The Big Tent of Interiority:
An Interview with Lilah Hegnauer
Lilah Hegnauer has taught at James Madison University, the University of Virginia, and Sweet Briar College. She received her MFA from University of Virginia. Her first book of poetry, Dark Under Kiganda Stars, was published with Ausable Press (now part of Copper Canyon) in 2005. Her second book, Pantry, was published this year, winning the New Southern Voices Poetry Award. Her poems have been published in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She was the 2013-2014 the Amy Clampitt Poet-in-Residence.
Front Porch: Your first book, Dark Under Kiganda Stars, featured a linear narrative while your second book, Pantry, is more lyrical and syntactically fragmented. What led you to this shift in style?
Lilah Hegnauer: The move towards a more fragmentary and lyrical voice in Pantry was the result of growing up, moving across the country, and poking my head above the lip of the poetic foxhole that kept my work constrained, and thus more manageable. After Dark Under Kiganda Stars, I found myself seeking out a less narrative, more lyrical voice, partly in response to working with Greg Orr at the University of Virginia and partly because that was the kind of work I was reading. I was attracted to the flexibility of the short lyric and because it taps into a kind of incantatory power that reaches beyond narrative.
Dark Under Kiganda Stars came out when I was 22 and just about to begin an MFA. I was lucky to have published a book at 22, but, as with other youthful enterprises, I don't always recognize myself as the person who wrote it. I experienced a period of profound growth and searching just after its publication, neither of which are linear processes, and so the narrative form no longer seemed to fit the increasingly complex world I was negotiating. I was also working closely with Lisa Russ Spaar and her use of the couplet led me to a new understanding of its potential for pacing, breath, and even silence in a poem.
And finally, my greatest mentor and confidant has always been Emily Dickinson. My poems are always in dialogue with her, in one way or another, and she can be rather insistent that we engage on her terms.
FP: Are the poems you’re working on developing in a new direction as well?
LH: The poems I’m working on, post-Pantry, have taken a strange turn in an entirely new way (for me). For the first time in many years, I'm at the beginning of a new project, which is both exhilarating and somewhat terrifying. For so long, whenever I started work on a new poem, it had a potential home in my manuscript; it was part of a larger project, even if that project was only half defined. For me, this made starting new work somewhat less frightening…I was adding bricks to a wall. In my most recent work, I don’t think I’m building a wall or even using bricks. Pantry won the New Southern Voices Poetry Award in June of 2013 and then I became a mother about a week later (it was an eventful month). So, although I’m still using the same language, it's fractured and distorted by the rhythms of new motherhood, the long silences punctured by intense activity, and the sleeplessness, especially the sleeplessness. I’m using both prose and verse, whichever is handy at 2AM—but beyond this, my new project is still very much a slippery creature.
FP: In Dark Under Kiganda Stars, one of the major tensions is the speaker’s relationship to Catholicism and the sense of place as an “Other.” In Pantry, the tension lies in the desire of the “Other,” with the speaker as a utensil and human speaker simultaneously.
LH: That’s a very interesting way of characterizing my two books. Dark Under Kiganda Stars came out in 2005 which, for me and for a lot of Catholics, was a time of great questioning and discomfort in the church with the death of Pope John Paul II and election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy. The endless warren of sex-abuse allegations in this country and the widespread network of abuse and torture throughout the Catholic education system in Ireland lead me to question my faith, my relationship to Catholic authority, and my ability to find solace in this spiritual path. While I find the ecumenical calendar and the rituals of praying, mourning, and celebrating to be quite beautiful, I am deeply skeptical of any religious institution that prioritizes the preservation of hierarchy over the protection of its most vulnerable members. This doesn’t really answer your question, but for me, the issues of faith and spirituality, and the language of prayer and worship, are deeply tied to poetry. So with Pantry, the language of desire is partly the language of romantic and human desire, and partly it is spiritual hunger—“God hunger” as Lisa Russ Spaar puts it. But the speaker is hungering after that which she feels probably doesn’t exist in any non-material way.
FP: How do you approach making such perennial topics as love and spirituality new again?
LH: You know, I don’t tend to worry about the “make it new” manifesto. Nothing ever is new. Humans have always fallen in and out of love, created families, sought the divine, and attempted to create a sense of meaning and purpose out of an often cruel and brief existence. What else is there? We make art so we can be a part of the long conversation that makes us human—when the conversation ends, so do we. Writing this sounds rather bleak, I know, but it also frees the artist from the idea that he or she can only make meaningful art outside of the mundane experiences that comprise most of a lifetime.
FP: In an interview with Young Writers Workshop, you mention that Pantry took eight years to complete. How did the idea first come about, and could you describe your selection and revision process for the book?
LH: In late 2009 and early 2010, I had a residency at the MacDowell Colony which allowed me to step back from my work and look at it in a new and pared down context. That’s when the manuscript really started to coalesce. I’d been working on the manuscript since 2005, but it was diffused, perhaps even scattered, and not in a good way. And then at the MacDowell Colony, I began thinking about kitchen objects, which aren't things you think about until you're away from them. I’ve always been an avid baker and home cook with a carefully curated kitchen, but for the weeks I was at the residency, I had only a mug—for tea, wine, and little snacks. Everything else was provided either in the dining room or in a lunch basket that showed up on my stoop every day. As lovely as it is to have others cook for you, I've always found pleasure, and even meaning, in food that requires my labor. And in being without my kitchen and pantry, I began to mediate on the labors that underlie all our domestic lives and give them meaning.
I worked on Pantry for probably another year after that, and then in 2011 and 2012, I started sending it out. It was a finalist in seven different contests, so that was encouraging. And then D.A. Powell chose it for the New Southern Voices Award. Finding a publisher for Pantry could not have come at a better time. My daughter was born a week after the book was selected and then, two months later, we moved to Lenox, Massachusetts for a 6-month residency at the Amy Clampitt house. It was an exhausting time, but it was also a clean transition artistically; I was beginning new work in my residency without trailing the old.
I’m pretty superstitious about my writing and revision process. It’s an intensely private act for me—though I do have a few trusted readers who helped tremendously with the shaping and culling and revising process at various points over 8 years. And then at the very end, my husband read the manuscript and offered some very useful critiques about ordering and cutting from the perspective of a reader who loves poetry but does not write it (these rare creatures do exist; I suggest all poets acquire one.)
FP: What was the most difficult part of the book’s construction?
LH: The most difficult part of Pantry was just to keep believing in it and to keep sending it out. In the poetry world, publication, an up or down vote, is often the only critical response a poet receives on their work. If you get enough no’s, it's easy to start questioning the merits or necessity of your work, which just stokes the insecurities most of us already feel about writing poetry at all. We're always confronted with the very real possibility that poetry just doesn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things. Few people care if you write or publish at all; you know, “it is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain.” For me, it's not the individual poems that matter. The motivation, or need to write poetry, comes from wanting to be part the long conversation that marks us as human.
FP: In contrast to Dark Under Kiganda Stars, Pantry includes a few prose-poems like “Pepper” and “Teapot.” Can you talk about the freedoms or challenges of the prose poem?
LH: Oh, I love the prose poem as a form. There’s something so satisfying about a tight little block of text sitting there on the page, refusing to help you out with any stanzas or line breaks. I think of the prose poem as a ballsy form, really asking the reader to do a lot of work. And for me, the prose form allows for a lot of speed and immediacy if you can entice a reader to wade into the text. But the challenge is, of course, getting the reader involved without the pacing help of stanzas or line breaks. The payoff can be huge if the form works, which it doesn't always.
FP: Do you think poetry written during this period of technological advancement should integrate other mediums, such as visual texts, text manipulation, or audio components? I’m thinking of something like Bjork’s Biophilia as an example, where she developed a series of iPad apps so listeners could interact with the music.
LH: I suppose lots of people are going to light and carry that technology torch, but not me. I'm hoping readers will want to interact with my work without the aid of an app, but I'm all for whatever gets readers into poetry if others want to experiment (I'll admit to enjoying [the video poem “Others have passed through, with no help from heaven or hell”] from David Ward and Joe Chapman). What I love more than anything in the world is the physical book—pages, ink, and binding, brought together in one design. I don't think we're anywhere near exhausting the possibilities of the form. Certainly there are endless ways one can integrate other mediums into their poetry, but it’s not where my interests lie. I love hearing recordings of poets reading their work—and seeing especially talented poets read and perform—I couldn’t be without the audio artifacts of Dylan Thomas or Edna St. Vincent Millay or those amazing and scratchy Whitman recordings. But, for the most part I’m very much inside the page and the mind. For me, poetry is an intensely intimate endeavor and it’s best shared silently from one mind to another through printed words on a page. But poetry is a big tent and welcomes all comers, especially if they love language.
FP: Do you see yourself writing in another medium besides poetry, such as essays, fiction, or exploring visual arts?
LH: I’m currently at work on a hybrid prose-verse piece. Who knows if it will stay that way, but I’m enjoying the versatility of prose and the ways in which prose can really pin down an experience while poetry can explode it (which makes them sound a bit like schoolyard bullies).
FP: How has teaching poetry changed the way you think about your work?
LH: You know, before I spent a number of semesters teaching poetry workshops and a large Intro to American Literature class, I never much cared for Robert Frost (and a few other canonical writers). But each semester, when I asked students to introduce themselves and tell me who their favorite poet or poem was, Robert Frost so permeated the classes that I finally started giving him a little space on my syllabi, too—and it turns out I love Frost! He’s so sneaky. He’s never doing what you initially think he’s doing in a poem.
But as for my own work—I think teaching has made me an even more interior poet. For me, teaching is such a performative act that is both exhilarating and exhausting. And when I’m teaching a lot, I find that I have very little performative energy left over, so I end up seeking a more interior and domestic landscape in my writing. Or at least that’s the narrative I’ve spun about what’s happening!
FP: What one thing do you think is absolutely essential for your students to understand if they continue writing?
LH: Oh, we writers have long lists of things that are “absolutely essential” to our craft. And, like baseball players, we are a superstitious lot, so it's fun to see what we all say we really “need” in order to write—a particular pen, candles, a desk, coffee, wine (and all the various permutations of those vices). I used to have a particular “writing cardigan” and I used to be obsessed with candles that had a time on them (you know, they say “burns for 10 hours”) and I would work on one poem and one poem only for the duration of that candle. And when that candle was done, I would move on to another candle and another poem. Rituals like these are certainly important. They get you to your desk. But when it comes down to it, no ritual will ascribe value to your work and keep you going for the long run; that's up to you. You have to value your work and your time to write because nobody else will. Everything else will seem like it has to come first—and sometimes it will—but in order to build a sustainable relationship with your writing, you need to be willing to eschew other, more transient needs, which are, sadly, the things that often bring us momentary pleasure. Life only gets more complex with age, so if you're in this for the long haul, figure out what really feeds your writing. That which doesn’t—quit.
FP: After releasing two books of poetry, have your reasons for writing poetry changed?
LH: Not really. Publication feels nice, of course, but it was never the reason I wrote poetry. I write and read because exploring the potential for language to describe the indescribable (or eff the ineffable as a teacher of mine used to say) is an act of belonging, which I know sounds odd given the small readership for poetry. What I mean is that the struggle to make meaning from the seemingly meaningless is a universal human project, and I'm doing my part in the only way I know how.