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.

Interview with Amy Leach

by Fleur Van Woerkom

Amy Leach grew up in Texas and earned her MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and numerous other publications, including Granta, A Public Space, Orion, Tin House, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her books are Things That Are and The Everybody Ensemble. Leach lives in Bozeman and teaches creative writing at MSU.

Inscape: How much research did you specifically do for your most recent book, The Everybody Ensemble?

Amy Leach: For three of the essays (the moose, the goose, and the mesquite tree) I did a lot of deep and specific research, inspired initially by the extreme lives of all of those subjects. I pursued those topics particularly through reading library books, textbooks, and abstracts. For other essays, I used research that had accumulated over the years, which had lodged in my imagination. For the essay “The Land of Importunity,” I was interested in the bird called the solitaire. I was interested in its name, the solitariness of this bird, and I started researching the now-extinct bird (kind of like the dodo that lived on Mauritius island). However, so much of the research came from journals of this Huguenot who had been exiled from France to an island. He kept a journal of all the animals he saw on the island, and the more I read his accounts of the solitaire, the more I was interested in him. It turned into an essay about this man who was subject to historical forces and fell in love with these animals that are now mostly extinct. 

Inscape: What were your favorite topics to research for the book?

AL: I think, again, I was inspired by animals and plants living extreme lives. The mesquite tree sends its roots 160 feet down into the desert to look for water, and the moose has these 70-pound antlers it carries around on its head that are so heavy it mustn’t lower its head down to the ground for fear it will never raise its head up again! These little goslings, who three days after they’re born, have to jump off a 400-foot cliff in Greenland before they can fly. I don’t know if I was consciously pursuing extreme lives, or if it was something I was subconsciously attracted to—it was interesting to me in my life at the time, which felt kind of extreme. I read about blueberries, and how they nourish everybody. One of the themes that guided my sensibility throughout the writing of this book was the idea of something that supports everybody and makes no distinctions between person or animal. I’m trying to celebrate everybody, if that’s possible!

Inscape: You mentioned this book was a response to the extreme things in your own life. What were those extreme things in your life?

AL: Well, we moved to Montana, and Montana is such an extreme place. It’s so extremely beautiful, so extremely cold! Because of the high altitude, the sunshine feels very extreme. Also, I had my little babies influencing me, and babies are very extreme!

Inscape: How does your environment affect your writing? Are there any environments that inspire you more than others?

AL: One interesting thing that happened when we moved to Montana from Chicago was that I felt like I wasn’t able to write for a while. As beautiful and inspiring as Montana was, I felt like I couldn’t write because I didn’t need to! Chicago is beautiful in its own way, but I felt like when I wrote my first book I was largely living in my imagination. When I moved to Montana I felt like I didn’t have to live in my imagination anymore. I could just go out the back door and revel in the mountains, the stars, the creeks, and the wildflowers. That was one surprising way in which my environment did not inspire me to write. But after a while I got over it. Towards the end of writing this book, I was kind of running out of time. I had to produce two essays in two months, which is like warp speed for me, so I tried something that I hadn’t tried so much in the past: writing about what I actually knew. We’ve gone to Yellowstone park so many times since we’ve moved here, and while I usually write about things that I don’t know (so I can learn about the panda bears or the jellyfish), those weren’t things I was encountering in my personal life. But because I didn’t have as much time to research these last two essays (I had a deadline coming up), I thought, well, I know a lot about Yellowstone! It was a new experience, to write about something that I did have a relationship with, and it came quite quickly. This experience also kind of inspired my next book, which is much more writing from experience than writing from research.

Inscape: What’s your next book about?

AL: It’s more about babies, and music, and religion. The things that I constantly think about all day long. I thought, Hey, I’ll try writing about the things I actually think about all the time!

Inscape: What was the timeline like for writing and revising The Everybody Ensemble?

AL: It really sped up. For a while I wasn’t writing at all. “Green Man,” the first essay I wrote for this book, took me about two years, due to many factors. “Pedestrians” took about five months and “The Benevolence of Blueberries” took three months. They sped up as I gained my momentum back. The whole thing took five or six years, including editing.

Inscape: What helped your momentum pick back up?

AL: I think . . . my children started going to daycare. That’s probably the main thing. And, because I was paying for daycare, that really put the pressure on; I wasn’t just going to come home and twiddle my thumbs. That pressure really made me sit down and write every morning, and then writing every morning turned into a habit. Nowadays, I have a little bit more time, and I could sit around and twiddle my thumbs. But I don’t, because I have that habit built up, so what else do I do? I sit down to write, and inspiration may or may not arrive.

Inscape: Your essays in The Everybody Ensemble feel very cohesive. Were all the essays written with the intention of being published together, or did any of them start off as solitary essays?

AL: Because I had published a previous book, I think I was hoping that they would coalesce into a collection. However, I didn’t have any conscious themes or orders in mind when I was writing them. That they were cohesive—and thank you for saying that—was kind of accidental, or not accidental, but you access these sensibilities when you write that might not be conscious otherwise. That’s a fun thing about writing: accessing things you wouldn’t otherwise access. So, while I didn’t set out with a plan, a design, or a formula, I did find my mind going back to the same place. It’s really exciting to write like that, where you’re discovering your obsessions as you go, rather than starting out with a blueprint and trying to adhere to it.

Inscape: How has your writing style changed over the years?

AL: When I started writing in Iowa, I used a lot of levity. Over time, I’ve learned to combine levity and gravity. It’s a good combination for me. If I write just with levity, I’m spinning out into space; if I write just with gravity, it’s just heavy. Over the years, I have tried to combine those two. Also, there’s probably more me in this book. In my first book, I was trying an experiment where I kept myself out of it, at least overtly. I was behind the curtains, and I was just pointing at the panda bears and the jellyfish and the porcupines—pay no attention to me! It was a good experiment, because it was a way to keep my own conventions out of the work. But with this book, I learned to trust my own thoughts a little more, and it was just easier to include my own thoughts and experiences in it. It’s quite an exercise to keep yourself out of something, and I think I just got a little older and a little tired of that exercise. It was a good exercise at the time, but if you persist in any exercise longer than you need to, it can just turn into artifice or a gimmick. 

Inscape: Are there any habits you try to avoid in your writing?

AL: I think you have to just write it all down, and then look at it, and say, “Whoops!” I feel like writing crystallizes all of somebody’s strengths and faults. You get to know yourself. The strengths are what you keep, and, hopefully, the faults are what you delete. It’s a fascinating process. I was mostly trying to write this as a book of praise, but I also found that criticism comes very naturally to me. Criticism was something that I tried to retain as long as it wasn’t facile criticism—if I felt that it was criticizing things that I do feel are small minded, literal minded, and lopsided. But I tried to take out the facile criticism that’s easy and automatic. I also try to erase all conventional thoughts. Writing allows me to see those thoughts. There those thoughts are on the page, and I can take them out. What I love about writing is that I can think the way I want to think because I can see all my thoughts there on the page. I can see my thinking; I can see where I’ve gotten into easy thinking, and I can take it out. It’s a very long and arduous process (to think hard thoughts and new thoughts) and it does take a lot of writing, erasing, and rewriting.

Inscape: Who are some of your favorite authors or books?

AL: One writer who influenced this book quite a lot was Walt Whitman. I think I contracted the impulse to celebrate everybody from reading Leaves of Grass—where Whitman has long lists of different people, angels, animals, moss, worms, ants, and the spirit. Whitman puts them all in the same list, where there’s no hierarchy. He celebrates them all equally.

Inscape: Is there any specific message that you hope readers take away from the book?

AL: I think . . . the message of appreciation, and celebration. I don’t really write for a message, I write for myself. If someone else finds a message in it, then hooray! One thread I tried to follow was confusing certainties. A lot of the things that I’m celebrating, like babies, music, and donkeys, are really beautiful confusers of certainty. Thinking about a message is kind of like thinking about God’s “message” in the book of Job. Job and his friend were engaged in a long academic conversation, and they wanted answers. Then, when God suddenly entered their conversation, God didn’t deliver a message. All He talked about was donkeys, baby goats, and baby ravens. So, maybe my message is that I’m trying to emulate God, in His non-message, in celebrating plants and animals, creation, clouds, storms, and rain.

Interview With Derek Otsuji

by Ellie Smith

Born on Oahu, Derek N. Otsuji is the author of The Kitchen of Small Hours (SIU Press, 2021), which won the Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition. He is a 2019 Tennessee Williams Scholar (Sewanee Writers’ Conference) and has received awards from Bread Loaf and the Kenyon Review. His poems are widely published in local and national journals, including Bamboo Ridge, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Pleiades, Rattle, The Southern Review, and The Threepenny Review. A 2000 graduate of BYU’s Masters Program in English, he has studied with poets Leslie Norris, Susan Elizabeth Howe, and Lance Larsen.

Inscape: I was thinking we could start by talking about some of your biggest literary inspirations, maybe favorite pieces of literature or authors that have inspired you?

Derek Otsuji: When I was an undergraduate, one of the writers who inspired me was a fellow student who was at BYU. She had won a poetry competition run by BYU and she did a reading. Her name was Gina Clark, and I was just completely blown away by her poems. I thought, Wow, here I am an undergraduate, and she was just a freshman at the time, and she was just writing these wonderful poems. I was so moved by her work that I went up to talk to her afterward and asked her who she went to for inspiration because I loved her poetry so much, I wanted to read whoever she was reading.

She mentioned Elizabeth Bishop, so that day I went to the BYU bookstore. They happened to have the collected works of Bishop and I bought it. I’ve been reading her ever since. I think in terms of craft and tone she is probably one of my most important influences. What I really admire about Bishop (I believe she got some of this from Marianne Moore, who was a mentor to Bishop) is her precision of language, particularly in her ability to describe things accurately. Bishop has these three watchwords that she used to guide her poetic practice: “Accuracy,” “spontaneity,” and “mystery.” You want to be accurate in the words that you choose, but it cannot feel like it is labor. It has to feel like it just came to you as a flash of inspiration. That’s the spontaneous part. It has to feel natural. How does accuracy and mystery reconcile? Because it seems like one is rather analytic and scientific. You are trying to get things exactly right. I came across this book that really helped me understand this. It goes something like this: “Absolute clarity is mystery.” That’s worth thinking about. “Absolute clarity is mystery.” There is a poem by Emily Dickinson where she talks about poets who really know nature. They are not just taking a casual walk through the woods, but they actually can intuit things about nature that might escape even the most careful observer. She has this moment in the poem where she says, “The closer you get to trying to understand and describe the thing that you are looking at, the farther away it moves from you.” Even with someone like Dickinson, who is just incredibly precise in her descriptions, there is a sense that the closer you get to the actual, it flees from you. That to me is what I admire in the work of writers like Bishop and Dickinson is that sense of those three watchwords. Accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery. It’s an impossible standard, but I think you have to set high standards. That’s what you need to reach for whenever you write.

Inscape: So, to achieve that do you focus more on the form of the poem then? Or more on the subject you are writing about?

DO: I’m going to be a bit reductive in my approach. There’s your subject, what you write about. And then there’s technique, how you write about it. In some sense, your subject comes from just living life and being open to experience, so I really think the most important thing for a poet is to be radically open to experience. To be attentive to the things that arrest you, just stop you in your tracks and say, “What is that?” You know? Or just captivates you in some way. Even if it seems trivial and you think, “How could I ever write about that?” The fact that it captivates you, arrests you, moves you in some way always tells you that that is the subject for poetry, for you. It’s different for every writer. This comes from the novelist, Niapal. He has this analogy of writing as transcription. What you do is you hear the music of experience. Like all experience has a kind of music to it. As a poet, you try to listen and transcribe what you hear as accurately as possible. Of course, it involves all of the senses, what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell. But also, the emotions that well up in you as you live your life. You are trying to transcribe that music of experience as accurately as possible. So, the Irish poet who was also a Nobelist, Seamus Heaney, has this wonderful phrase in a poem: “The music of what happens.” I just love that phrase: “The music of what happens.” I think that what I understand of writing is you are transcribing the music of what happens as accurately and as completely as you can.

The problem is that words are flawed and imperfect, so you can never really capture in words the music of experience. There’s always a gap between what you are able to produce on the page and the music of experience. But that’s where technique comes in. I’m a strong believer in form, but I believe in organic form. Not form as a premade receptacle. You say, “I think I’m going to write a sonnet. What’s the rhyme scheme here? I’m gonna have three quatrains and I’m gonna turn the narrative here.” No. That’s not really how it works. It’s more like the poem finds a form. And sometimes the form does have rhyme in it, and sometimes it does have meter and sometimes it doesn’t. Again, it has to do with the music of the experience. What I look for is to invent a form that gives the fullest expression to the music of the experience that you’ve heard. You are trying to transcribe as accurately as you can. The more that I write the more I appreciate form. Not as a premade vessel or receptacle that you stuff your poem into that never really works. A poem invents its own form, even if it’s a received form. The rhymes that you choose and how you go about it are invented. I think the form is created as you go. Having said that, I do write a lot of sonnets. I know, this sounds strange right? It sounds a little bit old fashioned, but you know there are a lot of things you can learn by writing in a form that you can’t learn anyway else.

One of the most valuable things you can learn is compression. Poetry, if it’s real poetry and not just prose that’s chopped up, has an element of compression. It’s saying much with little. That is the power in a poem—for it to capture, maybe in fourteen lines, what it would take a social scientist a whole volume to describe. That element of compression. The sonnet also has the ability to project in ways that free verse can’t. There is a reason why Shakespeare went about writing about the vicissitudes of love and romance with it. He uses the sonnet form partly because of the drama that you can present in fourteen lines because of the turn (volta), and also that summarizing you get with the couplet at the end that encapsulates the whole experience. It’s like a very well-made violin, in the sense that the subject is the score of your music and form is like a well-made instrument. It helps to project the sound out there. It is my experience that if I am writing a poem in free verse, for example, and it’s just not working, it seems slack, it’s just blah. It’s not projecting any kind of feeling or emotion. Then I find that when I start to shape it a little bit, put some pressure on the line, all of a sudden the emotion starts to project in ways that I can’t achieve in free verse.

I don’t actually study poems. What happens is you read a poem and you think, That is gorgeous. It just knocks you out. You think, How did he do this? When something just knocks you out this way you have this desire to emulate it. You learn the technique, not by counting syllables, but by trying to imitate what it is that you admire, drawing upon your own experience.

I will just say one more thing about this because Bishop also says something about this, and I think it’s really valuable for young poets to learn. Don’t just study the new stuff. Don’t just read the new stuff. There are a lot of great writers writing right now, it’s exciting, it’s contemporary, and a lot of times you can connect with it more readily because it’s spoken in your idiom. Bishop says something that I think is really interesting. When you study the old poets, like Shakespeare, or my favorite, Marvell, even when you imitate them you won’t sound like them. Because they are using a completely different idiom. So you benefit from learning the technique but you update it because you are speaking in a contemporary idiom, whereas if you only read the new stuff you end up sounding like everybody else. That’s your idiom that you speak.

Studying language that’s slightly removed from your everyday language helps you to see the strategies and techniques a little more clearly. When you adopt those for yourself you won’t sound like anybody else, older or contemporary. I think that’s a very useful thing that comes from studying old poets.

Inscape: With form there are all these wonderful tools. Are there any specific techniques that you like to use in your poems, for example alliteration, consonance, assonance, or other different tools of that style?

DO: Sound is very important to me and my work. Not so much end rhyme, although I do use end rhyme sometimes, but internal rhyme, like you mentioned, and other sonic devices, like assonance, consonance, alliteration. It can, however, be overdone to the point of being distracting so I will explain to you my aesthetic when I write. A lot of my poems start rather prose-y and what I’m trying to do is to mimic the quality of ordinary speech. I think that’s a way of inviting a person into a poem, if it sounds conversational. I think sound effects work like this: sitting beside a lake when it’s very still. The surface is just completely still. It’s so still the sky is reflected in it and the trees around the edges. You can see them and the clouds reflected in the lake. Then without warning a fish jumps up. Splash! It is just a fish but because the lake was so calm and placid, that single leap into the air becomes dramatic and catches your attention. That splash ripples through the whole surface of the lake till it reaches the edges. That’s what I try to do in my poetry with effects, so to speak.

If you pour out the lyricism from the very start, it gets a little bit cloying and then nothing really stands out as arresting. My way of using those devices is to use them sparingly so that when they are used the effect is a lot more dramatic. As a counter example, I love Hopkins but sometimes the excess of alliteration and sounds is just a little bit cloying. I like to have a poetry of contrasts where you have the rhythms of ordinary speech and then just this outpouring of lyricism for a tiny bit and then you go back again. That image of the fish jumping out of the lake is what I have in my mind when I am writing using those devices.

Inscape: I love that. I know how you use form, so how do you pick the topics? You’ve got all of these amazing nature poems, and a lot about where you are from. How do you decide what you are going to write about?

DO: I think for a long time I struggled with that. I’m going to go back to something that I said earlier—cultivate a radical openness to experience. Meaning that anything could be a subject for a poem. If I have even the slightest sense of interest I will pursue it because you never know where it will go. Looking back, one of the things that I think caused me more frustration than was necessary was rejecting ideas before I even made an attempt to write about them. I would say, “Oh well, no one would be interested in that. I’ve never read anybody who wrote about that. It just seems so trivial.” But what I would say is don’t dismiss those things that you find yourself thinking about. The fact that it arrested your attention is an indication that that is material for poetry. I sincerely believe that’s true and as you explore that, you will feel a connection to the subject. You will realize it’s calling out to you and asking you to give it expression. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been because the poems I am happiest with are the ones that initially I had the impulse to reject. I said, “Who would be interested in that?” But it is precisely because people aren’t talking about it or aren’t thinking about it that makes it interesting to write about. It’s a novel subject matter. A quote from Emerson says, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Have you ever had that experience where you are reading and you think, Wow, I felt that, I have thought that, I have experienced that. The writer has just found the right words for it. You have had that experience but somebody else put it down for you because you rejected that thought. You didn’t recognize it as something worthy of being put on paper and so by rejecting it the revenge that is visited on you is that you see it written down by somebody else. That’s what Emerson is telling us, to be open to those experiences so that you find your words for it instead of having to encounter it in somebody else. That is the reward that you get for paying attention to those things that you might otherwise reject.

You might feel resistance to writing about something. That’s also a good indication that that’s something you have to face as a writer. I am very conflict-averse. I don’t like things that are unpleasant. I hate rude behavior. I don’t really like to think about those things. Being human we have to recognize those things are part of experience and we have to work through those things if our writing is to be true and alive. Some of the things that I initially resisted writing about actually turned out to be the most important to my growth as a writer. You have to be able to face those things and the value in that is other people have to face those things too. If you have the courage to write through those difficult things then your work might have value for somebody else.

Inscape: I know you have a book coming out, The Kitchen of Small Hours. How was the experience of writing a full-length novel of poems and having to stay on that one topic?

DO: I actually didn’t think about creating a book. If you are a poet that might be overwhelming; by nature what you are interested in is writing poems. Because of who you are and what your experience is—and you may have certain obsessions or concerns—if you are attentive to those things that speak to you, the thematic coherence of your poems will naturally emerge. This particular book was almost all family stories. I would go to these family parties and in Hawaii we have these gatherings called ‘talk story.’ The uncles get together and the aunties get together and they just talk. You hear the same stories over and over again. There is something to these stories which is why they are repeated. They came from my cultural DNA. I would hear my uncle or auntie or grandparents tell these stories so my mind and heart was just full of these things. I realized the impulse behind the book is, “How do you hold on to what you have to let go?” A lot of the people that I wrote about in my book are no longer here. My grandparents have all passed on, my great grandmother (who was the subject of the first poem in the book) passed on many years ago, and a lot of my aunties and uncles are getting really up there in age. The deepest impulse that drives me to write is again, how do I hold on to the things I have to let go?

I think poetry is a great gift because we have tried to do this in different ways; for example, taking pictures is one of the things I would do. You can look at a picture, you see people smiling, but you don’t know what they were thinking or what they were feeling. It is posed and artificial. We have this intense desire to hold on to these moments where we feel so connected and so alive but we know at the same time that it is not going to last. There is sadness even as we are experiencing life’s most joyful moments. I’ve always felt that very keenly even from when I was a child. I think, How do I hold on to these things and how do I hold on to the memory of people I love who are gone? For me just trying to capture the essence of who they were as a person is expressed in the stories that they told. That tells me a lot about who they were and that is what I’m trying to do in my work. I think because that impulse is the same, the poems naturally acquire a kind of thematic coherence. The rest of it is just arranging it. Then the question becomes, well, how do I order it? How do I arrange it? There I might be able to say something useful. I sent out this manuscript in a very different form and it wasn’t successful; it was rejected numerous times. Of course, rejection is just part of the game. I had this revelation when I was at a writers conference. I was sitting there and I realized that the book needed to have a different order and that I needed to put the stories of the women first. That wasn’t the original order. I put my childhood poems first. But I realized it was the stories of women that needed to come first and even the title poem, The Kitchen of Small Hours, came from the stories the women in my family told. Once the voice of my great-grandmother opens the poem, it is all the women who get a chance to speak. In some ways, their narratives were unspoken or suppressed. I realized that there was a lot of material that was unspoken. Even when they tell you a story, there is a story behind that story and I realized that that was the sort of thematic thread that needed to come to the front. It was interesting because I had submitted the manuscript to a contest one year, and it was a finalist but didn’t make the final round. When I rearranged the poems so that the voices of the women were in the foreground and I changed the title, that’s when the manuscript won. I knew that I hit on the right sequence.

Inscape: I never would have thought of the order as being so changeable but so important. I assumed it was like a normal novel— you begin at the beginning and you end at the end. But you are right: poetry is this whole collection and it’s a very different process.

DO: Yes it’s very very different; in fact, I will share this quote that I just came across: “The arrangement of your poems is the final poem in the book.” When you arrange the poems, it creates a kind of intuitive narrative arc. Not explicit because the links between the poems are unstated. That’s that unheard music of one poem speaking to another that becomes the last poem that completes the collection and so getting that right is very important. I spent a lot of time thinking about this sequence of the poems, and then when I hit on it, I said, “Oh, okay, I got it.” It just felt right. I think that was the reason why the manuscript, which had been rejected the first couple times, finally found a home. That was an indication that “Yeah, I got it right.” It’s always reassuring.

Inscape: You have this deep love of poetry and you have written so many amazing poems. Do you think you would ever branch out into more prose, like novels, or do you think that poetry is pretty much where you are going to stay?

DO: The title poem for this collection, The Kitchen of Small Hours, I initially conceived of as a novel. The story that is told in that particular poem is a story about a family being torn apart and then reconciled through illness as very often happens. I saw a lot of novelistic possibilities in that because it’s a story that literally covers decades of time. It begins in the life of a mother and daughter, and they have a falling out, they are estranged, then decades later when the mom develops Alzheimer’s, the daughter comes back. She is able to come back partly because the mom doesn’t remember anything. Forgetfulness becomes a kind of mercy that allows reconciliation to happen, and I just thought that would make such a beautiful novel. I had these grand ideas of writing it. I wrote out the first line and I would sit and try writing it out. I must have tried to write that novel for ten years. I never got past page one because I realized at some point, I am not a novelist. The poet in me can tell the story in a page. Once I realized that I said, “You tell the story as a poet would and you tell that decades-long story of estrangement and reconciliation in a page.” Then it just came. I realized at that moment I will never be a novelist. There is something deep in me that needs to compress things both spatially and temporally. To have the whole experience fully articulated and expressed in a form. I like that poems have a shape you can hold in your heart. That’s why I love learning poems by heart, because it gives experience a kind of shape you can hold with you. I love the idea of a pocket poem that you hold next to your heart. I realized as much as I loved the idea of being able to elaborate on something in a novelistic way, that temperamentally is not for me. I can deal with novelistic stories in poetic form if I just give myself the permission to do that. That’s actually how I think the book happened; because, again, the title poem comes from a failed novel.

Inscape: Do you have any ideas for another book that you might be working on?

DO: My next project is nature poems. I live in Hawaii. Are you familiar with the poet W.S. Merwin? I would encourage you to look at his poetry. He was probably the most important eco poet of his generation. Even though he is not native to the islands, he made Maui his home for many years. I mention him because he once referred to Hawaii as “the extinction capital of the world.” Hawaii is the world’s remotest archipelago; it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from any major landmass, so the life forms that evolved here are unique. They did not evolve anywhere else. When you introduce an invasive species, it just devastates the delicate ecosystem and so a lot of the indigenous species that are unique to the islands are gone. They are vanishing. I read a story about this tree snail—he was actually given a name, Lonely George. This is one of the saddest things you will ever read. On January 1 of 2019, Lonely George was the last surviving member of his species. He passed away in a lab. They had tried to breed his kind in captivity but one by one all of his kinsfolk died out until he was left alone. He lived alone for fourteen years.

I was just heartbroken by that story. The thing is, it’s happening right in my backyard. These mountains that I look out over were once home to these snails. They once were so abundant that you could shake the trees and they would rain down. Now you can’t find them anymore. You have to go to the very highest, most isolated parts of the mountain range. Even then the army has actually fenced off these areas so that predators can’t get in. When they breed these snails in captivity, they release them in these small sanctuaries with protected walls around them in an attempt to restore the native population.

The thing is when you remove a key species it has a cascading effect. We’re just beginning to understand what the consequences are. Because the snail is dying off, so is the tree that it lives on. The snail is amazing, it doesn’t even eat the leaves of the tree. It is like a vacuum cleaner, and it cleans off the fungus that grows on these trees. It keeps them clean, and it doesn’t hurt the tree at all. Think about how exquisitely fine-tuned the evolutionary link is between the tree and the snail. The snail is no longer there to clean the fungus off, the fungus develops into a disease, and then the tree starts to die. The native birds that feed on the flowers of the tree, they don’t have a food source and so the whole thing starts to collapse. We’re at the beginning of what could be the collapse of an entire ecosystem unless we can figure out a way to reverse it.

This has completely captivated my fascination. I started reading about Lonely George and researching all the other types of species that are in danger on the island. There are some very heroic people who are working valiantly to save some of these species, and I think some of them can be saved but some of them are probably past the point of no return. I’m talking about holding on to what we have to let go. In ancient Hawaiian legend the tree snail sang. They had a song. What could be more poetic? Scientists have tried to figure out what they meant by that because nobody has actually been able to record these songs. But I heard stories from people who still have memories of these snails. They say, “Yeah they do sing, they make noises.” It is all interconnected—the tree snail, the related flora and fauna, the song that the tree snail sang which is no longer here. It’s a poetic trope. I am very invested in that right now and I feel a sense of urgency because even as we talk some of these species are vanishing.

Inscape: Do you have any advice for an aspiring poet who is trying to add something to the world?

DO: Write the poem that only you can write. The only way that you can do that is by being radically open to your own experience and not rejecting those thoughts that come to you. Don’t reject those thoughts just because you think they’re not fashionable, they’re not trendy, that’s not what this editor at this magazine is interested in publishing, that’s not something that just won the National Book Award or something like that. Those things are a distraction, not that you shouldn’t keep your finger on the pulse of poetry because you always should be reading what is happening. As far as what you can add, it comes down to your unique life. You are the only one that has your set of experiences, that has your unique genetic makeup, that experiences the world in your particular way. You really have to be true to that. The way to be true to that is to cultivate patience with your writing. I learned this from a wonderful poet and teacher, Dan Beachy-Quick. I attended a writer’s workshop and Dan is one of the greatest teachers I have ever encountered. He read the poems of everybody who was in that workshop. He read with such attention and care that when he would talk about it you felt like a genius. He picked up on every nuance. Even things that you didn’t know were there he would pick up on. When I was talking to him, he would point out to me places in my poems where they would take a wrong turn. I realized, “Yeah, he is right.” And I recognized I was trying to second guess myself. I was thinking what would this editor be interested in, what is cool now, how can I make this sound edgy, that kind of stuff. Inevitably the poem takes a wrong turn. He taught me when you are writing, and it is an authentic poem, the poem starts to generate its own music. If you listen to the music that the poem is generating it comes from an actual experience. You will begin to feel your way forward until you arrive at a complete expression of what it is you are trying to say. You really have to listen to the music of your own experience and get that down as accurately as possible. When you do that, a lot of times it means writing against the grain. When you do that, don’t worry about publication, worry about writing the poem that only you can write. If it’s a real poem, somebody will publish it.

Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena

by Fleur Van Woerkom

Hasanthika Sirisena’s work has been anthologized in This is the Place (Seal Press, 2017), in Every Day People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018), and twice named a notable story by Best American Short Stories. She is currently faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and Susquehanna University. Her books include the short story collection The Other One (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016) and the forthcoming essay collection Dark Tourist (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University, 2021).

Inscape: What was your first genre, fiction or nonfiction? Is there one genre that you prefer now?

Hasanthika Sirisena: It was fiction actually. I started out writing short stories, and I think for a long time that’s all I imagined myself doing. I think it isn’t a matter of what I prefer, but what are the subjects I want to write about, and what genre seems the most appropriate for the subject. I think my work uses fictional techniques, so I don’t really feel as if I’ve ever really left fiction, even though what I’m working on is true.

Inscape: You have two pieces, “Unicorn” and “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” that overlap. Which one did you write first, and how did you decide to incorporate parts of it in the other piece?

HS: I wrote “Unicorn” first, and I think that’s when I really started to wonder about writing something so serious as a work of fiction. I think one of the things that I couldn’t get across in the fiction so well, but that I felt nonfiction allowed me to do a much better job of, was to really address my own responsibility. I mean, you could read “Unicorn” and you don’t need to know that the writer took part in a war tour; you could think I just made that up completely, right? And so, you would be absolutely forgiven to think none of it was real, and it was all a figment of my imagination. But, when I wrote “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” I had to own that I did this thing, that I had participated in something, and I thought that was very important. I wanted people to know this really happened, and I probably shouldn’t have been there. I would do it again, but I also think it capitalizes off a lot of people’s extraordinary pain, something that I had never experienced. I think contending with that is actually part of art so for me that’s a really great example. I like the short story “Unicorn” just fine, and people tell me all the time that it’s one of their favorite stories in the collection, but I really felt that I couldn’t let that be the only version of that particular encounter.

Inscape: How have your experiences with visual art changed your creative processes?

HS: I actually started off as a visual artist, and visual art trained me to see. I don’t want to claim that I’m a particularly observant person, because I’ve been shocked by what I haven’t observed, but I do think that it trains you to go beyond what you think you’re seeing and to really see something. One of the first things you learn in a life drawing class is that we have an idea of what a hand is: it has five fingers, it has a palm. However, that’s not what a hand looks like in space. And sometimes with a hand in space, you can only see two fingers, or it looks more like a fist, and so you really have to rethink what your brain tells you, as opposed to what you are actually perceiving. I think visual art has really trained me to override the language that my brain wants to impose on something, and instead try to really see it. And it really trains you how to live and work as an artist, and how to deal with failure, because drawing is just constant failure. Someone like David Hockney, who has been doing this for decades now, if you watched him drawing now, you’d see him trying to feel it out, you’d see him make mistakes and then correct them, right? And so, it really teaches you that failing and then correcting is part of the perceptional process.

Inscape: What is your daily writing process like?

HS: I read a lot, and I spend a lot of time taking care of various kinds of jobs that I have, so I’ll sometimes just spend the day grading and not writing. I am an editor for a magazine, West Branch, and I’ll spend the day working on the magazine. I’m always reading though, and usually I get projects in my head and then I’ll think through the project, and I’ll plan the project, and then I’ll focus on the project. So my writing tends to be really project-based. If I’m not working on a project, and I’m usually almost always working on a project, but if I’m not, then I’m reading and trying to take care of other things. I know that I’m supposed to tell people that I write every day and all that, but I don’t, and I feel terrible telling people that, but sometimes you have to do those things, and so you don’t write. I write when I feel inspired, and sometimes maybe a few weeks will go by and I haven’t written anything because I haven’t yet been inspired.

Inscape: What have you learned through teaching others how to write?

HS: I think teaching writing has been the best way to learn writing. I went through an MFA program and I was workshopped a lot, and that helped, but I think when you have to articulate a concept in order to teach somebody else, that is when you really learn. That is even true for writing essays. I was given the opportunity to teach a class, Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, and at the time I had only written a few essays. In order to teach essays, I had to really think, how do I discuss this? And then I really began to want to write them more and more. So often with teaching, I’m also simultaneously teaching myself.

Inscape: When you begin writing an essay, do you know what you want to include from the start? What is that process like?

HS: I really think and think and think through something, and I really sit and deliberate and imagine it and turn it around in my mind and then almost always by the time I sit down to write, I know what it is going to look like. I do draft and redraft, but I think it’s really unusual at this point for my work to take on a completely different form than the original. Usually, the revision has to do with moving parts around. I spend a good portion of any project thinking about writing a project. Maybe I’m just a ruminator or something.

I think one of the hardest things about writing is to keep yourself motivated when things aren’t successful. So maybe this is a way for me to make sure that I’m using my time wisely. I don’t have hours and hours just to write sort of randomly. I’m usually working on something for somebody.

Inscape: Do you intentionally write about Sri Lanka to give a voice to your family and others? Do you find yourself writing more about things you know, or things you don’t know?

HS: In the collection, there are only two essays that directly have anything to do with Sri Lanka. And of course, that said, you know my family appears in the essays quite a bit. There’s another essay called “Lady” that does deal with Sri Lankan culture, though it’s not central to the essay. Some people argue it is, but the essay actually has to do with the name of the syndrome that my mother died of. I usually write an essay to learn. I usually have a question when I start off working on an essay. For example, for this essay that is about the syndrome that my mother died of, it’s actually named after an Oscar Wilde play, and I remember being in the hospital and the doctor was telling us about it, and I thought, That seems random, like why is it named after an Oscar Wilde play? And I had luckily studied Oscar Wilde in graduate school, and I thought, That’s so strange, because there didn’t seem to be any connection between what my mother was suffering and the play, which is Lady Windermere’s Fan, and I was like, I don’t know what the connection is. When I looked into the history, it was actually a very sad history; there was a real misunderstanding on the part of the people who named the disease. I was able to make an essay that was even deeper than the history of the naming of the disease. It became an essay about how we don’t understand other people’s suffering, that we can’t fully place ourselves in comprehending the pain other people are feeling. I’m usually working from a place of mystery. I’m certainly pulling on a lot of knowledge that I have, but often I’m using the essay to describe the process of trying to figure something out. The root word for essay is the French essayer, to try. I always like to think that I am trying to answer a question, I’m trying to acquire knowledge. I think if I knew it, it probably wouldn’t interest me.

Inscape: What kind of audience do you find yourself writing for? People with similar experiences to your own, or people with really different experiences?

HS: I would hope the last one. I mean, it’s not that I wouldn’t be interested in someone with similar experiences. I have an essay that I published when I found out that my father had married someone secretly after my mother passed away, and I had really thought that could have only happened to me, only to find out, it happens to more people than you would think! For sad reasons. Sometimes people can’t make their marriages known for various reasons; because of class, or maybe because their sexual identity might have been illegal or might have caused them to be prosecuted. That’s been the great fun of writing essays, as opposed to fiction, because no one ever writes you for a fiction story and says, that happened to me! I mean, no one reads my cricket story and goes, Oh, I used to play cricket. That’s not how you relate to a piece of fiction. There’s a limited audience for the short story, and that audience shrinks for the essay, especially the type of essay that I write. So, I think most of the people that I write for are very curious about the essay, and I think those are going to be people who are really interested in the world, in ways that are probably unique to that reader.

Inscape: Have you ever struggled with the ethical question of how to share your experiences even if others have very different interpretations of the same experiences?

HS: I think you can certainly give your version of something, but you have to be really clear on a few things. First of all, that it’s your version of the event. I also think you really have to go out and ask your family, or ask your friends, or get verification that what you’re seeing is what other people see. Then you need to allow the chance for those other people to come in and say, that wasn’t how I saw it. In my essay “Lady,” I gave my impression of my mother, and then I realized that might not be my sister’s impression. So I asked her, and she said that she didn’t see her the same way that I did, and I put that into the essay. It deepened the essay because it made me understand that I was operating from my own emotions and fears, and my impression of my mother. My sister didn’t share those emotions or fears, and we were in the same family, and she just didn’t see it that way. I think that’s part of being honest, which really enriches your work.

And the final thing is, I think that you always need to be willing to make yourself look bad if you’re going to make other people look bad. Ultimately, I think you have to make yourself look the worst, or if not the worst, look just as bad. Invariably, you are just as bad as the people you’re criticizing. I haven’t ever found that I really occupy a true high ground. Most of the time I have done something equally as dubious, if not more so because I probably should have known better. I think if someone clearly did something egregious but there was no room for me to write about my own complicity, I’m not sure I would write that story. I think ultimately for me, I’d rather admit that I’m as flawed as any of these people that I write about.


Advice to Writers


What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?


1 think first of all, if you are a young poet, you should read a lot—see how masters did it and learn. Writing goes together with reading. Don’t hurry to workshops, but find a poetry friend whom you trust, someone who sees what you can become, not just what you are now Remember that it is a long way with lots of tests, but I believe that if you are a real poet your destiny will lead you.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on ways to get started?


Everybody’s curious about something. I think that curiosity is the number one necessary characteristic—to walk around looking for interesting things. Writing is a way of sustaining curiosity and thought and pulling it out. Often we’re satisfied with “hmm” and we go along with our lives. And we probably have to do that most of the time because we’re busy with important things, but in the essay you take those “hmm”s and you convert them into something big. You start to investigate experiences and how they connect to that idea, look for quotes and for what others have said in the past, and find those connections. I’d say that half my time writing is spent reading.


Could you impart any words of wisdom to aspiring writers?


If you want to be a writer, then write. If you have no confidence, take writing classes and see where you come out. Are you as good or better than others in the class? Most writers have to spend time learning their craft. Don’t get so caught up with writers’ conferences and networking that you end up knowing everything there is to know about writing, but you still don’t write. You have to sit on your behind and write. There is no magic. There is no other way. Then you have to find someone who will publish what you write, but there’s no point thinking about it if you haven’t written anything to sell.

Poets on Poetry


What do you think is wrong with contemporary poetry?


Well, most of it is bad just because 1 think very few good poems get written in any period of time. That is to say, what’s wrong with contemporary poetry is probably not specific to this period. It may be that we have the illusion that other periods are better precisely because the winnowing process isn’t complete and so what’s presented to us in the pages of books and anthologies is often the best of what was written in a particular time, and what besets us on bookshelves now is simply an unedited flood. I’m skeptical about the emergence of really good poems. 1 think they’re rare for any individual person or for any period in history.

I do get the sense that with contemporary poetry a couple of things have gone wrong. One of those things is that technical accomplishment has gone out the window, and as a result a great deal of musicality has gone out of verse. I think one of the pleasures of poetry is that it moves you into the realm of sort of musicality, but a lot of verse that 1 read just strikes me as very prosey and doesn’t have strong rhythmic basis. The lines seem arbitrary to me. Whereas someone who couldn’t play a chord would not deign to go out and presume to entertain us, people who can’t do the poetic equivalent of those things do presume to write books.

If I were to say what else strikes me as wrong about poetry these days, it’s that there’s a sense that absolutely anything goes—absolute complete diversity.

The third thing is a collective amnesia that everybody seems to be undergoing where we forget about the past. Literature, perhaps poetry in particular, ministers to our need for continuity and continuance of long memories. Much of the poetry written today doesn’t seem to go back much farther than 1974. It doesn’t seem to be connected to or participating in a tradition. Or it seems to have the notion that to be participating in tradition is to be dogmatic and limited, whereas it is just the opposite.


You’re a person who’s devoted a good deal to the writing, studying, and teaching of poetry. What value does poetry have for you? What is the value of poetry?


Poetry for me is intricately tied to religion. So for me, writing is a type of prayer. It’s a big part of my life, as far as that goes, a huge spiritual part.

The value of poetry in general? I think that it puts us in touch with our humanity and provides a means by which we can confirm our humanity in a time period that is marked by chaos and uncertainty and a real dehumanization.