On Influence, Literary Friendship, and Changing Your Life

The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers’ 35th anniversary gala on June 29, 2011 began with a series of three conversations between pairs of veteran faculty and longtime friends.  What follows is the full text of the first of those conversations between Robert Boswell and Tony Hoagland; both frequent faculty members over the past couple of decades.

Boz:   I’ll go first, because I have a question about influence, and I think that’s a good place to start…  Every now and then I’ll read a poem in a magazine and I’ll think that poem’s been influenced by you, so I thought I would have you talk about what that feels like—But first, I thought I’d just credit you for the way I’ve been influenced by you. Some very specific examples:   I remember once—right after graduate school, I think it was in Yuma—you read one of my stories, and you said, “Fathers. We’ll be writing about them for the rest of our lives.”  And that terrified me so much that I didn’t put a father in a story for the next three years. There were a lot of orphans.

And then there was another time— I had a brand-new used sports car, and I drove over to pick you up, and you walked out into the driveway, and you said,  “Dat ist not a car, dat ist a penis.”  So I got rid of that car—

Tony: —It wasn’t that fast.

Boz:   —I put another hundred thousand miles on it first, but about six thousand of those miles happened when we drove cross-country together in August—the car had no air conditioning—to go to Bread Loaf.  We were both waiters—like the two worst waiters in the history of Bread Loaf…  It was really hot, and every time we came to a body of water, we’d stop, and Tony would just drop his clothes on the pavement, and jump in the water.  And I would sort of look around and hurry into the water. And only once did a legal official accost us for swimming naked, and that was in Boston. We’d been swimming in the ocean , and when we came naked out of the water, the guy had this expression.

Tony:  And we were good- looking then.

Boz: We were—he was intimidated.  He said, ‘Had your little dip?’ and sort of pointed the way out of town.  Anyway, we had to go through New York City, and I don’t think I’d ever been in New York before at that point, but Tony said “Don’t worry, I can guide you through.”   And at the point he’s saying this, there are like six lanes here, and it divides, and six lanes on the other going into some kind of tunnel—and to me, it looks like thirty lanes on one side and thirty on the other, but Tony says, “Don’t worry, I can guide you through.” And then he says, “Oops—you’re supposed to be over there.”  For those of you who don’t know Tony, this is his idea of a joke.  And for those of you who don’t know me, I veered across thirty lanes of traffic, made it into the tunnel –this is influence—and Tony said nothing for a while. Then he said, “Well, now we’re lost.”  I feel like that’s a metaphor for our friendship—he always thinks he’s funny, and I never get it.  So.  Influence?

Tony:    I have no memory of almost any of this.  I do remember us going through New York and successfully getting out. But that sounds like me.  And the fact that he remembers that stuff, and that I’ve forgotten almost all of it—that’s indicative of the difference between poetry and fiction.  Poets are people with short attention spans who take things too seriously.  What I remember is, actually—as long as we’re going there—is this characterological difference.  I guess it’s just exemplary of how one focuses on the range of all possible things to focus on in your work— is that we drove this Z-car, this red hot Z-car of Rob’s, and that Boz ate sunflower seeds and we had a case of warm Tab in the back…this was just the periphery of his addictions at the time…  And on the way back I bailed out.  It really peeved Boz—‘I can’t believe you came out with me and you’re not going to drive back with me.’ But from my point of view—if we had been driving my car, that would have been what a good friend does.  Like ‘Let me drive back alone—good, I’ve had enough of you, and enough of people, and the idea of driving cross-country by myself is actually more enjoyable than driving even with a good friend.’  And that’s remained this point of friction—what I thought was a good thing turned out to be not such a good thing.

Boz:  I’m over it.

Tony: It took some time—

Boz:  —It’s been 28 years.  I’ve been over it for about 6 months.

Tony:  And that’s something that poets and fiction writers have in common—is carrying grudges.  Anyway.  Let’s go back…. You were a psychologist, you were working in California, you had a house on Malibu, on the beach, you had this hot red Z-car, you were making money… life was sweet, you were helping people—and you gave it all up to go study fiction….Why don’t you tell us a little about that choice—let’s call it a crisis, to dramatize it, a stanza break…You came to the University of Arizona, and you initially were in the poetry program and then switched to the fiction program.  Although you still do write poems—it’s actually a very interesting secret life Boz has—he’s shown me some really amazing, original poems…But why don’t you tell us about that move—how did the segue from the profession of psychology to the profession of fiction work for you?

Boz: Well, I wasn’t actually a psychologist— I was a counselor, and it wasn’t Malibu, it was Mission Beach in San Diego…and the Z-car was blue, not red—and I was actually accidentally saving money… and I had a girlfriend who was lovely and made a lot of money, and it seemed like the ideal life—…but I was miserable….The turning point for me actually came when I was lying on the beach and reading The Collected Stories of John Cheever, and I read “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” Which is a funny story, but I started crying, because the end of the story basically says that you don’t have to be a thief (in this case), that you’re on this earth because you choose to be, and you can do what you want with your life, and you’re not beholden to the bones of your father, or anyone else—you can do what you want. I can remember…I paced all weekend, I didn’t sleep—… and then I sent away for applications. I decided to go to graduate school, decided to change my life.

What I always remember is …that my dad said, “If that’s what you really want to do, you ought to do it, but you’re going to miss that money.”  And every time I’d see him, he would say it.  And finally I said to him, “Dad, this has been the hardest decision of my life.  I really wish you wouldn’t say that.” And he said “OK, I won’t say it anymore, but you are going to miss that money.”  But I didn’t.

Tony: …That’s a very different story from my own, since you were competent in the world, and you made this choice.  I’ve been thinking about changing my life lately, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.  But this last short story collection—it’s called The Rise of the Unrepentant Bastards, The Rise and Fall…—how does it go?

Boz:  That’s very close.  The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards.

Tony:  So you see how that connects with your issues with your father. Ok, let’s not go there.  … Let’s talk about your stories and your novels—Crooked Hearts starts with a guy who flunks out of school, goes home to this birthday party—it’s a family that celebrates failure.  Mystery Ride starts off with this couple in a failing marriage who are cleaning garbage out of a basement of a house—one of the great opening tropes of a novel.  Century’s Son starts off with a woman allowing—intentionally conniving—to have all these trees cut down in her neighborhood, even though she’s in the neighborhood protection association.  So, how do all these crimes segue with your view of human nature? And this might even segue with the idea that psychology is supposed to help people—whereas your view of human nature is that things are fucked up, people are fucked up, and in a certain kind of way insensitivity is valid. Your stories are really about the darkness of human nature. What does that have to do your sense of vision of human nature in fiction and how fiction represents human nature?

Boz:  How much time do I have?

Tony:  Short answer.

Boz:  Here’s the short answer.  Well, when I was trying to be a poet, as an undergraduate I studied with Jon Anderson, who was a great soul and a wonderful poet, and wanted to be a terrific teacher.  One of the things he did was hand out a little pamphlet of hints about writing poetry.  And one of the things it said was, “Say the hardest thing.”  As a fiction writer I always feel like my obligation is to say the hardest things about my characters.  So, in my first book, the title story was “Dancing at the Movies,” and it was sort of vaguely autobiographical;  it’s about this white boy from Yuma who goes away to go to college and he has a black girlfriend who becomes a junkie.  One of the things that all of the characters say is, “Why don’t you dump her, there’s no way you’re going to be a couple long-term or anything else, so why don’t you move on?”  And that question, while it was brewing as a story, I couldn’t answer.  Even though, as I say, it was semi-autobiographical—until finally I decided that it had to do with his own repressed racism—dating this girl is his way to prove that the worst thing about him isn’t true.  But what happens in the story is that he sort of acknowledges it: Maybe that’s why I was attracted in the first place.  But now that doesn’t matter—now I’m lost and in love with her, and who cares about the origin.  To me, that’s what made the story work.  That story taught me that even if I had to go beyond what I may think is the true origin of the character to find out something dark that seems true within the character, that’s going to make a better story.  And that’s how I pursue it. But in terms of how I think about people in the world—I tend to work in the opposite way:  I tend to have faith that they’re good eggs until they convinced me otherwise.  I have only been really convinced otherwise about a dozen times…And I know at least two dozen people.

Tony: That’s true about you.

Boz:  So, now I want to get you to answer a question.  One of the things I know about you—and I don’t think everyone knows about you—is that you’re obsessed with theater, with plays.  And that you write plays yourself…I know it’s an ongoing obsession.  I wonder if you could talk about what you’re writing and how you’re thinking—or, if you prefer, maybe how theater has influenced your poetry?

Tony:  Well, I wanted to learn how to work in another genre.  Because, in my experience, you’re always running out of highway; you’re always in danger of becoming petrified in particular writing patterns.  When we were both in Las Cruces, I went to a Pulitzer-prizewinning play, and I thought I can do better than this; I thought if this won the Pulitzer, there’s definitely room in the market for a poet.

Boz:  Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive.

Tony:  So, it turned out that it wasnt true that I could do better than that; that was evident right away. But…because of all the skills I’d cultivated in the process of learning how to write sentences—and Boz and I, by the way, belong to this thing called The Slow Learners’ Club—which we started thirty years ago. … I found I could make one character say something theatrical and interesting for its own sake. This discovery shifted my attention in a way that was useful for my poetry.  Instead of making someone say something true, it seemed worthwhile to me to just have somebody say something interesting, one sentence at a time.  For my poetry this was a good development—it deflected my simplistic focus on trying to say true things. …Then I got interested in having multiple speakers in poem; I realized that no one character, no one speaker, had to have a monopoly on the truth—because, in fact, that was more like real life—that different possibilities of the true or the actual or the emotionally true, intellectually true, can all be fielded at one time;  no one of them has to dominate the field of the poem… So you can see how that would lead directly into theater.

So, yeah, I’d like to write a play.  I have half-written, or completely written a surprising number of things now— in fact, you and I have been working on a collaboration of  monologues by confused, miscreant men that we’re aiming to have produced at some point.

I don’t know—I’d just like to get good at something else.  And perhaps I’ve gotten as good as I can get at poetry. ….  One always has a desire for change, a desire to teach yourself something new, which is scary because the possibility of failure exists, but exciting because your status as an amateur continues to exist.  I do believe in the principle of being a perpetual amateur, and in the path through failure. I deeply admire that aspect of your fiction—you always go towards the unknown, whereas I think I have to trick myself into ever discovering anything new.             I’m sure that’s where humor comes in for me. It leads into surprising, sometimes explosive possibilities that say something smarter than I can be. I think that that’s something we share in our work:  I also want to say the hardest possible thing.  To sort of shock-treatment the patient—whether it’s me, the poem or audience— into waking up out of this lullaby idea that what they’re reading is merely Art, when in fact, it’s actually life, and it’s uglier and stranger than we acknowledge.  Our conversations, this conversation that’s a friendship in art, is the main compensation.

One more small thing, going back to the biographical matter: unlike you,  I had no profession in store for me. Poetry was simply my obsession. I wasn’t good at it, and I screwed up everything else on a daily basis, but my relationship with poetry stayed rich. Poetry was always there for me when I went to it, and I actually had an attention span where it was concerned, so it was a kind of default progress for me, to keep on writing it and to keep on studying it and trying to get better….

Boz: When we were in graduate school—what was clear from the get-go, was that you were the model for the serious student—you were passionate and– it’ll surprise you all to hear that he was opinionated.  I can remember talking to one of our peers—I had teased you a little in workshop before we really knew each other, and she told me, “I’m surprised you did that. We’re all sort of afraid of Tony.” But I realized it was because you came ready to engage in some serious way. Now it’s 30 years later, we’ve taught at four institutions together, we still teach at a couple of them together, and I feel like you’ve still got that fire. So, my question is, is that fire merely the product of deep psychological wounds, or can you tell us how you keep that flame burning?

Tony: …I don’t remember myself being frightening, although I was, I guess, a little intense.  Not being especially talented, I had to work really, really hard at poetry, and had to figure things out, because other people in that program were truly talented…. I didn’t have anything special except, you know, my wounds, and my weird idea that poetry had the answers. I don’t think I had other systems to fall back on….

For you, family has always been terrifically important, and you’ve made this fantastic family of your own…. You are foolishly, deeply loyal—you have an authentic sense of the region you come from…whereas I have almost no sense of family, I don’t come from a particular region, faith, or heritage….When poetry came to me, as a teenager, I was in an impoverished state of disorientation—so, those poets I was reading, they really became my family: Philip Larkin and Frank O’Hara and Ray Carver—they became my reference points for how to relate to the world: how to bear it, how to process it, how to think, how to feel—all those things. I was like the boy in the bubble: poetry became my oxygen. And in many ways, for me poetry is still a reliable source of reasons to live, and also ways to have fun. I think I’ve kept my fire by teaching a lot—by teaching and remembering for myself, even if my students aren’t listening, why this is a humanly important activity, and I have a foolish conviction that poetry is still important to the world, important to human nature, capable of making it deeper and better and more self-knowing….I still have a dream that a Bruce Springsteen-like figure is going to rise from the ground of American Poetry and write the poem that Americans have been waiting for, and will be vastly celebrated, and we’re going to become a century of poetry readers instead of the insensitive bastards we are.

Boz:  It could happen.

Tony:  I haven’t found anything better to believe in.  … My goal really is—Ellen Voigt and I have talked about this—one of the worst things in the poetic temperament, and one of the most crippling things from the point of view of writing fiction, is that we see human beings as types and we see truths as universals, whereas fiction writers are much more in the real world.  It would be my next goal, as a writer of whatever genre, to learn how to write into the mystery completely.  To be writing with intensity but also writing out of the spirit of not knowing, because the tendency to prematurely know is a huge artistic handicap.  That’s why I love your description of your artistic process, because I think, in a certain kind of way, that it’s the only thing worth doing.

Boz:  As someone who is more in the real world, I think we’re out of time.

Robert Boswell is the author of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards: Stories,(2009, Graywolf Press)

Tony Hoagland is the author of Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty: Poems,(2010, Graywolf Press)

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