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

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JM: Had you spent much time in New York City or in the vicinity? In that area, and in Westchester, you have quite a few writers and poets: Billy Collins lives up in Northern Westchester, and I lived up there for a few years.

WH: And Billy was a friend of Eamon’s, and he was the editor at that time of the Mid Atlantic Review, which published several of my poems, so that was nice. I didn’t know much about New York when I came but quickly learned what it was like. I went to readings and so forth but mainly went for the bookstores—and also for just the ambiance.

JM: Did you ever attend St. Mark’s?

WH: Yeah. In fact, one summer I stayed in New York right near St. Mark’s in the East Village. I spent a whole summer down there and hung around. I was part of a workshop at the New School run by Stanley Diamond. People were drawn from all different disciplines. That was an interesting, stimulating thing. I did another one of those NEH seminars up in Amherst one summer—Contemporary Lit, with Benjamin DeMott. At that time Robert Stone was up at Amherst, and that’s where I first met him. I dropped in on his house one evening and said, "I really admire your work," and we spent a nice evening talking. I later brought him to Vassar to give a reading.

JM: How long were you at Vassar?

WH: Five years.

JM: Five years. So you had quite an exposure then to that area?

WH: Right.

JM: Next, you went to Spain?

WH: Right. Then I was a Fulbright in Spain for two years. I was at the University of Seville, and Seville is one of the really beautiful places of the world, so I had a posh place to hang out. I lived in the old city in Bario de Santa Cruz, which is the tourist place. It’s the old Jewish ghetto and has all the narrow streets. . . . The other three Fulbrights—actually two Fulbrights and the husband of the other Fulbright—were all poets, and we convinced the State Department that we were good poets, and they sent us on a poetry reading tour of Spain. Jimmy Nolan was one of the poets. He’s published two or three books of poems, at least. And James Hall was the other one. He’s now famous as a writer of crime fiction, but he had written several books of poems. And Aaron—I forget Aaron’s last name—he was the other poet. Anyway, we had a great time. We gave readings all over Spain at the major universities and hopped in the car and got to tour the countryside. That was a wonderful experience. And, again, you know, it certainly kept my hand in as a writer and gave me reinforcement as a writer. That’s a priceless experience I wouldn’t trade. We got to travel elsewhere, too.

JM: But, after Spain you began to shift toward fiction away from poetry.

WH: Right. I wrote Devil Dancer in this little town called Maro on the Costa Del Sol in Southern Spain. Almost all of Costa Del Sol was high-rises and so forth, and then there’s this little town called Maro, near Nerja. It’s remained in its pristine pueblo state, surrounded by fields, and there are no high-rises or anything.

Maro, Spain (Click here for larger image)
Maro, Spain (click here for larger image)

Anyway, someone had told me that the southern coast was interesting, so I went down there and apartment-hunted and got the upper floor of a normal family’s house there. I spent the whole day writing, then we’d go to the local bar, El Guapo ("the handsome one"), and I’d have my meals there, then go back and write some more. It’s very hot there, of course, but it does cool off. We were on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, and in the evenings I’d walk down to Nerja, which is two or three miles downhill to have dinner and then walk back up at night, which is sort of spooky sometimes because you’re way out in this sort of nowhere, walking a dark road—there are no lights or anything. But that was sort of fun, in its own way. One of the interesting things is that because it was hot, the kids often weren’t allowed out to play until midnight. So about midnight when you’d think everyone’s going to bed, all the kids go out in the street and run around for an hour or two because it’s cool enough for them to be out and play.

JM: So a lot of things must have taken you by storm, not only as an American, but as a writer. Did you discover any writing customs that were different in Spain?

WH: Spanish literature is marvelous. My own Spanish isn’t good enough to take advantage of that very much, although I’ve read some things in Spanish in translation. I actually chose Spain as a Fulbright because of Paul Blackburn. He was the first really good poet to have some influence on me. And Paul Blackburn had spent a lot of time in Barcelona. The other poet I admire a lot who lived in Barcelona and loved that area is Phil Levine. I wanted to get out of the country and go do something else, and the obvious place for me to head was Spain, if I thought of myself as a poet, because that’s where Blackburn and Levine had gone. Barcelona was their place.... The poet in the Spanish-speaking world who really wiped me out at that time was Neruda. I just thought his stuff was amazingly good—and still do, the best of it.

JM: Did you have a favorite among translators?

WH: I did. Is it Alastair Reid?

JM: Yeah. And then there was some Merwin—

WH: I liked his a lot, though, you know, I haven’t made a close study of it. One of the sequences in Neruda that I liked best are the elemental odes, though various people have taken their shots at those. The book that I had in Spain of the translations of his odes I didn’t think were translated well. Periodically, I would try to retranslate those, put a lot of energy into that. So I’ve never actually done a complete translation of a Neruda poem, but I’ve fussed with it. I did do a whole book of translations of Catullus’ works just for fun—

JM: Just for fun?

WH: Which I thought worked out pretty good, and Painted Bride Quarterly did about thirteen in an issue. Thomas Berger, who’s another writer I got to know in those days, was a great fan of those Catullus translations. He used to say he really liked those a lot. So I’ve published a few more of them, sixteen or seventeen.

JM: Do you intend to collect some translations?

WH: Well, if I ever wrote some more poems, then it might make sense at some point. You know, if I live long enough to come out with a selected poems—that would be some of The Walking Man plus what I’ve written since, plus translations, plus I also have this book of children’s poems called Let Me Say A Secret, and three of those are in The Walking Man. That’s another sort of remarkable sequence, I think. When I was at Vassar, I came across a manuscript in the Education Department that a teacher had kept since sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. They had kindergarten and younger kids there, and there was this bright little kid named Stewart. He used to walk around the classroom doing monologues, and the teacher suddenly realized these are remarkable things this kid is saying. So the teacher began to write them down verbatim, and she typed all these up at one point, and they were stored in the Education Department. Someone for some reason showed them to me one day, and I began to read and say, "This is great found poetry. I think I’ll pull out segments and break them into lines, and see how many poems I can get out of this." And I think I ended up with a whole book of like 40 poems, just based on these prose monologues of Stewart. All I did was figure out where to start, where to stop, and how to cut the lines. I didn’t add or subtract anything from the meat of it. I think they’re absolutely remarkable poems, in their own way, because this kid is a walking genius at four. He’s the epitome of cummings’ line "and down they forgot as up they grew." This kid had the poetic mind like you wouldn’t believe. You wonder what ever happened to him.

JM: Yeah, that was my next question.

WH: His parents, I believe, were Jewish, and they had survived the Holocaust. The Holocaust was very much on their mind. And so Stewart overhears his parents talk about World War II and the Holocaust and is haunted by some big questions that you wouldn’t think a four-year-old is haunted by. Some of the ones I include in The Walking Man are Stewart brooding on the nature of war and death and injustice, but in this amazing way. Anyway, I would want to include more of those, too.

It’d be nice to pull a Robert Penn Warren. You know, Robert Penn Warren started out as a poet then had this long career of novels. Then, at the end of his life, he went back to poetry and wrote a very good series of books of poetry in his 70s, I think. It would be nice to do that. If that happens to me, then maybe we’ll get a selected poems. Otherwise, I’ve got The Walking Man as sort of the memorial for what I did over those 15 years.

But anyway, I wrote Devil Dancer in Spain, then came back and rewrote it. I went to Bread Loaf a couple times, hoping to get somebody interested in it, and Stanley Elkin worked with me and was very impressed with what he saw. He featured one of the chapters from it in his workshop, sort of as a "how to." He saw that it was a very unconventional book and that I was going to have a monster of a time getting it published. Some other people at Bread Loaf helped me with it, and I got an agent, actually, for it back in the early 1970s. And in those nave days, you thought, "If I’ve got an agent, then I’m home free." So I started telling her, you know, what to do with the movie rights and so forth, and she said, "Look, Buster, this is really good writing, but I’m going to have a monster of a time selling this thing." She more or less warned me.

And that’s what happened. It got rejected fairly roundly at the time because it’s an absolutely unconventional detective novel. I mean, it has the format of a detective novel, but it’s about the shooting of a race horse called Devil Dancer, and the crime, at least as it was put together at that time, is never solved. The book is much more about the detective and his problems than about solving the crime, and more about the underworld of Lexington and how it plays against the fancy world of horse farms. The crime was an excuse to do a bunch of other things. In a way, it’s a book about how you don’t get what you look for—you get something else. And your life is determined by how you respond to that something else. It’s sort of existential and philosophical, which means they can’t market it as a crime novel because it doesn’t fit the genre, and they can’t market it as a literary novel. I’ve written the perfectly unpublishable novel.

But anyway, so I put that aside, finally, realizing that ship wasn’t going to sail. Then I turned to writing The Children Bob Moses Led in the early 1980s. Took me about 10 years in all. Took me about six or seven years to research and write it and a couple more years to get it published. I always get agents fairly readily, but getting published in the present world is very tricky. Anyway, it got rejected fairly roundly in New York. The closest we came—this is sort of a model for what’s happening now in the writing world—I was in Spain, and I got a call from my agent, who said that the editor at Morrow really loves the book, and the other people who’ve read it at Morrow are really enthused. We’ve really got something going here because everyone who’s read it loves it. And I said, "Great. Let’s do the movie," and she said, "Well, it’s not quite a done deal yet." Morrow was owned by the Hearst Corporation at the time—maybe they still are—and what that means is that you have to go in to the Hearst money man and make your pitch. So these editors went to the Hearst money man and made their pitch, and apparently he told them, "The last two books we published that had anything to do with civil rights didn’t sell, and so I don’t think you can look me in the eyes and guarantee me that this will sell 10,000 or 20,000 copies of a first novel." They had to say, "No, I don’t think we can honestly guarantee you that," and he says, "Then sink it."

More and more the literature decisions in publishing houses are being made by the money manager of the larger corporation who owns them, who isn’t a book person and wants the larger margin of profit than the books business traditionally has sustained. And what that’s meant in the grand scheme of things is that what used to be called the "midlist author"—the good author that a publishing house stays with book after book because he or she keeps getting better, and eventually they build a reputation and it all pays off after 30 years of faith—that’s gone with the wind. No author gets that treatment anymore. So someone like a Wright Morris, who could have a whole career without having a bestseller, or even someone like an Anne Tyler—she’s my age, but she got started before all this happened to a degree—it’s not until her seventh or eighth book that John Updike reviews it and says, "She’s wickedly good." Suddenly they’ve got the right gimmick to get her a readership. Now she’s still not a guaranteed bestseller, but she is certainly a guaranteed sale, so that now her publisher is reaping some money for her. But she didn’t start out as a blockbuster author. She started out as a quiet author with her own voice and vision, and it took her a bunch of books for that to catch on. Publishers aren’t willing to play that game anymore. They want their money quick and up front, and the more serious writers almost never fit that image of what the writer should be.

JM: What do you plan to write after you finish with—or are you finished with Devil Dancer?

WH: I hope I’m finished with Devil Dancer.

JM: Does it ever end?

WH: Well, there’s a sequel in mind to it even though as the book originally was written, the reader could assume that the detective dies of a heart attack. I now make it clear in this latest rewrite that he has a heart attack but he doesn’t die. And so the last chapter is in the hospital where he has to deal with what he knows and so forth. So he could come back if I needed him to, but actually my plan was to have him come back in a sequel novel as a minor character. I thought that would be an interesting twist—that he sort of has a bit part in the second novel.

Actually, the person, at present, if I write a sequel to that book, who would be featured would be Tom Morton again, who is the narrator of The Children Bob Moses Led, one of the two, along with Moses. He is mentioned very briefly in Devil Dancer, but you don’t realize it. There’s a picture of a guy looking into a used-bookstore window with long hair and an Indian headband and wearing a T-shirt that says "Minor Kentucky Poet," and later we learn that that’s Tom Morton, who now teaches at Transylvania. At the end of the Moses book there’s a reference that Tom Morton is now teaching at Transylvania. The afterward is written in 1972, which is when Devil Dancer picks up. I had planned, in the grand scheme of things, to come back to Tom Morton and situate him in Lexington in the 1970s around the most famous unsolved murder case in Lexington. It’s called the Betty Gail Brown Case.

The most famous drug case related to Lexington involved a guy named Drew Thorton, who parachuted to his death in Knoxville trying to smuggle cocaine in from the Caribbean. He was part of the horse-farm world. If I revisit Lexington, it’s going to be to do variations on those true-crime stories and get Tom Morton in the middle of it somehow. I think he’s going to be a college professor at Transy who falls in love with the Betty Gail Brown character, who is then strangled, and he’s blamed for it. He won’t be guilty of it, but the evidence will point toward him, so he’ll be caught in that kind of dilemma. At the same time, there will be this drug scene going on in the horse-farm world. The Betty Gail Brown character will be the daughter of a horse farmer, and so the horse farm again will play in with the sleazy underworld, and at the same time the world of Transy will get into it. Obviously that stuff is still swirling, but the ingredients will come out of that.

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2002 The Cortland Review