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Bob Hicok

Bob Hicok's poetry has appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Poetry. He is the author of Animal Soul, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, He is also the author of The Legend of Light , which won the 1995 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and was an ALA Booklist Notable Book of the Year, and Plus Shipping which is very likable on its own merits.

He writes poetry that makes us stand up and take notice, as in:

by the rude hands of dusk,
I set down my life for her skin,
taught all day how to smell
like the sun, and the hundred
directions of her hair, and eyes
that look through me to flowers
that only open their mouths
to speak with the moon.

He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.

Caffeine Destiny: When you meet people at parties who don't know you and they ask you what you do, do you say "I'm a poet"? Why or why not?
Bob Hicok: Usually not. Often I'll say, I'm the idiot standing in front of you who has nothing to say, or, nice shoes, which is the equivalent but shorter. Faces do a funny little dance when you say you're a poet, unless you're telling another poet. It's almost like saying, I have eczema. I see no reason to elicit discomfort.

If you meet people and DO tell them you're a poet and they say "oh what do you write about?" what do you tell them?

Did you find how you felt about your work changed after you started teaching?
Teaching was initially hard for me because I suddenly had far more time to write than ever before. So it wasn't my view of my work but my sense of how I work, how often and under what circumstances I write, that was affected. Is it affected or effected? The choice between which and that I also find confusing.

Where does your poetry come from?
Who knows. I can only begin to get at that one by example. So. What got me going on the last poem was the thought of someone taking off her prosthetic arm before she sat down in a diner, taking it off to relax. Almost like you'd take off your coat. The poem grew from that image or scene. I know some people think in colors, others in sounds. Maybe contexts occur to me, almost as a unit of thought. There's a way certain situations or relationships between people will show up in the form of lines. In this case, it was "She would set her arm/beside her glass of milk." It was just there and I don't know why. But from that, I could build a poem.

What makes writing poetry possible for you?
Word Perfect 5.1. For DOS.

When you first were writing you used to perform at Poetry Slams. Do you think the audiences for poetry slams and the audience for poetry published in little magazines is different?
I performed a bit - not performed but read - in the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam, which was the second Poetry Slam after Chicago. Praise to Mark Smith, by the way, Mark Smith of the Green Mill in Chicago, for the birth of the Slams. I'm not a performer, and the best of those folks are gifted performers. I'm gifted at being nervous in front of people. I did run the Ann Arbor Slam, after Vince Keuter, who brought it to Ann Arbor, left for Seattle, where the sky is almost as cloudy as the Michigan sky. That sounds funny - Michigan sky, Michigan Brand Sky. And yes, finally, the audiences are different. There is certainly overlap. The best Slammers are not just gifted performers but gifted writers. What is most commonly said about Slam poetry - that it's not as good on the page as it is live - is true for most though not all of the work. What people don't notice, or admit, is that the opposite is true. Much of the poetry that gets published is no good on the stage. Or, has little force on the stage. It will be interesting to see over time if the two groups have more to do with each other, if they can learn from each other.

When did you first start writing poetry?
I'm not sure. I started putting words in a notebook when I was 20. When it became something fit for public consumption and ridicule, I'm not sure. I'm not being coy. My memory for this kind of thing is porous at best.

Who do you admire or believe are influences on your work?
Influences are tough for me to identify, because when I started writing and for a long time after, I wasn't reading poetry. I was reading Don DeLillo and Joy Williams, novels mainly. Now I bounce around quite a bit. Just pulled out The Lost Pilot after years. Am reading Gwendolyn Brooks these days and loving her work, WC Williams and feeling very disappointed in his.

Do you write every day?
No. I eat every day and try to do a few other things every day best not discussed.

Do you feel differently about yourself as a writer when you haven't written for a while? How so?
As a writer, as a person. I'm just not happy when I don't write. It's about my favorite thing to do. It's the unifying activity of my life. So when I don't write, I am, in the most basic sense, not being myself.

Would you say your work is surreal?
I'd say it can be or has elements of the surreal at times. But overall, no.

Describe the most recent day you had when you went to bed and said "man that was a great day" (or words to that effect).
Happiness is all about pizza.

Do you think poets should write about politics?
Yes. Though it's hard to do in a way that doesn't feel preachy. I think satire remains the best way to write about politics.

Do you think all the venues for publishing these days makes it harder for readers to notice when a really good poem crosses their path?
Yes and no. As information of all sorts has poured into our lives, we've become good at ignoring it, at sifting down to a manageable amount. I'm thrilled there are more avenues for folks to get their poetry out. But one of the ways we sift is to ignore entire segments of the poetry community. We're very clannish, with the result that there's less consensus about what a really good poem is. Yet within these communities, people pay a great deal of attention.

What do you think are the most important differences, for a writer, in working with a large press or a small press?
This is very circumstantial. The splash and reputation of a big press is something most poets crave. Yet the big houses tend not to keep books in print, which is rough for poets, given that the reputation of a book or poet can cook quite slowly. But some trade presses do keep books in print, no matter how they're selling. And some small presses will pulp books, even after editors have told authors the book will always be available. So, it's a case by case thing. In general, I think it's easier for a poet to have a continuing relationship with a small press. As the trades get bought up by larger corporations, it's only getting harder for them to justify selling poetry. Very few poets can sell even a thousand copies of a book. It's probably inevitable that poets who do well with small presses will try to make the jump.