The Cortland Review


Michael Heller
J.M. Spalding interviews the poet.

Douglas Thornsjo
Writers on Writing 4: An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write.

Michael Heller

Michael HellerThis month the featured poet is Michael Heller. Mr. Heller's work has appeared in numerous periodicals over the years including online in: Jacket and The Cortland Review. His most recent book of poems is Wordflow: New and Selected Poems (Talisman House, 1997).  He is a member of the faculty of the American Language Institute of New York University. 

This interview was conducted in September of 1998 via email.   

Interview with Michael Heller


J.M. Spalding: Is poetry really undergoing a renaissance?

Michael Heller: Poetry renaissances, I think, are very individual occurrences—that is, they happen on a personal, even private level.  My sense of one began while reading Oppen and Zukofsky in the late 1960s and continues to this day whenever I return to their work.   Experiments, great activity, enlarged publics do not necessarily constitute a rebirth.  We poets are so hungry. And between hopes and resentments, we descry prophetic uprisings and revolutions of the word.  Meanwhile, to borrow from Marianne Moore, every time a poet or poem "takes the top of one's head off," the possibility of renaissance is implicit.

What about poetry on the commercial level, is it possible that poetry and poets can become famous in the mainstream without selling out?

"Selling out" in connection with poetry seems rather absurd.  Does Rod McKuen write other than he can or has wanted to?

I'd say what he's limited to.

Do any of us, except the rank hack workers and slamfest entrepreneurists? Better to parse "success" in Baudelarian terms as when the great master wrote to the effect that 'Fame is the meeting place of an individual personality with the national stupidity.'   Given my near total anonymity, I tend to derive much comfort from such a thought.

You make a very interesting point. Though, it should be interesting to note that McKuen didn't become famous by not using a prior fame...  Do you boycott Barnes and Noble or Starbucks?

In favor of what?  Borders or  Finding an independent bookstore is as difficult as finding an untumbled intern in the White House.  My favorite, Hungry Gulch Books of Westcliffe, Colorado, is independent.  And why sit in the chromium environs of the coffee chains when seedy Cafes Reggio and Dante, and the newer Centocette still exist aswirl with the ghosts of old West Village sublunary poets.

Would you describe your poetic voice?

Voice is an accumulative phenomenon, inflected by experience, readings, suasions.  It is a constant tonality only of the dead.  The more crucial distinction, in our disjunctive and yet mimicking age, is whether the so-called voice of the poet has been prepared a priori in clever readings of the zeitgeist and the academy, or is it still able to register discovery, hope, dread, even in the querulous parlance that seems to issue from one's own mouth?

What kind of influence would you want your work to have?

Widest, total, transformative!  Poets are the Cosmic Monsters and fascists of language, or they are irrelevant.  Eurocentrism is only a minor branch of self-centrism.  Note the in-fighting among the cliques and schools, especially among those who write under the critical flavor of the month: the agreed upon truth of the death of author and self.

Gertrude Stein.  Is she understandable?  Does she make any sense to you? Or, rather, what sense do you make of her?

Were I to isolate two or three less-than-significant snippets of Stein's work, I might well conclude that I'm being trifled with.  But having had the persistence to read much of her corpus and, best, to have heard a lot of The Making of Americans read aloud at the Paula Cooper Gallery one New Year's Day (among the orators were such Steinians as Schwerner, MacLow, Judith Malina of the Living Theater), I knew I was in the presence of a profound figure of wit, intelligence and emotional resonance.  I would defend her "understandability" as something extremely complex, to be arrived at by indirection, sympathetic magic and holistic zippy zaps.  I think "understandable," in the sense you may be tendering it here, is perhaps another word ripe for excision from the vocabulary.

You show an interest in things German.  How did this come about?

Holderlin, Heidegger, Hitler, the three Hs (as well as those lovely three German Bs) are inescapable elements of our environing culture.  Beyond that climatology, when I was living in a small village in Spain in the 1960s, beginning to write and publish, the Irish novelist Aidan Higgins (a neighbor that idyllic and formative year) placed the works of Benjamin and Musil in my hands.  Scholem, Gadamer, Habermas, Kleist, Canetti, one could go on and on.  The hook of the German philosopher-writer has been set deep in me.  It has probably cast an unnecessarily ponderous mordancy across my poems.  Needless to say, my reading skills in German are nearly atrocious, thus much has come to me via translation.

What about Exercise on Schiele's Die Junge Frau?  The "self," writes the narrator, "is what waits."  What prompted you to write the poem?

I knew Schiele's work, but around the time of the large MOMA exhibit on Vienna, I encountered this particular study (perhaps in the exhibit itself), rather more low key and private than many of Schiele's larger works.  I was at the time reading Wittgenstein's Vienna and Schorske's Vienna 1900.  The tormenting paths of love and sexuality, the self's struggle with the captivations of and surrenders to otherness, as portrayed and discussed in these works, form the ground of the poem.  Schiele's picture depicts a woman in what appears to be a moment of self-involvement, busy at the task of dealing with an item of her clothing, the kind of moment of heightened indifference and exclusion by the subject, possibly the instant when the subject makes an object out of the viewer.  To use the current jargon, the male gaze is bounced back at the gazer, revealing the fragility of love, desire, the way he has constructed the world.  The "self waits" because it is both baffled and desiring, the experience of the other (or of the unconditioned or naked perception) having a certain kind of shock value, invariably leaving one more bereft than ever.  At the same time, the subject (the young woman) by virtue of that irony and distance, is an intense focus of the erotic.  Much of my poetry about "love" or relationship has dwelt on this aspect of entanglement.  I would hope the poem catches the ambiguity and ambivalence of elationship.  In this sense, I would also hope that one didn't need the painting to 'get' the poem, but having seen it, might see a thematic similarity.  

In A Dialogue of Some Importance, the narrator says "Surely there is some charm to rolling bread/into small resilient balls, casting them off/the fingertips to squawking ducks."  Is there a socio-economic or philosophical point in this poem, and, in general, how much do you philosophize in your work and what exactly do you want the reader to take from it?

Well, like Aristotle, I think poetry and history are superior to philosophy—that poetry is, as I put it in an essay on Oppen and Stevens, the clearing house of knowledge, the place where thought and philosophy get tested, interrupted, deconstructed.  The poem holds the more plangent end of the stick, so to speak, and while much poetry now gets written as a demonstration of some philosophical, critical or cultural 'truth,' that is not at all what I have in mind as I write.  Dialogue, for instance is written in two competing voices: one in High, almost metaphysical language (I had a parody of Emily Dickinson in mind), the other is Low, the voice of, of a schlemeil whose muse is not Neoplatonism but necessities, the "eyeglass screws" when "lost" being more Godlike than the Idea.  And this schlemeil may feel quite powerless at times, that is except when commanding the roving ducks at a pond.  In such a case, of course, the word "charm" hides his metaphysics.  

What do you think of the future of online publishing?  (e.g. Jacket, The Cortland Review, Web Del Sol).

In the form of magazine publishing, especially with the introduction of new and exciting graphical and audio elements, online publishing will be one of the major arenas for poetry, for readers, writers and the critical community.  Right now, the main limitation is the question of what a reader can handle on screen;  the journal or magazine is very workable.  Can the longer book format make it online?  With current technology, I think not. The comfort of a book, the roaming back and forth in it, its portability, this is where online publishing can't compete.

For the writer, poet or whomever, the world opened by the web, its communicative and archival power is just beginning to be explored.  

Interview with Michael Heller
TCR 1999 October Feature


� 2002 The Cortland Review