Poet Erich von Hungen might come across as a gracious individual, but he is utterly honest and remarkably straightforward. Currently abiding in San Francisco, California, under a giant Norfolk pine at a century-old house between Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean, the poet, speaking to the Literary Express in an exclusive interaction, says he is grateful that we reached out to him all the way from India. ‘Your effort is particularly meaningful to me,’ he pronounces with all earnestness, adding, ‘because the last poem in my next book Witness, the one that ties all the other eighty poems together and gives them resonance and meaning, is called Gandhi, the giant who reached across the world and continues to.’ He tells us that he couldn’t feel more honoured that we are discoursing with him at the exact moment. ‘And it couldn’t seem more magical and true,’ he states with a smile.
Sudharsan: I am elated to make your acquaintance, and it is a pleasure to feature you on the Literary Express. To begin with, I’d like to know when you composed your first-ever poem.
Erich von Hungen: It began one day at school. I was suddenly called into the principal’s office, without warning or explanation, for what turned out to be fulfilling the class assignment to write a poem. To my amazement, the teacher was apparently deeply disturbed by the poem I wrote. No, nothing pornographic or violent, just not where children were expected to go. It became a real drama. Parents were brought in. But the teacher, through it all and even after, never said a word to me directly. The district psychologist, however, was the one who encouraged me. Before that, I drew. And if you might wonder why I kept writing, I did so because writing, the process in itself, became a way of seeing, a way of comprehension, of understanding, and not simply of saying.
Sudharsan: Could you tell me a bit about your recently published collection of poems?
Erich von Hungen: In Spite of Contagion: 65 COVID-19 Poems, which is currently offered on Amazon and Smashwords, is a poetic response to what seemed like a bomb being dropped on every city and village in the world simultaneously, a bomb not only of literal death but of social strangeness and dislocation, of isolation, unknowing, confusion and a deep, sudden fear of human touch, of human closeness. In a moment, the whole world changed – was changed, ironically, not by some bully dictator but by something too small even to be seen. I wrote it then because I could not avoid it. A poet, you must understand, is being a pair of eyes that cannot and will not look away. I did it, then, out of necessity. I did it because I had to. Hopefully, though, I do not take my readers to this place of despair just to languish, but to understand the incomprehensible, by finding a way of re-framing it and so rising above it. I go there, with them, to hold up sixty-five reasons to say, ‘Yes, but in spite of that, in spite, in spite.’ I go there to show ways and reasons for going on.
ENGAGE WITH EXPRESS: We suggest you buy yourself a copy of In Spite of Contagion: 65 COVID-19 Poems right off the bat. You can do so by clicking on the book’s cover image below.
Sudharsan: What inspires you to write poetry?
Erich von Hungen: What you must understand is that poetry is not simply expressing oneself – not for me. That would seem more suited to an essay. Rather, poetry is a way of being and of seeing as if it were another sense in the way of taste or touch. And with this sense, it becomes a way of relating to life at its smallest as well as its largest. For the poet, it is every day and everywhere. It is who and how you are. Poetry is, at its fullest, a relationship. And the words are the bi-product of that relationship, that way of being. They are the conversations that you, the reader, are allowed to overhear – but they are not in and of themselves the whole thing. Birds stroke distance through the air, spiders build webs, and in the same way, poets write. The significant fact, though, is that what they write; poems are not about, they are not faint reflections, but rather, poems are, are the thing itself – as is the distance, as is the web.
Personally, however, I am obviously a social being as well as an individual, a man within myself. Consequently, as a poet, I walk those two paths, the exterior and the interior. So, on the one hand, there are my pieces of social consciousness written out of my experiencing of those who must accept a concrete bed or the comfort of a slender silver needle or the raiment of injustice torn and unaltered. And on the other, my inner thrust has always been an examination of the human heart, its uses and misuses, which has become a psychological and often mystical quest – a quest full of surprise and discovery. And poetry provides that – amazement, that is. And I write poetry, from the outside and the inside, as a way to find and to share that amazement. All that being said, what inspires me is almost anything at any time. It is all about being ready for it, open to it, no matter how small it initially seems, how worthless and allowing myself an unbiased, intellectually suspended, childlike openness to the amazing.
Inspiration? The amazing? It may be the colour of tea with the light penetrating it, the thousand shapes of the dried leaves as I spoon them from the caddy. It may be their sound as they fall. It may be the word, tea, itself said or heard a certain way. And it may be the dregs of myself forming a soothsayer’s pattern unexpectedly before me, and my looking, almost not wanting to, but too curious to turn away. What is important is not looking to be inspired, for there you are already sorting and judging, rather than allowing it – allowing the world, in its own silly way, to touch you. To touch you right there at your poet’s further sense. And that touch, that is an inspiration to me.
Sudharsan: Well, that brings me to my next question. Do you derive inspiration from any writers?
Erich von Hungen: What I say about inspiration generally applies to reading other writers as well – and I do, I absolutely do. By this I mean, what moves me one day may not the next. So while I read people as diverse as Rumi and Anne Sexton, Bukowski and Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Stewart, Dorianne Laux, Philip Levin, I read Cavafy too, and Dylan Thomas, Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, Emily Dickinson, and I read Basho and Issa, yes, as well.
And while I love them all, I do not read any one of them every day – just when I feel a frisson for a certain piece. And when I do, I do not read them for their ideas, or to work out incomprehensible puzzles and defeat them, but to be in that moment of rightness that they have built, that soft cathedral, and to feel its peace, breath its air, to be among those who really do understand – that legion of strangers, to feel not alone, to find the permission and encouragement to carry on – to imagine further. And for me, that is a kind of inspiration – the kind I feel in other’s art.
Sudharsan: When do you generally write? Do you follow a schedule, or do you write when you have an urge to pen down your thoughts?
Erich von Hungen: I like to dedicate my mornings to writing, for that is when I am fresh. I do, however, often find myself waking up in the middle of the night to jot down what is popping up in my head which can be for far more than a moment, regardless of the hour. Or I might stop on the street, a tram, in the park when gravity asserts itself boldly with a leaf, varicoloured, falling on my head.
Sudharsan: Do you think having a good educational background matters when it comes to being a writer?
Erich von Hungen: My educational background includes majoring in comparative literature at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and graduate studies at the University of Munich in Germany. But I would like to emphasize that while I feel an education gives a writer a sense of the breadth and depth of the water, its temperature, location, inhabitants, and chemical composition, that this is not the whole story. By this I mean, that study is basically analytical. You are taught to look at a book for the building blocks, to see how they are placed, to find what holds them together, and so you are often wrongly taught to suppose that the reverse is how it happens – literature. However, this sort of over planning (in opposition to allowing or evolution) must produce what you already know when you start, thus castrating, or at best, stultifying the process. In the end, it produces babel, glorified repetition, so is purposeless. The real point of art, however, is to listen to the dewdrop on the leaf, enter into a dialogue with it as a relationship of equals rather than with a command, to get, that is, to something new, something that you did not yet know but that needed to break through, and its method was the dewdrop.
Do not be:Erich von Hungen
Elegant, educated or wise.Be:
Truthful, simple, brutal,
honest as the blackened stump
of a lightning-struck tree. To be:
Now doesn’t this sound silly? Well, that’s why it’s so hard, especially after good education. It is hard because it seems to be demeaning, to be silly, to talk to a dewdrop like Issa did, and so, it takes great courage. Courage to go not into the place of battle but the place of ignorance and to listen. So yes, an education enriches, but if not collared and leashed, it bites your legs, it inhibits, it goes for your throat, gets your tongue. Or at very least, it can point you in the wrong direction – honours instead of idiocy, divine idiocy.
Sudharsan: Could you let me know if becoming a poet was a conscious decision you made? From what you have said, I ween it happened naturally.
Erich von Hungen: I live for epiphany, and writing is a way or path to that state. Therefore, at this point in my life, writing is a necessity rather than a choice. But when I was really young, it might have been drawing or painting or even music, but I was not allowed to study piano. And a note pad weighs nothing and easily concealed. So I guess that I would say that when it came and showed itself, it became inevitable.
Sudharsan: Our readers might want to know how you juggle writing and other tasks. Also, tell us about your hobbies and interests besides writing.
Erich von Hungen: I love idleness, walking, being a flaneur as only the French could understand because so much comes of that. I love books, movies, plays, art exhibits, swimming, cooking and all things sensual. But it seems like I never have enough time in the day. Indeed, when I throw back the covers in the morning, I am already a month behind, thus squeezing out so much else I might want to do. Nevertheless, while it is still writing, I am, right now, the final set of eyes working on a nonfiction research book. Writing yes, but so different than poetry.
Sudharsan: I’m eager to know about your works in progress.
Erich von Hungen: My next book is, at this moment, going through a final edit. It is a response to our current times of social upheaval and unrest. It will and does confront the issues of want, need, inequity, and injustice specifically from the perspective of those most deeply and shamefully affected. It is titled ‘Witness’ and is an eighty-poem exposition of man’s inhumanity to man whether that is allowing for an outcast society of homelessness by inaction or an environment of racism, both obvious as well as insidious and veiled. It is an outcry against the promotion of intolerance to difference whether religious, ethnic, or intellectual. It is a charge brought against political corruption and political stagnation. It is an indictment of the loss of financial and medical security; of a calculated and callous, for-profit destruction of our entire earth and environment. It is a holding to account, from the interior, of The Empire of Lies. It is a bearing witness loudly and clearly.
If the need is there,Erich von Hungen
the end will follow.
There is no part,
without the whole.
And, in another tone entirely, I have a four-part, eighty-six poem collection called ‘Kiss’ out with prospective publishers presently. It is an examination of love in all its many forms as delivered by and shown in, yes, the kiss.
Sudharsan: Would you like to tell the budding writers who more often than not lose motivation if a few of their works don’t do well?
Erich von Hungen: First, I would remind them of Hippocrates’ adage, ‘Art is long, life is brief.’ And simply say that learning your craft: doing it, saying it, making it right takes time – thousands of hours of apprenticeship like with anything else, but more so. So be patient, I would say. But I would also say, that while you must listen and learn to evolve to grow, to blossom, you must as well know not to pander. You must use that apprenticeship to develop an original perspective and voice, one that is absolutely necessary, and when you have, you must be true to it. But, of course, the problem is objectivity: knowing when your metamorphosis to writer has genuinely occurred.
It is seeing the difference between stubbornness and fresh insight and then slogging on until this occurs. But one helpful key in all this might be for the aspirants to ask themselves, ‘Does this work that I am now holding, shock or astonish me? Did it surprise and change me in the process of doing it? Did I, all alone, cry, shed real tears out of gratitude for the epiphany, beauty, the sheer sound of the document? Or was I just glad that it was done? So, simply put, I would say, work until the tears become an ocean. And know from the start, which it is for this that you do it, write, for the growth of depth and feeling, for the process and not for status or awards.
But how to achieve any of this, you might well ask? In answer, I would suggest the following five-pronged attitudinal and physical workout:
First, assume a stance within each moment of natural, unforced openness. That is, be a little like a basketball player who knows the ball is coming but not from where or how and so is loose to anything. I would characterize it as a state of relaxed curiosity, interest, fascination, wonder, receptivity. And because of it, that state, very small things will come to you that move the mountains of your soul.
Second, but still dependent on the openness-curiosity state, is reading. Reading not just other poets, but novels or whatever else the eyes of that openness need to see. If nothing else, good writing can offer great encouragement, companionship and enormous permission to imagine further in your own work.
Third, try editing other writer’s poems that you admire – even whole books of them. This is not to feel superior or better, but instead, to bring you closer to the chosen admired author, as you struggle alongside to show ‘the thing’ and be in the place of ‘it’ together. This sharing of the author’s generosity, the author’s openness can act to draw you deeper into your receptivity.
Fourth, accept idleness. Try walking alone, though often in very public places and simply seeing – if seeing is ever really simple. But importantly, not trying to see, rather just allowing it to happen, if it can or will – as well as allowing it not to.
Fifth and finally, work, even if uninspired or even if you just plain think that you can’t. Still, in doing so, one must consider that there is a big difference between actively trying and forcing. But too, there is a very big difference between courageous tries that tell you where not to go and doing nothing, which tells you nothing but undermines your soul.
Sudharsan: Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how should one combat it?
Erich von Hungen: I do not want to demean it – not at all. But I do think it can be, in a way, simple. For me, it usually has to do with subconsciously fighting the work itself – arrogance, in a word. That is, having a plan or direction that I have deemed immutable but which is running counter to the direction that the work needs, so there is a general breakdown of function – a collision of sorts.
This usually can be helped by taking a new direction after consulting the work itself, as if it were another person with whom you are having a relationship. That is, by treating it with respect, with equality in the process of ‘creation’ and moving with it, learning from it. To achieve this, I find it worthwhile to ask myself what I am silencing in the piece by silencing myself. By asking, what it is that I don’t want to know; and so, listening to what the piece has been trying to tell me? I find it useful to ask why I am afraid. And if the answer seems to denigrate, I find I must once again face the fact of arrogance – who do I think I am, anyway, to be embarrassed? And then, the hammer blow, the knockdown to where I belong. And so, with writer’s block, I believe in stepping back and starting over again – smaller, much smaller.
Sudharsan: If there is one thing that you would like to see changed in the world, what would it be?
Erich von Hungen: The literal mind. It is, I believe, man’s greatest enemy. It reduces all things to a few simplicities, by cutting off the odd bits, the curious parts, the uncertain, the misshapen, the difficult and makes a pabulum-of-tyranny out of human genius. It celebrates the least and outlaws the best. It proscribes and condemns a diversity of beliefs, burns books, forbids art, does not understand metaphor and says in so many ways what Stalin did, ‘When there’s a person, there’s a problem. When there’s no person, there’s no problem.’ It is the true and dangerous idiocy that has nothing to do with IQ.