Henri Cole, Briggs-Copeland lecturer in poetry, is the professor of two creative writing classes, English Cpr and English Cqr. Cole, a former director of the Academy of American Poets, taught at Reed, Columbia and Yale before coming to Harvard in 1994. He was recently awarded the Prix de Rome for 1995, and will spend the next academic year at the American Academy in Rome before returning to Harvard in the fall of 1996. His third book of poems,The Look of Thing, was published by Knopf in January.
The Harvard Crimson: In your career, you've spent a lot of time teaching in creative writing programs. Do you think those programs are valuable?
Henri Cole: Most of what I know about creative writing programs comes from having been an MFA student at Columbia. It was there I grew up as a writer. From that experience as a student, I have to say I believe that a lot can be gained, and if you're a real writer, you can't be blighted by even the most negative classroom environment. I encourage my students to apply to creative writing programs, and to wait a year or two if possible--the older you are when you go, the more you get in return. I don't teach my undergraduate poets any differently from my graduate students. A number of students I have had here are as good as those I've had in graduate programs.
Workshops at Harvard seem to be conservative, with a focus on learning meter and form. Do you think that Harvard's program is more traditional than elsewhere?
I don't think that students writing is different, no. I find students here very responsive to my technqiue of making them undergo a six-week "boot-camp" studying prosody. So much so that they are often beweildered when confronted with freedom, when it is time to try free verse.
For me, studying prosody is as natural as a painter learning to draw before he learns to paint. That's not to say that they must write in form for the rest of their lives. But they should know it exists before they reject it. As a writer I find it useful to have all the tools that I can before making choices. Similarly, I want my students to know all they can before they choose what to accept or reject.
The dust jacket of The Look of Things says that the "ghost of formal verse haunts" the poems. How do you make use of form and meter in your own work?
I guess my attitude is respectful irreverence. I'm very drawn to form; I believe that form is like the bottle that makes the genie stronger. At the same time, I like to kick it in the teeth periodically. That may be a factor of who I am, of the way I conduct myself in the world.
What poets do you consider the greatest influences on your work?
Probably the recent poets I love most are James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich and Seamus Heaney. I learned a great deal from reading Merrill's poems; his is the influence I feel I must continually guard myself against, since I so completely love his poems. He said that the closet just disintegrated around him--that was a source of hope for me, especially since I already felt a natural affiniity for his voice and style. More so than with, say, Rich or Ginsberg, other gay poets.
Do you consider yourself a "gay poet"? Do you feel that you want to express gay experience in poetry?
I don't know what "gay experience" is. I think the most important thing is to be true. In the last six years, while writing The Look of Things, I've tried to be absolutely true about certain facts in my life. If a straight man is true about the facts in his life, his poems aren't considered "straight poems." Therefore I resist seeing my poems as identity-specific. I don't think of my poems as being for a gay audience, just because they deal with gay love, say, any more than I expect that Herbert or Donne thought of their poems as being for only religious readers. I don't even feel that I have a gay readership, in fact. Only recently have gay bokstores begun to carry my books. The people who read my poems are people who read poems, not gay or straight poems.
I am many things, in addition to being a gay poet--I am a Catholic poet, a Southern poet, a male poet--hopefully, a good poet. I have many identities, as do most Americans; we're all hybrids. I was born in Japan, I have a French mother, rumor has it I have a black great grandfather. To say that I am a gay poet is true, but it is not the only truth.
You were born on a military base in Japan, into a military family. How has that experience affected your poetry?
I don't know that it's affected my craft. Yet it's certainly affected my subject matter--the military creeps into the edges of many of my poems, and sometimes it's right there in the center. I think of the military as being like a fraternity, as a closed society in which I recognize myself as an outsider. My brother becoming a high-ranking officer in the Marine Corps has, perhaps, intensified this feeling in recent years. The cold realism of the militarist is a sensibility that I've been exposed to, and am comfortable with. It's present in my poems. But there's also the flushed believer of the Catholic. There's a tension between the two sensibilities, a zone where some of my poems are born.
Several of the poems in the third section of The Look of Things deal with Catholicism. Some, like "The Christological Year," are devout, while a poem like "Immaculate Mary Breathes the Air We Breathe" seems more satirical. How do you see your Catholicism?
I think of myself as a reluctant Catholic, certainly not a satirical one. I think of insurrection as being a part of my faith, as much as piety. Obviously you can't be gay and be in the Church without rejecting a great deal. That's someting irreconcilable. Finally, of course, the Church is greater than the men who lead it, and there's too much about it that's helpful to me--prayer and communion, to name just two--to reject it outright.
I have borrowed some forms and ideas from George Herbert, who, in addition to being a poet of piety, is a poet of insurrection. His divided self is what draws me to him. That there are always factions warring within us is an essential truth I like seeing transmuted into poetry.
You have been very successful in being published; your work appears in the New Yorker often. How long did it take for that success to come?
It took a long time to come. I'm 38, and I started sending my poems to the New Yorker at 23. I've saved all my rejections to show to friends and students who think that everything just sort of arose at once--it's not at all that way. I came close for years and years and then they took a great deal at once.
Was that because of a change in you or in the magazine?
It had a lot to do with the courage of one editor there. I remember with my poem "40 Days and 40 Nights," which tells the experience of receiving an HIV test--it was an extraordinary fact that [New Yorker Poetry Editor] Alice Quinn took that poem when she did. To my knowledge, there had never been a poem like that in the magazine, that dealt so explicitly with what was then considered a gay experience. That was an extraordinary fact. Now, with Tina Brown, the lid is very much off and there's no measure of censorship at all.
"40 Days and 40 Nights," like an earlier poem, "Papilloma," is a very graphic description of a medical procedure. Is that an important theme to you?
There's so much that's unaccountable about the body, about hospitals and clinics. I think that mysterious unaccountability of things is something I'm drawn to. The clinic juxtaposes pregnant mothers and HIV-positive young men. This is the kind of terrible irony about the world that I am drawn to.