tiny, almost unnoticeable in the landscape of temples and trees, not unlike, of course, Icarus falling in Bruegel.
But I'm no Auden and I don't think I could have made a poem that contains the painting as well as the story within it. So, in the end, I didn't make any mention that I was responding to a painting. I didn't directly convey the effect that Poussin or even Phillip Johnson or Sister Wendy had on me. Perhaps this is an example of what I meant by facts going incognito in a poem and then disappearing because they aren't essential to its truth.
What makes me hesitate about ekphrastic poems is that the facts are usually right up front: such poems are so often specifically "about" a painting. And this is the old problem of employing any art form to describe another. The old joke is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Just go listen to the music, walk through the building, look at the painting. Anything else is going to be criticism or description, but rarely art itself.
Of course, every rule is breakable and every rule should be broken. But it's not a bad rule. I think we should be very wary of writing poems about paintings or poems about works of music. First of all, there's the risk of too much reverence. Then there's the risk of showing off: here's an arcane B-side song that only connoisseurs like me know about and appreciate, so let me fill you in. You don't want your poems to be CliffsNotes for something else.
DS: Your poems offer a varied look at animals. I find it intriguing that you do not romanticize them. During your recent reading at FIU's Writer's on the Bay Series, you talked about growing up on a farm. How has this agricultural background affected your interpretation of natural images?
TH: It's true: I don't romanticize farms or animals. I grew up on a small family farm in a stunningly beautiful part of New York State. And over the past 25 years, that way of life has almost entirely disappeared. Small farms are the rural equivalent of Pittsburgh's steel mills—the farm I grew up on and many around it are abandoned now or people live in the houses but the barns and buildings are collapsed and silent, the fields are fallow. And even when they were alive, they were, in a sense, like small factories and mills, certainly not idylls, not where I lived anyway. I think of machines and chemicals and noise and blood, poverty and mud and shit and cold. I think of attacking the land rather than living at peace with it.
Perhaps that wasn't inevitable. Perhaps it isn't now. But I wish I had greater faith in the new passion for local agriculture, organic farming, sustainability and some sense of humility and respect for the planet. But all I really see is the industrial attitudes toward farming gone berserk. We may have killed our animals and poured too many pesticides on the cornfields. But we knew the names of those animals. And we counted the big, yellow plastic bottles of pesticide. Maybe it doesn't matter, but I can honestly say we felt shame.
DS: At the same reading, you described your poem, "My Orbit," as a love poem that came out aggressive. The poem details the speaker's persona, or orbit, as a violent region, whose "hook blisters" and "jabs blind." But the speaker accepts that this is what he imagines he is—"I am what I pretend to be"—and he meekly offers conciliatory advice at the end: "Defend yourself. / Defend me." How would you describe your association with love in your work? Are there any poets you feel akin to in this regard?
TH: My "association with love." That sounds like Motown. I wish I had such musicality. Maybe I have Ike Turner's belligerence, but none of Tina's deep cry. I was a percussionist as a kid; all through school and college I played drums—in jazz bands and marching band. I think that aggressive, martial kind of expressiveness is deep in my bones. Love probably comes out as rhythm and clipped rattle more than mood in my poems, more beat than vibrato. I struggle to move above the bass line and range further on the scale.
That struggle—and here I battle all kinds of gender dramas inside myself, maybe even an internalized homophobia—is to express vulnerability without self-pity, longing without too much weakness, depth despite long habits of safety in surface emotions.
I have more questions about love than answers. I grew up in a family of intense physical violence even though there was love. Fortunately, I live now among people who would never allow that violence to happen—which may just make me more dangerous to myself than others. I don't know. But love is never pure, clean or standing alone in my thoughts and emotions. And whatever it is, it is the toughest thing to say.
Poets I feel akin to in this? I love the confusions of certain men who weren't at home in the city—Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, James Tate, Raymond Carver—where there is often a fierce drama of intellect battling an almost childish need for forgiveness in the aftermath of encounters with loved ones. Perhaps the archetype of this character is King Lear, of course. The philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote a very famous essay about the play called, "The Avoidance of Love." I trembled when I first read that essay. I think I had always fantasized as a kid that when I grew up and escaped to some vaguely imagined company of intellectuals, we would talk about and live easily with love. I never imagined I'd bring the violence and confusion with me.