By Mariah Bosch
C.G. Hanzlicek is a former professor and program director, friend and colleague to the late Phil Levine, and one of the original pillars of the Fresno State MFA program at its beginning stages. Knowing this, I wanted to know more about what has led him to be the poet he is today and ultimately, what he has continued to work through in his body of work. With this in mind, this interview took place via email in preparation for a reading at CSU Fresno as part of the Fresno Poets Association.
Mariah Bosch: What made you start writing poetry? What kind of need spurs your writing?
C.G. Hanzlicek: I started out at the University of Minnesota wanting to be a painter. One studio art class convinced me that I didn’t really have a gift for painting, so I switched my major to art history, thinking that I might want to make a career of museum work. I did well in art history courses, but I hated the way they were taught. We looked at slide after slide of works of art without really ever talking about art. The exams for the courses were slide tests: name the artist, the date, the country of origin. I used to have a memory in those days, so I could do well on the tests, but I couldn’t imagine pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees doing nothing but testing my powers of memory.
I’d always been an avid reader and had a knack for writing with clarity, a precious trait in my opinion, so I switched to a major in English and began to dabble in poetry. I had the good fortune of encountering a teacher, Sarah Youngblood, who taught Shakespeare and W. B. Yeats and had an abiding interest in poetry. She invited me to stop by her office at any time and show her my poetry. There were no undergraduate courses in creative writing at Minnesota at that time, so Sarah was really my first workshop, and she had enormous patience with my pitiable first attempts at poetry. I worked hard and became better and began to publish poems in the student literary magazine.
Sarah also encouraged me to take courses from James Wright, who was magical as both a poet and a teacher. He didn’t teach poetry courses but rather the English novel and classes in the Humanities department. He was gifted with eidetic memory and remembered damned near every poem he’d ever read, and he would constantly recite poems to us, no matter what the subject matter of the course was. I only showed him one of my poems, to which he responded, “Write shorter sentences!” It was clear he didn’t enjoy critiquing poems, so I left him alone on that score, but he was a model of a teacher and poet for me, and because of him I decided that I wanted to be a poet/professor.
What could be better than spending one’s life in a classroom talking about necessary things? After that I went to get my MFA at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, which was about the only MFA program in the country at that time.
MB: How would you categorize or describe your larger body of work? Most recently, you’ve written The Lives of Birds, a book preoccupied with mortality and family life – how has that book in particular come out of your recent life/concerns?
CGH: The aforementioned Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, once said: “The only two things worthy of occupying the serious mind are sex and death.” He meant that in the broadest sense, of course, and those themes have indeed occupied my mind.
I have been in love with the same woman for fifty years, so I’ve written countless love poems in that span. My father died of a heart attack when he was only 58 years old, so death came early to me as subject matter, and I have perhaps been too occupied with it, but it is the blunt fact of our lives.
The natural world is the most common setting for my poems. My childhood home was on the edge of town, and I spent my growing years exploring the woods and fields of Minnesota. My mother had one of the first bird feeders in town, so birds also came early into my life.
MB: As a follow up, how do you put together collections of poetry? Do you have an idea for what a book will be before you begin to work on it, or do you write poems first and go from there?
CGH: The individual poems always come first, and then I try to figure out a logical order for them. I sometimes go for a long spell without writing, so there’s never a plan for a book that seems like a project for me. Would that it were not true.
MB: What new projects are you working on? I’ve heard about an upcoming chapbook – could you talk about that?
CGH: My last stretch of not writing was the longest I’ve endured, and it went on for years. I thought I was done writing and had pretty much reconciled myself to that fact. I have a friend, Christopher Buckley, who lives in Santa Barbara, so we usually see each other only once or twice a year, but every time we do meet he asks, “Are you writing?” It always pained me to answer him, so I finally decided that I had to write something just to quiet him down.
Before I’d stopped writing, my poems were mostly a single long stanza, and my approach was narrative. I thought that if I was going to kick-start myself, I needed to try something completely different, so I began writing in two-line stanzas with an approach that was more lyrical than narrative. The form seemed to click for me, and I was comfortable in it. And now Buckley has published ten of those poems in a letterpress chapbook from his Miramar Editions imprint.
MB: As a writer trying to figure out my own style and voice, I think I’ve focused a lot on what my process is and how that’s working (or sometimes not working) for me. Describe your writing process – has it changed from book to book or with your interests? What kind of environment do you need/want to be in & do you have any specific “tools” (i.e. a computer, a legal pad, napkins)? Do you find yourself stuck on a particular form or style, almost going through phases?
CGH: I keep notebooks in which I jot down images that seem urgent at the time, but which can sometimes look feeble when pondered later, but if I don’t write them down, I won’t remember them. Sometimes one image leads to another in the notebooks, and when that happens I move to the computer and try knocking them into some kind of shape. With luck, a poem appears.
MB: You mentioned your MFA experience at Iowa. And you were part of the Fresno State Creative Writing Program’s transition to a full MFA program in 1995. From your perspective, how has the Fresno State MFA program changed or grown after Philip Levine? What shifts do you feel in Fresno poetics?
CGH: Back in the day, Phil Levine and Peter Everwine and I had only an MA option in creative writing. We had a good number of undergraduate students but only a handful of graduate students at any given time. We also had no budget to work with; we’d have been happy with a shoestring. Now, I’m pleased to say, the Fresno State MFA has drawn critical support from the administration, and the program has grown to a size we never would have imagined.
MB: What role do you think poetry has at this particular moment in time? What role does it play for you?
CGH: Well, when you live with a government run by The Liars’ Club, it can be a comfort to turn to poetry, since poets are only part-time liars. Poetry in America will never have the political force that it has had in Latin America and Europe and especially Middle Europe, but at least there is a scrap of dignity and nobility in pursuing a craft where one can unearth a truth, even if it’s only a small truth.
C.G. Hanzlicek is the author of nine books of poetry: Living in It, Stars (winner of the 1977 Devins Award for Poetry), Calling the Dead, A Dozen for Leah, When There Are No Secrets, Mahler: Poems and Etchings, Against Dreaming, The Cave: Selected and New Poems, and, most recently, The Lives of Birds. In the summer of 2001, he retired from California State University, Fresno, where he taught for 35 years and was for most of those years the director of the Creative Writing Program.
Mariah Bosch studies poetry in the Fresno State Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Born in Fresno, her poetry has been published in CSUF’s Chicanx Writers and Artists Association journal (Flies, Cockroaches & Poets), PeachMag, and voicemail poems.