Regarding Style: An Interview with Phil Hey

Some poets love to utilize sound devices such as alliteration and rhyme, while others choose to focus on accurately depicting an image. What aspects of style in poetry are particularly important to you?

Both sound and image are very important to me. Sometimes I begin with one, sometimes with the other -- but I always end up reading aloud as I edit to make it a good reading script. "Good writing is perfected speech," said the great writer E.B.White.

Have you ever made a conscientious decision to adjust or alter your style in a certain direction, or is it something that comes naturally?

When I was taking creative writing from Gwendolyn Brooks, I started the class relying on my technique, but that was extremely frustrating. I realized then that showing technique wasn't the way to write, and I consciously abandoned it. (Later, it returned as it should, not consciously but as underlying support for what I was really meaning to do.)

Poems of yours like "The man who used things up" and "No wind to speak of" have titles that feed into the poem, giving this affect of the poem to fluidly read downward. It's a great device that hooks me right in, and then you follow with some fresh, engaging language. So, to the question, what would you say are the fundamental differences between poetry and prose?

I believe that in poetry, every line/phrase/word should be weighed and chosen; that happens in prose too, but not all the time.

What poets do you most admire? Which poets were the first to get you interested in poetry?

Oh my, a hundred poets. Keats, Whitman, Browning, Frost, W.C.Williams, James Hearst, Dave Evans, Ted Kooser, Bill Kloefkorn, Mark Vinz and Rod Torreson. Yes, that's a good bagful. The first, I'm not sure; I read a lot when I was little; Lewis Carroll, for sure.

Many of your poems deal with everyday subjects, like "Elsie's Cafe in Aurelia Iowa," and often have a conversation-like rhythm. To what degree would you say that the often unnoticed music of the everyday affects your style?

To the Nth degree! The great majority of what I write consciously tries to carry conversational rhythm and phrasing. I love so many voices I hear around me.

Are there any specific, non-literature-related, arts that you would say influence the way you approach your writing?

Music in general and jazz in particular. When you start playing a jazz piece, you know its structure and basic melody, but you have to risk departing from them to achieve a new music that hasn't happened before. You can't just imitate.

What would you say is the most important thing a young poet can do to to develop their own style?

Maybe, I'll try. In everything you write, listen for little differences between your writing and what "anybody" might have written. "Generic poetry" is dead poetry. And in everything you read and language you hear, try to notice what language is specifically active, making the passage move along and mean more. And it doesn't matter where you hear it. Two influences on my writing that probably nobody else has is the great Chuck Berry, and the delivery of the actor Chill Wills.

Are there any particular poets you recommend young poets to read when they want to explore?

Nope, just KEEP READING. (And see the list above.) I also like nonfiction because it's not "made up" like fiction.

Do you think your style of writing is inseparable from yourself? How greatly do you think a poet's person relates to their expression?

It's inseparable from myself in two ways. One, I can't imagine anyone wanting to imitate me; and two, I know that Dave Evans (and probably a few other reader/friends) could easily tell my poems from those by writers who sound "generally" like me.

As much of your poetry deals with your surroundings, how would you urge young poets to utilize and apply their surroundings to their writing?

Write about what is near you. I think I wasted a lot of time when young wishing I could write about New York and other intellectually smart places. Trouble was, I didn't live there (and you should never try to fake knowledge).

Thank you very much,

Andrew De Haan

Thank you very much! Keep in touch, Andrew.


Works by Phil Hey

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.