Five Questions With Michael Hettich

Michael Hettich has published a dozen chapbooks and books of poetry, most recently Swimmer Dreams (Turning Point, 2005) and Flock and Shadow: New and Selected Poems (New Rivers Press, 2005). His honors include two Florida Individual Artist Fellowships and the Tales Prize (for Swimmer Dreams). Flock and Shadow was selected as a national Book Sense Spring 2006 Top Ten Poetry Book and he received the Tales Prize for Swimmer Dreams in 2005. Hettich holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Miami. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the Wolfson campus of Miami Dade College and lives with his family in Miami, Florida.


1. Which author or book has most influenced you?

For me, this is a nearly impossible question to answer, since so many writers have been important to me at various stages of my life. I don’t think I could honestly say that any one writer has influenced me most. Looking back on my life, though, I can see a number of moments in which poetry came alive to me in ways that felt fresh and new and fashioned (re-fashioned) my whole conception of things in general and poetry in particular.

When I was still small enough to cuddle beside him, my father sat me down and read poems to me. These were intimate, magical, extremely resonant times for me. I can vividly remember the smell of his whiskey and the sonorous way he sang those poems out to me. Two particular favorites of his were Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” and Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Of course I understood the Frost only vaguely and the Eliot not at all. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was sitting next to my father, listening to that music not understanding—but realizing that understanding was beside the point.

Later, when I started to write myself, Neruda was extremely important—despite the fact that I read him in English—as well as W.S. Merwin and all those whom Robert Bly labeled as “deep image” poets. And then a little later, at Anselm Hollo’s suggestion, I read O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, and the Objectivist poets—Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Oppen, etc.

It wasn’t until I moved to Denver for graduate school that I first read the Romantics. Wordsworth, particularly “Tintern Abbey,” was a huge influence on how I conceived and approached poetry. Whitman, too, became important to me then as well—though never with the power Wordsworth had over me. At the same time, Gary Snyder was becoming more and more important to my thinking and approach to life and writing.

I also like Robert Sund’s work a great deal….

As I said, it’s very hard to answer that question. I keep feeling as though I’m leaving someone out…

2. How has living in South Florida influenced you?

That’s an interesting question. I moved here from Vermont, and before that I’d lived in Colorado—and I grew up in New York. So my sensibility was very northern, and my internal landscape was filled with mountains and rivers, cold and snow. Moving to Florida was a wondrous experience for me. I remember wading with my wife, that first year, out into the ocean off Key Biscayne at dusk, in winter, marveling at the color of the water, at the fish and birds, at the sky. For all its frustrations, South Florida has remained a place of wonder for me, in large part, I think, because it is so full of plants and flowers and birds and trees I didn’t know, growing up. I am constantly amazed here in ways I don’t think I am in Colorado or New York where the landscape seems so much a part of me I don’t even see it. That amazement has been a great source for my poetry.

3. The poet Marianne Moore speaks about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Does this apply to your poetry?

Marianne Moore speaks of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” which is a wonderful conception of one of the ways poetry works. For me, at least in my more recent poems, the statement might better read: “real gardens with imaginary toads in them.” More and more often I find myself imagining a location or setting from my past and them imagining some human interaction in that “real” place. Many of my more recent poems are set in my garden, for example, or in the Everglades, or in northern marshes—real places—and they are peopled by characters who are similar to (maybe) people I actually know, who are doing things I imagine. So, the setting is “real” and the characters and events are imagined. This allows me both freedom and necessary grounding—and a means to dig into things in a way that yields useful material for me.

I like the idea—the practice—of remembering an actual place, a place I know about well enough to move about freely in my imagination of it, and peopling that real place with figures I imagine, who may be like people I’ve known but are not them—and not even that much lie them, either. Thus, real gardens w/ imaginary toads in them.

4. Why is the theme of fatherhood so important to you?

I guess the experience of being a father has enlarged my sense of being in ways that have opened out into joys and griefs that are both more vivid and more painful than they would have been had I not had children. As a father I have become more than merely myself; and how can I speak of that larger self except through poetry? It’s that mixture of joy and wonder, play and affection mixed with (always mixed with) that grief and fear we know from experience. I don’t know whether I can answer this question clearly, other than to say that being a father has been at the center of my being, in that part of myself I go to for poetry as well as that place that needs poetry. Though the subject matter of my poems may not seem to bear this out, I feel as though the poems I’ve written in this vein are attempts to create charms or magic potions to protect them, to keep them content and protected. I don’t know for certain. I do know it’s about love.

The intimacy of fatherhood is realized in the physical and intellectual-emotional-spiritual realms. Maybe poetry allows me to bring these things together, in some brief and fleeting way.

In writing as a father I feel that I get closer to the source of real poetry than I do when writing about anything else.

And as I think about it I also realize that you, Geoffrey, are one of my few brother-poets in this regard, and that you write from the same center of your being.

5. This may be similar to Question 3, but the world of dream also plays an important role in your poetics. Why are you fascinated by these almost surreal landscapes?

Well, to follow up from the last question, I don’t think the poems I write as a father have much of this quality at all, though I’d have to check on that to be sure. I think that a certain surreal—or dream—or folktale or mythic—quality has at times allowed me to distance myself a little bit from the literal fact-truth of things and get closer to the more urgent, more resonant (for me) truth that lies somewhere else. It may be that when I’m writing about “personal” stuff, I don’t feel comfortable with the overtly documentary and thus find my way through other means. I’m not sure. I don know that I enjoy making up stories that can develop outside the parameters of our actual physical experiences, that I’ve always felt that stories/poems like these get at “the unsayable” in ways that excite and intrigue me.

When I was first starting to write, one of my professors gave me the Bly/Wright translations of Neruda and Vallejo. They blew the top of my head off and I set out at that moment to be a poet. It seemed then that I could say anything I wanted and say it safely from the standpoint of the kind of grounded surreality they used, the surreality Bly called the “deep image.”

I also love fairy tales and myths, particularly Grimm’s Fairytales and Native American myths and tales. Also Ovid’s Metamorphosis. I love the idea of changing shape and thus changing my/our relationship to all-that-is. There’s something true there that can’t be gotten otherwise—something visionary, mythic, primal, and rich.

(Optional)
6. What makes you laugh?

A tack stuck into someone’s pompous ass. Watching pomposity embarrassed. Too many things to mention!

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Next week: Barbra Nightingale, author of Singing in the Key of L.

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At least for today, I'm a featured beekeeper.

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