The Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State coordinates the annual Philip Levine Prize for Poetry book contest, which is named for the late U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. The contest — open to any poet writing in English, except current or former students or faculty of Fresno State — offers a $2,000 prize and publication by Anhinga Press. This year’s final judge is C. G. Hanzlicek, a poet and Professor Emeritus of English at Fresno State who was Levine’s longtime friend and colleague.
In an email interview, MFA poetry student Jessica Turney asked Hanzlicek about writing poetry about birds, surrounding yourself and your poetry with loved ones, and looking for poetry that offers a glimpse into our humanity.
Jessica Turney: While reading your most recent poetry collections, The Cave and The Lives of Birds, I found myself captivated by your sense of abruptness, yet poignancy. I am thinking specifically of your poem “Moment,” from The Cave, where a “meadowlark perched on a strand of wire” squirts out a “quick white poop as if in greeting.” But then the poem takes the reader to a place of reflection and wonder (as it often does throughout your collections), where the “larks sang deeper, / And even stretching all the way from there/ To this very moment, sang longer.”
What draws you to the birds, Professor Hanzlicek? How do birds connect to your writing—what message do they carry through your collection? Does the Central Valley inspire these seemingly ordinary moments of the seen world? I am assuming it does in some way.
Chuck Hanzlicek: You are right about the intention of the poem “Moment” being to arrive at a moment of wonder. The poem begins with my wife Dianne and I simply going out for a drive, just following what the landscape suggests to us, but then we arrive at a fabulous, though small, moment. I suppose that implicitly the poem is suggesting that you have to do your part to have these moments happen; they won’t come to you if you don’t leave the house. You have to be there, even if sometimes there is no reward, but when there is a reward, the effort is worth it.
My fascination with birds goes back to my early childhood. It’s mentioned in the poem about my mother that you mention in the next question. Her interest in birds was one of the keys that led me to “a world outside myself.” I was one of a precious few members of the Junior Audubon Society when I was in elementary school, a fact that I hid from my less nerdy friends. Birds have always seemed to me to be one of the most precious gifts of nature, flashes of color and freedom in a world that can sometimes seem drab.
Once my wife and I were standing on the road through the Merced Wildlife Refuge at day’s end, and a flock of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes flew about twenty feet over our heads as they landed in the marsh for the night. The noise was almost deafening: wings clattering, the honks of geese, and the call of the cranes that is probably better described as a cronk than a honk. That was as close to mystical experience as I’ll ever get.
Jessica: You have a voice of clarity, humor, and insight. I am thinking of poems “A Poem to My Friends,” “Simple Truths,” and “My Mother’s Passing” where you speak of your wife and your parents. These three individuals are prominent throughout your collections. “How is it I never thanked her/ For passing me the key/ To a world outside myself” – this line I return to. It’s wonderful, sad, and not only touches on themes of moral ambiguity that ordinary people encounter, as Peter Everwine mentioned in his blurb for your collection, but it extends itself beyond to something not quite as tangible as the seen world around us; it is almost like a prayer.
What I am trying to ask is, how have these three specific people (and of course others, such as your daughter Leah that the reader encounters in poems such as “Egg,” and poems from “A Dozen for Leah,”) influenced your writing—your perspective on the world that surrounds you?
Chuck: My wife and I will be celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary next May. Obviously, that’s the most important relationship in my life. Who anticipates sweet, constant companionship through an entire adult lifetime? Fortunately, it happened to me, and I’m still a little gobsmacked by it.
My relationship with my mother was often filled with complications, but we won’t go into that. My father died of a heart attack at 58, but I was very close to him, and from him I inherited my rather mellow and quiet disposition. I was also very close to my paternal grandparents and learned much of what I know about love from them.
My daughter has also been a fount of love, and I’m grateful to have shared a life with her. As a child, she was full of interesting questions, and as an adult she is filled with generosity toward others and makes me proud. Friends and family form the frame around the picture of one’s life, and mine has been a pleasing picture to behold. Those relationships can’t help but be the center of my poems.
Jessica: I know this is not your first time judging the Philip Levine Prize contest. How would you describe your past experiences working with the manuscripts considered as finalists? What do you keep an eye out for while reading, and do you think your perspective and experiences judging have differed vastly from others who have judged the contest, for example Peter Everwine or Phil himself? When reading, do you keep Phil in mind? Do you look for moments that Phil would appreciate or respond to?
Chuck: Of course, Phil is on my mind as I read manuscripts, but he was my friend for almost fifty years, and someone whose work I deeply admired, so he would be present even if the contest were not in his name. Peter and I have also shared our poetic lives, and Peter has been my most useful critic of my own work. So the three of us have a lot in common when it comes to poetic passions.
What I look for in a manuscript is a voice that is consistent and compelling and that is not afraid to delve into what Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” I have zero interest in language poetry or poetry that aspires to create decorative objects. Poetry is a place to share our humanity.
Jessica: In addition to judging the contest, are you working on any writing projects—any projects in general?
Chuck: The project is always to write, and to write well if possible.
Jessica Turney studies poetry in the Fresno State MFA program.