A Conversation Between Robin F. Brox and David Hadbawnik
Robin F. Brox: Some people are afraid of poetry, intimidated by it, worried about "getting it." David Hadbawnik's Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010 banishes those feelings as long as it's open in your hands. Reading at times like the voyeurism of people-watching or the quotidian self-consciousness of diary entry, his collection takes us along as un-saccharine a timeline as one could ever encounter, yet subtly careful of feeling at every point. The chronology is one kind of frame or support beam; the text itself wends its way through the chatter of attention, and, true or imaginary, the details sculpt their own reality, the reader moves as one does through a sculpture garden or witnesses as at a slideshow, one upon one more, the modes and materials shifting from prose to punk or blues to Renaissance-influenced stanzas. Hadbawnik takes the reader with him through travels, boredom, study, heartache, relocation -- the essentials of life, with the evidence of a sharp mind and ear for both story and music, giving us all an opportunity to enjoy the temporal pleasures in Field Work. Various enough to keep a twenty-first century attention span engaged, the book opens with a young man who desires 'simple and basic' expression and to find it, he has 'to think in terms of hockey,' then brings us through the intervening years to a struggle so many face, desires and decisions and the outcomes they bring, 'what is actually killing me, like a virus that weakens a system and invites in a different illness, is incessant pining for those things I don't have: a different city, different life, different...'"
David Hadbawnik: "Jonathan Skinner aptly touches on the alternating modes of 'affection and repulsion' that drive the voice of Robin F. Brox's Sure Thing, which consists of interwoven serial poems to create a rich mosaic of place. Nothing ever stays what or where it is, and I would emphasize the word 'attention' as well -- a keen, witty, sardonic kind of attention that moves with what it's noticing. At times I'm reminded here of the turn to long lines in late Robert Creeley, the tenderness toward immediate environment and careful response to relationships and proximities of other bodies, as in the poem 'any paper verse, awry,' where Brox writes,
still rust-proof, unmarred, bare as the dollhouse frame then
layered in gazes & in the injury of marked demand or toy chassis
mutating, fluid as fluid, when, to fill low spots like on lawns & sidewalks...
This is an example of the 'tenderest ambilavences,' to use a phrase the poet employs just prior to this, a never-easy or easily accessible sincerity that swerves between inside and outside, environment and emotion."
Sports and Setting
David Hadbawnik Since you open with this hockey image, I wonder if you could speak about certain kinds of connections you make as a poet, like emotion and thought to athletics, or experience to geography as your cover art suggests?
Hadbawnik: The line about "thinking in terms of hockey" in the first entry is one of those moments of "noticing yourself noticing" -- a central insight that drives the first half of the book, especially; i.e. I realized one night the incredible persistence of hockey, which I played all through my childhood in Michigan growing up, the moves, skating, rhythms, physicality of it, as a sort of backdrop to thoughts and emotions, like a song stuck in your head that you don't realize you're humming. I've always been an athlete and a sports fan, and poetry is a different but related pleasure, to me. Encountering a fellow poet in Buffalo years later who said, "I still dream about soccer sometimes," as we were walking off the field at Delaware Park, felt like a confirmation of that and real moment of kinship.
As for the geography, that is indeed important. The chapbook that this grew out of was called "SF Spleen" -- "SF" being San Francisco -- and it featured a map of the city on the cover designed by Scott Pierce of Effing Press. I was living in San Francisco and wandering on foot, buses, and trains, with my notebook, listening and watching and writing things down. I spent a lot of time at the library, but also at the beach, in the park, downtown, and everywhere in between -- and the notebooks would not have been possible without the splendor and variety and bleakness of the city. Later I took the practice with me to travels in Europe, the East Coast, and moves to Texas and finally here to Buffalo. The idea for the cover this time was to recreate the map of the original chapbook on a larger scale to reflect those moves. My friend Sonny Smith, musician and companion of those early years in San Francisco, designed it after a barrage of questions about what I'd done in each place. I think it captures the spirit of the book pretty well.
I have to ask too about the importance of place, for you, as well; you were born in Amherst, just north of Buffalo, and I think of you as a proud native of the area. As such, you deal with the vicissitudes of life in upstate, Western New York with a wry sort of humor, as in the first lines of the book: "Certain heat wave / approaching thirty five / degrees," which is from "January Jones." Can you talk about how life in Buffalo, the people, the weather, intersects with your life as a poet?
Brox: Buffalo has a number of nicknames, notably The City of Good Neighbors and The City of No Illusions, and both are so accurate -- we're disillusioned but fiercely loyal. It has a relatively low cost of living, high concentration of art in all genres, plus pride of place -- things that bring us right back to influences, eh? It's a city for proving yourself over and over, of inferiority complexes, of insistence, there's a local weathering and erosion at work. Snow, what Buffalo's known for, cold several months every year, why try to ignore it, why not explore, exhaust it instead? A sense of humor is necessary in life though I would not say that I am a very funny poet (that line is, coincidentally, a joke of composition, since that was the temperature in Celsius when I was beginning "January Jones," some mental air conditioning). Also when you do live in a cold place, you know thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit is "warm," a respite, your moment of thaw, a chance to believe spring will come eventually. I am growing fonder and fonder of simply paying attention, then life shows you what to notice, like the importance of four seasons, and local tragedies on many scales prepare us for ambivalence, difficulty, putting to use that negative capability of Keats's, looking at and for things that build into poems, things out of which poems are made.
Hadbawnik: And getting back to hockey, you keep a blog called "Ice Hockey Chick," and you have tucked "the NHL" between Alice Notley and Rilke in your list of poetic references. I wonder if you could talk about the connection between sports (perhaps hockey, specifically) and your poetic practice, especially being a woman.
Brox: Anything that captures my attention and inspires me in some way is fair game as far as reference material; the fact that I've been a fan of ice hockey since childhood makes it seems natural, and indicative of how living life is as valuable to me as reading poetry in making my own writing happen in ways I find interesting. So there's hockey, next to Rilke and Notley! In the sport, you can find elegance, rhythm, emotion, brutality, desire, things we value in poetry. The speed of the puck and players, that to me is how our brains move from image to image, line to line, even word by word through a poem, charging at the "net" of connection, understanding, appreciation, whatever it is we seek in poetry. I guess the excitement of hockey, the sensory stimulation of it, these things are also valuable in my poems, I want immediacy and urgency; you yourself mention the game in the opening lines of Field Work, so when I write a phrase like "on tied ice," you get it, that tension, everything on the line. The fact that I'm a woman with an interest in hockey -- I mean, I won't play in the NHL, but then again, neither will most men, right? I think no one expects a poet to being interested in athletics, and I know a lot of poets who are into one professional sport or other, or many. I'm in pretty good company as an admirer of the sporting arts.
Influence and Enjoyment
Brox: My experience reading Field Work was positive -- I enjoyed reading your book, took certain pleasure in it; I liked how your writing moved me through time and mode, as I noted above. What do you hope a reader takes away from this book?
Hadbawnik: I think just that. I mean, I'm grateful to hear you say that, so thank you; it means a lot to me. Words like "enjoyment" and "pleasure" are primary concerns. One misconception that bothers me somewhat is the inevitable comparison to Creeley's A Day Book. I love Creeley, and I love A Day Book, but honestly, I hadn't read it when I started taking these notes and it was never an influence on this project. But it is sort of the poet's notebook out there, and it is what you are measured against if you write something like this. Actually, the biggest influence for me was Peter Handke's book of note entries, The Weight of the World. It is clearly a novelist's working notebook, full of descriptions and insights and bits of humor, which you can see him using in his novels -- it can be whimsical or deep, but it is not like Creeley's, which is poetic prose, and more in the tradition of something like W.C. Williams's Kora in Hell. Later I read things like Kafka's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks, and found the same sorts of concerns. And it was my intention, at first, to meld this material into something -- either convert the entries magically into "poems" or weave them into a longer prose piece. I thought of them as ephemeral, raw material, practice for something larger. But then one day I was invited to do a reading and as I poked around for something I found these notebooks, and I realized they stood quite well on their own. People responded to them and I began to collect them more consciously, and they ended up in "SF Spleen" -- an unfortunate title that implies a connection to Paris Spleen that, again, doesn't exist -- and obviously I continued to keep little notebooks and the project changed as it went along. The point is that the thing I liked about Handke's and Fitzgerald's (and later Elias Canetti's and Joseph Joubert's) notebooks is that you can dive in anywhere and encounter a mind responding sensually and intelligently to its surroundings, in an often humorous, at times embarrassingly intimate, way. There is no "progression" -- there is time passing, me getting older, the scenery changing, my attention alternately honed and wandering, my concerns varying. But ultimately I want the reader to have the kind of experience that I've had in reading some of the books I've mentioned above: to be entertained and to draw pleasure, to think and to be challenged, at being exposed to a mind's encounters with the world. I hope it's not just a momentary experience; I hope there's something of interest there beyond the instant, the surface -- there was for me or I wouldn't have written them down.
That makes me wonder about the format of your book, in every sense. Sure Thing has an interesting shape: a sort of miniature landscape style, if you will. Then there are the interspersed photos, and the interwoven "serial poems," such as "January Jones," which returns several times. Was there something particular about the poems themselves, or your project as a whole, that made you make these choices in the book's design and structure?
Brox: I let my sensual tendencies guide me when it came to format: the size is small, comfortable to the hand and eye -- pleasure supremacy! The weaving of poems was to extend and distort attention, trying to get a reader to "come back" to "January" as I had again and again in its composition. The volume, the inundation, I thought it felt better coming in waves, or tides, or a series of small avalanches rather than as one very long part of the book, and a smaller-scale version of this happens in the two preposition-fueled pieces; at six inches high by seven inches wide, it plays with its nearness to the square, buoys the text and images in soothing cream-colored space.
Hadbawnik: I mentioned some of the influences on Field Work, and now I want to ask you: What about poetic lineage? You note Alice Notley (among others) in your bio. You studied at UB and at Orono. You worked with Robert Creeley; there is an image of a poem in his handwriting toward the end of the book. How have your studies and the poets you've read or studied with shaped your practice as a poet?
Brox: How haven't they? People influence what I read, view, listen to, taste, feel, as well as how I write and on what subjects. As a young woman, I was a student of Western New York poet Sherry Robbins, who introduced me to work by Allen Ginsberg and Pablo Neruda; she shared her keen ear especially. During my undergraduate years, I had the benefit of some terrific experiences at Barnard College, Columbia University, and SUNY Buffalo. For example, Tony Lopez is an author I met through Charles Bernstein's seminars, and his work has been influential ever since, and I feel incredibly thankful both Lopez and Robbins supported my work on Sure Thing with their kind and attentive words.
When I met Creeley, he was so down to earth, a real person, you know? And then he was available to me in an independent study that resulted in the only other book of mine to engage poetry an image directly in tandem, Word/Body, which used reproductions of paintings I made alongside the poetry created during our time together. He was pivotal in my attending The University of Maine, Orono, where Alice Notley did a two-week residency, gave me the benefit of her insights into some of my poems; she helped me be more aware of how to treat readers when they meet your work on the page, being deliberate and using the space and language of a particular poem well.
Meeting and knowing other poets is something I find useful and sustaining as a writer, so being situated in Buffalo has granted me the good fortune to cross paths with a number of interesting folks in its poetry communities. And it nearly goes without saying that reading poetry (indeed, reading anything at all) offers another means of influence, and there I may cite the likes of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Anna Swir, and so many others.
Process and Song
Brox: Because your book contains what you name "Notes, Songs, Poems," let's talk process. How did a note get made, then selected? I wonder about "August 11, 1997," and "March 26, 2004."
Hadbawnik: It's impossible to say how a note gets made, other than I had my notebook open and a pen in my hand. In the early years, when I lived in San Francisco in my twenties, I would fill up a notebook in a week, wandering around town and writing incessantly. Over time the energy and the stimulation necessarily lessened, or came back in spurts, in parallel with growing demands on my time such as having a job, being a student, and so on. But similar to a poem, something needs to occur in language that stimulates you to write. There is a certain kind of attention. The world is happening around us all the time, but so often we don't catch it. It's like that quote from Cezanne that's in there: "One minute in the life of the world is going by. Paint it as it is." But it's difficult; difficult to maintain the attention, difficult to get the words right, to understand what to leave out and how to depict or respond to something in language without -- and this is important -- moralizing or drawing some larger conclusion from it. Over time, I was careful to respect each moment as unique to itself, and that is probably the largest selection criterion. Entries that seemed over-explained or in which I intruded after the fact with my own "take" were left out. The exception is that there were times that my response in the moment seemed inextricably bound up with what was going on, as in the entry right before the ones you mention: Aug. 6, 1997, when I've been waiting a long time for a bus and I see a guy running to the stop and think, "He better not catch this bus after all the shit I had to go through" -- and then it turns out he's just running. To me, you don't have that moment without the interaction between my selfish, irrational thoughts, and the fact of this man running. In the later entry you mention, there was a tendency to begin to notice things more internally, especially as the exuberance and novelty of the outside began to wear off somewhat.
Brox: And a "Song," like "February 19, 2004 / October 19, 2010"? Do you write them with music in mind, a melody somewhere off the page? How do you distinguish between a song lyric and a poem? Do you perform a song differently than a note or poem?
Hadbawnik: I've been writing songs since I was a kid. The lines and the melodies come to me at once and if I write the words down, I can almost always remember the tune, even years later. My first foray into poets' theater was a baseball musical, in which friends and poets performed the songs a cappella with the usual informal gusto of that format. I worked it into a longer piece that was performed in the San Francisco Fringe Festival, this time with a musical score, all the while taking guitar and songwriting classes. So the songs that begin appearing in the book are sort of the "burn-off" from that turn in my practice; only one of them, "Judgment Day," had a guitar part sketched out.
So that is how I'd distinguish them from poems.
I realize this puts the reader at a disadvantage, not having access to the music. It was a judgment call to put them in there -- some might say a bad one -- but I felt that it was essential to the project to show the range of things that were going into my little notebooks, and (to get back to the previous question) that was the ultimate rule when it came to the manuscript: it had to have come from a notebook. So there are songs, poems, notes, even little bits of fiction in there. To paraphrase Philip Whalen, a menagerie of a mind, moving. And, like any menagerie, you can skip around if you want to. The particular song that you mention is one that first came to me as a fragment in 2004, and some more came along six years later, which sometimes happens. It is an offensive and perhaps juvenile lyric, but that is a place the songs come from sometimes; the tune is kind of a late-punk, Yeah Yeah Yeahs thing, and obviously songwriting heroes like Tom Waits, Liz Phair, Kurt Cobain, Feist, all write lyrics that are pretty raw, so I take permission there even as I take responsibility. When I perform them they are sung, and I am currently working out guitar parts for more of them, working on them some more.
It seems to me that we share a concern with song, in different ways. I've seen you read a number of times now, and you often perform a piece by bpNichol when you read. Given the real sparseness of some of these poems, the attention to line, your association with Creeley, is song, or at least lyric, a concern of yours in poetry?
Brox: Going back to your question about influences, too, David, this one shows my dual heritage, Creeley and Bernstein. I find sound poetry can be very attractive. But I also like finding the sound and rhythm of life, sense, meaning. And what I love about Nichol's "Pome Poem" is that I can perform it at all. I'm no singer, and it's this amazing incantation that chants what I think is a brilliant statement of poetics ("What is a poem is inside your body inside your head inside your fingers inside your toes inside your belly..."). Rhythm might be the great unifier, that's something I do care a great deal about. Line breaks, spacing, pauses -- layout is like the work of a conductor at the philharmonic, I try to get the way a poem sounds to me in my head there on the page to direct someone's reading, the pace and emphases. I like that experimental sound work and lyric poetry cohabit my brain. I don't think contemporary poets should have to give up one for the other, or avoid combining different influences, unless that's what gives them joy, pleasure, satisfaction in writing. I like variety, and so my poems don't have one look or voice or style, I'll let my ear be guided by whomever takes me somewhere compelling. When Nichol tells us "what is a poem is inside of your ears," he's not mistaken.
Attention and Affection
Hadbawnik: Jonathan Skinner describes the poems here as an interplay of "affection and repulsion," an "attention both heavenly and subterranean." There does seem to be a careful attention to things "mutating, fluid as fluid," a line I particularly admired in the poem "any paper verse, awry," and I see what Jonathan's getting at in later lines such as "cloying lilac or / honeysuckle blown into smokestacks & out," etc., where nature meets industry. I wonder if you could talk about this emphasis on contrasts and mutating states that seems to be a concern of the book. I also see an attention to the contrast between concrete and abstract, within lines, in tight spaces -- a desire to get at something on a number of levels. From the same poem: "the pure deep oblivion / of tenderest ambivalences, wet metal aphrodisiac"... Talk about that, too?
Brox: This may be where Heraclitus meets Sinatra -- "Nothing endures but change" plus "That's Life" -- with a healthy dash of Rust Belt fondness for the broken-down. Which is to say the question again comes back to place: physical, temporal, emotional. There is energy in interstices, in overlap, in flux. Living in a post-industrial city in a post-industrial age for the United States, I see the fetishization of urban decay, or what I like to think of instead as industrial evolution, and I think as a product of Detroit, Michigan, you understand what our landscapes do, or fail to do. But this particular poem is very much a love poem, I think what you noticed in its imagery is the messiness of romance, beauty entangled with ugliness, a way for me to try and be honest and sincere in my affections, troubled or complicated as they are by place or person. What goes into the lines of a poem, at times a more literal level over something buried; interplay between concrete and abstract is certainly there, waiting to be explored but unable to be definitively nailed down. To me, the "pure deep oblivion" here very well could be the annihilation we feel in our ecstatic moments. Imagining this state comes from or relates to our "tenderest ambivalences," well, I feel conflicted and two ways about so many things, ambivalent even about the value judgments that provide the two extremes I may hold simultaneously in heart or mind, tender because of the ferocity of feeling so keenly the various splits or mutations, and the "aphrodisiac" here is seductive precisely because it weds the industrial (metal) with the natural (wetness).
Hadbawnik: One more "craft" question: As with the above observation from Jonathan Skinner, there seems to be a push-pull between surface and depth in the poems; something akin to what I have heard called "submerged narrative" in Hoa Nguyen's poetry, a sense that there is a narrative thread, a sequence of events or observations being alluded to, but a recurring disjunct at the level of language keeps us as readers from settling into that too comfortably. How does this work for you, and how do you sense your readers responding to this?
Brox: "Submerged narrative," I like that, and it seems pretty accurate by your definition; I do want to play hide-and-seek, I do not consider myself a storyteller, though having a story to tell does play its part in so much of my work in this book. I think people look for the narrative, and when they think they've found it, it's gone, it's changed, it's not quite specific enough, something's been misplaced, but I do think that makes it more truthful, since life is not a neat story with characters, a climax, and a bit of denouement, we forget things, conflate them when we do recall, have secrets to keep, hide behind masks and mirrors. I hope my readers find ways to make connections, put their own lives into the poetry, or enjoy multiplicity of meaning, indeterminacy, feeling inundated by language and its pleasures.
What about the poems in Field Work? How do they distinguish themselves in their creation, or as finished pieces? They seem related to your scholarly interest in medieval and Renaissance poetry, something I noted in "July 2, 2005," and the sonnets from summer 2001, and I hoped you might explore how the academic and creative overlap.
Hadbawnik: That's interesting; I hadn't thought about a connection to my scholarly interests in medieval literature, but I suppose that does creep in from time to time. Ultimately it is all connected through different modes of pleasure and the degree to which it gets your creative juices flowing. And at a deep level I don't see a dividing line between these different pleasurable pursuits. But the simple answer is that I began to study poetry in a more formal way, first in San Francisco with Diane di Prima and Tom Clark, then during my MFA program at Texas State, finally here in UB Poetics as a PhD student. And naturally, as I began to write more poetry and feel confident about what I was writing, it took a more prominent place in the notebooks, at the expense of actual notes. Again, a judgment call to include them here, rather than in a "poetry" collection, but I felt, as with the songs, the poems mark a shift in my practice that I wanted to register in the book, and that didn't feel wholly out of place.
Let's talk titles. Field Work clearly alludes to the numerous iterations of "field" poetics over the years, in this case hinting at an exploration of actual territory, illustrated on the cover. The title of your book is taken from a quote by Robert Burns that comes at the end, "There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing." Why this quote? How do you feel it relates to the work, and how did you decide on that title?
Brox: I was attracted by the multiplicity of the phrase's meaning: casual affirmative, absolute certainty, concreteness of being. Put that next to the impermanence of meaning in any poem, how readings change over time and through experience, etc. when the work is revisited, and Sure Thing as a title felt unsettled in a way that complimented the content, which can feel that way, too. And the way the phrase gives a sense that even if you know you'll win the bet, anything can happen to make it otherwise -- subverting expectation, a kind of Murphy's Law poetic -- and then I found the Burns quotation, and it was too fitting not to use. By the time you've gotten to the end of the book, it harmonizes, resonates, offers its jangling echo.
Poets and Presses
Brox: In addition to writing poetry, you are the editor of Habenicht Press. Can you describe the aesthetic choices you have made for your chapbooks? What does having a journal, kadar koli, allow you to do differently?
Hadbawnik: I began the press around 2000 with a chapbook by my friend, and very underappreciated poet from Detroit, Sarah Peters. I then published a haibun journal by Diane di Prima. Since then, I've tried to alternate between excellent but lesser-known poets and better-known poets who have discrete projects that don't easily fit the market as a standard book. As for the journal, it is a way to enter into and engage with larger conversations in the world of poetry, to say this is who I've been corresponding with, exchanging work with, and admiring in that world. I don't know that it allows me to do anything differently, other than seeing poetry from a larger point of view than the solitary poet doing his or her work; and giving something back, hopefully, to poetry and the poets who've given me so much.
You also run a small press, Saucebox, and you are community-oriented in a number of ways, working with local nonprofit wonders like Just Buffalo Literary Center and working in schools to teach kids poetry and art. How has this affected your poetic practice?
Brox: Quite literally, the placement of photographs I took next to poems I wrote -- that's something I have had the good fortune to do with a lot of kids in workshops that combine creative writing and photography. It's amazing to work with young people. I'd like to think they help me be brave in my poems because I ask them to try new things all the time and they do it, unflinchingly, so teaching is a cycle of inspiration and literal creation that I find incredibly humbling and powerful. Being a teaching artist and one-woman feminist press gives me a sense of purpose in the poetry world beyond my own writing that pivotal sense of urgency, that art simply must be made.