Interview with Ronald Hobbs
by Richard Whittaker, Jul 23, 2004
I first met Ronald Hobbs over thirty years ago. In those days, in the late sixties, should the conversation have taken a certain turn, I might have laid a claim to poetry. I'd read at the “I and Thou” on Haight Street, run an open-mike poetry program in the basement of a Presbyterian church, and even had won a prize in San Francisco’s Ina Coolbrith Circle’s poetry competition.
Ron was in another league, however. In the mid 1960s he had established himself in the New York poetry scene. He had done actual campus tours to read his own published work. He had published his own small magazine. A book of his poetry was in print. In those days, however, I was not a reader his poetry, nor certainly, he of mine. But our paths kept us in touch with each other.
For years Ronald owned and ran a bird store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, a fitting occupation for a poet, I thought. And I founded a magazine. In recent years I've published some of his poetry and also a few of his stories. And I became an admirer of his work.
One day I persuaded him to sit down for an interview. We met at a favorite bar and restaurant on Fillmore Street in San Francisco not far from his apartment…
Richard Whittaker: Would you talk a little about the roots that your writing has come out of?
Ronald Hobbs: My grandmother read the Bible aloud. Maybe I was five. She would read the psalms, which, in the King James Version, are just extraordinarily beautifully constructed. Then the stories the children loved to hear, the Bible stories, she would read those, too. They were very vivid. So I guess my introduction to poetry came from my grandmother reading me the Psalms.
RW: How often did she read to you?
RH: Sometimes every day.
RW: How did it happen that your grandmother was around a lot?
RH: My father did not exist, and my mother…
RW: …What do you mean, “he did not exist”?
RH: He had deserted my mother. So my mother raised me and took in her mother and her two sisters. They bought a house and moved up from Tennessee where I lived as a small boy, up to southern Illinois; and my mother had a job. So grandma was the surrogate, and while my mother worked, my grandmother ran the house. There were six cousins too, and we were all very close. We were raised equally. Two of my aunts were only six and eight years older than I, and we grew up in the same house. So it was a matriarchal society.
RW: Your grandmother at the head of it… No stepdaughters or sisters?
RH: At that point, it was just me and my mother, my grandmother and my two aunts and cousins. There was only nineteen years difference between me and my mother. And between her and her mother there was only nineteen years. So this wasn’t like grandma was old and gray. But in answer to your earlier question, yes, the old lady read the Bible, and I loved it!
RW: So when did you start reading poetry?
RH: It probably started in grade school. Let’s say it was in the summer of 1953. I was under a maple tree in my yard at home and I had just checked out this book, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. As I read it, I got involved in the rhythms of it. It began to send me. I was just a kid and didn’t have any intellectual constructs, but I could feel something. That’s when I sort of wanted to go for it.
I remember sometimes public speakers would get caught in a certain rapture and it would remind me of these things I had read on the page. In high school I became quite serious, not pipe-smoking serious, but excited by the power of the written and spoken word in certain structures. And that’s pretty much true.
RW: Did you find a form in a class, like an English class, or was it more extra-curricular?
RH: Essentially it was just me and the hill and the books, the poets. But there was a class called Senior Literature, and I applied to enter the class. The teacher said, “No, you can’t join this class. You don’t have the scholastic background. These are the brightest of the students.” And I used a few choice words that weren’t exactly poetic to make sure that I got into that class.
RW: Choice words… cuss words?
RH: Yes, cuss words! And I made a demand, and I got my way! It was the only class in high school that I ever got an “A” in. [laughs] Oh, God, you’re bringing back memories!
RW: It must have been quite an experience to force your way in and then to get the “A” How did your relationship with the teacher go?
RH: Well, first of all, she was condescending. Then I intimidated her with my language, and the sheer force…
RW: With your language skills…?
RH: Cussing is not exactly a language art! I think she came to a conclusion something like, “For Christ’s sake, he’s not going to go away.” Let him take the goddamned class and flunk it!
RW: But then you got an “A” so, at some point, she must have seen…
RH: She saw pretty quick that the privileged and the educated were not nearly as privileged and educated as she might have supposed, and that I was. I mean here you’re talking the King’s English! I’m hearing the King’s English read to me by my grandmother from the age of five! I looked at Shakespeare, I looked at these people, and I thought, this is great! So who was underprivileged here? Who didn’t have the qualifications?
RW: All right. So you became serious about poetry, as you said. What happened from there?
RH: I went to a number of schools unsuccessfully. I only went to theater classes or English Lit. classes. I was pretty rebellious and was branded as a troublemaker. I didn’t endure bullshit gracefully. I drifted on, but I kept reading—and I was writing by that time, from about sixteen on. I was beginning to try to understand. I began in a very grandiose, florid sort of way, very imitative, but I didn’t know what else I could be. I couldn’t paint. I tried painting and just couldn’t handle it. I wanted to sing, you know, wanted to sing…or play the piano, but I wasn't very good at any of those things. So I said, all right, I guess I’ll just have to be a poet then, because poets don’t really have to have any skill, just a temperament and be artistic in attitude.
RW: Didn’t you think that poetry might require some skill?
RH: Well, I knew that words could be magic. Speak the word, and it shall be done!
RW: So what does that mean, really? Speaking the word is more than just saying the word.
RH: Absolutely! I believe there is a specific gravity to a word in the same way that there is a specific gravity to an atom of matter. You have to find that, and then the word can be spoken, not merely used, or excreted.
Hamlet’s second soliloquy: “Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue, not as many of our others would. I had as lief the town-crier speak my lines, nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus.” That came to mind and makes me laugh, because that’s how I saw the people around me mostly. They were going through these gyrations and motions but not speaking from themselves.
RW: You had a feeling of the difference between authentic speaking and when it was missing.
RH: It was so overwhelming, that impression of people not speaking from themselves, that it got very, very sad. Because I didn’t have many people to talk with about that, and when I tried to people gave me strange looks, especially the adults.
RW: Yes. Some young people have a great sensitivity to the lack of the truth, of words truly spoken.
RH: Yes. Words truly spoken.
RW: Now I know you’re quite good at speaking, at reading your own work. Is that something you connected with early on?
RH: Yes. I said that I went to my theater classes mostly when I was in college. It was because I had a script and I could be somebody within the context of this thing. So then I began to make my own scripts and my own characters.
I said to Claudia [a mutual friend] that in everything I’ve done, the only thing that I can really be happy about is that “a time or two I tapped out a tune across the xylophonic stars and lived for no less cause than to take up the human instrument and play.” That was not a made-up line.
Remember I couldn’t sing, couldn’t play the piano, couldn’t dance. Well, this is what was there. But it’s not just the voice. I’ve got arms. I’ve got legs. I’ve got a diaphragm. And if you get down, down by the belt-line, down around the naval, you can be surprised by what can happen. I spoke one time during the Viet Nam war at Adelphi University. It’s on Long Island, I think. I spoke with such force that I scared myself, because I had power over these people. It scared the hell out of me, and I never, ever gave a speech like that again.
RW: But you did go on and you’ve read your poetry quite a bit in front of college audiences, isn’t that right?
RH: Lots. I often worked with Barbara Holland in New York. She was known as “The Sybil of Greenwich Village.” She and I hit it off, and we performed extremely well together, and we performed a lot. Between the two of us we would try to see who could produce the biggest showstopper. She always won, but I wasn’t very far behind, and she couldn’t have been first if I wasn’t second—put it that way.
We performed up and down the village—St. John’s, St. Mark’s, all of these places known and unknown. Mostly small, but appreciative audiences. Sometimes large and indifferent audiences. A church or a tavern, it was all the same. Sometimes they would pass the hat. Sometimes they would give you a hundred- dollar bill for an honorarium. That was what I did, and I continued that in San Francisco for a little while; and in about 1975, I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to do something that I needed to do, that didn’t have anything to do with being somebody, but it had a hell of a lot to do with being somebody, if you know what I mean.
RW: Being, in other words, oneself.
RH: At least to make an effort in that direction. Because when you work everyday and you go to all these readings and go to these extravaganzas, there has to be, its inescapable, an enormous amount of ego. You have to take yourself pompously, or you can’t survive. And I thought, well, what a pity. What am I doing this for? I have other work to do. So then the poetry become more inner.
RW: So there was an instinctive turning inward. You felt a need for that.
RH: Right. There was a point earlier where the inward turn was the only possibility. Then I went out to test my wings and found that people loved the show-off. And then it came to me that I had all of the temperament, but was lacking a connection with the essence of the poet. The poet, finally and eventually, is a big thing.
RW: Say more about that.
RH: Well, I want to mention that when I was a kid, I realized that reading was magic, and I couldn’t wait to learn to read. So before I got into grade school, I could read. I wanted to know how they could take that stuff off the page and make words out of it! That was magic.
RW: It struck me some time ago what an astonishing thing language is. If you think about where we are today, and what language has done, is it not staggering?
RH: For good and for ill. I’m of the opinion that if you were to speak to me in French and I only knew English, that if we were connected, I would understand you. There is something in the rhythm. Language is breath and its sounds, and if I could produce a certain sound… I’m on thin ice here, but there’s a vibration.
Now since Bach, we accept the note A to vibrate at 440 hertz, or whatever it is. If I go to that piano and hit that note, that’s the vibration. And that vibratory influence in its combinations can have an enormous impact. I don’t think we know what those combinations are when we speak.
RW: Well when you gave that speech and saw that you could control the listeners, you were frightened because you were manifesting vibrations, which were coming through you, and you didn’t really understand these things.
RH: People have gone to war and have died because some general can speak well. It’s a scary tool.
RW: I think it’s interesting that this experience was frightening for you.
RH: If it’s not too pretentious, I’d say that my conscience bothered me.
RW: I don’t think it’s pretentious to say that.
RH: I had no right to presume. The danger with language is that, too often, we presume what we don't really know, and we try to convince others.
RW: What is it that allows people to overlook that?
RH: It’s not what is it? But what isn’t it? It’s like not having a right arm. An organ of perception is missing, or is so badly atrophied that nothing registers. You see this. It’s every place in the world.
RW: And maybe in me, at times, too.
RH: That’s right. I’m not immune. I remember also not too long ago I became angry with someone, and I expressed that anger convincingly. I hurt that person. I did it with vengeance, and I repented in sorrow. This is the power of the word. Language. We hear about these things. People say, “Oh, yes, I think there’s something in that.” Well, by God there’s a hell of a lot to that! You find out that writing is essentially pretty easy. But thinking, that is not easy.
RW: Say more.
RH: Most writing is passive and thinking is an activity, not a passivity. The thoughts running through my mind, that’s not thought. Thinking takes some active participation from me.
RW: I’m curious to hear you say as much as you can about that.
RH: I don’t know how much I can say about it, because I don’t know how much I know. But the whooping of the Siamangs and Toucans of the mind is just that... a wind-up monkey beating on a drum, a clapper in a madman's bell.
RW: If someone proposes that there is something beyond this automatic flow of associations, which is called thought, I find I don’t know much about that. I’m used to tapping into this automatic flow.
RH: There’s this school of free association and some of these poems can be fun, but the poetic function—I pontificate—it’s either regenerative, or it’s excretory. But both functions are necessary.
RW: Well, let’s go back here a little. Now when did you graduate from high school?
RW: And in 1975, you decided you weren’t going to do public readings anymore. That’s fifteen years. Part of that time you lived in New York. How many years?
RH: From 1966 to 1971, but I had a residence in New Mexico as well as in New York, so I was back and forth, six months here, six months there.
RW: Tell me about some of your experiences during this period.
RH: Aside from hormones, at sort of the core was how does this help me understand poetry? I mean what can bring me closer to this thing that has touched me, has actually set me on fire in a way? And like a lot of people, I had spiritual concerns, if that’s what you’re looking for.
RW: Well, I thought you were connected with a commune in New Mexico.
RH: Yes, sort of… I lived with a small community of people in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but we were not exactly a commune. There were three groups I can think of: The Lama Foundation, which still exists, not far from where I used to be. Then there was New Buffalo, which was further down the road.
RW: You knew these people?
RH: Sure I knew them!
RW: That must have been an interesting experience.
RH: Yes. I saw people trying to love one another. It didn’t exactly work out, but I was feeling it too. Everybody was young and virile and beautiful, and everything that the newspapers said that we did, we did.
RW: People were trying to love one another. That’s more than trying to have sex with one another.
RH: That’s right. People were trying to express what, in the oppressiveness of the forties and fifties, would not have been allowed. But it was like a force loosed upon the land. The cat was out of the bag, and people were embracing it. There were bards, Bob Dylan, and these great energy forces, but there was also the negative side, the drugs and the dropouts. I remember a friend saying to me, “Why do you still write poetry? Don’t you know that we don’t have to do that anymore?”
RW: People got a lot of funny ideas.
RH: Hashish does that to people.
RW: What was happening for you with poetry during those years when you were in New Mexico?
RH: I wrote a lot. I was at six or seven thousand feet; there weren’t many people around; it was winter and I was snowed in. You’re strong, you’re smart, the juices are going, and you write. Or do whatever you do. Georgia O’Keefe painted.
RW: Now I also associate you with New Orleans and somehow with American Indians. How do those things fit in?
RH: It’s too complicated, and it’s nothing that I would want to be known. I came from a big family. There were lots of places that we lived. My mother had seven other siblings. When I was young, there were only six cousins, but now there are sixty. But I don’t find that useful.
RW: But somewhere you got to Louisiana?
RH: My uncle lived there, so I went down and spent summers sometimes with him. It just depended on who was working and who had enough money to take in another kid.
RW: Your uncle was the Father of Fifties? [a short story by Hobbs]
RH: No, that tale is modeled after an old man and his wife that I knew from a small town. In the story he represented a certain kind of influence. The story is fiction, but what it tells is not. I don’t know how I can say that in the same breath, exactly. Do you remember how Robinson Jeffers put it, "the poets honey their truth with lying."
RW: And there are those moments one might say are sublime, too. How do you convey something like that?
RH: Some men try it from the mind, some men try it from other places. But the finest expression is when things come into place. The dozens of truly poor quality "poems" are essentially preparation. I’ll recite you a little piece right now, and it will demonstrate something to you about that.
When in the rhythms of our labors, something stirs we who sweep the corridors and serve
with our whispering brooms
the long apprenticeships of presence, pause.
And the men restrain their hammers
and the women hold back their looms
while a special visitor appears
and passes through the rooms
and lights in each, a little lamp
then are we born into one new body
with our looms leaping through their threads
and our brooms singing on the stone!
That does it, yes?
RH: But it’s not the how, not the why.
RW: I understand.
RH: You ask the question, but I can’t answer it. And don’t publish the poem.
RW: Why not? I don’t know why in the world you would not want the poem published. It’s lovely, beautiful…
RH: One person in ten thousand is going to know what that is.
RW: It doesn’t matter. The people who do will know it. That’s the reason to publish it. And I suspect we may underestimate the number of people who can resonate to that.
RH: Well, and as a matter of opinion, I think poets take themselves too seriously when they should not be doing so, and not seriously enough when they should. You can serve Ban The Bomb, or you can serve something else. It’s not about what you get put in print that matters. If poets are anything they are... I almost want to use the word teachers. Its not quite the word.
RW: That’s where, in 1975, you turned inward, so to speak. If the poet becomes who he is, then he can teach just by his being. But if not, then what we have are just words. The poet is a windbag.
RH: Oh “windbag” is a lovely word for that! And some are talented windbags. But yes, we’ve seen it time and time again. So I’m glad you used that word, because it really expresses what is going on. I think a lot of gas is passed from both ends. From young poets, especially. At least in my case, it was. I was important in my own eyes.
RW: Well, youth is permitted, I guess. I’m thinking of this phrase from Martin Heidegger for whom poetry is a very big thing. He says, “Poetically man dwells.” Now first of all, what is dwelling? It’s something like to living-exist. Heidegger says, poetically man dwells. I think what is implied is that, if man is not in a poetic state, then he is not really dwelling. Dwelling is actually something to be attained. The poet is the one who can dwell. Or man, dwelling, is in a state, which could be called a poetic condition. Does this spark any thoughts?
RH: Well let me tell you something that you don’t know. I know that you’re quoting from "Poetry, Language, Thought". It was translated by professor Albert Hofstadter who was at UC Santa Cruz, I think. It was in the early to mid-seventies, and when I first read that, I ran to the telephone and I called professor Hofstadter. His wife said, well, he’s having lunch. I said, I don’t care, “I don’t have much time.” So he came to the phone, and I made love to the man over the phone. I said, “This is the most beautiful rendering I have ever read!” The very sense of it just leapt out at me and there was this big “Yes!” Hofstadter is dead now. I read his obituary in the paper a few years ago.
RW: So, "poetically man dwells." But when you ride to work on the bus, no one in there is dwelling. They’re all caught up in something, but they’re not in front of any of the unanswerable questions of being here.
RH: Well, it would be pretty grim, in a way, depending on how people took it, if everyone on that bus were like that, but it’s not that grimness that we want to jump to. These same people, in time of crisis, they sing songs; they sing Amazing Grace and they sing Abide With Me.
Well, why don’t you abide with yourself? People run around and sometimes they talk about out-of-body experiences. I asked someone one day if he’d ever had an in-the-body experience, and he got really mad at me.
RW: Good question! The thing you said about poetry about a big thing, I think maybe we’re beginning to touch on that.
RH: Let’s say you read about a ballerina’s performance in the newspaper and the reviewer says she was “absolutely poetic.” Ozawa conducted this symphony “most poetically.” What does that mean? At what point does poetry enter music? I think I could say that Ozawa was a poet. He may have never written a word.
RW: Yes, because poetry is not limited to text.
RH: Its transcendent quality doesn’t depend on words. It can be in any kind of form. We’ve heard the term “the music of the spheres”— somebody had to hear it. You can’t sit here and make it up. I’d like to hear it.
RW: Yes. Me too. You know, we haven’t really talked very much about language, per se. What I find is that the language which ought to refer to those aspects of our experience we say are “fine,” “transcendent,” “fabulous”—I find that the vocabulary of this realm has been absolutely gutted.
RH: That kind of language is at the secular level. People even want to say that about Ravi Shankar. I went to the concert and “Oh, it was great!” That’s okay for common parlance.
RW: Yes, because common parlance doesn’t cut very deep. You do have one advantage over some people, though. And that is that you can speak in a way that can carry language that may not be as fine on the page.
RH: If it’s my own material, that’s true.
RW: In general, I’ve not been able to embody my speech so much. But with you it seems there can be that greater embodiment in the saying of the word.
RH: You’re right, to a point. But these resonances are paltry compared to say, Butler Yates, say Seamus Heaney whose connection is so continuously there through hundreds of poems—not that volume is everything. So that connection, yes, I can have it, but it didn’t happen when I was fifteen.
If I feel this connection when I am writing, and something is a little more available— Oh, I can go over here! I can go this way. Oh wow! I didn’t know I could do that!— Then all of the sudden, you just know that you’re not connected to the same old shit. Something new is happening and, by God I’m here with it! And isn’t this wonderful?! You have to come to this point, and you do come to this point where you say, isn’t this wonderful!
I talked with a woman last week. She was despondent and I said, aren’t you happy because you’re a human being? She said, well, are you? And I said, can’t you just feel it!? [laughs] NO!!!
You know, my life is not exactly a bowl of jello, either. But if it’s there, and it’s running, you think—I guess the way you would say it, is— at that point you find a way to thank God.