NOTHING HUMAN IS FOREIGN TO LAUGHTER
an interview with Andrew Hudgins
conducted by Okla Elliott
Andrew Hudgins is the author of The Joker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), American Rendering: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), Shut Up, You're Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children (Overlook Press 2009), Ecstatic in the Poison (Sewanee/Overlook Press 2003), Babylon in a Jar (Houghton Mifflin 1998), The Glass Anvil (University of Michigan 1997), Saints and Strangers, After The Lost War: A Narrative, The Never-Ending: New Poems, and The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood.
Hudgins has also published articles on Whitman, Hawthorne, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, and Jorie Graham. His poems appear in American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, Poetry and other journals. His short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and other journals. And his personal essays have appeared in Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series, The Oxford American, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, The American Scholar, and The Washington Post Magazine. Hudgins is likewise the recipient of many awards: the Writer Bynner Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Haines Prize for poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Taft Distinguished Faculty Award, the Ohioiana Award for lifetime contributions to poetry in Ohio, and two NEA fellowships. In 2007, he was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Okla Elliott: Your new memoir is all about jokes—what we learn through them, how we navigate difficult psychological territory via them, and the underlying logic of them—but this is not your first foray into humor. You have a book of humorous poems, a rarity for a poet these days, and even your more overtly serious poetry makes use of humor, dark or otherwise. Could you explain a bit about your obvious fascination with humor and how, perhaps more specifically, this fascination has shaped your literary output?
Andrew Hudgins: Like everyone, I love to laugh, and as a kid I spent a lot of time about the things that made me laugh—jokes, books, the standup comedians on Ed Sullivan—and I realized that humor, far from being trivial, often commented on a subject forcefully, often with a fundamental observation about life. In other words, humor can be a widening of the intelligence of the joker, the listener, and the work that includes it. By mocking what it’s saying, humor looks at both sides of an issue at once.
Here’s an example. As a kid, somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old, I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show with my dad when a comedian told the joke about the Texas oilman who says to the Vegas showgirl, “I’ll give you a million dollars to sleep with me.”
The showgirl, shocked, says, “I’ve never done anything like that. I’m just a small-town girl who’s moved to Vegas to dance.”
The millionaire says, “That’s a million dollars, cash.”
“Jeez, a million dollars, mister. That could set me up for life,” says the showgirl. “Sure, yeah, for a million dollars I’ll sleep with you.”
As the joke unfolded, I listened nervously because my father was a Southern Baptist deacon who was prudish about sex, so prudish he’d never told me anything about it. While the millionaire was making his pitch, my thinking paralleled the showgirl’s. Though I never come close to having sex and didn’t really know what was involved, I also found myself entertaining the idea of letting the millionaire have his way with me. A million dollars meant I’d never walk into the backdoor of another hamburger joint, clock in for my shift, and have to scrape the grill and drain the deep-fat fryer.
Once the girl has agreed to sleep with him, the millionaire, looks at her appraisingly and says, “What about for an hundred dollars?”
“What kind of girl do you think I am?” says the showgirl.
“We’ve already established that,” replies the Texan. “Now we’re just negotiating the price.”
I felt duly chastised by the joke even as I laughed at it. I was abashed at how my own cupidity had been revealed to me in the starkest turns. My father laughed because he believed that any compromise of principals was a form of prostitution, and I knew that was why he was laughing. I, on the other hand, knew I lived with compromise and I was thus at some basic and undeniable level a whore. I suspected that, judged by the terms of this particular joke, almost all of us are.
Of course the joke is pretty nastily misogynistic. It implicitly approves of the capitalistic exploitation of a young woman. She is revealed to be a whore in thought if not yet actual practice, but the man who offers the money is most immediately perceived as her judge and moral superior, someone who has revealed the woman’s essential nature, and not as the sexual corrupter he is.
One of the things I love about jokes is that the are so packed with elusive complexity. They echo with the clashes of philosophy, morality, desire, propriety, and social mores.
OE: I mentioned that you have written poetry that makes use of similar themes as are present in your memoir. And I might add that a fair amount of your poetry has a feel of creative nonfiction to it—not exactly memoir-in-verse, but certainly derived quite heavily from your personal life. Could you talk a bit about the difference in writing poetry versus prose? How do the same themes manifest themselves in the different genres? What difficulties do you find
peculiar to each genre? Etc.
AH: The distinctions between the genres are pretty fluid of course. Though there are exceptions at the margins, they mostly depend on sentences and the representational essence of language, so I don’t think our obsessions change much as we move among genres. Whether I’m writing poetry or prose, I find that I’m still concerned with violence, race, humor, and history. Poetry by its nature depends on condensed language and imagery, and because it’s condensed it doesn’t have much room for exposition. Prose has much more room for it, but a 800-word piece has, because if it’s length, some of the same issues as a poem. I like them all, but right now I’m more interested in 30-50 page essays or chapters that let me get my teeth into piece and chew it over thoroughly. But the first thing I had to get used to with prose is that it’s a lot rangier than poetry. The sentences have a rhythm that’s usually more conducive to silent reading than reading out loud, and after thirty years of writing poetry and the occasional academic article, it was difficult to accustom myself to the new pacing of the sentences.
OE: One of the perennial complaints about literary writing is that it is humorless. First off, why do you think this is the case? And, secondly, which writers do you think are productively using humor in their writing?
AH: You are right, I think, that literary writing is often humorless. If you are writing for the ages, it’s easy to notice that humor is often bound to a time and a place. Pick through a couple of Elizabethan joke books, and you’ll find yourself combing through acres of notes just to get a passing glimpse of what was funny four hundred years ago. You will not often burst out in spontaneous laughter. But that said, most of us still laugh at things in Shakespeare, Robert Burton, Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. The Pickwick Papers. And I laugh out loud every single time I read Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or at Discourse on the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk, which I do every couple of years. It’s just a breathtakingly brilliant masterwork.
Among contemporaries, I love J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, and I get a kick out of Sedaris, Ian Frasier, and tons of others. The Onion is often brilliant, as are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Oh, a couple of years ago I got hooked on Sue Townsend’s The Adrian Mole Diaries. They are both very funny and a deft portrait of Margaret Thatcher’s England.
OE: You also have a new book of poetry coming out about the same time as the memoir, the first collection since your New and Selected came out. Would you tell us about this collection a bit? Will we see more humor here, something more serious, or something divergent from your previous work?
AH: In A Clown at Midnight, a lot of the poems explore humor and what humor is. I hope they are sometimes funny, but they are digging into the dark cellars of humor to see what the house is resting on, and often it’s not pretty. Here’s an example, a poem called “Stalin’s Laughter”:
At the secret policeman’s feast, Pauker sagged, drunk,
between two officers, as he aped Zinoviev, hiccupping hilariously
and staggering over watery, risible feet as he was dragged
to the firing post. A devotee of Momus, son of Night, Stalin was,
and Pauker, knowing it, mouthed words
he could not, in feigned panic, propel from his tongue
because dysphonia is always funny, the ratchet and catch
of fractious breath farcical. Pauker fell prostrate, as Zinoviev had fallen,
and he clutched the boots of his mock guards,
and cried, Please, for God’s sake, comrade! Call
Yosip Vissarionovich. And Stalin, evoked as savior, roared,
basso buffo. Pauker pushed harder, as a jester must, raising his arms
to the banquet hall’s beamed ceiling, as Zinoviev had raised his
to the fuliginous brown clouds crowded over the prison yard,
and cried, “Hear, O Israel, our God is the only God.” Stalin
choked on ungovernable mirth. Tears rolled
almost onto the mustache whose likeness, metaphorical,
to Blattella germanica, the German cockroach, paid Mandelstam’s
ambagious passage to a common grave outside
a transit camp. Stalin slashed his thick hand—Enough! Enough!—
commanding mercy upon the festive executioners laughing helplessly.
I was visiting a friend at his office and when he had to go off and teach for a couple of hours, I pulled off his shelf Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror and started reading because I’d never read it and I knew from other books of his that Conquest’s prose is good company. In the book I read the anecdote that is the basis for the poem and I was horrified by it. I chased it through a couple of other sources as I was thinking about the poem, and that research sparked against my memory of how Mandelstam died as a result of his joke about Stalin’s moustache. Humor is sometime the tool of the weak against the oppressor as we’ve seen in recent books about humor in Nazi Germany and in Soviet-occupied Europe, but it can also be the tool of the strong against the weak. Nothing human is foreign to laughter.
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