Robert Haight has published three poetry collections, Water Music, Emergences and Spinner Falls, and Feeding Wild Birds, and written essays and articles on fly fishing, the environment, education and spirituality for a variety of anthologies, journals and magazines. His writing has won awards from the Poetry Resource Center of Michigan, Western Michigan University, the Kalamazoo Foundation and the Arts Foundation of Michigan. He has taught writing at Kalamazoo Valley Community College for the past twenty-five years and divides his time between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan.
Geosi Gyasi: On your website, it is stated that you’re “an avid fly fisherman and committed environmentalist”. Could you break down this statement?
Robert Haight: I enjoy fly fishing and get out on the rivers as often as I can, except in the coldest part of the winter. Because I find the rivers so beautiful and instructive, it was natural that I would do what I could to support their well being, so I joined a number of organizations that protect the environment and began to speak out on issues affecting the ecosystems.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you become a writer?
Robert Haight: I’m not really sure. I always enjoyed writing papers in school and making up songs. I enjoyed reading. I didn’t get serious about my own writing until after I had graduated from college and was teaching high school English, though I had taken more than one creative writing class while I was a student, so I was always writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Robert Haight: I found a little piece of prose I had written when I was in elementary school when I was cleaning out my mother’s house after she had died. It was hand written, less than two pages long, and talked about amoebas, God and having a headache. It was deep.
Geosi Gyasi: When you were a child, did you commit poems into memory?
Robert Haight: I committed songs to memory. I was always singing. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, all the Motown hits. I also memorized prayers but not so much poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Feeding Wild Birds”?
Robert Haight: I wrote Feeding Wild Birds over a decade, very slowly, as I was experiencing life in rural Michigan. It is a book that comprises the four seasons. I wasn’t trying to finish a project with it, just allowing it to come into being at its own pace.
Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult seeking a publisher for your book, “Feeding Wild Birds”?
Robert Haight: I wanted my book to be published by a Michigan press as my last one was. I’m a believer in “thinking globally, acting locally” and there are only a few presses in Michigan. Mayapple Press has been publishing poetry and translations since the 1970s and they’ve published some poets I very much admire. Also, they design beautiful books, so I wanted to place Feeding Wild Birds with them. I’m delighted it worked out. They moved to New York before my book came out with them, but I still consider them a Michigan press because of their long history of publishing in my state.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of relationship do you have with Mayapple Press?
Robert Haight: I’m a big fan of Mayapple. They were wonderful to work with as an author and very helpful through the entire process of the book. I think their list is quite impressive so I’m a reader of their publications as well. I hope they continue to do their good work for many years.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us what we don’t know about your book, “Emergences and Spinner Falls”?
Robert Haight: Two lines from one of the poems are from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. One image is from a writing of Dogen. I really did tell a lie at my first confession because I couldn’t think of any sins at that moment, though I always had a long list of minor transgressions.
Geosi Gyasi: Is “Water Music” your first published work?
Robert Haight: It was my first collection of poems, a little chapbook that came out in the 90s.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a personal favorite from all your three poetry books?
Robert Haight: Do you mean a particular poem? That changes depending on the day and the mood. The thing about any book of poetry is that once it comes out the poems are from the past and we are now writing new and different poems. I’m satisfied with what I was able to communicate in some of the poems but I don’t have any that I think of as favorites. Like children, that would only cause problems with the others.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a book?
Robert Haight: I think that depends on the writer and the book. I know one poet who writes at least one poem a day, might have three or four book manuscripts done in a year. Another writes a book manuscript in a block of time, poem after poem after poem, and might be done in a month. As I mentioned I’m a slow writer without much in the way of career ambition, so I’ve gone about ten years between books, writing almost every day but not using most of it, not writing for a specific project but letting it come together on its own, throwing out (not using at least) most of what I write, and revising intensely before I’m finished.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
Robert Haight: I write for a community of readers who aren’t specialists in poetry. I write for brick masons, electricians, servers, you name it. A lot of poetry written in the United States today is intended for authorities, basically other poets, but I’ve wanted to reach people who are like the people I know: intelligent, interesting, but not necessarily poets themselves.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or a notebook?
Robert Haight: I start in a notebook and then move the writing to a computer when I begin revising it.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that poetry is no longer relevant?
Robert Haight: It’s true that poetry is not relevant to some people but then neither is good nutrition or hygiene or exercise. On a societal level, poetry is always relevant. People turn to it in times of grief, in times of great stress and despair, and many people enjoy it as a fundamental part of their everyday lives. More people are writing poetry than ever before.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the inspiration behind your poem, “To a Coyote”?
Robert Haight: That poem comes from an actual experience. I was walking my dogs down the dirt road near my home one morning when we came upon a coyote that must have been hit by a car. We know they’re around but they are rarely seen up close, and when we do see them it is most often at night as they are running away or from a distance. This close up view showed that though they are troublesome in their attacks on farm animals, coyotes are beautiful animals.
Geosi Gyasi: What things are likely to be found on your writing table?
Robert Haight: A cup of coffee. A photo of Walt Whitman. A stack of notebooks. A quote from Chuang Tzu that says, “The sound of water says what I think.” Photos of my wife and children and dogs.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Robert Haight: Oh, there are so many from all through time and all over the world. I’ll just say that for current living authors who are my elders in the United States I bow to W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, Joy Harjo and many, many more.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you write, “How Is It That the Snow”?
Robert Haight: I don’t know. I live with snow for much of the year and I’m sure the poem came from that weird experience one gets when they go out into dense snow and notice that everything is muffled, all the birds are gone except our friends the crows, the water is stilled, and the only thing you can hear is your own heart beating.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer?
Robert Haight: I’m happy as a person who writes.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax when not writing?
Robert Haight: Lots of things. I walk my dogs, go for runs now and then, cook, fish, read, watch sports on television. I’m an ordinary guy.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn enough from writing?
Robert Haight: I earn my living by teaching, which I’ve been doing for almost forty years. If I had to depend on my writing, I would have starved to death years ago.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you go to Western Michigan University to study creative writing?
Robert Haight: Western Michigan back when I went to school in the 70s and 80s had this fantastic writing program that should have been more widely known. It was the first university in Michigan to offer the MFA in Creative Writing. The faculty included the poets John Woods and Herb Scott, fiction writers Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon, playwright Arnie Johnston. It was a small, intense writing community where students interacted not just with a faculty mentor but with all the faculty. It was way ahead of its time.