Heather Thomas on travel, witness poetry, and textscapes

Q: Heather, You’ve gone “on tour” to other countries, a few times, right? And your work has been translated.  How does your connection to poetry communities affect your life as a poet?

HT: I’m a homebody who used to be a journalist, so traveling as a poet brings me out of myself and my comfort zone.  I’ve read in Argentina, Russia, Ireland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo.  Among international poets, it seems to me that language and cultural differences are not barriers but excitements, mysterious and melodic flourishings of human being.  Even as writing a poem can inscribe a self or an identity, the artifact and its voicing connect us with others precisely at our points of difference, creating a communal space which can contain those differences.

I love the liminal experience of this kind of community—the sense of being in between languages and cultures.  There’s an awesome “textscape” installation in the Vienna airport that has constantly shape-shifting and undulating letters and phrases morphing through different languages within a free-standing rectangular form.  Travelers pass by constantly on the move.  The textscape is based on an idea called ZeitRaum, a time-space continuum where borders dissolve.  That’s what happens when poets from different languages gather together; we are moving and speaking our poems in a time and place beyond borders.

Q: How does your international experience affect your work as a poet?  

HT:  I was riding In a car on the way from Prizren, Kosovo, to the capital city Prishtina when we passed through the village of Reçak.  Elvana Zaimi, my Albanian translator, pointed out that Serbs killed many Albanian families in Reçak during a pivotal 1999 wartime massacre.  Our driver, the Albanian poet Rudolf Marku, quickly noted, “Forty-five people—and it prompted western intervention.” Elvana: “They called it ‘ethnic cleansing.’” The village and its cemetery, marked by a sign saying Reçak and Recak—Albanian and Serb versions of the name—passed by before all this could be said.  Every town had two names, often with the Serb painted over.  After some silence, I brought up “witness poetry,” first articulated in the early 1990s by Carolyn Forché.  Forché has more recently described it not as an identity arising from an extreme event, but as “witnessing a state of extremity arising from interiority, a subjectivity as a place, the place the subject rises from.”  Elvana observed that a “witness” poem need not be written by a participant in a situation, but she was adamant that a writer bearing witness must have actually known or experienced an event of terror, injustice, or struggle. I wanted to understand the distinction she was making, so I asked her about a poem of mine that she had translated.  It was written after my 2012 visit to Sarajevo, and with the 20-year anniversary of the siege in mind.  I was apprehensive about her reaction.  She said that she translated the poem because “you put yourself in the others’ shoes.” She talked about honoring the other, not appropriating another’s pain or suffering in order to perpetuate a cliché or one’s own ego.  Finally, she made a interesting distinction: a “witness” work must be a memoir, reportage or eyewitness account; other work may be imaginative, inventive, or empathic, but it does not bear witness.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck writes about how global risks have created a world “which for better or for worse we all share, a world that has no outside, no exit, no other anymore.”  This is where I am as a poet. The direction of my work from Blue Ruby tries to integrate the personal and political with this in mind.  Beck writes that recognizing the plurality of the world opens up “a moral and political space that can give rise to a civil culture of responsibility that transcends borders and conflicts. The traumatic experience that everyone is vulnerable, and the resulting responsibility for others, also for the sake of one’s own survival, are the two sides of a world at risk.” Can his words apply to the possibilities of the poem?

Q: How do you write?  Do you have any favorite writing tips/prompts that you’d like to pass along?

HT:  I like to wake up early, get a cup of coffee, read a little, and then write.  But this is not my usual routine while teaching; I write bits on scraps while running from one thing to another, or while driving.  Usually I rough out a poem by hand in my journal before getting to the computer, so the journal is full of these scraps. A phrase, an itch, an image, something I’ve seen, heard or felt, will get me going. When I began writing poems many years ago, I was trying to hear myself, some buried voice.  Now I’m more interested in the place I inhabit.  As George Oppen wrote, “The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on.”

Writing a poem, I often feel a kind of gnawing.  I come to the page to connect, yet I’m unmoored until I get the words right.  It’s an act of inscription in space-time at the junctures of difference, empathy, word pain-joy—“everything exists  because / something else does.”  Though at play in language, I feel vulnerable, often holding two extreme emotional states and two geographical places in mind at once.  I’d like to get closer to joy in my poems, just for a breath of fresh air.

Q: What are you reading lately that you’d like to recommend?

HT: In poetry, I’ve recently enjoyed Jorie Graham’s Place, Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog, and C.D. Wright’s One With Others. Prose I’m reading now includes George Saunders’ stories in Tenth of December and Fatima Mernissi’s memoir Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Diane Ackerman’s memoir One Hundred Names for Love is the most memorable book I’ve read in the past year.

Q:  Do you have a particular recent writing project you’d like to share with our readers? 

HT:  I have new poems online in Press 1, About Place, and forthcoming any day in Interim.  I am grateful to the editors and hope readers will check out these lit mags.


Getting to Know Writer Karen Rile

Poetdelphia: How would you describe your fiction and nonfiction projects? What was the subject of your last finished work?

Karen Rile: I’m working on several projects now, including both fiction and nonfiction. One that I’m excited about is a series of nonfiction essays about my accidental odyssey in the world of classical music, tentatively titled Music Lessons. You can read an excerpt here: http://www.rilesmith.com/music-lessons-part-i-the-pokemon-kid/

Poetdelphia: You’ve written for The Philadelphia Inquirer for a while now. How would you describe the differences or similarities in your approach to writing for a mass audience versus a literary audience?

Karen Rile: Writing for a general audience keeps you honest! No hiding behind complicated prose and self-indulgent literary devices–you need to be clear and engaging. When you write for a mass audience and publish your personal email address, you get a lot of instant feedback. Whether they agree or disagree with what you write, your readers don’t hesitate to let you know what they think. I love that feeling of connection- and I try to answer every email personally, even it it is just to thank them for taking the time to write.

Poetdelphia: What is the origin story and overall aesthetic of Cleaver, the new literary journal you recently started?

Karen Rile: Cleaver (www.cleavermagazine.com) is an online journal of literary and visual arts. It’s a shared venture with my daughter Lauren Rile Smith, a poet. We’ve had the project on our agenda for a long time, and decided to launch at  the beginning of 2013, now that we have the tools and software skills necessary for the production end of the project. We sent out our first call for submissions a few days after the New Year, and were gratified to receive a strong response, both from the writers we personally solicited and those who sent us material over the transom.

Our mission is to present a mix of work by emerging and established writers and artists in a beautiful, clean, readable format that is free for the reader, and accessible by internet on any device. Our visual art will be accompanied by prose– essays on form or philosophy by the artist or a collaborative writer. Our dramatic writing will allow readers a glimpse into the heart of a play script.

We’ll publish quarterly, but just to give everyone a small taste of what is coming, we recently launched a preview “all flash” issue with micro fiction, short-short essays, tiny poems, and an essay about Instagram photography by the talented young writer/photographer Blake Martin. It’s live on the website as of February 1.

A poet recently asked Lauren what Cleaver is  seeking, and she responded, “We don’t have a specific aesthetic or idea in mind. We always look for strong images, sensory details, wordplay, and implication.” We published five poets  in our mini-edition:  Frances Brent, a  highly established poet with multiple publications and awards; Katherine Fallon, a young MFA grad;  Samuel Thompson, an award-winning concert violinist– his first poetry publication. It’s also a first poetry publication for Anna Strong, a college senior. The fifth, John Grey, a poet with many publication credits, was a submission that came in through our listing in DuoTrope. I encourage Poetdelphia members and readers to take a look and to consider sending us some work though our submissions portal.

I talk about Cleaver in more depth here on my blog: http://www.rilesmith.com/introducing-cleaver-magazine/.

Poetdelphia: As a teacher, do you find any themes particularly on the minds of student writers these days, and if so, what advice do you give those young writers?

Karen Rile: I have been teaching fiction and creative nonfiction at Penn for a long time; over the years I’ve noticed a trend for students becoming more attuned to the world outside of their immediate sphere. So I am seeing fewer short stories about teenage breakups and roommate trauma, and more about life outside the Penn bubble. I encourage them to really know their characters, both by developing a detailed backstory, and by working on their capacity for empathy. It helps, of course, to know themselves and those around them before they attempt to write about worlds that are yet unknown to them. Students often come to me writing, at least at first, what reads like treatments for plots of TV dramas. It’s all surface and no depth. I try to teach them to strive for authenticity in everything they write.

On a practical level, we work a lot on technique. For example, last week’s homework exercise was to write a descriptive scene from three very different points of view. That is, descriptive language only: no plot, and no reference to the character who is viewing the scene. The point was to experiment with coloring the scene through the emotional state of the 3rd person protagonist. It’s quite a difficult assignment, much more so than it looks to be at first glance. They all came back on Monday kind of worn out, and feeling disappointed by what they had produced. But they learned a lot, both about technique and about empathy, through the exercise, and their efforts will serve them going forward.

I find that most students have not had much exposure to contemporary fiction– even those who are highly interested in literature and writing. They have all read George Elliot, and maybe a little Hemingway, but not much contemporary writing, aside from YA blockbusters like The Hunger Games. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce them to an eclectic mix of contemporary literary short fiction, mostly mid-century to current publications. The best advice I can give them is to open theirs minds and read–and to read like a writer, not a literary critic.

Poetdelphia: Poetdelphia is all about creating community, and we’re always interested in knowing how writers create a supportive community around themselves. Who or what do you turn to when you need that extra help or support?

Karen Rile:  I have many wonderful writer-friends, some circles more loosely organized than others. I suppose my go-to community  at Penn would be Kelly Writers House. KWH has done so much in the past 15 years to grow and nurture the writing community at Penn, and for the Philadelphia region, as a whole. They are inclusive and community-focused, and have been extremely supportive of outreach programs I’ve worked on over the years.  #Pdel