WHAT IS BEHIND THE DESK?
Behind the Desk is a monthly series in which I interview amazing published authors, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!
BEHIND THE DESK: cathryn hankla
Cathryn Hankla has been a poet, a writer, and an artist for almost her entire life and has just published her thirteenth book. She has been at Hollins College almost exclusively since she was eighteen, first as a student and now as Professor of English. Born in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, she has gone on to win a PEN Syndicated Prize in Fiction, the James Boatwright II Prize for Poetry, and a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
What does it mean to be a poet? What does it mean to be an artist?
Poet or artist is not so much an identity as an action, a way of being in the world, half in and half out of the waters that wash over everyone. One is a participant and an observer, an outsider and at once an insider, inwardly dwelling. Some are born to pray for the rest of us, and artists and writers do this in their own way, translating the world through imagery and words, and also provoking and challenging what we think of as reality. Art is not so much reflective of experience as it provides its own experience, a multiverse.
If half of my life has been spent in dreams and the other half in art, there’s yet another half, because dreams and art multiply life.
Can you talk a bit about how Galaxies came about and what you're hoping to put out into the world with your thirteenth book?
In this project, I’ve taken on a bit of the mad scientist persona to make my own imagined galaxies. The book started with a series of galaxy paintings, “The Pin Cushion Galaxy,” “Absolute Zero Galaxy,” etc. Then I started comparing the concepts of my paintings to actual, extant galaxies and found that some of the titles, which I had thought pure fantasy, were the same. Astronomers have a great sense of metaphor. At any rate, I take on the definition of galaxies as irregular and morphing in this poetic sequence: the idea that each galaxy is unpredictable and makes its own form. This might be why physical galaxies can be shy and hard to identify.
So, each of the poems is its own formal experiment, but the sequence makes them cohere thematically and rhythmically in groupings. I hope readers will find the poems musical, playful, and strange enough to be interesting. I always want to make a book of poems that gives aesthetic pleasure, relief, and challenge over multiple readings. Reading poems should be a layered experience, with new insights always cropping up for the reader who returns and returns to find that a poem has become more rewarding by deflecting first assumptions. The reader is somehow changed by the poem, but a good poem also keeps evolving.
You haven't stuck to a particular form of poetry in this collection. Did you purposely want to try different styles within one book, and how freeing (or nerve-wracking!) was it to write without stylistic limitations?
Ah, there are always limitations, the limits of our own sensibilities, what our earthly input has been, how deeply we can stand to dive into our own consciousness and return without DCS, or the bends. If you want to keep writing poems beyond your twenties, when the mind is at its most agile in terms of synaptic firings, you have to keep developing not only your craft but also your spiritual life, to meet yourself over and over, in forgiveness, grief, loss, joy, and love.
We are our own liberation machines and our own limiting mechanism. In this book, I’ve explored multiple ways of making poems, but they are all necessarily within the range of my voice. Many of the poems are kinds I’ve enjoyed making over the years, in couplets, tercets, quatrains, with internal rhyme and assonance knitting them together, with rhetorical urgencies propelling them, and so forth. I’ve written a book of prose poems (Texas School Book Depository) and a different sort of poetic sequence in tercets and sonnet forms (Last Exposures), so Galaxies has its stylistic precursors in my work. The long title poem of my other new collection Great Bear weaves lore about the constellation, so you see I’m caught with my head gazing at the sky quite a lot.
Nature seems to be a strong theme in Galaxies. What's your relationship to the natural world in your personal and professional life? Where in the world is your absolute favorite spot to enjoy nature?
Although I had some rounds of lessons in my childhood—piano, dance, and band—most of my time apart from school was unstructured. I grew up mainly out of doors, digging holes in the woods, riding bikes up and down hills, swimming, and playing pick up games of hide and seek, baseball, football, etc. in any sort of weather. I still enjoy exercising outside by running through the city and along the greenway and occasionally on trails. I do this when the sun is shining, but also when it’s cold or wet.
I respond to isolated natural settings with an overflow of joy. I’ve felt this way repeatedly in my home territory, which is quite beautiful to me, the soft blue hills, the valley shoulders, the way sky color melts into the oldest mountains and becomes them, but I also crave other settings, the ocean, the bereft jaggedness of northern New Mexico, the Rockies, certain canyons in Utah, and high desert where a subtlety of color and a harshness of surfaces pricks you into being more awake. I’ve also felt some aesthetic bliss in certain cities, San Francisco, Paris, and Prague.
For a long time I lived in the country with the moonlight, the cycles of the moon, very present to my house perched on a hillside opposite a mountain. In full moon, I could walk through the house almost in daylight and in the dark phase, it was like a vault of dark had descended because I lived in a narrow valley that shut out the city light. I live in the city of Roanoke now and, like most folks, I’m subjected to nearly constant artificial light. It might be making us all insane because we’ve lost touch with natural cycles of light and dark and other important beings, like animals. I used to give an assignment to my beginning creative writers to come up with twenty-five metaphors or similes about cows, and for about ten years there was no problem, and then I started having students in my class who had never seen a cow and could not picture one at all, and I began to realize that the only contact some people might ever have with the world as I had known it growing up and sought to continue knowing it, might be through an image in a poem.
This returns us to a discussion of how important the natural world is and has been historically to poetry itself. I absorbed this connection through reading the English Romantics and the American Transcendentalists, but in other cultures you can trace something similar and reverential. Now I wonder how anyone can understand these writers at all—or the revolt of Modernism that came in their wake—without some connection to the natural world, which for us now is hardly direct. My writing about nature is a way to capture images of a thing I love which is essential to all of us yet disappearing in large part due to our existence.
In this day and age it seems rare for people to stay in one place, let alone one job, but you've been with Hollins since your undergraduate career and have been involved in creative endeavors since you were even younger. Was this stability a conscious choice or a fortunate accident of fate? As an artist, how does this stability help (or hinder) your work?
I’ve aspired to be the Emily Dickinson of Southwest Virginia…
My adherence to place is odd, given my academic profession. I have actually taught at three other schools (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, now called Randolph College; UVA; and, for two years, at W&L), but these are all Virginia schools. I find this so unusual myself that I wrote about it in a forthcoming book, LOST PLACES: on losing and finding home (Mercer University Press, spring 2018). I decided it was fate: What other explanation can there be?
As common as it is to look for geographic solutions, it’s probably as rare to find them. There seem to be two major sorts of people: the dispossessed always searching for home and those at home who are dreaming. With my homing instinct has come a dose of wanderlust. I’ve spent months in Spain, France, and Central/Eastern Europe, on the islands of Malta, and in England, as well as the American west. Travel has given me access to different perspectives, but I’ve expanded more and gone deeper from reading. I started devouring books early and have never stopped. I usually have several going at once, a novel, poetry, and a nonfiction book or two. Gradually, I conclude one of them and start another. My mother passed her love of reading to me.
As for stability? In many remarkable ways, my life has lacked it. I’ve moved seven times since my twenties and have only been in my current home two years. Love relationships have come and gone leaving watermarks, and many of my immediate and extended family members have passed away. It’s been community I’ve been keen on. When you stay in a region you can develop a network of loyal and close friends with whom you’ve shared a lifetime of experiences. Not all of my close friends are in the area, but I’m grateful for the ones who’ve stayed. I was also able to care for my mother in her elderly years and this gave me perhaps the greatest gifts in spiritual terms of my life thus far. Anywhere is the center of the world: I believe it.
You said in an interview that a writer has to be "the kind of person who can delay gratification. If you're not, you won't stay with it." I think this is so true. Many writers are brave enough to put pen to paper initially, but are turned off by the daunting editing process (which can sometimes take longer than writing the work in the first place!). Having taught writers for many years, both at Hollins and at Nimrod Hall, do you think delaying gratification is an innate skill or can be taught?
It’s interesting to try to come to some conclusion about this, isn’t it? Some of my students have the knack of persistence, and I can always tell which ones, because they can’t wait for someone to say something about their work, really anything will do, because whether it’s praise or not the feedback prompts them into a new relationship with their work, and they can dive back into it and make it better and better with subsequent discoveries. Others want to sit distant from the thing they made as though they cannot make any more sense of it! Finishing something usually has many cycles to it; there’s the rush of having gotten something rough onto the page, and then the sweat of shaping it commences. I love the tinkering, which for me is really the writing itself. What others call revision, I call writing. Maybe if more children learned to garden or to cook they could develop a process mentality.
Many first-time writers have certain visions and expectations of what it's like to work with an editor and get their work published. What has your experience with the various publishers and editors you've worked with over the years been like? What advice do you give to writers hoping to get published these days?
There’s no predicting what this relationship of writer to editor might look like for anyone in particular, but I’d urge writers now to pay close attention to your writing teachers and fellow students, because you’re probably never going to be read as closely again. Internalize those lessons and pay close attention to what you can learn from the writing of others so you can be your own best editor.
As to publishing, placing what you have written with an agent and/or editor, and a press, I always keep in mind something the wonderful writer George Garret said to me when I was young and impatient about finding a publisher for a certain book: “You only need one editor!” He was telling me that writers just need one champion of their work, not a hundred. Keep looking until you find the one for what you’ve written.
You've collaborated with painters, sculptors, and studied filmmaking. And much of your poetry has a distinct musical quality to it. There's much to be said for mixing and sharing ideas with fellow creatives—what have been some of your favorite projects and what are some dream collaborations you'd like to do in the future?
These collaborations have all grown up quite organically from people, ideas, and methods rubbing shoulders, and one of them, the painted boxes of 6 inches by 6, literally came from a dream I had in which I was sort of ordered to make them, and so I did, with some very good help!
I had this idea to make a giant sombrero and somehow drop it onto the top of a rocket I’ve always loved that’s part of our local Transportation Museum. A little rocket anomaly in the midst of many trains… Well, we had a lot of brainstorming from both children and adults over that sombrero, what material to make it from, how light or heavy it should be, and especially how to get it up and onto the pointy head of the rocket, maybe with helium balloons and so forth. And then one day I was running by the rocket and realized that all we needed to do was to rent a cherry picker to place the sombrero onto the rocket—and all of my enthusiasm died in that moment.
That was a parable.
My father lived in Prague for ten years, and moved there right after the fall of Communism. I know he found it to be a magical, inspiring, infuriating, and magnetic place to live. Can you share some of your experiences from your time spent in the Czech Republic and how they informed your work?
That must have been quite a formative experience for your dad. Texas School Book Depository: prose poems (LSU, 2000) came out of my Prague experiences and out of my reading formerly proscribed literature or samizdat, especially A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvik Vaculik. I was only in Prague a couple of different months in 1994 and ‘95. The city was being revived by the locals and adopted by young Americans whom many Czechs thought were Germans because our language sounded the same to their ears= a bit problematic. Older Czechs had been forced to learn German and then Russian, younger ones merely Russian.
Being there gave me the opportunity to blend in with people who looked so much like me. I was, as in many parts of Europe, always spoken to in the native language, in this case the multisyllabic and nearly impossible Czech. One day, I went into a bank and the teller and I locked eyes realizing simultaneously that we looked enough like each other to be sisters.
Prague was disconcerting in other ways, as well, and had the ability to elude and evade understanding. There were ten centuries of architecture and as many layers of occupation and language and yet something quite untouchable emanated from all of this; the city does have its own spirit. I think you captured it well with your stream of adjectives: “magical, inspiring, infuriating, magnetic.” To that I would only add labyrinthine. I spent a lot of time wandering and lost.
In an age of ADD, short attention spans, and quick phone scrolling, I'm always amazed that short stories and poetry—literary works that are far quicker to read than lengthy novels—haven't become more popular in our culture. Why do you think this might be, and is there something publishers/booksellers/magazines/awards could do to promote these often overlooked genres?
I’m not at all sure that the short forms aren’t more popular, at least to write, but if short stories are not as popular with readers as novels, it has more to do with the fact that there aren’t very many outlets for them to be published. Short stories used to be sold—and I mean for real money—to all kinds of print publications, and now we only see them in a few slick print magazines of national distribution. Of course, short stories and short forms are all over the place in literary journals in print and online, but to the general public short forms have disappeared from the newsstands, giving the false impression that no one wants to read them. I think people do want to read them and would take the same pleasure in a story now as they did in the 1950s and earlier, when working writers could actually make a living by selling three stories a month to various magazines. I think what we have here may be a marketplace situation, not an actual case of reader preference.
As for poetry, the general reader has been taught to approach it like it’s a puzzle or a tiger and begins the process already defended in ways that disallow the poem to work on them. I find most poetry approachable enough for the general reader, but again, when have you walked into a newsstand in an airport to find even one shelf of poetry? I want to ask what’s so scary about poetry that we have, as a culture, decided to hide it from view?
If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only a pen or a paintbrush, which one would you choose?
Oh, this is an easy one: I can draw with a pen or write with a brush, but I think you mean I’d have to give one up. One path has claimed my greater energies and become a way of knowledge and a meditation. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’d still take the words for now.