Interviewed by: James Bennett
“The Sugar Creek Sutras” Published in Silk Road No. 12
Marc Hudson teaches creative writing and medieval studies at Wabash College in Indiana. He has published three books of poetry, Afterlife (U. of Mass. Press, 1983), Journal for an Injured Son (Lockhart Press, 1984, 1991), and The Disappearing Poet Blues (Bucknell UP, 2002). He has also published a translation of Beowulf (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 2007). His book length manuscript, Swimming the Acheron, was a finalist for the 2014 National Poetry Series. His awards include an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, the Juniper Prize (U. of Mass. Press), and the Strousse Award (Prairie Schooner), and the Allen Tate Prize (The Sewanee Review).
How did you come up with the title “The Sugar Creek Sutras”? Was it the place that influenced the poem?
The drafts of the poem go back twelve years and I note that poem was called “The Sugar Creek Sutra” even in those first drafts. That Spring I had found a flat stone near a small waterfall on a stream in nearby Shades State Park. I often had with me on those excursions Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Tao Te Ching. But there, listening to the creek, I wrote the first verses of the poem—
Moss on many-layered sandstones,
volleys of swallows
under dark overhangs—
and much else I would winnow from later drafts.
The title, of course, comes from the word for a Hindu or Buddhist scripture, particularly, a collection of aphorisms of great concision. Sugar Creek is the name of the stream that forms the watershed of this part of western Indiana. The title also covertly pays homage to Gary Snyder who could well be called our Buddhist poet of flowing water and, more explicitly, to Allen Ginsberg and his “Sunflower Sutra,” a poem I have loved since I first encountered it in the late sixties.
The form you used here does a lot for the tempo of the poem; how did you decide to follow this specific form? Was it originally written in this form?
Form is always a vexed thing for me and, at the same time, completely natural if I’m paying attention and have some luck. Looking over the early drafts I have, I see the lines were somewhat longer and the voice more conversational. The persona of the poem seems very much a refraction of myself. Those early drafts have a lot of first person pronouns, and, in the process of writing, those pronouns have disappeared. The form—the short lines, the small stanzas and frequent caesuras—evoke an increasing stillness and a contemplative cast of mind. I seem to be cutting and cutting the poem back to arrive at this reticent form, as the last lines of the poem suggest.
Do you have a specific place in which you write?
Though I have sometimes begun my poems at Shades, or wherever inspiration has overtaken me, usually I scribble my drafts at the capacious writing desk my father made for me forty years ago. That, in fact, is where I’m sitting now, gazing through a window at our garden and its stoical kale and chard, and what’s left of the rifled seed heads of the sunflowers. But I can write pretty much anywhere, fortunately, poems being such portable things.
Do you prefer to write in a specific form or does the poem dictate the form to you?
I do love the old forms. As a translator of Beowulf, I can easily fall into a four beat line out of habit. I am also fond of blank verse, having taught the plays of Shakespeare for almost thirty years. Terza rima is a beautiful form I’ve been drawn to lately. I treasure the old forms. I don’t buy the notion that because of quantum physics or stochastic ecosystems, etc. we must write in open form. Yet the contemporary, or almost contemporary, poets, who have most spoken to me—Williams, Pound, Neruda, Machado, Snyder, Stafford, Olds, Kinnell—so many others—mostly work in so-called free verse, and working in “free verse” is where I usually find myself. As I see it, the cosmos unfolds moment by moment as does our planetary ecosystem, and so too does the poem arise in the flow of consciousness as the stream of the world impinges on it. Open form seems more congenial to the nature of that fluid mental process that in some fashion corresponds to the cosmic one.
The first sentence of the third stanza is amazing. How did you come up with this sentence, and did it get edited into the final draft?
I’m glad you like those lines. They came to me, I’m pretty sure, as I sat on a bench listening, above a tumbling creek at Shades. There may or may not have been a wren involved. Still I heard it calling. Looking over my old drafts, I see with some surprise, it originally was part of another poem entitled, “Ars Poetica.” At some point, I realized, it would serve better as a central section of “The Sugar Creek Sutras.”