The Portable Humanist Podcast Series

Listen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.

Words in the Woods with Geof Hewitt

Poet Geof Hewitt reads and discusses his poetry at Elmore State Park for our Words in the Woods series. A companion video includes a short writing workshop segment, and a chance to submit your own poems.

Episode Transcript

Geof Hewitt: Hi, I’m Geof Hewitt. I’ve been working on a short poem, a haiku. And I thought I’d read it to you. We’re here at Elmore State Park enjoying a very quiet morning, eight thirty in the morning. The beach is still empty.

Geof Hewitt: And here it is: Smart ass butterfly pretends the wind is blowing where he wants to go.

Geof Hewitt: Smart ass butterfly pretends the wind is blowing where he wants to go.

Geof Hewitt: Smart ass butterfly pretends the wind is blowing where he wants to go.

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

Geof Hewitt is Vermont’s reigning poetry slam champion, and regularly hosts slams throughout the state. He is the author of four books of poems and three books for teachers.

We recently joined Geof at Elmore State Park for our first “Words in the Woods” event. The series allows Vermonters and visitors to enjoy our state’s natural beauty while listening to and reading literature in the outdoors.

Due to Covid-19, we decided to record Geof solo, and offer the event as a video, and as this podcast episode.

If you’d like to watch the video – which includes a short writing workshop segment – you can find it at vermonthumanities.org slash digital.

Now back to Geof and his haiku.

Geof Hewitt: So I’m wondering whether I can revise this into something that has a sharper feeling. I still like that first line, smart ass butterfly. Makes it seem the wind blows where he wants to go. Or what if I just ignored the five seven five syllabic structure and just went for a different feeling? Smart ass butterfly, the wind shoves him and he shoves back. To me, that feels a little bit more like the traditional Japanese even though it doesn’t fit the syllabic pattern that we in the United States like to impose on our haiku.

Geof Hewitt: You know, form. The actual form of five seven five is valuable because it forces you to hone the language. Yet once it’s honed, sometimes you want to let go and free it up and go back to maybe a more formless haiku. I define haiku as a poem that has three lines. That’s it. As a matter of fact, I define poetry as any writing where the author, not the type setter, decides where to end the lines.

Geof Hewitt: Poetry: fine art form. Poems: objects, gifts. Something one can give away. Whatever you write, if you call it a poem, even if you’re letting the typesetter decide where to end the lines, to me, that’s where it’s at.

Geof Hewitt: Here’s a poem I wrote that is a prose poem. I called it a poem cause I wrote it. I can do whatever I want. The typesetter decides where to end the lines on this poem. It’s a winter poem. You’ve got to flip your mind a little bit towards winter.

Geof Hewitt: So I was coming around the corner and the car ahead of me has stopped and I’m on sheer ice and my car starts to skid. And there’s this guy on the sidewalk with a shovel. And just before my car crunches into the car ahead of me, he throws a shovel full of sand under my rear tires and my car comes to a stop 10 feet from disaster.

Geof Hewitt: Half an hour later, I’m at the Xerox machine with a job I’ve got to have copied in time for the mail, which leaves in 10 minutes, and the machine jams and I’m trying to get the paper out and something throws a spark. So smoke is starting to curl from the ink drum. And I’m trying to figure whether I should run to the men’s room for a handful of water when this guy appears with his shovel, throws a shovel full of sand into the machine’s underbelly. And the smoking stops.

Geof Hewitt: I think the most fun for me in writing that poem and in revising it was breaking the rules of common English grammar. Poem starts out in the present tense or present perfect. It was past perfect, excuse me. So I was coming around the corner and the car in front of me has stopped and I’m on sheer ice. Suddenly I’m in the present tense. This is the way conversation happens. For me, the more conversational the poem is, the more likely it is to find a reader or in your case, a listener.

Geof Hewitt: So I’m standing here carrying on about poems and I look at the bench that I’d been sitting on and son of a gun, there’s this heart rock that somebody has found on the beach and left here for others to enjoy.

Geof Hewitt: Of course, I got a poem about it. Not about this heart rock, but about heart rocks that I found while I was beachcombing in Maine. It’s called The Perfect Heart.

Geof Hewitt: Scouring the beach for stones tumbled smooth. He also looks for those in the shape of a valentine. So many triangles. But most without the divot up top and rounded shoulders funneling down to a point. The perfect heart. He gathers all potential runners-up, maybe 20 or 30, that, in a pinch could pass for love tokens. But underneath sea’s clutter, the perfect heart awaits uncovering another tide. Another season. Another year. He shares the take with his wife, who spies the least likely damaged and cock-eyed like a child abused at birth. A rough approximation of what one might select, proclaiming it, the one she thinks will pass. Who can forecast the choice of one with whom one has spent more than half a lifetime? Who can know another’s standards? For the perfect heart.

Geof Hewitt: It’s delicate when we touch to each other. A careful mistake will do, but nothing more. It’s delicate, too, this learning. How, even with degrees, no one said there’d be a job. But there is work. Oh, there is work. How many times I vacuum each week is a measure of unemployment though vacuuming is nothing I do for enjoyment. I want me one of them riding vacuums. Metallic green with special bumpers so I don’t mar the furniture as I’m whizzing the room. Caroming off the pillars of the old upright piano and making the long run down the hall. Wearing the safety helmet that came with the unit and wielding the magic wand attachment at cobwebs as I glide by. Cobwebs. Don’t make me think of them. Let me picture spiders’ more symmetrical effort. Not the chaotic gathering of dust in strands that hang from ceilings.

Geof Hewitt: Let me think of spider webs. The organization of desire. A spider’s fractal like construction to ward off starvation. A sticky silver trampoline with plenty of space to fly through. Just avoid the center claims the stupid moth that fouls the whole web and isn’t anything the spider wants. Just a dusty pair of wings fluttered to a mealy core. A cobweb of the animal world. Not to speak of the damaged web to rebuild for, though resilient, a spider web is delicate and delicate is like touch, like love, like learning. Like the finest, most expensive, tiniest chocolate you’re only supposed to have one of.

Geof Hewitt: I like that poem because it breaks the rules. It ends with a preposition. I want me one of them riding vacuums, agrammatical. It starts out, you just think you’re in for it. You think you’re in for poetry. It’s delicate when we touch each other. A careful mistake will do. It’s delicate, this love we carry. Come on, let’s get to the vacuum cleaner and the moth.

Geof Hewitt: Here at Elmore State Park, we found this stream. When I looked at it, I thought, oh, I’m glad I brought my stone gathering poem with me because this reminds me of Katie’s Falls in Enosburg, Vermont, where for many years I played in the water, and with my neighbor John Côté appropriated a whole bunch of stones. Large river rocks. Loaded them into his pickup and he built those stones into a chimney for his then new house. Afterwards I reflected on that experience and wrote “Stone Gathering for John Côté.”

Geof Hewitt: These marks in stone. These pocks were forced into its surface when some ancient rain lost its juice to stopped momentum and saved its shape. Splatting by pure luck into rock that hadn’t hardened yet. Then the river played its part to roll the stone. To smooth and to protect the finished rock. You say pick flat ones only. And the big are best, it means less work. A snail falls off the one I’m working from the streambed, given up its home, losing suction, gone back to the brook perhaps to find another stone. I heave the snail’s ex-home up onto the bank. And sit on it. And there decide this rock of every century in the house you built will brace someone whose hand feeling the work, stopped where the notion struck. It’s shaped as much by heavens’ gentle water as by men who build it into walls.

Geof Hewitt: That’s a very poetic poem that calls to mind the first lines of that delicate poem that I read: It’s delicate when we touch each other. Careful mistake. That ending: it’s shaped as much by heaven’s gentle waters as by men who build it into walls. But I wrote it 35 years ago and back then I was trying to be poetic. Now, I think a poem works better if it surprises within its own being.

Geof Hewitt: Here’s what we’re really dealing with, visual poems. Given that we’re constrained by the fact that we have visual images. Want to bring in other images, but 80% of Americans’ experience is visual. Eighty percent. That is to say that we are much more in the visual world than the world of our other senses. Where did I get that 80 percent? Rod Ruth, visual artist and illustrator who was very active in the 70s and 80s. Here’s a visual poem, if you’re willing to think of it as visual, it’s called Valentine.

Geof Hewitt: I have always loved those tiny specks that float within my eyes at bedtime. Eyelids dropping. Window shades unveiling what was there all day but all rolled up. Couldn’t see. And the unrolling lids reveal. Or is it darkness? Lets us see what we never acknowledged in the sun or universe of feeling like my love for these curious little floaters. They come and go and sometimes merge into faces like tonight. A dozen of them converged into JFK riding the limousine with the top down. That smile. A close-up on the lips, then drifting apart. They scattered to the edges.

Geof Hewitt: That’s not poetry, but I think it’s a poem.

That’s poet Geof Hewitt, reading and talking about his poetry at Elmore State Park for our Words in the Woods series.