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: Bob Moses—what was he like?

Bob MosesWH: He has literally what I would call prophetic aura. He has this charisma, this magnetism, this sense of spiritual depth, this seriousness and at the same time a kind of tenderness and care that goes with your image of a certain type of guru figure—a spiritual leader. And his face conveys that as well. He’s got these very dark eyebrows and very deep eyes, and you have the feeling that there’s something absolutely penetrating about his gaze both into you and into the larger picture of things. This is a guy with levels, with depths within depths. That’s very intriguing, and it’s very rare. Most of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were men of action and bravado and were sort of doing, "I’m tired of taking this shit, and now I’m going to fight back." Certainly, Moses had those feelings too, but you had the feeling that this is a guy who is looking way down the road and planning his moves way in advance.

For me, that was what was so interesting, that he had this sort of depth of soul that you rarely find. The rap on Americans is that they’re superficial and innocent and naïve and sort of frivolous, and often that’s all too true. Yet here’s a guy who’s the counterpoint of that. This guy is solid in a way that’s very, very impressive. And his style of leadership was in some ways the polar opposite of Martin Luther King’s. King was one of the great orators of our time, and the Civil Rights Movement knew that and decided to make him the media hero. And so wherever King went, the media went, and crowds gathered in big numbers. King would go to the church and give his big sermon, and everyone would shout and sing, and then King would say, "Let’s march here," or "Let’s do that," and everyone would do it. But then the next day, King gets on his plane, and the media goes with him, and the community is left feeling drained and directionless. Moses’ idea was to unobtrusively come into town and organize the leadership of that town so that they defined their own goals and their own leaders and became a self-motivated and self-perpetuating system. Much of the history of the Civil Rights Movement is not of following King’s charismatic path but of looking at all these local people who did courageous things in their local communities. The best history book on Mississippi in this period is by John Dittmer and is called Local People [University of Illinois Press].

That’s really the story—it’s the story of local people. And Moses was at the core of this notion, that local people will be the story and that we can make them make a difference. The catch is this contradiction between the fact that here’s this guy who holds this prophetic aura trying to be unobtrusive. People picked up on the fact that wow, this is not your normal guy; this is someone who has spiritual vision. Moses would encourage people to have town meetings and discuss their problems and stay in the back and be quiet, but before the evening’s out they might say, "Bob, what do you think?" And he might just whisper a few words, but everyone would say, "Yeah!" He ended up being more of a leader than he wanted to be, in effect. Toward the end—I allude to this in the afterward of my novel—after the Democratic Convention, Moses changed his name because he felt that the power of his spiritual charisma plus the name of "Moses" among these Southern blacks with such strong religious faith—I mean that was a knockout. He also said to another guy in the Civil Rights Movement, "No one will call me a son-of-a-bitch. Everyone respects me so much they won’t talk back to me. And, you know, I don’t feel like a normal guy among normal guys under that circumstance." So he actually changed his name to Robert Paris, which was his mother’s maiden name.

Anyway, the reason I called the novel The Children Bob Moses Led was to dramatize this issue of leadership, sort of the "King style" versus the "Moses style," and what does it mean to be a leader, what does it mean to be a follower, and what the consequences are of a certain kind of leadership and a certain kind of "followership," if that’s the word. In a sense, Moses is the leader and Morton is the follower; Moses is the hero and Tom is the neophyte, and you play back their two versions of what the Civil Rights Movement meant through their two voices and their two sensibilities. And then of course all the other characters add further counterpoints and further variations.

JM: Had you thought about having an omniscient narrator, as opposed to having Moses and Tom Morton narrate sections of the novel?

WH: A major decision every novelist has to make is what your point of view is going to be. I guess the major motivation was that I very much wanted to create a sense of immediacy, a kind of "you are there" feeling. The Civil Rights Movement is getting lost to our collective memory, the history books are too concerned with generalities to recreate it in a nitty-gritty experiential sense, and the TV is all sort of hackneyed and clichéd, so the trick is: Can you create a novel that brings it all back? The general sense was that first person, if you do it well, creates a sense of immediacy and a presentness.

JM: You attended the march on Washington—is that where the seed was planted?

WH: I suppose so. I sort of wandered into the march on Washington without design. I had been teaching tennis up at a tennis camp in the Adirondacks and had come down to visit a friend of mine in Washington, and he had been planning to go and was more into Civil Rights than I was. But the real appeal for us was Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez—all our favorite folk singers would be there. We really went for that reason—a free concert, in effect—but, nonetheless, here we were taking part in one of those great moments in history. So when we got back to school—this was in very late in August—we had the status on campus as the "Civil Rights Gods," you know. [Laughs] I guess I got an identity as someone active in Civil Rights for a free afternoon in Washington listening to rock music. In a way, you feel you have fraudulent credentials, although I was concerned with Civil Rights and took part in some minor stuff. I worked on the Carl Stokes campaign in Cleveland, who was the first black mayor elected in 1973. I canvassed in Kentucky for various candidates. I was actually more politically active than I am now, in the sense of hitting the streets and knocking on doors and trying to get some things done.

JM: We’d spoken earlier about people who write for a little group of true believers, who see themselves as having a special notion of what the novel should be. What about poetry? Do you think a lot of poetry does that?

WH: There’s a real tendency to do that. With poetry it’s trickier. You ask the poet to go off in strange little places. The poet does not have that same obligation to write the history in the real world, the dialog and all the rest. But certainly you can overdo it. There’s that wonderful poem by Edward Field—do you know him?—he writes sort of prosy poems, really witty, where he says, "Save me, O God, from poet’s head, that dread disease." [Laughs] "Poet’s head"—oh, I know what that is! It’s like, "People, I am a poet. Anything I say is poetry. Watch me roll." It’s a kind of mental illness. I mean, it can be a charming mental illness, or the guy can be the most obnoxious person on the planet.

JM: Over time the pleasures we derive from writing change. How have they changed for you?

WH: One of the tricks is that as you get older you do become more critical of yourself. We were talking about how I think I screwed myself up as a poet by setting my standards too high at certain points, so I suddenly stopped writing. I think all writers have to be schizophrenic in a certain sense—your first inspirations have to be uncensored. You have to sort of let it pour out, tap into the Dionysian or whatever and get it out on the page and get expressed. Then once you have that initial enthusiasm or inspiration, then this prim little school marm has to come in with a red pencil and chop it all up. And it’s very hard for writers to combine those two personalities. I mean, you have to be Dionysian in the morning and Apollonian in the afternoon. You have to be this crazy visionary for a few hours and then this prim little proofreader, and to have the ability to combine those two things is very tricky. Probably the reason most poets write well when they are young, is that the Dionysian comes out more easily when you’re young. You can always come back when you’re older and revise the stuff and sharpen it, but it’s probably harder to tap into that stuff if you have too many censors already out there saying, "That won’t work. That won’t fly. That’s trite." If you’re too self-conscious about that it can dampen your creativity. I think that’s part of the problem—keeping those two selves in balance, the inspirational self and the craftsman who comes in and wants it all perfect and won’t forgive you for a misplaced comma.

JM: The muse won’t leave you with a particular feeling of a poem that long anyway. Even with some of our best works it just leaves you, and you can’t really go back later—

WH: And pick it up and that whole biz. We were talking about "poet’s head." People with poet’s head are often people who have the first half of being a poet but not the second half. They love letting it all out, but they don’t love sorting it all out and putting it into shape—

JM: Being the craftsperson—

WH: Right, and making it actually make aesthetic sense. But you can get away with that on your average Poetry Night.

JM: I guess that all gets sorted out to some extent in workshops, although I don’t want to put myself as a purist.... But I’ve never actually approached poetry from any kind of academic sense, so I have never actually been a part of the whole workshop phenomenon. My revision just simply comes from wanting to be as good as what I read, you know, or in that ballpark somewhere.

WH: Sure. And I think that makes good sense. I sometimes bemoan the fact, though it’s probably also good luck, that I never had creative-writing teachers because I never took creative-writing classes. I’m not a disciple of this writer or that writer who kept fixing my work until it was like his work. You pay a price both ways, because you can be very naïve about what you’re still doing wrong. Sometimes a professional can say, "No, get rid of that." But at the same time, so many people come out of this workshop system—it’s a strange phenomenon—we must have 100,000 people studying creative writing, and we’re not coming up with 100,000 great creative writers every year. Somehow this isn’t quite working.

JM: Somewhere along the line you’re turning out decent craftspeople without the muse, or you’re turning out a lot of people with the muse who can’t get the craft down.

WH: Right, or whatever. There’s that famous quote from Flannery O’Connor when she was asked if creative-writing classes stifled writers, and she said, "I don’t think they stifle enough of them." [Laughs] There is probably a need for some people to stop and to drop by the wayside. I think one of the big problems is that there’s poet’s head and there’s novel’s head, and you get so infatuated with your own work that you lose the ability to actually judge it and to appreciate people who are doing it better. There’s a great quote by Milan Kundera where he says, "We’re being drowned out by the noise of human certainties, and everyone eventually will see themselves as an artist," which means that everyone babbles away without listening to anyone else. And that’s the death of civilization.

JM: You know, you take a magazine like Poetry, which receives 80,000 submissions a year. Obviously Poetry doesn’t have 80,000 subscribers—that makes you worry.

WH: That’s one of the ironies—there are more people circulating manuscripts than are reading anything of worth. And of course if you’re not reading anything of worth, how can you possibly improve your own work. You should be spending more time reading and less time writing, and trying to figure out what’s good and then trying to figure out something good that you can do, too.

JM: When I speak with my contemporaries, whom are also writers, I find a surprising ignorance of the living poets. I’ll just pull a name out of a hat—R. T. Smith, who is from the area, or Greg Djanikian. You see that ignorance, and maybe that’s a strong word, but that seems to be the problem is that they’re not aware of who the living writers are.

WH: Right. They haven’t even checked out the competition. I mean, in basketball you can get all these people who can give you an exact discussion of the 10 best power forwards in the league and why this one’s better than that one, but in literature it’s difficult to find anyone who can make fine-tuned discriminations about this writer versus that writer because we’ve lost that ability to really read well and set high standards and figure out how you sort it out. It’s sort of like we’re all playing a game, and there are no umpires anymore, no score-keepers. In a way, we want it that way because then everyone can have their own little ego game, but on the other hand you lose that sense of your nation. We need more writers who are, as Joyce said, "Creating the uncreated consciousness of the race," you know, expanding our sensibility and our awareness of what the world is about. And we have to be right in our judgments of that because if you’re modeling yourself after writers who aren’t very bright and aren’t very insightful, then you’re not that bright, you’re not very insightful. We already have this problem with mass culture, which is persistently dumbing us down, and we have the in-turn problem that if we misread our elite culture, if we worship the wrong gods and follow the wrong leaders, we run the risk on the other end, of outsmarting ourselves on the negative end, admiring what we shouldn’t admire and adopting styles we shouldn’t adopt. I think all these things matter, but it’s very difficult to do this kind of judgment.

JM: Thom Gunn had a poem called "Jamesian," which was about two lines long, on the New York City Transit System.

WH: Yeah, New York City had a program for poetry in the busses and so forth. [Poetry in Motion —Ed.] That was really fun, but you wonder how much difference it made.

JM: Gunn related a story about his poem "Jamesian," which appeared in one of those adverts. The poem goes like this: "Their relationship consisted/In discussing if it existed." And apparently, someone had written a piece of literary criticism on it, which read, "And I didn’t get no [expletive deleted] either." [Both laugh]

We’ve talked about the popularity of poetry, but what about the popularity and impact of literary fiction. What do you see happening to literary fiction in the future?

WH: What seems to be happening, in general, is that mass-culture fiction is swamping serious fiction, and fewer people seem willing to make an effort to point out that what passes for fiction these days is usually not the real thing. If one were to divide the novels published today into categories and percentages, it would quickly become apparent that the vast majority of fiction published is formulaic escapist fantasy. This, in turn, breaks down into male and female genres, with the men reading thrillers and sci-fi and women reading soap operas and romances. Now since the cultural arbiter nowadays is the media journalist, you will never see anyone, say, on television, point out the fact that the writer being interviewed that day writes, essentially, crap. Instead, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Stephen King, to name only the most famous, get treated as if they were real writers of genius, instead of hacks who happen to have a fantasy life on a par with the average American page-turner.

On the other hand, there is a tendency in the small niche reserved for serious fiction to settle for brand names with no serious attempt at literary evaluation. And so a lot of pretty bad books by pretty well-known authors again get treated as though they were masterpieces, while some pretty good books by some basically unknown authors get totally ignored. There hasn’t been a serious attempt to evaluate contemporary American fiction in thirty years! I think the last book to even come close was Tony Tanner’s City of Words, published in the 1970s, and his book is guilty of leaving out some major figures—Thomas Berger, for example—and spending too much space on lesser figures.

In sum, we have a mass culture that continues to dumb us down and a dysfunctional elite culture that often outsmarts itself and puts all its money on the wrong horses. I don’t know that there are a lot of great writers among us these days. I rather doubt it. But I do know there are a lot of very talented people making a very serious effort to write good fiction and that this culture has lost interest in keeping track of who our good writers are and what books are truly worth reading. Obviously, I think all this matters enormously. I would like to think that someone looking back on our time period from the next century would not have to conclude that we were all fools and scoundrels infatuated with pseudo-writers and pseudo-books.

Interview with William Heath
TCR 1999 July Feature

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