An excerpt from The Sword Went Out to Sea by H.D., with Cynthia's notes.
Cynthia's chapbook Under Erasure
By Rebecca Seiferle
Cynthia Hogue has published five collections of poetry, most recently The Incognito Body (Red Hen Press, 2006). She is the co-editor (with Elisabeth Frost) of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (University of Iow Press, 2006), and (with Julie Vandivere) of the first edition of H.D.'s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton (University Press of Florida, 2007). She has received Fulbright, NEA (poetry), and NEH (Summer Seminar) Fellowships. In 2005, she was awarded H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Hogue taught in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans before moving to Pennsylvania, where she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years. While in Pennsylvania, she trained in conflict resolution with the Mennonites and became a trained mediator specializing in diversity issues in education. In 2003, she joined the Department of English at Arizona State University as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry. She lives in Phoenix with her husband, the French economist, Sylvain Gallais.
Rebecca Seiferle: You describe the poems in Under Erasure as interview-poems based upon the accounts of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and seem to have developed a relationship with a number of the people who speak in the poems. How did the project of writing Under Erasure develop?
Cynthia Hogue: I lived in New Orleans for four years in the early 1990s, so I knew the city that flooded after Katrina, and mourned its loss deeply. I didn't feel that I had a right, however, to write about it, or perhaps I should say more specifically that I felt I should refrain from expressing my personal feelings of loss. After all, I wasn't from the region, had moved a decade earlier, and wasn't affected personally by the devastation. Somewhere between that restraint and my feelings, I happened upon the shape of this project, that I could interview evacuees here in Arizona, and begin to make poems that would speak both to individual and shared experience. I felt quite tentative at first about approaching such a project, but two former colleagues from New Orleans had relocated to Phoenix, and I asked if I could interview them. What came out of those first two interviews (Jim's Story and Mimi's Story) spoke to experiences that hadn't received much air time in public visions and dreams, not simply loss but trauma (watching your house be shown again and again on CNN and knowing you'd lost every last thing you had in the world). The facets of what happened to individuals tell a different story than a historian or reporter tells. How does one negotiate psychologically a tragedy as it is unfolding? How does one survive such shock (several of the interviewees mention in passing that they have bad hearts, for example)? What amazed me was the depth of analysis that emerged as people spoke about what had happened to them, the kind of sense they have made of what they have been through.
I found interviewees eventually by being put in touch with Robert Sanders, who was overseeing the Phoenix office of the Lutheran Social Services providing aid for Katrina evacuees. Robert has been throughout these interviews so interested in helping me to connect with the evacuees he worked with, to tell their stories, for many would simply otherwise get lost or silenced. He would ask his clients if they were willing to speak to me, and then give me the names of those who agreed to be interviewed (the first of these was Elizabeth Sutton, included here). I conducted each interview in person, because I wanted that personal connection to the subject and to the testimonies. Often it was heartfelt, quite palpable, and often, great perceptivity and faith (not to mention courage) would be expressed, almost matter-of-factly, as if in passing. There was such modesty among them, though they had risen to meet such overwhelming tragedy.
Rebecca Seiferle: Did you interview the various people you thank in your acknowledgements, and was it that you felt the poem was often implicit in their own accounts, those moments when you could feel the intensity of poetic language? In writing the poems, was the process that of being an editor, a messenger, a witness, one who is haunted at times, or . . .?
Cynthia Hogue: I was at various times fulfilling all of these roles except, of course, witness. Rather, I was bearing witness in order that these voices, the individuals who went through this storm, not be silenced by the historical record. I was also an editor, shaping the interviews into poems. In the interviews with Jim and Elizabeth, I could hear the poem as we spoke, but there were digressions, repetitions, far more detail than would sustain a reader's interest. With some focus and scraping away of the many layers of human discourse, the poem emerged like a sculpture in stone, but with the interview with Mimi, I was initially nonplussed. It was an amazing account because it was so detailed an account of both loss and persistence, and it was so impassioned in its outrage, but the detail was of homeowners having trouble collecting on their insurance policies. The subject was so unpoetic! Once I began to shape the interview, however, I could hear how cadenced the language was, and that was interesting, that dissonance between rhythm and topic. That was the first poem in which I first tried shaping the lines to catch the lilt of the speech. Mimi had been a professor of Medieval Studies and her syntax is very precise, her attention to phonetics exact. When I first gave her the poem, she was unsurprised by its form, remarking casually that she always speaks in cadenced units!
In these poems, then, I am a secondary witness, as Dominic LaCapra terms it (speaking of historians of the Holocaust). That I am haunted by what happened feels like the right term, but I don't identify with the interviewees. I mean, how could I? I am only haunted as one whose love for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was ambivalent and hard-won. The beauty of the region is built on a very racist past, of course, and the tragedy is due in part to corrupt, racist politics, as some of the interviewees address narratively, but that is not speaking to their experience of losing the life they knew there, of having friends and families scattered across the country, of being immediately impoverishedor more vulnerableand of having to rebuild their lives elsewhere. How would I dare to claim that I could imagine what that feels like? But every American should be thinking about it for we have caused this to happen elsewhere. I can only approach that enormity through the voices of individuals, through attentive listening, and through empathy. They shared with me what happened, gave me permission to shape their words, to collaborate with them on bringing these poems into being.
Rebecca Seiferle: Since post-modernism is noted for borrowing, appropriating, altering various texts and experiences, whether historical or contemporary, I wonder if you would like to say something about your relationship, as a poet, to the experiences and accounts that speak in Under Erasure? I have a strong sense of your wishing to honor these particular experiences and the people involved while honoring the integrity of the poem simultaneously.
Cynthia Hogue: I promised the interviewees that I would use only their words and also that if they didn't approve of the poem, if it wasn't accurate to their experience, or if they were uncomfortable with anything in the poem, that I would revise it or they could refuse to give me permission to publish it. So far, no one has refused that permission, and everyone has said that the poems are accurate to their experience. The most I've done is to focus and shape the interviews. In a few places, I moved a section of the narrative. I wanted each poem to reflect the complexity of the interviewees' insights and not to sentimentalize their suffering. I also hoped that the poems would reach readers as poetry, but I was not sure that the interest would extend beyond me. A number of the interviewees mention that the region has been forgotten and the world has moved on. To do this project, I couldn't worry about all that, though. It truly was all about the process of listening, listening in the words for the poems to come forward.
Rebecca Seiferle: The title of the chapbook evokes the erasure of communities and lives under the effect of Katrina, and the work as a whole is preoccupied with the persistence of the individual sensibility and voice while being subjected to the forces of erasure, political erasure, the obliterations of war and being at war, and also the way in which language itself can erase experience and sensibility when no one has heard TELL. The use of all caps, italics, and also the spatial form of the poem seem integral to this; was that a predetermined choice or an organic necessity driven by the process itself or. . .?
Cynthia Hogue: The series started with those two more visually dramatic but narratively broken poems that now open the chapbook. The first, Under Erasure as in: Sign (Silence), which eventually gave the chapbook its title, tells the story of a quest, and I realized as it was happening that it would become a poem (not that I thought of it at the time as a quest, for I was just plain lost). I went to see the assemblage piece, Floodwall, the sculpture by New Orleans artist, Jana Napoli, which she made from drawers gathered from the streets of the city as people were cleaning out their destroyed homes. It was on display in New Yorka city I know well except for the financial districtand so, I had trouble finding the exhibition. I spoke to the homeless veteran, Jonathan, whom I at first ignored and then went back and spoke with for awhile. I didn't want to insert or assert the first person, though. I didn't want it to be a personal lyric. That pronoun was what I signified as under erasure initially, but the unconscious has its own logic. How could I have missed that New Orleans, the Gulf region, was itself under erasure, or that the veteran who spoke to me had been erased from the public record as a casualty of our military policies arcing across the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush I and II?
The form was organic, as you surmise. I discovered, for example, the tiers of drawers in the poem's visual shapes as I played around with the form as I wrote. The capitalizations initially were emphatic, but then I began to break them up, discover words within words, and explore how to stretch meaning. I'd done that particular formal investigation in the title sequence of The Incognito Body as well, so I was not planning on repeating it in this poem, but then it happened to emerge in the writing itself.
Rebecca Seiferle: Is the chapbook in this issue the whole of the work, or is this an excerpt from a longer work? Do you feel that there is more to be written of Under Erasure, and do you envision this as the title for a book or longer work?
Cynthia Hogue: These poems are excerpts from a book-length project on which I'm collaborating with a photographer, the Arizona photographer Rebecca Ross. I'm interviewing twelve evacuees in all and have tried, wherever possible, for a range of voicesacross the spectrum of the region's classes and races (with the exception of the upper class, whom I have not found represented among the evacuees in Arizona).
Rebecca Seiferle: You've recently co-edited the first publication of H.D.'s novel WWII memoir-novel, The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton. In that novel there's a preoccupation with the voices of the dead, from H.D.'s own spiritualist practices where she believed she was hearing the voices of dead RAF pilots who were using her as a messenger to convey warnings about developing the atomic bomb. In the poems in Under Erasure you, as a poet, are also hearing other voices, speaking of those who were lost, or what might be lost. What is your sense of the poet as messenger? And is that somehow connected as well to the prophetic, of warning of certain impending losses?
Cynthia Hogue: I had not thought of that similarity, because, of course, the people I interviewed are alive, and the pilots whom H.D. channeled had died defending Britain from the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940. But I think many artists today, as in H.D.'s day, are passionately and maybe desperately trying to wake us Americans up from this dream of plenty, that there is no cost to unlimited expansion and consumption, that we will never run out of resources, that it doesn't matter that so many other species of life are going extinct because of humans. We now know that the planet itself is alive, that it is a self-regulating ecosystem that we have thrown terribly out of balance. As perhaps everyone knows now but few before Hurricane Katrina ever thought twice about, in the Gulf Coast, wetlands act as filters of pollution and also as buffers from the full force of the seasonal hurricanes. Developers had drained them in order to develop the coast for profit. I think of something Wendell Berry wrote a long time ago, in a little essay entitled In Defense of Literacy, that Short term profit is long term idiocy.
Poets take note. Artists see things. They bring us, as Alice Fulton has called it, inconvenient knowledge, because to come to know something brings responsibility that many of us don't want. The difficulty of knowing is the quandary of the listener who bears witness. And as Susan Sontag remarked in Regarding the Pain of Others, a meditation on war photography and art, artists who disrupt our psychic comfort are offering a deep and humane invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. My project is a small piece of that larger, collective voice. Art tethers us to our humaneness.
Rebecca Seiferle: H.D.'s novel was not published in her lifetime in part because the work was perceived as her 'breakdown' novel, and I know in your reading from it for the first time at Casa Libre in Tucson, you were a bit concerned that it might seem too 'out there' or somehow inaccessible due to the density of its symbolism and the nature of its preoccupations with spiritualism, communication with the dead, etc. As it turned out! and as you note in your introduction to the excerpt in these pages that was happily not the case. I'm wondering if you would like to discuss how a particular sensibility and experience might be dismissed or go unheard. This seems also connected to the work in Under Erasure" where the poems convey how sensibility and voice are fragmented by the forces of erasure, and yet poetic fragmentation of hierarchal language can create the persistence of sensibility and voice.
Cynthia Hogue: My being tentative about the accessibility of H.D.'s novel originates in the scholarly debate over whether the novel should have been published and how much of a scholarly context the novel needed in order to be understood. I can't imagine that there is a better non-scholarly audience for this work than the one I encountered in Tucson, to my surprise. I am a poet, not a scholar of esoteric traditions in which H.D. was deeply learned. I couldn't contextualize H.D.'s novel without extensive research, or begin to make a case for its essential sanity and humanity until I could place it in a larger investigation of modernist poetry in the context of war. Then, my co-editor, Julie Vandivere, and I could argue that in writing this novel, H.D. wrote her way out of her devastating experiences as a civilian in war time London and literally back into self-composure. She tried valiantly to write her way out of romantic thralldom (the term is Susan Stanford Friedman's and Rachel Blau DuPlessis') as well, and arguably, or almost, succeeded in freeing herself from the judgment of the male-dominated establishment. Remember in the novel that she believes herself chosen as a messenger to warn humanity of the bomb, but is, like Cassandra, ignored and silenced. After her breakdown, she asserts that what she learned from her illness is this: There was love and hate. Love was eternal, hate was ephemeral. . . . Fear was another word for hate, or hate was another word for fear (49). She knows it's considered sentimental and she knows it's the truth.
For me, with Under Erasure, I had to give myself permission to be a conduit for individuals who would never otherwise have spoken out so publicly. Nor would I have necessarily spoken toor metthem. But who did I think I was to write about what had happened to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans?
And yet, I knew that few whites saw the New Orleans I came to know (which I wrote about in a series, Three Streets from Desire, in The Never Wife). New Orleans was almost always romanticized for its voodoo traditions in the French Quarter or its lovely and wealthy Garden District. Its micro-segregation was exposed by Katrina, but I had observed it all by being a fairly invisible observer in New Orleans (as an outsider, I had no placement in the social hierarchy). The New Orleans I remembered was both racist and multicultural, both beautiful and filthy, both rich and impoverished. I am not being accusatory but factual, since my very first lesson in New Orleans was about internalized racisma very hard lesson to confront for a Northern progressive. And so, this series is both narrative and analytic, a deconstruction of a destruction. Its fragments express both trauma and a literal sub/version, you might say, in that it's in voices of the unheard.
Rebecca Seiferle: Yes, that's so true, I think, that the city's micro-segregation, was exposed by Katrina. I'm wondering, in the same sense of retrospective revelation, if H.D.'s novel perhaps seems 'clearer' to us now, looking back from this different vantage point, after the atomic bomb, so that what seemed esoteric and strange in her time seems sometimes obvious and accepted, at least theoretically, to us now, even while our erasures continue. There is the same tension between the obvious and the marginalized in your work in Under Erasure. Do you feel there is a correspondence of the poet and the role of the poet between the war years of H.D.'s novel and the war years now? An obvious question, I know, but where do you think we are? Do you feel that the H.D. novel is particularly significant now? that it arrives both as an unheard messenger of the past and an unheard (?) or perhaps to be heard messenger now?
Cynthia Hogue: The short answer is yes, I think her novel can be heard and understood now. She wanted it to be a healing narrativenot therapeutic in the writing but in the reading, that is, though the writing was, in fact, therapeuticbut in the sense that we now know that we can repattern our brains' circuits through sound and word (how interesting: I just combined them into wound, which I corrected, but note here as apt error). Now it's possible. Whether it's probable or not, I cannot say.
The other answer is more tentative, and not as optimistic, that collectively poets, artists, visionaries, activists, are raising our awareness of the issues at hand. H.D.'s novel was printed in a scholarly edition of 1000, so really, realistically, who will hear her? Does it matter? If, as H.D. believed, putting words forth could shift the vibrational resonance on the planet (just like prayer or chanting), then this work will now contribute to that necessary shift (it is this belief that Trilogy contemplates as well). In this sense, the role of the poet is like the role of the prophet: to speak from a place of truth in affective language. That's what H.D. did. Not to mythologize hershe was a very complex personbut artistically she was very courageous, and that is what I admire in her and in fearless poets and artists today. It seems to me that we need more not less fearlessness, by which I mean intellectual and emotional courage. To reiterate H.D., we need to counter hate with love in any way possible. You can see in the novel the way shock took H.D. out beyond her self to a larger story, a larger version of the self's story through and beyond time. We don't need to believe in reincarnation to come to the conclusion that human evolution must be heartfelt, that the psyche must evolve for the planet to survive us.