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Hunter Discusses Reshaping ‘Shopworn’ Language

Paul Hunter, a poet, musician, instrument-maker, teacher, and editor and publisher, has produced letterpress books and broadsides under the imprint of Wood Works Press in Seattle. He talks about his works.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry. Tonight, Paul Hunter of Seattle. His latest collection of poems is called "Ripening."

  • PAUL HUNTER, Poet:

    I'm Paul Hunter, and I'm a letterpress publisher, and poet, and a writer, and an explorer in various ways, and I also make musical instruments, repair them. All of those are modes of expression and contacts with the world.

    I mean, for most of my adult life now, I've been finding broken instruments or people give me broken instruments, and I fix them, and they get another life. There's a part of me that's so cheered by that, and it may be part of the same thing that happens with words, with language, that you take a phrase, you take a phrase, you take a set of phrases that are shopworn, that people have had around them and not recognized, and take them and put them into a context that gives them a sharpened meaning of freshness.

    "For the Miracle."

    In the shop its bench work-scarred

    long planks run under the window

    where grease meets paint meets sawtooth chisel

    where an engine would be heaved to take apart

    and at one end vise jaws parted

    having said the final word let go

    and on shelves underfoot rows of coffee cans

    to sort by size wingnut from locknut

    from wood screw machine screw

    bent nail fence steeple hose clamp

    and beyond all around broken things

    brought here for the miracle

    alongside things in their rude beginnings

    that may yet be finished and praised

    amid things in the way once too often

    that may become raw materials

    and out of their great beyond serve in turn as

    patch or knife blade or chair rung

    to be of use once again

    My father grew up on a chicken farm in Erlanger, Kentucky. As a kid, we spent a few weeks in the summer on my Uncle Edwin's farm. And then I started working on farms myself. Most of my adult life has not been spent on farms, but it's the lens through which I see the world. It formed who I was in a very immediate and real way.

    And I think my father let me do it because he thought I would learn a lesson about staying away from effortful drudgery, and I learned exactly the opposite lesson, that most of those people led modest lives, virtuous lives. Those people were substantial and modest in ways that I try to emulate.

    "This Failure."

    Say spring too wet for plowing

    runs axle-deep into July

    or the August oven never quite fires up

    before an early killing frost

    say it rains the whole summer

    or you catch root mold or blight

    go a parching year without a drop

    There you stand in the field

    one with all the others

    frail tottering headless at a loss

    though still with work to be done

    to clear away or turn under

    mow rake or burn off this failure

    if there is to be another crop

    The way that I tell if it's a poem is, when I'm finished, if it's still mysterious. Does it remain mysterious? Has it exhausted its subject or, in some way, is its subject perennial and fresh?

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