Ian Haight’s collection of poetry, Celadon, won Unicorn Press’ First Book Prize and is scheduled for release in November, 2017. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, and with T’ae-yong Hŏ, he is the translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim—finalist for ALTA’s Stryk Prize all from White Pine Press. Other awards include Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Translation, and grants from the Daesan Foundation, the Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. For more information please visit ianhaight.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The first book I ever published was a collection of co-translated poetry (Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Hŏ Kyun, White Pine 2009). It was, as other authors here have said, very validating. Publishing a book of my own poetry is a different kind of validation. As hard and frustrating as it is to continue to slog forward—to write, to send the work out, to constantly deal with rejection and changes in taste and temperament in the poetry market—to publish a book that there is so much personal investment in has let me know somebody besides me cares about what I am doing. That kind of validation makes me feel like writing is a practice I will carry on for the next ten or twenty years, if not to my grave.
I have started writing my third book of poetry so looking back at what has changed, I feel like I am more open to experimentation, which leads me to more ambitious projects for things I believe I can do. I’m writing some dramatic verse at the moment which I have thought about doing since 2002 or so, but now I really am doing it for the first time. It is going to be a long poem, I can see that already. Me writing long poems doesn’t seem to be going away.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I was first genuinely moved by poetry sometime in my middle school years. My mom didn’t want my brother and I to be indoctrinated into a traditional western religion. My dad felt like we needed some kind of moral foundation that religion would give so he left books related to Buddhism around the house—including Zen poetry. I remember the awe the poems inspired in me, how a perspective on living in the world could be expressed through figurative language.
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?
It varies by project and poem. This third book of poetry, for example, is inspired by my responses to a certain thematic vein running in contemporary American poetry and, for that matter, the world—although less so outside of America. I know that is a bit ambiguous, but it is to say that I have been gathering material for the past three years or so, and now that I have a large stack of stuff and the time is available, I am writing drafts of poetry that deal with what I have collected. I recently finished what ended up being a three-page poem in irregular meter and rhyme and that took twenty-six drafts over four months. The dramatic verse skit I mentioned is still in a formative stage but is on its thirteenth draft, is approximately ten pages in length, and I don’t expect to start dealing with meter for another 3-5 drafts, at least. So yeah, I used to be able to crank things out in 5-10 drafts, but most poems nowadays seem to be 20+ drafts, as a new normal. Just thinking about why, I think the poems I’m writing are more complex than ever, both in theme and craft.
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 generally write until I hit 48 pages of new poetry and then I start looking at what I have and thinking about if I might be able to put together a book. I also have stacks of notes and things to respond to gathered by theme. This one stack I am working with—what I am calling my third book—looks very much like it will be a book based on the amount of material I am responding to and what I have already generated so far. In that sense, my current effort is feeling like a book from the very beginning.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am not a spoken word poet but I do love language so much that occasionally I will realize I have almost memorized a poem I wrote, and that can impact how I will read it publicly. I always start with the poem on the page though; I rarely start with how it will sound at a reading.
I do enjoy giving poetry readings but they can be exhausting. I want to give so much to the people who came out to support me and buy my books that I sometimes have nothing left for me. To repeat the process over weeks or days can really be a challenge, on top of travelling, etc. I love meeting people, and am genuinely touched by the humble sincerity of some people who have almost no money but still want to buy a book I wrote. It’s why I try to sell my books cheap at readings. I would prefer to give my books away to those who are in need, but then those same people seem to want me to understand how important it is for them to give me money for the writing. I still feel guilty; people shouldn’t have to choose between buying a book and buying food.
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?
The hardest question I had to answer for myself as a writer was why write. Without splitting hairs over how continental rationalism has changed over time, for a significant period of my life I was a rationalist in my thinking. The impact of this, when it became extreme, was I could not find a justification to write because words do not have meaning. I finally decided this line of thinking was a problem of minutiae because if words did not have meaning then there would be no connectivity between human beings via language. Empirically and comparatively, there’s more evidence that humans connect via a shared understanding of language, so I feel like I am more an empiricist than rationalist, now. This is all fairly obvious to most people, but not to people stuck in theory.
Once I got over that very big hurdle, my next concern was social justice and spiritual practice—how to share or talk about an understanding of these matters using words.
Ultimately, I think I change the world by changing the world in me. I do believe in an older mode of “poet as prophet” because I do think a poet is able to change the world, even in small ways, through language, poetry, and by resolving personal inside/outside perspectivism. So the short answer here, given everything, is my poetry is about resolving the inner and outer snags that stick in my mind; examining them, rarefying the issues, hopefully giving them an aesthetic sense which may approach the pleasing if not beautiful, so that I can understand my life better than I did before. Ideally that process in words will have some kind of positive impact on others who live outside or around me. The big question in my writing, always, then, is how can we live better in this world? After that question is the old familiar question which I think is fundamentally contemporary for almost every writer: what does it mean to be human?
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 current role of the writer in larger culture is about money and audience. What will generate the most money? Something that will have a wide reading audience in our larger culture. What sort of writing will do that? In fiction, that often means something formulaic: a mention or suggestion of sex or violence—no matter how small the mention—every two pages seems a good equation. I wouldn’t say this is a rule never broken but it does seem to be true of many books that have the largest audiences in American culture.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this for the writer. It’s easy to be motivated by truth and beauty when a person is young, but practical matters like mortality and quality of life matter more when a person ages—at least for the writers I know. There are a lot of writers pining for an audience and an improved quality of life, but then also frustrated by how what they value in writing is not shared by large numbers of other readers.
It’s complicated though: there are many writers who sell books in the millions but take political positions publicly and are not secretive about their political opinions. Even in doing so, their personal political or social voice of activism is not their central purpose as a writer—their writing is. Ideally the two are not exclusive but I think it’s an uncommon ideal, at least for those writers who continually sell books in the millions.
My own opinion of all this is to each their own. I’ve thought about writing literary genre fiction or even just genre fiction that I think might sell in the millions, not because I believe in that kind of writing or have a huge desire for that kind of audience. To be frank, I’ve enjoyed good “page turner” fiction, especially if it is literary and smartly written, and I think it is an interesting, almost mythic challenge to meet, in consideration of what traditionally makes a good story. I’m also curious about what it would be to live like that, to be an author who continually sells books in the millions. What would be different about my life under those terms? Would it make my life better or worse over the long run? Would I enjoy doing that kind of writing? I have a good day job that I like and meets my needs so these are questions that are more reflective than especially motivating, at least for now.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I guess it depends on the role of the editor. If we mean a peer editor—someone offering comments to help improve the writing—I would say those editors are essential. Sincere peer editors say things that maybe cannot be really heard for months because the comments are too painful. But then after those months it might be easier to accept a pearl of writing wisdom and then real growth can take place. If the relationship is more trusting sometimes it only takes a week or two, and sometimes it’s just immediately obvious what should be revised, based on a peer editor. So peer editors: essential and valuable.
Book editors: the ones I have worked with are good people who give tremendously to the community of writers at large. They are overworked, underpaid, and could only do what they do because they love it. Sometimes, because book editors are so overworked, communication can be challenging; some book editors communicate better than others. Overall though, I am grateful for the hard work book editors devote to the publication of their authors.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given—and I say that because it still guides me and influences my decisions outside of writing—is let others say no to me, I do not say no to myself. In writing that means if I think I have something that is my best writing then I should submit it to Poetry or New Yorker or someplace like that, and it doesn’t matter if I think the writing is “good enough” for that venue. Over my career to date I have followed that advice and have been shocked by the results. Several times it has happened that writing I knew was finished but felt like “wasn’t good enough for publication ‘x’” did in fact get accepted for publication in a very competitive venue. Do send your most finished work to the best places, and don’t judge whether it is “good enough.” Let the venue decide that.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It has been fairly easy to move between the two and I think it is vital that poets have experience with writing serious critical analysis of literature, because it will help the poet be a better writer. There’s a greater possibility of depth and entrenched purpose if a writer knows why he/she is writing from a certain point of view—a point of view that has been examined critically by thinking about and writing about other literature. To this end, I think a range of critical approaches to literature should be explored and written about so that the writer has at least a basic understanding of ideas and impact on audience.
I know there are leading poets out there saying that while writing poetry, they do not look over their shoulders for what critics might think and as a result, give very little value to the critical analysis of literature. This sort of approach to literary tradition, or just the reading of literature, makes the understanding of writing, where it comes from/why people write, and what people intend when writing, much more limited—in my opinion.
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?
I try to spend no more than one hour on any one thing, per day. Changing things up helps me not get burned out but also make progress on a number of different projects on a daily basis. So for example, right now, I spend about an hour on promoting my forthcoming book, Celadon; and then an hour revising a manuscript of translated literature I hope to soon send out query letters for; then an hour on writing my next book of poetry; then an hour on submitting work for publication; and then some other thing. If I get really excited or on a roll then I might go over time, and then if things are dragging or just everything is mentally challenging I might count lunch as time spent on a certain activity. This kind of routine works great on vacation because the day is so open.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If my work gets stalled I try to think of other literature similar in some way to what I am doing but am stuck with. Yesterday I was trying to write this kind of narrative introduction to a dramatic poem I am working on and this introduction sounded just God-awful. So I read a prose poem by Baudelaire talking about political and social opinions on individual freedom—something my poem was about. Then I read a story-poem by Terrance Hayes because I wanted to think about how complex ideas could be expressed in a story told in the genre of poetry. After doing these things I re-wrote the introduction and opened up some of the narration in the poem to make it all more accessible. I tried to imagine what it would be like for an audience in a theater to be hearing all this and that helped too; I realized the less “heady” this writing was, the better. I don’t know if this poem is going to be any good but every revision does seem an improvement.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The wind carrying wet leaves in the fall.
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?
I think everything is grist for the mill. Yesterday, for example, I was watching some interviews with Isaac Asimov and Alan Watts. Besides noting the period’s attire, I was surprised but then not surprised to see how little things have changed in terms of how political language is used to manipulate populations. It’s easier to see how things have and have not changed by noting the interconnectivity of human experience, I think. To bring this understanding back to the question: seeing how certain issues in other fields, media, or genre have not changed helps me understand and value what it is I am writing about, and maybe also develop context, where appropriate.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writing community has always been hard for me to keep because my day job has me moving to different countries occasionally. I am in Europe now, and it looks like I will be here until I retire so maybe I can make some progress with writing community.
As influence, it’s hard to say what other writers or writings are currently important for me. As time has passed it’s not as easy to feel awe when reading, which I guess is natural. In some ways it is easier to get lost in writing; I am more willing and open to mental abandonment when the writing is really good. But I am also a tougher reader. I see the phases of life reflected more in the voice and theme than I ever did, so that makes me more skeptical of process and experience exhibited in the writing—which maybe is why I can see how ingenuity is a valuable asset if you happen to be a writer.
Keeping it super simple I read many poems every day and I also read fiction every day. I read a poem by Li-young Lee a day or two ago (“Visions and Interpretations”) that touched me. In fiction, I recently finished The Vegetarian and I did feel awe with the scenes about sexual desire; brilliant simplicity in that. The Vegetarian is an intricate book that turns back against itself repeatedly and I haven’t read any literary criticism that does it justice. I just finished Pillars of the Earth which was a good summer read; next up is Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I just made a bucket list a couple weeks ago and I’ll mention some choice selections. Some of these will be easier to pull off, and some of these are going to be pretty hard: meditate in the king’s chamber at Giza; see my meditation Master one more time before either of us pass; see a Wimbledon singles and doubles final, ideally for all categories (women, men, mixed doubles, juniors, seniors, etc.); See Big Ben, Tower of London, and England’s Crown Jewels; Hadrian’s Wall; walk the Lake Country as the Wordsworths did; Tintern Abbey; visit the graves of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Browning, Milton, Blake; see the Great Wall of China and Emperor Qin’s Tomb; write and publish a graphic novel; go on a Lord of the Rings tour in New Zealand. That’s probably enough for now.
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?
Thinking of my personality and the life junctions where a decision would have made a difference in occupation, it’s hard to say anything could have or would have been different. Looking at people I know in different industries and how they made things happen I now think I had enough talent to be an actor, singer, or maybe even musical producer, but I didn’t have enough support or understanding—and maybe as a consequence, spirit—to make it happen. Had I not gotten married though I probably would have been a monk.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think my answer to #17 is part of my answer to this question. Maybe there was less risk involved in writing, and certainly less risk of me harming people who rely on me to take care of them emotionally and financially. I’ve always been creative and process oriented, but I’ve also always been very mindful of the people around me who depend on me to be a part of their lives in a responsible way. I didn’t want to risk other people suffering because of my choices. I’m fine with that because it has been a wonderful life and I don’t think it has to be all about me. My art and career decisions don’t have to always be more important than people I love.
Thinking about the question another way: I grew up in the country and my dad taught me well regarding how to do and fix things around the house. Not so much with carpentry—I never took to that. But basic car repair and gardening, I got. I was into war games, like him. He sold a war game called Gladiator which you could find in stores as late as 1990. I still enjoy an occasional round of Magic the Gathering; I went undefeated in local tournaments, but never tried nationals. Measuring all these and other potential activities against writing, I just always felt most akin to writing. As for why—maybe because I can do it anywhere, anytime, and being productive does not depend on anything besides pencil and paper.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The most recent book of sustained greatness I read was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Johnson just nailed that book over and over again. It carries and demonstrates what we want of outstanding fiction pretty much throughout. Very deserving of the Pulitzer.
Movies is a harder question because I don’t see movies as much as I used to. The last great movie that genuinely moved me almost throughout and compelled me to the end was the controversial La La Land. I think it works with and against the history of film and musicals in America surprisingly well; it tells a traditional story effectively; the actors in places clearly were not up to what was asked of them, but those were small potholes overall, in my opinion; the music, the directing, the writing, the production—I was in tears at the end.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m doing final revisions on a grant-funded translation project, Homage to Green Tea. It’s an illustrated collection of poems, anecdotes, legends, and short-short stories about green tea. Query letters for that should go out in the next few weeks. Working on promoting my first book of poems, Celadon, and submitting poems in earnest from my second poetry collection (keeping the title under wraps for now). Maybe will send that manuscript out for publication in the next year or two. Breaking ground on my third collection of poetry, and maybe getting up the guts to “finish” and publish all the fiction I’ve written over the years. We’ll see.