Art: The Poetry of Place

Local poet Richard Hague discusses his work -- and working in Cincinnati

Jun 18, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Kurt Strecker

Richard Hague isn't vague about his views on poetry.

Richard Hague is an awarding-winning poet and teacher at Purcell Marian High School. His previous books — a dozen collections of poetry — have drawn largely on his Appalachian roots as a native of Steubenville, Ohio, but his forthcoming Public Hearings (2009 from Word Press) addresses social and political issues on a local and national scale. CityBeat spoke to Hague about his latest work.

CityBeat: Some of the poems in Public Hearings focus on experiences in Cincinnati. Do you think it's more important for a poet to be grounded in one place, rather than be nomadic, or are we talking about two different kinds of poetry?

Richard Hague: I think we're talking about two different kinds of poetry, two different understandings of culture. There are great arguments for being cosmopolitan and international and getting a perspective that way. The culture of the exile, for example, has brought us important work and important ways of seeing things. At the same time, though, I always keep in mind Wendell Berry's warning that the most parochial person is one who is blind to his own province. That's real parochialism.

You may be global in your apprehensions and understandings, and blind to the implications right there at your front door. I'm very much of the camp that says, "Know yourself and know the place that you're in."

CityBeat: Much of your poetry reminds me of Berry's — the way you focus on the natural world, as well as your political and social sensibilities. Has he been a big influence on you?

RH: Oh, absolutely, ever since I first read him. His warnings are so eloquent and so well founded in reason, but also homespun in their sense of place. It's not just somebody talking ideas — it's a guy who's living them and embodying them and enacting them and doing important work. A friend of mine went down to see him once, and Wendell asked him if he could help put a sheep in a truck. And he did, and they talked a bit, but Wendell was on his way to town to a bank trustees meeting. This is what it means to be locally engaged. You're not just a farmer or a poet, but you also see places where you might be able to serve and bring a perspective to even commercial ventures. To bring that kind or poetic and geographic sensibility to what is otherwise essentially a commercial business is a good thing, and rare.

CityBeat: Yes it is, but we can't all be farmer poets. What should poets in a city like Cincinnati do?

RH: I'm not going to agree with you that we can't all be farmer poets, even in the city. In the city it is especially exciting to practice agriculture on whatever scale you can. To me there's nothing better than an urban garden — a reminder that underneath it all, it's still growing, it's still the planet. And local markets like Findlay Market are a fabulous direction we ought to go in. It's heretical in our culture, but I wish that every high school that has a football field would devote at least that much ground to agriculture and provide students opportunities to practice agriculture with the same kind of intensity that they practice athletics.

CityBeat: Speaking of intensity and local issues, one of the poems in Public Hearings is "Riot," in which you have a character of sorts named Riot. You personified the action.

RH: Yes. The poem "Riot" is a very local poem. It is about the riots in Cincinnati in 2001, and the issues underneath them that I don't think have been fully brought to the surface or fully dealt with by the city. So the poem continues to prod and poke and aggravate a little bit.

CityBeat: "Riot" is a poem of complaint and warning, but it is also imagining an alternative. I think sometimes we forget that we can remake a place.

RH: Yes. I remember hearing when I was younger, "You haven't earned your complaint unless you have some sort of solution." And I'd answer: "I'm not the engineer, I'm just observing the engine. I didn't make it - I'm just showing you how it is broken." But now I think possibly there ought to be some element of, "OK, if this is the problem, what are some of the solutions?" There's nothing original at all in the thinking of this poem about the solutions to inner city issues. The inner cities need to be re-inhabited. We have to figure out how to do that. We have to make city living an option that people everywhere will choose.

CityBeat: How will something that big happen in Cincinnati?

RH: I think maybe that the energy crisis may help in the long run because it's going to be ridiculously expensive to live in the suburbs and drive into the city. Also, if we can get together and can learn one another's stories rather than stand off at a suburban distance, and look at the inner city and say, "No," we might change things. Look, if we don't learn each other's stories by living together and working together and walking the streets together as is done in the best inner cities in Europe, then there's no hope.

CityBeat: What do you think of the Cincinnati poetry scene?

RH: The Cincinnati poetry scene is at times quite viable and active. I think it was at its height back in the days of the York Street Café readings, in Newport, Ky., that Jim Palmerini and Terri Ford put together for four or five years. They were a great mix of local people and nationally known people that they'd bring in. It was a great venue and an exciting time. It's kind of stratified now. There's the UC scene with national figures, and on the other end there's InkTank whose mission is as noble as any mission could be — to give voice to those who traditionally don't have voices: the homeless and people in shelters and people living on the street. And they also bring in a mix of people into their public events. But there's no Poetry Central, like the York Street readings used to be, or even earlier, like the readings upstairs at Arnold's. Maybe as InkTank evolves, it can provide such a center. ©