When I first discovered Bob Hicok, I felt empowered. His fearlessness to explore seemingly unpoetic content – working mundane jobs, screaming at an old dog – was refreshing. He also reminded me that humor and gravity could exist in the same space. After moving to San Francisco a few years ago, I read that Hicock would be reading at the Bookshop West Portal. Unfamiliar with the city and its bus routes (and without a smart phone), I ended up walking four miles to see him read. Below is an excerpt from our full-length interview that will appear in an upcoming issue.
BOB HICOK: The mind is generative. If you look at it, listen to it, it offers, it wants to be engaged, used. It’s like a dog in that dogs want to work, to do something. I think the biggest part of writing is noticing what’s appearing before you with some shine on it, what’s exciting or compelling, and simply picking it up. I sit down and see what’s there and start making decisions. Put a few lines down and see if I’m bored by or curious about them. I almost never begin with a sense of what I want to write about. If I’m not curious, there’s no reason to proceed. Ever watch cats? Show a cat a pencil and most of them will do the cat equivalent of shrug. Show them a pencil then cover it with a piece of paper, and oh my they come to life, many of them. When I wrote the poem above, you had supplied the first line, in a sense: what’s your process? I was curious about that, if I could write my process in a way that contained my process. The line I’d stress here is “remember I would like to exist.“ I think this is what happens to me when I write, I exist in the fullest, most engaged way I have discovered. It’s performative, in that I’m trying basically to record who I am, what I feel/think in the moment I am writing. Because of that, editing for me is also largely performative, kinetic. I read the poem over and over as I write, and change what I don’t like as I write. If, later, I don’t care for the poem, either I throw it out – the most common outcome – or take a new angle into the poem, a new step toward whatever that shiny bit was. I think I’ve tried to make the “first word, best word” philosophy breed with the “a poem must be revised eight hundred times" perspective. I’m trying to watch myself as I come into existence and tune that existence in the moment it becomes palpable through the poem. I will mostly fail but mostly have fun doing so.
MATTHEW SHERLING: What do you see as the limitations and possibilities of language [when used in the way of poetry]?
BH: Limitations of language: it can’t realign my tires. Brush my teeth. Can’t go to Paris unless I carry it or a book or an email or a pigeon does. So language needs a vessel, a body, a mouth. But all of these things it can’t do it can almost do, seem to do, in a poem or book or note to a loved one. It seems a fair postulate that everything we think or feel is encoded in words, that we don’t exist without them, nor they, without us. This is inherently a spiritual relationship, a symbiosis, a marriage. Language allows us to hold what we don’t actually hold, we can write spirit or God and carry these notions, these objects, in our minds, exchange them, debate them, love them, hate them. Language supplies the genes and bones of being.
MS: Your poetry is often very playful. But what’s interesting to me is how you oscillate between the humorous and the heavy. How do you see this oscillation working? Are there any specific writers or artists that inspire your aesthetic? Early? More recently?
BH: It took a while to notice this pattern to my poems, which is not intentional or willed. I think there’s a sorting out for me earlier in a poem, as well as a contextualizing, a presenting of whatever images/situations/thoughts have caught my attention. I’m associative by nature, so it’s inevitable that many of my poems will oscillate on both large and small scales, swing from one thing to another around a core that is often not articulated until later in the poem. Probably a lot of my poems are records of me discovering why a particular set of stimuli hold my attention. But the process itself, the process of making, really any process of making, because it leads to some kind of output, will convey a sense of order. What I like about poems is they can also carry a feeling of the disorder that leads to order, or leads to a desire for order.
Influence is tough for me to discuss. I’ve written or said this many times, but there weren’t poets at the start for me, I was reading novels and listening to music. Don DeLillo, Joy Williams, Saul Bellow. Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits. Now, I tend to read poets as correctives, to pull me away from a direction or tendency in my own writing I’m tired of. I had been writing some bleak stuff and so started reading Neruda every morning, I think for the feeling of optimism in his work, the big spark to it. Then I got tired of that, it started to feel lopsided because everything isn’t as wonderful as I love his poems for making it seem, and pulled O’Hara out for a few days but found him too jumpy (I love his poems, which means at times I hate his poems), so moved on to a new book by Sommer Browning that I adore but haven’t looked at for months. I think I read different poets to strike different tones or raise a flag in my mind I then have to walk toward.