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Hass still has way with words

When Robert Hass answers the phone, he sounds like any other 66-year-old guy who’s just returned from a run.

“Calling it running is sort of flattery at this point,” he says with a slow laugh. “I get passed by old ladies speed-walking.”

But beware older men with still-facile minds. They can surprise, as Hass did by showing how well he could adapt to the cyber world while doing a series of online interviews – “graphical chats,” he called them – during and after his two terms as United States Poet Laureate (1995-97).

When told how impressive that adaptation was, Hass responds with another laugh.

“Hey, maybe we can still do it, us old guys,” he says.

No maybe about it. In November, Hass won the National Book Award for his poetry collection “Time and Materials,” from which he will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Gonzaga University’s Cataldo Globe Room.

Hass, who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1989, is California born and bred. The San Francisco native earned a bachelor’s degree at St. Mary’s College, master’s and doctoral degrees at Stanford.

But he’s hardly a regional voice. As Stephen Burt wrote in his New York Times review of “Time and Materials”: “Hass won fame in the 1970s for self-effacing verse about California trails and hills, about the everyday pleasures of our five senses and about the calm humility in East Asian classical writing and art.”

As much as his own writing, though, Hass is known for the 25 or so years that he collaborated with Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuania-born Polish poet who won the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature.

Hass had read Milosz’s book “The Captive Mind” in college, and he knew that not much more of Milosz’s work was available in English.

So when he read that Milosz’s poem “The Word” was supposed to be a great example of the kind of poem that lends a “psychic potency” to such ordinary objects as hat racks and tea kettles “because of the violence around them,” he wrote down the title.

Years later, when he met Milosz in person, Hass asked whether the poem had been translated into English. No, Milosz answered, stressing that it couldn’t be because “it was written in a very simple rhyme, like a children’s primer.”

That led to their long working relationship, with Milosz visiting Hass’ house in Berkeley – they lived only blocks apart – and the two translating one Milosz poem after the next.

“It’s true that poetry is untranslatable,” Hass says. “But in the case of Czeslaw, there was so much in his poetry. … He wanted poetry to be, at the end, direct and plain. And I think his basic feeling for rhythm in English was so good that I wasn’t worried that this had to be the perfect translation.

“I felt like, ‘These are the first translations. You don’t need to spend forever on them. You try to get them as well as you can so that, while he’s still alive, you try to get as much of this guy in English that’s possible because he’s so great and he has so much to say and he’s seen so much and been through so much.’ “

Working with Milosz was only one thing that took Hass away from his own work. Accepting the post of poet laureate was, he says, “an act of citizenship” that, “though it sounded great, was a sort of minor honor inside the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.”

Yet Hass was committed to the spirit of the job.

“I thought at the time that maybe things could be done to treat it more seriously, to take it as an opportunity to a spokesperson or ambassador for American writing,” he says.

“And I really tried to do that, which was quite time-consuming. And it made me feel like I’d been elected class monitor – you know, going around and talking to literacy conferences in Nebraska.”

Hass ended up involving himself in various literacy projects, and wrote a poetry column for the Washington Post for four years. Meanwhile, he carried a teaching load at Berkeley and, in whatever spare time he could, worked on his own verse.

Which is why he says that winning the NBA for “Time and Materials” feels extra good.

“Because I thought, ‘Well, I can still do it,’ ” he says. “That’s good.”

In the Times, reviewer Burt agreed: “This book contains Hass’ best and most careful verse in almost 30 years.”

For all that, Hass retains a respectful attitude about art that’s balanced by a sense of perspective – and humor.

While talking about the future of poetry in a texting kind of world, Hass will cite the model of Chekhov’s growth from humor writer into someone capable of “completely reinventing the short story.”

“I don’t think it matters how it’s spelled,” he says. “People reading poems want to know what’s going on inside other people’s heads.”

Addressing hip-hop verse and the recent Grammy win by rapper Kanye West, and the evolution of language itself, Hass points out that German teens “all rap in Turkish-inflected German.”

And then he recalls his favorite line from the Grammys broadcast: “The country singer (Brad Paisley) whose lyric was ‘I want to check you for ticks.’ “

Again Hass delivers that slow laugh.

“I wish I had written that line,” the former poet laureate says.

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