Oct/Nov 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Library of My Hands: a Conversation with Dr. Joe Heithaus

Interview by Joyce Brinkman

Dr. Joe Heithaus, Richard W. Peck Chair of Creative Writing, Co-director of the Environmental Fellows Program, and Professor of English at DePauw University in Greencastle Indiana, had an interesting new book of poetry published in the midst of the current pandemic, so I joined him to learn more about the book in a virtual interview.

As a fellow Hoosier, I already knew of his poetry and his background. Born in South Bend Indiana, Joe earned a Ph.D. in American literature and a MFA in poetry from Indiana University and participates in a wide variety of poetry events in the state, as well as having his poetry in important pieces of public art here. He was the winner of the 2007 Discovery / The Nation Prize. Still, I was eager to hear him share thoughts about this current collection of poems.


JB     Joe, my dream job has always been to be the librarian at the public library on Mackinaw Island. How did you arrive at the intriguing title of Library of My Hands?

JH     The title comes from a line I wrote in a poem several years ago. I suppose the line speaks to how our hands, with their lines and creases, marks and scars, carry so much of who we are, whole volumes. I love metaphors where the large is somehow contained in the small. William Blake's line "see a world in a grain of sand" has captivated me since I first read it when I was in college.

JB     Poets control their words, but publishers control covers. What's the story behind this book's cover?

JH     The publisher Dos Madres' first version of the cover had a fountain pen, which was nice, but I didn't think it captured the essences of the book. I talked about it with artist and friend Jerry Bates. Jerry thought it would be cool to try to capture my hands somehow. We got photographer Cindy O'Dell to bring her expertise into showing my hands holding water and light, two key elements in the book.

JB     Let's talk about some of the poems in the book. I'm drawn to "New Blue You." Love the title, (three, little, rhyming words), for a poem that doesn't rhyme but that captured the moment of birth. In the first eight lines, this poem's tempo matches perfectly with the rhythms of natural childbirth and then opens into a scene of wonder and joy.

we sniffle and smile
you nuzzle
you nuzzle your mother
until the blue of you
changes to something
else and yes you're now in the
light and you hear
but can't understand
that word they keep saying
miracle you think
it's your name.

How did you summon up this memory and fit it so well into this poem?

JH     I'm deeply fortunate and blessed to have four children. I wasn't there for the birth of my oldest so maybe I found being present at the births of the other three all the more precious. Nevertheless, bearing witness to a birth is an incredible experience. Later in the book, there are poems that reference being present at my brother Paul's death. The first breath and the last breath are deeply profound experiences that in some ways defy language. The challenge as a poet is to try to put words to the particulars you've witnessed. I hope "New Blue You" comes off as a kind of celebration.

JB     I'm also drawn to "Windows."

This happens when you look
out of windows
and the sand and fire
that made them takes you
to some other constellation
of stars where you begin
to understand that mute language
of glass where the light hits
you again and again
from inside.

Have windows always intrigued you?

JH     I'm very drawn to the mysteries of light. I've lived in the same old Victorian house for over twenty years, but still marvel some mornings or evenings when the light enters and common objects are haloed or the hardwood floors turn gold. Thus, windows made, in essence, by lighting sand on fire is wildly fascinating to me. I'm moved by glass's transparency and its opacity and the beauty of glass when it is stained and lit up in some way. The notion of "things coming to light" as in being revealed is perhaps what poetry is often about—we poets shine our own light on an object or situation and reveal it through the light of language.

JB     I can't leave out the section you've called Collected Earth. The poem "Sycamores" resonates with those who live along the rivers of the Midwest but it's much more than just those trees or just that part of the US.

now swaying, the shushing
in an ear like the sound of wind
shushing through this gray fall day,
all that swaying all the same.

It seems this poem is about the connectedness of all life. The swaying of the sycamores is emblematic of the movement of life. Anyone who has read your essay for the "New York Times" about living with your family in Costa Rica knows that experience holds meaning for you. Tell us how that connects with the landscape of the sycamores and what that experience has meant to your poetry.

JH     There isn't enough room in this interview to cover all of the impact of Costa Rica, my commitment to the environment, and the profound spiritual and biological connections humans have to all living things. The poem came out of my observations on a blustery day and my attempt to describe the swirling and swaying sycamores at DePauw's nature park, but it underlines how interconnected humans and plants are. In Costa Rica, we sometimes climbed inside giant strangler figs that grow up around a host tree and then stand for decades after that tree has decayed away. High inside such a strangler fig, a web of lianas and vines, it is impossible not to understand our relationship with all life in the jungle and the world. Like the poem says, all our swaying is the same.

JB     Most poets have to keep their day jobs and many are teachers and professors as you are. How do you feel teaching poetry adds or subtracts from your ability to write your own poems?

JH     I love to teach at DePauw. I love watching students come to an appreciation of the literary arts. I'm less a lecturer and more a preacher expounding on the power of poetry and great stories that both shift and illuminate the ways we see the world. I return to Neruda's odes almost every year to get my students thinking about how a guitar or a tomato or an onion or pair of scissors can be seen and appreciated through the poetic imagination. Great poems can enter us, perhaps especially if we don't fully grasp them, and stay with us for our entire lives.

It only follows that I try to practice at making poems and stories myself. I can't ask my students to wade out into language by trying to write something original without asking the same of myself.

JB     Joe, I think readers of this book will say, "I'm glad you do."


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