Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: John Huey

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

John Huey’s

student work of the 60’s-70’s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf.
After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has had poems presented in ‘Poetry Quarterly’ and in the ‘Temptation’ anthology published in London by Lost Tower Publications. Work has also appeared in ‘Leannan Magazine’, ‘Sein und Werden’, at ‘In Between Hangovers’, ‘Bourgeon’, ‘The Lost River Review’, ‘Red Wolf Journal’, ‘Perfume River Poetry Review’, ‘What Rough Beast’, ‘Poydras Review’, ‘Flatbush Review’ and ‘Memoir Mixtapes’. In 2018 he appeared in two further Anthologies, ‘Unbelief’, published by Local Gems Press, and ‘Addiction/Recovery Anthology’, published by Madness Muse Press. His full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information and Amazon links can be found at www.john-huey.com .

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry in late 1964 or there about as a very young American High School student in Suburban Washington, DC, who had, quite fortunately, received some great guidance form an inspired teacher and his wife who pointed me in the direction of Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti who, though not available in the school library or formal course of study, I did find in a local chain bookstore and devoured immediately. Whitman, of course, was more readily available, and he was also an early major  influence. Bob Dylan also had a great deal to do with this awakening in another realm and history has shown that I was right in picking him out as a primary and early source of inspiration.

As a kid who “didn’t quit fit” I noticed, that despite a stable home and family environment in 1950’s – early 1960’s “White Bread America”,  that something was “off” and missing in that long gone world and I started to wonder why.

As I had already noticed poets who had come before questioning their place in society I felt that writing something on my own might help with my own questions. To both my delight and relief it did and sorting things out on the page through poetry quickly became a regular, then daily, habit of mind.

2. So would you say it was the inspired teacher and his wife who introduced you to poetry?

It was in the air. The teachers lit the flame but I would have picked it up within a year of that one way or the other. There was only one other real poet kid in my High School and I met him in 1965 and he was into all the beats that you could find in our environment there. Right place, right time.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Context is everything, a bit later, in college, I came under the influence of visionaries such as Hart Crane who, for a while, totally dominated my writing as the beats and Bob Dylan had done a bit earlier on. The British kicked in with Blake (psychedelic  visions thereof) and a college professor friend introduced me to Donne and the other 17th Century influences like Herbert. The Earl of Rochester fascinated me for other reasons but somehow I did manage to stand my own ground with, for better or worse, my own voice though the 19th century romantics such as Keats had their way with me as did Coleridge (more drug influences included there)..

This is a difficult question of course and there are dozens of important influences on me such as Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Auden, Plath and later, lesser known voices such as Weldon Keys who played a major role. While still alive, Berryman was looming at the time as was Lowell in their obsessions and brilliant downward spirals.

Every worthwhile poet is, to some degree, responsive to the sum-total of his or her influences but stands up for their own vision in the end.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

It varies greatly and I wish I had the discipline of some my great old poet friends like Gary Lemons (‘Snake’ series of books that are a must read) who can write every morning.

Much of what I like best takes place past midnight and is written, not without irony, on this handheld device with rough cuts emailed to myself to work on later.

For major projects like my recently completed 60’s-early 70’s book I have have a full vision and a deadline in mind and write to that.

I was stuck on the final section of this book, called ‘The Sunset Fires’, and exiled myself for a week to Putney, VT where a large chunk of the book takes place to “workshop” the final ten poems in a week. That tactic worked in that case but most of the time I write late at night only when so moved and revise in the mornings on the big screen.

5. What motivates you to write?

Another variable open ended question!

Initially, as a young person, it was a quest for identity combined with a desire to communicate in a unique and visionary way. All high mountaintops and idealization mixed with the ever present emotional upheaval of the young.

By the late 70’s I had burned through this vein and when some personally acquired bad habits, along with an unwise marriage, really kicked in I had an all purpose reason to stop and that’s exactly what I did.

The “bad habits” continued into the 80’s where, after leaving the idealizations surrounding a  yet to be fully kindled academic career behind, I somehow figured out how to make money in a totally unrelated career that eventually took me to every corner of the earth.

After taking my last drink in early 1987 I embarked on a second marriage and a family and was just too crazy busy to think of anything else. At least that’s what I told myself at the time when I saw my friends still writing oand publishing.

By 2004 the second marriage was effectively over and an opportunity presented itself to take my then thriving consulting business to Russia where I became a distributor of security screening equipment.

In early 2006 I met, in Moscow, the woman who is my current wife and the intensity and excitement of our life in Russia together became something that literally few people in the West could believe much less understand.

After the inevitable end of my Russian businessi in 2009 we came back to the US where I knew, in my bones, that the Russia “adventure” needed to be chronicled somehow. Though I didn’t fully extract myself from that place until 2013 in 2011 I began writing what became ‘The Moscow Poetry File’ which was my attempt to somehow transfer some of that undefinable and amazing experience into verse. I think I at least partially succeeded on that score.

After the Moscow book I completed two further collections that are still seeking publishers while being fortunate enough to appear in three anthologies as well as numerous magazines both on line and in print.

These books proved to be “event driven” as well and I find that the observable world provides more than enough incentive and stimulus to be both the subject and motivator for poetry.

I’m looking for the essence of both the times and the situations that unfold at this later stage of life and time itself, at age 70, gives me more than enough motivation to “get it down” while and where I can.

5.1. What does “event-driven” and “observable world” mean to you?

In addition to how I address this indirectly in my introduction to ‘The Sunset Fires’ (PDF attached) I am, at root, a determined lifelong atheist and dialectical materialist who only believes what is perceived by the senses in the observable universe. What moves people is both internal and external but all of human history and motivation can be explained by physical/chemical/biological properties as they interact with human populations over time. My favorite Englishman, by many a mile, is Charles Darwin, and I view the world through the lenses developed by Darwin and his fellow geniuses’ of Science and Nature.

But “where is the mystery” you might say? To me there is more than enough “mystery” to go around…. For example, “Where the hell did Trump come from and why is he the embodiment of pure human evil?”, “Why do some people recover from alcoholism and addiction and others die horribly and alone? “, “Why do some find love and lifelong happiness while others, just as capable, end up bereft?”, “Why does randomness determine so many final outcomes in life and are there any external reasons for these effects?”…The list goes on and on, is endless, and would provide countless subjects for Poetry over countless lifetimes.

6. What is your work ethic?

My “work ethic” goes back to the days of my late mother who, along with many other old time, Protestant American verities, instilled in us the proposition that “when you start something you finish it” which, these days, leads to very few incomplete fragments in the work I attempt now.

The exception to this is when I’m outside my wheelhouse as when I try to write fiction where an idea for a long incomplete novel has been kicking around in fragments for nearly a decade.

Poems however, when started, are always completed as are books.

I wasted enough time when I was on my “hiatus” from writing between 1978 and 2011 to waste any time now.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

All of the  writers who influenced me in my youth still resonate of course but there are several who are still a never ending presence.

Ginsburg, despite the overdone hippie trappings and embellishments, still remains central in his revolution of style and strength of spirit that propelled him forward as the indisputably essential beat poet. His shadow is long and his diction and unrelenting cadence still occupy the background in everything I write.

As a lifelong resident of Washington, DC the ghost of Walt Whitman, in his Civil War years, has been present in the city and in my writing as a beacon of goodness in the midst of the death and dismemberment  of the hospitals he visited daily during those times. A visionary artist can live a visionary life and while I have never been able to achieve such goodness that great, generous spirit shows me the way to a better way always despite the small chance of fully achieving anything approaching that.

Hart Crane was another gay man who suffered terribly when alive without Whitman’s vast resources of compassion and self love.

Through the alcoholic suffering Crane always showed great courage as a writer and his transcendent lyrical beauty is something  I have always reached for but have never, of course, been able to fully grasp.

The writers I most admire are better than I can ever hope to be and triumph over history and adversity to get to the palace of the “gods” with the only form of immortality available to us. The transmission of exactly where they wanted to be over time and the truth of the message, sometimes at the peril of the messenger, is all that any poet, as he or she ages, could aspire to.

There are many others other than these three of course but it is these voices I hear most clearly down to these days.

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

There are people I really respect writing now like John Robinson and Charles Wright but most of what I see in the major journals passes me right by. I’m either too old to “get it” or not “tuned in” to most of what’s out there these days. I guess you will never find me in the audience at a “poetry slam”… Enough said on that. Dylan said, when I was young, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” I really should leave it there before I start a riot or burn someone else’s house down.

My good friends who I know personally and who I have watched develop are a whole other matter and I get a world of good from the work of Gregory Luce who I have known for over 20 years and Gary Lemons who I have known for 50. These poets really encouraged and nurtured me when I returned to writing and their ability to hang in there for the “long haul” is really inspiring as are their books.

A great regret was the premature death, in 2006, of my wonderful friend from my college days in Vermont, and fine poet, Gregory Jerozal. He was never properly published in book form during his life and I’m on a mission, with his wife’s permission, to try to pull a proper book together from his many existing journal publications and old manuscripts I have. I’m being remiss for not completing this project and I hope I’m done before life is finished with me. He was a really fine poet and I miss him greatly. He would be a shining light if alive today.

8.1. Why do you admire these writers?

The writers I admire say what they mean and mean what they say without fashionably correct subjects and points of emphasis. A poet who gets to the heart of the matter and gets the reader to feel that it’s true, with a strong voice, and not written in a poetry workshop somewhere, is a poet I want to read. Allot of what I see out there is in a pale thin voice and the poets I admire most are the opposite of that.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I don’t think that you “become” a writer at all. It’s something you are. When I was 15 I was a writer and have no recollection of how that happened. It’s just something I had to do after having read some things that moved me. Artists in that sense are born, not made. at least that’s the way I look at it. The idea of writers “schools” has always amused me though I was, myself, greatly encouraged by my undergraduate creative writing teacher, John Irving, who, in terms of poetry, was more of a friend, coach and cheerleader than teacher. Likewise, when I went to Bread Loaf the one on one sessions I had with the fine poet William Meredith were also more of the same coaching and encouragement I had experienced with John. Those fine writers didn’t teach me, they inspired.

I was a writer even in those many years that I wasn’t involved at all and I know that because of the fact that things I have written since my “return” in 2011 have a tenor and a voice that I know was in gestation while I was dormant.

Back in the 90’s one of my friends I met in Secular AA was the late Washington DC cultural luminary and black arts movement poet Gaston Neal. I spent a great deal of time with him the year before his death in 1999 and he looked at me one day and told me “You are a poet, always have been and always will be and I know you will write again.” 12 years later I did.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

In addition to trying to get two further volumes of poetry published and continuing to write individual poems to send around to the journals I have had, as I mentioned earlier in response to one of the questions, a long delayed novel in the works that may prove too daunting to complete any time in the near term. The project in question takes place in a timeline from the late 60’s to the early 90’s and involves hippie thieves based in Vermont, the scene around a long defunct artists bar on Lower Broadway in Manhattan called St Adrian’s, a Washington Post journalist and some unique and disturbing circumstances involving parties known and now departed as well as a purely fictional cast of characters who propel the narrative forward despite their early and premature demise.

I’m not at all happy defining my own limitations but I may have met them here. I’m spending a week with an old poet friend in Vermont this coming May to get close to some primary sources with a person who was there

“When” who may be able to help me in moving this difficult (for me) manuscript off the proverbial dime at last.  We shall see.

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