An Interview With Hailey Leithauser
By Christopher Eithun
Poet Hailey Leithauser was born in Baltimore and raised in Maryland and Central Florida. In 2012, Leithauser's book, Swoop, won the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Award. Her poem "The Cannibal's Song" appeared in Pleiades issue 34.1 and can be found here.
I noticed in Swoop that you used highly-controlled syntax and other formal elements, yet the tone was fearless and urgent. How do you balance the seemingly opposite impulses to strive for artful construction while implanting thematic concerns and emotional content?
I start, 99.9% of the time, with the sound, which inevitably creates a structure, and concentrate on that, letting that take the poem where it wants to go, keeping faith that sense will worm its way in there somewhere. Of course at some point after the poem is fairly well blocked out I do go back and work on the content -- Does this line make sense, is the meaning consistent, that sort of thing. And then when that’s done, the last revisions are again on fine-tuning the sound. The themes and content inevitably show up, but they are very rarely my motivation at the onset.
It’s sort of like throwing a party, you put all your focus into the food and music and cleaning your house, paying attention to what you should be paying attention to, then the people walk in and things start to happen. And sometimes the themes and ideas are completely uninvited and unexpected -- party-crashers -- which always makes for the most interesting conversations.
Swoop appeared to have an eclectic approach to subjects—are there recurring themes or subjects that have continually piqued your interest?
The same themes that interest and obsess most people - love and death, nature, spiritual vs. physical aspects of life, all that sort of eternal pondering. And language of course. I am, to use Jim Harrison’s term, a big old “word drunk," so the subjects of words and writing delight me no end.
Was there a particular moment, that you can remember, in which you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
Not one moment I remember, though I’m sure there was one, probably in early adolescence, in the middle of the night, in a silent house, reading something that took my breath away and made me want desperately and certainly to be part of that company.
I do remember in my mid teens having a conversation one night with the mother of a friend, a woman who adored literature, and asking her, sincerely wanting to know, why on earth anyone would ever be anything other than a writer or an artist. I couldn’t understand why everyone in the world wasn’t a writer, what else could possibly give you that pleasure. I still sometimes wonder that.
Like a lot of young writers, I’m always interested in hearing about how writers come up with their ideas. In your experience, what is the most helpful way to move past an onset of “writer’s block”?
Someone asked me that in an interview recently and all I could think of to say was “Suffer and wait.” Remember, you’re talking to someone who had a writer’s block once that lasted twenty years.
Though yes, there are things to do, read of course, I play with erasures sometimes, long walks in the woods, long baths. And playing with a new form can sometimes get things going.
After I finished Swoop, I got all knotted up because, although I liked my book very much, I didn’t want to keep writing the same poems, didn’t want the next book to be Swoop II, so I needed to force myself into a new syntax. I ended up playing with acrostics, got the idea after reading some poems from Rebecca Hazelton‘s book Fair Copy, and these were the starting point for my new manuscript. The title poem of the new book, The Cannibal’s Song, BTW, is an acrostic poem that first appeared in Pleiades.
Do you have any words of advice for a young writer in terms of how to improve on his/her craft?
Tough question. I guess the best advice I can give is, and I know how trite this sounds, but don’t be afraid to fail. There are continents of people out there who say they want to be writers, but then don’t really have go at it because they only want to do it if they can be great writers, so they hamstring themselves at the start.
The hardest part about being a writer is writing badly, and you’re going to do that a lot, so grit your teeth and get through it. Don’t be afraid to try writing something that is too short or too dilated or too rhymy or too corny or too avant garde or too traditional or too personal or too impersonal. Just go ahead and suck, you’re young, you’re supposed to, take advantage of the opportunity. Read the breathtaking poets and fall in love with them and learn from them, but learn just as much from your own crap. That wad in the trashcan can teach you just as much as Western Wind
Read her poem"The Cannibal's Song here.