Friday, January 12, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman is the author of Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, Center for Literary Publishing, 2017), Calenday (Rescue Press, 2014) and the artist book The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Colorado Review, Fence, The Iowa Review and The Rumpus. A comic book artist and poet, she has taught in the U.S. as well as internationally. She has been a recipient of the 2015 Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, the Colorado Prize for Poetry and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her online at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Calenday, really pulled me out of a deep creative rut. I had been writing and trying to get published for so long, from an early age, and after years and years of rejections, I started to give up. My manuscripts weren't getting picked up by presses, my voice felt stalled, and my life had suddenly significantly changed (I birthed a human baby!) – so it felt like my poetry life must be over. I actually had the thought, "I'm a mother now so I can't be anything else." But I still kept writing. Like, I couldn't really stop. The poems in both Instead of Dying and Calenday weren't written with an audience in mind because I thought I had given up.  And then that first book revitalized me. It made me remember what I was doing & why. It made me realize it wasn't over – I was just actually starting. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Oh, I thought I was going to be a great novelist! I came to the University of Iowa for undergrad when I was 18, and I dove right into fiction classes. Very quickly early on, one of my teachers pulled me aside and said "Lauren, I ... I think you are writing ... poetry," like it was some awkward discovery. And it was true: the words in my "fiction" were so dense on the page; I would write whole pages of "fiction" that were just me describing how leaves turn into mulch. Whole pages of that! Can you imagine? I never actually got to an narrative plot point. I just wanted to write about mulch. So, poetry it was.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I would say both. Much of Instead of Dying happened in first drafts. I would sit down to write, and a poem would come out. Of course, this is the result of years and years of writing and failing, for over a decade. At some point, you have written so much crap that non-crap eventually just *has* to come out. You can quote me on that, too; it is obviously a brilliant quote. 

Then there is this other collection I've been working on called Team Photograph; it has been in the making for 18 years. I have copious amounts of notes for it, I have done a rabid amount of research. I keep rewriting huge chunks of it. Who knows when it will be finished. Hey, maybe it will be never finished!! Hahaha! *weeps*

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I usually work in very small chunks. Sometimes I write in a notebook that is the size of my palm. Small. Other times I take disparate lines and cut them up and spread them over a table and then see which ones "like" each other. I gather while researching too, writing down sections, citations, and then coming back to them. I also use form rigorously. I will take small sections of loose writing and then work them into a triolet, say, or a sonnet, ghazal, hoku. And once I see the forms arising, I will replicate them into sections. I constructed Instead of Dying in this manner: two sections of palm-sized prose poems, two sections of mirror-poems, two sections of disparate lines from my secret poetry Twitter account and one section of science poems. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, but I hate flying. So it is a constant battle of trying to set them up, and then steeling myself for the trip. Why don't we have a better train system in the states? Seriously. Trains would solve this.   

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Mostly the question I am trying to answer is this: what in the world is going on?! I mean, like, seriously, what is happening? We are on this planet, in the middle of ... what? And we are "people" with "our selves" which are just small collections of sensory input, curated by a tiny body structure, limited by space, which will eventually deteriorate into soil. Sometimes it barely seems real. WHAT IN THE WORLD IS HAPPENING? What is this all? I don't know. So, I will keep writing and writing until I figure it out.

Also, I constantly have more embodied questions, like: what are my responsibilities as a white writer right now? A non-binary writer? How can I approach privilege and race in my work? How can I approach uncomfortable questions, listen actively and move closer to clarity?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Poetry is code, and code is valuable, especially in times of political crisis, especially in times of reduced clarity. Poetry is a way to express truth through subliminal messages, with nuance that subverts defenses. When people's minds are closed, poetic language can get through. It is complex enough to inhabit all of the complicated and mucky layers of pride and ego and fear. It is a way to wake people up. 

And really, at the heart of so much of the current hatred and bigotry in our culture is the fear of death. Death is where poetry resides, so it is uniquely qualified to help. 

Also, writers tell the stories that make up our being. They shape consciousness. In this way, they are as essential as scientists and clerics.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with editors! I've had two amazing editors in my career so far: Caryl Pagel for Calenday and Stephanie G'Schwind for Instead of Dying. They are both geniuses. And they both made it feel collaborative, like teamwork. I'm a big fan of teamwork! Also, I am always questioning my own work, and these editors provided the interaction and feedback I needed to fully trust in the quality of the poetry. When things need to be fixed, they were on it. I liked how they didn't hold back.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Robyn Schiff was my first poetry teacher in undergrad, and she suggested I write poems with camera angles in mind, as though I were directing a film. Try it: it's magical. And when John McPhee came to speak in Iowa City a while ago, he told us that he wrote for a certain amount of time each day, and would drop the pen when the timer went off. It wasn't much time, maybe two hours? And that guy has A LOT of books. Which implied to me: it all adds up. 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to painting)? What do you see as the appeal?
I tend to compartmentalize. When I am in writing mode, writing is all I am doing – I carry a dorky file folder around with all my notes and drafts in it, and I take it out in doctor's offices and restaurants and on the bus, and I write between dinner and bedtime and any extra moments. I tinker and putz and fix and edit. This could go on for months. And then something will shift, and I just CAN'T write anymore, writing is AWFUL, I will never write again! And so I paint, and draw, and sketch at the kitchen table, and also scan sketches and do tons of Photoshop and Illustrator. The two modes rarely mix. 

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My day begins at 6:30am when I have to get my main project – my child project – up and going. I make sure the 7yo is fed, dressed and on the school bus. Then I head to my day job, where I write code and build websites. I use a timer system in all my work, kind of like the Pomodoro technique, to make sure I'm productive: 50 minute work blocks, with 10 minute breaks. Inside of all this, I am constantly looking for bits of time to do creative work. Maybe I edit a poem at lunch. Maybe I sketch a field on the way home. And then once every few months, I'll block off full days to bring it all together. Maybe it is a weekend. Or maybe I go away to finish – there is this kind of eco-universalist Franciscan retreat center up in Cedar Rapids (45 min north of Iowa City) where you can get a room and three meals a day for $65. This is where I've finished both of my books. I go up there with all the loose creations -- poems and notes that I've been accumulating in the small bits of time – and hopefully, three days later, I have a working manuscript. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
 I love research. Either primary research or field research will do it for me. Especially museum language – placards, display cards, event descriptions, timelines. I love that kind of stuff, and it always gets me writing again. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of wet leaves. Boxwood. Certain types of underarm deodorant. There was a brand of deodorant called "Teen Spirit" when I was in middle school, and anything that smells like that takes me back. Do they still make "Teen Spirit"? If any of your readers know, please give me a heads up.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Coding and computer languages really influence my work. The languages and terms of programming are gorgeous. Bytes, unicode, cascading style sheets, bash, explode, all these lovely terms. I mean, we created these machines, these computers, with our own minds, so they are aligned with the thought-processes of humans, which is in turn aligned with language. Language effects how we think, and how we think effects how we program and code – so it follows that computing is a blossoming of linguistics. And learning a new coding language is basically like learning how someone else thinks. Isn't that a definition of writing too, especially poetry? 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is a crazy question to try to answer! Whew. I mean, there are so many writers that nourish me on a daily basis. I feel nervous trying to even list a few? Since there are so many, I will try to list some, maybe: Kiki Petrosino, Shane McCrae, Charles Wright, Eve Ewing, Ko Un, Heather Christle, Suzanne Buffam, Saeed Jones, Susan HoweWallace Stevens, Tomaž Šalamun, William Butler Yeats, Zach Savich, Holly Amos, Claudia Rankine, Apollinaire ... I mean, I can't. Names keep coming to mind. And that's just the poets. I read so much fiction too, and nonfiction. I read just about everything. There are people making important work everywhere. 

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to shear sheep and gather the wool and then spin the wool into yarn. I don't knit, so I'd hand it off from there. I'd like to have a dog help me in the field where the sheep are, and the dog would help me herd the sheep, maybe up and down some hills, through a bit of forest. I'd also like to see Japan + Machu Picchu + Venice + Switzerland. I haven't traveled much (see: fear of flying.)

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Yes! So to expand on the last question, I'd have some sheep! I'd be a "shepherd" right? Would that be what it's called? I'd have a dog and we would head out in the morning to take the flock to graze, and we would walk over pastures and rocky terrain and through bits of trees, and then in the season for shearing, I would shear them. And we'd sell the wool? That sounds legitimate, right? I'm not out of my mind here, am I?  I'd get to wear boots all day, and be muddy and walk through the drizzle, and my dog would be named Sebastian, and we'd build a fire at night. And obviously ... I don't know enough about this to actually do it. That's probably why I am a writer instead. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I mean, I've tried several other things, and I still create in other ways, but I keep coming back to writing. Maybe it is because I enjoy language and I like to talk to people? And writing is a refined form of talking. Also, I think so much about language is funny, silly and joyous. Probably most of all, I love hanging out with writers – they tend to "play" well with their imaginations, so conversations quickly become abstract and odd. There is deep pleasure in that. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am reading Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead again. She wrote this tome back in 1990, I think, but it eerily feels like a manual for our current times. She writes in a very gritty way within the Native American tradition, so you have this beautiful folklore mixed with cocaine dealers and handguns and guarded concrete compounds. It is fascinating and terrifying. I feel like I'm reading some sort of survival guide. She is a visionary.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I've been working on this collection of poetry called Team Photograph for 18 years. I am still working on it. It involves a mashup of poetry and research about hallucinations, soccer, the First Battle of Bull Run, ghosts and hypnagogia. So yes. My next step is to add a graphic novel component to it – weaving in poetry comics – I am working on those drawings right now.

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