• Poets Jennifer Michael Hecht and Matthew Zapruder on Wonder, the Secular Sacred, and the Surprising Power of “Once Upon a Time”

    A Conversation on Wonder, the Secular Sacred, Stories, and the Surprising Power of "Once Upon a Time"

    I’ve known Jennifer Michael Hecht since the early 2000’s, when both of our first books of poetry came out around the same time from Tupelo Press. I was immediately struck by her brilliance, charm, creativity, generosity of spirit, and ability to synthesize disparate ideas. Though I first knew her as a poet, I was unsurprised to see those same qualities in her prose.

    Her new book of prose, The Wonder Paradox, is the product of many years of careful thinking about the relationship of poetry to everyday life. I see the book as an attempt, through close readings of poetry and careful analysis, as well as descriptions of personal experience, to posit poetry as a kind of secular replacement for the absence of necessary religious ritual in the lives of so many of us. I found her book to be fascinating, convincing, funny, moving, and generative.

    More than twenty years after having poetry books come out from the same press, we now are both publishing prose books about poetry at nearly the same time. Mine is called Story of a Poem, and is about trying to write a single poem from start to finish, showing all my work, and all the things in life that were going on during that time that provided the context and material for the poem.

    Along the way I write a lot about poems I love by others as well, and try to think about the importance and necessity of poetry and the imagination in our contemporary lives. Since our books overlap in many ways, it was suggested that we have a conversation about both of our new books, so here it is.


    Matthew Zapruder: Jennifer, can you start by explaining what the “wonder paradox is?”

    Jennifer Michael Hecht: Yes. In the book I try to keep us aware of the strangeness of existence and I found myself naming some paradoxical aspects of life, so that it is easier to talk about them. The consciousness paradox is that meat doesn’t generally think, and yet our minds are our brains. The meat thinks. The wonder paradox is that evolution created a being that is so full of wonder.

    Whatever a poetry reader is, is what I seem to be, which is what developed on one of the sun’s little rocky planets, which is odd. I want to know the truth about life, myself, the world, and it seems to me that a first step is keeping in mind the strangeness of the actual facts of existence.

    The wonder paradox is why we can’t just be secular and scientific. There can’t just be two categories, religion and science, because where would you put love, if you are not religious? I’m using the word “poetic” to describe that needed third category. I could have used the term “the humanities,” or “humanism,” but they read a little species-centric these days, and don’t tell us much. The heart of the poetic is the inexplicable, unpredictable, the wonder and the paradox of it all.

    The consciousness paradox is that meat doesn’t generally think, and yet our minds are our brains. The meat thinks. The wonder paradox is that evolution created a being that is so full of wonder.

    Your book’s title is wonderful. I love that it is Story of a Poem, because of the way you investigate and have fun with both story and poem. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating book. How did you decide on the third person/ first person switch? Did you have any favorite memoirs or writing books or anything of the sort? I love Mary Karr’s Art of the Memoir, for one.

    MZ: I really struggled with the beginning. I kept trying to write it a preface, to prepare the reader by explaining the basic idea of the book: that I was going to show in “real time” how I wrote a poem from draft to completion, while also exploring a lot of other issues, like parenting, music, the more or less fucked state of the world, etc. I felt like if I didn’t say something, it was going to feel weird to a reader, just to launch right into a description of me writing a poem, and then all these digressions. On the other hand, it’s kind of like a joke: if you have to explain it, maybe it’s not that funny.

    No matter what I wrote, I just felt there was something missing. I tried so many different ways, from the super-personal to a more distanced tone. Everything felt wrong. It did not help that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, in writing memoir. I read great books by Mary Karr, Kate Zambreno, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Eula Biss, Vivian Gornick, Chris Sorrentino, Arisa White, Ralph Savarese, Emmanuel Carrere, Chris Feliciano Arnold, and others.

    I talked to my colleague, Marilyn Abildskov, whose memoir The Men in My Country I absolutely adore. I fell absolutely in love with two books by the painter Celia Paul, Self Portrait and Letters to Gwen John, which made me even more miserable. I loved reading all those books, and could not figure out how they made their books so good. So they mostly just made me feel ever more humbled.

    One day in complete desperation and despair I was thinking about a craft lecture I had been to by Rachel Howard, another wonderful prose writer who was visiting Saint Mary’s College, where I teach. She said something like, every story begins with “once upon a time,” whether or not it is said out loud, or is just implicit. And suddenly I realized, that was how I had to start. It seemed so obvious and even silly but I knew that was the right thing to do. I didn’t know what I would say after that, but I believed if I wrote it down, the next thing would come.

    So I did, and when I finished that sentence, I was in the third person. As Rimbaud said, with ungrammatical utter accuracy je est un autre: I is an other. I kept writing in the third person, from a distance, as I told the progress of my life up until the time when the main part of the book begins, Fall 2018, at which point the book shifts to the first person. I had to tell my story before I could tell the story of that poem, and for some reason I could only do it once I shifted the pronouns.

    JMH: “I tried so many different ways”: this resonates. I had several metaphors in my head for how I was writing the book and they clashed over this. I’d try to plan, but what I’d end up with in the end was so far from the original model that I would really wonder what had made the first model necessary at all. But there it is. You plan and build and then when it’s time to really make it right, pretty much everything gets torn down. Sometimes over and over.

    That’s great, the “Once upon a time” starter. The presumptive key is to recognize that you are here to tell a story. I’ve always told stories in my work but I spent a lot of time in genres where that was not obvious, welcome, or even tolerated. The story of many academic books is relegated to the preface.

    And poetry has a lot else going on, such that as a writer one can forget to lean much on story in poetry. At the moment I’m more in love with story than ever and think it might be good to ask “Once upon a time” questions in all writing, to make sure that ideas don’t have that two-dimensional feel.

    Mary Karr’s book taught me something that helped greatly. I didn’t think I had more than a handful of memories that I’d be telling in the book that had any kind of story detail. Karr’s conviction that we need only grab a little thread and patiently follow it encouraged me to try harder to remember than I would have, and it worked. I could remember more detail, and things I’d have never thought to check could be checked.

    We both wrote books that are pretty genre-defying, but I think less meta than, yes, conversational, where you of course include your story and stories along with your ideas.

    MZ: “I tried so many different ways….” I realize that I am just paraphrasing John Ashbery: “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.” Maybe this is yet one more proof of the thesis of your book, that poetry can provide a ritual structure. For me that structure is physical and grammatical. It has the quality of Jewish diurnal rituals, which organize themselves as much around the physical act of devotion and address to the divine as about the content of the prayers themselves. That’s how I think of the act of writing poetry.

    At the moment I’m more in love with story than ever and think it might be good to ask “Once upon a time” questions in all writing, to make sure that ideas don’t have that two-dimensional feel.

    Poetry is always helping me, mostly unconsciously, organize the chaos of my thoughts and emotions. The sociologist Lonnie Athens came up with the idea of a “phantom community,” a set of internalized voices from the past that can be helpful or malevolent. My poets are my phantom community. They guide me, not by providing words of wisdom, but by enacting inside me a way of speaking that is creative, compassionate, loving, and attentive. That is, much better than I almost always am.

    These voices remind me how to be honestly despairing and genuinely hopeful, that is, realistic, especially in difficult times, which I suppose we have all had so much of these past years. The last half decade or so has been especially awful, or probably it is that things that were already awful fully revealed themselves in their awfulness. The seeds of that awfulness had been planted decades or even centuries ago. We are now at liminal time, a threshold, or a kairos.

    I found writing my own book about some hard things in my life, especially parenting a child who is not typical, made it both easier and more difficult. I wrote my book in the end to discover how to survive. Do you feel like your book helped you to understand that in your own life? Did it open up more questions than answers?

    JMH: That’s tasty, that Ashbery rhyme and your metabolization of it and then having it rise up to surface in our conversation. And what you say is indeed the deep thesis of the book, “that poetry can provide a ritual structure,” because for people who read poetry, it already does. And I mean this first and foremost in the way that through our normal days and eventful times poetry lines rise to our minds unbidden.

    And when you are trying to make sense of what you have done, or what you are about to have to do, and a line comes to your mind, say, like the brilliant one you quote above, it’s likely to affect you, likely to help. In a sense poetry is a language that the subconscious can speak, so if you give your subconscious poetry, it has a way to speak to you. Wow and this reminds me of how you speak of your son’s language.

    I’m thinking now of the way people use poetry lines as epigraphs to books, or openings to chapters, essays, articles. Sure it’s a convention, and both fun and smart. It’s not exactly calling in an expert, as poetry can amplify the importance of a theme, like the juxtaposition of the facts of death and spring, but often doesn’t pick a side. It seems poetry excerpt as epigraph is another form of benediction.

    It also seems deeper than that, and I wish I knew, in any instance, when in the process the poetry lines came into the author’s thinking. Did it start the whole thing, like, or were they almost to press and came across something on the internet that melted their head with thoughts of Oh Yes that is what I mean. That is the well from which my present project drinks. Or whatever.

    MZ: A line of poetry can have that odd quality of being continually in the moment of discovery. Maybe that’s why they are sometimes perfect for epigraphs. There can be something eerie and almost dispiriting about discovering the perfect single line that sums up what your entire book is about. And to put it at the front of your book! In my new book I found this line by Audre Lorde, “But the wind is our teacher.” I was like, ok, that’s basically the entire thing I’m trying to say. But I also realize I only think that because I have already read my own book!

    All language of course is found. Every word is a readymade. There is nothing original to say, which is good. It is what binds us. Lorca and Stevens each said the same thing: when you are really writing poetry, you are not inventing, but discovering. To me, that is what was so convincing about your book, this idea that in the chaos of everyday life, you might find a poem or a part of one that catches so exactly something you need to hear, or remember, in a way that is both precise and also open.

    Of course, poetry can have so many other “uses” too, like exploding everything, disturbing us, forcing our minds to encounter something that we are resisting, bridging the world of dream and reality, making us laugh, just challenging the usual way that people think about things. So it has this oppositional impulse too: not just crystalizing thought, but disrupting it.

    Lately I have only felt my own poems are finished when they reach a moment that I do not understand. Maybe I have always felt that way, but I have grown more and more wary of certainty, as I am more and more surrounded by language that feels strident and often wrong, or at least incomplete. I need to feel another way and it seems the only place I can find that feeling is in poems, either reading them or writing ones that carry my mind further than it would otherwise go.

    How did your feelings about poetry change as you were writing your book? Do you look back now and think, now I think differently than I did before I started writing it? How has writing the book, and the life that happened as you were writing it, changed you?

    JMH: If only we could get the wind to read our books. Now that’s broadcast news. Ha. But, no, I have similarly mysterious relationships with quotes and I love how you put it here. They only give up the goods once you have lived the problem for yourself a while, met yourself crawling out, while you were crawling back in, as the song goes. It’s funny, my books have strong unusual arguments, or so it seemed, but I could always find people saying similar things, eventually, if I kept my ear out for them.

    It’s hard to hear what you’re not listening for. Which kind of brings us back to Lorde in her idea that you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. The common question being how do we get to someplace new? And I guess the answer is covered by another great paraphrase, to wit, very slowly and then all at once.

    Writing The Wonder Paradox changed me a lot, both in terms of my writing and my life. In terms of the writing, I didn’t know I was doing this in advance, but the chapters in this book are communicating information, but I also wrote them as lyrical essays, of a sort. I wouldn’t call them braided essays, because there is always so much going on; often I couldn’t trim away the themes that were lighter in terms of lyrical weight, because they were part of the useful information I was trying to present. But like poetry, I worked these like a mad-souled smithy until they told me something I hadn’t known before I started.

    MZ: That seems to me to be a good way to write, to keep going until you put something down that you did not already know. I’m not sure I know of an alternative. Whenever anyone asks me how I know a poem is finished, that’s what I want to say: it’s when I have written the thing that I did not know, or did not know I knew, and I feel inside me a click. Like a door opening, or closing. The wind just dramatically blew open the windows in the room where I am writing you, as if to agree or dissent. It must know we are talking about it, with the greatest respect of course.

    I think a lot about the master’s tools. It’s a paradox, of course, because unless we are to resolve ourselves to violence or non-violence, we have to use language, which is certainly one of the master’s most powerful tools. So, given that we are doomed to use it, it seems profoundly pessimistic to assert that we cannot dismantle anything with it.

    I think Lorde in that talk was making a point more about the structures: we have to reimagine the basic structures in which we gather, organize ourselves, etc., and be willing to really break down the hierarchies, if we are going to have real change. Though maybe language isn’t one of the master’s tools, maybe it belongs to all of us, and the masters are just stealing it, so we need to steal it back.

    You say writing The Wonder Paradox changed you in terms of your life. I would say that was true for me for this most recent book of mine. Every book I have written has changed me, but the explicit project of writing this book was, for me, to change. I knew there was something I needed to work through, to write through. I didn’t know exactly what it was, though I had some ideas. I knew I needed to live differently, to think differently, to write differently, in order to survive. So I figured all I could do was just get started, writing every day, working on a poem, writing about writing it and what else was going on in my life. A more organized person would have probably had a better plan.

    Tell me about how writing The Wonder Paradox changed your life? And what are your hopes for it now that it is out in the world?

    JMH: I poise my typing fingers to answer and what comes first to mind is Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me” I like that the wind is taking part. For me it’s four am and my dog Goldie is looking at me like I ought to be in bed, but I napped before. I’m in Brooklyn but the only noise is her eyes.

    I like “I knew I needed to live differently, to think differently, to write differently, in order to survive.” It’s a lifesaver. Though of course hard. I’ll go ahead and say I underestimated my job with The Wonder Paradox. It took many years more than I planned. The book says that being human entails coping with the paradoxes and that we do a lot better when we spend time with the weirdness, of being ambitious yet mortal, of there being so much beauty and anguish, the paradox of a human being arriving out of nowhere in birth, of a whole intricate, infinitely wonderful human being can disappear entirely in death, and all the crazy contradictory feelings—it’s a lot of paradox to deal with!—and religion helps us do that.

    Like poetry, ritual can also create this space for the strange. For sitting with the awe of life and death, identity and feeling.

    If we are not religious we are getting that weirdness time with art and other places, but I think poetry is key here. As with music, its tricks can add up to the sublime. Poetry is not a story, it’s a place where you try to say true things and you also say whatever is opposing that you might also believe a bit because that’s the only way to not feel false, and a good way to start to triangulate to saying something new. That’s where I want to spend my time.

    Like poetry, ritual can also create this space for the strange. For sitting with the awe of life and death, identity and feeling. And the rituals of religion that continue in many lives despite a level of unbelief, along with family rituals, and rituals of one’s own invention, they can all be moments of wonder. Just thinking of them in this way can make life richer. There are a lot of us out here, too, a poetic community, creating the world by living it, loving in it, trying. I believe the trying is the sacred.

    I wrote the book with the poetic hope of creating that environment of poetic experience, as well as talking about it. Working through all this, making it work, there was an element of increased freedom in many different directions of thought and feeling. I still feel like a beginner at really realizing many of my realizations, and those of others, but when I can take them in, the anxiety nonsense of the world shifts out of focus and the stranger world shifts in. I guess The Wonder Paradox is also a memoir of my lifelong love affair with perspective shifts, moments of realization, my own and others.

    Anyway I love spending time with poems, asking them what they are talking about line by line and overall, in context and on their own, and the book let me do that enough to remember how much I enjoy it. The Wonder Paradox has twenty chapters and each has one central poem, though others appear in full or part, as well.

    And the twenty were not chosen because they are my favorite twenty poems. I wrote about many poems I love in material that didn’t make it into the book. The process of knowing what the book was doing, and how, was a gradual feeling it through, and what all this is leading up to is that I have twenty new poems that are deeply close to my heart, and lungs.

    Mostly in the book I encourage people to do the rituals they already take part in because they are part of their culture (in one way or another) but I also think we should honor the rituals of family and personal history, sometimes by adding a poem, and we should also consider some invented rituals. For my chapter on depression I invented the Sacraments of Misery, just the idea that many of us almost accidentally collect small cool items, from an ancient animal bone, to a brass bell of unknown origin, or a carved stone, or the tile from our therapist’s hallway… and I thought we could put a few such things (at least one with a face) into a special box or bag and only take them out when sad and but them back to show ourselves we are happy when the gloom fades.

    I tried that out for a few years while writing the book, and found I liked what it added to my life. When I’m doing okay, the practice has even sort of transformed the small objects of the sort that end up around the house. One can’t give everything meaning, one has to choose, but choosing itself can create the natural sacred, or at least the conditions for it to arise.

    MZ: Before we end, can we circle back to tone? I feel like finding the right tone in a book is like finding the right way to think about your own life, or maybe even to live. What do you think about tone in your writing, and in the writing you love?

    JMH: It’s a mystery, right? I just know I wrote and wrote until it sounded like me. Then, I guess, after a while, I sounded like it.


    The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives - Hecht, Jennifer Michael

    The Wonder Paradox by Jennifer Michael Hecht is available via FSG.

    Matthew Zapruder
    Matthew Zapruder
    Matthew Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Father’s Day (Copper Canyon), as well as Why Poetry (Ecco/Harper Collins). He is editor at large at Wave Books, where he edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations. From 2016-7 he held the annually rotating position of Editor of the Poetry Column for the New York Times Magazine. He teaches in the MFA in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California. A book of prose, Story of a Poem, will be published by Unnamed Press in April, 2023.

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