Over the next year, I will be interviewing poets and writers whose work I admire. It is a pleasure for me to learn more about the origins of their creative work, and I hope you will enjoy discovering great new writers to read from all over the world. The format is a twenty-question interview, from which writers select the questions to which they feel called to respond, ignoring the rest. I will also include excerpts of their work throughout the week that their interview is posted.
First Interview: Lauren Haldeman (http://laurenhaldeman.com) author of Calenday.
- How and when did poetry find you?
Poetry found me at an early age – I can remember making books of it in elementary school. There was a room at our school where you could “publish a book”, which meant you could laminate a cover that you had drawn and then bind it with those plastic presentation binders. I think they called it “The Publishing Room”, or something like that. I was obsessed with this room. I tried to get in there every chance I had.
- What have you done to feed yourself all these years?
Well, in my twenties, I was doing pretty destructive things to lessen the anxiety and intensity of life, and I am so glad that I found a way out of those patterns. Really, I almost didn’t. The last five or six years have been pretty hard for myself and my family – I became a new mother (with all the joy and panic that comes with that), and I’ve lost several family members -- my brother Ryan (he was killed on a street in Denver), my grandmother and my father. I struggled intensely with post-partum depression too, dealing with panic attacks, anxiety and OCD. During all of this, I have been sober, having quit drinking 5 years ago. So I had to – very quickly and urgently – develop other coping mechanisms to handle the suffering. I turned to mindfulness meditation, and that really helped. Not in a spacey, new-age way either – I learned really basic, nitty-gritty techniques to deal with, say, the sickening and unrivaled feeling that I was going to die inside whenever I thought of my brother. I learned to sit with those feelings and do the hard work of just feeling them. Unbelievably, this created a type of courage within me that I didn’t have before: through practice I realized that the feelings weren’t going to kill me and, if I just let them be there, they would eventually pass. An emotion really only lasts about 90 seconds in your body. It is all the thinking that makes it stick around and keep cycling. So I try to go into my body and just feel the emotion. Oh, also: exercise. That is such good medicine.
1. In what other realms are you competent?
I love to draw, make puppets, make comics and tiny theaters. I love coding and web design – that is actually my day job – working with code, making programs and webpages work, making them beautiful. In the past, I’ve played accordion in several rock bands. In my teen years, I played a lot of soccer. Sleeping: I am really good at sleeping. I am basically a sleeping master. Also, let’s see: I really like volunteering for things I don’t have time to do. And I can eat a half of pint of ice cream in under two minutes.
- Narrative, experimental, lyric—stake your ground, and share what made you plant your flag where you did in the poetry landscape.
Intense! Very intimidating to choose. I tend to lean towards narrative and lyrical. My default pattern for first draft writing is usually iambic pentameter. It is accidental; it just happens when I write, which can actually be very frustrating. I want to explore experimental forms more, and I have been reading so many new poets who have mastered it these days: very inspiring.
- Were you mentored as a young poet?
I was. I had the great fortune of finding the University of Iowa right out of high school and moving to Iowa City. I immediately met so many people here that it would be impossible to list. When I was an undergrad at the UI, I studied with Robyn Schiff, Dan Beachy-Quick and Spencer Short – they were grad students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the time and I took their classes as an undergrad. It was like being filled with high-octane fuel – my writing just exploded under these great influences. Later on, when I myself was a grad student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I studied with Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Cole Swenson, Mark Levine, James Galvin, and so many more … their influences were equally as powerful.
- Have you mentored others?
I hope I have. I teach creative writing classes to students in Iowa City as well as internationally, many of them just like me at age 18 – searching, engaged, driven – and have helped many of them move towards the next level. I have also mentored students through my job as the editor of the Writing University at the UI. It makes me so happy to share knowledge and information that might provide that same fuel. I remember being there, as a student.
- What kind of literary community do you have?
In Iowa City, we have a spectacular literary community! We are a UNESCO City of Literature. The place is crawling with writers. Everywhere you go, there are people working, writing. I am sure you saw it when you were here for your residency the International Writing Program, right? It can almost be too much at times. There are readings almost every night, there are classes and groups and events and support everywhere. Every year, a new program or initiative is added at the University of Iowa or in the Iowa City community or through the UNESCO City of Literature. I love it. If you want to be a writer, come here!
- Talk to us about your first book—how it came to be, what surprised you about the process…
Yes, of course. I had a single manuscript that I had been sending out for years. It was a collection of work that I had produced during undergrad and grad school and I felt pretty good about it. It was chosen as a finalist for several prizes -- the Walt Whitman, the Colorado Review – but it just kept, I don’t know, losing? After about 7 years I felt like giving up. And then I got pregnant and had a baby. At that point in my life I thought, “Well, that’s it. My time as a writer is over.” But something strange happened. I had no time, but I started writing for five minutes each day. Exhausted, I bought this little set of 12 notebooks, one for each month of the year, and tried to write something on each day’s page. There were many entries that were just complaints, rants and self-loathing. One time I wrote a whole page that was just the word “Angry” over and over. Then, near the end of that first year, one of my friends read a few of the poems and pushed me to edit them, type them up. They started to accumulate, and suddenly I saw that I might have the beginnings of a collection. I started working on the poems, thinking they fit into a theme of sleep-deprivation and motherhood.
It was right around this time that I lost my brother. I stopped everything at that point and just sort of disappeared into that haze of grief. When I resurfaced, had had written a few things about Ryan -- poems that acted as a sort of working grief machine, poems that I actually used as tools during my early grieving to help me process what happened. Somehow, those poems found a place in the book too.
- Tell us about the origins of your poem, “Criminals.”
Criminals came out of that daily writing routine that I mentioned earlier. There is a specific story behind it though: I had my daughter Ellie in the hospital and it was a quick, traumatic birth. There was no time for pain medicine or an epidural, so I gave birth to her naturally. That was intense. And like I said, the post-partum depression set in pretty immediately. A few days after giving birth, I was in the hospital recovery room, sleeping, with Ellie on my chest. A social worker came in to the room to talk to me about basic safety measures, etc., and she asked me if I planned to sleep with my baby. It was weird, because I thought “well, shit, didn’t you just walk in to the room while I was just now sleeping in this bed with my baby?” Instead I said “Oh no! No of course not.” And I felt so guilty. I felt so criminal.
After we took Ellie home, I just felt like I couldn’t get anything right. We were having a really hard time breastfeeding, I didn’t know if I was changing her diapers correctly, I was afraid I was holding her head in the wrong way. And the only way she would sleep was if she was right next to me in the bed. So, desperate to get sleep, I set up an elaborate system to keep her safe in that bed, but still every night, totally exhausted and without hope, we would lay down together and I would think “We are doing this all wrong. We are criminals.”
- What goes through your head as you sign your book for a stranger after a reading?
Ha! Great question. Always – always -- there is the panic that I will spell their name wrong. And if it is someone I know, so often I suddenly just forget their name! I forget my own friend’s name! It is terrible. My brain just fizzes out. And in all of this mayhem, I try to write how much I am grateful that they even came to see me read, and even want to have my book. So it gets pretty cheesy, whatever I write. It is like “Thanks for buying my book I hope you like it return it if you don’t like it I will give you the money back myself.”
1. Tell us about the origins of your poem, “Demolition.”
“Demolition” is about my brother. Ryan died in November of 2012 – he was was stabbed to death late at night on a street in Denver. It was a random act of violence. My parents called me the next day. And I just … well, the whole mourning process was very foggy, intense, muddled and strange. I actually can’t remember a lot of it. But about five months after my brother died, my partner Ben and I had scheduled to re-do our kitchen. We were doing a lot of the demolition work ourselves: taking crowbars and sledgehammers to the cabinets and walls, ripping out wood, paneling, metal, etc. I had been processing Ryan’s death in many ways – through counseling, exercise, over-working, and just flat out weeping – but when we started that demolition, I don’t know, there was something about the violence of the actions that struck me right to the core. I thought “This is what happened to my brother’s body.” And one morning, in the middle of the demo, I went to work, sat down, and wrote “Demolition” in one go. It just came out, as it was, like some sort of strange vomit or expulsion. And after I wrote it, I felt much better. It was as though writing the poem revealed something that my brain couldn’t approach.
1. Tell us something you’ve never shared before in an interview.
I am embarrassed because I’m not much of a traveler – I’ve never flown over an ocean and I’ve only very shortly been to Mexico and Canada. Mostly this is because of fear – fear of flying, fear of the unknown, the uncomfortable feeling of breaking a routine, being out of your “safe zones”, I suppose. I tend to like to stay in my routine, in my little town, in my small organized life. This is a bit embarrassing to me to say, and at other times, it is alarming to me. When my father passed away this summer from cancer, I suddenly thought with a panic that these fears were preventing me from doing so much. I realized that if I didn’t make changes, time would pass, and that when something – like cancer – happens, you don’t often have the time or the resources to make up for lost opportunities. So I have been trying to confront those fears. Get out of my safe zones, in many ways. And I recently had the opportunity to do a reading and lecture tour in South Africa with the International Writing Program. We will be there teaching, speaking, and participating in cultural diplomacy. So presently, I am trying to work on taming the panic that daily arises when I think of the flight times and the uncertainty, because I don't want to be guided by fear anymore.
1. What have you had to overcome in order to call yourself a poet?
It is still hard for me to call myself a poet. I introduce myself as a web designer. If it does come up, I will say that “oh yes, I also write poetry.” It is not that I am ashamed or feel unworthy about saying it – I think it is more that I want to keep that part of myself safe, protected. It is precious, so I want to let it live in a quiet place.
1. Share a poem you admire that you didn’t write by a poet we probably haven’t heard of yet.
I especially love the work of Kiki Petrosino and Sabrina Orah Mark right now. This poem “Pool” by Sabrina Orah Mark is particularly fantastic, incredibly disturbing and very very hilarious, all at the same time: http://www.jubilat.org/jubilat/archive/issue23/pool
Two poems by Lauren Haldeman. Demolition speaks to anyone who has lost a loved one to violence, and Criminals to anyone who has faced the bewilderment of birthing a human. But both of them are universal in the way all excellent poems are universal--because they both employ startlingly innovative imagery to precisely, painfully capture the emotion of a lived experience.
We tore the cabinets out. The sound
of an animal vomiting.
We pulled the faucet from the wall
& suddenly I thought
of your body. How a knife went
in it, how a knife
was yanked out. There was only one place
where you could’ve died and we didn’t
know where it was
until now. Next to a parking lot
on a sidewalk in Denver, everyone
can only die in one place and you
died there. The sound of teeth
chattering. You died
with your jacket on; we didn’t get that
jacket back. We didn’t get to see
where the knife cut the clothes. We
swung a sledgehammer at the wall.
The sound of coughing. The sound
of a dog being kicked.
Where your clothes were cut
by the knife seems like
a secret. Even the dead want
their privacy, I guess. How dead
you are now. How private.
I cried because your head came out of my body. Your whole body came out of my body & it
was nuts. It was absolutely insane. Then your hands kept hitting your face. Over & over, you didn’t
even know what your face was, but it still kept getting hit.
Everything we did was wrong. The cat put his butt in your face. My milk got in your nose.
I pulled you
on the bed
where we slept