The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: On your website it says you teach writing workshops. What sort of effect does this have on your writing?
Kathryn Hunt: Teaching and writing feed each other. Preparation for a class gives me a chance to think about questions I may be carrying myself but haven’t yet articulated, often related to my own work, and there’s real pleasure and value in that. Right now, for instance, I’m thinking about ways it might be possible to open up the narrative impulse in a poem. How do we invite mystery, revelation, and surprise into the poem? How do we leave room for that? So I’ll focus on that when I teach next. Silence is important to me as a writer, what Lewis Hyde has called “slowly unfolding days surrounded by the invisible fences of solitude.” Those conditions aren’t always easy to come by but they are essential to most writers. When there’s a little silence in our day we are better able to hear what the poem or life itself might have to say to us. Maybe the associative quality of the mind is more alive when we are quiet with ourselves, and then maybe we can see and acknowledge the connections between ourselves and others, ourselves and the world, the birds in our yard, the yappy dog, the mountains that ring the city. The field of the poem opens up and indirection, juxtaposition, and correspondences can arise and create meaning and dramatic tension in our poems from seemingly disparate pieces. So that’s what I’m looking at now and want to talk with my students about this year. Often people come to workshops to gain a better sense of what a writing life might look like for themselves. I’m encouraged by how earnestly they desire to speak, to tell their stories, to connect. They want to know how to be able to sit down and be still, how to allow their work to mean something, and I’m willing to explore that with them. Their struggles and searches feed into my own commitments to writing.
RR: In “Reading Hamlet” there is a very careful pairing of words that ordinarily don’t go together; for instance, we as readers get images of “moon-mown hours” and “far-off castled nights.” These phrases show the influence of Shakespeare on your writing, of course, but we’re interested in what sort of process you used to capture his sort of rich but original imagery?
KH: We didn’t have much in the way of literature in the house I grew up in, but we had Shakespeare, National Geographic, and the King James bible. Really, what more could you want? The music in the books and the photographs in the magazines found a place in me, thanks to my mother.
The process of writing poetry, for me, is about revision. There is the first draft, and sometimes, rarely, a poem arrives whole, nearly complete. More likely the poem finds its shape and language little by little, over time, the layers building up over the course of a week or a year or longer. I piece it together. I revise. I take words out and put them back in. I toss them away forever or save them for another poem. I move stanzas and phrases around. I think and think about the meaning of what I’m trying to say. It’s not uncommon to write twenty or thirty drafts before I feel I have it, that I’ve gone as far as I can go with it. Not perfect but as far as I can take it. I go by sense. I can feel when a word or a phrase or a stanza is not finished, isn’t quite there. It bothers me, it needles me, it calls me to keep at it. I have to curb the impulse to be clever and show off, and just keep digging. If I’m lucky, something else comes along that is closer to something true.
I just looked back at the drafts of “Reading Hamlet.” The image “moon-mown” was in the first draft. A lucky break. There was a moon outside the window the night before my mother died. She died the morning of my 37th birthday, thirty years ago. Maybe I was thinking of that. And of course, the moon is female in many cultures and I carry that sense as well. Moon, mother. Mown, moan. The feeling of being cut down, the crescent moon as a scythe, my mother’s death. Maybe. I don’t really know. The image “far-off castled nights” didn’t show up until the eighteenth draft, the final draft. I struggled with that image. I wanted it to be “muted” or “hushed” nights but that really would have referred to those nights I sat by her bed, keeping vigil. The poem seemed to resist that, those variations never got me there. Finally, I found “far-off castled nights” which seems to point to Hamlet and the ramparts he walked in search of his father’s ghost. And points as well to the fortress of our house, my mother’s house, both a place of refuge but also of battles and suffering. Maybe all of that came into play and gave me the feeling I’d finally found what worked, what the poem needed. Revision: that’s the essence of my process with poetry.
RR: In “Water Children” you write about the “quick undoing of small beings,” such as what normally happens to fallen baby birds. This seems to harken back to your filmmaking about children and their struggles through poverty or the foster care system. How do these past projects continue to influence your current poetics?
KH I live on a small piece of wooded land in Port Townsend, in Washington state, near the coast of the Salish Sea. I need only look out my windows to see birds and deer and raccoons coming through on the hunt, the small town and suburban equivalents of the wildness of creatures that people knew intimately only a handful of generations ago. Seeing them, hearing them, walking among them is a rich and pleasurable part of my day. On the trails and in my garden, it is not unusual to find bones, or dead birds or even larger animals. This poem came out of thinking about a day when I’d found a dead sparrow in the yard—I’d heard it hit the window. It turned out, happily, not to be dead after all. But the poem quickly led to questions about time passing and mortality, the ephemerality of things, including beauty, of the constant change that characterizes our existence. And from there it led to the sense I have about the closeness of the paths we don’t take in our lives; in this case, for me, the fact that I am not a mother, I didn’t have children. I don’t regret that, though I do feel those possible lives are around me sometimes, in my thoughts and my heart, and I grow a little wistful. Who would they have been, “the waiting ones who hover near, the ones I brush against at night”?
I do think my films are connected to my own childhood in some way, a working out of that far-away time. My films were always in some way about children in extremis. I grew up in an alcoholic home—my mother died of it—and that experience has colored my life in many ways, some of which I’m grateful for. I would say that my documentary film work expressed a compelling interest in the stories of others. I asked the people who are in my films to tell me in their own words how it’d been for them, what their lives had been like growing up homeless or in foster care (neither of which I experienced), or with parents who were addicted or had beaten them or whatever it was. Children were the primary narrators of my films. I wanted to understand how people survive, and not only survive but start over and grow after living through difficult circumstances early in life.
I love the first-person narrative. Both my parents came from strong oral storytelling traditions. The manuscript I’ve just completed, “You Won’t Find It on a Map,” includes a number of persona poems in the voices of people who have lived hard lives, or maybe simply the common conditions of life: death, loss, fear, illness, injustice. If there are remedies for harm, and if there is to be social justice, it starts, I suspect, with the stories we tell and listen to about what people have lived through. That was what my films attempted, and yes, it shows up in the poems as well.
RR: “Reading Hamlet” is written in a form reminiscent of a sonnet, minus the end rhyme scheme, but “Water Children” is written in free verse. What sort of difference do you find in writing with a form in mind and writing free verse?
KH: The kind of poetry we write, using some variation on traditional forms, or free verse, exists on a spectrum. Even “Water Children,” written in free verse as you rightly point out, follows a kind of arbitrary form of my own choosing: five six-line stanzas, the somewhat regular beats and music of the long lines, the occasional slant rhyme. I like the idea of using form in poetry, though my use of it is very casual. In Zen practice, you create a container from the rituals of posture, bows, bells, and chants and that container allows you to relax into the silence, to consider the world as it is. The container of ritual holds you. The rest is taken care of. Stand now, sit now, bow now. The form simplifies life down to the essential. In poetry, I enjoy the way form—loosely applied in my case—narrows and at the same time amplifies my choices. I don’t know why, but surprising associations are more likely to arise when I tighten up the form a bit. It may not show up in the first draft but as I revise I let some kind of form or stricture into the poem, and by limiting my choices something unexpected asserts itself. Why is that?
RR: Do you find a connection in producing documentary-style films and writing creatively, perhaps in your own individual artistic process?
KH: Totally different processes between writing and filmmaking—I’ve enjoyed doing both at different times in my life. The biggest difference is that writing is solitary and filmmaking is a collaborative effort, with lots of people involved at every stage. Also, you must raise a big pile of money to make a film; it’s a very expensive medium to work in. With writing, it’s between you and the sheet of paper or glowing screen. If you’re lucky, a publisher and readers might come along later but other than that, you’re on your own for a long time. Making films I felt very lucky to be allowed into the lives of others and to hear their stories. I stay in touch with some of the people I made films about, we still talk about that time when I was filming them and how that was for them. Writing poetry, I feel very grateful for the quiet and reflective time I have alone to invite the poems into the world. It was serendipity that I managed to work in these two very different mediums, directing films and scratching out poems. I should introduce the poet to the filmmaker someday. They might have something to say to each other.
Kathryn Hunt’s work in Issue 4.2: