Poet Michael Hettich won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry for his thirteenth collection, Systems of Vanishing, published this spring by the University of Tampa Press. “Certain Constellations,” one of the longer poems in the collection, is featured in Tampa Review 49, and Michael recently discussed it with TR Editor Richard Mathews. To refresh your memory of the poem—and just to enjoy Michael’s reading of it—you may want to listen to it in this video clip from his reading at Books & Books in Miami that celebrated the publication of Systems of Vanishing.
Mathews: Hi, Michael. Thanks for taking time to talk a little about your poem in Tampa Review 49.
As you know, we felt especially privileged to be able to publish “Certain Constellations” in this issue. It’s one of my favorite poems from your Tampa Review Prize book, Systems of Vanishing, and the only poem I think I’ve ever read that mentions carambola, the star fruit! My wife and I love the fruit, and it always has surprised me that it isn’t better known. It’s not only a remarkable fruit, it’s also quite a stunning tree. How did you first become acquainted with it?
Hettich: Thank you, Richard, for your kind words. The truth is, when you told me you’d selected Systems of Vanishing for the Tampa Review Prize, “Certain Constellations” had been taken out of the manuscript. At that point I was wasn’t at all sure that it worked—as a stand-alone poem or within the manuscript itself. But it had been in the version of the manuscript that I submitted to your contest, and your enthusiasm for the poem brought it back to my attention—and back into the book—which I’m very grateful for, as I now consider it one of the stronger poems in the collection, as well as one of the most personal poems there.
As far as my acquaintance with the tree and its fruit . . . . I’m not sure I can answer that question with any accuracy. While it’s not uncommon down here in South Florida, I’m a bit surprised that it’s not even more popular. It’s a beautiful, fragrant tree that requires virtually no care. As with so much of the flora here in the subtropics, the tree amazes me for the wonderful smell of its blossoms and for its fecundity, to say nothing of its delicious fruit. For someone born and raised in the North, the pure generosity of such richness is constantly surprising, interesting, and even faintly haunting. In the North, as we all know, the fecund magic of the natural world draws into itself and sleeps for half the year. And that sleep feels almost dreamless. My sense here in Florida is that the whole world—I mean the world of nature, of course—is both waking and dreaming, at once. The star fruit is that sort of dreaming-waking tree.
And to (finally) answer your question: we got our tree for free from a community give-away of some sort, probably fifteen years ago. It leans quietly over our bedroom.
Mathews: Well, carambola becomes the starting point for your finished poem, but did you actually start with star fruit when writing it?
Hettich: Yes, the tree itself did trigger the poem. I was puttering in our backyard garden one afternoon, gathering fallen-and-rotting carambola, when I was struck by the fact that some of the fallen fruits had already started to sprout. So the image of star fruit trees marching slowly across our back yard struck me. And that army of star fruit trees would quickly face an army of Paradise trees heading the other way, as that tree—another we got for free—is equally fecund.
Mathews: How did the poem develop?
Hettich: This is a difficult question. As with many of my poems, the essential poem was captured on the first draft and then the scaffolding and music of the poem were worked and reworked—in this case quite a number of times. Unlike most of my poems, this one is drawn completely and entirely from our actual lives. When the weather’s cool, we often sit outside on our back porch or in the garden, and obviously one of the pleasures of these nights lies in the wonderful smells and breezes that flicker and dance around us. So the movement from the star fruit itself to our sitting outside with friends is just a natural one. And then the other details just seemed to fall into place: my family and I love to spend time in cabins in the woods, walking and talking; the year the poem was written, Colleen and I had explored Chaco Canyon and been amazed by a naked-eye astronomer there, just as the poem explains, and the student I mention in the poem was my actual student—right down to his having to sleep at friends’ houses and bringing me reams of poems. My son’s a musician and I often play music he’s given me, when friends come over; my daughter’s a sculptor. So, in this case—and it’s a rare case, for me—the whole poem is “true.” Writing that poem truly was a kind of recollection. These are also natural subjects for dinner conversation with good friends.
Mathews: Did you do much revision?
Hettich: Yes, absolutely. In fact, this poem was very difficult to finish, in part because of its quick transitions, but also because I didn’t want to meddle with the “music” of the experience by making the music of the poem’s language too “poetic.” So I wanted something that was clearly a “poem” (not prose) but that carried a natural-feeling and even urgent forward motion—something easier to achieve, I think, in prose than in more lyrical poetry. The contents of the poem remained essentially unchanged over many revisions and tinkerings, as I tried to get the poem itself to “read through” as one coherent utterance, and not seem to fall too obviously into sections. For a while it was a blocky thing, with its lines flush left; then it was written all over the page—as though the words themselves were constellations. This final stairstep form, once I arrived at it, also took time to get just right. It’s amazing what a comma, or a certain line-placement, or a slight change in line-break will do to the rhythm—and thus the voice and tone—of a poem. And these things, to me, are the single most important aspect of any lyric poem, but particularly if the poem is written in free-verse, which can so easily feel overly prosy and inert. So that balance was difficult to achieve. It took a lot of singing to get the music—and thus the content—right.
This poem, in fact, could be an example of a type of poem I write occasionally—probably five times a year—which refuses for a long time to allow itself to be “finished.” It’s the type of poem I keep coming back to over months and months—until, if I’m lucky, someone like you, Richard, likes it as it is! Then I’m happy to let it go. I think poems like this—that refuse to be “solved” through many revisions—are where I grow as a poet, as frustrating as wrestling with them can be.
Mathews: Can you say something about the title? It’s wonderfully evocative, both the ambiguity of meaning in the word “certain,” as well as the “constellations” of meaning associated with “constellations.” How did you find that title?
Hettich: Yes, I like the ambiguity of that title. Thank you. But I’m not sure now how I arrived at it. Certainly that wonderful astronomer at Chaco Canyon was part of it, and certainly I intend the reader to respond to the “constellation” of experiences and references that the poem embodies and enacts, all centered—grounded—on that dinner in our back yard, underneath the fainter city stars, eating fruit stars, with all that multitude of small lives singing out, all around us. Titles are hard. I’m happy to see now that I found (I think) the perfect tile for that poem—and I’ll take all those meanings my title suggests!
Mathews: And how about the epigraph from Lisel Mueller? Was that part of what triggered the poem? Or did that come later? What poem are you quoting?
Hettich: Lisel Mueller’s poems are stunning in their formal intelligence and dexterity as well as in their amazing intellectual and emotional content. She is someone to read slowly over many years, to come back to again and again. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize for her selected poems, Alive Together, she seems to be almost forgotten now. I don’t know why this is the case, as it seems to me that she’s an exemplary model whose voice is capacious and always well-tuned. I took the line from “Figure for a Landscape”—because I had been reading her with great affection and admiration and because the line just seemed to fit, to add a certain resonance to the poem.
Epigraphs, at least for me, always come after the poem has been written, as a kind of afterthought. They work as a kind of “decoration”—for lack of a better word—and can almost always be removed without harming my poem. I think that’s the case here.
Maybe they function as an attempt to “rhyme” with another poet. Again, I think that’s the case here. And it’s a kind of homage as well.
In answering your question, just now, I dipped briefly back into Mueller’s work—her selected—and was stunned again by the work’s freshness and power. Many of her poems—for example “The Blind Leading the Blind”—are astonishing.
Mathews: Another aspect of your poem that I like a great deal is the sense of family and community it provides. You bring in your wife and friends, your son and your daughter. And one of your students comes in trailing another circle of friends and relationships. It’s all casual and warmly intimate at the same time.
Hettich: Thank you, Richard. As I said earlier, they’re there because they truly were there. The whole experience was a kind of gift.
Mathews: The poem makes a wonderful turn as you say goodbye to your student, and you make the comment “He’s the real thing.” It seems a very important line in the poem, not only because it’s set in italics, but also because he is a young poet, and a figure who seems to me to stand at the same time for yourself in the past as a young poet—and for all young poets. Were you thinking of this? What do you mean to convey by that line?
Hettich: Well, the first and most obvious answer to this is to assert that I would indeed say that that particular young poet is “the real thing”—he works hard on his own writing; he does indeed track down every poet I mention to him, and he has whatever it is we call talent. So I would truly have said that about him, in real life and in the context of the poem. I guess I think of him as “the real thing” in the same way I think of that naked-eye astronomer at Chaco Canyon as “the real thing”—someone who follows what he loves, with intensity, determination, and love.
I think I was “the real thing” in that sense, when I was a young poet, but I don’t think I was thinking along those lines when I wrote the poem. I was more nearly reveling at how engaged this particular young poet was, certainly as compared to the vast majority of my students, most of whom are hardly driven and are thus much less interesting and engaging to teach than he was.
I guess the entire poem is in some way a celebration of fecundity, of full engagement with the world. That particular young man certainly epitomized that kind of fecundity, in the work he kept producing and producing . . . .
Mathews: And do you think about this “being the real thing” much as you do your teaching? As you work with your students?
Hattich: I don’t think I think about that very much as I teach and work with my students, though when I find someone who seems to have that hunger, I go as far as possible to encourage that student by suggesting poets to read, giving him/her books, and giving him or her as much personal attention as I can afford. But honestly, those students don’t come along very often. More often, I work with students for a semester or two—encouraging their writing but also, perhaps more importantly, teaching them how to read and think about literature—and particularly contemporary literature—so that they might own the tools to keep exploring, and writing, for their entire lives. Very few of my students are Creative Writing majors, or even English majors, for that matter. Which is not to say that I don’t have some excellent, talented writers, particularly in my night classes, which are populated by older, more experienced students than are my day classes.
Mathews: Another thing that appeals to me in this interaction is the way poetry so completely spills out of the classroom. The whole poem seems, in a sense, to be about “poetry” happening in the moment, in and among this circle of family and friends.
Hettich: Thank you. I’m glad the poem works that way. That was my intention.
Mathews: After the point when the student leaves, when you look up at the stars, the whole poem seems to open up into space and time and culture—Ancient Greece, the Far East, and Native American culture—all the way to petroglyphs. Were you “composing” this, or did it just happen as you wrote?
Hettich: Well, that whole passage was drawn directly from what we’d experienced the summer before, at Chaco Canyon. In case you’re not familiar with that powerful and amazing place, Chaco Canyon in an ancient Pueblo ruin in New Mexico, many hours’ drive from the nearest town. The site is huge, full of the ruins of many large buildings as well as the fairly-intact ruins of a number of kivas, which are ceremonial rooms, sacred places, cylindrical in shape and built into the ground. Since it’s so far from any town, the nights there are deeply dark, so the stars are almost frightening in their intensity and numbers. Naked-eye astronomers love the place. As the poem says, we met a man there who could talk—literally—all night about the stars and constellations. He knew the names and myths associated with every light or cluster of lights we pointed to.
Next morning was the day after the solstice, so we woke at dawn to watch the sun rise through the largest kiva’s sun-hole and move along the wall to a chink through which it seemed to shoot like an arrow, just as it had done every year since that kiva was built, hundreds of years ago. The astronomer we’d met the night before was there, too, praying. It was an awesome experience. And I mean “awesome” in the true sense of that word.
So when I wrote the poem, that material just entered naturally. I’m sure we had told our guests about Chaco. Perhaps we were telling them exactly as the poem recounts. It feels like it happened that way, to me.
I rarely take experiences directly from my life when I write. I think the only other poem in Systems that does this is “And We Were Nearly Children.” I almost always make my poems up, though of course certain aspects and details are drawn from observation and so-called “real” life. What I’m saying is that my own biography rarely comes so directly into my poetry . . . and with such unadulterated, unvarnished specificity.
Mathews: The last fourteen lines of the poem seem to take another turn, starting with another italicized phrase: “Are we ready/ for the food?” The ending is full of surprises to me. First, there’s a sound—a song—that I expect must be a bird, but that you only refer to as “a creature.” Do you know what it was? It’s a mysterious and comforting song and you send the poem ‘inside’ it.
Hettich: OK. Well, there we are, talking and reminiscing, with our heads in the clouds, so to speak, when Colleen calls out that dinner’s ready. Yes, and the music dies away as she speaks, and we hear . . . Well, what do we (what did we) hear? It wasn’t a bird, no, it was something very small, some tiny insect singing out into the night, singing something beautiful—who knows why? But it charms us, calls us, and we get up and approach the sound, and we stand there as though in some sort of communion listening to this small life we know nothing about, as it sings out. That’s it! It all feels literally true, to me, though I don’t know whether all these things happened in one night.
Again, one of the pleasures of living where we live is that we’re so often surprised by the small creatures that sing out all around us. I don’t know what they are, but that’s OK, I don’t need to. They surprise and amaze me and make me feel vividly alive, and when I hear their songs with friends I feel close to, somehow a moment of sharing I can only call “sacred” occurs. That’s what I’m trying to show here, anyway. As you said, the poem ends by being surrounded by this small creature’s song—which is entirely appropriate. It’s like a moment of grace.
Mathews: The other surprising thing about the ending, is the fact that this music is coming from “the firecracker bushes.” Weren’t you tempted to return to the star fruit at the end?
Hettich: I don’t think I ever thought of doing that, though if I had been more “conscious” in making the poem I might have. I don’t know if “conscious” is the right word here. I’m glad I didn’t do that—circle back to the starfruit—since that strategy would have felt false, at least to me, and manipulative. Crafty, and intellectual in the wrong sense of those words.
The truth is, when I’m working on a poem, I’m listening to it rather than thinking about what it says. I listen again and again and again until the music sounds right.
And I see the star fruit’s gifts and that small creature’s gifts as quite similar—with the gifts of the astronomer and my student rhyming with theirs, too. Maybe even my own “gift” of the poem itself, too, even as it is surrounded by that small creature’s insistent song. So as I see it now (now that you’ve asked me!) the poem is about that sort of “natural” generosity, that incredible beauty of life giving and giving of itself, and perhaps about the ways we humans can participate in that sort of generosity—natural and fundamental—in our own natural and fundamental ways. But I never thought of that before you asked the question.
Mathews: I also love the way that such a different sound is implied in the name of the “firecracker bushes.” Of course, they make no sound but the name itself can’t help but be explosive. And in such contrast to the sound of the “creature” as well as the quietness you and your guests maintain as you silently pull back your chairs.
Hettich: That’s a great observation, and in a way I wish I could thank you for noticing my literary brilliance. But honestly, I never think that way, with that kind of intention. The bushes were in fact firecracker bushes, so that’s why I called them that. Of course I also like their name. I probably could have called it a wild coffee bush, since that’s a native shrub too and common in our garden. But that wouldn’t have sounded as good. And as I said, I’m pretty sure it was a firecracker bush. At least that’s what we call them in my family.
Mathews: Intentional or unintentional, it was a great literary move. It sends the poem out with a bang!
Michael’s latest book of poetry, Systems of Vanishing, containing “Certain Constellations,” is available from Tampa Press in both paperback and hardcover editions.
Watch Michael’s full reading at Books and Books in April of 2014, including his performance of “Certain Constellations.”
============================================================================ Michael Hettich received the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry for his book, Systems of Vanishing, which includes “Certain Constellations.” He is the author of twelve other books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently The Measured Breathing, which won the 2011 Swan Scythe Press Award. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Orion, Poetry East, Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Mudlark, and The Sun, as well as in many textbooks and anthologies. He teaches at Miami Dade College.
Richard Mathews is editor of Tampa Review, director of the University of Tampa Press, and Charles A. Dana Professor of English at the University of Tampa.