Jan/Feb 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Paul Hostovsky

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

I've always wanted to be
excused. From the table.
From school. From work.
From life, actually.

Paul Hostovsky is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Hurt Into Beauty (FutureCycle Press, 2012). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from the Comstock Review, two Best of the Net Awards, and chapbooks contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. Paul lives near Boston where he has worked as a sign language interpreter for the past 25 years.


EG     I am happy to be able to talk with you about Hurt Into Beauty. Your poems are known for their humor and poignant observations and reflections on life. Thomas Lux has said about one of your earlier books, Bending the Notes (Main Street Rag, 2008):

Hostovsky's poems strike me as kinds of (non-religious) prayers—of joy, of grief, of praise, of pain, of a blind man reading a braille book with it closed on his hand, but mostly prayers as a form of gratitude, a kind of thank you, thank you, Life!

Your admirers will not be disappointed with this new collection. Congratulations.

I wonder if you agree with the idea that poets write what they know?

PH     Thank you. No, I think poets write what they imagine. You mentioned Thomas Lux. I think Lux would say that if you only write what you know, you'll soon run out of things to write. Because we don't know much. Write what you imagine. You'll never run out. And what does Frost say about the "things I didn't know I knew"? And I think Joyce said that imagination is memory. That's an interesting notion. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. And Rilke says to write about your childhood, "that kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories." I know I often tap my own kingly possession for new poems myself, and it never seems to run dry. I suppose you run the risk, though—when you write about what you don't know—of being told by someone who knows better than you, that you don't know what you're writing about. But I think it's all intertwined: the more you know, and the more you remember, the more richly you are able to imagine. And the better you are able to write. Maybe. Maybe not. What the hell do I know?

EG     "The more you know, and the more you remember, the more richly you are able to imagine." That sounds right to me. The things we lived through we know about, maybe the memories are clouded or skewed but on an emotional level we remember them, and isn't that where poetry comes from?

PH     I don't know where poetry comes from. What does Wordsworth say? "The spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquility," I think is what he says. But I have a poem that starts: "Wordsworth was a wanker / I am writing/ on the bathroom wall/ at the summer writers conference/ where all of the poets are sitting around/ in their little tranquil groups/ circle-jerking/ in my imagination..." Where did that one come from, I wonder? I think it came from sitting around with lots of poets at lots of poetry workshops squirming and sighing over the pleasure of words. The memory of that, mixed with a little of my pornographic imagination. So where do poems come from? They come from the earth. They rise up from the earth, like mist, the way we do. And they disappear like mist. The way we will. Though sometimes they outlive us.

EG     Although the poems in Hurt Into Beauty tell bits and pieces of your own story (a mini memoir), your own unique life from childhood until now, I imagine that most people can relate to your poems. Did you have this intention of connecting to others when putting the book together, or what was your reason for this collection?

PH     My reason for the collection? Hmm. To tell you the truth, I don't think I had a reason. None of my poems have reasons. I think a good poem is the opposite of reason. Insanity. To rave. I made the poems (I'm always making poems—always raving insanely) for no reason at all, and then I put them together into a book, an even bigger insanity. As for connecting to others, well, if you don't go out much because you're feeling frightened and surly and misanthropic, and you stay home instead to write beautiful insanities, and those beautiful insanities eventually get read by others who are able to relate to them, I'm not sure if that technically qualifies as "connecting to others." I hope it does, though.

EG     Hurt Into Beauty sounds like a paradox. Where did the phrase come from?

PH     I stole it from a friend. I was working on the first poem in the book, "The Violence of the Violins," and I sent a draft of the poem to my friend, the poet Frank Gallimore, with whom I often share new poems as they come out of the oven, and he said he liked it. And then he said, "It's like we're hurt into beauty." And I asked him if he made that up or if he was quoting someone or something. He said as far as he knew he'd just made it up. It was his. "But that's what your poem is saying," he said, "so really it's yours." I asked him if I could have it, for the poem. He said sure, it's all yours. So I sort of inserted it into the poem. Then, later, I thought it would make a good title for the book. When I told him that, he joked about it, saying everyone will be talking about the new book by Paul Hostovsky with the great title by Frank Gallimore.

EG     "The Violence of the Violins" is indeed a powerful poem. Here are the last few lines:

...See the string tightened almost
to breaking, the bow torturing it
into song. Feel the skin stretched
over the drum so tightly it makes
your heart pound. And where
did you think it all came from,
the easy melody, the high tinkling
finery? We are hurt into beauty.
And you, up in the balcony, rising
to your feet, applauding fiercely, look
down at what your own hands are doing.

I get that the exquisite sounds of music from the violin come from a sort of violence or friction of string and bow.

In another poem "Foreclosure" there is also the expression of violence, this time as a result of a home foreclosure, an increasingly common event today. Here is the first stanza:

We took it out back
and we beat the stuffing out of it,
then we stuffed it, broken, into the back
of the car, and dumped its mutilated body at the dump.
It felt good to do this. After all, the cat had peed on it twice,
and the mortgage company had sent another threatening letter,
and we felt like kicking the shit out of some bankers—
but all we could do was sit back down
on the couch, and drink another beer,
and our helplessness smacked of
cat piss...

Are the couch, the violin, the music and the player, a metaphor for how you see yourself or others, how we all live our lives?

PH     I hate violence, of course, and yet sometimes it seems that everything that is beautiful springs from it. Birth is violent; the war that achieved the peace was violent; the spiky yellow sun in the corner of the child's drawing—is violently exploding; it's what gives life to the world. And it's everywhere in the world. It's in nature, in the understory, in the backstory, in the air, on the ground, in the weather, in the traffic, in the food we eat, the games we play, the hammer and the nail that, together, have made this beautiful somnolent suburban porch on which I sit and sip my drink, writing my poems about the nature of violence in the world.

EG     I know you've worked as a sign language interpreter for the deaf. In a few of the poems there are descriptions of being deaf in today's world and of having deaf family members. There are poems about illness, death and dying, about amputations, about a father's cancer, a mother's early death, and other connections to illness, disability and addiction (one poem is about a cocaine addict). It seems you have been around people with illnesses and handicaps more so than most people. Is that true, and has it shaped your worldview? Is their glass half full or half empty to you—a blessing or a curse?

PH     Wow, that's a tough question. Let me dodge it nimbly by saying that all of the above—deaf people and the beauty of sign language, death and dying and the miracle of acceptance, addiction and the grace of recovery—have found their way into my poems. And I have found ways to praise them.

EG     Let's look at the humor/ poignancy/love, a sort of making lemons out of lemonade in your poems. This is an excerpt from "The Giving Tree," a poem about Aunt Hannah who had her legs amputated, then went back to visit the children in the elementary school where she used to teach 2nd grade. The kids ask her:

...What happened
to your legs? Where are the legs now?
How do you take a shower? How
do you drive a car? It was not unlike
show-and-tell, and my Aunt Hannah
was happy to answer. She even joked a little,
and slapped one stump and then the other,
so it looked like a flam on a pair of bongos,
or a rim shot after the punch line
of a bad joke in the Catskills.

Somehow you make Aunt Hannah's situation, and her visit to the school, into something innocent and sad, and yet comical. How can it be both? How the heck do you do that?

PH     Well, I guess you had to know Aunt Hannah. She told me that story herself. The kids actually asked her that: where are the legs now? They really wanted to know. It's a gruesome thought. But it's also kind of funny, isn't it? Her situation—her illness and her resulting disability—was brutal, merciless, heartbreaking. But it also had its absurd, hilarious, human moments. We can laugh or we can cry. Mostly we do both.

EG     Your love of sound is so evident in many of the poems. Is it ironic you work with deaf people? How did that work come about?

PH     It is a paradox, I suppose. I love sound, yes, but I also hate it. My wife (who is deaf) can attest to that. I'm always telling her how lucky she is to be deaf. She's not distracted by the constant racket the kids make, by the television's stupefying prater in the next room, by the mice scratching behind the wall at night, by the car alarm in the (vacationing) neighbor's driveway, and on and on and on. I love silence. I need it, and I crave it. As a writer. And as a reader. But my wife is also lucky to be Deaf, with a capital D. Because sign language is Music to the Eyes. And because Deaf culture is earthy, warm, physical, genuine, full of laughter and play and community. I suppose I am an honorary member—no, a guest—of that community. I'm a sort of resident alien, fairly fluent, but with an accent that gives me away every time.

EG     Did your parents foster a love of poetry or reading in your life? Any school background in creative writing?

PH     My mother was a reader, my father a writer. The Czech novelist Egon Hostovsky. He didn't write poetry, but I'm told by those who know Czech and have read him in the original, that his prose is very poetic. I don't speak Czech. I've read his books in translation. I spent much of my early childhood trying to correct his pronunciation. He never quite mastered English and spoke it with a thick accent. He died when I was fourteen. It was around that time that I started writing poems. It was also around that time that I started rebelling. I quit playing sports, started smoking cigarettes—and pot—fell in love with an older woman (she was 18) who broke my heart. I eventually dropped out of high school, got my GED, and landed on my feet in a small college for creative fuck-ups on the Hudson. There I continued to smoke a lot of pot, drink a lot of beer, fall in love with a lot of women, and read a little Homer, a little Milton, a little Wordsworth, a little Keats, a little Rilke. I allegedly studied poetry with Robert Kelly who was very prodigious in every sense of the word, 6' 4", close to 500 pounds back then, a long reddish beard that reached his testicles, and 20 or 30 poetry collections under his belt, which was so voluminous that I don't think he could see me at all. It wasn't until years later, when I started taking poetry workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and also at The Frost Place in Franconia, that I actually met some poets who were also great teachers: Tony Hoagland, Marie Howe, Cleopatra Mathis, Mark Wunderlich, Mark Doty, Jeffrey Harrison, Meg Kearney, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dunn, and many others, from whom I have learned a great deal.

EG     When did you decide to be a poet, or when did you start to write?

PH     I started writing poems when I was very young. I decided to be a poet the day before yesterday. Then yesterday I decided that I wasn't good enough to be a poet. Today, doing this interview, I feel like a poet. But tomorrow I suspect I will suck again.

EG     Do you write when the muse comes or do you write daily?

PH     I write every morning. Early. Before I go to work. I try to get at least a couple of hours in, so I get up at four of five and write until six or seven. Sometimes, on weekends, I'll write until eleven or twelve, or until my lovely wife comes in and reminds me with a kiss that I'd rather live than write any day, and then I give it up. But as far as the muse goes, if I may quote Thomas Lux again: "The thing gets made, gets built, and you're the slave... inspiration, the gift, the bolt of fire down the arm that makes the art? Grow up! Give me, please, a break!" In other words, it's not about the muse. It's about going to work. A writer writes. Writing is work. But it's also play. It's more play than work, I think. When we really enjoy our work, no matter what kind of work, the work feels like a kind of play. And we can't get enough of it.

EG     I've read in many poets' bios that they were nominated for a Pushcart Prize, but I am talking to someone who actually can say they won a Pushcart Prize. Tell us about the prize and anything you want about the experience or the poem that led to that recognition.

PH     Well, it's all so subjective. The poem is called "Dream." Before it won the prize, I sent it out to quite a few prestigious magazines. I won't name them here, but you know the ones. They all rejected it. It finally got scooped up by Blueline, a small lit mag in the Adirondacks. Then they nominated it (I didn't know) for a Pushcart, and then, amazingly, it was chosen. Or maybe not so amazingly. Like Mark Doty said about winning the T.S. Eliot Prize: "I couldn't imagine winning it. But I couldn't imagine not winning it."

EG     Hopeful people say that the world is in a transition, or a shift. Has the state of the world today inspired any poems? I know I was totally amazed by the poem "Concentration Camps" in Hurt Into Beauty. Here are the first few lines:

The way I explained it to myself, the way
I made sense of it in my own way (I was eight
when I first learned about them), was all those people
starving and crying and dying together in those big
piles behind the barbed wire—were forced to concentrate
on suffering. So it made sense to call it that. That part
made sense, I thought, because concentration was very

The idea that as a child you thought people were put there "to concentrate/on suffering," as if it was a place of study, holds that wondrous way of looking at the world, the innocence of a child. How did that poem appear to you?

PH     I think I did think that as a child. I mean most kids don't know the other definition of "concentration"—the third or fourth one down—"the act of bringing together (said of people, or chemicals, or military forces)." The poem is trying to make sense of it all—the word itself first, then the thing itself, the Holocaust, in the mind of a child. My father's whole family perished in the Holocaust. I knew that already when I was very young. I'm not sure what I thought about it. I mean, it's unthinkable. I do remember thinking a concentration camp must be a place where the people concentrated. Concentrated on what? I knew what went on there. I'd seen the documentaries, the photographs, heard the stories. So obviously it must have been suffering that they concentrated on in those concentration camps. But the poem is also playful. We can laugh or we can cry. Mostly we do both. The poem plays around with the words "problem" and "solution." Arithmetic. Final solution. Jewish problem. And it says, "...the world keeps trying/ that solution, over and over..." Which it does. I mean look around. We have our own concentration camps today. They aren't Nazi death camps, of course, but they are concentration camps nonetheless: all the detention centers, labor camps, gulags, refugee camps, ghettos, prisons all over the world. And genocide is alive and well, even thriving. So I guess I'm not one of the hopeful ones that you mention, the ones who say the world is in a transition, or a shift. But maybe it is. I hope it is. What the hell do I know? I don't know much. So instead I imagine. I think I'll go on imagining. I think I'll just keep writing these beautiful insanities. For no reason at all.


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