Raising Dreams in Darkrooms And Diners
I first met Mark Hillringhouse in September, 2008. It was my first day at The Wanaque Academic Center, a branch of Passaic Community College in Wanaque, New Jersey. I made my way into one of the many classrooms of the bare, white-walled institution, took a seat, and was staggered by the convivial entrance of a middle-aged man, fashioning a headlamp, with an uncanny resemblance to Ernest Hemingway.
Hillringhouse has three degrees: a BA in English and French, an MA in English and comparative literature, and an MFA in creative writing. He is a full-time professor, a founding editor of the American Book Review, a published poet, an essayist photographer, and an advisor for the student literary magazine, Silk City Journal.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he has been writing poetry since he was fourteen years old. Upon his discovery of section 8.11 in the Dewey Decimal system, the American poetry section, he unearthed the words of poets Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost. At that ripe age, Mark was published in a local church magazine, and has been writing ever since.
In his later youth, Hillringhouse began to explore the many facets of New York and New Jersey, specifically Passaic County. He began building relationships with renowned poets and artists while working at the William Carlos William Center in Rutherford. Mark soon found a passion for photography, which he has incorporated in his most recent book, Between Frames, a collection of New Jersey-inspired photography and poetry.
Between Frames gives reverence to Mark’s life experiences in New Jersey. Covering all the fundamentals of child-play in crawlspaces, late-night diner mishaps, the sweetness of the projects, the artful departure of comfort, and finding a relationship in both loss and ruin, we can visualize the intrinsic qualities of what takes an ordinary suburban New Jersey experience and renovates the slight familiarities into something entirely bottomless. Between Frames has an intimate black and white photographic landscape and poetic cadence that motivates its audience to run back to the things that they may once have run away from. New Jersey folk, far and near, the geographical precedence in this new Hillringhouse work will assuredly call you home.
Where did you shoot the cover for Between Frames? Why did you pick it for the cover?
I shot the cover in my basement one afternoon. I noticed the light on the basement door and the shadow pattern on the steps leading outside. I took out my iPhone and took three shots framing the lines in the door panels to lead the viewer up into the light. I ran upstairs to get my expensive Nikon and shot a few raw images. When I went to process the files in Aperture 3, I discovered that I liked the shots I got with the iPhone more. It is the first time I used an iPhone photograph.
The cover image symbolizes for me a mental state, a release of sadness. I only realized this later on by analyzing dreams I’ve had wherein I search in a dark basement looking for something. My basement has always symbolized the unconscious and I am leaving that darkness. It says something positive to me.
When is Between Frames scheduled to launch?
It is scheduled to appear in September for my featured reading at this year’s Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in October. Barnes & Noble runs a book tent for the poets featured in the festival and there will be thousands of people attending, so I hope to sell as many copies as I can. Serving House Books is publishing this book and the publisher approached me with the idea of combining my photographs with my poems.
Is this your first major book? If not, what are some of your others and when were they published?
I published a book of photographs with Blurb.com, an online publisher, that I sell on my website and at my photography shows titled Paterson, which was the catalog book for my retrospective photography exhibition last year at the Broadway Gallery at Passaic County Community College in Paterson.
What are some poetry groups you have been affiliated with?
I was a part of the Saint Mark’s Poetry crowd in the early 80s and I fell in with the poets living in the East Village, especially Ted Berrigan, who was an early mentor. I attended the readings there at Saint Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and East 10th Street. Ted was my influence and in some ways the New York School. I began a project of interviews with all the poets of the New York School. Ted Berrigan, since he and I had become friends, was my first interview, and he helped me with contacts along the way. The poem “Memorial Day” is about that time and about Ted. It is an elegy. I went to the book parties uptown and at the Gotham Book Store on 47th Street. It was a famous literary landmark. Auden read there. The owner, Frances Steloff, in her 90s, was still there.
Can you describe the correspondence between your black and white photographs and your poems?
I found a way to see what the poem was seeing if it could take a photograph with the poem, and so I thought of the poem as a kind of verbal camera. I found it a challenge to match the poems with the photographs and sometimes vice versa, but I found a way to see what the poem was seeing if it could take a photograph with the poem, 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.
When did you start taking photographs?
It all began when my brother gave me a camera for my birthday. It was a 35mm SLR, a Ricoh. I was in my twenties. I started to learn how to shoot with that 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 was 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.
George Tice, my mentor in photography, said to me (and I quote), “Photography died when Kodak stopped making black and white paper.” I get his point. There are young photographers now who have never seen a dark room.
Can you explain the chronology of Between Frames? Where did you pull your inspiration from when writing your poems?
Some poems in Between Frames go back twenty years, while others are from last year. My inspiration came from different sources, from other poets I admired and from photographers I admired. George Tice’s photographs inspired several of the Paterson poems, as did Gerald Stern’s poetry from his early books. The poet Ted Berrigan also inspired me. Coleridge is an influence, his conversation poems with Wordsworth. I wrote a master’s thesis on Coleridge and I was obsessed with him as a poet and as a critical writer on poetry. He wrote incredible poems about not being able to write. I love the terror in his mind and the pure fantasia. He is my favorite British Romantic.
How has living in New Jersey shaped your creativity?
The best part of being from New Jersey is being near New York City. Witho
ut the planetary gravitational pull of that lodestar, one of the greatest cities in the world, New Jersey would be the Midwest. To people living in Manhattan, it may as well be the Midwest. It shapes our culture and gives us our edge. We are a commuter state. But there are other reasons why I like New Jersey. I love the way it changes and diversifies from the highlands to the piedmont to the coastal plain, from rocky mountainous wooded terrain dotted with lakes to the gentle rolling hills of Central Jersey, to the flat, sandy-piney coastal plain and finally the ocean. We’re a peninsula surrounded by water divided and separated by rivers and ocean.
New Jersey is the most urbanized state in the country. Gerald Stern told me that Newark is our only real city and I understood his meaning. Newark has a major seaport, a major airport, and a major train terminal and is large enough to contain itself. Our other main cities are cut off. But I like urban desolation, the remaining mill and factory buildings of our industrial rust belt economy now defunct. They remind me of the ruined abbeys in England that are left standing. And they should not be torn down because they are part of our reading there in October at the Dodge Poetry Festival. It moved there two years ago and I was happy that it did. I liked it when it was at Waterloo Village out in western Warren County, but having it in Newark gives it an urban edge.
Who are your peers and colleagues who have been most influential in your experiences with NJ Poetry?
Gerald Stern has written great poems set in New Jersey in his early books such as The Pineys, his long meditative poem about this vast wilderness called the Pine Barrens just east of Philadelphia, and he describes it as being part of the collective unconscious in our history as we pioneered and laid grids for cities and towns, which is the conscious mind trying to overlay what lies beneath. When you fly over New Jersey, it is the only dark area on the ground. Of course, William Carlos Williams is very influential. I did a year-long project writing and photographing the Lower Passaic River that was commissioned by the American Poetry Review. The editor, David Bonnano, asked me to write him something about the Passaic. I thought a good thing would be to trace the locations mentioned in Williams’s 1938 collection of short stories, Life along The Passaic River, which was published by New Directions. I have a first edition of the text, and I read and reread the stories looking for clues and finding that Williams being a doctor was very specific in mentioning places and street names.
So I tried to follow the old roads that Williams took as he went on his house calls in cities and towns along the Passaic, such as Wallington and Passaic and Garfield and Rutherford and Lyndhurst. I paddled canoes and kayaks up and down and took photographs of the river at different spots in different seasons and in different weather and I interviewed dozens of people close to the river. I got some poems out of it, too, like the poem “At the Arlington Diner,” which is in my new book. The poem grew from doing the photo-essay.
As a poet, what is the message you are trying to convey to readers?
I don’t think that my poetry has a particular message to give. I hope it gives readers pleasure. I try to exorcise 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.’
Given that, what is the main message of Between Frames?
That is a tough question to answer. 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 might not be there when you 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.