The Colorado Poet, #26, Spring 2014

Interview: Valerie Haugen

Naked Underneath (Mercury Heartlink Press, 2012)

Bob King: Valerie, let me start with your big statement in one poem, and quoted on the back cover which says the statement is at the heart of your belief system: “Poetry saves lives.” In one poem you play with this metaphorically, that poetry cut a noose, that it fished you out of water, and the like. But how do you really, if I may use that word, see, or feel, poetry as saving lives, or your life?

Poetry saved my life. It saves my life over and over again.

alerie HaugenValery Haugen: Poetry saved my life. It saves my life over and over again. Sometimes I write poems that I think of as shrapnel. For my peace of mind, for my survival, I have to put the words on paper. Poetry has helped me work through experiences that felt overwhelming to me, and I became aware eventually that the writing of the poems was therapeutic. I also read poetry every day, anything I can get my hands on…I wake up in the morning and I read poetry, and I will often choose one poem to dwell on, as it were, and I will “spend the day” with the poem, reading and re-reading it. The more times I read it, the poem I’ve chosen, anything that was mysterious to me upon first reading reveals itself beneath layers that at first were not apparent to me.

The reading and the writing of poetry satisfies a spiritual need in me, as I imagine religion does for some people, and gives me something to cling to – the fact that we can and do take our suffering and joy and make Art from it inspires me. Poetry, perhaps, comes from the same place in us as prayer, both prayer and poetry being somehow beautiful pleadings and songs of gratitude. Reading and writing poetry has allowed me to bear the unbearable.

BK: There’s a lot of clothing imagery in some of your poems. The book’s title comes from a phrase in “Lady in Red” where, instead of reciting poetry naked in the streets, you promise to wear a red dresses as you walk and recite, although you’re “naked underneath.” And there are lots of other references, including Emily Dickinson’s dress, Georgia O’Keefe’s hat, your mother showing up at school one day wearing a China doll wig and a micro mini-skirt with cherries. Where does this importance of dress come from? And does it have anything to do with costume, with your also being an actor?

I have a bad habit of showing up for events dressed inappropriately. But I’m learning to embrace it.

VH: The importance of dress! I have a bad habit of showing up for events dressed inappropriately. But I’m learning to embrace it. I explain that I AM after all an actress and I feel a certain responsibility to dress theatrically, even eccentrically. And I notice these things… I love fashion, the art of it; our individual styles can be such beautiful expressions…who isn’t fascinated by Georgia O’Keeffe’s style, or Emily Dickinson’s dress! I played Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst at Thunder River Theatre, and I fell hard for her so it was such a pleasure for me, to imagine, in a poem, that her dress hangs in my closet, and that I can be Emily anytime I need to be. I just ask myself, “What would Emily do?”

BK: Since I mentioned your theatrical experience—both acting and writing and your presenting a one-woman show—how does that art, a character speaking from a point of view, influence your poetry in subject or rhythm or diction? Or is there some other kind of cross-influence that you feel?

VH: Being onstage is a wonderful exercise in being here and now. I always want to tell the truth for the characters I play. I want to understand them, and make whole people out of them onstage. I get to be someone else, which is always a relief. I always want to tell their truth, to understand their feelings, and embrace anyone I play, and love them, no matter their shortcomings. My writing voice is a very different thing, and probably my true voice. So much easier being someone else.

BK: You write mainly in a loose free verse, often short lined but not always. Did you start writing poetry this way? Was there a certain poet who influenced you? Or does your form come from some other source?

These days my preference is to try to write poems that pack the biggest wallop in the fewest words.

VH: I look at my early poems, poems I wrote in my 20s and 30s, and they are wordy. I want to take them in a smoky backroom and use a knife on them. These days my preference is to try to write poems that pack the biggest wallop in the fewest words. I do have favorite poets, and I hope that I am susceptible to their influence. I keep a list of poets I’d most like to kiss. I’d slip Edna St. Vincent Millay a little tongue, smooch Emily Dickinson, busk Bukowski, but only if he’s sleeping, give John Berryman a peck on the kisser, passionately kiss Robinson Jeffers, and make out with Adrienne Rich…to name a few.

BK: Two longish poems deal with older generations, your actual ancestors, and several deal with contemporary family life. How does this subject matter demand poetry for you?

Family, as subject matter, provides a lot of poetry fodder for me.

VH: Family, as subject matter, provides a lot of poetry fodder for me. My mother, father, sister and step-father all died within months of each other, and I wrote about it as a tool for dealing with the facts of it.  This is exactly what I mean when I say that poetry helps me to bear the unbearable. Poetry built a bridge through that storm for me. I ended up spending a great deal of time with a book called “The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing” by Kevin Young, which was a huge comfort to me. Grief is a strange landscape and the poems in that book made me feel as if I had an escort through that world. I found many of the poems in the book spoke to me in a very personal way, which was at the same time, universal and specific, and reading those poems certainly encouraged me to write what I was feeling.

BK: The book is from Stewart Warren’s Mercury HeartLink press which we dealt with in issue #22 in our series on Colorado presses. The press says it “works closely” with its writers. What was your experience with Mercury HeartLink?

VH: Stewart does work closely with his writers. I might not ever have finished the book if it wasn’t for Stewart’s persistence, for which I am grateful. I was actually physically ill for a couple of weeks after I received the finished book. I thought, “My god, what have I done? Here are my guts between covers.” It made me think of the shortest book review in the world, written by Ambrose Bierce, “The covers of this book are too far apart.”