Hannah Kezema is an artist who works across mediums. She is the author of the debut collection, This Conversation is Being Recorded (Game Over Books, 2023), and the chapbook, three (Tea and Tattered Pages, 2017), and her work appears in Black Sun Lit, Grimoire, New Life Quarterly, Full Stop, Spiral Orb, and other places. She was the 2018 Arteles Resident of the Enter Text program, and she is currently the co-editor of Moving Parts Press’s broadside series of Latinx and Chicanx poetry, in collaboration with Felicia Rice and Angel Dominguez. She lives in the Santa Cruz mountains by the sea, among the redwoods and wildflowers.
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
My chapbook, three, came out in 2017 through a now
defunct press, Tea and Tattered Pages, and I remember feeling like I’d been
validated as a writer. I was still sort of fresh out of grad school, and being
solicited (after many, many rejections) and then published felt like I’d been
given the “okay” to keep going. It’s a strange and dark little book centered
around the number 3 – triangles, mirrors, mythology, pyramids, threesomes, and
an unreliable first-, second-, and third-person narration. Very experimental
and what I would call within the Naropa [University] aesthetic. I remember
being really surprised that there were no edits from the publisher, aside from
a few things I tweaked here and there, since I tend to over-edit. Looking back,
I definitely would’ve asked more questions about the process and book roll-out,
but I hadn’t even so much as signed a contract, and that book struggled to get
out in the world for a variety of reasons.
My debut full-length, This Conversation Is Being Recorded,
which came out with Game Over Books in late March, was a completely different
experience, both in terms of the publishing process and subject matter. I’ve
worked in the insurance fraud industry for the past 7 years now in a few roles,
but primarily, as a field investigator and editor, and I began writing poems
about the cases I was working on about one year in. Over time, the poems began
accumulating, and Game Over Books was actually the reason the book became
hybrid. I’d always been interested in incorporating visual aspects into my
work, and ironically, This Conversation Is Being Recorded was my first
work that was just straight up poetry. Honestly, after creating hybrid work
without any traction for years, I was a little discouraged, and I was trying to
do something more “straightforward.” But I was so thankful to have a publisher
that understood my praxis as an artist and encouraged me to go all out. To pick
up the paintbrush. Get my hands in the dirt.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say,
fiction or non-fiction?
I kind of came to poetry last! I studied literature in my
undergrad while at the New School, and when I got to Naropa for my MFA, I was
very much interested in writing prose but also expanding my notion of what
prose could be. I hadn’t read any contemporary poetry whatsoever and felt
completely out of the loop compared to my peers. I hadn’t even heard of small
press publishing, and outside of doing theatre for years, I’d never read my
work in front of anyone. Those two years were vigorous for me because I had
always felt safer in the sentence than the line. Then, of course, I fell in
love with the freedom of the line.
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 depends on how we quantify a “start,” but I’d say that the
moment I have an idea for something, even if it isn’t totally cohesive, I
usually make a note in my notebook or phone. Something non-committal because I
don’t want to scare the idea away! Then I’ll usually wait and see if the idea
sticks. Sometimes, lines will come to me first, without the full shape of the
idea, but more often than not, I’ll get the impulse to make something specific
and it’s a matter of figuring out from there whether it’s fruitful or
worthwhile. I think about things very categorically. When the idea becomes a
Thing, then the real work happens, and I am (to my own detriment) quite a
perfectionist in that regard. I want my first draft to be as close to polished
as possible, and as an editor, I can’t turn that part of my brain off. I
overthink and I edit and edit and edit, which is likely why each project takes
me years to complete.
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’ve always considered myself a very projects-oriented
person, maybe to a fault. I have a very hard time writing a piece “just
because,” or without thinking about it within a larger context. Of course,
every now and then, I’m inspired to write a poem with no strings attached. I’m
trying to be better about this because I think being so book-forward can
actually stifle the process. Who’s to say a single poem can’t hold the same
gravity as a book of poems? This is something I’ve been thinking about lately.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative
process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have a kind of love-hate relationship with readings. For
starters, they make me very anxious, despite my performance background. There’s
something specifically stressful about reading words you’ve written in front of
a crowd – it’s more vulnerable for me than singing. But I will say that the
dread only lies in the build-up of the event because once I’m reading, I’m in
the zone. And I feel the post-reading high afterwards. While it’s still
challenging all these years later, I think it’s important to take your work off
the page and let it test the waters. What comes up – and how others respond -
might surprise you and possibly change the trajectory of the work. I do believe
a sort of synergy can happen between the reader and the audience when bringing
the written word into a physical space.
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’m not sure that my body of work has a unifying theme by any
means, but I think of each work in terms of various stages of my life. All my
work is hybrid, which is a common thread, but where my earlier works were more
conceptual and form driven, This Conversation Is Being Recorded and the
work leading up to it became more about my own life, my job, the seeking of
truth, and exploring issues like labor and gender under capital. Of course, I
can’t help but weave in the visual aspects, too. Perhaps I’m not as interested
in answering the questions as I am in letting the questions linger in my
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in
larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer
This is a tough question, as I feel I’m still figuring this
out for myself. Many people will say that in these times, the role of the
artist at large is to be an activist for change. I don’t disagree with this but
also feel the pressure of it and find myself just as interested with the
internal kind of revolution that a reader can experience. If a text can change
the way you think or feel, then I think it’s fulfilled its “purpose.” All
effective change must begin with the individual. I also can’t deny that the
role of the writer historically has been the outrider of society, and yet, they
are also the visionaries who archive histories, and their legacies live on
beyond them. The writer is the dreamer, the documentarian, the hermit, the
Shaman. Ultimately, I think writers and artists shouldn’t be afraid to create
for themselves – the act of creating a work of art is just as, if not more
vital, than its reception. When we become too concerned with the latter, we
stray further from poetry and closer to careerism. There’s a lot of nepotism in
the poetry “community,” but I don’t believe in the commodification of poetry. I
believe that defeats poetry’s very essence.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor
difficult or essential (or both)?
Both! Especially as I’ve had many people tell me I’m a brutal
editor myself. But it’s always valuable to get an outside perspective on your
work. Sometimes we just need another pair of eyes.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not
necessarily given to you directly)?
I can’t remember who said this, or if it was a conglomeration
of things other people have said, but more or less: “Give yourself permission
to write.” And probably cliché at this point, but Ginsberg’s “first thought
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres
(poetry to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t typically do both simultaneously, as I believe
different mediums require different minds. But they can support one another in
that way – it can be incredibly beneficial to turn to painting when I’m hitting
a wall with the writing. That being said, I do find the visual work is faster
for me, or at least I spend less time doing it. For instance, with This
Conversation Is Being Recorded, most of the paintings were created in the
final months of my working on the manuscript, whereas the text itself took me
about six years. For this book, I needed to get all the writing out first, sort
of like laying down the foundation. I needed more time to consider how the
visuals would be executed, with plenty of trial and error along the way.
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?
What’s cool about this is you asked me a similar question in 2019, and when I first answered, I
had recently completed my first residency at Arteles in Haukijärvi, Finland,
during which time, I’d finally developed (if only for about a month) a
consistent writing routine. Outside of that and my MFA program, I really haven’t
had one. I used to shame myself about it, but I’ve learned that I’m not the
kind of writer who can force it. I’m not of the school of thought that doing
some writing is better than no writing at all. I’m just not interested in
writing for writing’s sake, but I know this works for a lot of other folks. I
also hate sitting down at the computer. Unconventional aspects of my “writing
routine” are spending time outside, touching water, having meaningful
experiences with people I love, sitting still with hard feelings, spending time
with art that moves me, and traveling. I let myself get inspired, and it keeps
the writing exciting (and not burdensome) for me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or
return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually, I read the work of others before me or turn to other
forms of art altogether, so as not to be too influenced. I’m also a firm
believer in a good walk or moving the body in general to get
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine-Sol, newspaper, and fireplace smells. Fresh mint leaves
always make me think of my grandmother and her famous iced tea. Cinnamon and
clove remind me of my mother.
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?
Being in nature is vital – among the flowers, trees, animals,
fungi, and bodies of water. I also usually listen to music that resonates with
the mood of what I’m writing. It’s surprising what can come up if you even just
put on a song that makes you emotional. It can make the writing even more
cathartic or therapeutic. I also love zoning out to images as a break from
language, which can be so unruly. Letting my mind rest and my eyes scan the
colors, shapes, and textures of something allows me to slow down. Gardening and
creating floral arrangements with flowers from my garden and other things I’ve
foraged has also been really meditative but creative at the same time.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your
work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Take a real vacation in adulthood.
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?
I always saw myself studying law or forensics if I decided to
give up on my creative pursuits. I’ve also felt like I could’ve been a lawyer
(or even judge) in a former life. I’m fascinated by detectives but could never
be a cop. For some time, my dream job was to be a handwriting analyst, which I
guess isn’t too far off from writing.
18 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing has always come naturally for me, even if I resisted it at first. I was a voracious reader as a child and wrote these dark little ghost stories. But what I really dreamt of then was becoming an actress and singer – I always wanted to perform. I did theater all throughout high school, studied it during my first year of college, and I was living in New York, hustling but not getting call-backs and questioning whether my heart was really in it. I ultimately decided it wasn’t working and took a semester off to travel to California and then transfer to another school to study literature before later going on to study writing and poetics in grad school. It worked out pretty seamlessly, in the end, but I still sometimes miss being on stage. Maybe my next phase will be playwriting, who knows?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last
20 - What are you currently working on?
Self-care and gardening, for the most part. I’ll be teaching an online workshop focused on This Conversation Is Being Recorded on October 24th and hope to have some more readings later in the year. I may have also started writing another book, but only time will tell…