Hailey Higdon is the author of the chapbook How To Grow Almost Everything (Agnes Fox, 2011) and the book-blog The Palinode Project. She runs What To Us (press) and is publishing several chapbooks by emergent female poets in a series called THE DIMES. Some of her recent poems appear in cannot exist. Her home is currently some middle earth between Nashville and Philly.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I made my first chapbook by myself. The process endowed me with a nice sense of power. But what is it Peter Parker’s uncle says? With power comes great responsibility? I say, sometimes power comes with a great addiction to control, which is a hard thing to be rid of sometimes. I guess that’s why it’s difficult for me to speak to that work now. The book was part one of the Palinode Project, the latter part of which appeared only on the web. The entire set of poems was an education. By the end of it, I was taking risks that I never would have considered before. Deciding not to put part two into a book allowed me to relinquish some of that control.
The poems I am writing now are very different than those earlier ones, though I feel a little too inside the process to say how. I suppose in the early poems I was setting the stage for a poem to happen when I set down to write. Now, I feel like I’m just an old plump berry on a tree. My favorite mockingbird will come along and kick me, noodle with me, peck at me, and eventually I’ll pop and everything inside will spill out.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have been writing poetry more naturally than fiction since I was quite young, however I studied both in college. In the early 2000’s I was living in Madison, Wisconsin and trying to write a novel after dropping out of grad school. I worked at hat shop, lived in a coop, and tried my damndest to write a linear novel. Only, it didn’t interest me. Straightforward narrative has always felt pretty boring for me to write. Eventually, I moved to Philly and started to break down the novel into patchwork—to try to see it geodesically, instead of on a linear plane, but it was hard, mostly because the text began as sequential. All this time I was writing poems, probably with more success than the fiction, though I didn’t considered it my medium. It took a while for me to stop drawing lines between poetry and fiction as if they were land blocks. Once I began to do that, I began to consider myself more a poet. Also, my poems include a lot of fictions, which helps.
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?
Lately I’m a more piecemeal writer. I find time to write often only in times of transit or transition. These scribbles often carry over in complete sections to a bundle document of words and jibberish that all feel related. Most of these notes stay exactly as they were written. Still, I sit down and read them to myself over and over again, editing out the parts that don’t belong, saving them for another poem, and adding more words or sounds. Lots of the transitions in my poems are initially sonic. The language begins as a part of one community, but is not restricted there. Words or phrases travel to other poems, also things mutate, get killed off or born. It’s very biological. Though I am always taking notes, it takes me a while to feel like I have enough material to gather into a poem. Of course, this is not a static answer, this is just the way I write right now.
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?
Right now, I write mostly discrete poems that eventually end up bonding with other poems so I can see some sort of shape around them. The boundaries can be nebulous though. Sometimes one shape can blend into, combine with or overshadow another. For better or worse, it’s like a lot of big banks.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They are very important for me. I love and fear them. I fear them with love, probably. And yeah, they definitely help me edit and really hear what I’ve made. Currently, I’m trying to overcome my self-censorship with reading though. It’s slight, but I can feel it and it bothers me.
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?
Well, I’m not that deep in the theoretical aspects of writing or poetry mostly because I prefer to deal in real materials. If the question is modified to say, “what concerns are behind your writing” I can point clearly to my chief concern—WOMEN.
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?
I think the writer’s role is no different than the role of any other person, to live purposefully and not be a chicken-shit.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t had many people edit my poetry. Friends maybe, which is hard, and often I have to wait until their back is turned to accept the changes. I’m stubborn, very stubborn. I imagine if someone else were editing my poems they’d be a lot shorter (the poems, not the person). Also, I am incredibly sensitive, and my feelings get hurt when someone so much as walks too quickly past me.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A couple of things come to mind.
“Don’t drink cheap beer” is one of them. My dad told me this when he dropped me off at college. Of course, I drank A LOT of cheap beer. But now that I’m too old to just shake off a hangover, I really appreciate that advice.
On a more artistic level, I heard someone once define art as, “something that is more than the sum of its parts.” This has been one of the most informative guidelines I’ve had as a poet.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I do a million other things besides writing. I wish I were a diligent writer who prioritized poetry, but the truth is, a lot of other things take precedence sometimes. So my writing time is never planned anymore. I write when a feel a certain feeling that prevents me from doing anything else. Often this is during times when my mind is truly not occupied by other things—on the train or the bus, while walking, waiting in line, trying to get to sleep at night, or doing the dishes. I usually hoard away snippets of text in my mental storage space until I can get my hands on some paper.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually when this happens it’s because I haven’t been alone in a while. I put on the Hall & Oates song “One on One” and stay home and try to write a short story. This is always a failure. But I am really good at writing opening paragraphs. I usually come running back to poetry.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
All my favorite flowers—peonies, lilies of the valley, hyacinth, honeysuckle. Also some foods, pork chops, pot roast, mac and cheese with garlic salt on it, like my grandmother used to make.
13 - 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?
Oh yes, very much so. The truth is, I am a troublesome reader. I read very slow, start too many books at once and give up on many of them about a third of the way through. So lots of other things seep in. I love to watch modern dance. I just filled out a survey at a dance performance and had to rate myself as a “dance fanatic” because I’d been to so many performances in the past year.
In the fall I’m going back to school full time to get my masters in Speech Language Pathology. Studying neurolinguistics, aphasia and observing speech therapy treatments has really really changed everything about the way I think of language and syntax. Plant and animal biology has definitely informed my use of language too. There is a lot of talk about the close parallel between grammar and DNA sequences because both are discrete combination systems. I am currently reading a Steven Pinker book that goes there. Also, I am heavily influenced by my environment and location. I think every love poem I’ve written in the past five years has been addressed to Philadelphia. You can gather language everywhere in this city. I am nosey and often transcribe conversations I hear on the bus onto scraps of paper that end up crumbled in the bottom of my purse. Usually when I find them again, I can’t read them, so I have to gather the information I can and rewrite them. This really gets me going.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love what other writers do. A lot of people come to mind, but probably the most important influences for me have been Joanne Kyger, Juliana Spahr, and Alice Notley.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest. Never been to San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, anywhere near there. It’s domestic to say it, but I would really like to see that part of the U.S.
16 - 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?
I wish I were a brilliant scientist doing innovative research on the brain. Funny, I have a very good friend who IS a brilliant scientist doing innovative research on the brain. I’m not certain, but I imagine she’d probably pick “poet” as her alternative occupation. Perhaps we should freaky friday this shit.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was much better at it than anything else. Also, I never could feel truly creative in any other medium, and trust me, I tried a lot of them-- years of dance, piano, theater, ceramics, etc. The only other art form I feel creative in is gardening.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Eh, let’s see, some of my recent favorites are Lesley Yalen’s The Beginning In and Rachel Glazer’s Pee On Water. I am really into some of the stuff that’s coming out of the Northampton crowd these days.
I just saw The King’s Speech and enjoyed it. I watched Altman’s 3 Women again not that long ago and sickly love it.
19 - What are you currently working on?
For the past year or so I’ve been collaborating with a painter named Nicole Donnelly. We travel through Philadelphia, and I take notes and she sketches, then we separate and make poems and paintings. We have a free poetry hotline you can call to hear the poems, though I definitely need to make some new recordings. We call the whole thing The God-damn Placefulness.
Lately, I’ve been preparing to move to Nashville for a couple of years and all the details of the move are taking over. I am going to spend some time in the country writing before going back to school though. I’m not sure what I’ll write yet, but I have some feelings toward things. Maybe I’ll write a children’s book or start a YA novel. Or maybe, some poems.
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