OK. Rick Mullin. Your second book-length poem in as many years, Soutine, is due out soon from Dos Madres Press. How are you feeling about everything?
All right. But I need to get involved in another big project soon. Lately I’ve been working on compiling a collection—cleaning up my desk, that kind of thing. I’ve been going back to older work and revising. I’m trying to keep busy. But I’ve got an itch.
It’s kind of weird, right?
You know, ending work on a book is like the end of a rather intense relationship. You live in a story for months. Then you have to live with it. Alicia Stallings once said that a poet is never really happy unless he or she is in the middle of a poem. I think that’s true. It’s a very, very happy life living in a story while you are creating it.
The two books you’ve written, Huncke, which was published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland last year, and Soutine, which you finished writing this summer, are very different books. Where did they come from?
Huncke surprised me. I had gone, quite reluctantly, to a memorial reading that a friend was hosting for Herbert Huncke. I knew who Huncke was, but I didn’t know much about him. Nor did I care much, really. I have a great deal of regard for Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beats, but contemporary Beat poetry, per se, is not particularly appealing to me. Anyway, I went. And I wrote a sonnet—practice, as I recall—on the way home. It didn’t work, so I switched to ottava rima, wrote ten stanzas and figured that was my poem. Well, that ended up as Canto One, the shortest of a twelve-canto cycle of tales. I warmed to Herbert Huncke in the process. Soutine, on the other hand, I approached fully conscious of the poem as a book-length poem. While Huncke took about two months to write, Soutine took a year. It is also about three times as long as Huncke.
Who are these guys?
Well, Huncke was a progenitor of the Beat movement. He innovated the Beat life, as it were, and Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac lived a bit of their lives vicariously through him. He is in their books in one form or another. Soutine was perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th Century. He, Beckmann, and Bonnard are the big ones for me. He was a Russian Jew who painted in Paris and died in a roundabout way as a victim of the Holocaust. He brought the grand traditions in western art into something like the modernist idiom. But he was his own man, which is why he is not very well known. His roommate, Modigliani, a lesser painter who is quite well known, recognized Soutine as a genius. Soutine’s life story matches van Gogh’s for sheer drama, which doesn’t hurt when you’re writing his life story.
So, you knew a lot about Soutine, and very little about Huncke when you started these books.
Right. And as it turned out, I did weeks of research writing Soutine and almost none writing Huncke. I used old Herbert as a diving board to write about America. I actually invented my own Herbert Huncke, based on what I’d heard at the memorial reading, which was kind of an all-over-the-place group performance. But Herbert Huncke lends himself to being invented. With Soutine, I put myself into the protagonist’s life. Don’t get me wrong about the research—the book is very much an historical verse novel, but I did not work from notes. Certain scenes and encounters are entirely imagined. Soutine also has a parallel narrative, a memoir describing my discovery of art, of Soutine. It captures certain revelations that occurred in writing the book. Writing it was very much an experience of writing poetry. It never felt like I was writing a term paper. It felt more like I was flying a small airplane.
Give me a little bit of the technical stuff, but keep it down.
Sure. Huncke is written in ottava rima, as mentioned, the verse form of Byron’s Don Juan—I invoke Byron, or a Byronic hero, in the first Canto. It is a bit of a picaresque gallivant across a big swath of American history with sections concentrating on art, literature, and music. Somehow I managed to sidestep the Civil War, but nobody’s called me out on that. Soutine I started in blank verse, but I very quickly started over in terza rima. That form ended up having real resonance in the parts with Modigliani, who loved Italian poetry and actually recites from Inferno in the poem. Terza rima, as we know, sustains an epic. My model, really, was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. He used the form very gracefully in that poem.
You write almost exclusively in form.
Well put. Yes, I love formal poetry. Writing it and reading it. I compare writing in form to the exercises in art school where you draw without looking at your hand, only at the model. You produce a picture that is entirely yours but that would never have materialized if you kept your brain in the game, measuring the space between knuckles and knowing there are five fingers, etc. The picture is strange, yet familiar. You have to do it many, many times to get the hang of it, but the immediate results are stunning even in the earliest drawings. Similarly, making a rhyme and keeping the rhythm forces you away from what occurs immediately in your head, from what you already know or intend. It internalizes the thought processes, ideally subjugating it to unconscious feeling and experience. That is where the imagined scenes in Soutine come from. The counting, the formulaic part of writing metrical verse is incidental. Writing in form often results in a poem that you could not have imagined writing. But imagination has a lot to do with getting you there! It’s a paradox. A really beautiful one.
How about guiding principles? Who are your masters?
Well, I can point to some great ones in music, poetry, and painting with whom I associate an idea or guiding principle. First, there is Duke Ellington, who says we must find a way of saying it without saying it. Then, there is Rainier Maria Rilke, who, I am told, said that the truth is buried under a pile of facts. I can’t find it anywhere, but I believe it to be his observation. Who else would say something like that? And then there is George Inness, the American landscape painter, who reminds us that knowledge must bow to spirit. Put all three together, and there you have it.
This from someone who has written two book-length poems filled with facts and things that he knows?
Indeed. But that is the beauty of poetry. The chance to come up with something better. We all have information, knowledge, and something to say. But if we surrender to feeling and experience, the rest becomes something like technique or ink. They are vital to the process almost on a physical or structural level. The verse comes from within. It strives for the truth under all the facts in a way that cannot occur in the writing of prose—I’m a journalist and editorial writer by day. I know. Verse conveys what truth it gleans via a kind of spiritual channel. What moves us in a poem? It is almost impossible to answer that question. It really has little to do with what the poem says. There is a lot of historical information in my two books, but the narrator is pervasive. I record my experience of living the story and I try to subjugate the facts to that experience. The autobiographical tracks in Soutine are there to personalize Soutine’s life and invite the reader to connect with Chaim on a more visceral level than might otherwise occur. I make myself a foil to the hero, which I don’t consider hubristic—I paint, and I’ve lived painting for a log time, during which I internalized Soutine’s art and his story. I’ve been a carrier, so to speak. I have to say that I am very anxious to do this kind of thing again. I have my eyes on Janis Joplin to round out a trilogy. We’ll see. Maybe something will hit me like Huncke did.
What sort of future do you see for the long poem?
Well, it has had something of a renaissance with Walcott, Les Murray and David Mason. Mason’s Ludlow is beautiful. I can’t imagine an historical novel on the Ludlow strike that would affect me as deeply as his poem did. Omeros is one of the greatest books I have read, and Murray’s Fredy Neptune is a natural marvel. I have fervent hopes for the long poem. I think we’ll see more of them.
Hey, let’s hope so. Thank you very much. You kept the name-dropping down, which was one of my big concerns going into this.
I told you not to worry. And it was nice doing this for once without the sock puppets! Thanks for the opportunity. Keep in touch. And thank you, The Nervous Breakdown!