Saturday, December 3, 2016

Robert Lee Haycock responds

Robert Lee Haycock: I am told I was born in 1956 but I was awful young then so I can't be certain. The eldest of 3, Mom and Dad honed their parenting skills on me; my brother and sister are both normal. Grew up in the Santa Clara Valley when "Do you know the way to San Jose?" was still a germane question. Churchified in a non-denominational, evangelical church before "Born again Christian" became a political party. Attended Santa Clara University where the Jesuits took off the top of my head, osterized the grey pudding inside and poured it back in. Commute 6 hours a day on public transportation. Got rid of my TV years ago.

DV: How did you get involved in writing and photography?

RLH: I started to write about 10 years ago in response to my friend Molly Fisk's "Poem a Day" prompts and started taking snapshots 15 years back as my children upgraded their digital cameras and I inherited their hand-me-ups.

DV: So, you were a 50-year-old novice poet, and a 45-year-ol ingenue photographer? Most artists get started a lot earlier than that. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages in waiting so long?

RLH: The internet (which didn't exist when I was in my 20's and 30's) is the reason I started writing and shooting.  E mail, blogs, social media enable me to promulgate my work to a much larger audience than would have been possible when I was younger.  I like to think that I have more to say, that I'm a more interesting and less bitter fellow now than I was in my callow youth.

DV: You didn't have the interest when you were callow? Most writers I know (even aspirational ones, whom the internet has transformed into real authors) got the authorial bug quite early.

RLH: I hated writing when I was in school.  I was too clever by half, rarely took notes, never studied for tests. I wrote term papers at the typewriter the night before they were due and came to dread them, not to mention teachers who wouldn't allow one to use erasable bond paper or white out.

DV: I had exactly the same experience and attitude -- except that I loved the "writing" part and did it well. I disliked the process and was a terrible typist. And yet, here you are! Did you just divert your creativity into the world of visual arts?

RLH: I did it well enough to graduate valedictorian in high school but my world was full of choirs, of harmony and math classes.  I started out as a biology major at Santa Clara University (Go, Broncos!) yet when I had taken a couple of electives in Fine Arts I changed my major because I found something I wasn't good at, knew nothing about, something I could really learn, and still I graduated summa cum laude.

DV: Did you start working as an art handler right away? I'm guessing that most people don't even know what that job is -- can you enlighten us?

RLH: I worked for 8 years after college delivering and then selling screen printing materials, what most folk would call silk screening, although we sold very little silk and a whole lot of stainless steel fabric.  Then I did a couple of years of graduate study in painting at San Jose State where I saw a notice on the bulletin board for an assistant preparator at de Saisset Museum on the campus of my alma mater Santa Clara.  I got the gig and from there moved on to Preparator at Palo Alto Cultural Center and then to de Young and the Legion of Honor.  Art handlers, preparators, exhibition technicians (the latter is my current title) paint the walls, braze and weld, shape plastic, build exhibition furniture (cases, pedestals, platforms, risers, free-standing walls.)  We hang paintings and textiles, install sculpture, mount objects and ephemera, drive 25 foot box trucks, scissor lifts, and fork lifts.  We put up labels and light the exhibitions, maintain the galleries by cleaning platforms and vitrines.  Yesterday I started my day trimming the grass around the base of a Keith Haring sculpture out front of the de Young, spent mid-day researching storage history in the collection database  and returning textiles that had come off display to their proper places.  I finished the day phoning in orders for materials to suppliers.  

DV: You certainly have a way of romanticizing events, Bob. Earlier, you mentioned Molly Fisk's "Poem a Day" as opening you up to participating rather than just handling. Can you fill us in about that program and more specifically how you became a convert?

RLH: I had been a fan of Molly's Thursday essays broadcast on KVMR 89.5 ( for some time.  Listening to her around the dinner table one evening she had us cracking up so badly that I had to write to her via a link at the radio station.  We corresponded frequently and she was my first Face Book friend.  When she does Poem a Day, Molly posts the first 4 or 5 prompts on FB.  I scribbled a response to one of these on my timeline and she asked me if I wanted to play along. I said to myself what the hell, thinking if Molly can write with such an open heart about the difficult things she has endured than I can certainly find a way to write about my cake walk of a life. Her Poem a Day groups are the friendliest, gentlest colloquiums where encouragement is shall I say encouraged and criticism discouraged. And now you know the rrrrrrrrest of the story.

DV: Do you have any record of those early poems? If you were to write them now, after you have honed your craft, what sorts of changes would you probably make?

RLH: All but a couple of months' worth of my writing is cached in Google Documents online and I go back to the older work if I am looking for something to suit a thematic submission call. Many of my early efforts suffer from being too clever.  I am learning to rely on my ear and intuition.

DV: Ah! The old "ear and intuition" school! I dislike a lot of contemporary poetry because it isn't very earworthy, even though the content is intriguing. About a hundred years ago poets went from writing poems to be heard to writing poems that were to be only read. (To be fair, of course, in the "old days" poets worked too hard on longish poems with meters that were too regular and that rhymed too well, creating boring, unreadable poems.) I know, I know, some people just can't be satisfied! Pictorially, have your esthetics gone through an evolution similar to your poetic one?.

RLH: I would like to think that my work has devolved from ars gratia artis (art for art's sake) to ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short.) I hope I am less imperious and more reportorial.

DV: Do you feel your daily intimate contact with art objects has shaped your esthetic ideas in any way that you can articulate? Was there ever some sort of epiphany or eureka moment?

RLH: I am pretty jaded at this point and it really takes something to catch my attention.  Arthur Matthews paintings always set me back on my heels and every time I enter Main Storage and see Irving Norman's work hung in front of me I have to say a prayer. My eureka moment was retrieving work from Richard Diebenkorn's widow.  Their home outside of Healdsburg was slathered floor to ceiling  with prints and paintings.  It took my breath away.

DV: Does this immersion have any effect on your own work? You say you're jaded, but you continue to produce interesting, individualistic pieces. Are your own creativity and those of others separate compartments that don't connect anywhere?

RLH: Perhaps jaded is too strong a word; I ought to have said that I have the luxury of being very choosy about what I spend time with.  My decades surrounded by art have convinced me that "meaning" is secondary to "experience" and that all works of art, plastic, performing and literary, are portals or springboards to other worlds.  An artwork's "meaning" is determined by the audience, not by the artist.  I might never know what my writing "means" to a reader so I concentrate first and foremost on the music of it rather than the sense of it.

DV: Here's my Parallel-Words-History of Poetry: At first, all literature (including religious creeds and law codes) was poetry, and all poetry was oral. And then, along came that serpent, writing, and eventually prose (though that was a slow process and a hard sell), and in time the turtle vanquished the rabbit. So, by the time we were born, it was a quaint notion that poetry was meant to be heard-not-read, and we demonized the old verbalists unmercifully. And then, even "Meaning" (literal and metaphorical) was deconstructed, undermined, and banished, and everything became all-Freud structure and semiology. And now, Bob Haycock has the temerity to say that All Art is Music? How retrograde is that? But, seriously, do you think orality is making a comeback? Do you think that is going to revive popular interest in poetry, or is it going to go the way of opera and museums?

RLH: I think we are already seeing that comeback with the younger generation's interest in poetry slams. The most fun I've had with my own poems is when I've been asked to read aloud. Song lyrics can be poetic; Leonard Cohen and Ani DiFranco leap to mind as examples of poets who also compose melodies. Poetry is always incantatory even if it is only so to the mind's ear. As to popular interest, I hope not; The Kardashians are popular, Duck Dynasty is popular, People's Court is popular.  I think there is room in this world for a wee bit of aesthetic elitism.

DV: But Shakepeare and Beethoven were also popular, weren't they? When you do a reading, do you have some set routine in terms of a selection process? Do you know what pieces are more likely to "work"?

RHL: Shakespeare had enough people dying on stage to carry the day with his audience. Beethoven I have to think had a savvy audience that could afford to pay for a seat in the concert hall but he was spared by his deafness the sorts of boos and catcalls I experienced in the '70's when John Cage conducted the San Jose Symphony. Some readings are specific to a publication like "In Mount Diablo's Shadow"  and no wriggle room allowed. Elsewhere I like to read things that make no sense to me and see what sort of reaction I get. I like to be surprised.

DV: That's a reversal over the usual approach. Generally performers want to surprise (usually delight, but sometimes confound or anger) their audiences but don't themselves want to be treated as an art object being thrown to the critical wolves without a net or life jacket (to mix a whole bunch of metaphors). In Seoul I was a regular at the open mics, to the point where one druken patron called me either the godfather or grandfather of spoken poetry, but I was also the only one, ever, to be actively booed. In your public appearances, have you ever been unpleasantly surprised?

RHL: I have been spared that to date.  On the flip side, there is nothing more gratifying than provoking laughter with something that I found funny or hearing "ahhhs" and the sharp intake of breath when I read something that I thought was strange or perplexing.

DV: So, what's next? Do you have any further ambitions for your poetry or photography? Do you want to develop skills in any other, different, arts?

RHL: I have a manuscript for a chapbook that was recently juried out of a competition and I am still looking for a home for it. I joke about retiring and learning to play the Dobro but seeing how retirement isn't imminent I would advise Jerry Douglas not to spend any time worrying about me stealing his thunder.

DV: Well, now Jerry has been formally warned to stay on his mettle. On that "note" it's time to thank you for your time and candor (and humor!) in answering these questions. We all look forward to more of your pictures and poems. Best of everything to you! 


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