Center Stillness: Conversations with Phyllis Walsh & CX Dillhunt

Phyllis Walsh was the creator and founding editor of Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem, which is in its twenty-third year. These conversations took place in December 2011 and January 2012 at Phyllis’ home in Greendale, Wisconsin. CX Dillhunt is a poet as well as the editor of Hummingbird.

Read Poems by Phyllis Walsh. Find out more about Hummingbird.

CX Dillhunt:  Phyllis, I remember finding my first Hummingbird tucked away on the very bottom shelf in the poetry section of University Book Store on State Street—almost on the floor, flat, and there on the cover was David [Kopitzke]'s hummingbird, wings out, hanging there with its beak in flower, alive as can be…

Phyllis Walsh:  A long way down for you!

CX:  Yes, I’m surprised I noticed it at all. I didn’t know what it was. It was the only thing on the shelf. But I got down there, sat on the floor and read the first two issues cover to cover—I was hooked and sent you a couple haiku the next day.

PW:  I guess no one knew where to put it. I’m glad it caught your eye.

CX:   Yes, eventually the bookstores began placing it up front near the registers, like candy and gum in other stores—hoping for an impulse buy!

PW:  In those early days, it was a real struggle. I was only putting out two a year, March and September.  Eventually, I was able to go quarterly, with a June and December issue. You wouldn’t think that something so small would be so much work…

CX: Let’s start there, with the size.  The magazine pages are a quarter of an 8 ½  by 11 sheet.

PW:  Well, that’s it. I wanted something I could fold into shape, tear, and roll into my typewriter.  Like those [pointing to stack of  neatly torn 5 ½  by 4 ½ sheets on the kitchen table next to the typewriter]. 

CX:  So, maybe that’s a good starting point for my next question, I mean, what makes a poem work for you, for Hummingbird?

PW:  Well, yes, anything that will fit on that small page—that’s a good start…

CX:  ….that reminds me—in preparation for this interview I found a letter where you wrote, “I’ve gone more in the direction of minimalism, as you know.”

PW:  Well, yes, as I was saying, anything that will fit on that small page—I’ve always felt if there is not a lot of space, the words chosen will be forced to carry more punch. Also, especially with shorter poems, it’s important to see only one on a page—seeing it on a page, surrounded by its own space—that’s my meaning of a short poem.  And like any poem, the meaning needs to be subtle.  Perhaps that’s the nature of the short poem, why I prefer it.

CX: There seems to be some confusion, though, I mean does it bother you when bookstores and even some poets refer to it as “a haiku journal”?

PW: Well, I’ve given up trying to explain. I suppose those are the ones who never submit their work, unfortunately, never read it. Perhaps they misunderstand the form or intent of the magazine, see a haiku or any short work as too limiting?  But, haiku or not, the poem I’m looking for might be more haiku-related than not. I’m not sure we’ve all decided on what a  haiku is…

CX:  So, let me rephrase the question:  what is it that makes a good short poem, one that works? I mean other than just being short and fitting on the page?  What would you say is the nature of the form?

PW:  Something not obvious, not spoken of directly, hinted at. That makes a big difference. But like a haiku, just because you have maybe three lines and seventeen syllables, if that’s how you try to write them, even if you have a season word if you require one, it still may not work. In any poem, I’m looking for compression—it should carry an implied comparison between different things or perceptions, but not directly so. At times, unexpected.

CX:  How do you know this?  I mean, when a poem works, when it doesn’t?

PW:  I was afraid you’d ask that. You mean how do I know if it’s a poem for Hummingbird? Experience, I guess. It has to have a certain “something” about it. Anything a bit offbeat, unexpected.  Short, but everything that needs to be said.

CX:  Short and ready.

PW: Yes, ready each time you read it. I guess I learned somewhere along the way that that led to the best poetry. Poetry should be condensed. I didn’t have a name for what I was writing, I was just trying to write poems. It’s what I preferred. So, as the editor I get to choose.  I hope the magazine speaks for itself in the sense that it encourages readers and writers to consider what works.

CX:  So it’s not just brevity you’re looking for?

PW:  Actually, that is all I’m looking for. Brevity. It has to hold up on its own, not just look short or fit the page. A certain tightness of expression and emotion that I don’t think is really achieved in a longer poem.

CX:  When did you start writing?

PW:  Probably first grade. Trying to write a poem. I didn’t keep any—my mother didn’t encourage saving. I had a poem file. I threw them all away. I remember her saying, “You don’t read this anymore.” So I didn’t keep anything for that long. They were mostly short things—something that needed to be expressed. My first grade teacher, I was really close to her—Miss Kahl. I ate lunch with her every day.

CX:  What did you talk about?

PW: What was going on in our lives. She tried to influence me to be more outgoing. I kept going back through sixth grade. I’d just stop by to visit. Sometimes I’d show her some poems

CX:  Were there any other teachers or authors who influenced you?

PW:  My sixth  grade teacher, Miss Lance. She taught poetry. Before that as I said, I just wrote because I wanted to. She had us read poetry. And I forget his name, but I had a freshman English teacher at Milton who encouraged. 

CX:  I know you’re a letter writer.

PW:  I started that at an early age, too. I like to write.

CX:   I know we corresponded for almost twenty years before we met.

PW:   And we still write to each other. I think there’s a connection…

CX:   How so?

PW:  I mean between poetry and letter writing.

CX:  Do you think there’s more of a connection to the shorter poem?

PW:  I never thought of that; maybe it’s the focus. Paying attention to that person, to what’s going on, knowing you should be succinct, more to the point.

CX:  Yes! Your letters, too, are always short, but carry the news,

PW:  That’s it.  And it’s a pleasure to write, to keep in touch.

CX:  Perhaps how a poem keeps us in touch.

PW:  Especially that short poem!

CX:   I enjoyed the years when Cid Corman appeared in Hummingbird. I hear you corresponded.

PW:  Oh yes. For years. I miss hearing from him.

CX:  He died about seven years ago?

PW:  That sounds right. We shared poems. He suggested it—a magazine like Hummingbird, I mean. We talked a lot about haiku and short poems.

CX:  Did you ever meet?

PW:  Yes, at the Lorine Niedecker Centenary in 2003. We were all fortunate to have him there. I think he died shortly after that, in 2004.

CX:  And that’s another connection, you and Lorine both being from Fort Atkinson.  Did you know her?

PW:  We both worked at the Fort Public Library. I was a librarian there for a short time before accepting a position at UW-Richland Center. We were acquaintances, our families knew each other. Everyone did.

CX:  Yes, in your small book of essays about her, you comment: “My awareness of Lorine Niedecker began in my childhood when I glimpsed her reclusive figure in our hometown, Fort Atkinson…a town of 8,000 situated in the midst of rich dairy country… townspeople whispered that Niedecker wrote poetry, but I never knew anyone who read it. Since she seemed to avoid interaction with other people, it was generally assumed it was of little consequence.”

PW:  That was such lesson for me.

CX:  It seems your study of Niedecker influenced your work.

PW:  I suppose.

CX:   Well, in the introduction to your essays [Lorine Niedecker: Solitary Plover, Juniper Book 56, La Crosse, 1992] you say: “Although LN is becoming recognized as a poet who made a major contribution to American literature, her work can reward without benefit of scholarship. Her genius lies in the clarity of vision she brings to the most common objects and experience.”

PW:  That’s it. That precision. I felt I got to know her that way, through her poetry.

CX:  But also, the comment on “scholarship.” I think your statement about her works as the motto for Hummingbird.

PW:  Yes, very much so. I finished that collection of essays just as Hummingbird was getting underway.

CX:   And going back to Fort, You grew up on a farm?

PW: Yes, I was born there. I think that influenced my sense of poetry and love of down-to-earth poetry. My grandfather loved to tell me stories for hours at a time out on the porch. He had a great sense of humor. We also went to the river to fish. It was a great small-town atmosphere. That was my life. After Milton I went to UW-Madison for my degree in Library Science. I worked at the Madison Public Library downtown for a while.

CX:  Hummingbird is in its 22nd year. Any advice for writers?

PW: Not really, other than to be yourself as much as you can.

CX:  What have you learned from editing Hummingbird?

PW:  Not to make instant judgments about poems or poets.

CX:  What do you mean?

PW:  First time through on submissions don’t make a major decision to take something or to dismiss it. I think the same goes for the poet, don’t immediately embrace or reject your work. It’s that going through that decision-making process, knowing you’ve eventually achieved something.

CX:  What’s the most difficult part of the job?

PW:  Turning down someone I know and see regularly. Correspondence is a bit easier. There are some I think of very highly as people, but who write poems I don’t want to accept. That’s very difficult. I try to do something else once in awhile—like lunch or a play or a movie. I try to do something together that has nothing to do with poetry. 

CX: What’s been the role of correspondence for Hummingbird?

PW: Significant. Some of my best friendships. But even there, it’s up and down. Something works for a while and then it falls apart. I suppose that’s the nature of all relationships, even though the friendship may remain.

CX:  Any regrets?

PW:  No, not that I can think of. Not with Hummingbird. It’s one of the most important things I’ve done in my life, not only for my own pleasure in doing it, but for the feedback from others. 

CX:  Would you say it’s been “fun”? 

PW: Yes, fun for the most part. One of the most positive experiences in my life.  And I can’t imagine it ever ending.

CX:  I’d like to end by reading you one of your poems from my favorite collection, Center Stillness [Phyllis Walsh, Scythe Presss, Dakota MN, 1989]. For the sake of our readers, I want to point out that it’s a small, hand-stitched book, about the size of Hummingbird, with ten poems, each on its own page.

      canoeing closer
           driftwood branch

PW:  Yes (chuckling), I can see that to this day.

CX:  Thanks!

PW:  Oh, how can I thank you?

December 2011 & January 2012, Greendale, WI.