We are continuing to celebrate NJ poets and poetry during National Poetry Month on the PCCC Writing Center blog! This week we are featuring poet and photographer Mark Hillringhouse. Hillringhouse is a published poet, essayist, and photographer whose works have been widely exhibited in area galleries. His photography and writing have been published in The American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, The New York Times, The New Jersey Monthly, The Paris Review, and in many other journals, books, anthologies and magazines. He was the founding editor of The American Book Review, and a contributing editor for The New York Arts Journal. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and a three-time recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship, he recently won the 2011 Allen Ginsberg Award for poetry and the National Parks 2012 Calendar photography contest. His film documentary with collaborator Kevin Carey on the life of Paterson poet Maria Gillan titled All That Lies Between Us has just been released in DVD. And his recent book of poems and photographs titled Between Frames was published last year by Serving House Books. He has an MFA in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and he is a member of the English Department at Passaic County Community College.Visit Mark at http://mhillringhouse.zenfolio.com
PCCC: How did you know or when did you know you were a poet?
Mark Hillringhouse (MH): I didn't know until college, but I wrote in high school and was part of a poetry club. We had a teacher at Hackensack High who wrote and published a book of poetry and she was the adviser. I published a poem at 14. By college I was sending out to magazines and I had a few published in different magazines and then I took all the courses I could. I never knew it just happened, it was something I couldn't help. I was a weird kid who hung out in the library half the time in 8.11 of the Dewey Decimal system. I grew comfortable being alone and I liked silence. I read.
PCCC: What topics do you most like to explore in your poetry? What influences you?
MH: I don’t think that my poetry has a particular message to give. I hope it gives readers pleasure. I try to exercise some demons, expiate some guilt, and I try to locate my feelings within those poems. It is as if I can point to them and say that is how I was feeling, that was what I felt, what I experienced and lived through.
I tell my students never wish away time. I tell myself the same thing. I want to pay attention to certain things, to appreciate them. It is also why I love photography. It is the only way I know to stop time. I told George Tice once that I wanted to come back and photograph something I had seen and he said that it may not be there when I go back. And he was right. It amazes me how quickly things change. People and relationships with family and friends is the most important aspect of living. How we see ourselves is another. I have poems that question the nature of things, the nature of identity. It is a philosophical problem, sometimes a psychological problem, but it comes up in my poetry.
PCCC:What other types of writing, genre, art forms are you interested in?
MH: I was in my twenties when I got into photography. I started to learn how to shoot with an old Ricoh 35 mm camera and then I hooked up with a professional photographer who was a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He showed me how to handle film and compose and we went out shooting a lot together and we’d spend hours upon hours in his dark room developing and printing. I used it as a tool to help me write. I’m a visual thinker and I loved the dark room, watching images appear in the developer “under water” as it were like a dream rising to the surface. You can’t have that experience with digital photography, and seeing everything through negatives the black and white reversed. And because it is black and white it is abstract, removed from reality.
I still miss it, the dark room. With digital photography I've pretty much taught myself, but I have taken a few classes. Back when we had film cameras it was all about the lens, buying different lenses. Now I have just downloaded “Lightroom 4” into my MacBook Pro, and I installed a tutorial app on my iPad for using Lightroom. I got pretty good teaching myself Aperture 3, and Photoshop CS4. I wanted to try Lightroom. CS6 is out in Photoshop. It is hard to keep up. I go on YouTube for tutorials, or I take workshops. There is quiet a learning curve.
It used to be that you got a good camera body like a Nikon and then invested in good glass and experimented with different film and paper. But now the camera is the film and you have to keep changing cameras buying the newest and latest models.
George Tice, my mentor in photography, said to me and I quote him, “Photography died when Kodak stopped making black and white paper.” I get his point. There are young photographers now who have never seen film or a dark room.
I moved into artist housing in Paterson in 1984 when they opened the newly renovated Essex Mill on Mill Street which is part of the historic mill district. I was one of the first artists who moved in there. A community of artists developed and we got to know each other. We put on readings, jazz concerts, some gallery shows. I loved it. I got to know a lot of musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, writers and poets. I had a loft that faced the Great Falls since I was in the back away from the street. I had my studio there and I was always working on photography and writing poetry and reviews and articles and interviews. Someone gave me a copy of George Tice’s book titled “Paterson” and I was taken with its clarity and austere beauty. Twenty years later, I got to know George Tice and I got to help him with his sequel book to the first Paterson book, which he titled “Paterson II.” It was published in 2006. I learned a lot from him and he is a mentor.
But I also learned a lot from watching painters work. At the end of the day picture making is picture making. I took a life drawing class in Manhattan at the Eighth Street Studio School which is a fine art school run by professional working artists. Learning how to draw the human form was the hardest class I’ve ever taken. It was three hours every Wednesday evening for a semester. The class stood in a semi circle at our easels in front of the nude models and the instructor had us do five-minute charcoal sketches, ten-minute, fifteen-minute, thirty-minute sketches. I would go through a giant sketch pad in two classes. I remember sweating. It was a work out. The instructor would come over and tell me to work on this and work on that. He would show me how to draw a line. The feet and hands were extremely difficult. One very important thing he taught me was that I had to feel the line and feel the line flowing from the movement of my hand and wrist onto the paper, that it was inside you and not just something you were staring at. This applies to photography also in that there is a feeling of being connected physically through the camera’s lens to the image and that you learn to see how the camera sees. But it helped my photography, helped me with line, understanding line.
My other writing projects are interviews and essays. I also reviewed for many years. I was a founding editor of the American Book Review in Manhattan. This was in my twenties. I was a member of the National Book Critics' Circle. I also was interviewing poets and taking their portraits. I covered the New York School of Ashbery, Schuyler, Koch, Guest, Berrigan, Waldman and others who felt that they were part of this school loosely associated with Frank O'Hara. My favorite genre is creative non, sometimes called the fourth genre. It can't be labeled, but it uses the elements of fiction yet it reports from the real world.
I was a freelance writer for a few years and this is what I did, long pieces, New Yorker type pieces for magazines. Recently, I've gotten into the photo-essay which is a form of creative non.
Recently, I've begun making film documentaries with a film maker friend of mine. It is a learning curve, but I am learning and the photography basics are the same. We just finished a film now in DVD on the life of Maria Gillan. It is getting some press and some reviews and we've premiered the film a few times. I am going up to Binghampton University next week to show it there and then NYU. I liked the process of collaboration of working with another artist and teaming up and pooling our resources, talents and skills. I did some of the shooting and sound and the lighting, and he did a lot of the video taping and editing. I asked the interview questions and we would go over the cuts and the edits. It took a year. I thought Maria a great subject for a documentary because of all she has done and accomplished and the fact that she is like a force of nature in the poetry world in this state, a phenomenon really.
We plan on doing another documentary together on the novelist and story writer Tom E. Kennedy who lives in Copenhagen. I'm just fascinated by his work, and his story. He's an ex pat from Queens who escaped this country for a life in Denmark when he was 30.
PCCC: What do you most struggle with during the revision process?
MH: That is a very good question. I found it a challenge to match the poems with the photographs in Between Frames and sometimes vice versa, but I found a way to see what the poem was seeing as if it could take a photograph and so I thought of the poem as a kind of verbal camera. There were connections in my poems to real places and things and that made it easier in some cases such as my diner poems. The diner represents a maternal womb for me, a way to huddle in the light in surrounding darkness. The forces of light and dark are in constant flux in my work and I love the edges of light. I like the time just after the sun has set as my favorite time to shoot. This can sometimes switch to just before sunrise. I tend towards twilight. I’m a crepuscular writer, northern, and I write during those times and of course late into the evening. But my process is slow when I revise. I will put poems away for a year and then come back to them. I need that much time to get my distance. I finish maybe a handful of poems a year, yet I take thousands of photographs. But out of a thousand photographs maybe only one or two are good. The same goes for poetry, but it is slower, so slow I may live long enough for another book although I am trying. I have a dozen new poems, but I have so many projects going.
I'm finishing an interview with George Tice and I have a date to interview Alice Notley this month. I am actually considering making a documentary film about her.
PCCC: What are you working on now? What's next?
MH: I have been invited all over to read since my book came out. I'm headed to Michigan on Wednesday to give a reading, and then to Princeton, and I just read at the Hunterdon Art Museum. It has been fun reading and showing the work. I worked out a system whereby I can project the photographs that are in the book when I read the poems so that the audience can see them.
I have several photography projects that are on-going for a few years. One is Hoboken. I've been going there for a couple of years in different seasons and times of day or night. I start with exteriors and I work my way into the interior of the some people who live there. I ask if I can shoot where they live and I take their portraits. I may try nudes to work that in as well. I cover the street, the people in the street, the different places, buildings, stores, neighborhoods. I have many night shots and snow shots and from the Path and the train station. It may take five years to finish.
My other photography project is barber shops. I started this six years ago. I realize that the old Italian immigrant barber is dying out, the shops are closing and the kids don't go into the old man's business. These guys are in their 80s and 90s even. I am trying to document them. They were a real institution in every town in North Jersey which is heavily Italian-American.
My next book is my book of all my interviews and the portraits I took to go along with the interviews. This is over twenty years worth of work going back to 1980. I have thirty interviews all published in different magazines. Now it is time to collect them into a volume. I have a publisher interested. I will need a sabbatical. There is no way I can do this and work full time teaching. So I hope to apply soon for a sabbatical so that I can see this through.