The Cortland Review


William Heath
J.M. Spalding interviews poet William Heath.

David R. Slavitt
A Day in the Life of David R. Slavitt.

William Heath

William HeathWilliam Heath is a novelist and poet whose work has encompassed an era. His most recent books include The Children Bob Moses Led, (Milkweed, 1995), and The Walking Man, (Icarus, 1994). His writings have appeared in various publications including, The Massachusetts Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Southern Review.

I recently had an interview with him in the Fall of 1998, at his home in Frederick, Maryland. After chatting for a brief while over coffee, I was
graciously treated to a tour of his home. After the tour was over, Bill brought out his antique recording device along with an old tape, and we sat down in his living room for the interview.

William Heath is currently a professor of English at Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmetsburg, Maryland, and until recently, he also edited The Monocacy Valley Review.

William Heath RealAudio greeting

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Interview with William Heath - (1)


J.M. Spalding: You were talking about Kenyon in the late 1960s—could you go back to that?

William Heath: Kenyon has this amazing literary tradition. It goes back to the Kenyon Review and John Crowe Ransom and all the professors and writers he brought in. My wife and I lived in the old John Crowe Ransom house. Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell both lived with him at that time, upstairs, and so actually the place where I lived was where they had lived. I went to John Crowe Ransom’s 80th birthday party, and that whole crew came back—all the famous writers. I met Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor and Kenneth Burke and, you know, the list goes on. There’s a remarkable list of important writers who have come out of Kenyon, both novelists and poets. James Wright, one of my favorite poets, who I never met personally, went to Kenyon. I’m sorry he missed that birthday because Wright was one of the people who really praised The Walking Man, or at least an early version of it. But he died when I was in Spain. He wrote to me and said he liked my poems and said, "I hope we get to meet." But I went to Spain. When I came back from Spain two years later, he had died.

JM: That was in 1980?

WH: Yeah. It was around 1980 that he died, so I never got to meet him personally. It’s at Kenyon that I really started to be a writer. I switched over from being a critic of literature to being a writer. And I paid a price for that all through the 1960s and 1970s because when I kept coming up for a promotion or tenure, they kept saying, "Well, where are your critical essays?" And I said, "Well, here are my poems." And they said, "No one takes poetry seriously," that kind of thing. So I bounced around in academia to a large degree. I didn’t go the straight route. I didn’t publish my dissertation. I didn’t publish critical essays. I wrote poetry instead. But I stuck by my guns, and where I bounced it was fairly interesting. Kenyon, Transylvania and Vassar were very interesting schools to be at, at those times. I don’t regret any of that.

JM: How did Transylvania affect your writing as opposed to Kenyon, which was filled with such important literary figures.

WH: That’s right. Kenyon was so obviously and self-importantly a literary center, and Transylvania had very little literary tradition at all. And I was the only one there who was doing any writing. I found to my delight that Robert Penn Warren mentions Transylvania in All the King’s Men when Jack Burden does his research into the ancestry and so forth—There’s the story of Cass Mastern, who says that at Transylvania "I discovered that there is an education for vice as well as for virtue." He goes to Transylvania because Transylvania was where the aristocracy of the Old South sent its sons. Jefferson Davis went there, among all the rest. Kentucky was a very poetic place in its ambiance, and that’s what I liked. And there were good poets there—Wendell Berry, most obviously, over at the University of Kentucky. Guy Davenport was there. Jonathan Green—another poet who runs his own little press in Kentucky—was there. And some other people were writing good poetry. It was the time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the poetry scene was sort of "in." So there were coffeehouses in Lexington where I would read in the evening, and people would smoke their doobies and say "far out," and that kind of stuff. It was a period when the ambiance of being a poet was sort of neat, and at that time, my hair was shoulder-length, and I wore Indian headbands. It was that whole scene.

JM: I’m starting to picture that. The headbands and whatnot.

WH: Yeah, I have some pictures from way back then. And Kentucky is such a distinctive place, at least that Bluegrass Region. I wrote a lot of my best poems during the five-year period when I was down there. A lot of things were happening to me in terms of finding my voice as a writer, and I still locate all that in Lexington more than anywhere else. I think I didn’t really write anything good until I got to Kentucky. It was those Kentucky poems that I first started getting published, started getting a little recognition. I won some contests by the Kentucky Poetry Society and that kind of stuff. That’s obviously little-league stuff. It doesn’t add up to much. But it’s something. And there were people running literary magazines in Kentucky who took an interest in me. I published probably a couple dozen poems, at least, during that period.

JM: You recently went back to Lexington to do some research....Was it May or June??

WH: It probably was June.

JM: June....yes. In fact, we spoke, and we happened to be in Lexington almost at the same time. Close, but no cigar. How was it going back and seeing Lexington some twenty-odd years later? What was that like?

WH: Well, it’s very curious, in light of this novel. The first novel I wrote, which I hope will get published as the second novel I wrote, is this book called Devil Dancer. When I went to Spain as a Fulbright in 1979, I took just the start of that novel with me, and then I really did the serious writing on that book during two summers in Spain. I rented a little place down on the Mediterranean in this very striking little town called Maro. I was the only tourist in the town. I sort of, out of necessity, could only think about the novel and write. It was at that time that I completed that novel. And then I’ve done, I think, two or three serious rewrites of it at least since, the last one just this summer where I reconceived it one more time.

But, anyway, to cut it short, Devil Dancer is set in the Lexington, Kentucky, of the early 1970s—1972, to be precise. And it focuses on the one hand on the very wealthy Bluegrass horse-farm world. But on the other hand, it focuses on the dives and the underworld of Lexington, the world of pickpockets and drunkards and street people and all the rest of it. When I went back to Lexington, almost all the major sites of my novel are no more. They’ve been flattened because they urban-renewed the entire downtown area. Some of it’s nice, and much of it’s awful. You know, all the American cities are now sort of glistening high-rises and then this vast desert around them, and then eventually you hit the suburbs.

JM: Well, you almost have to set a book about Lexington 10 or 20 years back because there has been such a tremendous change. Highways and interstates jut through what used to be horse country. And of course, the Reagan revolution and conservative politics have conspired to make the city "more respectable."

WH: Right. It’s losing its funky ambiance. I mean, it still is pretty distinctive, but it won’t be for long. It keeps draining away. It keeps looking more and more like all the other cities that have lost their souls. But anyway, you feel that even though it’s only twenty years ago, you’ve written about a lost civilization, in effect. That is a very strange feeling, to go back to a place.... There used to be a very old hotel called the Scott Hotel. There used to be a go-go bar called Comer’s, and in the basement of this hotel, there used to be Boot’s Bar. These were very striking dives at the time, and a lot of my novel takes place in those places. This last time I went back, I went to the library to try to figure out when they shut down because I wanted to figure out if I could change the date of my novel. Could I set in the 1980s and get away with it, or were all those things gone by then? So I did some research, and most of them shut down in the late 1970s or early 1980s, so I decided to just stick with my date of 1972, and people would just have to settle for going back in time a bit. I don’t think that’s a big problem. But, anyway, the buildings still stand, so I was able to take some pictures of the old, crumbling signs and all the rest. I imagine if I go back this year, they’ll be gone because they’ve been sitting empty for many years. They’re still stuck up there on a little piece of land by the railroad tracks, and you can still see vaguely Comer’s and the Boots Bar and the Scott Hotel. They’re very eerie. I mean, it’s like a scene out of Psycho.

JM: Oh, yeah, those buildings, they’re there. I was in Lexington a few months ago, in fact, and the place has changed so much. And yet you still have a feeling of what was—I mean, no one thought to put something else there.

WH: Another very eerie thing is that another main site of my novel is a place called the Mecca Bar. It’s on North Broadway, a block or two up from the main drag. Mecca Bar used to be a dive, but it had this very old oak Victorian bar. It had the biggest and most fancy bar of all the bars in Lexington, but it was in this dive. And I make something of that in the novel. The Mecca Bar is long gone, but when my wife and I were there this past summer, we went to a restaurant that’s actually just a couple blocks down. They have a new restaurant there that has a kind of Victorian décor—

JM: Deshays.

WH: It could be Deshays. Anyway, as we were eating, we noticed they had a very fancy bar. And I said to myself "That looks vaguely familiar," and then I went up and asked "Where did that bar come from?" And they said "Well, when they tore down the Mecca Bar, we got it." So the bar that was at the Mecca Bar is now at Deshays. If this novel ever gets published and people are wondering what did that Mecca Bar look like, there it is. It’s going to be preserved. So that’s sort of neat.

JM: After Lexington you went to Vassar. Could you talk about that?

WH: That was a good experience for me as well. That was a fairly high-powered school, and there were several of us that got hired that year who were serious about being writers, and a couple of other people on the faculty were writers. Eamon Grennan and I were hired at the same time. A very nice collection of his poems just came out this year from Greywolf. And Frank Bergon, who is a fine novelist about the West, came a year or two before. He’s the author of Shoshone Mike (University of Nevada Press.) For the first time I was with a group of writers who were young faculty people, and we literally spent hours and hours a day just talking about writing and literature and what we liked. That was very stimulating for me.

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