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Edward Hirsch and Stuart Dybek Meet Again in Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry

Monday, January 23, 2023

by Donald G. Evans

Stuart Dybek and Edward Hirsch were born eight years apart, Dybek on April 10, 1942 and Hirsch on January 20, 1950. Dybek was a South Sider, raised in Little Village and Pilsen; Hirsch a North Sider, his earliest years spent in Irving Park and North Park before his family settled in Skokie. Both would depart Chicago in their adulthood, Dybek returning after 25 years in Michigan and Hirsch settling in various places, including New York, after 1972. Their Chicago accents never left, nor did their deep attachment to the city, which is apparent throughout their prodigious production of literature, including, between them, a dozen volumes of poetry. Among their many literary awards, both were honored with MacArthur Fellowships, while Hirsch also won an Academy of Arts and Letter Award for Literature. The two rank, in the estimation of many critics, as among the most important writers of their generations.

The two connected through their work even before they met. Dybek immediately felt at home with Hirsch’s “urban sensibility" when he read For the Sleepwalkers, and felt a kinship to the man who populated his debut book with writers like Federico García Lorca, Issac Babel and Arthur Rimbaud. Hirsch found in Dybek’s work not only a recognition of familiar places, but reassurance. When the two would finally meet in Michigan around 1981—Dybek was teaching at Western Michigan University and Hirsch at Wayne State—a friendship that would last a lifetime began in earnest. The two would eventually teach together at Warren Wilson College and later at Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program for Writers. Dybek still has his copy of For the Sleepwalkers, with Hirsch’s inscription, in green ink, saying the two shared the same neighborhood.

The grind and glory of urban life, particularly a working class, immigrant Chicago, seers through the poets’ verses. Whatever distance has been put between Hirsch and Chicago has not impeded his intimate connection to the city nor access to its flavors. He revels, still, in its idiosyncrasies, like when he told the story of how the city misspelled, twice, the name of his old street, Kimball, which was meant to be named after Logan Square founder Martin Kimbell. Dybek, for his part, has unabashedly made Chicago his almost exclusive territory, writing about it even when his career and circumstances led him to Florida, California, the Caribbean, and especially to Kalamazoo, Michigan for a quarter century. Both regularly visited the city while away. 

Dybek’s “The Daredevil” and Hirsch’s “I Missed the Demonstration” are included in the new anthology I edited, Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry. Both are original works that demonstrate, without a doubt, that the poets continue, even at this later stage, to produce art at the absolute elite level. The poems also provide a glimpse at a very particular Chicago that resonates with much larger themes and in a much broader context, and stand as shining examples of their indelible artistic vision.

 

DGE: There’s an Artful Dodge interview—circa 1985, though I’m not positive--that features both of you. Ed, you talk about discovering Stuart’s work. You said, "Of course, the sensibility was different from my own, and the way of organizing the work was different. But the raw material was immensely familiar to me, and reassuring." Chicago is of course part of that raw material, for you both. What kind of raw material has Chicago provided that perhaps is unique to any other place that you've known in your life and work?

EH: It’s totally tied up with childhood and adolescence for me, because I didn’t live there as an adult--I visited all the time, my whole family stayed except for me. The city is inextricable with my experiences in childhood.

What I recognized in Stuart’s work was, it's a different neighborhood, but the same kinds of kids. We thought of ourselves as middle class, but that was a stretch. It was really the lower end of the lower middle class. I’m sure there’s an overlap with other cities, but it was very much a working-class experience. Everybody worked, everybody had a hustle, everybody had a job--you’re pushed out the door very fast, seventh grade, eighth grade. My parents didn’t care if it was 1960, to them it was like 1939. Even when we made it to suburbs, it was tract housing, it was middle class, but all the houses looked exactly alike. There were no professionals. For me, it was a kind of “City on the Make.”

It’s hard for me to separate the class experience in Chicago from the city that I knew. There were obviously intellectuals in Chicago, but we didn’t know any. I asked my grandmother, because I lived on West Byron Street and my grandmother came every day to take care of us, “Do you think it was named after Lord Byron?” She said, “I never saw any Lords or Ladies in that neighborhood.”

DGE: No, but the hot dog stand Byron’s was.

EH and SD: Laughing.

DGE: How did class figure into your experience growing up? Stuart, you said in that Artful Dodge interview that "The important aspect of using autobiography is not recording what actually happened so much as believing that the material is a great gift worthy of being reimagined." Chicago is part of your literal and artistic DNA, and it seems to give you that great gift worthy of being reimagined.

SD: I felt that in Ed’s work immediately. I was totally familiar with the world he was creating on the page. The working-class neighborhoods, the immigrant families, and the sentiment that comes with the richness of immigrant minority-cultural experience, what people hang onto even as they assimilate. There’s a cultural expectation for literature, whether it be poetry or stories, to convey feeling. At the same time, in the words of Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway that I think also convey a Chicagoesque sensibility, a writer needs a good crap detector. So there’s a kind of dissonance between a necessary skepticism and sense of irony and sentiment. I think the integration of them is an aspect of what might be called a feature of Chicago voice.

DGE: One of the things I love about both of your work is that you get to the edge of sentimentality, in a good way. There’s this obvious respect for the characters and for the setting without ever glamorizing it. Is that difficult when examining those memories of childhood?

EH: Intense emotionality is not the same as sentimentality. They’re very different. Philip Larkin said that people call things sentimental whenever someone has more feelings than we think they’re supposed to have. Sentimentality is unearned emotion. I think having deep feeling from the way that we grew up, it’s just, you intensely care about the place you come from but that doesn’t mean you imagine it was all good or that you imagine it was all positive. That would be insane to think that. It’s precious to you and you have a kind of resignation at a certain point in your life that this is the world that you had, this is what you’ve got, this is your subject, this is your life, you don’t have another one. Maybe it would have been better to have John Milton’s experience, but you’re not going to have that. You have what you had. For me, and I think this is true for Stuart, too, it was forged very early on. The people around us were not literary, but they were funny, and they were smart. My people were smart, but they were totally street smart, completely uneducated. They were very skeptical about certain intellectual values, especially my grandparents. But the feeling was high, and one of the reasons I responded so strongly to Stuart’s work was the intensity of the feeling with a kind of bracing irony at the same time. It’s not romantic experiences one typically thinks of it as, because it’s so edgy, and I think humor is part of that and the dose of skepticism that comes in. The intense feeling that comes from immigrant families is very strong and undeniable in our work. And that was always important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I reacted against Modernism. Modernism was extremely smart but very chill. Elliot and Pound, Stevens, wanted work that was cold. One of the reasons that I migrated to work from other countries, especially from Eastern Europe, was that it was so intellectual, but it also had a high threshold of feeling, which Modernism did not have. It just did not seem true to my experience growing up that the way you looked at things was cold, or that the way you’d want to write about them was cold. Did you feel that way, too, Stuart?

SD: Sentiment is for me a strength, emotion that empowers thought; sentimentality a weakness, unearned excess. Music has always been a guide for me. [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe called it the language of the inexpressible. It seems to me, in writing, often the themes and thoughts convey emotion, and in music you get the emotion first and that somehow becomes thoughts. But in both the point is to have an effect on the reader by combining thought and emotion. Subjects come with obvious risks and writing about them involves coming up with strategies to avoid the risks. Writing about a subject like violence, for instance, comes with risk of gratuitous effects, the violence porn so many B movies indulge in. One of the subjects in my first book of poems, Brass Knuckles, as well as in my first book of stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, was youth—childhood and adolescence—so obviously one wants to avoid preciousness and schmaltzy cliches we’re all familiar with so far as those subjects go. Eddie’s work on those subjects could serve as a model of how to keep them real and true.  A lot of writers who influenced him were writers I was reading too.

EH: [Saul] Bellow is a tremendous model for us, because the intellect is so high but street thinking is crucial to him.  

SD: It doesn’t have to be Chicago, I mean, your relationship with Phil Levine was incredibly strong and influential, I think, finally, in both directions, for both of you guys.

EH: Phil grew up in Detroit, with almost exactly the same experience that my parents grew up in in Chicago. It was virtually the same. Phil and my mom were the same age, and her experience in Logan Square was very much like his experience on the west side of Detroit. It was very parallel. And Phil’s family thought of themselves as middle class but they were working at nine and 10 and 11, too.

SD: Phil typifies for me that idea that If I’m going to tell a story in verse--and he was a great storyteller, both in person and on the page--I want them to feel something. When he gave a reading, the reading was powerful, it was like somebody getting up there with a sax.

EH: I agree, he’s emotionally present.

SD: That’s kind of what I’m trying to talk about. I think Chicago prompted that idea that that’s what art did.

EH: And he wanted to be the poet of Detroit.

SD: Same thing, working class city.

EH: Working class city. That was really important to him. He had the same idea we have. [Rainer Maria] Rilke articulated it when he said, “Childhood is inexhaustible as a subject.” For me, that’s linked totally to the North Side of Chicago. For Phil, it was linked to Detroit, even though once he went away to the University of Iowa he never lived in Detroit again.

DGE: Stylistically, your poetry, both of you, is unique. As a reader, you think you’re inside something that’s perfectly sensible, realistic, then suddenly there’s this explosion or this diversion that takes us, takes the poems, to somewhere else. Are you conscious of this construction and are you conscious of how you build toward this kind of effect?

EH: Poetry is a form of associative thinking. There are people I guess you’d say are straightforward realistic writers, but I’m not one of them and I don’t think Stuart is either. When you combine the kind of emotional thinking that you get in poetry with a kind of associative or dream logic that’s not straight forward, you’re getting the effects that you’re talking about. That is, for all of their differences, Stuart’s work and my work are both very located. But the location is a kind of launching point. There’s always an element of description, but they don’t stay at the descriptive level. If you stay at the simply descriptive level, you can’t get the kind of emotional liftoff that I’m looking for. You need this other thing to kick in, which is related to the irrational or the unconscious or emotional thinking or whatever you want to call it. People often look to Chicago literature as the kind of gritty realism you get in, say, [Carl] Sandburg or Nelson Algren. I would say that that was a sort of launching pad for us but then we moved into some other, more intuitive, associative-type logic. Does that sound right to you Stuart?

SD: Yes, to get specific—given that we’ve been talking about the experience we share of growing up in Chicago—you have a poem I’ve always loved and often used in my classes to demonstrate how one can work an everyday object and situation into something magical. It’s called “My Grandmother’s Bed,” and is about her Murphy bed. The associative way the poet is playing with that image which centers the poem and then takes you deeper into the nocturnal-- sleep and night and dreams—and summons up from the ordinary another dimension that flirts with magical realism or fabulism, but never quite crosses over. The way that bed appears out of a wall absolutely captures an authentic magic of childhood. There’s the leap we look for a poem to make and take us with it.

EH: It’s just childhood thinking, how astonished we were that my grandmother had a bed in the wall.

SD: Poetry is so fiercely about the imagination. One way we talk about the imagination is it’s fabulist, or it can assert itself in realism just as well, but what the writer is always looking for is some kind of imaginative component that one is taking one into.

DGE: Specifically, about the poems in the Chicago poetry anthology...."I Missed the Demonstration" relies, I think, on an understated opening that establishes the narrator as somebody who works at "the rail-yard," a reference, I suppose, to your job as a brakeman. This reference sets up a contrast to the cast of characters who did not miss the demonstration, including college kids, the draft dodging couple off to join a commune, the teenager on the cusp of joining the Marines. There's this sense that the narrator, and by inference perhaps a lot of other people, are consumed with life challenges other than the seemingly all-consuming issue before him. Why, other than its connection to your own biography, was Chicago the right place in which to set this poem?

EH: Yes, Chicago 1968, the Democratic Convention. I think it’s funny because it’s of world consequence what’s happening, but I have a job. I can’t miss my job, so I miss the demonstration, which is I missed the big historical event. I have to work overtime and can’t get loose: that strikes me as something true about life that’s funny and true and painful and poignant, which is that you don’t live in history with a big “H.” You live in your life and sometimes it overlaps with history. That poem is the conflict between something historical happening in Chicago that was not about Chicago. [Mayor Richard J.] Daley was the center of it and the convention was the center of it, but those of us who lived there, we also had our jobs. I would have liked to have been at the demonstration, but I wasn’t a college kid. I wasn’t part of this great historical event because I was riding around these six railroad yards I had to go to, working on the extra-board. I went there afterward, but I missed it all. There’s still tear gas around, people that were still there, but I wasn’t with Allen Ginsberg, stopping the demonstraters.

DGE:  Stuart, in "Daredevil," the narrator is among a crowd of bystanders watching a kid scaling a bridge over the Chicago Sanitary Canal, a stupid and potentially fatal act. The narrator says "the edge is theater," and, indeed, the crowd watches with interest but takes no other part. This, like a lot of your work, resonates with a particular sense of neighborhood--it's everybody on the block chasing the fire truck or all the eyes peeking out windows at the sound of a bang. How is the setting, particularly Chicago, impactful in this poem?

SD: I don’t know that the poem needs to be Chicago, it’s a very urban setting, so there’s any number of cities that if they had a bridge over a Sanitary Canal, it could be set in that city, but the poem goes out of its way to make sure that the reader knows it’s a real place, it’s not only Chicago, it’s pretty clear it’s  a working class, lower class area of the city where all this is taking place. The poem uses a technique that I don’t mess around with even in fiction too often, it creates a “we” voice, set in the first-person plural--a story like [William] Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” uses the exact same technique. The narrator is not the author, the narrator is not me, the narrator is some voice coming out of that crowd who is not the most empathetic person in the world. He’s willing to entertain a sense of wonder over what this crazy guy is doing risking his life to entertain people. But at the same time…that’s not impressing him.

DGE: The setting is important. The crowd is so important in the poem, a sense of who that crowd is is critical to the shape of the poem.

SD: Chicago supplies that all the time. You can write about an interior like that bed that flops out of a wall or you can write about an exterior, like your hood or the prairie behind the billboard. The thing about all that, if you just describe it as well as you can, the setting is doing all kinds of work that you don’t have to do. You’re now writing about class, in some cases you’re writing about ethnicity, you’re writing about childhood, you’re writing about the relationship between somebody vulnerable and a kind of reigning macho attitude, etc. The deeper ideas emerge because you have established the place.

EH: You also write a lot about adolescence. That’s a somewhat different zone than childhood because you start getting more freedom. You write beautifully about adolescence in Chicago, too. Chicago is not exactly the subject, it’s the space.

SD: One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Chicago I grew up in, is that there was a tribalism of that generation after the war that was really powerful. I don’t expect the reader to say there’s a kind of tribe mentality in that poem about the kid who’s a daredevil, but in writing it the guy’s speaking for the “we,” is kind of speaking for the very questionable attitudes that come out of a generation of poorly educated adolescents who are running the streets wild. It’s the same kind of attitude that probably in some ways is fueling Lord of the Flies. Every time you walked out the door of your house, you were in a world governed by the prisoners. They were out there running a show your parents didn’t know existed.

EH: Laughs.

SD: I find it hilarious, too.  The daily taken for granted madness like in the “Daredevil” poem.  Everybody just watching, taking it in.

DGE: We used to climb onto one of the garage roofs, then we’d see how far down the block we could get jumping from roof to roof.

SD: It’s like Cheever’s story, “The Swimmer,” except jumping garage roofs Instead of swimming in expensive pools on Long Island.  

DGE: As long as you got home when you were supposed to, that was it.

SD: I want to just say we’ve arrived at an intersection here, the three of us, where we’re having this quote intellectual conversation about poetry and we’ve absolutely, easily just floated into telling anecdotes. I think that that is really part of what writing is about. I powerfully associate it with Chicago, but I’ve heard Southern writers talk about the same thing—we sat on the porch and we told stories. The first group of people, when I joined the Peace Corp and we were over at Syracuse training, the group that I immediately was drawn to was all the people from New York. They were doing the exact same thing. Everybody was just sitting there…as a matter of fact, we would do it every night at Warren Wilson.

EG: That’s true. Those conversations were so hilarious.

SD: In some respects, it sounds like when you’re writing you’re thinking about deep image, and who does this technique and who does that technique, and you are thinking about all those things, but charging out of you is just the urge to tell these stories. Chicago is just a fountain of them.

EH: I agree. Anecdotes are underrepresented in the way people think about literature. Anecdotes have a bad reputation, but actually they’re absolutely crucial to how you daydream yourself into situations. You’re completely right about that. In fact, you and I, that’s been the whole history of our relationship.

SD: That’s exactly right.

EH: We start out talking about [Antonio] Machado but the next thing we’re talking about is kids in our second-grade class. I immediately wanted to tell you about the kid who had the most cred in my neighborhood, the Whiffle Ball Kid, because his father was a janitor, and he could get up on all the roofs, and his father found all the Whiffle balls up there, and so Gary O’Neill had all the Whiffle balls, he had the most cred in the neighborhood. He had dozens and dozens of Whiffle balls.

DGE: For both of you...Poetry requires distinctly different craftsmanship than any other literary form, and we mostly don't think of place as being integral to the art in the same way it is to certain prose pieces. When you do establish place in a poem, as you've both done with poems in the anthology, what effect does that decision have? What is the artistic rationale for using Chicago rather than anyplace else?

EH: The great epifanic poems, in my experience, in literature, begin, almost always, with a very specific sense of place. Now, it doesn’t have to be Chicago, but, like, I’ll give you some examples. “In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur, I had a vision once.” Anthony Hecht, “The Hill.”

“In Rochester, Minnesota…” James Wright, “A Blessing.”

“In the waiting room, a dentist’s office in Worchester, Massachusetts…” 'In the Waiting Room,' Elizabeth Bishop.

Establishing a time and a place in a poem very early gives you a tremendous amount of freedom to associate off of that without ever losing the reader. There are all kinds of poets in the John Ashbery mode who just start free associating and don’t want to be located. But the kind of launch that I like starts in a particular place and time and then tries to lift off. It doesn’t stay at that level. But once you’ve established that at the beginning of a poem, you have it, it’s nailed there for the reader, and you can go very far and come back, or not; I tend to like to come back. If you’re walking on the bridge over the Chicago River, you know exactly where you are located and then you can go into a kind of imaginative space. For me, locating so many of my poems in Chicago, they’re not always or even mostly about Chicago. But they are located there as a kind of launching place to dramatize a kind of experience. Does that sound right to you, Stuart?

SD: I’ve been attaching myself to all these ideas, but I’m going to take a step away, not in disagreement, but just to look at it from a little different perspective. Don’s question, as it should, given the conversation we’re having, is about genre. I have a hard time keeping this conversation within genre, just from my own point of view. I think a lot of writers are just plain writers of place, doesn’t matter if they write nonfiction, doesn’t matter if they write fiction, doesn’t matter if they write memoir, doesn’t matter if they write poetry, doesn’t matter if they write drama. Some writers just are writers of place. There isn’t anything about the genre of poetry that shuts somebody like that down. I think going back to this idea that you take risks when you’re writing, that one of the built-in ones that does operate within the genre, is that critics are alert to, “Is somebody just writing localisms?” I think that’s the pejorative term. On the other hand, if you’re Robert Frost, you’re not going to be accused of that. A writer like [Eugenio] Montale, his place is in Italy, his place is Liguria, different books are set in different places, but you can go right to those places today, as I have done, because he’s the kind of writer that made me want to go out of my way. Cuttlefish Bones, that astonishingly lyrical book, is there right before you when you visit Liguria, as say [Franz] Kafka’s The Castle is when you visit Prague. The advantage of writing about Chicago, for me, is that I had that place even before I knew I had it, I was weaned on it. Other places that I’ve wanted to write about, I had a much harder time acquiring.

DGE: It’s very difficult to know something that nobody else knows, or maybe that everybody else knows but that you’re uniquely qualified to write about. You and Ed write about Chicago in ways that very few else can do.

EH: What Stuart’s saying is that it was unconscious. It was sort of given to us. We weren’t very conscious of what it was, we were just living it.

 

Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry. He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

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