March 2013 Issue
The poet Paul Hannigan would have been 77 years old today if he had not succumbed to a Job-like host of ailments, finally perishing of pancreatitis in 2000. At one time a well-published and talked-about writer, by the time he died Hannigan was nearly forgotten, even by those who had known him. He’s 30 years out of print, in very few libraries, and has no Wikipedia page. If Adam Golaski, earlier that same year, hadn’t happened upon one of Hannigan’s old chapbooks at Macintyre and Moore Books (which was, as you might guess, a bookstore, and so is now, obviously, closed, and perhaps itself as little known as the poet) than that obscurity may have persisted to the crack of doom. But the best of Paul Hannigan’s work begs to be preserved, and a dozen years after discovering a staple-bound chapbook in a dusty stack, his elective executer has edited and published The Problem Of Boredom In Paradise: Selected Poems of Paul Hannigan from Flim Forum, the innovative poetry press Golaski runs with the poet Matthew Klane. The first copies will be available at the AWP conference in Boston this month and subsequently at remaining bookstores, libraries, and online. This is the first time Hannigan’s work has appeared online or in print (save for a handful of poems that appeared in this magazine in 2007) since long before his death. It is a cause for celebration, and it was in a celebratory mood that I spoke with Mr. Golaski on the eve of the book’s new birth.
John Cotter: I remember the day you discovered Bringing Back Slavery and brought a copy to the gallery where we were hanging out that year. We were all jolted and titillated by the title and the cover (founding fathers exposing themselves, urinating), and this was back when bad-taste humor was out of style. But you were so much more taken with the poems inside. Even then you talked about finding more of his work, finding out whether he was still alive. It wasn’t long before you were talking about putting a selected together, a Selected that’s finally here, and before we talk about the poems themselves, I wanted to ask you about the process. The book you envisioned went through hundreds of changes when it lived in the ether and more changes again when you met Hannigan’s widow Caroline and began to seriously compile a text (those changes included a change of publisher at one point and, perhaps more significantly, a decision to scrap a more ambitious plan for the book which would have included fiction, novel excerpts, and some reviews).
Without rehashing the whole of it or talking about anything you’d rather leave dark, I do wonder what it’s like for you to have the book in hand, what the biggest surprises or disappointments might have been, and whether you think you have a future with Paul Hannigan or if this is a kind of bittersweet goodbye?
Adam Golaski: The biggest surprise is that it is satisfying. I like and am confident about the selections I made. The poems I love that aren’t in the selected aren’t there for good reasons other than page count. The first publisher I spoke with suggested I keep the book to a hundred pages, which then seemed reasonable but now—after discovering a completely finished, unpublished poetry ms. along with a couple hundred unpublished poems (in various states) is obviously ridiculous. Excluding the prose you mention doesn’t cause me as much pain as it might because there’s so much of it–to publish just two short stories, or a story and a half dozen book reviews wouldn’t have done the prose justice. I’d love the opportunity to do a selected prose, just as I’d love to do a complete writings. If only to spend more time with Paul, if you’ll forgive the familiarity. Even if this is the end of my involvement with his legacy, it’s no bittersweet farewell: I’ve worried so much about this book for so long–it’s a huge relief for it to be actual.
I don’t want to go on too long but you brought up bringing his poem to the gallery–to our little group–that was my first effort at a selected. Weren’t we each of us bringing in work we liked every month? I chose a few from Bringing Back Slavery. Those poems made it all the way to this selected!
JC: I remember laughing about them. They’re hugely irreverent, about history and religion and of course about themselves. Paul (I’m going to call him Paul now too) was constantly kicking his own leg out from under himself. “Song”: from Bringing Back Slavery:
Baby put some love in your love
baby put some live in your heart
sweet baby put some sweet love in your hart [sic, throughout]
sweet baby where’s the sweet love in you sweetheart!
Sort of reminds me of George Saunders re: Fergie:
Hump my hump.
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you lumpy slumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.
But while Saunders isn’t satirizing much except for the song itself (and maybe the internal contradictions of 4th generation feminism), Hannigan goes on to use the song parody to speak very bitterly and pointedly about race:
Honorary white man so lonely honeybaby cause so few
of I around it make him mean refugee in all lands like
Cisco kid he was frien of mine make us sad bein
so lonely honorary white Irish honeybaby
But note that sprezztoura tone: no apostrophe on the dialect, the sense that Paul doesn’t care if you grok him or can’t. There’s lots here that I see resonating with contemporary readers: the phony (& sometimes real) sloppiness, the engagingly bitter tone, the I-just-wake-up-and-run-my-hand-through-them lines. But then there’s the real bitterness, sadness, and the sense that Paul’s political engagement is inseparable from his work. Where do you see The Problem of Boredom in Paradise fitting into our poetry culture, and what would you like to see?
AG: Hannigan’s poetry looks like the poetry a lot of our contemporaries write. Which you characteristically describe so well with a few strokes: “engagingly bitter” and “I-just-wake-up-and-run-my-hand-through-them lines.” However, his poetry is informed. By American history, British and American literature (canonical and contemporary), daily newspaper consumption, a knowledge of foreign languages, a knowledge of music, and an amateur’s interest in science and mathematics. Hannigan’s poetry is not often kind, but it is empathetic. His poetry is wry. Sneaky. His preoccupations are shocking, especially his preoccupation with slavery, but they’re real preoccupations, not shock tactics.
Saunders writes genial satire. Hannigan’s poems aren’t satire, and they aren’t genial, as you point out.
Aside from wanting people to read the book, I’d like to see reaction. Poetic, critical, personal. When a poet is recovered his recovery reminds that for every name handed down a few are lost. Can we “recover” those hidden from view now? Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe recovery is by nature a project for the generations to follow.
JC: Do you think there’s any way in which Hannigan willed his own obscurity? You sum-up some of his most considerable preoccupations: “how we are betrayed by our spouses, our friends, our will, our bodies, our leaders, and by God who doesn’t even exist; our failure to learn, our inability to connect (not for want of trying), strange love, and cruelty … talk that disintegrates …”
It seems as though the only part of his life story that wouldn’t have fit into one of his own poems is this resuscitation. What was it like to track down those who had known him? Were they resistant at first. How did you draw them out? And did their stories jibe or were they at odds?
AG: I like that first question, and hint at an answer in my introduction to the book but only barely. Let’s look at a specific instance. After an inexplicable blowout with a friend who was also an editor, Hannigan declared himself finished as a published author. I know that at least one journal around the same time solicited work from Hannigan, and it’s ridiculous to think that no other journal would take his work, yet that’s what he believed. Could be he was tired and was happy enough to have an excuse to retire himself, but I think there’s more to it. Cutting off his own nose, so-to-speak, genuine hurt, a lack of confidence, the realization that he didn’t have the energy to deal with all the petty bullshit that attends publication. You and I, we’re still willing to negotiate with editors’ changes to our work, to deal with over-sensitive cowards who happen to be taste-makers, to travel a thousand miles to do a reading attended by three people, etc., etc. Maybe Hannigan, after being humiliated by a man he considered a pal, decided he wasn’t still willing. It’s not a difficult crisis to imagine. If we consider the endless medical calamities on top of a normal desire for respect, his action seems very reasonable.
Caroline Banks, Hannigan’s widow, agreed to meet with me shortly after I first contacted her. She loaned me a notebook, shared some anecdotes, and gave me permission to include a few poems at the end of the essay I wrote about Hannigan. Once she read the essay, she felt I understood Hannigan well enough to welcome me to his papers, and support my effort to publish a selected. Otherwise, I contacted poets who knew Hannigan. All were willing to speak with me, some less than others. No story I heard directly contradicted another–the difference was all in emphasis. Hannigan was impossible, he was difficult, or he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I’m grateful to anyone who spoke with me. Ask me in twenty years how I felt about Matthew Klane. Probably I’ll wonder why you’re not asking about me, dammit.
JC: I’m struck by how much control over his poems when he was younger. The emotional force of the poem can change completely on the last line, or rather be defined by the last line, like the “monstrous night nurses” in “By Which the Poet Did Not Mean” or “and they are always smiling” in “My Friends”
Do you felt that talent disintegrated, or merely transmogrified? What kind of arc did you find in his work as you explored it through time (his and yours) from books to chapbooks to notebooks?
AG: The poems you refer to were written sometime between 1966 and 1970. In ’66, Hannigan was thirty. That’s young, but not that young. On the other hand, yes, his poems often take a turn in the last line. Take one of his earliest poems, “A Snake Once Flew Through the Air”:
Our appetites prescribe
The magnitude of our failures—
Our vices the color of our joys.
Dimensionless and flavorless our
Science counts the days of our trying.
A snake once flew through the air.
The last line is so abrupt it’s hard to remember the rest of the poem.
Dissolve–as in to pass into solution–sounds about right; although transmogriphy as a grotesque transformation fits, also. His poetry grew more relaxed. No technique a poet is interested in totally disappears–a technique’s presence may be felt by the poet’s decision not to use it. In the final section of the selected is “A Surprise Ending,” which begins, “The best surprise ending would be no ending / but they cannot all be diamonds”. The best end was always on Hannigan’s mind.
JC: Flim Forum is a press that has paid special attention, in the past, to visual poetry and to more non-traditional work. How does Paul Hannigan fit into the Flim Form catalog?
AG: Flim Forum is me and Matthew Klane. We have an agreed upon aesthetic–”dirty minimalism” is a phrase we like. We are a press for experimental poetry. However, when we established ourselves with the anthologies, we were glad to include work by poets who don’t clearly fit our aesthetic. There’s the power of putting something into a new context, which interests me, but there’s also the desire to remain flexible.
When I suggested the project to Matthew he surprised me with his trust. Is the poetry good, he asked. I said yes, and we went from there. That’s the ultimate aesthetic, right? Is the poetry good? The poetry is good. Then yes.
For more information about The Problem of Boredom in Paradise, please visit the Flim Forum site.
All drawings are from the notebooks of Paul Hannigan.