PAMELA HART is author of the award-winning collection, MOTHERS OVER NANGARHAR, published by Sarabande Books. She is writer-in-residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she manages and teaches an arts-in-education program. She received the Brian Turner Literary Arts Prize in poetry in 2016. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship as well as a fellowship from the SUNY Purchase College Writers Center. Toadlily Press published her chapbook, The End of the Body. She is a teaching artist in the schools and lives in North Salem, New York. She is a poetry editor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and for As You Were: The Military Review.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My chapbook, published many years ago, changed my life because it meant that my work could find readers, that the conversations I’d been having in my head could be in dialogue with others. My new book is different in that it’s a full book. And it’s focused on ideas of war and family so quite different from my chapbook. I think the poems are more assured.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I come to poetry by way of journalism. I was a newspaper reporter and freelance writer for many years. I tried my hand at fiction but have trouble with plot. Poetry feels akin to journalism in its compression of language and its observational stance.
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?
All of the above!
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 like working on projects so poems that circle a topic or form help me focus my zig-zag mind. Sometimes, poems start as prose poem creatures. Lately I’ve been writing long poems to strive for endurance. To try to sustain an idea or image, to explore and play with complication in a fractalistic kind of way, if that makes sense.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings don’t factor into my process. I don’t mind them, but I don’t see them as informing the writing. Recently, however, I had the chance to attend a book club where the members had all read my book. To meet readers in such an intimate way. To hear them explain their responses. To read some poems in someone’s home. This was intense and very moving.
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?
I do think about how description can become a mode of comprehension, a way to look closely, to think carefully and critically about the subject or topic of the poem.
I have tried to consider questions at the outset, but often I lose track or get distracted. I don’t really consider my writing metaphysical, or even lyrical, but more documentary.
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 about the work of artists—to help make sense of these charged times—the daily events that are ordinary or elevated—so that we might see again and then remember going forward.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Because of my background in journalism, where words are not so precious, I’m comfortable with editors. The relationship between writer and a good editor can be difficult, but it is essential!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I like this quote from the artist Jasper Johns: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.”
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?
Generative writing happens best in the early pre-dawn hours, with revision taking place at other times. A routine has been helpful to me. Especially as I move between writing and teaching and the rest of my life. But there are times when it’s harder to maintain that routine.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I run and take walks to help clear the brain. I like to do something called walking writing – where I talk into my phone, which takes dictation of the stream of sentences. Also reading.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There are a few – fresh cut hay. Privet in July. Low tide in September.
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?
All of the above. I work at an art museum so visual art plays a big part of my teaching and thinking. But I like to fold in other areas of expression and learning such as dance, science, anthropology.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writers like C.D. Wright have been important. Virginia Woolf. Jorie Graham. Tyehimba Jess. Jake Adam York and Phil Metres. So much great stuff happening in poetry now.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Translate a book poetry from a country such as Mongolia or Afghanistan. I’d love to travel to Afghanistan and hope for a time when that country can experience extended peace.
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?
Sculptor or painter. Maybe documentary film maker.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For as long as I can remember I named myself a writer, even when I likely didn’t know what it meant.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of poems tentatively titled The Brain Project that looks at how the brain breaks as well as works, and the impact of brain trauma on family/country/culture.