A Conversation with Heather Derr-Smith
by Frank DePoole
Heather Derr-Smith is the author of two collections of poetry Each End of the World, from Main Street Rag Press, and The Bride Minaret, from the University of Akron Press. The Bride Minaret, her most recent book bears witness to that which is life; whether it is domestic life in Iowa or a bomb going off in Beirut. Derr-Smith documents the complexities of life in extraordinary ways. I had a chance to talk with Heather about the new book, her new projects, and the influences that comprise her writing.
The first thing I noticed about The Bride Minaret is the beautiful cover and design of the book. How do you feel about the cover? Is this how you envisioned the presentation when you sent the manuscript out originally? How does the war rug on the cover relate to the poems inside?
I absolutely love the cover design! It is the work of the very talented Amy Freels at University of Akron Press. I was really open to the input of someone else for the cover. I didn’t have any particular vision. It was her idea for a war rug, and it fits perfectly. I’m a huge fan of war rugs and actually have one from Afghanistan, but mine has more muted tones and wouldn’t really work for a book cover. The rug Amy found, with its deep rich red, is gorgeous. I believe she got it from War rug.com. The war rug works really well with the themes in the book, especially the way that images of violence are appropriated into this traditional art form. It’s both mundane and extraordinary at once. You have specific types of guns, bombs, and tanks woven into the fabric of the rug. The rug is both a domestic item and a work of art. I like that juxtaposition. It’s an act of witness as well, documenting, recording battles, massacres, and migrations, sometimes with actual dates woven in.
Each section of the book is so complete and thoughtfully sequenced. Was it a long process to get the book to where you wanted it? Please talk about the book’s structure, and history as a manuscript.
It was a really long process! It always is for me. I edited for months, some poems for years. I’d work on a poem, put it away for weeks, months. It was almost surgical in the end. I felt like I had a pair of tweezers and I would remove a word here, add a word there.
When it was accepted for publication, Elton Glaser went through and edited some more. His input was invaluable. He really pushed me to look again. Was this really the right word? What does this mean? How am I supposed to read this? I took a few poems out altogether. But I added new ones as well, and Elton was open to that. A lot of his questions made me think harder about how the book tied together. It wouldn’t be what it is without such a great editor. And I had more than one, because Mary Biddinger took over the editing process after Elton retired and helped me focus even more! It was such a great experience, seeing the book take shape like that. In the end I had a much stronger work than if I had tried to do it all myself. I think writers really need great readers to help birth the work.
I find the sequencing part of the whole enterprise to be a lot of fun. Once I got the individual poems to be as strong as I felt they were going to get, then I could try to figure out how they connected to each other and how each poem dialogued with the others. Elton and Mary helped with this as well, asking questions, getting me to think about how the poems could be organized. It was actually a very physical experience. I spread every poem out on the floor of my living room, all the furniture pushed back against the walls, so that I had plenty of space. I just experimented with various placements. Then I could ask questions about what the poems were saying to each other. At that point, I again would change a word here add a word there, to make the conversation stronger. The living room was off-limits to the household for a number of days. I actually roped it off like a crime scene.
Your poems contain so much vivid detail that readers feel immersed in the scene. Please talk about your writing process, and the role of concrete detail in conveying your ideas.
When I was a little girl, I just loved that scene in The Sound of Music when Julie Andrews is leading the children in singing about their favorite things. I’ve collected favorite things all my life, as a way of feeling attachment to a material world that has at times felt very unstable to me. As a child there was a lot of upheaval in my life. My father just disappeared when I was five. My stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. Life was pretty chaotic and scary. My mother would often take me aside and share something special with me: Swiss chocolate, a music box from England, antique books from the 17th century with hand-painted illustrations, an old bible with flowers pressed in the pages. She did this often – invite me into her room and share some treasure she had hidden in her closet. I remember those moments vividly. She seemed to be saying, life really is beautiful at times. Even in the midst of all this confusion and pain, we have these moments of joy we can share. And that joy often seemed to be centered on a special object, like a souvenir from the world of happiness. She was a world traveler herself, so she instilled in me this love for going places. Wherever I go, I connect myself to the place through material objects, very personal souvenirs, often rather mundane: a sugar cube wrapper from Paris, a ticket from the bullfight in Arles, a necklace made of luggage tags from a homeless guy in London.
When I got older, and I started to go to places where there was a lot of upheaval, a lot of turmoil, maybe poverty, maybe war, the scattered pieces of ordinary life became a very important way of understanding where I was, to get located, somewhat grounded in a strange, sometimes dangerous environment. Sometimes, these pieces were gifts. In the Balkans, during the war, refugees gave me all sorts of gifts. They surrounded themselves with material objects they had managed to carry with them. The women dressed up everyday in the refugee camp, wearing their prettiest clothes, a string of pearls, heels. These things were very important to them, to their identity. It helped them to feel grounded, even as an exile/refugee in a camp in a no-man’s land between Bosnia and Croatia. For many refugees everything they owned had been burned to the ground. They only had one bag of possessions. They would take pride in the little metalwork cups they served Turkish coffee in. They would give me little necklace pendants, French cigarettes, packets of Nutella, Halva, a piece of lace, a small drawing of the home that was lost. These items were very important.
So, I guess it’s just the language I speak. I carry that over into my writing. All that stuff gets included. All that stuff has meaning. The funny thing is, I’m not a pack-rat at all. I compulsively give stuff away!
The relationship that your speaker shares with her son is very close. Do you think that the male audience will be able to understand this bond that a mother shares with her child, or do you think that there is an element of this book that is appreciated exclusively by mothers?
That is a very tough question. My first response is to say that I hope it is not exclusive to motherhood. I really feel myself reacting against that idea. I know my partner, Todd, is just as intensely bonded to our son as I am. I know that is true. I think there is a big difference in the struggle with identity that I have as a woman and a mother than what he experiences as a man and a father. That might be exclusive to women/mothers in some sense. Women have all this baggage still to carry about being women and being mothers. The book really wrestles with the ambivalent feelings about motherhood that many women have, and that ambivalence is still kind of taboo. There are still a lot of messages in our culture about how wonderful motherhood is supposed to be, and how if you don’t think it’s really wonderful you’re postpartum or selfish or something is wrong with you.
It may be that the intense love one feels for a child is an experience only a parent can know. I don’t know. For me, I never could have imagined what that feels like before I had children. That intensity is definitely a part of the book.
But mostly the book is about identity and identity struggles for many people, not just mothers. There are all sorts of exiles in the book: an abandoned Roma orphan, gay Muslims in Damascus and Beirut, a Palestinian girl in one of the most God-forsaken camps on earth, and all the exiles there are in families. I have gone out from a very Evangelical Christian family and have left most of those beliefs behind. That is difficult to do. It feels like rejection, and on one level it is, so it hurts the people whose most important beliefs you are rejecting. All over the globe, children are defying their parents, changing their beliefs, putting on hijab, taking it off. There are all these movements in opposing directions, revivals in religion, young people becoming more religious than their families, other young people rejecting religion altogether. This is true in my own family. My brother is a pastor in a charismatic church. This was not the religion he grew up with. I’m very liberal, a feminist. This is not the way I was taught. So many GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bi-Sexual Transgender) people know about this kind of exile. Many are estranged from their families. And it happens all over the globe, layers upon layers of marginalization and dislocation. It’s intensified even more by globalization and the mass movement of people into urban areas.
What does the book say about human suffering? Do you consider your work political?
Yes, the book is about human suffering and it is political. I hope it is political in the best sense. I really dislike overtly political poetry, superficially political poetry. I hope it isn’t that. I dislike propaganda altogether. I really believe that most of the world’s problems are intensely complicated and can’t be reduced to a slogan or even a single position. I’m really interested in the complicated stuff. I was in Damascus in the summer of 2007. I met Iraqi refugees who wanted the United States to stay in Iraq, who loved America, who hated Iran most of all. I also met refugees I suspected were involved in the Insurgency and were virulently anti-American. There were people who were all over the political spectrum. In the Palestinian camps sometimes I really couldn’t tell who was a peace activist and who might be a suicide bomber. It was very jarring. But I tried to listen carefully to what people were saying; I tried to pay attention and record the details of their lives. In the end, nobody is just a “peace activist” or a “suicide bomber.” People are complex and amazing and terrifying. I try in my poetry to get beyond the labels and really try to convey something of the individual who ultimately does have worth and meaning. In that sense I can’t escape my religious upbringing.
And I’m stuck forever wrestling with these big questions about suffering and God and human meaning. I’m always drawn to genocide and war and poverty. The only way I can imagine ever asking questions about meaning or about God is through the experience that so many people have of suffering. Any other route just seems like a diversion to me. I mean, I love poetry that celebrates, I love those surprising moments of joy, but always, always I think it has to be with an awareness of the absolute horror that is in the world.
Between The Bride Minaret and your first book, Each End of the World, it is clear that you are a poet of place. How has travel influenced your work, and can you tell me about a time when your travel experiences connected directly with one of the poems from The Bride Minaret?
Well, I mentioned both Bosnia and Damascus. Many of the poems are directly connected to real events/experiences. Just about all of the poems in Each End of the World had a direct connection to the experience I had in the refugee camp. The actual stories were often from refugees, though some were from State Department war crime reports. There is a poem called, “Rosa, Osijek Station,”from Each End of The World, which is about a real experience I had. I was in Osijek, a war-ravaged city in Croatia . I met Rosa there. She was an old woman, a refugee from Bosnia. Our trains were both delayed and we had several hours of waiting ahead of us. It was pretty scary, there were a lot of Croatian soldiers in the train station and neither one of us felt very safe alone, so we stuck together. The soldiers were drunk, belligerent, just right out of fighting. We went over to a café across the street. The windows were all broken and sand-bagged. She shared apples with me. She told me her story. She was in Osijek to identify her dead son. The poem ends just as our encounter ended: she handed me a slip of paper with her “address”. On the paper was written, “Rosa, The Hotel, The Sea”. It was a very surreal experience.
In the poem, “Hit Biscuits” from The Bride Minaret, there’s a scene from an experience I had in Calcutta. A woman approached me and showed me her baby who was dying. The baby was just a tiny skeleton. I tried to give her money, but she gave it back. She just wanted to show me her dying baby. I have no idea why. She had another child with her, and I gave her cookies. It was terrible.
There have been a lot of strange moments like that. Most of them are written directly into the books.
Now that The Bride Minaret is in print and on shelves, what current projects are you working on?
I’m really excited about focusing a bit on the ecological and environmental memory in places of mass migration and dislocation. I would really like to explore what’s going on in the natural world, or what memory is left of the natural world, in the midst of urban mega-cities in the Third World, in slums, in refugee camps, in war zones. What birds remain in Baghdad? What are their migration routes? What plants do the people collect, propagate, sow and reap? I know in Istanbul, village women still gather herbs along the banks of the Bosphorus. I want to know the names of those plants. What remnants of the natural world do people still cling to, in Cairo, in Tripoli? I still feel drawn to the Muslim world, because so much is happening in those places, conflict, occupation, religious revival, globalization, and I’m still stuck with questions about God and Faith and how people make meaning and translate it into religious belief. I want to do some service projects in the West Bank and meet with environmentalists there. How do people think of the land when the people are in a state of perpetual conflict? I know there are people doing amazing things, preserving a natural heritage, even in a state of siege. I’d like to meet those people and talk with them.
The Bride Minaret has been adopted as a course text for a Craft and Theory course in the NEOMFA program this semester, and it is bound to be adopted for future classes as well. Could you give the readers of your book a writing prompt, or assignment, to help inspire their own work?
Put a couple thousand dollars on a credit card, go someplace strange, and take lots of notes.