An Interview with Andrew Hudgins
Andrew Hudgins: This is a poem called "In," the title poem in my book Ecstatic in the Poison.
["In," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
Troy Teegarden: Andrew, as you mentioned, that's the title poem from the collection Ecstatic in the Poison, which also has a great cover photo of a young child out in the middle of this DDT poison. Where did you find that and how did you go about locating the image that you wanted to go with that poem, I can't imagine actually being able to find it.
AH: Well, I did that when I was a kid. Have you done that? When I was a kid in North Carolina, for mosquito season, these big trucks would come—well, they actually weren't that big—the trucks would come down the street with these big smoke makers on them and we just called them the smoke truck or the fog truck, and I didn't know that . . . I knew that they were there to kill mosquitoes, but it somehow didn't click into my head that it was poison. So we all did it, we would literally run away from the dinner table and our parents thought, okay that's cool, because we weren't asking for money to buy popsicles. So I hadn't thought about it for years, and then I ended up writing this poem about it when it suddenly clicked, and we loved it, it was great. So when the book was done, I thought well, golly, I wonder if you can get a picture of that. And I spent hours in the library—I didn't know you could do image database searches. So I went to the reference library and learned how to do that, then I ended up back at home doing Google image searches and things like that. And under the key word, finally I figured out the right key word was DDT. Not fog, or poison, or truck. I found this photograph, and it's from, I think, the early fifties, from the NOAA, National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration, or something like that. I remember having to memorize that when I was a kid, but obviously I've forgotten it. I suggested it to Overlook and they tracked down the rights on it, and I think it was probably minimal since it was a government photograph, and it's one of those things where the photograph really is what the book's about, so it's kind of fun.
TT: The kid really does look "ecstatic in the poison" in the front, I can see little Andrew down there.
You have two interesting quotes right at the beginning of this book, one from Wallace Stevens, and the other one from Miss Alabama. How do you balance that out?
AH: Well, I'll read them. This is from one of Stevens's poems.
"If ever the search for a tranquil belief
He's talking about, obviously, a conception of the future determined by human movement and history as having a purpose to it, which we tend not to think nowadays, I suppose. And this one is supposedly from Miss Alabama at the 1994 Miss Universe pageant:
"Question: If you could live forever,
would you and why?
And you could hear somebody flustered trying to answer one of those questions without getting in trouble, trying to think and not being terribly good at it. And yet also working within the confines of some kind of biblical upbringing. It didn't at base seem entirely different from what Stevens was saying. That was something I saw on one of those Internet joke lists—what do people say, if it's not true, it should be? And they did kind of capture the serious side of the thing, and yet she gets the kind of human desperation underneath, you know our desire for mortality . . . and so I thought they balanced off.
TT: They're definitely interesting starts of the book, and then the first poem you read is "In," and then the book is divided into three sections and ends with a poem called "Out." How do you decide on those sections within those poems, I'm sure there's some kind of organization within your mind as to how those poems all fit together.
AH: They do. In the first section, the "In" section, I see the speaker is working his way into the world, and then in the middle section you're there, and in the third section we start moving back toward "Out." Into conceptions of the world, into the creations of the world, through artistic projects I guess is really what I'm thinking about more than the world itself. That was the organization that kind of fell out as I was looking through this material.
TT: Would you mind reading a poem from that first section?
["The Cadillac in the Attic," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: That certainly does make a nice sound, but why would anyone want to ever decide to put a Cadillac in the attic? Talk about the meaning there, what is the meaning?
AH: Well, the joke is kind of the meaning. This is a story I'd read about in a memoir, it was from a book, a tribute to Don Justice. And one of the people that was remembered was this character who had done this, and it sounded like the kind of thing you'd hear about, a folk myth or urban legend. And it just seemed like the fun thing to do. And I then started thinking about somebody who is so dedicated to the joke that you really have to work at it day after day and month after month for the consequence that you'll never see. And it seemed almost like a parable of creating art. Yet you ultimately do it for the pleasure, and then you do it so you can tell people you did it. It just seemed like a terrific thing to think about, and the more I thought about it the more I kind of fell in love with that phrase, the Cadillac in the attic, and how cool it sounded. So it was one of those things where there was pleasure and something serious also going on at the same time, underneath what just seemed like a good practical joke.
TT: First time I read it, it always reminded me of that Johnny Cash song, you know the one, "One Piece at a Time"?
AH: Oh sure, "One Piece at a Time . . ."
TT: Where he's stealing the Cadillac parts and then ends up with a free Cadillac at the end.
AH: Yeah, exactly so, that had flitted through my brain at one point when I was thinking about this.
TT: How about "Day Job and Night Job"?
["Day Job and Night Job," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: And that's an argument a lot of young writers will hear: What are you really going to do with this, what are you doing for society, what are you doing with this writing? Are you just sitting around and enjoying yourself? A lot of people don't realize that it is actually serious work.
AH: It's work. That's funny, whenever I think of college the first thing I think of is those little orange peanut butter crackers.
TT: I love the preciseness of that, that every thirteen minutes, I ate one.
AH: Didn't you do that in a class where you were bored, and you'd go, I can have one after thirteen minutes, then I have to wait for another thirteen minutes.
TT: You're hearing absolutely nothing of what's going on.
AH: Well, I was, I was. Then if you did that, you'd get ahead on the Coke you're drinking with them. And you're trying to keep them at the same pace, because that was breakfast, you know. Because I was rushing from a job that I did at night to one that I did during the day, and I just didn't have time to go back to my folks' house and get something to eat. Then of course I'd have those notes, and they'd have some of those yellowy stains all over them. And so you're working hard, and being a poet seems like this indulgence when in fact, it too is work. It's a different kind of work, not a remunerative work, certainly not for the first ten or fifteen years. But it's what you want to do, it's what you want to do, so you do the things that you have to do to do the things that you want to do, which is a different form of work. It is true, my day job was working at a dry goods wholesaler. They would have these bolts of cloths in there, and he also had these big towers of shelving, old plywood shelving units, and you could use the steps as a ladder, climb up to the top, which was probably about three stories up off the ground inside this building. And I would form the bolts of calico into a little fort up there on the top, and I could hide there and nobody would find me.
TT: Make an appearance every once in a while to look like you're doing something and then go hide in the fort.
AH: Yeah, exactly.
TT: Been there, not exactly, but something like that. It is funny how many writers always, their jobs that they had in college, or before or after, because you bounce from job to job to job, a lot of the times, especially if you don't decide to teach right off the bat, you see that pop up from time to time in people's writing. It's always interesting to see the different types of jobs people have had.
AH: I'll just jump into this poem called "The Ship Made for Burning."
["The Ship Made for Burning," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: That's a very intense poem, especially when you sit and contemplate what's going on there. The story, especially of the king, and the details of the stabbing, and he's been in the ground ten days, and she's laying . . . But then you contrasted the "we," you've got the "we" part of the story, there. Then the "you," like "what did you do with your . . ." How did you come up with that vehicle that you had going?
AH: I'd been thinking about—it's based on a literal description of a Viking funeral from the Middle Ages—and thinking of just the story itself at first and what seemed a strange burial ceremony to us. What was most interesting to me was the slave girl, who's going to die and be sent to greet the master in paradise. That sense of permanence in paradise, the ephemerality of our life, and the different characters. I was just thinking my way into it, and I wanted not just her point of view, but their point of view. One who's leaving, and those who are going to be left. And everyone having their sense of place in this world, and their obligations. In a way, it's not really that different from what we do, it's rawer it's more immediate, you're right there. And we're not distanced from death, the way that we are, but we still ritualize death, in many of the same ways, we're simply cut off from seeing what goes on in the funeral home with the corpses.
TT: You don't really want to know either.
AH: I actually do. I'm always fascinated by things like that. So I was quite fascinated by it. As I wrote it, I got interested in her voice, too. The people that she's contrasted, to the rest of them, one speaking as "we" in a kind of a group voice are interested in playing that group voice of those left behind. And the individual voice of the one who's been chosen to pass over interested me, too.
TT: What a title, "The Ship Made for Burning," an excellent title.
AH: Thanks. It is again that, that artifact . . .what's that phrase, the "self-consuming artifact," when you're talking about art. And that seemed to be an example of it, and that thing that you make for the purpose of destroying, but the making and the destroying create a certain act. A crucial ritual act.
TT: That's probably what I like about it. Another thing, in that poem I know you had chosen a story and were studying that story, but there's a lot of violence in there, in that poem. If you look at a lot of your poems in there it seems like it's in there too, like "Southern Literature" and a couple other poems in there. Do you think that the creative act is somewhat violent, or is violence on your mind, do you even see a connection there?
AH: Yeah, I agree with you. People see an act of creation as a benign thing, and it isn't always, and often it's not. Something that's new destroys certain ways of looking at the world and things, but it's also true that I'm horrified of violence, so I think about it a lot. People who grow up, at least somewhat connected to the rural world, know violence in a way that a lot of people don't. I suppose, actually, people living in certain inner city places know it too, and a different kind of violence. But violence is a bad thing, but also, people got their own meat. You saw animals brought in, animals raised to be killed, animals that people went out and hunted, that was a normal part of life.
TT: Blood on your hands regularly.
AH: Yeah, exactly. So those things are connected. I was both fascinated by it and horrified by it, so I've thought about it a lot. Southerners find humor in violence, too, in a way, I think from that closeness, it's that sense of a certain sense of horror. And also a certain sense of relief, a certain kind of fatalism that comes out. Once somebody's been hurt a little bit, but not terribly, then it's funny. Because we know the other thing could have happened. Other rural cultures know this, too, our sense of humor is I don't think that different from a Russian sense of humor, for instance. But I know that things that I routinely think are funny horrify northerners. Some, some.
TT: The poem I mentioned, I believe, was "Southern Literature." Would you mind reading that one?
AH: This is a poem called "Southern Literature."
["Southern Literature" by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: There's some of that violence.
AH: No act of violence actually takes place in that poem.
TT: It's certainly being contemplated.
AH: Okay, a little bit.
TT: I still like "gaily fatalistic." That's nice there. I enjoy that poem a lot. The one before that is "The Children," and you've got a real gun in that one, almost, and whiskey shots. I think the bottle goes against the wall?
AH: Yeah, but it doesn't break.
TT: That's the thing, the violence being contemplated, the bottle against the wall and not breaking. What's happening there, Andrew?
AH: In which one, this one, "Southern Literature"? In this one, it was simply a matter of, we're playing this kind of head game that old women and young men sometimes get into. And she wins, and of course you dream of killing her. And it's a very satisfying dream, not if you do it, you understand. And then I was also playing in a certain way with how these conventions of southern literature, and the connection between violence and awe, murder, and some form of transcendence, and I was playing them as a bit of a joke. Because I think they are a bit of a joke, too. In the other one, that was just a scene where I was in a workshop with some friends, and we were whacking each other's poems around and then the drinks come out. Somebody brings out one of those wretched little pint bottles of, half-empty bottle of bourbon, and how long does that last? So my friend kind of takes it back and flings it against the wall thinking she's going to get this satisfactory shattering, and it just thunks the drywall and slides down. Everybody's just howling because she's tried to pull this gesture off that dies, but it seemed right somehow.
TT: Would you mind reading that poem?
AH: Oh, sure.
["The Children" by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
Now, there's no actual violence in that poem, either, Troy. Those are all metaphorical acts of violence.
TT: But it's certainly on your mind.
AH: Well, yes, and aren't you glad it's there?
TT: Yes, I certainly am, I wouldn't have brought it up if I didn't like it.
AH: Well, there's an act of violence in a workshop, right? Even when you're doing something helpful, it's an applied act of violence that the other person submits to. Something like surgery, right, which is an act of violence, but a helpful act of violence. What's Eliot's image, the dying surgeon hand, the dying surgeon operating. And so there's a certain wariness that comes in among the people, too, and it can slip into psychological violence. You certainly see that, and you have to tolerate a certain amount of that. And so the joking gets kind of rough, too, as people are kind of like, slapping the wound a little bit, to kind of spread the pain out, and I'm interested in that. When we write those poems, we tear them apart, we want somebody to take a whack at them so we can take out the weak stuff. And sometimes it takes a little violence for people to get you to see it. And I say that . . . sometimes I'm a little harsh with students because they have to see these things. On the other hand, I want people to have the decency to do that for me, too. I remember when people have honestly and sincerely shown me things that I was trying to see and I couldn't see. It's not a pretty . . . it's a psychologically uncomfortable and unpleasant process.
TT: With this book, Ecstatic in the Poison, you've had several books before this. How much of that pre-reading . . . do you have friends who check this out beforehand or who've read these poems? I know most of them have been published in magazines and journals beforehand, but how does that process reflect your editing process?
AH: The poems . . . I don't like to show them until they're pretty far along. I will show them to Erin when they're at a certain stage, when I think they're done, or nearly done. Or sometimes I'll even consult with her a little bit earlier, should I use this word, or this word here, that kind of thing. Whereas prose seems to me a more collaborative effort. I'll show her things that are in fairly rough draft and ask for her comments, is it going in the right direction, should I cut this out, what do you think about these kinds of things? With the poems, I want to make my own decisions and get them as far along as I can. Then I'll sometimes send them out to journals, or I'll keep them aside to show to friends, more likely I'll send them to journals, and then sometimes they'll be published, and then I'll look at them and go, "Oh no, back into that one."
Also, I do find that people who can be a good critic for one book are not always the best critic for the next project you're working on. I suspect that's true for me, too. I have a good eye for certain things that people do, and maybe not a good eye for other things that they're doing. So sometimes I have to root around and find somebody who sees what I'm seeing so they can see where I'm failing to do it. And it takes some going around, and you can hurt people's feelings, and they can hurt yours as you try to find somebody who can really open it up for you and help you understand what you're doing.
"Arcadia." This poem begins with an epigraph from the Tuscaloosa News, August 22, 1996. It's from the Police Log.
["Arcadia," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: There's a serious metamorphosis in that poem.
AH: I hope so.
TT: You start out looking for the book, then all of a sudden it's . . . speaking of sources from that, you get it from the newspaper. Do you find those things happen often, or . . . you're probably not actively searching for that, but maybe you were.
AH: I don't know, you're just reading the newspaper, and something sticks in your head, like somebody stealing a classical mythology textbook seems, you know I'd kind of admire a burglar for that.
TT: I like the joke in the line, though, it's "a classical book of unknown value." What do you really mean there?
AH: Yeah, exactly, and that, of course, gets your interest. Too, I think about all those carport storage sheds my aunts had, and houses that my parents moved in over the years. So I know that. You have those pickled peaches and the chest with the frozen beans in it. Some odds and ends, like the books thrown up on that upper shelf. So I knew this place, and so I thought, I've sat in the library and read those myths, and you do that thing, you become those characters. And you become not one of them, but you become all of them, both pursuer and pursued, and then you take that knowledge and you do something uninteresting with your life. So I was playing with this, would this be like a message, would this be like Hermes coming to tell you, "The gods have decided that you need to get on with things"?
TT: How about one more poem, if you don't mind?
["Flamingos Have Arrived in Ashtabula," by Andrew Hudgins, from Ecstatic in the Poison, published 2003 by Overlook Press.]
TT: And that would be another interesting source, where would you get that?
AH: The newspaper. It's a true story, they had this flamingo that was flying around Ashtabula, and it seemed simply those words, "flamingo" and "Ashtabula" were so peculiar together, the coming together of something exotic and something unexotic and what that might mean. And how this thing became a celebrity, I mean this story was covered in the paper for a couple of weeks off and on, usually in just little snippets. A lot of these details are actual, about the poem, I mean about the situation. I don't know why, it just stuck in my head as something weird and interesting and worth thinking about.
TT: You got hooked on it, you just kept following the little stories about the flamingo. "Flamingo spotted at . . ."
AH: Ashtabula. And they would see it flying around the airport tower, that was literally a true fact, true story. I just got fascinated by this, having known now Ohio winters. That flamingo seems kind of something certainly exotic and almost southern happening transplanted, and so you have these odd overlappings that come out of the blue. I was just fascinated by it.
TT: I like "Dewey's turns into the Flamingo Bar." I could just see the regular neighborhood bar, and then all of a sudden everything is pink.
AH: And becomes a theme bar, right? By the way, here's my favorite bar name: The Dew Drop Lounge.
TT: That's pretty good.
AH: This is literally true. I don't know where it was, but I remember seeing that, and you're thinking, somebody's missing a concept here.
TT: That's great. Thank you very much, Andrew.
AH: You're welcome.