LINDY HOUGH: not at all confessional

(Evan Karp)

I met Lindy Hough almost immediately after moving to the Bay Area, in July of 2009. She was co-founder, with her husband Richard Grossinger, of North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, and served as co-publisher there until this past July, when she retired. Lindy and Richard founded North Atlantic Books as a consequence of their groundbreaking literary magazine Io, which they and friends started in 1964. Richard was a student at Amherst College and Lindy at Smith College, in Western Massachusetts. North Atlantic Books became a press-proper in 1974, two years before they moved to the Bay Area from Vermont (you can read this fascinating story in its entirety here).

But these publishing pursuits sprang from the pure and earnest need to write, which Lindy began as a child and has continued these many years, despite establishing and overseeing the successful non-profit niche-publishing house and raising a wonderful family (I can vouch for these, having both interned at North Atlantic for 11 months and met their very talented and kind children Robin Grossinger and Miranda July).

This month, North Atlantic Books will be releasing the 3rd in its Io Poetry Series: Lindy’s new and selected poems Wild Horses, Wild Dreams. This interview was conducted in conjunction with a profile to be published soon by SF Weekly; what follows is the second of two parts. [Read part 1 here]

Evan Karp: It must be pretty exciting to have just revisited all your books, you know, and then at the same time to be retiring and moving forward with your personal life. That’s exciting.

Lindy Hough: And also pulling together the new poems. Another question that people might be interested in is How do the eras change, how are the books different from one another … I write a preface in which I describe the poetry of place and how each of these books is really germane either to a place or going back and forth from one place to another, like California and Vermont occupy the last poetry book, Outlands and Inlands. And then the new poems are just free from, … you know they’re different; they show the influence of a fiction writer now. Like one of my poet friends who … made me unhappy by saying, Well they’re kind of prose-y aren’t they, kind of talk-y? And you know I looked at those poems and I thought Are they any less good than the early ones that were more of a pure poetic diction of the time and then now I mean they’re—whether it’s a short story or a good poem or a novel, I think one knows how to make it work, or not. I certainly know when a poem is not working, or a story.

EK: So you think your writing style is evolving more toward prose now?

LH: Yes. It is true that I made a pretty conscious movement from poetry to first non-fiction, between essays and then stories, and there’re some prose poems in those four books, those first really four books that some people like better than anything [else] in them. So I haven’t been as only involved in poems as I was early on, but on the other hand I always have been really really fluid, you know, and just—for me, the questions technically of fiction and character and dialogue and prose are more interesting now than the technical problems in poems. But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t admire people who can write great poems and [that] I don’t try to do it myself, you know. Whenever it’s the right form.

EK: Yeah. That’s interesting.

LH: A whole lot of my friends, and people that I admire, do that also. You know like Mary Karr, is somebody who can write memoirs, but she writes poems. Mary Mackey, a friend here, has always been a poet as well as a very mass-market novelist.

EK: You’re working on another book too, right?

LH: Well I’ve been working for the past probably 8 or 9 years on a novel about 1953, in the Four Corners Area in Denver during the uranium boon in the country at that time. It was the moment when Los Alamos was building the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, and the need for uranium from all the mines that were being quickly discovered and mined by the Indians, the Navaho Indians and other tribes. That’s something that my father was involved in as a journalist writing about it, and so I made a novel draping my story onto that situation, and it seemed to me you know that it sort of never goes away, and it all starts with uranium. And whether it’s, right now, worrying about nuclear proliferation, or nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands—during my entire life it has been … I mean I was born in 44, and the way to end WWII was to drop a huge bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, so I’m part of the generation that grew up watching this, and Richard and I edited an anthology in 1995—an anti-nuclear anthology where martial artists and spiritual people and poets—Gary Snyder, who was very involved in that—all came together to try to figure out what kind of warfare is good, and honorable, and what kind of war is not, should just be off the table? And it was called Nuclear Strategy and the Code of the Warrior.

EK: Wow.

LH: And I have an essay in it called “Missile Men” about Denver.

EK: OK. And then you’re also working on a compilation about grandparenting—is that right?

LH: Yes. And North Atlantic is publishing that also. [For] the novel I will be on my own to find an agent and a publisher. But the grandparenting anthology is called Wondrous Child: The Joys and Challenges of Grandparenting. And it’s simply essays from about 30 people around the country and in Canada who either grandparent a grandchild full-time, through some batch of horrific circumstances happening to their children, or they’re grandparents who take care of their kids somewhere. But it seemed to me that it was an unexplored relationship in terms of the passages that we all go through. And in fact there are at this moment two other anthologies out. But there are 84 million baby boomers, you know, becoming grandparents year after year after year. And some of them are going to be curious about how to really do it well. The only other thing about that, is I realized as I was writing the advanced publicity material that because I helped to found and run this publishing company, a huge amount of my contacts and friends were body-workers or spiritual teachers, who are martial arts practitioners, who were intellectuals of some kind. So it’s actually a diverse group, and it’s also got two generations in it because it asks young adults about a grandparent; there are about 7 essays from that point of view.

EK: When is that scheduled to be published?

LH: February 2012. A year from now, basically. … Seems like a long time but it goes by fast.


EK: What keeps you writing and why do you write?

LH: To me the point has never been about trying to be famous, per se, but it has been important to catch the sort of intellectual and spiritual and emotional processes that a person or people go through and make sense out of it all. And I do believe, I mean now I’m at a different point in my life, and I can actually pick up where I was before I had children, which was traveling a lot and reading my poems a lot and giving a fair amount of workshops, and just lectures on why we write. Why it’s important.

EK: It’s easy to forget sometimes.

LH: It is, it is.

EK: The tendency is to want to be admired and appreciated for your self-expression, and then there’s the other side of the coin where you want to make a business out of it; you don’t want to just express yourself.

LH: Well I do think that people sort of experience different things at different times, and it honestly does work for some people to be able to make a business out of it fast enough that you don’t have to do other jobs, that your work can be the thing that you do artistically. It’s hard for writers to get to that point without something like publishing, or teaching, or something that’s very close to what they do but not exactly only it.

EK: Journalism.

LH: Or journalism, right. Writing for newspapers. But I think I like poets like Diane Di Prima, or Robert Haas, or most of the very, very good poets that one reads—Mary Oliver—are very concerned with trying to mirror the individuality of a person and one’s own perception, so that the art will be not just different but authentic to who you are. It’s a further way of being human. Of showing and being a human being, and it’s lovely to be able to get to do it, you know. If one was too poor, it might not be a possibility.

EK: Absolutely. And I think that ties back in with the whole interdisciplinary thing, where poetry belongs with everything else because it’s a vital aspect of being who we are.

LH: Right, and that’s why when you read my work, it’s not at all confessional poetry. It’s like hungry for knowledge and information. … I also feel lucky that I did get educated, and I really liked learning and learning and learning more and more. I went back to school and did graduate work from 48 to 52, a Ph.D, and that was just a thirst for knowledge. And I hope the kids have that these days; that the education that they’re going through is not so bad that they actually don’t learn about the world in its particulars, in terms of the big world. Like what are we doing with Egypt, and should we have a no-fly zone. One needs to have an opinion about that.


from Wild Horses, Wild Dreams

“Thursday Night at Saul’s”

If you cry too much here
your dad will whisk you outside.
Even if you howl all the way
I don’t wanna go!

Be instead the twenty-year-olds,
secure and jaunty in their
social worlds, snug as
a nightie, held by arms
which also don’t always do
what they want

or be that eighty-year-old
doggedly eating his latkes & brisket,
trying to maintain a shred of dignity
his heart chipping into fragments that
wife hasn’t looked up from her Bible
or spoken in fifteen minutes

All the next meals will be the same.
In five years he won’t come here anymore
too many cans of soup in the fridge,
keys in the dog’s dish, everything misplaced,
including people. The x-rays show
a cottage cheese brain.

She went fast, though the four years
seemed like forever.
Now his friends try to get him here
with them: “C’mon, how about Saul’s?
You used to like that place.”
“Nope, sad associations,” he says brusquely,
telling them on the way to Solano
that after that night
he vowed never to go back.

It’s my fantasy that the waiter and manager
are lovers. They walk around
appraising the state of things,
but no, I see now he’s a new busboy
being trained by a waiter–“Clear table 7 next.”
We’re a grid. Their moves among our tables
deft and choreographed as a figure skater’s
long set–“8, 4 and 6.” His world is cleaning
and pouring water, bringing the initial pickle.

This is his start, a freshman at UC.
He will he stay on, outlast other staff,
buy out the owners. Ten years
& two other restaurants sees him
selling Saul’s, moving to Dubai.
His wife leaves him and marries the son of a Yemini
imam friendly with Al Qaeda. This Berkeley High
girl, a punk lesbian
when he first dated her
begins to wear the hijab, drops out of touch

He and his new wife move to London in their
last years. He thinks of Saul’s, his wild
crush on the energetic manager who first
told him a restaurant is a grid: 8, 4 and 6.
The amazing nights they churned in bed
amid calls from the manager’s initially frantic,
then deploring & sarcastic wife as
August fog blew wisps up to the hills
like something out of  “Vertigo.”
How the manager dropped him flat /broke his heart
when he said the square of the grid
he wanted to live in
was Palestine.