31 August 2010

Interview with Heather Thomas

This is the twenty-third interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. I have divided this interview into titled sections to assist you in finding or keeping your place in the text.

Interview with Heather Thomas
at Kutztown University
13 July 2010

Click here to watch Heather reading two poems.


HT: I love doing collaborative work. When you talk about the contemporary scene or the contemporary ethos, I think that collaboration is where it’s at, and multi-disciplinary work is also one of the key centerpieces of our times. Although I think, on the whole, there’s no single movement in the arts anymore, certainly not in poetry, and that’s all I can talk about. I can really only talk with any accuracy about my own work, but I can speculate and speak from what I know about the larger scene in poetry and in cultural work that poetry joins. And the main thing about it is that there’s no one single direction anymore. It’s like a wheel that has flowered a million spokes. And collaboration is one of those pieces. So what I did, just really briefly: I did collaboration with a fiber artist and we did a book called The Fray. She did embroideries, I did poems, and we really had no theme or set idea when we started; we just wanted to see where the process would lead us. If we had a focus, it was really our material. So we were thinking about the connection or the relationship between thread and fiber and language and words. Right there, for me, there was a metaphor. I really worked off of that.

The other collaboration I did more recently; it was a couple of years ago. The book I did in 2000. But this one was with a dancer. It really was one piece. A poem called “Spin,” which is a political poem about—it’s a critique of the Iraq war and the politics surrounding the Iraq war, and of corporate info-culture. And so I had written the poem, which is a pantoum-form poem. A pantoum is a poem in which you write a series of quatrains, or four-line stanzas, and have a certain series of repeating and interlocking lines. So you have certain lines that repeat as you go forward in the poem, but you’re reaching back to get those lines, so the poem is kind of circling back as it pulses forward. So I had this poem called “Spin”— spin culture, right? And Nicole Bucks, a wonderful dancer, created a dance around the poem. We were asked to perform this is a kind of a review that was called “The New Vaudeville.”

IA: So, you read the poem and she danced simultaneously? And music as well, or just your voice as music?

HT: We had no music, just my voice as music. We had some sound effects in the beginning. But just my voice and she danced.

IA: Was it taped? Is it available?

HT: It’s actually on YouTube. I have to say it’s not my best performance. Someone in the audience taped it and posted it. So there it is. There it is: what can I say? It’s on YouTube.

IA: So going back to your collaboration with the fiber artist. How did you do that? Did you write a poem and then she wove something from it, or vice-versa?

HT: It was really both. I would write a poem and give it to her, and she would give me an embroidery, and we would just kind of live with each other’s work and then respond to that.

IA: And then, the book is visual images of her work, and are they on facing pages with the poems?

HT: The visuals are actually integrated with the poem, so you have the images and the poems on the same pages.

IA: How long did that take? How long did you and she go back and forth?

HT: Well, I think, I recall doing the writing in one summer, and then revising it. We did it over the course of a year, but I’d say most of the writing was done in one summer.

IA: And how did you come up with that idea? Were you and she just talking as friends and you came up with the idea?

HT: Yeah, yeah we were. We were just talking and it was like, Hey, let’s see, you know, I like your work, and what do you think we could do together? So we actually applied for a research grant through the University, and proposed this collaborative project, and they loved it at the time and provided funding. They funded, actually, the printing of the book, which we essentially self-published through a printer in the area. Barbara is married to John Landis who is a graphic artist, and he did the art direction, so he basically did the design of the book.

IA: So the three of you, then, had full control over how the book looks in the end.

HT: Yes. It’s a chapbook, it’s a small book.

IA: Have you ever seen anything else like that? Have you ever seen anyone else collaborating with—there are painters who collaborate [with poets], but any other textile artists?

HT: You know, I haven’t.

IA: I just recently encountered a textile artist collaborating with, well, what does he call himself? an installation artist, I guess, a sculptor, but with non-traditional materials. He creates sort of carts and wagons and miniature architecture, and he brought her weaving work into it. But that’s quite different than collaboration between two arts that we think of as being so wildly different: poetry and weaving. Beautiful. So I see how you’re layering the metaphors there: that weaving is a literary metaphor, then with “spin,” you take all the different meanings of that word. The dancer is probably using the obvious, physical meaning and you’re using the meaning that the media gives us interpretation on it.

HT: Exactly.

Note: Heather also did a collaboration with a photographer; you can see the result here.


IA: Now, you mentioned the pantoum. I was just reading Blue Ruby; you use a lot of pantoums in there, and you tend—I guess what I saw is typically you tend not to rhyme.

HT: Generally in my poems I tend not to rhyme.

IA: Those seem to be the most formal poems of yours that I have encountered.

HT: That’s right.

IA: So you tend to be more free verse.

HT: Absolutely.

IA: Or not with a driving rhythm, at least; with natural rhythms in each line.

HT: Ah, yes. Pretty much, yes. That’s correct.

IA: Do you want to describe your poetry any more for readers of mine who haven’t read your work yet?

HT: Well, formally my poems are open, organic. I’m very interested in the page as a space in which the words are arranged. I have gone through phases where my poems look more experimental. In Practicing Amnesia I was working with experimental forms. I think now, lately, I’m more interested in finding the right rhythm. Virginia Woolf said “style is rhythm; if you find the right rhythm the words come of their own accord.” And I don’t think it’s quite that easy, but I think rhythm and voice have been the most challenging things for me to develop and achieve in my work. And part of that, I think, is because I came to poetry without a voice, I didn’t have a voice for articulating my own experience. If that makes any sense. I came to poetry to find—to connect with a voice that I heard. My inner voice is probably the easiest buzz-word. Which, like for many women, was suppressed. It was suppressed in favor of listening to the voice and being the voice that I thought I was supposed to be, the person that I thought I was supposed to be, and seeing myself as the person whose history I had been taught, shall we say. In my background, my parents were divorced at a time when it was not common and I ended up being estranged from my father’s family. And in the course of being an only child and my mother’s remarriage, I really tended to lose my sense of being—where I came from and who I was. So I had to find that out on my own and poetry was the way that I did. I did go on that journey to figure out, well, Who am I? and, Where did I come from? and, How can I reconnect the facts of my life with the feelings that I have? Which didn’t seem to connect, to jive. I felt one way and either wasn’t supposed to feel that way or was taught not to feel at all. stiff upper lip kind of attitude about the past or about feeling as all. And so for me, it was a way to figure out how I felt and find the words for that.

IA: Now, a lot of your work, then, is going into the past, is an exploration of the past and of identities, right? And is a lot of your work, is it based off of family experience, or you’ve also looked into the lives of your ancestors, family history, right?

HT: To some extent, yes. I would say that I’m really interested in the line back through my mother and to some extent also my father. So, yeah, I think a big part of who we are and where we come from has to do with the past. We tend to always carry it with us; whether or not we want to acknowledge that, it’s in our bodies. And for me that also connected with poetry, because a poem comes from the body, comes from the rhythms of the body, it comes from the rhythms of the hand, it comes from the pulse of speech.

IA: You’ve used a pen name on occasion, and this ties back into your discovery of identity through your mother’s line, right? So that was her maiden name and your middle name, as well?

HT: Yes. In fact, I have changed my name, my pen name, a couple of times. I was inspired by a quote from Matisse, the painter, who said that the Japanese painters always changed their names because they wanted to protect their freedom. I wouldn’t say that exactly that was my motive, but I like to think about that as being a kind of function of using different pennames.

IA: Do you think that this difficulty of the need to find a voice—well, it’s personal, it’s feminine or female, as you were saying—do you think it’s also contemporary? Do you think that we’re in a time when it’s hard for poets to find voices, either because there are too many influences from the past or because there is no set style right now? Do you think it’s a more difficult situation than it’s been in the past?

HT: I don’t think it’s more difficult, I think it’s just different. And what I discovered in searching for my voice is that I have many different voices. And the discovery of possibilities of multiple voices and many sounds within ourselves allows us to really grow and also to connect with others. Whitman said, “I contain multitudes. I am many, not one. And I’m also one in many.” And so I think that today poets are interested in exploring multiplicities of voice based on different positions that one takes in relation to language or in relation to whatever you’re writing about. And I sort of see that as an unmooring of ego and an unmooring of absolutes—exuberating. Exuberating.

IA: To take it in a very technical sense for a moment, you said a moment ago that you were searching for your rhythm and your voice, and I assume that you don’t mean you were searching for one of the traditional rhythms that would work for you.

HT: Right.

IA: I imagine that you mean that every line, every phrase, every few word, you’re searching for the rhythm that works at that moment? Or at least for that particular poem?

HT: I think for that particular poem.

IA: So that there’s not just a certain set of rhythmic patterns that you come back to or that are compelling to you.

HT: I think they would be rooted in the speech of the poem.

IA: I think the rhythms that you use tend to be kind of slow and meditative? They’re gentle, they give us time to pause and think over each line. That partly comes from the way the poems are set up on the page, as well. It takes us a little bit longer, there’s a little more space on the page, so we can think about. Was that intentional, setting it up that way for the reader to slow down?

HT: I think it’s probably a function of where I was and the mental space I was in when I was writing that work. Some of that may have changed a little in my more recent work. Generally I would say for me writing is a form of meditation. Until I get to the revision and the editing part. But it’s a form of immersion and meditation and healing. It’s a big form of healing. I think of poetry for me as a process of rememberment where I’m taking the sense of disconnection or dismemberment and trying to connect with myself and then with others. And I think as I’ve gained in experience over the years, and I think one is always writing the first poem again; I don’t believe in progress. To me there’s process, and maybe it works like a spiral, but I don’t think I’m necessarily more advanced now than I was when I first started. Whenever I sit down, you know, it’s, Will I write another poem? Is it ever going to happen again? But the thing that has changed is that rather than using poetry as a way to discover myself, I’m more interested now in connecting with the world and events in the world, bringing that conversation on to the page and putting it out there in the world.


IA: You’re responding to specific events in our time and discussions. You mentioned the Iraq War. I was just reading your September 11th poem this afternoon. What are some other events you’ve been interacting with recently?

HT: Well, specifically there was—I wrote a poem after the tsunami in ’05, December 05. There were actually two different poems published in two different anthologies that came out. I actually brought one of them; I can show you.

IA: Only the Sea Keeps.

HT: So that was kind of an example of a number of recent anthologies that have been published along particular cultural or social themes or events. Right now with the Gulf Coast oil spill there’s recently been a call for poems, and there’s a website up called “Poets for Living Waters.” And so that’s happening. During the Iraq War, there was Poets against the War, which also happened online. This is one of the wonderful aspects of online poetry and the way the internet has changed poetry today, in the proliferation of projects and in the ability to bring people together in a political moment or a cultural moment very quickly. Also, of course, in all of the online publications. Right now we have sort of two things happening. There’s the contraction of trade publishers. Fewer and fewer big publishers, the traditional publishers like Farrar Strauss and Penguin. Fewer and fewer books on their lists. You go to Barnes & Noble, you go to Borders; every time I go in, it has shrunk. It used to be two or three cases, a whole wall, at Borders, and now it’s, I don’t know, maybe half a case, a few shelves. And the same thing has happened with Barnes and Noble. But you go online, and there’s a proliferation of magazines and blogs and publishers. You know, there’s so much happening, so many opportunities for voices to be heard.

And then Heather read to me her poem “One Month Later” about the South Sea Tsunami. I’m working on attaching the sound clip so you can listen to it.

HT: I just wrote a new one, which I read last night, actually. I was on BCTV, Berks Community Television, on a multi-cultural program which was hosted by my good friend and colleague, Dr. Joe Amprey, who used to be an administrator here at Kutztown. He had a number of people from the Reading area: artists and singers and dancers and writers. I read a poem called “Oblivion on River Road.” River Road is where I live in Reading. It was written after the earthquake in Haiti. It was written after this dream that I had, where—well, I won’t go into the dream, but it was written from a combination of a dream that I had and listening to what’s been going on in Haiti, and thinking about what’s going on in the Congo with the rapes of women and the violence again women, and even thinking back to the displacement of South Sea Islanders after the tsunami, and how this stuff kind of, I think, you know, we’re all human, and whether or not we want to acknowledge it, these crises in the world, whether it’s climate crises, or whether it’s earthquakes, or the oil spill in the Gulf: I think that they get deep into our subconscious, and they get into our dreams, and they get into our bodies and they make us anxious and concerned on a level that we try to suppress while we’re walking around, having our day, living our lives that are hopefully going OK. But this stuff is there and it’s kind of changing us. So the poem is that. It’s about that. It’s about how the Haiti earthquake came into my dreams and came right on to River Road where I was living.

IA: It sounds to me like you are recapturing an ancient role of the poet: that the poet for years and years and years in societies was the one who would speak after big social events, after big historical events, either catastrophes or happy, victorious events that the poet would speak for the collective voice of the people. And I think that was lost later on when we get this sort of individualistic idea of the artist being isolated from and different from and then sometimes better than “ordinary” humanity. So it sounds as if you’re recapturing that.

HT: Well, that idea, that definition of the poet, is of course the Romantic with the capital R. That notion of Emerson’s transparent eyeball—which is beautiful and wonderful, but it does make the poet a species apart. And, you know, that isn’t the way poets are now at all. poets are doing cultural work. The poets I think who matter are doing cultural work. And that doesn’t mean they’re out there writing poem of protest, but it does mean that we’re questioning. We’re asking questions. We’re using the poem as a vehicle of inquiry. I wrote about that in an article after September 11th, which a little part of it is on my website; I think it’s the part about the poem as a space for inquiry. Yes, it’s a space for expressing grief and expressing feelings and emotions, but I think that role of the poem as raising questions sort of began in the ‘70s, when you had a lot of poets, especially women, saying: The poem is personal, but it’s also political.


IA: So you teach Modern Poetry here, as well, among other things, so you have a lot of chance to discuss this with students and to introduce them to poets who have been public voices and who have engaged and been raising inquiries. Maybe you can tell me about who you think are some of those important voices right know who are raising public inquiry? Who are some of the poets you admire most from that point of view?

HT: I really admire a number of poets. Jorie Graham is one; Anne Waldman; Alice Notley—a lot of women poets—Patricia Smith; Rachel Blau-Duplessis; Harryette Mullen. I love the poems of W. S. Merwin, who has just been named our United States poet laureate. He wrote very powerful poems against the Vietnam war in the ‘60s and 70s; has had a long and prolific career; was just named the Poet Laureate; and he has just won the Pulitzer Prize with his latest book, which is not a book of—I wouldn’t say it’s a book of protest. If it’s a book of protest, it’s a protest against losing our inner lives, which is also something the culture at large has no time or regard for the inner life. I think that the poet is here to keep that inner life alive. Merwin’s book is really a beautiful book that I read lately, an inspiring book: it’s called The Shadow of Sirius; that’s the star.

So Merwin; who else? A whole lot of poets. I want to name some men since I’ve named so many women. Victor Hernández Cruz is a wonderful poet; of course Amiri Baraka; Mark Doty; Robert Hass; I could go on and on; Michael Palmer; you know, my taste is so eclectic. If anybody who knows poetry hears these names, they’ll wonder, Wow, she’s like all over the place here!

IA: What do they have in common, or what’s the common thread that appeals to you? With these names that you’ve mentioned and others that are in your mind; are there elements of technique that you see happening somewhat broadly, somewhat universally, as well as ideas of voice and identity?

HT: I think what’s so beautiful about contemporary poetry is that technique is all over the board. There are poets working in traditional forms, like Annie Finch, who is writing in these forms in spectacular new ways; or Lyn Hejinian, who has a whole book of sonnets, which is completely refiguring the sonnet! Then there are poets writing in a more free or organic form, poets like Susan Howe who are taking apart language. A poet I didn’t mention, Carolyn Forché, is one of my favorite poets. Carolyn has done so much work in terms of teaching us about European and South American and world poets. She is an incredible poet in her own work and has also explored history. I’ve learned a lot from her about how to confront and deal with history as a poet. So she’s one that I love a lot.


Another contemporary poet that I like a lot, that we had here last year, is Nathalie Handal. Natalie has her own books, but she also edited world poetry, particularly from the Middle East (she’s Palestinian): Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton). Ravi Shankar and Tina Chang are wonderful poets as well.

This is another one of my favorite books that has just come out: The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris. This is put out by a group with a wonderful web presence and blog called Words without Borders.

IA: Now, are all these books in English translations? Or are they bilingual editions?

HT: They are all English translations.

IA: Making it accessible to us. Now, you’ve done some bilingual work, or you’ve worked with a translation and published a bilingual book.

HT: Yes: Resurrection Papers.

IA: Did you work with her in person, or…

HT: Both. We worked in person and we corresponded. This is my book Resurrection Papers which was translated by the Argentine poet Patricia Díaz Bialet. She started translating my work when we met in Argentina in the early ‘90s and then I was coming back and she wanted to see new poems. I sent her a few new poems and she ended up translating the entire book. So that was really exciting. And then when I was down there, in ’03, I did a reading in Buenos Ares and a publisher happened to be there who expressed interest in publishing the book, so we have this wonderful bilingual collection come out in ’04.

IA: It’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful collection. I’m thinking that from her point of view it’s a huge challenge, because I was thinking while reading it that you were really pushing the boundaries of traditional language. There’s very sparse punctuation, there are some prose poems, you have some set up in different ways on the page. How closely did you work with her?

HT: Well, once she did the book—she did a lot of it on her own—I was down there for part of the time and we went over the translations.

IA: You were happy about how it came out?

HT: I was.

IA: Did you do a joint reading with her?

HT: We did a number of joint readings.

IA: So that’s another kind of collaboration.


IA: Well, I’m thinking of so many other things to ask! But maybe we should wrap it up this way. I’ve often given people a chance to say: Do you want to make any predictions? Have you looked ahead to see where you think maybe some upcoming younger poets, where they’re going, maybe some future trends?

HT: Well, it’s really exiting what younger poets are doing. They are so many spokes of the wheel. I love spoken word. A lot of spoken word poetry is wonderful. I think the performative aspect of poetry is really being advanced by younger poets. Not just in spoken word, but in other ways as well: Just making the poem a performance, whether it’s on the page or on the stage, in some kind of collaborative way. I think that’s a really important element, an important thread for the new century. I think also translation is going to be getting bigger and bigger. The United States, American poets, even as late as the 1990s were way too isolated from the rest of the world. And we see now with these anthologies that are coming out, really, in the same year, to have these two major anthologies of world poetry coming out: it says something about the presences and the awareness of the work that’s being done to bring—to teach us more about global poets. So that’s another element, I think. And then the whole question of The Future of The Book is a big question for all of us, and especially for poets. Now that there’s so much interest in the Kindle and just making libraries—I heard the other day that Stanford’s engineering library is getting rid of eighty percent of their books. eighty percent of their books!

IA: And replacing them with digital versions. Do you have a Kindle?

HT: I don’t.

IA: Do you think you ever would?

HT: I have to say, I like the physical aspect of reading a book. I would get one, I guess, to try it, but even with newspaper; I have the New York Times as my homepage, but I much prefer sitting down with the actual paper. Now maybe it’s just because I’m a creature of the twentieth century.

IA: You’re absolutely right: we are changing, we are going digital, so what that’s going to mean… It’s not necessarily bad, but it is a change. Books that are written by authors who know this is never going to exist in a physical form will probably be a different book. There might be interactive elements, something like that.

HT: I have good friends: Dan Waber and Jennifer Hill: They have Paper Kite Press, up in Kingston, PA. Dan is a wonderful poet, and he does all sorts of visual, interactive poetry online. He’s done tons of them. He’s actually quite well known for this. So it’s very exciting. When I think of these elements: the performative, the global, and the digitization of books are going to be very big forces. And other than that? I think that poetry can play, and many also play, a role in sustaining our inner lives. I think that people are hungry for that. That’s a hunch. No more than a hunch. But let me just throw that out there as a fourth element.

IA: And then we’ve got the collaborative element that you mentioned before. So that’s a fifth.

HT: So we’ve got five.

Five prophecies for the future of poetry:
1. Poetry as live performance
2. Poetry in collaboration with other arts
3. America’s growing awareness of world poetry
4. The digitization of books
5. The sustenance of the inner life