Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Heather Derr-Smith

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Heather Derr-Smith

is a poet with four books, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008), Tongue Screw (Spark Wheel Press, 2016), and Thrust winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award (Persea Books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Fence, Crazy Horse and Missouri Review. She is managing director of Cuvaj Se, a nonprofit supporting writers in conflict zones and post-conflict zones and divides her time mostly between Iowa and Sarajevo, Bosnia.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I often say my inspiration to write poetry came from the movie Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. I remember that film as instigating me to make a declaration of knowing how I wanted to live my life and what I wanted to “do.” It was an epiphany. I wanted to be one of the angels, listening and observing, but also I wanted to be like the angel who chose to become human to experience the world, fall in love even with all its pain. I realized I loved the world. I realized there was a world outside of myself to love. This was a coming of age moment for me, at about sixteen.

But also I was inspired all along by language, a fascination with words, a desire to create a self that had been fractured by trauma in childhood and into adulthood. I have early memories of writing every word I knew all over the church bulletin. There was scripture and gospel songs with weird images and the preaching. I hated my religious upbringing for its authoritarianism and it’s deep immorailty as it paved the way for what we see now in Trump. But the language of the scripture and the hymns I loved very much.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Our home had no books, no literature. My parents came from poverty, were the first generation to rise out of poverty, but were not college-educated.  My mother drove the right-wing religious climate in the home, and she and my stepfather drove the right-wing political in concert. I’d say the psalms were he first poems I heard. But I do remember an antique book my mother had called “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and I believe a poem I loved about having to go to bed early in summer when it’s still light out and the birds are singing and you want to play. But my first introduction to poetry in the sense we think of it had to have been the Smiths, with “Keats and Yeats are on your side–but Wilde is on mine.” which led me to ask who are Keats and Yeats? There was literature in school which I did love. The usual books we were required to read in middle school and into high school. I loved those. But I really loved the literature I found through the music I loved–The Stranger by Camus, from the Cure as another example. I found so much through references in the music of the time (the 80’s) but also I wrote poems based on song lyrics, impressionistic, associative, and to me these fragments which were based on song lyrics were my poems.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I had no older poets until I finally got to the University of Virginia. I ran away from home, was homeless for a while, got an apartment, waited tables, found my way to one year of Liberty University (the only way I could imagine going to college) then transferred after a year to the University of Virginia. Charles Wright, Rit Dove, and Greg Orr were teachers then. I had no idea who they were. You had to apply to get into their undergraduate workshops. I did and got in and started writing poetry. I knew nothing. I did not know the graduate students. I wasn’t very well educated because I had endured so much trauma in high school in and out of the home, that I really wasn’t learning much formally. I only knew my teachers, who I loved; my peers, who I also loved; and I got to know poets in books: Philip Levine, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Li-Young Lee. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had no idea what it was all about. I just knew if you were a poet you were supposed to go to Iowa, so I applied and went.

There I loved my teachers, Mark Doty and Marvin Bell especially, Jorie Graham. The ones I didn’t love I still learned from. I did not know any other poets outside of class. I didn’t got to AWP. There was no social media.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I have notebooks I keep in a stack on a table in my bedroom. Each notebook is labeled  with projects I’m working on. One is “Arabic” for learning arabic, “Bosnian” for writing poems  in Bosnian, “french” for writing poems in french. Then titles of book projects “Heathen” for gender identity stuff. “Violence” for exploring ideas about violence in writing–boxing, war–resistance etc. I have a “commonplace book” which is fragments and notes from my reading. I do not write every single day, but I am mindful of always engaged in the process of writing. I trust my mind and heart to be absorbing, listening, taking in, attentive to the world. I take notes when I want to remember something specific, and I do my notebooks regularly enough–maybe just 15 minutes a day for a few days or a couple days out of the week, and over time I have a compilation of ideas, themes, lines, words, images, etc.  There’s always something connected to writing that I do every day because it’s all connected to writing–watching a film, reading the news, corresponding with friends or loves, looking at art, listening to music, loving my animal friends, al of it goes into my work. I just strive for balance like breathing–taking in and breathing out, active creation and restful re-creation.

5. What motivates you to write?

It seems to be something I have to do and was born to do. It feels inherent to me and myself. It feels like a whole way of being.

6. What is your work ethic?

I work hard. I love to work. I’m satisfied in my labor. At first I would have been driven to work in my home life with chores and a high level of parentification–a drive to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the adults around me, which meant trying hard to please and trying hard not to get in trouble. Then I revolted against the abuse at home and said “Fuck this!” and left. But with my friends who had also experienced a lot of trauma, were runaways, homeless etc. we created our own families and had to work. We were so young, 15, 16, 17 and up. And it wasn’t perfect and we retraumatized one another in many ways, but it was honestly better for my spirit and my mind and heart than homelife had been.

So I found a way to be proud of my own labor and that has stuck with me. Now I’m 48 and I am a big big believer in NOT doing things. I believe in canceling, saying no, not leaving the house, and not being “productive.”  I believe in naps, sitting quietly, and snuggling the dogs. I still like being productive and working hard but I do not like striving at all. Striving to “make it” that feeling that this could “lead to something” bigger, better. Nope nope nope.

I spent some time in an Amish-mennonite community and I liked the idea of work as sacramental, mopping floors, working in the garden, caring for children and animals and others as a way of connecting and loving, not trying so much to amass wealth or be “productive” in the capitalist sense. That has stuck with me.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Sylvia Plath’s rage and violence are still something in my poems that I’m interested in exploring. Berryman’s weird syntax which also connects to Shakespeare and the Bible. Charles Wright’s similes and metaphors and stringing together images with a colloquial bit of diction, with a quote from a philosopher. Larry Levis’ “I” who is deeply empathetic and wanders ut from his own self into the wider world.Mark Doty’s ethics and authenticity of emotion. These are all things still with me.

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I admire so many. I think it would be impossible to name them, they just keep coming. Twitter has been a boon and a curse. I’ve managed to curate my twitter in such a way that I am surrounded by a really wonderful, diverse, generous, community of writers at all stages in their callings. I learn from all of them every day.  I hate to name names because then I will leave someone out. There are at least hundreds, if not thousands. It’s a little overwhelming. But certain books have been particularly groundbreaking for me in the last couple years. I would say Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is one, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket fantastic is another and Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency. Those three have just blown open so many doors I want to hang out a while in those rooms.

9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I keep working on my non-profit, Cuvaj se/Take Care. I’ve chosen to spend a great deal of my time and energy the last few decades facilitating poetry workshops in conflict zones and post-conflict zones and communities affected by trauma and violence. I started back in 1994 while I was learning about poetry and the war in Bosnia was culminating in genocide. I went over to volunteer in a refugee camp and I made a lifelong commitment to that country through more than twenty years of ongoing recovery. All of my earnings from poetry go into this work and all of the work has been self funded, and expanded to other countries, including Syria, and most recently Ukraine. I started the non-profit so that I could apply for grants to help build capacity and do more. We do poetry workshops that emphasize lgbtq rights, human rights, interethnic cooperation, migrant rights, critical thinking etc. and we also fund writers with grants to support their work, fundraise for emergency/critical financial support, and translation. Donations to Cuvaj se from individual donors always goes directly to writers or students in need to support their work. Running a non-profit is new to me, and I’m learning as I go and I’m taking it slow. https://cuvajse.org/

My fifth manuscript is to be published in 2021, but I can’t say anything more about that yet! There’s a lot in it about gender, seuality, violence, and God, my familiar themes (or demons? I like that use of a familiar) I remain obsessed with. But I am happy for the amount of time I have to really dig in hard with revisions and to make it the strongest book I can write. I don’t move on to the next book until I get the present one published–so every bit of my energy and strength will go into it.

I’m also having so much fun making poetry videos. I was hugely inspired by Agnes Varda and have been making these little clips of poems, readings, with sometimes goofy video. I love it and I want to take a film class and learn how to make more and better ones. I don’t care if they are amateurish or seem unpolished. I learned from Agnes varda just to do what you love and give your heart to it and learn as you go. I think this is the link to subscribe: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChhjf1Vp_5o6siKsuhv_G0A?view_as=subscriber
My poetry website is here: https://heatherderrsmith.com/

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