SNR Managing Editor Hannah Harris recently chatted with poet Pamela Hart over email about how you know when a piece of writing is finished, why she writes, and what inspires her.
Pamela Hart was the winner of the 2017 Brian Turner Prize in Poetry. Her debut poetry collection, Mothers Over Nangarhar, is available January 8thfrom Sarabande Books. Pre-order here: http://www.sarabandebooks.org/titles-20192039/mothers-over-nangarhar-pamela-hart. You can find Pamela at https://www.pamelahartpoet.com/. A selection of her poems follows this interview.
Hannah Harris: Why do you write?
Pamela Hart: I write in order to look more closely, slowly and carefully. I write to comprehend my life, the world, what I read and experience. I write to figure out what I think. I write to remember. I write to make something. I write to make or unmake what I know and don’t know.
HH: A piece of writing is, essentially, a collection of the series of choices the writer has made. How do you make the final choice: deciding when a piece of work is done? How do you know when something you’re working on is ready?
PH: I’m not sure I ever fully understand when a piece of writing is done or ready. My background is as a newspaper reporter so of course finishing an article had to do with deadlines. There wasn’t the luxury of never-ending tinkering. A poem can be worked and reworked over and over again. And I’ve spent huge amounts of time revising poems because I love that part of the making process. To fiddle and fine-tune, to play with line breaks and punctuation, to look again at structure – all this carries me away.
But eventually a poem has to move to completion if you want it to be seen and read by someone other than yourself. So I attend to some revision strategies. Things like best word/best order, to paraphrase Coleridge. Sound and beat help me see and hear when a poem is done. I read it out loud to listen for the beat and pitch of syllables, for the pulse of syntax and to look at how these serve the overall flow and meaning.
Perhaps a poem is never really finished but there comes a time when it needs to go into the world so that it (and the writer) can see whether it’s ready or not.
HH: Likely all of us can point to other writers who inspire us, but what, outside of literature, compels you as a writer? Where do you encounter, or glean, the motivation to work in your daily life?
PH: I work at an art museum, teaching and managing a program that uses the visual arts as a way to engage students’ creative and critical thinking skills. So art – the arts in general – is a big source of inspiration for me. Not just a painting or photograph or sculpture, but the concepts behind the work: the artists’ thinking, the materials being used. I love learning about and then trying to employ such thinking in my writing of a poem. As I said, other arts engage my creativity as well – music, theater, dance. This year I’ve been working with a dancer choreographer in our museum program. This has offered some fantastic moments of encounter. How does language contain movement? How might the poetic line represent some kind of structured improvisation, as in dance?
In addition, I am compelled by the events of the world. This likely stems from my background as a journalist. So the news might enter one of my poems. Or I’ll respond to information gleaned from the science or obituary sections. The inventor of Kevlar –a woman – died several years ago. I found her obituary fascinating and wrote several poems that are in my book, reflecting on her life, her discovery and its uses in the world.
The poem here, For Alexsandr Vyrotsky, was inspired by photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who had been covering the uprising in the Ukraine in 2014. She wanted to personalize the conflict and thus started “Welcome to Donetsk.” The interactive memorial featured the names of people killed in the war, which she recorded on postcards and sent around the world. When I received a postcard with Alexsandr Vyrotsky’s name, I was moved to learn a bit about him and his death, and to make a poem.
I find this kind of collaboration important because writing is a solitary enterprise. It’s thrilling to engage with other writers, artists, photographers and so forth. However, I encounter ideas in the course of an ordinary day – when I’m running, stuck in traffic, walking in the city or doing the dishes. My brain is basically always on fire.
HH: What are you reading right now?
PH: A bunch of books. I’m re-reading Tyehimba Jess’ Olioto understand his use of the syncopated sonnet – a form he created I think – because I’m hoping to teach it this spring. And then I picked up his book Leadbellybecause, well, one thing leads to another. Also Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Which is so beautiful. A novel Pachinkoby Min Jin Lee about Korea and then a book on Buddhism. There are too many books to read in one lifetime.
HH: The idea of being a writer and the act of writing are two very distinct things. How has your perception of what it means to be a writer changed over time?
PH: I’ve called myself a writer for as long as I can remember. But early on, my writing practice was limited by the biographies of writers I admired. I believed one needed an upbringing or family dynamic or life-style similar to writers like Emily Dickinson or Hemingway. Once I started working at newspapers, these notions were dispelled. Being a writer is about making something. About doing the work again and again. Just as being a carpenter is about making or being a chef or dancer or musician. You make the thing by doing the thing. And you fail and then you do it again. You also study and read and learn. You remain engaged with the beauty and craft of the thing you love to make. And with the beautiful and dangerous world we live in. Tom Lux says it so well in his poem An Horation Ode: “You make the thing because you love the thing and you love the thing because someone else loved it enough to make you love it.” No matter what you make or how you make it. At least that’s what I’ve come to see over time.
FOR ALEKSANDR VYROTSKY
Killed in Uspenka Ukraine 5/16/2014
By the time your postcard arrived in the mail
the weather here was classic August
90 degrees the cicadas whirring
bales of heat piling on top of each other
like thunder storms, my day accumulating
its usual list – noisy, mundane – Trump,
another car bombing in Kabul while polar
ice melts though it’s snowing in Bozeman
I could go on and on about things
the stories, news, the sunsets
I miss you and wish you were here
not there or wherever you were
when you left emboldened
by face-mask and gun
I still picture the street lamps and spring blossoms
radiant like small beautiful explosions
Powered by search engines
Google earth, view the flashing
lights of MRAPs
as cursors flag river or range
The mothers leap across time zones
check their satellite feed
sprint from screen to field
where you lie
calling their name
The mothers fly from Fallujah
Wanat Khe Sanh to Marathon
Their hands are epic
their bodies large pouring
into and out of you
THETIS IN THE CAR
The soldier talks
I say I’ve never
been in a Corvette
The Big Dipper floats
like a sea creature
from my hands
in the front seat
I love him as the sky
breaks and breaks
His car leans into a slight
curve gears shifting
across narrow blacktop
the Mennonite field a blur
at 110 miles per hour
I love them loathing
them like a mother
like an ocean I’ll carry
their broken parts from shore
to carve a shoal
Pamela Hart is writer-in-residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she is a museum educator. Her book, Mothers Over Nangarhar, is forthcoming in 2019 from Sarabande Books. She received the Brian Turner Literary Arts Prize in Poetry, and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship. Her poems have been published in the Southern Humanities Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Toadlily Press published her chapbook, The End of the Body. She is poetry editor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and for As You Were: Journal for Military Experience and the Arts.