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.


April 5th Lineup Announced

Join guests KAREN RILE, LUKE STROMBERG and HEATHER THOMAS at Poetdelphia this APRIL 5TH!

Friday, April 5th, 2013
Poetdelphia Reading & Salon
at Cups & Chairs Tea Cafe*
701-03 S. 5th Street
(just below 5th and South)
6:00 – 7:30 pm

Poetdelphia is an ongoing salon/quarterly reading series.
(*Coffee drinkers, don’t fret! Cups & Chairs has coffee too!)

KAREN RILE is the author of Winter Music, a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines such as The Southern Review, American Writing, Creative Nonfiction, The Land Grant College Review, Other Voices, and Apiary, and has been listed among The Best American Short Stories. Karen has written articles and essays for many publications including The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Daughters magazine. She is a frequent contributor to the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also the fiction editor and managing editor of Cleaver Magazine (http://www.cleavermagazine.com/), an online quarterly featuring poetry, literary fiction and nonfiction, dramatic writing, and art. Karen lives in Philadelphia and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.

LUKE STROMBERG’s work has appeared in several literary journals and has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer on multiple occasions: once in an article about young poets in the Philadelphia area and another time as a winner of a poetry contest. In 2008, his poem “Black Thunder” was set to music by composer Melissa Dunphy and performed at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, PA. Luke lives in Upper Darby, PA and works as an adjunct English instructor at Eastern University and West Chester University. You can read some of his recently published poems through The Tower Journal: http://towerjournal.com/fall_2012/part_two_Luke_Stromberg.htm.

HEATHER THOMAS is the author of several books of poetry, including Blue Ruby (FootHills Publishing), Resurrection Papers (Chax Press), and Practicing Amnesia (Singing Horse Press). Her work has been translated into Spanish, Lithuanian, and Bosnian. A professor of English at Kutztown University, she has published essays on H.D., Wallace Stevens, and contemporary poets, and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. You can learn more about Heather through her website (http://faculty.kutztown.edu/hthomas/), and read some recent poems online through Press 1: http://www.leafscape.org/press1/v6n1/thomas.html.