Laban Carrick Hill is the author of more than 25 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. He was garnered more than 30 awards and honors for his writing. He is currently a visiting professor in the English department at Cape Coast University, where he will be working until December 7th, 2008.
Five Questions with Laban Hill:
1. How long have you been writing poetry?
I have been writing poetry since I was about 11 or 12, though I don’t think I really began to understand what I was doing until I was in my mid-twenties.
2. Who are your favorite poets? Which poets have most influenced and informed your work?
I would say off the top of my head that my favorite poets include Derek Walcott, Robert Hass, Cleopatra Mathis, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney, among others. The list is pretty broad because I find that there is a lot of wonderful poetry being written today.
3. How has living and teaching in Ghana over the last few months influenced the way you write? The way you think about writing?
I believe that my stay in Ghana has changed my writing immensely. Hearing the voices of a new culture collide with the voices in my own head has created a new kind of friction in my writing. The volume of Ghana is so much louder than the rural mountains where I live in the U.S. The figurative language here is extremely rich and interspersed with all kinds of aphorism and proverbs. I love the way people name their businesses. One of my favorite business names here in Cape Coast is the "Man! Know Thyself Pharmacy." I am also delighted by the "Not By Might Alone Construction." The sense of humor and play that exists in Ghana is absolutely marvelous and liberating.
4. You are about to undertake a major project to video record Ghanaian poets reading their work. Could you tell us more about this project and what inspired you to undertake it? [Ed. Note - this interview is from 2008. The project is over, and results from Laban's work in Ghana can be viewed here.]
When I was first invited to come to the University of Cape Coast, the lines from the Frank O’Hara poem “The Day Lady Died” immediately came to mind. In an ironic way, it’s sort of my jumping off point for coming here and exploring the creative life here. I love the lines:
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days…
The lines just spur my imagination and make me wonder too. So I decided to make it my project to find out what the poets in Ghana are doing these days. It just made sense to follow up on O’Hara’s question.
5. Could you speak a bit about your opinion on the aural elements of poetry? What makes it important to hear a poem, instead of simply reading in on the page?
When I think of the aural elements of poetry, I think of the music. One of the great experiences about being here in Ghana has been studying Fanti. The music of Fanti in everyday speech is extraordinary. I love the way the vowels of the verb and the pronoun must match up as well as the tonal quality of the spoken word. The Fanti language has changed the way I think about the music of a poem, and I am the better for it.
In respect to the question of reading poetry out loud versus reading it on the page, I feel that listening to it being read is a key element of the experience. When I am writing a poem, I never know if it really works or not until I read it out loud before an audience. Often, I find myself revising the poem even if it has been published when I read it out loud.