Thursday, November 18, 2010

Writers Talk with Jack Hayes

Hello folks—it’s me!  No, I mean it’s really me.  Due to a change in scheduling, I’m the Writers Talk interviewee this week.

Y’all know me, right?  OK, here’s a brief bio, just in case:

  • Jack Hayes-born Bellows Falls, VT 1956
  • Educated University of Vermont (BA); MFA in creative writing/poetry from the University of Virginia, 1986.
  • Some publications in magazines, three self-published books: The Spring Ghazals (poems 2008-2010); The Days of Wine & Roses (San Francisco poems 1989-1996); Nightingales in a Stateside Zoo (Charlottesville poems 1984-1989).  All are available here on Lulu. 
  • Maintains this blog & a few others.
  • Plays guitar & banjo & ukulele & performs on same.
  • Has lived in Westminster, VT; Burlington, VT; Charlottesville, VA; San Francisco, CA; & Indian Valley, ID, where he currently resides with wife & fellow writer/musician Eberle Umbach.
  • Apologizes in advance for interview’s length.

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

After an initial go at this question, it now strikes me as a bit of a moving target—I mean my identity as a writer has been quite fluid over a long period of time.  If I’m looking at the question as asking “when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer,” then I’d say it was probably when I read J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit at 9 or 10 years old.  Upon completing the book, I immediately began a novel of my own, which my mother has preserved to this day.  I do not plan to publish it or my other juvenalia, however!  From this point—1965 or 1966—I thought of myself as a writer—& wrote on a mostly regular basis—until I stopped writing 30 years later in 1996.

But there were other points of “identity” along the way.  For instance, until I was in my mid 20’s, I thought of myself as a fiction writer who occasionally dabbled in poetry.  At a certain point in the early 80s, I saw that my strengths were actually in poetry, & I put fiction writing on the shelf—permanently, it would appear.  It’s odd to think of this now, but it was only a couple of years before applying to MFA programs in 1984 that I’d actually started writing poetry “seriously.”  But the years were so much longer then.

& then, there was the period from autumn 1996 until spring 2008 when I didn’t write at all.  What was my identity then?  Ex-poet?  I actually went out of my way to bury that identity—I turned down offers to come to San Francisco to read, for instance, & in terms of creative life I thought of myself as a musician.  & how do I see myself now?  My identity locally is still that of musician.  Yet I continue to write poetry, even tho from a certain perspective I’m struck by the absurdity of that. 

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

This is really the hardest question for me, as I don’t particularly like to discuss process—maybe it’s my superstitious side—always on the look-out for a possible jinx.  A couple of general points: first, I’m not very big on revision—since I look at my poetic process as being in large part improvisational, I generally stick with what I come up with in the first couple of drafts (not counting “false starts”).  Thomas Hardy said something to the effect that a poem “loses its freshness” after a few drafts, & I find that to be true for my writing.  I do know others rely on many drafts—hey, whatever works.

Because my poems are improvisational, they tend to be creatures of the moment—in my mind, at least.  I’m intent on the process while actually composing—then it slips away once the poem is completed.  I rarely look back over past poems unless I’m compiling a manuscript or looking for something to post, etc.

But I’ll try to write about the “Grace” poem sequence—four prose poems that punctuate the various sections of The Spring Ghazals.  At a certain point in February of this year I realized I needed to be finished with composing the book—since the fall of 09 I’d been aware of The Spring Ghazals as a “book,” not just some poems I’d happened to write recently.  There was a lot of turmoil involved in writing these poems, & I reached a point where I said, “this has to be done.”  But I realized I wanted some connecting thread—some sequence that would comment upon & also tie together the books’ thematic elements. 

Why did I decide to use the prose poem form?—I can’t recall specifically, but I love the form for its flexibility, & that was no doubt a consideration.  Why did I call the poems “Grace?”  I’ve tried for 2-1/2 years now to look on the poems in The Spring Ghazals as offering some sort of psychic redemption from some severe turmoil.  I believe it was important to me to try to reach a poetic space where there was some “grace” amidst the welter of images & emotions.  Did “I” succeed?  As far as the “I” that’s a fictional narrator goes, yes, I believe so.  Beyond that?  Next question.  You can read the “Grace” poems sequence on the Writers Talk blog—or you could purchase The Spring Ghazals!  See next question.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

I’ve written about this quite a bit both on this blog & on The Spring Ghazals blog.  When I was younger, in my 20s & 30s, I published in literary journals.  At the time, I fully expected to follow the conventional route to a career as an academic poet, with a tenured professorship either as a writer or a scholar.  Somewhere along the way, I rebelled against this.  However, I think in retrospect that there was a problem with my rebellion in that I didn’t carry it all the way thru; while I remained prolific in terms of poems written thru the 90s, I didn’t really figure out how to “effectively” develop a poetic presence outside the mainstream.

When I started the Robert Frost’s Banjo blog, I didn’t intend to post my own poetry—actually, tho I’d written several poems a few months before starting the blog, I wasn’t writing poetry in August 2008 when the blog launched.  At a certain point I did start posting poems, & I was struck by the fact that the poems probably had a larger audience than they would have if published in book form.

But as regular readers know, I decided to self-publish both my poems from San Francisco & my poems from the last couple of years back in February of this year.  Why did I opt for putting the poems in books?  They were being read & appreciated on Robert Frost's Banjo, & the blog has a good readership in more than one sense.  But a blog is not a book.  As far as creative writing goes
—poetry in particulara blog may mimic an anthology in some ways; at its best, it may mimic a serialization.  But at least using current technology, it can't replicate the experience of a book of poetry.  

Given that I wanted my poetry to be experienced in this way—because assembling the manuscripts had been itself an act of makingself-publishing seemed like a “no-brainer.”  I knew the grind (& expense) of sending poems out to lit mags & contests in order to build up enough publications to shop a manuscript, & given the fact that I’m not pursuing a potential academic career, this conventional route made no sense to me.  These days, with print-on-demand, self-publishing ranges from free to cheap, & I found the actual task of uploading manuscripts, etc. to be pretty painless.  In the case of the recent poems, I even shelled out a modest amount money for a better distribution package, confident that I’d more than break even on this.

But the aftermath of publishing has been mostly filled with disappointment, which is always a bad force to allow into one’s creative life.  Sales for both The Days of Wine & Roses & The Spring Ghazals have been very slow—as of this writing, we’re talking single-digit sales for each book.  Now, I know there’s no real money in poetry, because there’s scarecely any market for it, especially in the States, but I did expect more than this.  It’s also frustrating, because I have a tendancy to brood on what I may have done wrong—not publicized enough, publicized too much, publicized ineffectively
or: is the poetry just plain no good?  At a certain point, one’s ego gets caught up in this & if you’re not careful it can be quite detrimental.

So I don’t know where I stand vis-à-vis publishing “going forward.”  It’s quite possible that if/when I publish more poetry, I’ll do it privately, just for distribution among close friends.  This is more than a bit of a ponder these days.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

Who thought up these questions!  As the old song goes, “If they asked me, I could write a book.”   But I don’t know if I can answer this question in any succinct form.  Here’s my attempt at doing so: “some of my best friends are writers”—no seriously, it’s true!  I’ve always gained inspiration from writer friends, & I generally find their way of viewing the world congenial to mine
—furthermore, we all love words, so it's fun to talk with with them or correspond with them.  On the other hand: my tendancy to entangle relationships in the poetic writing process has wrecked havoc both on some important relationships & also, I think, on my own psyche.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

With the very significant exception of my wife, Eberle Umbach, my writing community is all in some sense virtual, since Eberle is the only writer I know locally.  Obviously I do see some of my “3-D” writing friends from time to time, but at this point we’re far dispersed geographically, so most of the communication is online.  I do have writer friends in California who I get to see a bit more regularly. 

But I must say, I’ve developed some very satisfying relationships with writers that I know only virtually.  Although only a handful of people have purchased The Spring Ghazals, a few virtual writer comrades have really gone out of their way to publicize it, & I appreciate that so much.  I also think the Writers Talk series has helped me to expand my virtual writing community & get to know some folks better.  Twitter has been a really good tool in this regard
—just saying, in case you're still among the doubters.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

To keep writing—I don’t mean this in a flip way.  Stopping is always an option—I did it once before.  But ultimately, I don’t think stopping is good for me.  Continuing despite the fact that it seems an absurd exercise is necessary for whatever part of me might be called a soul.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

Ruling out some favorite instruments as not being quite appropriate, I’d have to say the upright bass.  Rhythm is a strong element in my writing, but I think I succeed in creating some music as well—at least outlining the chords!


  1. Very nice interview, John, with some valuable insights on the current state of publishing.

    Very democratic of you to take your turn in the hot seat.

    As regards the lack of a healthy poetry market in this country, I still think one of your best assets is your voice. Had you thought of interspersing reading a poem or two in between sets at your musical gigs?

    I've always been a fan of spoken poetry, and I'd buy a CD. Audio books are preferred method of reading for a growing number of people. Come to think of it, I know someone who never reads at all, has never enjoyed reading (I suspect perhaps due to some mild dyslexia as a child), but who since taking a job which requires a long commute, has discovered audio books.

  2. Hi Jacqueline: The CD concept has gotten a lot of support--relatively speaking, at least, & I think it's a good option. I'm divided as to whether to do a "straight poetry" cd--which would be a pretty straightforward thing & probably wouldn't take all that long to complete--or a CD with backing music, which would be much more involved.

    The reading/music gig idea is also good in concept, but doesn't unfortunately factor in the local "cultural" market (so to speak). Also, tho I haven't written about this on the blog, I'm in the midst of very profund musical doldrums & don't anticipate performing for the foreseeable future.

    Thanks for reading this & for your feedback. I always appreciate your support very much!

  3. I always think that pieces such as this are best read once you know someone fairly well (even if in a virtual sense). Then it fills gaps and explains things and adds highlights that better define the person in question. In other words, fascinating.

  4. It is strange when you are the one answering the questions, isn't it?

    You've been very open and honest about things here, John. In my own experience, I've found that once you start thinking and responding, it's easy to let it all out - you don't really feel as protective as you would in a face-to-face situation. It is a release.

    I find it amazing that you flirt with the idea of not writing. I would think that it would be too much of a wrench of the "soul" of which you speak.

    I'm with Jacqueline, I would most definitely buy a cd to hear you read your poems. I think the voice behind them is a very important element.

    I hope you never think that your poetry in "not good". That's poppycock! I just think your poetry is meant for a very select audience and you need to figure out how to get it to those people.

    I would suggest you find a way to get the "Writer's Talk" blog out there more and draw in more like minds who will be receptive to your poetry. It is in a class of its own and deserves a specific readership of highly intelligent folk.

    Does that make sense?


  5. Hi Kat: Thanks, as always, for your support & kind words. The cd interests me, I'll admit, particularly if I could sell it somewhere with no production costs other than the time it took to make it.

    Stopping writing has always been an option for me since I stopped for a dozen years in 1996. There's a big part of me that still believes my return to writing in 2008 was opening up a Pandora's box. But frankly, life is kind of hard these days for a lot of reasons, & some of those reasons have also impinged on the creative spark, as witness my comment to Jacqueline about music. But I'll get thru it--I always have.

    Thanks again.

  6. Great interview.

    I've started reading Spring Ghazals; what I've read so far is great. I'm glad you got the poems out in book form. And I agree with this especially:

    But at least using current technology, it can't replicate the experience of a book of poetry.

    I also liked your insight into the creative process as being of an improvisational sort, at least for your poetry. (And I haven't gotten yet to the Grace poems - but now I wonder how my reading of them will be influenced by what I've read here).

    What was my identity then? Ex-poet? I actually went out of my way to bury that identity
    Did you ever get even an occasional itch to write in those years? (if you don't mind my asking; you've answered enough questions already!)

  7. Hi HKatz: Thanks--glad you're liking the book so far, & that you see my point about book vs blog! The question about the years between August 96 & May 08 is complicated. In fact, I did write the poem "She Sells Seashells" (last poem in The Days of Wine & Roses), tho I wsrote it specifically as the lyrics to an Alice in Wonder Band song. I also remember working on one other poem roughly around the same time, but it was never completed.

    So with a few exceptions, I'd say I didn't get the itch. & when I stopped writing in 96, I was quite convinced that writing poetry--for me--was linked to some pretty pronounced self-destructive tendancies. Overall, I think I believed the choice I'd made was good for my health & soul. Now I see (I think) that it's more complicated.

    Always appreciate your stopping by!

  8. Having just done these questions, I was curious to find some others who hadalready had a go. What a surprise to see yourself John in the hot seat! I'm struck by how similar our answers are!

  9. Hi TFE: Thanks for looking me up!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.