Talking with assistant editor David Ingle, Paul Hostovsky trains his quick wit on the idea of being a poet, his work in relationship to Rilke’s, and the state of poetry readings today. The final Georgia Poetry Circuit reader for the 2012–13 season, Hostovsky reads at Ciné Bar/Café/Cinéma on Thursday, April 11, at 7 p.m.; the event is free and open to the public. See our Events page for more about Hostovsky and to read a sample of his work.

David Ingle (DI): Who was the first poet you encountered—whether through reading his or her work, attending a reading, or in some other context—who made a strong impression on you? What qualities did that person (or the poems) possess that struck you? Has that early admiration stood the test of time for you, or has it faded?

Paul Hostovsky (PH): Frost was my first love. I loved the conversational tone, the colloquial speaking voice, those narrative poems that were always more formal than they appeared. The sonnets, the blank verse, the difficult stanza forms—but always in that easy speaking voice, as if to make the hard catch look easy; as if to say, come sit down, I want to tell you a story. I’ve always been a sucker for a story, which I guess is why my own poems are so hopelessly narrative. I imitated Frost a lot when I was younger, and I remained a bit of a formalist for a long time, then finally gave up counting my metrical feet on my fingers, shedding the terminal rhymes in favor of a different kind of music, a more personal kind of music, a music that pleases me more and has more to do with my own speaking voice—its natural stresses and pauses, breathing, movement, invention, surprise. Like Frost said: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Granted, I play with the net down (as most poets do today), but it’s not such a different game after all. And that trust I’ve somehow cultivated in my own naturally occurring speaking voice, I’m pretty sure I got that from him.

DI: In a recent interview with Elizabeth Glixman you mentioned Rilke’s idea that writers should write about their childhoods, childhood being for him “that kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories.” Rilke’s advice seems simple enough, but do you find it risky in any way? What are the perils, if any, of writing about one’s childhood?

PH: The perils of writing about your own childhood are perhaps not unlike the perils of writing about your own children. Sentimentality, for one thing. We love our children more than other people love them, and the stories we tell about them may not be particularly interesting to our friends who indulge us anyway because they’re our friends. But your reader isn’t your friend. At least not yet. You have to win him over first—with a good story, a pithy little narrative told well enough and succinctly enough (poetry is compression) to win his attention, his affection, his friendship. But a great childhood memory does not a good poem make. It may give us great pleasure to remember or imagine (or embellish with imaginings) some childhood friend or landscape or experience, but to be able to translate that pleasure for the reader, to re-create it for the reader so that he or she experiences it too . . . well, that is easier said than done. And since saying is doing, in poetry, I guess I should have said: it’s as easily done as said. Which is anything but easy.

DI: In the same interview with Elizabeth Glixman you said “I decided to be a poet the day before yesterday. Then yesterday I decided that I wasn’t good enough to be a poet. Today, doing this interview, I feel like a poet. But tomorrow I suspect I will suck again.” I admire that back-and-forth, up-and-down attitude—it’s a shield against complacency and arrogance, if nothing else. Do you have a similar approach to your poems and not just to your conception of yourself as poet/non-poet? When it comes to your own poems, are you a constant tinkerer or does there come a point when you are satisfied that a poem is finished once and for all?

PH: “Never finished, only abandoned,” right? Yes, I revise constantly, tinkering, picking, scratching, tweaking, flipping, nipping, tucking, worrying the poems to death almost as soon as the ink dries. Of course, there comes a point when I say to myself, this poem is as good as Paul can make it. Maybe William or Wystan or Ezra or Emily could make it better. But Paul can’t. Paul is done with this poem. And then I send it out. But of course Paul is never done with his poems, and there are many poems I’ve published, even in my books, which I still go back to afterwards to straighten, tidy, plump, snip, snip. Nope, never finished.

DI: What is your approach to assembling a book manuscript? What thoughts go through your head as you attempt to transform a group of diverse, individual poems into a book-length work? Do you give much thought to the order of the poems, to sections, to beginning-to-end flow?

PH: Each book is different, of course, and each individual poem is an autonomous iridescent creature that, though it may sometimes sing to or echo other autonomous iridescent creatures in the canopy, was created for itself and of itself only, and not with an eye toward its eventual place in a book. That being said, I do sometimes return to certain subjects or themes, certain people, places, and things in my poems that give me pleasure or pain or pause, and I do tend to look for those echoes when I begin to think about putting together a collection. After a year or two or three or four, I gather up my beautiful autonomous iridescent creatures and I try to make a beautiful autonomous iridescent creature out of them. And yes, I give a lot of thought to the order of the poems, to the sections (or lack of them) and the flow from beginning to end, but in the end it’s just a book of poems, and each poem has about as much to do with the others as you and I have to do with each other, who have never met each other­—have we?—but are talking about poems and poetry books for a little while now before turning back to what is our own, which is to say, hopefully not so very little.

DI: What are your feelings about poetry readings as events? You’ve probably attended plenty of them and been the feature attraction at many as well. As a spectator I’m sure you’ve seen readings that were entertaining and/or edifying and others that were complete flops and bored you to tears. In both of those cases, what sorts of things did the readers do or not do that either succeeded or failed? In the role of reader, what do you hope to achieve in your allotted time at the podium? What sort of experience would you wish for your ideal listener to have at one of your readings? Are poetry readings passé, old hat? Have they grown stale in the face of the staggering amount of media and information that constantly vie for our attention, or can poetry readings still hold their own? Are there others sorts of literary events that might be more viable than the traditionally-conceived reading?

PH: Well, I’m not sure what I think about poetry readings, to tell you the truth. And if I’m going to be honest, I’d rather read my own poems aloud to you than listen to you read your poems aloud to me. Gee, that was an awful thing to say. Don’t quote me on that. But it’s nothing personal, really. It’s just as Auden says: we love the smell of our own farts best. But I say: hell is having nothing to read but your own poems. Which is why we need each other, and we need each other’s poems. That being said, some poetry readings can be hell to sit through. Especially the open mic. Poetry is like very fine, very rich chocolates: you can only have so many in one sitting. Me, I like to laugh and I like to make other people laugh, so I usually choose the more humorous poems to read aloud at my readings, or a mix of humorous and serious—and then I depend on my audience, depend on them to let me know how it’s going, to give something back to me in the way of titters, sighs, moans, groans, guffaws, whinnies, silences, or tomatoes. And when all else fails, I take out my harmonica and I blow them away with a blues progression or a screaming choo-choo train.

DI: Back to Mr. Rilke for a moment. In your poem “The Violence of Violins” you write “We are hurt into beauty.” When I read that I immediately thought of a well-known, oft-quoted phrase from Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror . . . Every angel is terrifying.” Though I don’t necessarily think that you and Rilke are getting at exactly the same thing, I do think there’s a resonance between your line and his (or perhaps you are getting at exactly the same thing). What I want to ask is—do you believe that beauty is indeed terrifying? Do you think that our experience of beauty, however beauty might be construed, manifested, or understood, is necessarily preceded by or connected to hurt, pain, sorrow, hard knocks? Is the relationship between hurt and beauty symbiotic?

PH: Ah, yes, getting back to Herr Rilke. Mein alter guter freund, Rainer. His own pain probably started when his mother chose Maria for his middle name. You know, she so wanted a girl. But seriously, I do love that line about beauty being nothing but the beginning of terror,  “. . . terror that we’re still just able to bear, and the reason we adore it so is that it serenely disdains to destroy us.” Wow. What a concept. But really, I’m less interested in discovering the nature of beauty and its relationship to pain than in simply taking in the former and avoiding the latter. Beauty fades, and that’s painful. And even in its full blush we can only hold it, we can’t possess it. And that hurts too. Even the beautiful do not possess beauty. They simply carry it for a little while before passing it on. And then there’s desire, which, to quote [Tony] Hoagland, “is a bitch.” Desire hurts so sweetly. Which is why we wince at beauty when it passes by braless and shaking its booty. I suppose I could go on waxing philosophical about beauty, and I do explore it quite a bit in my poems, especially feminine beauty, but I think when all is said and done, “ouch” says it all.

DI: You make your living as a sign language interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston, so unlike writers who are employed in English departments and MFA programs at colleges and universities, you have a “day job” that doesn’t have an inherent connection to the writing world. In what ways do you think having a “non-writing” career impacts your literary life, whether for good, for ill, or for both?

PH: It’s true, I’ve kept my day job all these years in case the poetry thing didn’t work out. And now that it’s working out, I’m still keeping my day job. Because it pays better than  the poetry. And because it feeds the poetry. And also because I don’t think the poetry is the main thing. Or it shouldn’t be the main thing. As I think William Stafford said, if you’re looking right at it, you can’t see it. You can’t see the poetry. You need to look a little to the side to see it better. Poetry and stars. Suns. And so I keep the poetry on the side. A side dish. A very rich dessert. It’s not the main event. It’s not the entree. I have heard poets, especially young poets, say that they want to dedicate their lives to poetry. I probably made such a pronouncement myself at one time, if only silently to myself. But a fine poet, Grace Paley, once said: “Poetry isn’t important; people are important.” And I would add: keep your eyes on the people, and the poems will come.