Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with James Baker Hall, July 11, 1991

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with James Baker Hall conducted at his home in Sadieville, Kentucky outside of Lexington on July 11th, 1991.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his parents, his childhood, and grandparents. He was under the care of his grandparents for most of his childhood. He talks about schooling and how he was always more interested in sports instead of academics before going to college.

Keywords: Authors from Kentucky; Family history

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Childhood; Education; Families.; Genealogy; Lexington (Ky.)

GPS: Lexington (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.039604, -84.493545
00:09:02 - Introduction to literature / mother's suicide

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Partial Transcript: Immediately on the experience of, uh, literature that I found in a introduction to literature class...

Segment Synopsis: In college, Hall became interested in literature, inspired by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, particularly "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He found Eliot's poetry fearless, honest, and direct; qualities that spoke to him given his childhood experience. He talks about his mother's suicide when he was 8 years old and how the secrecy surrounding it troubled him most of his life. He found a connection to Eliot's poem because he was coming from this distressful childhood experience.

Keywords: Childhood trauma; Inspirational poems; Personal experience and writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Creation (Literary, artistic, etc.); Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965; Inspiration; Suicide

00:17:05 - Discovery of literature / reading versus writing

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Partial Transcript: So this finding the J--"The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" was something that put you on the track to developing that understanding.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his passionate interest in literature starting in his freshman year. After reading "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," he sought and found a audio recording of that poem by T.S. Eliot. He then read literature extensively. Though he became an English major, he was primarily interested in writing. He loves reading and the systematic study of literature, but he doesn't believe one's love of reading informs creative writing.

Keywords: Creative writing; Education; Literary education; Writing inspirations

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965; Literature; Poetry

00:21:56 - Dropping out of Stanford University / marriage

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Partial Transcript: What about graduate school?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about dropping out of his Ph.D. program at Stanford. He didn't have much time to write when in the program. After dropping out, he worked part time and started writing. He married Joan Hall in 1959. He already had a previous marriage which had lasted only four months. Since Joan had a stable job, he could focus on his writing, but he did have some part time teaching jobs. He got an MA from Stanford because of his first published book.

Keywords: Graduate programs; Marriage; Stegner Fellowship; Writers' spouses; Writing; Writing fellowships

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Southern writers; Stanford University

00:26:47 - Children

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Partial Transcript: Did you have any children from the first marriage?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the first child he had with his first wife. They divorced before the child's birth and he only saw his son a few times. He has two children from his second marriage.

Keywords: Children; Kentucky Country Day School

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Divorce; Families.; Marriage

00:30:21 - Teaching

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Partial Transcript: And then what went on with your career and personal life?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his time in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Connecticut. He taught part time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Connecticut. His wife taught full time at both of these universities. He sometimes taught creative writing and sometimes photography. He also wrote during this time.

Keywords: Creative writing; Photography teachers; Wellesley (Mass.)

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Photography; University of Connecticut; Wellesley College

00:31:37 - Problems with publishing

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Partial Transcript: And the story of my career during that period is, is, um, um, as follows: Okay, I published my first novel when I was 26 years old.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his first book and how the review copy of the book was not sent out to reviewers. He got a good literary agent in New York because of his first book. He signed a two-book contract with a publisher, but various developments led to his dissatisfaction with the contract and he deliberately sent an unreadable book to them. He was ostracized after that. He then turned to photography for many years.

Keywords: Book contracts; Contract wrecker; Publishers; Publishing business

Subjects: Authors and publishers; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Literary agents; New York (N.Y.)

00:37:25 - Photography--Childhood experiences

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Partial Transcript: So you stopped writing for a while. Or did you stop?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his time writing about photography. He wrote for Esquire and Aperture. He also had a photography business, which did not do well financially. He talks about the origins of his interest in photography from the time when he was 11 years old. Being an apprentice at a professional photography business, he was shooting weddings and athletics events when he was a teenager.

Keywords: Aperture Foundation; Esquire magazine; Photography books; Photography writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Photography

00:43:57 - Photography--Inspirations / interest in art

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Partial Transcript: The, uh, the connection that I had--the experience that I had as a kid in photography was all in commercial photography.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about encountering the inspiring photographs by A. Aubrey Bodine. He talks about his interest in paintings, particularly by the abstract expressionists of the mid-20th century, such as Jackson Pollock. Other favorite artists include Monet, Brancusi, and Gauguin. He talks about his trip to France when he was an undergraduate and his interest in art museums.

Keywords: Art galleries; Brancusi; Gauguin; Monet; Painters; Paris, France; Photographers; Writers and Paris

Subjects: Art museums; Art--History; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Bodine, A. Aubrey, 1906-1970; Photography

00:48:37 - Relation to other artists and writers

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Partial Transcript: And at that time did you feel that the various mediums that you were interested in were feeding off one another--

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the interconnections he sees in his various interests. He discusses the significance of his association with other artists and writers.

Keywords: Relationships among artists

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography

00:53:01 - Time teaching at MIT

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Partial Transcript: Can you talk a little bit about what happened from that period that you were teaching poetry part time--

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about teaching poetry and photography at MIT at a time of cultural upheaval during the late 1960s.

Keywords: Sixties; Teaching poetry

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Harvard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Photography; Poetry

00:56:42 - Coming back to Lexington, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: It was when I got in se--in 1973, back to Lexington which was the, uh, beginning of my long drawn out confrontation...

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his coming back to Lexington in 1973. He wanted to stop being dependent on his wife and sought a full time job. At University of Kentucky (UK), he found an opportunity not just to work but also to try to save his marriage by staying away from his wife half a year. At UK he taught poetry writing and fiction writing. He is now tired of teaching these courses and is interested in teaching other classes. He has also been interested in making films and teaching classes on them. He talks about experimental films and dreams.

Keywords: Courses on films; Creative writing classes; Divorces; Dreams; Experimental films

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Creative writing; Motion pictures; University of Kentucky

01:04:21 - Teaching creative writing

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Partial Transcript: Since you've been at UK, uh, have there been changes that you have introduced in, in the teaching of creative writing there?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the changes he initiated in the creative writing program at the University of Kentucky. He has tried to create an MA program in creative writing, but it did not last long because there weren't sufficient faculty members to run it. He discusses how teaching at UK is particularly fruitful because he knows the students who come to this university and is able to help them in ways that he couldn't have in other places.

Keywords: Creative writing courses; Creative writing degrees; Teaching creative writing; Tongue tied; Writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Southern writers; University of Kentucky

01:09:44 - Teaching creative writing--Pedagogy

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Partial Transcript: How do you do that?

Segment Synopsis: Hall gives various examples of the teaching techniques he uses in his creative writing classes. He discusses what, in his opinion, is the role of a creative writing teacher and how he sees his relationship with his students. He talks about the writing process and the source of creativity.

Keywords: Pedagogy in creative writing; Teaching creative writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky; Creative writing; Teaching; Writing

01:16:39 - Writing and truth

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Partial Transcript: And you would agree that the truth is usually more complicated than a, a factual understanding of something?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the relationship between felt experience and truth. He thinks that most writers have just one story to tell, which they express repeatedly in different writings. He discusses his views on literature, which he thinks deals with particulars, instead of mere ideas or thoughts.

Keywords: Emotions; Felt experience; Truth and feeling; Truth in fiction; Writers' experiences

Subjects: Authors; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Creative writing; Hemingway; Literature; Truth; Writing

01:22:51 - Writer friends

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Partial Transcript: Um so back to, back to your teaching at UK.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his relationship with other future writers at University of Kentucky during his undergraduate years.These include Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and Bobbie Ann Mason. He talks about the benefits of being around people who also shared his passion for writing. He says that there was no competition and a lot of cooperation.

Keywords: Competition and cooperation; Writer friends; Writers from Kentucky

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; McClanahan, Ed; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Southern writers

01:29:43 - Wife

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Partial Transcript: Uh, you have mentioned your, your current wife.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his current wife, Mary Ann Taylor Hall. He met her in 1967 as a visiting professor at University of Kentucky when she was also teaching there. They got married in 1981. She is also a writer.

Keywords: Author couples; Marriage

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography

01:33:03 - Work and writing

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Partial Transcript: I am looking for, uh--I have got, uh, uh, work that I am doing as a photographer...

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his various creative works and how he needs uninterrupted time for them. He looks forward to summer for long stretches of time when he can focus on his creative activities. He talks about his current work, which is a kind of autobiographical meditation. He is also working on two other novels. He discusses his intellectual and emotional connection with his wife, which is essential to his writing.

Keywords: Academic life; Autobiographical novels; Writing novels; Writing time

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; University of Kentucky

01:38:25 - Writing habit

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Partial Transcript: Uh, are you--in terms of your working habits, how do you work that out?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the space he and his wife have for writing. He discusses the discipline and writing habit he had to acquire to be a writer.

Keywords: Discipline in writing; Working habits; Writing habits; Writing spaces

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Writing

01:41:35 - Published books

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I wanted to ask you about your three books of poetry and two completed novels.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his published works: three books of poetry and two novels. He notes the dates and publishers for each work. He considers his third poetry book "Stopping on the Edge to Wave" (1988) his best work. He talks about personal and intellectual changes that occurred before his third book. His poetry has also been published in various top journals and magazines, including The New Yorker.

Keywords: Poetry magazines; Poets and publishing; The New Yorker magazine

Subjects: American poetry; Authors and publishers; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Poets--20th century.

01:49:38 - Views on The New Yorker

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Partial Transcript: And had you been submitting to The New Yorker regularly?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about submitting his poems to The New Yorker and how this magazine has the power to make careers for writers. He also discusses an editor of poetry, Howard Moss, at that magazine and how the magazine has published many major writers that he admires. He admires the non-fiction section of the magazine.

Keywords: Howard Moss; Magazine publications; Non-fiction publishing; Poetry editors; The New Yorker

Subjects: Authors and publishers; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography

01:55:57 - Nature and human nature

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Partial Transcript: Uh, back to your poetry.

Segment Synopsis: Hall expresses his views on the distinction between nature and humans. He feels deeply connected to the natural world. The transience of his own life is reflected in that of creatures of nature he encounters.

Keywords: Human nature; Metaphors; Nature and humans

Subjects: American poetry; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Nature

02:01:41 - Photography and writing

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Partial Transcript: Uh, in your poem "Tracings" you describe how photography captures the human spirit.

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his views on photography, which he thinks "punches a hole" in time. Both lyric poetry and photography try to connect directly to the absolute, while fiction is more social and conscious of time. There is a goal of achieving a kind of timelessness in both poetry and photography.

Keywords: Fiction and time; Lyric poetry and time; Photography and time; Timelessness; Transience

Subjects: American poetry; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Poets--20th century.; Time

02:05:40 - Genres of work

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Partial Transcript: Do you feel equally adept at all, all medi--all genres or is it simply a matter of...

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about how his work with various media might have led to his confused public image. He thinks that his life-long efforts to say the same thing with various types of media has finally come to fruition. He feels he has more or less equal competence in all the media in which he works. His work in one medium informs his work in another. He talks about this interconnection among his works in different media, which hasn't helped his professional career.

Keywords: Art and career; Artistic media; Media in art; Professional growth

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Motion picture; Photography; Writing

02:13:10 - Mother's death

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Partial Transcript: Uh, can you tell me a little bit more specifically about what happened to your mother?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his mother - her background, life, and death. His mother married his father because it would give her social advantage, but she became imprisoned in a kind of life she did not want. He talks about the trauma of his mother's suicide. The goal of his life as an artist was to remember and understand these childhood events. He has made peace with the traumatic event through his work.

Keywords: Childhood experiences; Death and art; Reconciliation through art; Suffering and art; Trauma and art

Subjects: American poetry; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Suicides

02:21:42 - Power of art

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Partial Transcript: Is the book that you are working on, "Saying Grace" uh, is this the, is this the work that has freed you the most?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about coming to terms with his mother's death and the circumstances surrounding it. He had to prepare for much of his life to be able to understand his childhood experiences. He expresses his view on the therapeutic power of art. Art deals with feelings deeper than thoughts and thus provides a kind of release from past experiences.

Keywords: Art and emotional therapy; Creativity; Introspection; Power of art; Suffering; Suffering and art; Therapy

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Life change events; Therapeutics

02:29:45 - Nature of creativity

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Partial Transcript: That's an interesting observation because I think most people look at creativity as an added gift...

Segment Synopsis: Hall thinks that people have the same spiritual drive, but while some people take up that calling in creative ways and others do not. There is no guarantee that pursuing art will help one attain the spiritual goals. In many cases people do not answer to the spiritual calling in their art.

Keywords: Artistic skills; Creative activities; Spiritual calling in art; Spirituality; Talent

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Creative ability; Writing

02:32:57 - Best selling authors

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Partial Transcript: How would you, uh, slot best selling authors or authors who write a book with a miniseries in mind...

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his views of commercially successful authors. He thinks that though people do start out writing unique stories, sometimes they may not take the project to the level that makes them serious creative work. He thinks that different kinds of writings fulfill different needs and they cannot be hierarchically arranged.

Keywords: Commercially motivated writers; Writing; Writing profession

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965; King, Stephen; Writing

02:40:56 - Exploring personal understanding

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Partial Transcript: Is every writer writing about what is his or her greatest concern no matter what that concern may be?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the regrets people have not having explored some of the fundamental personal truths in their lives. He expresses his views on the problems with the current culture.

Keywords: Creative expression; Creativity; Emotions; Truth

Subjects: Art; Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Writing

02:45:47 - Literary prizes

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Partial Transcript: Anyway, I did wanna ask you, uh, which of the several literary prizes that you've won has meant the most to you, and why?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the significance of the awards and fellowships he received. The Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and the award from National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were important for his career. He used the NEA award to write poetry.

Keywords: Fellowships; Literary awards; NEA; Stegner Fellowship; Writing

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Literary prizes; National Endowment for the Arts; Poets--20th century.

02:47:49 - Movie

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Partial Transcript: Hasn't one of your films won an award?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about the only movie he completed and released. It received an honorable mention at a film festival in San Francisco. He talks about the story of the 25-minute long silent movie and why he made certain artistic choices.

Keywords: Artistic films; Film festivals; Jazz; San Francisco Art Institute Film Festival; Short films

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Motion pictures; San Francisco Art Institute

02:50:15 - Concluding remarks

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Partial Transcript: What do you think the most important thing is to know about you as a writer and as a person?

Segment Synopsis: Hall talks about his devotion to his art and how it is what defines him. He plans to finish the projects that are going on, including his autobiographical book and two novels. He talks about his gratefulness to Mary-Ann Taylor Hall, his wife.

Keywords: Childhood experiences; Writers; Writers' spouses

Subjects: Authors, American--Kentucky--Biography; Devotion