Geoffrey Hilsabeck, Riddles, Etc.
Publisher: Song Cave
2017, 64 pages, paperback, $17.95

Peg Anderson: Thank you for writing Riddles, Etc. I was enthralled how you juxtaposed seventeen riddle poems bookended by love poems and in between you thread prose poems and other forms to a total of thirty-six poems paged around people and places singing to the sparkle of nature, discovery, religion and the hatred of war.

Can you share how you chose the seventeen riddles and the form of those poems?

Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Thank you, Peg, for your interest in my work and your questions. I’m glad you enjoyed the poems. I started writing riddles after discovering on display in the library a little book called The First Poems in English. What a gift that book was! Edited and with translations by Michael Alexander, it collects a number of Anglo-Saxon poems. It includes elegies like “The Seafarer” and “The Wife’s Lament,” heroic poems, including passages from Beowulf, gnomic verses, “Caedmon’s Hymn,” the riddles. I still remember the first riddle I read in the book. These are its opening lines:

I am fire-fretted and I flirt with Wind
and my limbs are light-freighted and I am lapped in flame
and I am storm-stacked and I strain to fly
and I am a grove leaf-bearing and a glowing ember.

Of course, I fell in love with that language immediately, how dazzlingly protean it is. Not all the riddles move with that kind of speed, and none shape-shift quite as much. Some feel more courtly—or maybe more frathouse, given the setting (think monks drinking beer from steins); these are filled with double entendres:

I’m the world’s wonder, for I make women happy

I am set well up, stand in a bed
have a roughish root. Rarely (though it happens)
a churl’s daughter more daring than the rest
—and lovelier!—lays hold of me,
rushes my red top, wrenches at my head,
and lays me in the larder.

(Answer: an onion, of course.) Some sound tender, like the one that describes crows as “black, diminutive.” But all are animated by a keen sense of wonder: weird, strange, unimaginable—these words show up often in the riddles.

As for the topics of my riddles, they more or less presented themselves. I spend a lot of time with my daughter, who was one and two years old when I was writing this book, so often the subjects are the things encountered over the course of a day spent wandering over the surface of the world with a toddler: ants, sticks, stones, birds, etc. This is in the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon riddles, which, for different reasons, also concern themselves with ordinary items like onions and crows. And their form? Each one had its own reasons for taking the shape that it did, I suppose. I like a certain line, I like the space and silence that stanzas allow into a poem, I sometimes like to use line breaks as punctuation.

PA: “In a Room Called Days” you write, “It was Friday in May / hours before my birthday.”  How much are “you” in this poem and the others in the book?

GH: To say how much I’m in any of these poems would require a kind of arithmetic that as far as I know has not yet been invented, though I’m sure there’s a young Stanford grad at Google getting paid too much money to work on it. My birthday is in June, not May. The lark did accompany me for some way, though, and then it did go home.

And elsewhere in the book: am I more present when I speak transparently about my feelings? Less present when I employ dramatic monologue? Of course not. What do any of these words have to do with me? The first line of “Remaking the Music Box” was said to me in a dream by the painter Franz Kline. The sixth line was something my daughter said one day when we were coloring. Are these moments then not me, not mine? It seems to me writing a poem is always though to varying degree a matter of organizing the noise.

PA: What was the influence of the poets Ruy Belo and Carlos Drummond de Andrade?

GH: Oof. Another tough question. I spent a year in Lisbon translating Ruy Belo, along with several other Portuguese poets and prose writers.  Translation is, as you may know or can imagine, a very intimate act. I spent countless hours reading Belo’s poems, slowly going over their lines with two dictionaries (one Portuguese, one Portuguese-English), more slowly than I will ever go over the lines of any poet writing in English. Surely some transfer of something occurred, though I can’t say for sure where and what. Had I been younger—I was 27—the influence probably would have been greater. There was much about Belo that was foreign, though, and unassimilable; that was true of all Portuguese writers I translated. But everything is useful, right?

But I learned a valuable lesson with all that translation, one that’s hard to get down into words. My sense of my own work, of my relationship to that work, changed in some subtle and profound way, and the world kind of opened up as material. I left Lisbon with a new worldliness as a poet. I felt that nothing, no words or phrases or lines, were mine, which meant paradoxically that everything was available to me. I became a thief.  

Oh, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade! His “Seven Sided Poem,” as translated by Elizabeth Bishop, has been a part of my consciousness for so many years now—I loved it immediately and ever since it has existed as one of the arbiters. It’s a cornerstone, for sure: its light touch, the way it leaps from stanza to stanza, that wonderful opening:

“When I was born, one of the crooked
angels who live in shadow, said:
Carlos, go on! Be gauche in life.”

PA: What is your writing routine?

GH: I try to keep C.D. Wright in mind: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” And then organize my life in such a way that I’ll be in a position to do that. I’m lucky to have a couple hours every morning to work. Often I’ll start by sitting quietly for ten minutes, not to clear my head exactly but to settle into the writing space. Then I’ll read some poetry. Write in my journal. At some point move into my composition book. If I’m already pretty deep into a thing—or short on time—I might skip some of those steps and just launch right into the writing.

There are those occasional stretches where my life opens up and empties out and I can write all morning, relax in the afternoon—watch a movie, read, take a swim, a walk, etc.—then go back to it at night. I find writing at night to be difficult but necessary. Walter Benjamin said you should never consider a project complete until you’ve stayed up all night with it. It’s rare that I write at night but I’m always glad when I do because it lets a kind of strangeness and clarity into the thing. It’s easier to get near the reality of it, if that makes any sense at all. At night, one finds oneself, or one’s work, or the work finds itself, to quote Wallace Stevens in a different context, “more truly and more strange.”

PA: When do you know when a poem is finished?

GH: My first book was published in November, and I still scribble changes in the margins, moving lines, cutting entire stanzas. What did Paul Valery say? A poem is never finished; only abandoned. Yep. Definitely. Why is that?

PA: What are some projects you are working on?

GH: I’m working on a long poem—most of the poems in my book are short, and I wanted to try my hand at something longer—or it’s partly a poem. The working title: “C’mon Naughty Wolf.” It’s a cross between Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Bablyon and an Anglo-Saxon elegy. Let me explain. The poem (or whatever it is) tells the story of a silent film actress named Mary Nolan. It moves back and forth between prose and poetry: two paragraphs of prose then twenty or so lines of poetry, two more paragraphs, twenty more lines, etc. The prose operates as a pantoum, with sentences rather than lines repeated, sometimes with significant variation. The poetry is a loose translation of an Anglo Saxon elegy known as “The Wife’s Lament”—not even a loose translation; it’s more like I made a rubbing of a stone and then erased parts of it, drew on other parts. I needed a place to put all my sadness and rage; somehow this poem (essay?) presented itself as a suitable vehicle (receptacle?).

I’m also finishing a book-length essay called American Vaudeville, which I’ve been working on for many years now.

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of Riddles, Etc. (The Song Cave, 2017). His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, LitHub, Seneca Review, and on NPR. He teaches at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Peg Anderson is a Texas State University MFA Creative Writing Candidate.