Mercy or not
These are the blazing days
and you are asked to love
—Rebecca Gayle Howell, “Render / An Apocalypse”
DANIEL CROSS TURNER: I usually begin interviews with a general question about an author’s work. However, given what I find as the intractability, the untraceability of your work in some ways, the odd old newness of your poems, I might try something new. Poetically speaking—and, if relevant, personally—how did we get here? That is, what made you a poet (and/or, how did you make yourself a poet?)—and what kind of poet are you? How would you describe your poetry?—which seems to emerge from some other world, yet still very much holds presence in ours, like a spectral haunting.
REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL: Thank you for that generous phrase, the odd old newness. What makes my poetry is what made me, I suppose. That I came up a working-class child in a small town of the border South. That my formative reading period featured synchronous affairs with the Bible and the early American modernists. I was alone most of my days because my parents worked 16 hour shifts, 363 days a year to keep us housed and fed. But in my adolescence I began reading aloud to myself Eliot and the ancients, asking these voices to help me be less lonely, to bring me to God. In those moments I gained, not only an intimacy with thought’s music, but also with its capacity to transcend and transport. Suddenly, the elders could be my friends. Suddenly, the past was not even past.
This sense, that an ultra-dimension of human communication was being revealed in literature, was confirmed for me in my early days among my mentors in Kentucky, and, again, under Alicia Ostriker. Nikky Finney, whose book Rice had just emerged when I first began to study with her, teaches that “we begin with history,” that we as poets are reaching with our language into the historical sacred, asking it to ordain us, again and again, with a desire for truth. Wendell Berry teaches that, to be original, one must begin with her or his origins. And Alicia, that our stories of origin, our myths, those Jungian figures that tie our present-day minds with our ancient consciousness, that these angels must be wrestled, as Jacob wrestled his angel, if we hope to hear our own true names.
This is the William Blake pulse. We see it repeated in James Dickey’s poetry (and the works of so many writers of the South): “to invent is the guts of it.” We see it in Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. We see it in Misters Faulkner, Gaines, and Berry. This revelatory sense of our place, this desire to mythologize, is no doubt sponsored, at least in part, by our need to make sense of the almost constant economic, social, ecological, and cultural catastrophe the South has endured since its origin in the Western mind. Robert Jackson has a great piece on this. That desire—to imagine our region as both our place and not our place—resurrects Lazarus before he’s too long dead. Home: that which is, and was, and is to come.
This trend in the larger region is taken to a whole new level in Kentucky letters. Another mentor of mine, James Baker Hall, an experimental art photographer and writer who was friends with and influenced by Ralph Eugene Meatyard was, in the context of the early digital darkroom, a self-taught “primitive” artist—which is to say, after a lifetime as an esteemed modernist photographer, he gave himself permission to be an amateur, to play in the fields of Photoshop. Before he died he was making digital prints of negatives he had taken twenty years before that featured the Bluegrass countryside, reinventing C prints into ecstatic, and sometimes nightmarish, actualizations of impossible color and movement. For Jim this was a way of lifting the veil, allowing himself, and us, to witness cows and twigs as members of the mandala (where they do live, of course). I spent my twenties working in his studio, helping him make these and other such pictures, a formative time for my imagination.
“Regionalism” became such a dirty word in the twentieth century. What a shame. I think that by articulating and valuing our particular multitudes of place, we allow for community, for history, for self and other to reach each other and, together, reach across time.
DCT: What is the relation between your two full-length books of poetry to date, Render / An Apocalypse (2013) and American Purgatory (2017)? What convergences and/or divergences do you see between the two?
RGH: I’d much rather hear you answer this question—but for me, the two books are both lyric narratives, myths that are, in the end, works of proletarian literature; I also think both myths are rooted in their actual landscape of origin, as well as an ecstatic imagining of that landscape. Divergences have to do with formal decisions and the actualities of their stories.
DCT: Would you speak to some of your particular turns of craft? In my reading, I find halting and yet rushing lineation; similes and metaphors that seem perfectly consonant in tone and content; vehicle and tenor neatly dovetailing. For example, in Render, in “How to Wake,” we are told thirst is “a wide-mouthed bucket / on the ground.” Another instance that comes to mind is in “Nobody’s Dead” from American Purgatory, “Sometimes he looks like a pumpjack, / every minute bowing to what is gone.”
I also find an extensive use of anaphora and broken repetitions and tautological statements, such as “You want You want / what you want” in “The Petition” from Render; I find the same in the title “We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know” from American Purgatory. Finally, I hear so many aural links, such as the repeated rolling “l’s” in “soil fallen leaves long rains” (in “How to be Civilized” from Render); emphatic spondaic monosyllabic phrasings, as in “first chore done / be mean” and “her hot dirt body” from “How to Wake”; or fused lines, such as “each leg up each hoof” in “How to be Civilized”).
How do these techniques relate with the overall images and ideas at work in your books?
RGH: I don’t mean to be unhelpful, but I really don’t know. I effort to train my ear in many sounds of poetry, through reading and memorizing a range of works, then, when I’m writing, I try only to trust my ear. To listen, dictate. If the result is a composition in which said patterns can be found, I trust you, the reader, to make whatever you want of them. My use of straight and inverted anaphoras probably come from my reading in the Psalms; as for metaphor, I think of it as a means to learn something I don’t know, a way of challenging myself to become. I’m paraphrasing Sallie McFague here: “Metaphor is, for the human, what instinctual groping is for the rest of the universe—the power of getting from here to there.” Or, Eudora Welty: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.”
DCT: I hope Terry Kennedy thought of me for this interview—and I’m thankful he did—not just because of my interest in contemporary Southern poetry, but because I’m part of a cohort of scholars who are thinking through issues surrounding “the undead South” and/or visions of the “apocalyptic South.” For a couple of brief examples, Anthony D. Hoefer has a recent book, Apocalypse South: Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Southern Imaginary (2012) and I coedited with Eric Gary Anderson and Taylor Hagood a collection of essays, Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture (2015), where we try to figure how and why the American South has been—and very much still is—so haunted. Zombies, vampires, ghosts, corpses are rising up again all over down South. And your poetry books speak tellingly to this ethos. What draws you to this subject? What does apocalypse mean in your work? Why apocalypse now?
RGH: Probably because of apocalypse then.
I mentioned Robert Jackson earlier. He wrote an essay for the Mississippi Quarterly’s special section on Katrina, published in 2010, that has really stayed with me; it’s called by the term he is coining, “The Southern Disaster Complex”—the idea that we southern artists kind of can’t help but imagine apocalypse, given that our imaginations are grown from a land that has born the brunt of so many disasters, from Roanoke to Katrina, not the least of which is the disaster of war capitalism upon our people, who, at best, have been exploited as a colony, and at worst, have been systematically enslaved. The South seems to be a stage upon which apocalypse bears apocalypse, not paradise. Consequently, I think we who are of this region suffer a kind of collective, generational PTSD.
It is the latter with which I seem to be obsessed, the disaster of war capitalism upon my people, what it means to labor and not benefit from the product of your labor, what it means to be exploited, and, in various degrees of brutality, owned; what these realities do to a person, a land and its people. My ultimate question is: What on this earth can turn it around? What is the accompanying story of hope? But I find, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, to write toward hope, sometimes I have to write about the absence of hope.
I believe the South, its broken economy and loneliness, its wild arts and politics, its spoilt soil and creeks, is a bellwether. The larger nation loves to blame the South and southerners for slavery, but that framework is a blindness some choose at the risk of everyone else. Instead of ignoring the South and rural America, we’d better be listening. Real close. The trans-Atlantic trade of stolen persons was the seed, a first incarnation, of our current globalized economy—by which all of contemporary America is touched and by which we are destroying, in addition to our humanity, our habitat. In other words, the institution of slavery—and the pleasures it brings to those who can buy the bought—is not in the past; we Americans have only moved its evils further out of our purview. Perhaps it isn’t any longer performed as a familial feudality, but it isn’t over. American exceptionalism is very, very expensive. If you wear clothes that aren’t made by people making at least $15 an hour, or if you or your neighbor don’t grow everything you eat, chances are you are still benefiting from the enslaved labor of someone, regardless of who your ancestors were. Every time a farmer in India sets himself on fire because he is a debt slave to Monsanto and so can find no way out, no hope among his shining days, I am to blame. Not abstractly, actually. Truth is specific. I don’t want to hide.
DCT: In particular, American Purgatory strikes me as a graphic narrative brilliantly spliced with verse. Something like a poetic version of the initial comic book run of The Walking Dead. There is a kind of start-and-stop seriality to your segments and sequencing of this loose narrative poem with a trio of primary characters. The poem, like a graphic narrative, also contains its fair share of visually arresting scenes.
RGH: I love that. Thank you. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read the books, but The Walking Dead was written by a couple of Kentucky boys, so I like that we share some ground.
When I was writing the Purgatory I was positioning myself in relationship to the poems as I would photographs, actually I was imagining them to be SX-70 Polaroids, and I was working as I would if I were serializing pictures into a book or a show. So, yes. I do think the poems are built on image, as well as on the silence that rests between images when, together, they approach story.
DCT: This question draws off a line from Render, but could apply to both your books: “End without end” (“A Calendar of Blazing Days”). In these apocalyptic books, is the end endless? Does the end have no end? Is there any value or point to the processes or journeys undergone in Render and American Purgatory?
RGH: Dante’s purgatory was imagined as a linear, hierarchical place of progression. That is not this purgatory. Generally speaking, I find we are all living in a rotation of creation and recreation—from the compost comes growing the new seed. But I think it’s probably best to answer your question in terms of story. Yes, the Purgatory enjoys a cyclical relationship to time. The book ends with a choose-your-own-adventure event: either the reader believes the protagonist’s baby is sired by Slade or by Little. The reader’s answer to this question determines whether or not she and the newborn die in the snake pit, and, upon a re-reading, also answers, or doesn’t, who the Kid and his mother might be. Render is more traditional, built on the familiarity of Freytag’s Triangle. The book ends with the protagonist driving to hell or Ohio, anywhere but the East Kentucky holler in which most of the myth takes place. (The referenced billboards that read “Hell is Real” are actual ones I used to pass on an Ohio highway.) This event is a nod, of course, to the historical fact so many who had once been sustained in Appalachia by the agrarian economy gave up their securities in the early 1900s in order to engage capitalism and by mid-century were economic refugees, driving to Ohio and Detroit for work.
Regardless, the value or point to the process or journey that either of these myths engage—this value, for me, exists outside of any requirement of linear time or a culminating occasion. My hope is that the reader can join me in that perspective.
DCT: To maybe think about this in another way: What about matters of undeadness in your work? Sometimes actual death and deathways show up (e.g., the slaughter of livestock in meticulous detail in Render), but undeadness in more symbolic ways, too. For example, there are rarely instances of stark, flashpoint traumatic episodes in your poems; however, there is a lingering feeling of post-traumatic sufferance, of painstakingness and mundane endurance, of dragging ourselves along in an ongoing death-in-life state (not-yet-dead but not-wholly-living), an existential and cultural zombification. (This is a notion I believe Nick Flynn’s fine critical/creative “Foreword” to Render gets at in a different manner.)
RGH: As I said earlier, I do think many southerners are walking around in a kind of PTSD, one induced by the cognitive dissidence required of person when he tries to build a life in a state of exploitation while he is repeatedly told that state’s name is “land of opportunity.” It’s gaslighting, our cultural messaging around personal success, and it’s especially toxic in our region.
But I also think it’s not specific to the South. What you are calling “zombification” is just how one feels as a member of the twenty-first-century working class: totally and utterly dehumanized and exhausted. We are working two and three jobs to get by, and we aren’t getting by. If we rent, we likely have had our housing expenses triple since 2008. We are suffering malnutrition because we are too tired to cook, because the cost of anything but McDonald’s is too high, because to qualify for SNAP benefits requires some kind of terrible miracle. From Denver to Pittsburgh, people are making homes in storage units. Corporate interests have a stranglehold on all three branches of government, and so-called right-to-work laws are spreading like the scabies. It was Dr. King’s death wish that the workers of America unite, across race. It seems clear to me our generation is now in a position to heed his warning or endure more than our portion of suffering.
DCT: In an interview I did with Yusef Komunyakaa a few years back, he talked about responding to a “jagged symmetry” he felt in the surrounding ecology: I suppose growing up in Louisiana, even that informed my quest for the mysterious. I liked going out into the woods at five or six years old, and everything seemed so immense and so mysterious to me. It made my senses come to life. I felt that there was a nervous edge to the world, to human existence. That it wasn’t neatly tied up in a gift box. There was a kind of jagged symmetry to everything. (“Remaking Myth” 338) This notion of a “jagged symmetry” struck me as in some ways fitting for the vision of the nonhuman environs that we encounter in Render and in American Purgatory: that mysteriousness (limning into eeriness), that immensity, too, even when apparently describing matter-of-factly discrete processes, seemingly small things (e.g., how to gut a pig). As you detail intricately, intimately the innards of chickens and hogs, male and female, I think we feel a kind of jagged symmetry to everything in your world, too.
RGH: I can see that. As Mr. Komunyakaa details there, the Earth can bestow upon us our smallness, and with it, a reverence for a pulse much older than that of our own egos.
From here I remember Thomas Merton, who said that the Mystery will reveal itself to us in a cup of a tea, if we pay attention.
DCT: Would you speak to the animals in your poems? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen animals quite like this before. There’s a commingling of the flatly real and the wondrous, and there’s an incredible proximity between human and nonhuman species, but also a not-fully-definable yet imposing, often distressing otherness. In “A Calendar of Blazing Days” from Render, the human is defined by opposition: we are not a raccoon. We have our reasons, cares, complications:
You have to not care
how you get what you get But you are
the complicated animal hairless and shining
You are the one with reasons
Whereas in “How to Be an Animal,” we are instructed maybe to forget all that:
Forget you are an animal Forget ancient rummaging pigs wild in their snouts Forget you ran with them Wild among trees Wild in your cheer
RGH: Yes, in Render, the animals are the ones who hold the secret, who know what needs to be known—what we, who prefer to think of ourselves as angels in flesh, never animals, need so desperately to know.
DCT: The word “animal” appears in all of Shakespeare’s works only eight times, according to scholar Laurie Shannon. The sense of distance between human and nonhuman animals is mainly a modern invention, a byproduct of humanism and urbanindustrialism. Your work seems to bring us to a time, as Shannon puts it, “before the human.” And not only on an archetypal or mythic plane. Your poems are also very grounded in the details of sustenance; we see, hear, feel, taste, touch in your verse that before the modern version of the human/animal division is a hard place to be, much work to be done, slow and strong. No faint hearts. And the animals have changed, have “civilized” us, as much as the other way around; to cite the ending line of “How to be Civilized,” “This is how we are civilized”
RGH: My argument is with this translation, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” With it, we forget we are a creeping thing. And by argument, I mean I am, every day, most interested in learning how God reveals God’sself in every creeping thing. If I listen, a process that requires me to shut down my capacity to want dominion, domination, if I disarm and listen instead, I find I have a much better day. Ellen Davis teaches well on this subject.
My grandparents were subsistence farmers. My grandfather walked off from his railroad job and did not go to work for coal or timber and instead returned to the way he was raised, the old ways, the agrarian economy. Sometimes he and grandma would barter a hog for what they couldn’t grow or make, but for the most part, they collaborated with the Earth to take care of themselves and their ten children. I admire them immensely, though my privilege is also a product of their exhausted lives. My education, for example, or my books, are the direct result of my having time on my hands, time I have because I am not busy making sauerkraut for winter. So, I am also interested in the enormous amount of work it takes to meet the human animal’s actual needs, and how we create systems like “civilization” and “industrialization” and “capitalism” and “slavery” that are supposed to rescue us from this work, and how, instead, it makes that work someone else’s problem and makes slaves of us all.
The solution is not clear to me. Right in this moment, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro probably built by a trapped twelve year old Chinese girl. I’m in an air conditioned room, in a house I did not build, wearing clothes I did not make, drinking filtered water brought over from Virginia. But the arc of the moral universe is long. Wendell once wrote to me that despair was the pleasure of cowards. My life has proven him right. The work of hope requires of me, repeatedly, to be bold, more bold than I was the day before.
DCT: Throughout Render, animals are marked as female or male—at times in surprising ways—and often with a current of gendered antagonism rippling through these scenes, though occasionally there is something like tenderness instead.
RGH: Traditionally we have gendered our impulse to dominate as masculine, and the Earth’s capacity to regenerate as feminine. Gender is a construct, but the violence which domination causes is no mere idea. We all choose how we direct our thoughts, and from them, our actions.
As for tenderness, that’s the secret the animals know.
DCT: I took as the epigraph for this interview a short excerpt from “A Calendar of Blazing Days.” On a literal level, this poem details the smoking of a pig, yet “blazing” takes on symbolic valence:
Mercy or not
These are the blazing days
and you are asked to love
In such a world as this, what is mercy? In such a world as this, what is love? Are these especially human/humane things? In “What Goes Around” from American Purgatory, our narrator observes, “Love is funny, in that it’s dead / but not dead.” Is love also zombified, undead?
RGH: The whole passage reads:
Tonight you will dream
a mockingbird, brass bugle for a beak
Its tree grows out from your head
leaves of seeing glass darkly
a tap from which mercury draws
silver and hot Mercy or not
These are the blazing days
and you are asked to love
I think that phrase, “Mercy or not,” which can be read as a statement or a question, acts as a hinge between the phrase you quote and that image of the mockingbird and its tree. It’s a tree that grows out from your mind and has two knowns: 1. it bears leaves of seeing glass darkly (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”)—mirrors, a way to see yourself 2. it has a sap, which is being tapped, and that sap is quicksilver (the liquid form of mercury, which we once used to take our temperatures). I don’t want to explain the image any further than that. But in my own ear, “Mercy or not” is in part the mockingbird’s call, and if you’ve ever heard a mockingbird, you know how maddeningly repetitive that bird can be.
All that’s to say, the protagonist is being told: it is your decision, whether this world offers mercy. You are being asked: What kind of person are you? You are being asked: Will you love?—regardless of love’s rumored futility, regardless of the days themselves being on fire.
The passage from the Purgatory is similar; love is dead / but not dead. We might feel like it’s dead, like it’s left us, but if we listen past the line break—it is there, living among mothers and inside us, their children, our own breasts, our will.
So, for me, in both books, whether or not love is “zombified” is ultimately up to the reader, up to her or his own private answers to these questions.
DCT: You mentioned that through your reading of T. S. Eliot and others, you realized “Suddenly, the elders could be my friends.” As I read through Render and American Purgatory, a number of resonances struck in me: you have lots of friends. And this connective impulse seems apparent, too, in your relationships with all the teachers and mentors and colleagues to whom you give credit in this interview—you attend to others. In your poems, some of these allusive echoes seem more straightforward or reasonable, more fitting, I suppose. Such as Cormac McCarthy, especially for the apocalyptic narrative structure of American Purgatory—particularly The Road. But also odd echoes, strange soundings coursing through, emerging here and there. In Render, for instance, I hear pieces of Susan Howe, John Berryman, Mary Oliver, Will Oldham. For a notably oddball example, I kept hearing Robert Frost beneath, beside, beyond, between some of the lines in Render. Not necessarily a natural fit. Nevertheless, some parallels appeared: the use of simple language, plain talk, and the accompanying brilliant capacity to press figurative resonance out of vernacular imagery and phrasings; a dark vatic voice, with Old Testament idioms and shaming tone; the language of command and order, yet leaving us with a feeling of lostness, openness, uncanniness (like being directed by a guide who only has at heart our getting lost); the need for being versed in country things (“how to” poems instructing us on important elements of farm work), especially dealing with livestock/animals; the idea that “There are rules”—very generally speaking—to what we call the natural world, for there are roughly zones, but these are always shifting, adaptable, and human animals must adapt to them; a shared emphasis on work, work, work that never gets fully done (like the thousand thousand apples in “After Apple-Picking”); an archaic, oldworld feel; and an apocalyptic ethos, yet some promise to be whole again beyond confusion, something for hope.
First, do you see any influence or back-and-forth with Frost in your work?
Second, how aware are you about including allusions in your poems?
RGH: I love that you hear Frost in Render, but I can’t take credit for his presence there. I didn’t read him with any commitment until I was writing the Purgatory. I do respond deeply to him now though, and I can see the connections you’re making are real. What would my generation be?—the grandchildren of Frost’s generation? In this light, I am profoundly influenced by him, even if I never picked up one of his books—because of his influence on so many I read with vigor early on. As for allusions, I’m often not conscious of bringing them in, though I am aware their presence is common to my work. I enjoy reading widely and try to welcome all that I read and experience into my imagination, so I’m not surprised when it shows back up. But it’s not a deliberate intention, as it was for the paleo-modernists. For example, the Biblical echoes I cannot help; the language is just there, in my brain, and my song naturally samples from it.
DCT: What about the “illustrations” interspersed between poems in American Purgatory? They carry a historical patina, and yet there’s a sense of foreboding futurity to them, too—the dark idea that, in our past, lies our future, and it’s not a pretty picture.
RGH: It’s Buddhism 101: A course of action has inevitable consequences that effect us all. I don’t know that it’s a necessarily dark idea, unless our actions in the past have been both dark and uncorrected, which of course is our current predicament.
And you’re right, it’s exactly what I was trying to understand when I was working on the Purgatory. How far does this cycle of economic exploitation go? When and how will we ever stop it? The visual poems are primitive digital collages made, primarily, from the British Library’s 2013 release of millions of colonial-era images. So, in my effort to understand, I practiced my question—I picked up pieces from our past and asked them to help me see something new. I think of them as flat shadow boxes, in the folk tradition.
For example, Map #3. A woman native to the Americas is drawn with her breast out of her dress, as if to say, I’m here, your wet nurse. Come and drink. It’s an infuriating image. Over her body is placed a medieval drawing of a solar eclipse, in which the sun and the moon are men’s faces, staring into the sphere where the Earth was to be, where also is her breast. In the base angle of the diagram’s triangle is the word reap, written in my hand. This for a long time was the whole poem, but I kept feeling it was made too easily, of ideas I was already sure of. So in a revision I went back into the database and looked for more images to pick up and place in the poem’s box. That’s when I found the nautilus shell and those words: LOST AND WON. The nautilus is a Fibonacci spiral, an internal, eternal unfolding, like time—and paired with those words, their indictment of all I’ve won at the hand of exploitation, and all I’ve lost. That took me to a new place.
Anyway, the meanest death to deal a poem is to explain it, but maybe that can help you in your reading of all the maps. I will say I don’t think of them as illustrations, but as poems, most influenced by the visual poems of Argentinian artist Luis Pazos and the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems.
DCT: Undercurrents of precarity and of waste are present in Render. However, these things seem to come to the core of American Purgatory, where the endless metrics of capitalist productivity fall through. On this front, the end has no end: “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Keep your head down. / Work the double” (“No One, Not Even One”). Work double-time, what good does it do? It only cuts your labor value by half. Under the sign of global capital, with its local symptoms of “auto pawn, bail bond, payday / loan,” where you “Work for pay, / a real trade,” we are done; our last, best chance is drawing what sustenance there is out of the dust:
But here, where the sun does not charge
the hour, where all you meet is broke down
but something by might grows, you could trust the dust
may pardon you, you could trust work. (“The Economics Will Satisfy”)
The current economics are unsatisfactory. Does your poem suggest a way out? An escape or alternative, or a way to change the present system for the better?
RGH: Believe it or not, I’m actually not a didactic writer. I mean, not intentionally. I write toward what I don’t know, not what I know. It’s a coincidence of my life, and the lives of my ancestors, that work and economic justice is my subject matter. Vandana Shiva, Wendell, Ta-Nehisi Coates. These guys have some answers. It seems to be all I can do to listen and dictate, observe, imagine. the Purgatory is a myth, but it’s also documentary—it’s a story built from watching and listening, from my effort to be present with realities that are incredibly painful and infuriating. In this particular poem, she ends her thoughts by fantasizing, as so many people caught in this cycle do, that suicide is her only way out. “Forget cotton. / I’ll give you forgiveness: dust to dust. Through the earth’s roof / a bullet the speed of my tongue. Her it: We are done.” (Notably, inside there, too, is Marissa Alexander and her courageous bullet she used to spook her abuser, which, in the end, was used to scare her back into submission.)
DCT: Economic and ecological damages are bound inextricably in American Purgatory. The place is desolate, and so are we. And we’ve had our part in it: “We’ve been called to a place worse than us / to learn there’s nothing here worse than us” (“Believing Is Seeing”). Overproduction, overextraction, pesticides, thin soil, unclean water. Wherever we are, there we are—and this, at present, is not good.
RGH: I think it’s clear to anyone paying attention it will be those with the least who will suffer the most during climate change. Survival can make us very selfish, as can power. When the two unite, as they are doing now, the humans will be separated from the rodents, from those who do not care / how [they] get what [they] get.
DCT: Despite all the ruin, do we get a happy ending at the end of American Purgatory?
RGH: Do you mean, does she get out? As I said, I think that’s up to the reader. Either she does or she doesn’t, and if she doesn’t, the story begins again.
But I think hope is present throughout; even if the story proves to be narratologically circular, she’s not doomed. The Kid is her Beatrice all along, a soul of determination, pure faith, a soul of play, who practices love with his mother, despite the loveless world all around him. If the Kid proves to be her kid, and she that mother—I begin to imagine another story for her entirely.
DCT: Do you consider yourself a “southern” writer in any sense? And/or more of an Appalachian writer?
RGH: I once heard Nikky Finney say her biggest influences were the sun and the ocean. We all laughed when she said it, because the question had to do with which books she was reading, but I remember that as an honest moment. We are most influenced by our Earth, our landscapes, our places, our neighborhoods, our neighbors. It’s a fantasy of the ego that we aren’t.
Like I said at the front of our conversation, this is the big teaching among writers in Kentucky. Wendell Berry. Gayl Jones. Fenton Johnson. Crystal Wilkinson. Harriette Arnow. Chris Offutt. Guy Davenport. James Still. Thomas Merton. Nickole Brown. Robert Penn Warren. Hunter S. Thompson. Silas House. Maurice Manning. bell hooks. Even the local color writers—Lucy Furman and James Lane Allen. The works of the Kentucky School are powerfully different from each other, but the one sure trait is that we come home, we stay home, we long for and write toward home, we wrestle out the sins of our home. We face each other. I lived in Kentucky until I was 35 years old, apprenticing under this mind. When poetry began to move me around, through fellowships and awards that gave me time to write, so long as I was in other places, I tried to practice this mind in those places. Render is set in a mythological subsistence family farm in East Kentucky, but it is made of Provincetown’s solitary winter. The Purgatory is made of West Texas, where I was living when I wrote it, butSlade is named for a town in Kentucky, a place at the bridge between the poverty-stricken colonies of coal and the commercially successful Lexington. Little is a splice of a news story I read while in Texas, about an Abilene man who’d started a business where people would hire him to divine wells, which he’d find by praying. I want to have my ear close to the ground, whichever ground I’m standing on. This has to do with time, too. “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” That’s Ms. O’Connor.
Ultimately, though, if I’m lucky enough to be read or to be read longer than I live, how my work is understood is really not up to me. I value, immensely, the dynamic imagination at the root of Southern poetics, as well as the proletarian, protest pulse at the root of Appalachian literatures. I learn from them every day. It would be my great privilege to be counted among them. But I trust my reader with that stuff.
DCT: How have your experiences in editing and publishing at Oxford American affected your own writing? Or your response to others’ work?
RGH: The historical narrative around southern poetry has been that it’s a school of gentry, of white, upper-middle class, hetero men. My work editing poetry for the OA has been an opportunity to articulate another vision of southern poetics, one in which the South’s past, present, and future is sung in argument, in many conflicting voices, in a call-and-response debate of laying claim to this soil and, consequently, to ourselves. If you listen to these voices across time, a contrapuntal, complex psalm emerges about a land both resented and beloved. That sounds like truth to me. The practice of reducing the South, or Appalachia, to a backward place of white male hetero bias, or cultural illiteracy, or racism, or— is a practice of stereotype that dangerously privileges people from anywhere else to believe they and their place are free of these ills, that an other is available for blame. Replacing one privilege with another will not land us anywhere useful. My hope is that my work with the OA, over time, can help complicate our reductions of the “rural” or “regional,” can encourage others to engage the wild possibilities found in literatures (and economies) unafraid to be local.
DCT: Would you say a few words about your current project(s)?
RGH: I have a few bits on my desk right now. I’m collaborating on a children’s novella with the underground comic artist J.T. Dockery . I’m also collaborating with the West Virginia photographer Lisa Elmaleh on a documentary collection. My third manuscript of poems is growing; you can read one of the poems here.
DCT: Finally, a question that I ask each poet I interview to close things off…or perhaps open things up. What is the future of poetry?
RGH: I don’t know the future of poetry. Life is short. I’m just trying to be as honest as my dog.
Anderson, Eric Gary, Taylor Hagood, and Daniel Cross Turner, editors. Undead Souths: Beyond the Gothic in Southern Literature and Culture. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
Hoefer, Anthony Dyer. Apocalypse South: Judgment, Cataclysm, and Resistance in the Southern Imaginary. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.
Howell, Rebecca Gayle. American Purgatory. London: Eyewear Publishing, 2017.
————. Render / An Apocalypse. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013.
Jackson, Robert. “The Southern Disaster Complex.” Mississppi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 63: 3-4 (Summer-Fall 2010): 555-570.
Shannon, Laurie. “The Eight Animals in Shakespeare; or, Before the Human.” PMLA 124:2 (2009): 472-479.
Turner, Daniel Cross. “Remaking Myth in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods, Taboo, and Gilgamesh: An Interview.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 62:2 (2009): 335-350.