Tom Hunley is an American poet who teaches at Western Kentucky University in their MFA program. He has published more than a half-dozen books of poetry and several books about teaching poetry. His poems have been in many venues including Rattle and Crazyhorse and North American Review to name three out of dozens. He can be hard to read because there is as yet no biographical work. This interview is intended to figure out some of his coordinates so as to read his recent compendium volume What Feels Like Love (C & R Press, 2021) more effectively.
Seattle Star: Who are your main influences as a poet?
Tom Hunley: Bob Hicok
Seattle Star: Who are you hiding?
Tom Hunley: Brother Antoninus
Seattle Star: You grew up in Seattle, but were from a difficult family?
Tom Hunley: My mom and dad divorced when I was 11. My dad disappeared from my life until I was in my thirties. He retired from Wal-Mart recently and has cancer. He lives about five hours away. I see him for a couple of hours every other month. My mom?
Denis Johnson has a line: “She hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother.” Short version: she raised me and my two sisters by herself. She was bipolar 1 but undiagnosed and untreated. I left home at 17. My sisters were younger when they got out.
I’ve apprenticed at poetry for over 30 years and still lack the skill to write directly about that subject.
At its height she would threaten suicide about once a week, peel out of the driveway, then return in an hour all cheery with groceries or whatever.
Seattle Star: You lived around the U-District and studied at Community Colleges but slowly became more successful as a writer? Your poems have now appeared in almost every important literary journal.
Tom Hunley: I never made it in Seattle. I was poor and lonely. Most of my memories are of waiting at bus stops in the rain.
Seattle Star: First you studied, then you met your wife, Julia?
Tom Hunley: I started studying poetry at Highline Community College in 1987. Then I studied with Bierds, McElroy, Wagoner and Bentley at the U. of Washington. In 1993, I met my wife at a V-Day party by the Space Needle. We discovered we both grew up mainly in Federal Way. She is Hispanic.
Her dad was a big-time endocrinologist who had grown up in Mexico. She was the youngest of four kids. They were rich.
Seattle Star: She is a writer, too?
Tom Hunley: She writes Jane Austen fan fiction and has hordes of followers.
Her father is very interested in literature. He’s 86 now, but introduced me to various Mexican poets.
Seattle Star: Is she Mexican, or Mexican-American, or just an American? Does she speak Spanish?
Tom Hunley: Her dad says he likes the family values of Mexico better than what we have here. Family is more important to people there, he says. But he hasn’t spent much time in the American Midwest or South. Her parents made the decision to not raise the kids in a bi-lingual home. She has studied Spanish, but it didn’t stick. She is an American.
Seattle Star: Have you traveled internationally?
Tom Hunley: I’ve been to France, the UK, Italy, and Mexico. I enjoyed all of them. People in the south of France were super-sweet. Paris is beautiful. London is beautiful and I love the accents there. I spent ten days as a missionary in Ensenada, Mexico when I was in college at UW. We ran a VBS at an orphanage and built a fire break. The kids were great.
Seattle Star: Do you think there is some place on earth better than America?
Tom Hunley: I don’t know. The Declaration of Independence. The Civil War. Walt Whitman. Jazz. American football. CBGBs. The Ivy League. I believe in American exceptionalism.
Seattle Star: Do you ever feel suicidal?
Tom Hunley: Yeah.
Seattle Star: What is your best poem?
Tom Hunley: “Will Be Done,” is the real deal. It’s raw and direct. Will was an MFA student of mine. We were the same age. He was a former professional musician turned poet. When he applied he told us he was in AA. He relapsed, dropped out, and shot himself in a parking lot.
Seattle Star: Your worst?
Tom Hunley: “Musives” is a problem because everyone thinks it’s autobiographical. I don’t have a dead daughter. I’m playing with language.
Seattle Star: I can’t figure out what’s autobiographical and what isn’t in your poems. I want a strict line between non-fiction and fiction.
Tom Hunley: It doesn’t matter. If you need a clear line the only purely autobiographical ones are the recent ones.
Seattle Star: Do you worry about your weight?
Tom Hunley: Yeah.