Interview with Tom Hubbard (2011)

The University of Connecticut has hosted many writers-in-residence and visiting professors over the years, and the rewards are always great for students within and outside of the English major. These writers enrich the experience of students and give a good example of what a career in writing might look like. Tom Hubbard is one such writer – in fact, he is the writer a program such as this looks for. While Hubbard is currently the Lynn Wood Neag Distinguished Visiting Professor in Scottish Literature at the university, he is a man of many talents, and therefore many roles—not to mention a great deal of notoriety throughout Europe. Though he collaborated on, edited, and authored books beforehand, Hubbard’s first book of poetry, Scottish Faust, was released in 2004, followed quickly by his second, From Soda Fountain to Moonshine Mountain. With his first novel Marie B. recently released in 2008, and another book of poetry soon to follow, Hubbard is clearly a busy man. Thankfully, he still found the time to become a part of the UConn community for the semester, giving students a small share in his life and experiences.


Long River Review: Why should people read your book – what will they get out of it?

Tom Hubbard: Well I hope that they’ll get some sense of just what a big expansive thing European culture, world culture is. That it is important to acquire an appreciation of art and music and literature, wherever it comes from. You know there are a lot of allusions to various people in the book – I think people would have a pretty impoverished life if they weren’t exposed to the music of Mozart and Wagner at least once in their lives. It enriches you as a person. So that’s what it’s about – not money because money is ultimately shit. Money is just the means to do something else. Art is its own means to an end. Nothing else really matters except art. Just the accumulation over the centuries of what’s come down to us in terms of art and literature and music – culture in the wider sense, folklore as well, the stories that people in all walks of life used to tell each other by the fire and pass on to their kids and children – that is real wealth. I’m thinking of the English art critic John Ruskin who said that there’s a distinction between wealth and what he called “ilth” – the pursuit of money, exploiting other people so to make yourself rich. And wealth was beauty, was art. So art is true wealth. So that’s why they should read my book.

LRR: I know that there was a shouting match you witnessed and you put that into your book, and you like the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and you put him into your book.

TH: Well those are a lot of people’s experiences. That’s being observant, or being an eavesdropper like Marie B. herself in a scene which she’s listening to Robert Louis Stevenson having a conversation with a Russian lady. I just sneak up and listen to other people and write it down if it’s interesting enough. You have to be nosy. As far as my own experiences like I said I’m not all that interested in myself. I try to keep myself out of my stuff as much as I can. But if I am there I try to disguise myself and hide behind masks all the time and let my character be the most important. Even with my poetry I won’t speak in my own voice – I’ll invent a character or put a mask on and I speak through that.  I have to live with myself all the time so when I write I want to escape from myself! One’s own past or experience can be an ingredient but it’s essentially raw and you misshape it, you mix it up with all the other stuff that comes out – your imagination and all the other parts of your disease.

LRR: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to write and haven’t gotten about to yet?

TH: I would like to write a travel log of my wanderings in Europe and my wanderings in this country as well – do something on a bigger scale. I tend to write short books – Marie B. is quite short, although it took such a long time to write. It’s essentially a distillation. It’s a compression of a lot of stuff; there’s a lot packed into it. Maybe I write short books because I’m basically lazy. I just don’t want to get off my ass and write something that’s very long you know, really epic, as big as the Rocky Mountains. If I can do that in the time that’s left to me…

LRR: Would you be up to that?

TH: I’d be up for walking in the Rocky Mountains or climbing the Rocky Mountains, but that would just be an excuse for not writing about it!

LRR: What in your opinion is the purpose behind poetry? Why bother writing it, reading it, what is its use today?

TH: There’s absolutely no purpose, no use at all. That’s its charm. As Oscar Wilde said all art is useless. It has no function – that’s why we need it so much. When it comes to morals I think a good writer will have an inherent moral up-ness, a set of ethical values. But at the same time you know writers are not sinless, we’re not angels – I don’t think we write for moral up-ness. I think if you did you would just write a load of crap.

LRR: It gets in the way of the writing.

TH: It gets in the way of the writing – I think in a kind of Nietzschean sense art is beyond good and evil. It will contain moral imperatives but it won’t be contained by them. Again to quote Oscar Wilde there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book – books are well written or badly written and that is all. Well I think there’s quite a bit more to books than that but I can see his essential point – if you’ve got a moral point of view it should be implied, rather than explicitly stated.

LRR: You are living proof that writing is a skill that does go somewhere.

TH: I think there’s still this sense that “Oh you’re a poet, oh you’re a writer,” you know they look at you as a kind of vagabond, a kind of mendicant who’s begging for money. It’s actually true! You are always begging for money! You do sort of wander about all kinds of ways kind of aimlessly. You’re not doing anything useful because art isn’t useful! It exalts us. There’s the German philosopher Schopenhauer who’s a big pessimist, and once said that “Art is the remedy for the malady of existence.”

LRR: Where do you see the place for writing today – the mecca of poetry and literature – do you think there is one place or do you think it spreads over the world?

TH: Oh it’s everywhere. I think any center that’s set itself up as the great center of literature or art or music – we have to be very skeptical of that. We have to be very skeptical of people who use the arts for their own. They are known as the control freaks, the people who claim to be working for the arts but really have an agenda.

LRR: The ilth.

TH: The ilth – those who turn art into a commodity. You turn art into a commodity you turn human beings into a commodity as well. We’re not commodities, we’re not things, we’re living, breathing, we freak out all over the place. And let us continue to freak out gloriously. Marie B. certainly freaked out all over the place – I raise a glass to her.

LRR: What do you suppose Marie B. would think about your novel if she were here today and read it?

TH: Well I’m sure she’d find something to disagree about. If she could see all that in her own heart, in her own self, she’d look at this Scotch guy and think ugh. Well I would hope that I had done her justice and tried to make her accurate because there is still this image of her being a spoiled brat, [someone who] didn’t take anything seriously, but I think what I’ve tried to show is that she did achieve a lot and it’s really a tragedy that she died so young at the age of twenty six, because she could have lived well into the twentieth century and could have been part of all these new movements in art and modern art. A good photographer suggests something going on below the surface, and I think that’s what Marie did – it [her art] looks photographic, and there’s a lot of stuff going on beneath. If reading this encourages people to Google Marie and visit the various websites with reproductions of these paintings, and even better to visit the galleries and see the actual paintings, then I think I will have done her a service.

LRR: And in a way sort of revive her?

TH: Yes, I would hope so. I was talking about the grotesque last night and sort of saw that as being the meeting place of the tragic and the comic. There are two quotations that stick in my mind; one is from the French poet Charles Baudelaire and he said “le beau est toujours bizarre,” – the beautiful is always bizarre. Although in French bizarre doesn’t have quite the same connotations as in English, but he certainly put the bizarre in his own poetry. And the other quote was from a Scottish philosopher who said that great art is always weird. And I like that. I think that weirdness is important in all art – it gives you the edge. And it’s good when art is in conflict with itself. The writer is in conflict with himself.

If Tom Hubbard is any indication, then to be in conflict with one’s self is undoubtedly a beneficial quality.


Interview by Colleen Lynch

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