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.


Q and A with Kathleen Volk Miller

Kathleen Volk Miller will be featured, along with Leonard Gontarek and Mike Ingram, in the next Poetdelphia reading (Friday, Dec. 14th). Check out the following interview for some insights about writing, teaching, and good books.

Poetdelphia: What do you find particularly compelling or engaging about writing nonfiction. I’m curious about this because I think your strong sense and use of voice would be quite suitable to other genres; it’d translate well to poetry, for instance. Do you naturally gravitate to CNF, non-fiction, or personal essays? Do subjects seem to choose their forms (if you know what I mean)? What kinds of particular challenges come with this style and genre?

Kathleen Volk Miller: Well, that’s a funny question to start with because for the majority of my life, I thought I was supposed to write fiction. I wrote short stories and was rejected for years and years.

I’m not sure if there was a moment that was some large turning point or anything—I guess I had things to say that weren’t fiction.

I also think I simply got old enough that I got brave enough to not need the “shield” of fiction.

My essays have fared much better than my fiction and now I’m fully comfortable in that genre instead. I do believe it may be easier, at least for me and at least right now. I’m just “talking” on the page without so many of the concerns that come up with fiction.

I’m very much enjoying “playing” with flash CNF.

I enjoy dabbling with poetry. With reading as much as I do, who could I not? I tell my students that reading poetry will help inform their writing—even non-literary writing, and I firmly believe it does.

I’ve written very few poems. I wish I was better at it. A professor in grad school said that my poems sounded like the lyrics to country songs and that—quite seriously—turned me off from attempting poetry for years.

I’m going to read a couple of poems on 12/14 so you can tell me if they sound like country songs instead!

Poetdelphia: Can you recommend one specific new book that you have been reading? What’s great about the book, the author?

Kathleen Volk Miller: Right now I’m reading Paul Lisicky’s “Lawnboy” an older novel of his I’ve always wanted to read. My next purchase will be Lisicky’s “Unbuilt Projects” for two reasons—1) I am really enjoying “Lawnboy” and 2) I just heard him read something from Unbuilt Projects that I must read again and teach and share every way I can. Mind blowing.

I am a huge Steve Almond fan. Totally in love with his work right now. What I admire most is how he gets away with really, really romantic language because he uses so little of it, interspersed with visceral, stripped down language.

Poetdelphia: Can you share a writing tip or prompt? (If you don’t approach your work in this way, or don’t use prompts/exercises that much, feel free to tell us something about your process or writing habits generally.)

Kathleen Volk Miller: I do not use prompts for myself. My favorite one for students—a first line for fiction, is, “Honey, there’s a bear at the door.” I just had a terrific creative writing class and one of my students came up with this one, “This guy gets in a cab.”

Poetdelphia: In what ways do the arts (could include non-literary arts) influence your work? Can you give an example (of an inspiring work, of a time you made use of some artwork)?

Kathleen Volk Miller: I’m going to read a poem on 12/14 that references Dylan’s “Do Not Go Gently” and another one that almost mockingly mimics Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Neither were prompts, but came to my consciousness as I wrote the poems. Funny, huh, that I don’t consider myself a poet and I wrote two poems after other poems?

I think this is a tough question—everything we experience/see/read becomes part of who we are, so therefore becomes part of our work. I don’t know if I can separate out any other SPECIFIC art influences.

Poetdelphia: Thanks so much! We can’t wait to hear you read next week!