Interview with K.A. Hays

by Ariel Hochstrasser

K.A. Hays’ most recent book is Anthropocene Lullaby (February 2022, Carnegie Mellon). She is the author of three prior books of poetry:  Windthrow (2017), Early Creatures, Native Gods (2012) and Dear Apocalypse (2009). Her poems appear widely in journals and have been selected for two editions of Best American Poetry. Born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, she earned an MFA from Brown University. She teaches Creative Writing at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and directs the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets, a 3-week all-expenses paid summer writing retreat and conference for undergraduate poets from any university or college in the United States.

Inscape: What inspired you to start writing poetry after receiving your MFA in fiction?

K.A. Hays: I’ve been writing poetry on my own since I was a child—but I’ve always wanted to write stories, too. In college, I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf and with fiction that shows the interiority of a character. I applied to graduate schools where I could emphasize in fiction, with the knowledge that I was a very lyrical fiction writer. When I went to Brown, I was happy that they embraced hybrid-genre work and experimentation. I kept writing poems throughout graduate school while also experimenting in my fiction, and then after graduate school I began to only write poetry. I just knew myself better then, and knew that—while I absolutely loved fiction—poetry was what I needed to be writing. I’m still open to returning to fiction, though it has been a number of years since I last worked on a piece. 

Inscape: What elements of fiction do you find yourself borrowing in your poetry?

H: In Anthropocene Lullaby, the book that just came out, I’m thinking more and more about scene. I’m choosing very carefully which details to reveal, using all five senses. I have a couple of prose poems in this book, and they all attempt to create a scene in prose just the way a fiction writer would. Each of the prose poems in this book forms mini-narratives, which show certain scenes I’ve experienced personally. So, it’s a kind of fiction-nonfiction-poetry hybrid thing happening. 

Inscape: How do you get inspiration for your poems? What’s your process between getting inspiration—being in a scene—and producing an actual written poem? 

H: I carry a notebook with me, and the things I jot down in that notebook are seeds for poems. So, I’m collecting seeds when I’m living my life. Any random image, set of words, or quotation from something I read, can be a seed. Then I need to see which seeds grow. When I’m writing poems, I like to play and sort of witness what the poem seems to want to be, rather than feeling I am personally controlling the poem. I’m making a poem, but I’m also collaborating with the language. When things are going well, it feels like there’s something outside of me that’s helping the poem along, and that excites me, and keeps me engaged.

Inscape: What do you think makes a good poem?

H: I don’t think there’s any one right answer to that question—there’re so many ways that a poem can be good. Sometimes when I read poems, I feel a chill go down my arm, or a sense of being in wonder, or being startled, or as if some aspect of an emotion I have dealt with is being expressed in a new way that I can connect with. Maybe what makes a poem good is its unique way of being in the world. It’s liberating to be a poet because you know that there’s no one way to write good poetry—you have to discover what it is for you that’ll make you satisfied or help you feel that your poem is good. As readers we personally discover what each of us thinks is good, and that discovery can be different on different days. 

Inscape: What was your hardest poem to write in Anthropocene Lullaby?

H: Oh, that’s interesting. I think that the hardest poem was the long poem, “On April 22nd, 2020, I remembered the bodies in which I lived.” I didn’t know what form that poem would take for a very long time—years. The title of that poem refers to a specific date, as if I was just writing the poem on that day, but I was actually finishing the poem on that day—revising, adding, and putting it into a new form. I’d been trying to work on that poem—coming back to it, leaving, rearranging, cutting, and adding—for probably two-and-a-half years at that point. It was difficult to know what it needed for a long time. 

Inscape: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing the poems in this collection?

H: I noticed that I became comfortable with more of a sense of messiness in my poetry, being more personal and vulnerable than I typically used to in the other three books that I published. That’s a bit of a surprise. I notice in this book a stronger sense of rawness, and more of the human-built world—technology and the way much of life is lived on-screens now. I used to want to scrape that away, and have more of a human-encountering-the-nonhuman-world focus in my poems. That still appeals to me—looking beyond what’s human-built to insect-built life, plant-built life, all of that. But in this book, it’s more human-encountering-human world and how that human-world is imposing itself onto the nonhuman-world. So, I guess I’m surprised by how much I didn’t edit out of this book, and the fact that I allowed myself to be a bit more vulnerable and open about my immediate experience. 

Inscape: When you’re creating a book of poetry, do you start out intending to write poems that work well together?

H: It’s a long process. While writing, I’m not thinking about writing a book. I’m just writing poem by poem, day by day. Over time, maybe after a year of writing some poems, I might start to see that certain themes keep coming up for me and allow myself to keep doing work with those themes, knowing they could lead me towards a book manuscript. That’s the way this book ended up coming together. After my third book, I felt that I would not write any more poetry for a very long time. When I did need to write a poem, I just let myself write it, but I was like, “I’m not working on anything—I’m just letting myself write poems that I need to write.” Only after a couple of years did I start to notice that it seemed like maybe I was working on a manuscript that would become a book, one that reflected on what it means to be conscious as an affluent, Northeastern American person living in the Anthropocene age. 

Inscape: Is there one poem in your collection that holds a special place in your heart? If so, why?

H: “Lines written in the Walmart Supercenter parking lot, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania” holds a special place in my heart, in part because both of my children like this poem and delight in the fact that Pokémon entered my poetry and got published. 

Inscape: My favorite poem from this collection is “As after a hatch tadpoles heat the bank.” How did that poem come to be?

H: This poem was written while I was in Johnson, Vermont for the Vermont Studio Center’s two-week fellowship as a writing resident. I was noticing how tadpoles are starting to hatch earlier than they used to hatch, closer to what’s traditionally called winter, because it’s not winter anymore—climate change is changing our seasons. I was also reading The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Those ideas were bouncing around in my head: that sense of impending climate catastrophe, how climate catastrophe is already underway, and how governments are delaying meaningful action in so many respects. The U.S. government is a major one, because it’s politically unpopular to make certain decisions if they would negatively affect the economy, even though they would really help with this devastating situation—which will affect the economy in an awful way if they don’t act now. Those ideas were bouncing around in me, but I didn’t want to write nonfiction, because that’s not the kind of writer I am. Instead, I allowed for what I was reading in the book by David Wallace-Wells, and what I was observing with the tadpoles, to interact in a pared-back, lyric poem. I wanted it to be an obsessive, songlike poem that allows for a sense of concern about the environment to interact with the immediacy of observing tadpoles that have hatched and recently come into the world. 

Inscape: Your book deals with many important topics—the Anthropocene Era, climate change, and social awareness. What message do you hope your readers take away from this book overall? 

H: I hope readers take away an understanding of some of my personal concerns and curiosities that the book brings up, especially as they interact with their own concerns and curiosities. I want the book to be a meeting place between what I’ve been thinking about and whatever the reader brings to the page in terms of their own emotions and thoughts about climate change or what it means to live in this digital age. I’m hopeful that maybe a certain poem will speak to a person reading in a way that a good poem by someone else speaks to me, where I think, “Oh, yes, this. I wouldn’t have put it that way, in language that way, and now I’m obsessed and changed by this thing that I just read that articulates something that feels new to me.” That’s my hope. 

Inscape: Are you currently working on any projects?

H: I’m writing poems, but I’m in the stage of total mess and telling myself, “this is not anything that I will publish,” because that’s the most liberating thing. That sense of not-knowing, and of not-trying-to-get-somewhere but just being-in-the-mess is such an important part of my writing process. So, I’m just leaning into that and letting it be what it is. 

Inscape: What advice would you give to someone wanting to write and publish poetry? What do you wish you knew when you first started writing poetry? 

H: I wish I knew that sending out work and the public part of being a poet is completely different from writing poems and sharing them with friends. If a writer can build a circle of friends and fellow writers who are willing to read and appreciate their work, that’s everything. The responses a writer receives when submitting work to be published are not reflective of the importance of what the writer is doing. The importance of what you’re doing comes from within, and always needs to come from within so you can validate yourself. External validation isn’t the driving force. It doesn’t need to change how you feel about yourself and the work you’re doing.