A Conversation with Heather Derr-Smith, author of Thrust, from Persea Books (2017)
Interview by Brian Burmeister
Heather Derr-Smith is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and author of four collections of poetry. Her newest book, Thrust, was the winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize. Thrust has been praised by many fellow poets, including Kaveh Akbar, who called the book, “An important, ambitious new collection.”
Derr-Smith is also an activist and advocate who has volunteered with several nonprofit organizations, including Everytown for Gun Safety. She recently founded Čuvaj se, which focuses on supporting writers in war-torn regions.
In this interview, Brian Burmeister asks Heather Derr-Smith about her poetry, the role of poets in the world, and her advice for fellow writers.
Brian Burmeister : Your new poetry collection, Thrust, explores a lot of powerful themes—love, desire, violence, and the search for personal identity. What do you hope your readers will think and feel as a result of these poems?
Heather Derr-Smith: I would like people to feel their own strength and resilience. I hope that people can tap into the possibility of facing suffering and pain honestly, not pushing it away or denying its existence or impact or effect. But also, that each and every one of us is strong and gifted with a right to fight back and say NO to malevolence, wherever it comes from. This is a delicate message I’m trying so hard to communicate. The hurt is real, the pain is real, suffering is right here all around us and don’t turn away from it. Your trauma is important and real. So is your power. You may not win or overcome, but just in standing firm you have done an incredibly powerful thing. I think I want them to feel that power of resistance.
BB: What was the writing process like for you as you wrote Thrust?
HDS: I have a strange process, or at least, I’ve learned that it is strange when I compare myself to what other writers say they do. I do not write every day. I tend to cycle through seasons of listening, being present to the world, watching, reading, just absorbing things quietly. I’ve learned to trust that my mind is doing the work it needs for when it is time to write.
Then I start to take notes in a notebook. I usually read the dictionary and find words I like and I make sentences out of those words or images or lines for poems. I also find words in other books I’m reading or phrases I overhear in real life or in movies. I collect all these sentences, words, and lines in a notebook. Usually, it comes to be that I see patterns emerging of things I am interested in—like for Thrust I was reading a lot of books and essays on boxing, so I was taking notes on boxing terms. I started boxing myself and binge-watching old, old clips of fights. I took notes on all these things, images, descriptions etc. I was also reading all about Nabokov’s butterflies so I took a lot of notes on that. At some point I see common themes emerging and patterns and connections being made between such disparate parts as Boxing and Butterflies, which leads to this wonder of poetry and metaphor.
In my personal life I was wrestling with questions about my own past and my own trauma from both childhood and as a survivor of rape. I was in therapy and I finally got brave enough to return to my hometown, Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I grew up and hadn’t spent much time in for a number of years. I had been estranged from my family to protect myself emotionally and psychologically, but I felt like I had gotten to a point where I was strong enough to re-engage and make some discoveries on my own terms. So I visited all my old haunts, the old homeplace, my old friends, and places where I had lived as a teenage runaway. I was able to make some peace in those places and place often plays a huge role in my poems. So I started taking notes on what that all felt like and also the flora and fauna of those places. When I was a kid I wouldn’t have cared to name such things, which is perfectly fine for a child to be free from the need, just so immersed in the moment, but in writing I do care very much about naming. I love how it roots the self in the world in this way that I missed growing up, having such a fractured sense of identity from years of trauma.
So when I get to that place I feel a surge of energy and I plunge in and start writing a whole book all at once. I don’t work on poems so much as poetry. I start to see where there are poems in all the notes and I divide them up into manageable chunks and move lines and images around fitting them into pages where I see—oh, here is a poem forming about loss and this word fits and that image fits and let me tie it all together and strengthen that theme or add this contradiction or surprise. Pretty soon I have about fifty pages and the poems emerge stronger and stronger. I often think of it like I’m on a Ouija board and spirits are getting pulled out of the page/board into this world to speak.
BB: You’ve made multiple trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and your first book of poetry, Each End of the World, reflects upon life there during and after the Bosnian War. Recently, you created the literary and human rights organization, Čuvaj se, dedicated to the support of writers and scholars in communities affected by war. What led you to the creation of this organization? And what are your hopes or goals for the work done by this organization?
HDS: Yes! I am so excited to start this nonprofit and see where it leads. BiH has become like a second home to me, and I do think eventually I will live there a good part of the year. I made a commitment during the war to show up and be present with the people who were resisting authoritarianism and nationalism and I want that to be a lifelong commitment to that particular place. But as we know full well, these forces are on the march all over the world and never seem to really abate for long. This nonprofit is just a small gesture I can make that I hope will lead to something useful. I would like all of my income—which is very slight at this point but could become more significant as I teach more and become more established—any money from my books to go toward others. I have a lot of privilege as a white American woman. I’ve benefitted enormously from my access to resources like therapy to help me overcome PTSD, like networks of support to keep me out of poverty, education, literary networks, so even with a history of abuse and violence and adverse childhood experiences, I have benefitted from my place in the world and in society. I want to give back and lift up others.
I will have to start small with this nonprofit, small projects that are easy to accomplish, because for one thing, I’ve never run a non-profit before. I’ve been doing these workshops for years all over the world with refugees from Iraq and Palestine in Syria, Syrian refugees in Europe, Burmese refugees in the United States, and of course with the Bosnian diaspora, a community so profoundly affected by a brutal war and genocide. I want to keep doing that. In November and December I will be doing poetry workshops in partnership with the US Embassy in Estonia, and in Eastern Ukraine with IDP’s (internally displaced people) from the war in Donetsk and in Czech Republic and Bosnia. All of these communities are struggling through a resurgence of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. I serve two populations mostly. The first is university age students, often from the LGBT community in these countries, often advanced writers themselves who are interested in connecting with the broader poetry community. And the second group is very different, usually survivors of trauma, usually older, not university educated, not poets, but often people who just love poetry and may be there to practice English skills and/or are processing trauma. So the former is more academic and the latter is more therapeutic. I’ve developed relationships over the years and would like very much to partner with organizations already working in their respective countries. For instance, I’ve been involved in workshops in Sarajevo with TPO Foundation, already doing fantastic work with women activists and in the schools with teachers. They are in the process of trying to put together a summer camp for kids that would include poetry workshops and I could apply to grants to help run those in partnership with them. I’m looking at small-scale projects like that and we’ll just see where it leads. I will have a booth and brochures at AWP 2018 so hopefully by then I will have a specific project in mind!
BB: What civic or societal responsibilities do you believe poets in the world today should possess?
HDS: Building community at home and abroad. Being authentic and generous in the world with one another, neighbors and strangers. I think the days of poets as elitists in ivory towers should be over. I think the idea of poets as above others and privileged and milking their privilege for fame or immortality should be dismantled. We are all flawed, of course; no one is perfect and we all are learning and growing—or should be, so I hope poets will be real about who they are and strive for that kind of authenticity. I hope MFA programs, which I love, become more and more places of community and less and less places of unhealthy competition and unhealthy, even abusive, power dynamics. I believe we can strengthen one another’s work far better through caring for one another and positive critique—as in we all have muscles to build in our work, sure—let’s encourage one another to write stronger and harder but there are so many better ways of doing that than tearing each other down. I hate “negative” reviews and think they are worthless for making poetry better. This doesn’t mean we just praise one another all the time and we don’t care about craft. Poetry is a craft and we work hard to get better, and yes, it’s okay to differentiate between work that is mature and work that is not—but let’s also leave room for work that is maturing and leave room for possibility for our fellow writers.
I still believe American poets are too insulated from the rest of the world. This is a problem for Americans in general but for poets as well. Many countries do not have access to the networks we have, and we are leaving people behind, silencing a lot of incredible work, just because they can’t access our American networks or communities of writers. I would like to see us do a better job of being trans-national. Often poets in Ukraine, Estonia, Bosnia, or many, many other countries, perhaps in Iraq, Syria, name anywhere in the world, and so many great poets are disconnected simply because they are ignored when they do try to reach out. There is still the frenzy of popularity and celebrity and coolness within the American lit community, where certain names become cool—and, of course, their work is deserving of praise, but word spreads and they tend to dominate. It’s funny, in Western Europe and in many countries with a rich literary tradition, elitism comes in the form of a certain male-dominated intellectualism. In America there is elitism in American Coolness. You see it all the way back in the Beats; it’s the NY School; it’s just so much a part of our culture. It’s like no matter how marginalized or anti-elitist a movement starts out, it can still become exclusionary, which I think we should constantly be working to undo.
BB: Many of Cleaver Magazine’s readers are aspiring poets. As a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what is one piece of advice you were given during your time there that you would want to pass along to other writers?
HDS: The best things I took from the Writer’s Workshop came by example, not really advice. There was lots of good advice that I would echo. I mean I learned from reading a lot of poetry. I learned from imitating. I learned from writing a lot. But what meant the most to me were teachers and peers who demonstrated a generosity and authentic humanity. I believe this is what makes the best work and work that will last. Mark Doty taught me to be generous to others and to have empathy. He was kind. We had workshops around tables of food at one another’s homes. Sharing meals like that creates community. The way he talked about other poets was with the tone of friendship or awe. He didn’t need to show off by tearing things apart. He asked a lot of questions, and that modeled for me a way of being. Marvin Bell was the same, always excited about something, always wanting to show us something neat. It was just a genuine love of art and literature and being alive, too. Charles Wright was a master craftsman. He worked us hard. But he had a sense of humor and a lack of pretense. Just be real, be imperfect, be uncool, be curious, and be open to one another.