Simon Hunt‘s first collection of poetry, Lesser Magi, was published in June 2018, by Hummingbird Press. Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and raised in England and the United States, he co-edited Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) and contributed an essay to that volume. His poems have appeared in Measure, Homestead Review, Light Quarterly, The Raintown Review, The Seventh Quarry, The Sewanee Review, and other journals—as well as in the online publications 14 X 14 and The Chimaera. He has taught English at various levels in California, Missouri, and Nevada. Married and the father of two, he is a member of the Board of the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, where he has served as a volunteer docent for more than a decade.
Previous Featured American Poets
The High Window is pleased to include five recent poems by Simon Hunt. But here he is first in conversation with Jodie Hollander whose own work we published in THW#5 and who was herself our Featured American Poet in THW#8.
JH: Hi Simon, It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to interview you for The High Window. First of all, congratulations on the publication of your debut full-length collection, Lesser Magi, which is rich with beautifully crafted poems. I’d like to begin by asking you a little about the landscape of your childhood. You were born in Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) and raised in both England and the United States. Can you perhaps say a bit about how your unique upbringing may have shaped your writing?
SH: Hi, Jodie. Thank you very much. I was born to British parents in Rhodesia as that country neared its transformation into Zimbabwe. We left when I was a baby and lived in South Africa where my younger brother was born. Then we were in England for a few years before emigrating to the United States, where I (mostly) grew up–briefly in Miami, Florida, and then in San Diego, California. All of these moves were the result of my father’s career in journalism (and it is probably from him that I inherit my verbose qualities). It’s all a bit less glamorous than it sounds; my only ‘African memories’ are of breaking my arm falling off a coin-operated ride and of being on the ship to move back to the UK … Really, I’m a California kid – but frequent travels, including several summers in England, perhaps helped me to have a broader world-view. More significantly to my writing, I think the frequent moves (I never lived in the same house for more than a few years until I was in my 30s) helped to make me comfortable with solitude. And then, too, my family’s natural Anglophilia helped me to find Shakespeare, Keats, and other favorites earlier than I might have otherwise–and later the same happened with punk rock …
JH That’s interesting. While reading your book, I kept wondering about Africa and what appears (as you say) ‘glamorous.’ Perhaps something about that in your next collection – about that fall?! That being said, your time spent in England would have been wonderful in terms of meeting many of the masters. You mention Keats and Shakespeare. Can you say more about reading these two? I imagine iambic pentameter was fixed in your ear rather early?
SH: Well, I wish I had more to say about Africa, and I do hope to get back to the land of my birth one day. It may be more likely, given recent events there, than it has been for a while … And, yes, one day: a poem on how I fell off the ride! Perhaps I could also work in there how I was sent to the principal’s office as a liar at kindergarten in Florida for insisting that I had been born in Africa. The teacher just couldn’t believe it, given my pale skin and English accent … But, yes, I was drawn to English culture and, thus, English Literature very young because I was bookish, English, and sort of uncomfortable in my Southern California childhood culture (most kids are uncomfortable quite often, I think; for me, I often felt I’d ‘fit-in’ better if we were in England …). Anyway, I was drawn to Shakespeare and Keats early, in particular, because they’re freaking amazing of course. And then for different reasons: the verbal brilliance of Shakespeare on stage and the way the plays repay repeated readings, viewings, and stagings. Well, I was absolutely hooked after a school field-trip to a mediocre local production of Two Gentlemen of Verona many say his worst play, but no way!). With Keats, I was guilty for a long time of, like many people, missing how smart and tough he is and just romanticizing the beautiful sadness of his work and life (which are of course beautiful and sad, still one of my favorite combinations). Anyway, I’ve loved those two beyond reason for a long time, and – fortunately – they are the kind of idols worthy of the idolatry ….
You would think, yes, that I was training myself in meter by reading so much of WS and JK and the poets they led me to, and maybe I was training my ear a little, but the sad truth is I was really dim about technical matters in poetry for a very long time. As I tell my students, for some of us, it just takes a long time for the ear to develop … In my case, I bought for much too long the idea that rhyme and meter were inescapably dated, musty, cutesy – and tried to write the free verse that seemed more contemporary. It was only through examining a paradox – that almost none of my poems rhymed or used meter, whereas almost all of the poems I truly, truly loved did … that I was able to take my writing in the direction it has gone in the last 20 years or so, as represented in the book …
JH: Well, perhaps even if you weren’t technically ‘studying’ meter at a young age, something about the musicality of what you were reading appealed to you? For me, poetry is hard to distinguish from prose unless it has a distinct music to it. It seems you were naturally attracted to metrical poetry, which I think many of us are. That being said, few of us take the time to really learn the craft. One can, of course, also create beautiful music in free verse, but it’s much more difficult, and free verse poems usually still retain some of the ghost of the meter anyway. I wonder: how did you learn meter? Then, too, I wonder what has attracted you to the sonnet form, and does that hearken back to your love of WS and JK?
SH: I hope what you say is true: that I was learning the whole time, even when I didn’t know I was. And a big YES! to what you say about music. Although there are lots of free verse poems and poets whose work I enjoy, I will confess that I find quite a bit of contemporary poetry slack and unmusical (not yours of course, Jodie!). I think you’re exactly right: one of the things we crave from poetry is some kind of musicality or at least a sonic experience.
How did I learn meter? Well, by studying it for years and wanting to understand it better than I did naturally. I still don’t have the best ear … Then by writing in it, when I was ready, I began to learn a lot faster …
I AM powerfully attracted to the sonnet form and, yes, it must be connected to my admiration of Shakespeare and Keats. But there are so many others, too! So many writers for so long have been able to do so many different and amazing things with that form, which might – at first glance – look so limited and limiting … There are a number of sonnets in the book, including many of the poems in it that I’m happiest with. At times, I think I should work harder to write in other forms – and there are some other kinds of poems in the book, too, including recent efforts with tetrameter rhyming quatrains and even with free verse, but I do love me some sonnets.
Since we’re talking about music, I want to go on a little tangent. Since childhood, I have loved music – especially folk, rock, punk rock, etc. – and found there a way of thinking about the world and a collection of poses and ideas to which I often return. I’ve also always wished I were ‘musical,’ but my efforts to learn an instrument all failed and I can’t sing well, either. Therefore, I’ve channeled my musical efforts in recent years, such as they are, into poetry. Thus, the book has a section in it of poems that all respond to music or musicians in some way–and most of the section-heading epigraphs in the book come from songs. I agree with you (and the Nobel panel that gave Bob Dylan his well-deserved prize): poetry and music are too closely-linked to worry about where the dividing line falls …
JH: Well, I happen to think your ear is pretty good! And on that note, perhaps we can close by having you say a little bit about the title poem, ‘Lesser Magi’, which is one of my favorites in the collection.
SH: Sure. It’s a true-story poem that refers to O.Henry’s famous Christmas story ‘The Gift of the Magi.’ Many readers will be familiar with this, but just in case …
It’s a terribly sad, terribly beautiful (there’s that combination again!), and terribly ironic story in which a loving but impoverished couple sacrifice their most valuable possessions to buy one another meaningful gifts–gifts, in fact, intended to be accessories to the now-sacrificed possessions. Well, in our case, lovely dorks that we are, my wife and I–as in the poem–bought each other IDENTICAL gifts. Looking at me after the exchange, she said, “Hey, this is like that old story, except stupid …’ ‘Stupid Magi’ quickly yielded to Lesser Magi as a title – and if you’ll indulge me going ‘full-pretentious’ for a moment–I chose it as the title for the volume because (I like the poem and also because) I hope that is a through-line in the book: that we are fallen beings in a fallen world but there are nonetheless ways to find meaning, beauty, wisdom.
Anyway, it’s a fairly traditional Shakespearean sonnet on a fairly traditional sonnet-topic–romantic love–although its quatrains are ‘envelopes’ that rhyme ABBA instead of ABAB. I’m glad you like it, and thanks for saying I have an OK ear.
JH: Thank you, Simon! It’s such a lovely poem. It has been a true pleasure to chat about poetry with you today. I hope your poems reach audiences far and wide!
SH: Well, thank you for your efforts in that direction! I’m really grateful for the conversation.
NB: The Hummingbird Press is redesigning its website, and you can look for Simon Hunt’s book and other Hummingbird titles soon at https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/hummingbirdpress. If you wish to purchase Simon’s book right away, though, your best best is to write him directly at Simon_Hunt@msn.com. He will accept payment via PayPal ($20 inc p&p to “Simon Hunt,” associated with the same email address).
And here are the poems:
We drank a quart of smuggled wine the day
we ditched the opera. Fuck that noise! we cried,
a toast to sucker-classmates trapped inside
some field trip (“gifted” only) matinee.
Another time you plucked me from my bike
a tick before the schoolbus crushed its frame.
You’ve paid death back this time, I guess. “His name—
I’m sure it was, but Michael… not just Mike,”
my mother said. “They thought at first he’d live.
A truck…” I had to put my kids to bed.
Now, linked to news, I pour some hometown red.
Your death’s online. I wonder what you’d give—
my glass raised to the diva of way-back-when—
to hear her now, or to have heard her then.
Alone at last he sits and counts his things:
three rooms, a gun, this silence, clothes, a shelf
for books and music; next to them the rings
and, carved from pine, a box he made himself.
He’d meant it as a gift but kept it when
he left—divorce pre-empted birthday. Now
it stores his keys and watch, his change and pen,
the pad he’d write on if he remembered how.
He’s drafted letters documenting scorn,
but cannot now take aim. His hand just falls.
He lists the children named but never born
and writes her name, starts, stops, can’t think, then scrawls:
xxxxxxxxxxxx“We ended things too slowly but so soon.
xxxxxxxxxxxxI miss you as the sun might miss the moon.”
O. Henry’s magi gave their only treasures—
his watch, her hair—to buy for Christmas day
the tortoise combs and fine watch chain that they
had craved as more than just ironic pleasures.
Of course, it doesn’t matter that hair will grow
again, while watches pawned are not redeemed
as often as they’re sold. To them it seemed
they shared a richness few could ever know.
Last Christmas, we swapped gifts with one another.
You gave me tea and books, then turned to see
what I had brought for you—some books and tea;
and then we wrapped the toys and called your mother.
Is ours no tale if nothing dear is gone?
Love, mark my place; I’ll put the kettle on.
LIKE A BRIDGE
Before I knew I loved you, and
some months before you felt you had
to say you did not love me back,
I grabbed your hand and pulled you past
distracted bouncers, down to where
the VIPs got folding chairs.
We heard a song or two before
they kicked us out and back upstairs.
Still hand in hand, we gazed upon
the man who sang your favorite one,
a song already old by then:
the ’83 reunion.
And how much older it seems now
as I at fifty sing along
with Art on my car radio.
I’ve got my hands at ten and two,
but even so I can’t forget
the way your right felt in my left
and how he sounded on the night—
the sidekick to the one-thought-great.
He stole the show with that one song.
I’ll google you when I get home.
I hope you’re well and not alone.
I hope you’ve got your radio on.
LAS VEGAS SUMMER STORMS
Sleepy desert dawn
sun fire creeps around corners
chasing night away
Summer heats the rocks
grey lizards bask, ignored by
lazy indoor cats
Tall rainclouds gather
cooling the Vegas evening
cannot hear the thunder crash
slot machine weather
rain and fierce winds lash the strip
shredding escort cards
Sixty miles an hour
is enough to crack strong trees
wind’s a drunken car
Loosest slots in town!
A radio storm warning
A desert rainbow
looms above the parking lot
homeless men emerge
Jodie Hollander was raised in a family of classical musicians. She studied poetry in England, and her work has been published in journals such as The Poetry Review, PN Review, The Dark Horse, The Rialto, Verse Daily, The New Criterion, Australia’s Best Poems of 2011 and Australia’s Best Poems of 2015. Her debut full-length collection, My Dark Horses, is published with Liverpool University Press in the UK and Oxford University Press in the US. Hollander is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa, a Hawthornden Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in Italy, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Colorado.