Below is the transcript from my talk with Peter Huggins. A selection from this talk will appear in the upcoming Winter issue of Kudzu House Quarterly, along with two of his poems. From all of us at Kudzu House, I would like to thank Peter for agreeing to speak and for his wonderful book!
Madison: I am speaking today with Peter Huggins about his recent collection of poetry calledSouth. So, Peter, how are you doing today?
Peter: I’m doing very well, and thanks for having me and for being willing to do this.
Madison: We’re just really pleased that you could meet with us and talk. Well, I guess we can just jump in.
Peter: I think that’s the best thing.
Madison: I’ve organized the questions for the interview today based on different concepts. The first thing I want to talk about, of course, is place.
Peter: Yeah, I think, particularly in this book South, place plays a very important role. I mean, when you title a book South, you better be willing to take that on as an issue. And that’s what I tried to do in this book. I tried to do it not only from my own personal experience but also tried to put in some historical terms as well. Give it some context. So, the first poems in the book, more or less, serve that function.
Madison: So, what are some of the historical terms that you draw from?
Peter: Well, when you write a book about the South, or when you title a book South, as I did here, I think you have to address some certain things. One of the very first things, of course, is the issue of race. So, I deliberately started the book with a poem about that, about the Ibo, a people from Nigeria, who were enslaved and transported. A group of them, when they approached the southern coast, in particular, St. Simons, simply refused to go ashore. In essence, they committed mass suicide rather than become slaves. That story just fascinated me, and so, I tried to do something with that, and then just kind of go from there. So, I tried to cycle back to that as an issue from time to time and in various ways. The other issues, they all kind of had to do with clash of cultures as well. So I’ve got a poem in there that’s from the perspective of the uncle of Davy Crockett, who had a very difficult birth and was, as a consequence, essentially a special child. He didn’t function as a normal person might function. He was more or less adopted, or taken over by, the native tribe of East Tennessee, who thought he was a special gift of God. I tried, in the course of the book, to produce these poems that illustrated these culture clashes and conflicts, and they were really fun to do.
Madison: Well the idea behind the book really couldn’t be a better fit for Kudzu. The idea of invasive species is, of course, meant with this idea in mind. So it’s really great to have this kind of work; it really reflects the ethos of the journal. So, it’s obvious that being a Southern writer is a problem to have to work out in your work. How do you address that?
Peter: It is. I think I’ve considered this in various ways, pretty much from the beginning. And I’ve never really come up with a satisfactory answer. At certain times I tend to think that if you identify yourself as a Southern writer, what that means to be is that you’re from the South. I don’t see how you can really call yourself a Southern writer if you’re not from the South. Now, I think you can be from the South and not think of yourself or call yourself a Southern writer, like Richard Ford, for example. My whole thinking on this is to try to be as inclusive as possible, rather than exclusive. I don’t think that, for example, Tobias Wolfe, who is from Birmingham, thinks of himself as a Southern writer. So, I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to resolve this. If ever. Maybe that’s part of the interest.
Madison: (laughs) Definitely.
Peter: But it’s an issue I certainly keep coming back to.
Madison: This next question is very similar. How has place influenced your work?
Peter: I mean I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and when I try to concoct an experience, it directly comes out of place. Things that happened in my homes probably couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I mean bizarre, grotesque, peculiar—call them what you will. Things that we often think in the South as being normal and ordinary, you know, someone else may not quite understand, that that really happens. That really happens? And you’re left with disbelief. So, place for me is integral to the experience of the poem and to the experience of fiction, too.
Madison: Wonderful. So that brings us to the community of writers. Do you feel you write in a community of writers or do you write as an individual?
Peter: Well, I like to think I am carrying on this dialogue, with not just people I know, but with people that are no longer with us that have affected me in some way or that maybe I can affect in turn. So I tend to think of it more as this ongoing conversation. You know, this notion of the isolated artist, I’m just not really buying it. I mean, you have to isolate yourself to get the work done, but if you’re working totally in a vacuum, I’m not sure that’s healthy for the person trying to produce something or for the whole artistic climate, for that matter.
Madison: Definitely. So, for you, writing occurs in a place, it takes place among people, it’s a dialogue among different voices and spaces.
Peter: Yes, definitely.
Madison: So, what are you reading right now?
Peter: Well, I like to get a lot of different things going. I have to say that I don’t really approach this in a real programmatic way. I like to make these discoveries through people I hear read or I just happen onto or someone maybe recommends a book. So at any one time, I may have two or three or four books going. I just finished Alice Monroe’s book of stories, Dear Life. She’s such a quiet, subtle writer, and then all of sudden, boom, she hits you over the head. Another couple poets I came upon, Adam Vines’ book, The Coal Life, I liked a lot. I thought that was a really nice book. I recently read a book or two by Alison Pelegrin. She’s from Louisiana. Both of her books I liked a lot. I came across this poet who teaches at South Florida in Tampa, Katie Riegel. I liked her book, but I like to read a mixture of things. I started reading Monuments Men at the same time that I was reading Alice Monroe’s Dear Life. And I was reading a book or two of poems at the same time.
Madison: Does that mix come out in your work, in the writing that you do?
Peter: Yeah, probably so. In addition to the books of poems, I’ve got a children’s picture book and a middle grade novel as well. And I think of those as challenges, working in a different genre to keep me interested in the poems. The poems are what I’m primarily interested in.
Madison: But you are a very versatile writer.
Peter: Thank you.
Madison: So, I think that is actually a really good segue into our next topic, which is craft. What I’d like to ask you about, really, is when you started writing and when you started writing poetry.
Peter: Most of the writers I know tended to start writing fairly early, but not me. I really, well I wouldn’t say I dragged my feet, you know I wrote a few desultory poems in high school that were followed by a few more desultory poems in college. All the while, I was just learning and soaking things up. I had some great teachers when I was an undergraduate. I mean I had Alan Tate as a teacher. I had Andrew Lytle as a teacher. And these were remarkable individuals who had a lot to say and a lot to make you think about. So I had them as models, but even then, I wasn’t totally convinced that that was something I really wanted to do. I must have been in my mid-twenties before I decided that writing was something that I wanted to do seriously.
Madison: So when you did start writing seriously, did you find yourself writing every day?
Peter: Not so much, because I had so many other things to do. It was more either after I did what I had to do workwise or schoolwise, but I never found it difficult to write. What I found difficult was that I never had the opportunity to really revise or refine. I mean I had no problem writing and writing and writing and writing, but what I seemed to have a problem with was working on what I had done and whipping it into shape. That was what was difficult for me.
Madison: Wonderful. So when you did find your revision method? Did that just come to one day or are you still sort of working that out?
Peter: Well, I love revision and revising, and I really like each aspect of the whole process, but revision is really tricky in that you really have to re-imagine and re-enter the poem, or the story, or whatever it is you’re working on and try to see it with fresh eyes. It’s not always easy because you get attached to words or phrases or lines, and think, I can’t get rid of that, when of course, you do. I think that’s one of the most difficult things, particularly for younger writers. You know,Oh, I can’t get rid of that. I love that line. But, you could write a better one. I mean, that’s always my attitude, you could write a better one.
Madison: Definitely. So what do you think that your best poems have in common with one another?
Peter: First, maybe that attention to place we talked about earlier, that ability to enter into the mind—particularly if I am dealing with an assumed voice—to kind of leave myself behind and enter into the mind of that character or person. Maybe an attention to the language, so that it is compressed and concise but creates that explosion in the mind that we all want. Maybe that’s it.
Madison: So, what sort of things inspire you to write?
Peter: I am the kind of person that walks around, like an insect, you know, with my antennae, so I never know exactly what’s going to trigger the antennae, but I think I’m a little better at it now. When I first started, I was all over the place. I took the scatter shot approach, but now it seems that I can focus my attention a lot more, so that I can start to make connections more thematically so I don’t have to discover how I want to shape a large group of poems. The individual poem just kind of fits in with the overall project. It’s taken me a while to refine that, but that’s pretty much the way I work now.
Madison: That’s great. It probably saves you time during revision, too, to have a perspective and work through that.
Peter: It does. It’s a lot more efficient.
Madison: So, how do you often begin a poem? Is there a time of day? Is there a place?
Peter: No, not really, because I’ve always had to write by the seat of my pants. So, whenever I had time, it could be in the morning, it could be in the afternoon, it could be at night. Because of my work schedule or whatever else was going on in my life, I’ve always had to just grab the time that was available to me. Because of the way my life has gone, I’ve never been able to have uninterrupted writing time. People that can do that, more power to them. I just haven’t been able to do that.
Madison: Good, well, I think now we should move onto inspiration, and we’ve talked a little about inspiration already. But I want to know, has your idea of what poetry is or what poetry does or the purpose of poetry, has that changed since you begin writing?
Peter: Yeah, it probably has. When I first started thinking about writing poems, I was a little more insistent on trying to find a form that would work, and to think more formally than perhaps I do now. I think that’s probably a really big change for me because I’m much more willing to try on any sort of hat that comes along and not try to make anything a certain way. I try to let whatever I’m working on dictate that to me, so that I can understand how the form can shape whatever it is I’m working on, and how whatever it is I’m working on can help shape the form. I try to let the form arrive more naturally, more organically, instead of trying to impose a structure.
Madison: Wonderful, and your poems still do have that rich, formal control, and so I think it’s evident that you have a background in formal poetry. So, how does lived experience play a role in your writing? What experiences have shaped you as a writer and how do you write about experience?
Peter: This is a big question for me because I often will try to imagine a situation in a place, with a person—not necessarily me—and try to let the scene and the situation shape for me as I shape it. So it’s kind of this interplay between who is experiencing and what is being experienced. That for me is it.
Madison: So what are some of the experiences that you’ve had that have either changed your writing or inspired your writing?
Peter: I once remember going with my father, who was a flyer in World War II, and one of the places he trained was right down on the coast at Foley. For years and years we could go down to the beach in Florida and drive right past this place, or very close to it. And all those years he never said anything, and then one time he and I were in the car, and all of the sudden we wound up in this place, and he said “I used to fly here,” and I was totally shocked. But he never really went on with the story, except for often he would go back to this story. His buddies were not so often killed in action as they were when they were learning how to fly. You know, all these pilots kept dying in training. So, the training was extraordinarily risky, but that’s about as far as he got so all I had was that. So I tried to make something of that and tried to figure that out, even though I just had that little bit that I allowed myself to work on and transform. So whatever poem came out of that, I don’t know if it bore any relation to what actually happened, but that doesn’t really matter. I guess that’s what I made of it.
Madison: So these stories—fact, fiction—it leaves you room for imagination.
Madison: So, are there any poets that you continue to go back to? Are there people that have made an impact that lasted?
Peter: Almost on a yearly basis, I would go back and read Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, and I haven’t done that in a few years, but I read that book when it first came out, and then just about every year after for a long time to try and get some sense of what he was saying or doing. I would look at the poems, and then I would look at that book and try to understand as a way of helping me craft and as a way to think about experience and ways of transforming experience. So, that for me is a good example of that, but I tend to go back and re-read a lot of the classics—Yeats, Eliot, Dickinson—just to try and keep my language sharp. That’s helpful to me.
Madison: Well, I guess the last question I’d like to ask you is there any advice you’d like to give emerging poets and writers?
Peter: Yeah, and I think I can do that in one word: read. Really, I mean, that’s it. Read. I think you have to just read, read, read. And, if you’re a poet, not just poems. Any poet can learn a lot from reading well-written prose. You can learn a lot about pacing, about story arc. I mean, obviously in poems, you do it in a much more compressed fashion, but you can learn a lot about how to do that, particularly how to pace, and how to elaborate on things that need elaborating or things that need cutting. So reading, and not just whatever genre you’re writing in.
Madison: Well, from everyone at Kudzu, we’d like to say thank you for taking time to speak with us.
Peter: Thank you very much.
Madison: Peter’s book South is out with Solomon & George, and we’re going to have excerpts from the book in the winter issue so check them out.
About the Author
Peter Huggins is the author of four books of poetry: South (Solomon & George 2014), Apocalyptic Images, Necessary Acts (River City Publishing, 2004), Blue Angels (River City Publishing, 2001, andLivingston Press, 1998). He has published over 300 poems in many journals and magazines, and he was awarded a literature fellowship in poetry from the Alabama State Council on the Arts in 2006. In addition, he has published a picture book, Trosclair and the Alligator, 2006, Star Bright Books, an AR book which has appeared on the PBS show Between the Lions, received a Mom’s Choice Award, and been selected as a best book by the Bank Street College of Education and by the CCBC at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the Company of Owls, a MG novel, appeared from NewSouth/Junebug Books in 2008. He teaches in the English Department at Auburn University, and he and his wife live in Auburn, Alabama.
About the Reviewer
M.P. Jones is the editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly. He recently received an M.A. in English from Auburn University. Recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Harpur Palate, Portland Review, Tampa Review, Canary Magazine, and Town Creek Poetry, among others. His poetry has been awarded Auburn University’s 2013 and 2014 Robert Hughes Mount, Jr., Poetry Prizes, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, among others. He has reviewed books for Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and others. Live at Lethe, his first collection of poetry, was released by Sweatshoppe Publications this past fall (2013), and his second manuscript, Reflections in the Dark Water is seeking publishers. For more information, visit his author’s page: ecopoiesis.com.