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 particular—a 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 making—self-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!