If you’ve read poetry over the last 20 or so years, you likely know Bob Hicok’s work (if you don’t read poetry, your life’s harder than it needs to be). He’s been published everywhere, has won big awards and prizes, is a tenured prof. He’s also a former automotive die designer, and writes with the fervency and directness of someone who has spent a life making.
I asked Bob to answer a few questions, about making and the midwest, and his answers follow. We’ll be donating in Bob’s name to Planned Parenthood. Yes, also: that’s a self-portrait he sent.
Is there much/any distinction in your head between the work you do for poetry and other work you do? One of the first classes I had with you, you brought in a hydraulic spring and asked us to describe something *physical* we (likely) hadn't seen before. That meant a lot to me, as a disproof of the notion that poetry was effete and purely intellectual, removed from the physical world. Was the work in automotive die design and poetry fundamentally aligned in being about *noticing*, solving?
Pretty late – in my forties, I think – I noticed that the things I enjoy doing all share common elements, that in a broad sense, what I really like is making things. Poems most of all, but building a new bathroom or laundry room is exciting in the same way a substantial edit of the faculty handbook or designing a die is. Creation involves a combination of freedom and limitation; requires an understanding of the medium; culminates in an object about which an aesthetic assessment is possible, even necessary; and focuses my attention in a way that shuts down the chatty, naggy parts of my mind. Focus is meditative, is meditation, I suspect, at its core. Even a simple job like repairing a shed I built years ago can require creativity and problem solving to a degree that I find rapturous, in the sense of removing me from the every day. Some of the tongue and groove on the exterior had rotted. The boards I bought to replace the rotted boards had a slight warp to them, more than I could overcome by muscle alone. After noodling a while, trying a few things, I realized I could use a bottle jack to force the boards in place. Finding yourself in a corner is common to all creation, and if you’re constantly engaged in some kind of making, you’re constantly solving problems and seeing yourself do it, which leads to a deep sense of purpose and competence. Real work, in requiring my full presence, makes me feel larger.
I don't think I've ever asked you about the midwest. Do you think of yourself still as midwest, even though you've been in Virginia for almost 20 years? Do you feel like your aesthetics are fundamentally *midwest*, however you define that? I ask because I do (feel yr aesthetics are midwest), but in a way that explodes cultural notions of the midwest—your stuff reflected back the midwest I knew, which was bigger/weirder than hot dishes+fish fries.
I’m not sure there’s anything bigger than a fish fry, so watch yourself there.
Questions like this are hard in that I have to wonder, Do I think of myself…as anything, as Midwestern or male or bald or a poet? What image do I have of myself and when is it active? Certainly there’s a Midwesterness to my poems, in that the objects or moods of the Midwest – my Midwest – show up. Factories -- especially abandoned ones -- , fields and silos and barns, a particular caste to the seasons, as spring is not the same in Michigan as it is in Virginia. But while not writing I don’t think of myself as Midwestern, or American, or slightly above average height, as my thoughts aren’t particularly wound-up with identity. Still, I don’t know how my aesthetic could be anything but Midwestern, given how deep one’s sense of beauty or rightness (of proportion, function, sense) must go. Maybe the difference is that I’ve never really felt of any particular place or group, have always felt singular, with whatever benefits and difficulties come along with that. As corny as it sounds, I’ve never felt that I belong, and maybe outsiders end up evincing an attitude or perspective that is substantially shorn of place or affiliation. Maybe that’s why artists tend to have a more cosmopolitan sense of being in the world: not fitting in anywhere makes you a citizen everywhere.