Monday, November 9, 2015

TtD supplement #39 : seven questions for Helen Hajnoczky

Helen Hajnoczky is the author of Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising (Snare/Invisible, 2010) and Magyarázni (Coach House, forthcoming spring 2016). Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and chapbooks, and in the anthologies Why Poetry Sucks (Insomniac Press, 2014) and Ground Rules: best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013 (Chaudiere Books, 2013). Excerpts from Bloom and Martyr have appeared in Dreamland, Lemon Hound, and New Poetry. A portion of Bloom and Martyr was selected for the 2015 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award, and will be published as a chapbook by Kalamalka Press in spring 2016. She blogs http://ateacozyisasometimes.blogspot.ca/ and tweets @helenhajnoczky.

Her “Four poems from Bloom and Martyr” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the “Four poems from Bloom and Martyr.”

A: These four poems are taken from the end of a manuscript I wrote last year. All the poems are in the same style, using a discussion of flowers and gardens as a way to explore desire from a feminist perspective. Writing the manuscript was incredibly fun. At the time I had been tinkering with my then manuscript and now forthcoming book for a while, and I had become a bit forestalled while editing. Then in August 2014 in Calgary I had a chance to read with Natalie Simpson whose work I find enthralling, and she talked about taking an approach to writing where she’d write a lot down in a notebook, and then type up the lines she wanted to keep. It had been a while since I’d written something new and I thought, ‘I used to write that way, why don’t I do that anymore?’ So I went back to Montreal and reread Natalie’s book accrete or crumble which is such a dense, rich, and inspiring book that after reading it I wrote Bloom and Martyr in a week and a half, mostly on my phone on the bus to work, on coffee breaks, etc.

Q: How were you working prior to this that caused you to be forestalled?

A: There were a few factors. I started the project when I was in school so it was difficult to dedicate time to work on it. The book, which is called Magyarázni and is coming out in spring of 2016 from Coach House books, is also written in a more narrative style which I hadn’t used much before, so it took a little while to figure that out. The biggest thing though was that the book is about first generation cultural identity and how and to what extent one’s attitude towards and understanding of their cultural background is tied up with their familial relationships and relationships with people in their community, so it was important to me that I get it just right. I wrote it once and it came off unintentionally bitter, again and it came off unintentionally saccharine… I wrote one version that expressed things well but that I found flat so I rewrote it again to make it more engaging. It’s a much more personal work than anything I’d done before and so I got much more caught up in it and focused on making it be exactly what I intended. Bloom and Martyr was the opposite—I didn’t have any plans for it or anything really specific I wanted to capture so writing it was all flow.

Q: I’m curious about the Magyarázni poems: you speak of a difficulty in part, that came from writing out your relationship with your cultural background and community. What prompted you to begin this project, and what were your models, if any? I think of Andrew Suknaski writing out his Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds, for example, of even Erín Moure exploring the language and culture of the Galicians. And might Bloom and Martyr have progresses so quickly, perhaps, due to it being a kind of palate cleanser?

A: Magyarazni germinated for a long time. There’s a wood chest in my parent’s house that my dad carved, and the tulips in his design are what inspired my project originally, particularly the visual poetry in the book. I started doodling tulips in the margins of my school notes with letters at their centre, with the accents used as stamen, long before I had really been introduced to visual poetry. The moment that sparked the project, though, was one night when my dad and I were up late chatting about when he, his sisters, and his mother left Hungary after the ’56 revolution and I thought “I should really write this down.” So, I went and typed up everything he’d said and made a little chapbook of it for him. I wanted to do something more on the topic though, and was fortunate to get a grant for the visual and written poetry book and to travel around Western Canada interviewing people who’d come during or after ’56, or whose family had done so. Originally I’d thought of including the interviews and poems in one book, but the interviews are numerous, long, and detailed and really deserved to be their own thing (which I’m still slowly working on). Though I didn’t use anything from the interviews in this book the people who so generously told me their stories definitely influenced me and the writing of Magyarázni.

For more poetic influences though, Oana Avasilichioaei’s book Abandon, and the way she deals with cultural identity and nostalgia had a huge influence on me. The way Fred Wah’s writes about cultural identity, how that’s tied up with family, and the way he sets all this against the backdrop of the prairie all strongly informed the way I approached writing this book too—there’s a lot of Calgary in Magyarázni. Additionally, in 2007 Erín Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei spoke at the UofC for Translating Translating Montréal, and I have this fuzzy memory of them discussing translating words based on a feeling of the word or based on a word in a third language that the word in the source text reminds you of (I can’t remember precisely what they said and I don’t want to misquote them or misrepresent their ideas, but I believe the discussion was something along these lines), and this idea was key in the writing of Magyarázni. For example, the poem “Belváros”—the word translates into English as “inner city” (so, downtown), but I always hear it as ‘beautiful city,’ because in French ‘belle’ means beautiful. I went to a French immersion elementary school and I started hearing the word that way as a little kid, and I still hear it that way, not as inner city but as beautiful city. Because the project struggles to answer the question of how much one person’s experience of a language or culture can be representative of a community as a whole, I thought it was important to include these little hyper-personal feelings about words in the manuscript.

But to get to the second part of your question, I do think Bloom and Martyr was a palate cleanse. I’d worked on editing Magyarázni so carefully and for so long that I’d become a bit too caught up in just doing that. Then I took the aforementioned trip and did a couple of readings in Calgary, felt energized, wrote Bloom and Martyr super quickly, and then did a final pass on Magyarázni with renewed enthusiasm and was finally able to shape it into what I’d wanted it to be.

Q: You speak of your visual poetry originally being influenced by your father’s tulip design on a wood chest. I suspect that your time in Calgary might have had an influence on such, but how did you get from those original doodles influenced by your father’s work to considering your doodles as visual poetry?

A: Being from Calgary most definitely influenced my visual poetry. The creative writing classes I took at the UofC introduced me to visual poetry as an active area of contemporary writing for the first time, and there are a number of wonderfully talented visual poets in Calgary (or poets who were there when I was). Knowing these writers got me thinking more about visual poetry as another mode of writing that I could use in my own work. Having had the opportunity to become familiar with contemporary visual poetry, I was more inclined to think about the significance of my impulse to make those doodles and how that reflected my feelings about Hungarian language and folk culture, and this fueled my desire to turn these doodles into a larger, more deliberate and meaningful project.

Q: You seem very much to be constructing books as large-scale projects, as opposed to collections of stand-alone poems; projects built around particular subjects and structures. How did this process of building poetry books this way begin, and what writers and books have been your models?

A: I think I end up working on large-scale projects because of my interest in the topics I feel compelled to write about—I want to spend time with those ideas and explore them more fully in longer projects. Bloom and Martyr started out as a set of a few poems, but I enjoyed writing those so much and I was in the right headspace to churn them out, so I followed that impulse until I felt I’d exhausted it and I was holding a finished manuscript. Other projects have taken more planning, but they too start with me writing a poem or two and then if I feel like what I’m doing is working I start thinking about how to expand it into a longer work. I have a stack of stand-alone poems or sets of a few related poems that were published as chapbooks or in magazines, but I often end up thinking about how I could build on these poems and eventually turn them into books too.

Most of the poetry I’ve read has been books of contemporary Canadian poetry, and it seems like a great many of these are based around a single theme or that they have a strong aesthetic, stylistic, or formal unity. This trend has certainly exerted a strong influence on me. I find I gravitate towards poetry books that deal with a single topic or theme, or that have some sort of unifying style or principle to them. I enjoy that reading experience and since it’s a thing I’m fond of as a reader I replicate it in my own work. Because most of the books I really love are written like this, it’s hard to pick a few, but the ones that I find myself thinking about a lot lately are Un/Inhabited by Jordan Abel, The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood, Clockfire by Jonathan Ball, Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke, Woods Wolf Girl by Cornelia Hoogland, wild horses by uh, you, rob mclennan, Elimination Dance by Michael Ondaatje, Undark by Sandy Pool, MxT by Sina Queyras, Err by Shane Rhodes, accrete or crumble and Thrum by Natalie Simpson, Winter Sports and Summer Sports by Priscilla Uppal, Waiting for Saskatchewan by Fred Wah, Thumbscrews and Doom by Natalie Zina Walschots, and Amphetamine Heart by Liz Worth. There are so many more excellent examples that I’m not mentioning… these are just those that have been on my mind lately.

Q: With a growing mound of chapbooks and two forthcoming titles under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?

A: I think that my work is getting more contemplative as time goes on, and that generally my writing is getting more mature in the sense that I’m getting better at writing in the styles that I’ve been fond of and that I’ve been working in for the past few years. Right now I’m mostly looking forward to the publication of Magyarázni with Coach House and the Bloom and Martyr chapbook with Kalamalka—I’m a fan of each press and I’m thrilled to be publishing with them. For upcoming projects, though, I’m currently working on finishing an older manuscript of visual and constraint-based poetry about Victorian corsetry called Tight-Lacing that I started years ago. I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. What I like most about writing is exploring new topics and ideas as they arise, so I’m just waiting to see what comes next.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Thrum and accrete or crumble by Natalie Simpson are an endless source of inspiration for me—her language is so evocative, and her bending and fracturing of grammar so fascinating that every time I read either book I feel ready to write. I’ve often gone back to Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein for the same reasons. Finally, I re-read The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood regularly, and I find it particularly helpful to read if I’m working on something narrative.

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