VI KHI NAO: Your lack of line breaks or your internal line breaks are one of most compelling aspects of this poetry collection. Could you talk about your process with it? Some of poems are formatted in blocks of texts – did most of the poems start out in such a fashion or were you able to find this form, which feels flawless, to match the content of your thought process and the way you view/process the world.
LAUREN HUNTER: Thank you for saying so! I love line breaks and what you can do with them; I like meddling with breath and meaning in that way. But for the prose blocks you mention, they mainly came that way–a very pointed voice that did not tolerate long pauses or quick shifts. I find that when I start writing a poem it very quickly tells me what it wants to look like–it is rare that I am able to change forms later. As far as internal line breaks, it was a very purposeful, careful process for me to choose where these breaks were necessary and what length they needed to be, and that’s all in regards to how the poem sounds or should sound when read aloud, and I guess in some ways where I want a reader/listener’s attention to maybe linger a moment longer.
VKN: Where do you draw your inspiration? It is similar to teaching a hummingbird to fly forward?
LH: I’m very interested in quiet moments, in private life. I like the mundanity of modern life and I guess I like to examine those moments against something, it seems to be usually fear or anger or loneliness but I think that’s really because those are things I find it hard to express in another way. When I think about writing, it’s about connection, expression. Being present. But when I am actually writing it is all feeling, emotion, perception. It’s a very visceral experience and I’m happily doomed to try capturing it in words.
VKN: What side of bed do you sleep on? And, do you think it impacts the way you write? And, what does it mean to be present? I see that word gets tossed around a lot and I think each person has a different notion of what it means. I would love your thoughts on that.
LH: I sleep on the left side, and I think it’s actually because of writing–my computer and stack of books/papers, collections of pens and phones and etc sleep on the right side of my bed. I’m right handed, and a side-sleeper, so that makes the left side the easiest way for me to write or otherwise use my computer in bed, and also is most comfortable for reading in bed.
For me, being present is something I think about a lot and it’s meaning for me has changed (or deepened) recently. I remember in grad school having a conversation about readings and how there’s always so much to do in the city, or something like that. And Jennifer Michael Hecht said to me something like, “Showing up is the hardest part. Some people never show up.” I’m paraphrasing terribly but what I took from what she said was the idea that it’s hard sometimes, to get up in the morning and deal with whatever you have to deal with or push through to even just be in that room. Whatever room you are putting yourself in. And it’s in part about willpower, and personal strength maybe, but also about choice. So as a socially anxious introvert, I tried to show up. To be present and express myself in my writing, even when that was hard to do. On the morning after the election, however, I found myself faced with a lot more truth than I anticipated, and I was of course, devastated, but more than anything I felt both invisible and like my curated invisibility had failed me. Like no one was appreciating my agreeability and intervening on my behalf. And I had to decide to show up in a different way, which has been hard, but the truth is, being a quiet and “invisible” black woman never protected me from anything. So I have to contribute, and write, and make noise and draw attention to the fact I’m here, because even that is protest, and what happens around me, what’s done against or for me, actually affects my life.
VKN: What other ways have you been trying to show up, Lauren?
LH: I guess you could say right now I am trying to live a life of yes, at least for the moment. I am trying to take this book everywhere and to get everyone to read it, and that is both my longest dream and my biggest fear. Promoting myself is hard in such a strange way, but I’m thinking of it as it’s my duty to do right by this book, which, yes, I made but is bigger than me, and I owe it to my work to finish the task.
VKN: It’s so exciting for me to experience your book in this world – I am happy to know that you are making a conscious effort to promote it ! There is a haunting, raw vulnerability to the way you embrace and advance language. It feels innovative and allows readers to have more direct, but charged access to their emotions. Were you born experimental or did you create or birth yourself into being one?
LH: I think I’ve always been this way–I made up words and new names for things even as a kid. I like to play with words and take a lot of liberties when writing, especially for the benefit of the sound or rhythm of what I’m writing. I think subconsciously I’ve been trying to write songs because a note or key change can do so much to express a feeling, and I want that in my work. I want to express feeling as much and maybe more than meaning, and I find that relying on sound helps with that (apologies to grammarians).
VKN: Outside of poetry, the book itself even, what is the most poetic gesture you have encountered? And, would you build a factory to manufacture that gesture so that everyone will have it too? Your Human Achievements is an achievement. What other achievements would you like to manifest?
LH: OH, this is such a good question! I think I want to say the breath before beginning to sing, you know, like how on some recordings you can hear a sharp or slow intake of breath and the opening of a mouth before the song begins? I am a person who absolutely hates mouth noises but I find this moment so opening, so exciting. It’s like taking in the world, the room, the listener, right before pouring it all back out–I’m obsessed with it. And I think most people would benefit from some form of that exercise–deliberately taking the world in and holding it a moment before speaking or acting.
As far as other achievements, I’d like to keep going. To write another book, to be honest and present and a force for some kind of good if I can.
VKN: I think you should patent for that before someone steals it, Lauren! Speaking of slow intake of breath and mouth, if you have no health or dental insurance and one of your teeth has been unfastened, which current poet or writer or musician would you trust to be your makeshift dentist to help pull your tooth out for you?
LH: Hahaha! Ben Mirov is the first person to come to mind. I feel like Ben would stay very calm despite any screaming or bleeding. 🙂
VKN: With my feverish fetish for consuming ice cream on a regular basis, I am sure I will need to come to Ben. Will you break down a poem for the readers? Will you choose one? (You can break it down line by line or stanza by stanza or whatever -these quotidian things we experience everyday that provoke mastery of self on the page as a poem or a writing piece.)
LH: I’m going to choose HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT: TO BE FREE, because I was recently thinking about writing it and looking at it in a different way.
HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT: TO BE FREE
when I wake up, I look the day right in the eye and tell it to go fuck itself, because that is how I feel. if it is beautiful, and even if I feel good, I know somehow I will be held responsible for this. the only way I get out of bed these days is to take my phone and queue up videos of you, talking about things that you love. I laugh around my toothbrush, waiting for my right leg to wake up. what if I go back to bed. it’s a condition of my disease, that I see myself hit by a car and don’t feel anything. it’s like a love tap. I need to exfoliate so many layers of skin to get to what you’re asking. the question is about phantom limbs and also sleep paralysis. because that demon on my chest stole my soul, I mean the thing I am missing is my heart, and I can’t find it anywhere. is the panic the phantom limb. is the arm the shovel or the knife. because there isn’t time. but I am impressed, I am inspired, I am incited. I will buy what you are selling; I am making you something to buy.
So I’m definitely not a morning person and this poem was written one morning when my body was refusing to get up and ready for work. I had a habit of sitting up awkwardly leaning off the bed, and my legs would fall asleep, making getting up even more difficult to do. The thing is, I felt like it didn’t matter if I got up or not, because I had little to look forward to; I was depressed, I hadn’t been writing or socializing and work was the only thing I did because I had to. But every now and again in my life I have been blessed by intense obsessions, usually with musicians, and the thing I am looking for is “the artist,” the thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. When I wrote this poem, however, I had been watching Domhnall Gleeson in movies and interviews and I was obsessed with the way he talked about becoming an actor and what it meant to him. I wanted to feel that way about my work, but I couldn’t. This poem is the first time I was able to steal that feeling for my own purposes; I wanted to start writing again so that I could feel “the artist,” and make something worth sharing.
VKN: How beautiful, Lauren! I appreciate you sharing that and I am sure the readers will too! What give you the impression that Ben Mirov would stay very calm?
LH: You know, I’m not that sure he would! I think I thought of him because I feel like Ben would agree to do it, after minimal convincing. There might be a lot of nervous laughter but he’d get it done. And it’d be a great story later.
VKN: Which poem from your collection was the most difficult to give birth to? In which the baby was screaming and crying and won’t come out and its head was either too big or lying backward in your cerebral, literal uterus and the umbilical language is twisting its neck and you feel like dying trying to get it out in the world.
LH: I think HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT: CATCALL, mainly because it didn’t come all at once, and it felt important to write but I had a really hard time capturing that feeling. I don’t think it’s entirely successful but I wanted to include it anyways, because that experience of feeling bold or audacious but still wanting to be invisible and left alone, struggling with expressing my anger, was so pervasive and troubling for me, and I think writing that poem (or trying to) cracked open something I’m going to be working on for a long time.
VKN: Do you have an intuitive sense of when to let something go and when to just call it quits? If you don’t, what do you think will help you hone this power?
LH: I do, and honestly if I’ve written a poem and don’t feel 80% done when I stop writing, it’s usually just fodder for notes. I do occasionally go back through notes and try to use them later, but it’s best if I’ve forgotten what I was trying to do in the first place, and just steal the words.
VKN: What is your family like? And, how did they respond to your Human Achievements?
LH: I have the most amazing family in the world. I can say that objectively because other people tell us this all the time. But we are very close and they have been incredibly supportive. Not everyone “gets” or likes poetry, but they’ve come out to my readings, bought books, helped me promote. It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m so grateful that they’ve been so loving and open-minded!
VKN: How many siblings do you have? Are you the youngest?
LH: I have three siblings: an older brother and two younger sisters. We are an unstoppable and hilarious force.
VKN: I have no doubts! What do you think is the key ingredients that make your family amazing? Perhaps others could emulate to inspire their own family to be amazing as well.
LH: We get together a lot. Like, I think for other people when you grow up you stop being required to go to family things or they seem less important. But we get together not only for holidays and weddings but graduations, random weekends, whatever. I don’t think that’s the only thing though. To be honest I might not know what it is, but I think realizing how important it is for us to show up for each other keeps us close even when life is busy or you live far away from each other. Also it’s not hard to join our family. We know how to party; come on over!
VKN: Thank you, Lauren, for being so generous with us. For your altruistic tendency, if a genie could grant you a gift such as….one of your body parts could be a cyborg…..?
LH: Oh, definitely my eyes, because I really want that eye-camera. I think about it a lot. I studied photography in high school but still never feel like I can make a camera capture what I’m seeing, and I want to. I guess in some ways I want that to be a memory vault. I want to capture the light, the texture, the breeze, the smells, the sound of someone dropping a spoon, everything. So that I can have deja-vu forever.
VKN: What books of poetry or fiction wouldn’t you read? Will you give us a short list?
LH: I’m not sure! I’m guessing I haven’t paid attention to the things I’ve no interest in. I’m pretty heavy into contemporary poetry right now, so I wouldn’t be likely to pick up any of the classics anytime soon.
VKN: What books then engage you and are required on your bookshelf?
LH: I’m really excited to read Wendy Xu’s Phrasis, but I haven’t gotten it yet. Lucille Clifton is a must on my bookshelf, as well as Rita Dove. Recently, I’ve loved Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and Erica Lewis’ Mary wants to be a superwoman.
VKN: I like Lucille Clifton’s work a lot too. Do you like tofu? What about green onion?
LH: I don’t really like tofu, but I eat it sometimes, if it’s presented to me. I love green onion. And white onions, and red and yellow onions too.
VKN: I will try to avoid serving you tofu at a dinner for poets then. In one of your poems, you mentioned an internet crush and you also mentioned it during your reading at a recent book launch at Friends and Lovers in Brooklyn. A young man from California ( I don’t know why I made the assumption that he would be young); would you meet him in person? Would you ask him out if you were to launch your book tour in California? And, I am so so curious, but what is it about him that smittens you?
LH: Hahaha! I think he lives in California but I’m not sure! I wouldn’t ask him out but I would want him to come to my reading. I think we’ve actually met before, at an AWP. But I love his poetry and I feel like he’s a friendly and funny person, so he’d be fun to hang out with. It’s kind of an inspiration crush, if that makes sense?
VKN: Would you ask him to pull your tooth instead of Ben Mirov?
LH: No way! I’m really nervous about teeth and dentists and it would be more relaxing for me if it was a good friend rather than a stranger I admire. I wouldn’t be putting my best foot forward!
VKN: Lol! It could be a throat clearer…too – get the most embarrassing part of ourselves out of the way, so we could enjoy the intimacy to come. By the way, what is your idea of a great date?
LH: I guess that’s one way to look at it! Anything’s a great date if you enjoy your company (Maybe not tooth extraction). But I guess something like cooking dinner together–making something, or maybe going to see a band. Or the opera!
VKN: What opera would you like to see?
LH: I missed Eugene Onegin when they did it at the Met a few years ago and I deeply regret it. It’s one of the first operas I studied and I had the chance to see it and missed out.
VKN: I am sorry to hear…
VKN: If you could give an advice or advices to a young poet starting out…what to avoid…?
LH: My advice would be the basics, write and read, actually write and actually read. I’m so guilty of taking long breaks and pretending I can be a writer without actually writing or reading anything. For me, finding a community that respects me and my work that I can respect similarly has made a world of difference, has given my work somewhere to go.
VKN: Actively writing everyday could be a nuisance too. So much work to edit if it accumulates in years.
LH: True! I have tons of notes I’ll never use for anything. I guess what I mean is not so much an everyday or frequent practice, but some sort of practice. And to read when you’re not writing, which I wish I did more consistently.
LAUREN HUNTER is the author of HUMAN ACHIEVEMENTS (Birds, LLC 2017) and the chapbook My Own Fires (Brothel Books 2011). Her voice can be found inside the Poetry Jukebox in New York’s East Village, on the experimental track AM Radio by Marselle, and in poems recently published in The Recluse & Jubilat. Lauren currently lives in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina.