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Visiting with Mark Halliday

by Claire Guyton, Art + Life Editor

Halliday talks about how some of his writerly fixations inspired his poems “Reader Depressed” and “What Is Wrong with the Book Fair.” And he shares just a bit about his writing process.

Let me start by saying that I’ve always felt the need to write about the life of being a reader and writer. I’ve always disagreed with those who feel that “writing about writing” is necessarily narcissistic or horribly narrow. What I see, what I’ve seen in forty years since I was an undergraduate plunging into poetry, is that each generation has this self-selecting population of a few thousand individuals who are in love with poetry, obsessed with it, can’t stop thinking about it. We talk about it every day, we seek it out, we rage against pretentious or phony poems, we grow despondent about tedious dreary derivative poems, and then a day or two later we’re fascinated again by new poems. This is a great central aspect of our lives. If so, then naturally we need to write about it and read about it! So I tend to seek out poems about the life of reading and writing; and I often try to write such poems.

I’m sixty-one years old. This is not quite credible to me, but the math is there. Past midpoint in a lifetime, you start to realize how much won’t be done, won’t be finished, won’t be artfully rounded out; you start to realize your life is a messy jumble of achievements and half-achievements and failures and unrealistic notions and doomed dreams. The mature thing is to develop strategies for facing this. But it’s hard to give up dreams. One of my dreams always has been to be the Great Reader, the Great Appreciator, the person who could “read everything” and give credit where credit is due. In truth this was always even less possible for me than for, say, any of my great mentors such as Christopher Ricks, or Allen Grossman, or other brilliant critics—less possible for me because I’ve always been a very distractible daydreamer; I can’t “take in” many pages per day. Yet in my twenties, thirties, and forties (at least!) I was unwilling to face this truth—so I kept acquiring books. My poem “Reader Depressed” is obviously about trying to face the fact that my precious personal library will become merely a big physical burden for me in my old age, and then after my death for someone else—my kids perhaps. And until then, the “great coherence” I hoped for from reading will continue to elude me. So “Reader Depressed” is a very straightforward poem, essentially an outcry of Alas! I just hope some readers of the poem can enjoy empathizing with me.

“What Is Wrong with the Book Fair” is, obviously, an AWP poem—a poem written about experience at the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs. I didn’t attend the conference till (I think) 2003, but then it became almost addictive. I skipped it in 2010 partly to show myself I could! Thousands of poets walk around in vast hotel ballrooms, hoping to be admired, hoping not to feel merely invisible. I believe there is a deep link between the desire to impress others with one’s creative talent (in writing for instance) and the desire for tremendous profound intimacy (in sex for instance) with another person. I think the AWP Book Fair hums with yearning, and one dimension of the yearning is sexual.

Of course, there are many good reasons why you shouldn’t walk up to a stranger at the Book Fair or anywhere else and offer a romantic-sexual embrace. Offering a poem instead is much more justifiable—but there are times when offering one poem (amid hundreds of thousands of poems) can feel grotesquely unsatisfying. I should mention that “What is Wrong with the Book Fair” includes echoes of T. S. Eliot’s prose poem “Hysteria.”

Writing process—hard to talk about without sounding silly. Often my poems start with a sort of blatant, naked, clear-cut expression of feeling—and then the question is whether this expression of feeling is banal. So then the writing becomes a struggle to save the poem somehow from banality—to find some interesting complication in it, so the reader won’t swallow it too fast. (This seems the opposite of what some more mysterious poets must do to bring their poems toward a reader’s understanding.) I like the challenge; to me it feels daring. Other poets who seem to feel this way include David Kirby and Tony Hoagland.


*Contact Claire with any questions or suggestions for Hunger Mountain’s Art + Life section at hungermtnal@gmail.com.

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