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Heather Derr-Smith : Poetry Is a Craft

May 12, 2009 by · No comments

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s interview with Heather Derr-Smith

Heather Derr-Smith was born in Dallas, Texas but spent most of her childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She earned her MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1998. Her first book, “Each End of the World” was published by Main Street Rag Press in 2005. Her second book, “The Bride Minaret” was published by University of Akron Press in 2008.

Please tell us about your new book, “The Bride Minaret.”

The Bride Minaret is my second book of poems published at University of Akron Press. The book was written just as I was becoming a mother and wrestling with very personal issues of identity and self. I had been raised in a very conservative, religious home and came to feminism rather late in life.
Many of the poems give voice to the struggle I was feeling at the time against some of the demands our society and culture puts on mothers, the myths we absorb about good mothers and bad mothers.

Many of the poems are love poems to my child and a kind of calling out to the self for authenticity and autonomy even in the midst of such all-consuming love. I wanted to both love genuinely, but also not be drowned out by such love. Many poems are articulations of this dilemma.

The poems move out from personal narrative about motherhood to other issues of self-actuation and identity. I’m really interested in Queerness and how one forms a healthy identity against the pressures of conformity. So there are poems about sexual identity as well. There is both a celebration of the creativity of the individual and also a voice of defiance and rebellion in the face of religious and cultural coercion.

Many of the poems are international/global in scope. I feel an imperative to be connected to the world and especially to be engaged in places that have historical/geo-political meaning. I want to make those historical/geopolitical “events” come down to a deeper personal level. I crave this connection in my own life and so it becomes natural to write about it. In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Damascus, Syria to meet Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Parts of their experience and the experience that I had in meeting them are woven into the book. I’ve also become interested and supportive of international GLBT movements, like Helem in Beirut. Some of the poems are about sexual identity in an international context.

The book is organized in three parts – Portents, Prophecies and Histories. How did you decide on that structure?

Well the title of the book, “The Bride Minaret” refers to one of the minarets on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. This was the Mosque I went by every day while I was in Damascus and whose call to prayer filled my body every few hours. It is a stunning space of refuge. The other minaret is called the Jesus Minaret. These minarets serve as a kind of beacon or warning to the faithful to remain steadfast and focused on what is important in life. The Bride refers to the faithful and a calling back to the groom—or God. It’s the same iconography as in the Christian church, more or less. There is a religious thread that runs through the book as I unpack a lot of my religious upbringing in the poems.

I appropriate the Minaret to be a kind of warning against loss of self. The first introductory poem, “Strangers (Ghuraba)” is about exile and migration. It’s a narrative of a young, gay Iraqi refugee in Damascus. It introduces the fundamental struggle of the book, the struggle for an authentic self in a very fractious and dangerous world. “Stranger” also introduces the figure of the “bride” in the poem who will be the primary voice struggling to make sense of herself in relation to this world.

The first section “Portents” are poems about this woman struggling to define herself. These are poems about motherhood, sexual relationships, friendships. The portents are those dangers and confusions in ordinary life, which threaten to derail the authentic self.

The second section is called “Prophecies”. These poems become more global and geo-political in scope, as the bride in the book seeks to connect outward and as the self is compelled/called to engage in the wider world. This section deals with larger themes of exile, migration, globalization and refugees. There is an attempt to make the political personal, to connect with the Other. These are political poems and war poems, ending with an image from Guantanamo. These are big questions about the self in relation to the suffering of other people.

The third section, “Histories” explores some of my own personal history, stories about my own lost childhood, of family trauma and survival, religious heritage and redemption. This section ends with a redemptive call, just like the call to prayer, a kind of personal jihad, I suppose, to continue the struggle of living authentically in spite of it all.

What is the origin and the idea behind the cover artwork of your latest book?

That did come from Amy Freels, who is fabulous, over at University of Akron Books. She’s designed some really beautiful books. The cover is a war rug from Afghanistan and it’s a beautiful, deep crimson red. War rugs are rugs that incorporate motifs and images of tanks, bombs, guns etc. I think it was a perfect combination of the domestic object with the larger themes of war and human suffering. That’s kind of what I’m striving to coalesce in the book.

How long did it take you to write this book?

About two years from start to finish. I took many months editing, working closely with Elton Glaser and Mary Biddinger. Their input was amazing. They really pushed me to be as precise and exact as I could be.

How is “The Bride Minaret” different from your previous book, “Each End of the World”?

“Each End of the World” was my first book, written mostly during my years in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It is mostly about the war in Bosnia in the 1990’s. I was much younger, in my twenties, and I was very idealistic. I volunteered in Washington DC with Bosnian refugees and went over in the summer of 1995 to Gasinci, Croatia to work in a Bosnian refugee camp. I wrote the poems as a form of witness to the suffering of the people there.

A lot of the themes about God and suffering and identity are in those early poems, but things get a lot more complicated in “The Bride Minaret”. I try to do more with point-of-view and perspective in the second book, in which I acknowledge the difficulty of “speaking for the Other”. Actually, I would not say that I’ve ever tried to do that.

What I’m attempting is to give voice to the longing to connect across these huge divides. For instance, in “Strangers” I begin the poem as if it’s in the voice of the Other (gay, refugee, Iraqi), but I shift perspective at the end. I’m trying to wrestle more actively with those issues about exploitation in trying to connect across cultures, religions, etc.

You earned your MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What was your experience with the program?

Very intense! I had some really wonderful teachers, Marvin Bell, Mark Doty, Jorie Graham. I learned so much from my peers as well. They really pushed me to think harder about what I was doing and to be more innovative in the way I used language. But I was in a really weird place emotionally when I was at the Workshop.

I had just escaped from an abusive family life, an alcoholic and violent father, a lot of intense religious pressure. I was way behind the others in terms of my education and sense of self. I could not even identify myself as a liberal or a feminist. I was still very tied to my religious upbringing. I mean, I rebelled against it, but a lot of the black and white thinking was still there and a lot of the rejection of intellectualism. It took me a long time to overcome some of what I had been indoctrinated into.

I actually spent most of my time while in the Workshop hanging out with the Amish and Conservative Mennonites who were my neighbors. My husband and I lived out in the country, and I found a lot of personal peace wandering the dirt roads in the ever-constant Iowa wind. So instead of the usual wine and cheese parties, I was canning and quilting and going to hymn-sings.

It was actually a very healing time for me, and a good transition from the harsh Hell-Fire and Brimstone religion of my childhood to a more peaceful, humble sort of theology. I eventually moved away from that as well, but it was an important transition time. That movement away from my childhood and into a stronger sense of self helped my writing as well. I was developing more of a cohesive voice in the poems.

You teach creative writing. What is the most important thing you teach? What would you like to make sure all your students have learned?

I really love teaching. It makes me very happy to get to share in what my students are writing. There is so much promise and so many surprises. This year I was the visiting poet at Iowa State University in the Creative Writing and the Environment program. What a wonderful group! I learned so much from them, and they inspired me to go home and revise my own work and try new things.

The most important thing that I want to teach my students is that poetry is a craft. So often, students do not think of poetry the same way one thinks of studying music or art or other creative forms. There is still this myth of the muse just flooding through the person and then the poem’s done. Poetry is just like other creative works in that it is work.

Do you write anything besides poetry?

No, but I dream of a novel and a memoir.

What do you wish for the readers of Public Republic?

Moments of revelation and redemption, joys, peace in spite of all the pain, Flowering Tobacco to open its night-scents, chestnut honey in your pocket, Bird’s-Nest Mushrooms that leap in the rain, Chocolate Persimmons, Dark-eyed Juncos, Keats’ “Beautiful Circuiting” and Orpheus’ Temple right in the present now.

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