Michigan-born poet Bob Hicok is the author of ten collections of poetry. With a writing career that kickstarted in 1991, Hicok has excelled at gripping and dazzling his readers for nearly three decades. With his most recent collection, 2018’s Hold (Copper Canyon Press), Hicok continued to shape his signature style, a style both whimsical and tear-jerking. Rambling observations that begin with a chuckle yet lead to heartbreak. Meandering rants that close with hopeful, wonderful epiphanies. Figuring out how Hicok gets from Point A to Point B is a science and art worthy of its own dissertation. I spoke with the poet (and professor at Virginia Tech) about his writing rituals, his (two) upcoming books, his favorite place on the planet, and comparing poetry to apple pie.
How has the start of 2019 been for you?
Good. I seem to be trying to play the guitar again, which is wonderfully meditative without requiring me to say om or have talent.
What's the rest of the year looking like?
My wife and I have like 600,000 Amex points so we’re thinking about going to Budapest. I plan to eat every day and sleep as many nights as I can.
Given that you release a book every three years (and assuming Hold was finished in 2017 or perhaps early 2018), are you already hard at work on your next collection?
I’ve got a few changes to make on a book called Water Look Away: A Novella that will come out next year, and want to finish a book titled Red Rover Red Rover.
Of all of your poetry collections, which was the most difficult for you to write?
I can’t think of writing poems or books of poems as difficult. It just doesn’t work for me. Writing is a better version of om in that the naggier, craggier, more worried parts of my brain shut up while I write. What’s the saying: a bad day fishing is better than a great day at work? Bad sex is better than great tapas? One of those is a saying. Pretty much every day since I was twenty, I do this thing that makes me forget myself. Thinking of which book was the most difficult to write is like wondering which apple pie was the hardest to eat: it’s all pretty much yum.
A great deal of the pieces in Hold feature a frustrated voice. You cover gun violence, climate change, gender expectations, etc. Would you consider your poems to be political? Has this frustrated voice increased in volume over the years?
There’s always been a political vein to what I do. Different books have more or less political work, but a concern with fairness or justice has always been there. I kind of wish that weren’t the case, as I think most of my political poems don’t hold up. I still get sucked in more than I should by the topical, by complaint and lament, am too often seduced by statement over narrative, by idea over body. But yes, there’s more political work in this book than the last two. I can’t say why. It’s not like we’re living in scary times, not as if we’ve had reasons to search for synonyms for narcissist. Didn’t we elect Obama for a third term? I haven’t been paying attention to the news.
What's your favorite place on Earth? It can be as large as a city or as tiny as a closet.
Now I’m thinking of closet-sized cities. Cities you can throw on the back of a pickup. I don’t have a favorite place. I never realized that before: you’re making me sad. I love our house, for sure. We live in the mountains in a house with many windows. That’s it: I’m corny. Home is my favorite place. It’s where Eve is (often, though not this second), where I write, where we put our dog to sleep, where I’ve buried three cats, where my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots live.
If you can, please describe your work space. What are some essentials while you write?
My desk is in front of a window that faces a mountain. The window has to be open at least a little while I write. I listen to either Satie or Keith Jarrett. I have coffee and like to start writing before the sun is up and finish about the time it’s getting light. My cat sits on my lap at the start. That’s her call, not mine. I know a novelist who had a dog who’d herd her up the stairs at a certain point every day: he’d got it in his head that that was his job.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading recently?
I just got a book of poems by Jeffrey Morgan that I like a lot. I recently read “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson and loved that. I’m trying a number of books again that I’ve never been able to connect with: “The Arcades Project” by Benjamin, Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” and “The Sickness unto Death” by Kierkegaard. Jack Gilbert’s Collected is open on my desk along with “Kith” by Divya Victor and Natalie Shapero’s “Hard Child.” My favorite book right now is “The Life of a Stupid Man” by Akutagawa. I had that around for years, would pick it up and feel an overwhelming meh, then something clicked and we were off. I like when that happens. But mostly I read Netflix and Amazon.
If you were to empty your pockets right now, what would you find?
Nothing. I’m in pajamas and never put anything in those pockets. They’re unused and probably feel unloved because of that..
There is no good synonym for narcissist, by the way.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
Sit down. Open a notebook, turn on a computer. Write.
Do you have any advice for writers/poets working on their craft?
Stop that. Work on running, jumping, falling down, screaming, growing antlers, fins, wings.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom?
“Presto change” doesn’t work but keep saying it anyway.