Paul Hunter, poet without punctuation

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Paul Hunter describes himself as “a recovering teach-a-holic, a fussy tool-sharpener and a hot-lead man of letters.” His new book, Breaking Ground (Silverfish Review Press, 2004), explores the vanishing American experience of farming on a small scale. He spoke about the book with Paul Nelson of Global Voices Radio and the Northwest Spokenword Lab (SPLAB!) in this interview commissioned by your About Poetry Guides.

We’re happy to bring word to our international audience of a Pacific Northwest poet whose work you ought to know.

~Bob Holman & Margy Snyder

The Puget Sound has a very rich literary arts scene. There are some brilliant writers and dedicated publishers, but few as dedicated to both pursuits as Paul Hunter. Through his hand-lettered WoodWorks Press, Paul creates some of the most beautiful limited edition books that can be found anywhere. And in his writing he tries to honor the intelligence of language:

“That’s a wonderful thing about this medium, that the language that we’re working with is sometimes smarter than we are. And somehow unbeknownst to ourselves we pick a phrase, we turn to a detail, we pick something that is wiser, the language is wiser than we are.”

The punctuation (or lack of same) in his new collection of farming stories from the Midwest was inspired, in part, by a rare document some believe to be in the handwriting of Shakespeare, called the Sir Thomas More fragment. There is not one comma or period in Breaking Ground ().

Paul says:

“This was a test of my courage, actually, if I could do this. In fact, I probably spent most of my time in graduate school studying Shakespeare, and there’s a text... We have three pages, three long sheets of paper... it’s called the Sir Thomas More fragment. It’s a play that most scholars now believe... is in Shakespeare’s hand... Shakespeare’s writing. And the interesting thing about them is that’s there’s almost no punctuation at all in any of the lines. He also doesn’t care much about spelling. He kind of lets that go by the wayside, but the Sir Thomas More fragment’s a very interesting document to wake you to the possibilities of poetry.... Whoever wrote it was a good poet and he has the feel of the sound of the phrase. And often the sound of the phrase is beautiful and it’s nonsense. And then he comes back and tries in some cases to change the words to make it make sense, to make logical sense. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he just tries a couple of different things and then just gives up.”

Of course the farmer in Paul rarely gives up, even when the task is as thankless, and necessary, as spreading manure:
and Bill would lean admire my swing
and call me a natural
said I might get to be
kind of what you call a connoisseur
get so I could tell all the different
flavors and what they’ve been eating...

why you’ll get so you even miss the smell
and can’t get to sleep nights
without a fresh pile for a pillow

and he was right pretty quick I got to know
the thin flaccid pancakes of cattle
the sheep’s ripe plums
the pig’s gold smear and dribble
chickens’ salt and pepper candle drippings
the geese great cake decorations
and horse blueblack chunks of evil...
When the poem comes to an end Paul is on the spreader:
spewing a brown blizzard far and wide
that left me emptied out skyhigh and satisfied.
About these poems, John Ashbery says: “...Part georgics, part elegies, they bear vivid witness to an agrarian vision that is slowly becoming history.” But I suspect until there’s a crash and Fox News gets wind of the danger of having a food system that is as disconnected to nature as we have come to be, we’ll continue to enjoy the mammal joy of the fast-food life that in his author’s notes Paul calls a virus that’s eating the planet and we’ll be like the charming creatures in the poem:

The deer will eat
an apple tree clean to the ground
in its leafy infancy
and should it reach again
for a while strip its skin
grind to nothing its twigs
as a delicacy

but amid confused abundance
should one grow
out of reach overlooked
its truck gets unpalatable
the sweet being
once all one
no longer evident
under scarred heavy bark
the sweet being
sensed now as longing overhead
as flower and fruit
Breaking Ground is published by Silverfish Review Press of Eugene, Oregon. The quotes in this article are taken from an interview Paul did with the author, Paul Nelson, which can be heard at the SPLAB! Web site. The interview can be ordered from SPLAB! by making a suggested online contribution of $15, including postage and handling.
~Paul Nelson
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