An enormous tent. (“Carnival”)
All’s not well in paradise today, folks. It’s difficult to sum up Paul Hannigan’s oeuvre, thematically or formally, but I can tell you this much: Eden’s been infiltrated and thrashed.
Hannigan’s poetic concerns via this Selected Poems showcase a short publishing career from the 1960s to the 1970s including a section of unpublished work. His subjects and styles are both ranged and intertwined like a root-bound rhododendron: slavery to boredom, tyranny to seduction, surreal dreamscapes to friendly arguments, cascading blocks of text to an entire collection—“Holland and the Netherlands”— made of three-couplet poems. As far as I can tell, Hannigan was a complex thinker, whose poems ruminate and implicate. He was, it seems, a man of contradictions, and his poetry reflects as much.
Hannigan’s voice is lofty and chatty: “We were sitting around drinking beer the other night and talking about the Pieta [sic] for a change” (“Homage to Toth”).
Formally complex in the midst disintegrating his own language: “The seeming perfect ion of m / y reason, generally. Oh!” (“Hiccoughs”).
Mocking and sincere as instanced in the title, “You Got to Take Dope Life is So Boring.”
Horny and matter-of-fact: “If you claim to love women you must love their genitals” (“A Marriage Manual”).
And, often, Hannigan’s judgment of tyranny cuts right through the bullshit of political safety zones, as in the one-line poem “Bringing Back Slavery”: “I think we should have a parade for it.”
What strikes me most deeply about The Problem of Boredom in Paradise, compiled and edited by Adam Golaski of Flim Forum Press, is the wild sense of betrayal that permeates the poems—in spite of Hannigan’s obvious wit. The poems will make you laugh, many times, before you want to cry. As Golaski notes in his introduction, paradise betrays us (or more aptly, we betray paradise); the world betrays us; language betrays us; our bodies betray us (Hannigan died in 2000 after a lifetime of illness); we betray our loved ones; we betray ourselves. Hannigan’s poems buzz, sometimes behind the words themselves, with the sadness of this truth, so much so that betrayal morphs into a shadowing figure, half jester, half man.
In Hannigan’s poetics, myriad disappointments arrange themselves around the fool who walks a threshold between buffoonery and wisdom. Think about the first card in the Tarot. The Fool walks merrily along a looming cliffside. If The Fool jumps, is it a result of misplaced confidence or a deep, guiding self-knowledge?
The epigraph to Hannigan’s 1976 chapbook, Bringing Back Slavery quotes lexicographer Frederic G. Cassidy, who spent his life recording and compiling both Jamaican and American regional speech:
“A number of words mean ‘fool’ in various keys. A brinjah is a comical person; to banja is to play the fool. Fool can be an adjective meaning foolish: ‘Cho, man! You too fool!’—or as the abstract noun, foolishness: ‘Do whol a de nex week Wasp wid him fool fly up an dung.’”
Set up this way, the fool and language are bedmates. In fact, language often plays the fool. For instance, in the book’s title poem, “The Problem of Boredom in Paradise,” even animals mock our speech because “We are so innocent.” We’re both capable of using language and blissfully unaware of its shortcomings. The Fool permeates —tyrant and tyrant’s antidote.
I asked publisher Adam Golaski about Hannigan and The Problem of Boredom in Paradise, including what drove him to publish the selected poems of a nearly forgotten poet whose work he’d stumbled upon in a used bookshop and couldn’t put down. The Fool, of course, finds a way into one’s chest.
A beggar stops you in the street and reminds you that the wise man
is ruled by wisdom but the fool is ruled by the wise man. What
is to be done against this tyranny? The usual things. (“Miracles”)
AO: I'm particularly interested in the book's title poem, which is layered, complex, and seems to outline a pretty definite vision of how humans apprehend the world/create our own hell. I'm interested to hear more about why you selected it for the book's title.
AG: My list of titles for the selected was short and did not include The Problem of Boredom in Paradise. For a long while, I debated calling the book Folly or Fool. I liked (and still like) the brevity of these titles. They're curt. Rude, even. Fool, especially. Imagine, glaring up at you: FOOL. And, as you note, fool is a word Hannigan returned to a lot in his poetry. It evokes a contradictory image: the court jester who is an idiot / buffoon and bound to a king he must entertain, and the wise advisor, able to speak bluntly to the king as no one else can. And, if you title the book Fool, the question becomes, Who is the fool? Hannigan himself, the subjects of his work, or the reader? (All three, of course.)
In a similar vein, I considered calling the book Dope. I riff a bit on the word in my introduction. Matthew Klane suggested The Problem of Boredom in Paradise. I worried the title was too long and put too much pressure on the poem that would become "the title poem."
However, the poem that would become the title poem is perfectly able to bear the pressure. Furthermore, no one says the whole title when referring to the book. The title becomes, depending on your bent, "Boredom" or "Paradise" which is wonderful. After too much deliberation, I decided The Problem of Boredom in Paradise was perfect.
Reader As Fool
Ask ask me anything you
AO: Do you think that "The Problem of Boredom in Paradise" is riffing on "The Idea of Order at Key West" at all? This question leads to another: where would you place Hannigan in terms of his influences and his contemporaries? He seems to wear so many different hats.
AG: Hannigan's work is strange. I know who his contemporaries were, and I know who he read (as much as that's possible), but I don't know where I would place his work. Did he read Stevens? Yes. Is "The Problem of Boredom in Paradise" riffing on Stevens? Sure, and no, and I don't know.
AO: I read in that poem a discovery that we are our own slavers, that humans enslave ourselves with language, power-seeking, feelings of guilt/wrongness because we fear paradise, the state of just being. We are “bored” so we turn paradise into hell in order to have something to fret about.
AG: If your reading is good, and it's at least that, then "The Problem of Boredom in Paradise" is very Hannigan (It is very Hannigan). That is to say, he didn't need Stevens to write it.
AO: What was the moment when you realized you had to publish his selected poems? What is it about Hannigan's body of work that compelled you?
AG: My first impulse, when I read Bringing Back Slavery, was to make more—I wrote a short sequence of poems, “by” Paul Hannigan. Not imitations, but responses, for which I did not claim authorship. My second impulse, which followed so closely on the heels of the first I might have the order backwards, was to show people the poems. If only to confirm my belief that the poems were good.
Eventually, I did the footwork, so-to-speak, to find out more about Hannigan, which led to his widow Caroline Banks. At this point I felt committed to write an essay about Hannigan, which became "This Is Not Sad; This Is Not Funny" (another title I considered for the Selected, by the way). Coincidentally, my friend John Cotter started Open Letters Monthly, which provided me a venue for my essay. Caroline was very happy with the essay, and invited me to see Hannigan's papers. I wanted to see them. I wanted to know more. There, amidst his work, came again the impulse to show what I had uncovered.
What is it about Hannigan's work that compelled me? It wasn't just the work. There came a point when I was compelled by the man as I knew him—through his writings, his drawings, his photographs, the books he owned, and through stories, especially Caroline's.
The Slaver As Fool
I pray you preserve their
Excellent uncurious teeth
Perforce you commit their
Worthless bones to the earth. (“Dentist to the Slaves of Mr. J——“)
AO: You write in your introduction to The Problem with Boredom in Paradise that your first interaction with Hannigan's poems was with Bringing Back Slavery, which you call "not a racist tract but a witty set of poems that mocks the fears of oppressors." I wonder if you could speak more about the poems in this book, as well as poems throughout Hannigan's writing life, that take on slavery—as well as the role of wit/mockery in Hannigan's poems, as opposed to "deep frightening."
AG: Bringing Back Slavery is a perfect little chapbook that I included in its entirety in the Selected. There's much that's remarkable about Hannigan's preoccupation with slavery. He was white, but is never defensive. There are no "kind" slaveholders in his writing. They're all vicious, some are stupid, some psychotic. To propose, as Hannigan does, that we should have a parade to celebrate slavery's return, mocks the way people celebrate the gross failure of humans to be truly humane by focusing in on an aspect of the inhumanity that might be deemed good. When he was writing these poems, I was still in middle school, celebrating one aspect of Christopher Columbus' life, and one aspect only: that he stumbled across "the new world." There was no room for complexity. Certainly not during a parade. Columbus as Aeneas, setting the stage for the glorious empire to follow!
Across his work, in the poetry and in the prose I was unable to include in the Selected, he dealt with black / white relations in America. His interest in Reggae, jazz, pot, and Rastafarianism made it natural for him to do so. And that, no doubt, is a gross simplification of his motives.
The Infirm As Fool
larl (“Back Slavery”)
AO: You write in your intro that Hannigan was really ill most of his life, but he seldom writes directly about his ailments. How do you think the experience of having a failing body is expressed in the poems?
AG: I read his health problems in the poetry. From "monstrous night nurses," to all the poems about teeth and mouths, to "And when I was sick you told me / What a pleasure it was to know me," to the aforementioned breakdown of language, to the "Names of Hospitals" and the cancer poem "Honeybunch." It's everywhere. In my introduction, I wrote about "Badboy," a short story that begins in a hospital, and is very clearly autobiographical.
If you're sick all the time, it might be natural for sickness to become your subject, but if you already have subjects / preoccupations, and you have a lively intellectual life that is only interfered with by your sickness, I understand why you wouldn't write about sickness.
AO: But you might write about the breakdown of language. I was really interested in Hannigan's occasional weird/"wrong" grammatical constructions throughout. They are obviously purposeful; my feeling on this matter speaks to a larger poetics, one that points out the inherent failings of language.
AG: The breakdown of language doesn't appear much until Bringing Back Slavery, his last published collection—which happened to be my first exposure to Hannigan. I wondered, as I read back through his published work and found less of that experimentation, if Bringing Back Slavery represented a new direction, and imagined a trove of unpublished poems like them, written immediately after. Instead, what was written after Bringing Back Slavery, showed no obvious direction. That is not to say that there is none; it's just not clear to me.
I suspect this lack of direction has to do with Hannigan's illnesses, which really knocks him out of writing for almost a decade. There is work, but it is sporadic, and much of it (prose especially) is incomplete.
Seeker As Fool
My hatred of travel is a blind. I do
not hate travel but travelers. Travel
is harmless, like death, but travelers
are a perversion of travel, like murder. (“From a Travel Journal”)
AO: I'd love to talk a bit about the unpublished poem "From a Travel Journal." Was this poem written in fragments? The first and second section, and third and fourth section seem to be slightly different versions of each other, with recursions and erasures. Were these drafts you decided to include, or do they mark Hannigan's experiments with slight variations on perspective? The larger poem plunges into dream-caper and rumination on the nature of travel. Talk to me about this poem!
AG: I loved it, but it raised a few questions, to which there were no answers but my own. So, I hesitated over its inclusion. Were the "revised" stanzas just that: two drafts of the same stanza, which Hannigan had yet to choose between, or were they, as you say, "versions?" I decided to treat them as neither, but as variations that establish how we should think as we read the rest of the excerpted journal. Which means that "From a Travel Journal" is as I would have it.
Advice For Fools
while everything they say seems so real that it makes time pass
too quickly but only a fool would go back and read those words again
Let us rise to the higher slumber, brothers and sisters
We must rise to the higher slum
AO: Could you talk more about your work as editor in deciding what poems were included and what were left out?
AG: Though I interfered as little as I possibly could, any poem that raised a question bears the mark of my decision.
My exclusions, while often practical, are also personal. Why not reprint all of The Higher Slum? Tom Lux was poised to publish it in 1975. I have a copy of a ms. proof, so I know exactly what that book would have been had Barn Dream not closed its doors. One of several answers I could give is that once The Higher Slum wasn't published, those poems re-entered Hannigan's cache of unpublished poems, and were mixed in with a hundred others (or more. Hannigan had two numbered sequences of poems. The highest number I recorded is 749). The Higher Slum became malleable.
You're interested, I gather, in the state of his papers and what I made of them. Most are typed. Some are in the all-cap print you can see reproduced on the back of the Selected ("You have already / had enough fun..."). Not much came directly from the notebooks. He didn't draft much poetry in the notebooks. A favorite sequence of poems, that I could not include in the Selected, was written out on a set of numbered index cards (#5. "There will always be / Some who think we need / the blood of their infants / for some religious orgy. Fewer / and fewer but always some. / Always at least two.").
Maybe I can publish everything one day. I certainly would love to. In thick, oversized volumes, like the Stanford Eigner did.