Pine Row Issue No. 2 Autumn 2020 - Featured Poet
-for gayle hemmy, in memoriam, April 2020
first thing we noticed
tea cups & saucers still
caked with homemade
frosting from red velvet cake
made six months before. her
dogs grew lean as did she. time
dragged into its new self
wheelchaired & assisted
in every demoralizing thing. this
once graceful lady now rough handled
out of clothes & spoon fed forced
flavorless frostingless american
fare was the glue: she made
moons move, birthed trips
around the sun, drew
magic in vibrant colors,
slayed fears in the night,
memorized marginalized poems
to move us. she walked across
the cold night earth, settled
in hostile territory, became
other for my father, her body
a shield, shrapnel, stars.
everything good ever
learned we gleaned from
her life, that harsh & beautiful
lesson. her body & mind, once burdened
vessels freed by no longer knowing
after/now aura of dying flowers,
pierces night oceans with blue
luminescence rolling in youthful &
present on every flawless moonlit wave.
Interview with Kirsten Hemmy
Did anyone help influence your interest in poetry?
I was always interested in poetry. My mother enjoyed the arts and I think she appreciated its value and how that value could be given to her children. I think she wanted us to see that poetry and literature are important for self-development, for intelligence, for managing life. While she never completed her education, she was one of the smartest people I knew, and seemed always to be learning, and especially to be reading. She was my earliest influence. Later, I had a high school English teacher who was constantly encouraging me to enter my work for publication; she asked me to write a poem for our prom program, for yearbook, and helped me win my first writing award. As an undergrad at the University of Hawai’i Susan Schultz and Haunani Kay Trask both introduced me to work that would shape who I have become as a poet and a person. And then in my first year of graduate school, poets Kimberly Blaeser and Susan Firer not only introduced me to poets whose work I fell in love with, they also helped me think of my everyday life differently, to see poetry in things, and that helped me think I could be a poet, that I wanted to have a poet’s life, or that I was already a poet.
What inspires you to write poetry. Why do it?
My colleague at my job—she’s my friend now—once, at the beginning of our friendship, hurt my feelings by telling me that I make issues into existential crises. When things hurt me, often it’s because there’s some truth to what’s been said. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why we don’t all see the existential ties to our actions, to the situations we are presented with and to the responses we have. My life makes no sense; life makes no sense. There are so many things that look complicated, but also look like they can be unraveled if you just sit with them, try to follow a thread to some beginning in order to understand an outcome. This works for me with my notebook, when I try to write it down. I don’t know how else to get through life, to be honest. I miss writing when I don’t do it. It seems like one of those things I should be doing every day like eating healthily, exercising and praying.
How do your poems transition from inspiration to draft to final version?
I sit down to write. I rarely have some great idea before I sit down. Sometimes I think of something I’d like to write about while I’m running or driving or taking a shower or waking up. If I’m lucky, I can remember these things when I get to my desk. I sit at my desk and give myself the task of writing poetry for 30 minutes a day in my poetry notebook. Sometimes it’s just lists of things I think I could write about, often it’s a series of the first few lines of something that I’ll abandon. I always keep a notebook; I measure my life in semesters, it seems, as my notebooks all say things like “Fall 2019” and “Poems Summer 2020.” If I write a poem or part of a poem in those 30 minutes that seems like it has potential, I’ll put an asterisk at the top of the page so that I can come back to it to revise. I like to do my revising on the weekends, on holidays. I give that poem some time and space to see what happens and if I can do something with it when I return to it.
What book is currently on your nightstand?
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, The Tradition by Jericho Brown, and Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Rachel is an amazing artist, though I’ve been gutted by every poem I’ve read from this collection. I wasn’t there when my mom died—she was in a memory care facility and died early during the pandemic—and because of Covid-19 in these early days, there was no funeral, no gathering of family, no travel. I’m aware that some part of me—I’m afraid it’s a major part of me—hasn’t grieved my mother yet because my subconscious still holds a place for her “over there,” in the US. I’m aware that this is true because occasionally I’ll happen upon some sadness that breaks me apart. Rachel’s book has been helping me face the fact that my mother is really gone.
Will you please name a few poet/s (or people / role models) who inspire you?
Dr. Joanne Gabbin has always inspired me and I think of her as my role model. She’s an incredibly gifted poet who has also carved out such a significant space for African American poetry in the United States. Dr. Kelly Norman Ellis inspires me for the very same reasons as Dr. Gabbin—she’s a brilliant poet who also does the work of activism through teaching and administration that will continue to shape American poetry, especially American poetry by writers of color. I admire others doing this same thing, living poets who are giving the world their words but also something bigger as well: Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Tony Medina, Glenis Redmond, Tara Betts, Dwayne Betts, Adela Najarro, Kaveh Akbar. I know there are others doing the same. It’s inspiring—and motivating—to see poets whose words themselves are the gifts also giving back in such meaningful ways.
Do you have access to a community of writers / artists / poets?
I do. I live in a country where there are not as many poetry communities and literary events as I was accustomed to before. It took some time to adjust and in the last few years, out of loneliness and a fear that I was losing who I am as a poet (and maybe also that I was growing away from America, if that makes sense), I worked to reestablish myself in the poetry communities of which I was a part before I moved away from the US. Social media has made this easier; it’s actually become increasingly possible now as a result of Covid-19 and the fact that literally everything is online. All I need to do is commit to occasional 1 am meetings and 4am Zoom groups, which is fine, because I need to remain part of the conversation and community.
Do you have a routine, such as where or when you write?
Pre-covid, I used to work in coffee shops whenever possible. It seems like a dream now. If I am going to write at all these days, it will be early in the morning and late at night when nothing else is happening in this house. These days, everyone and everything is at home: my daughter is doing homeschool and I’m teaching online from home. I’m finding that when I get up early, I write best—free from the day’s stresses and anxieties and business—and that in the evenings, I can work on revisions and sending work out.
Anything else you'd like us to know?
You can follow me on Twitter: @KirstenHemmy or IG: @um_absa
Kirsten Hemmy's first book of poetry, The Atrocity of Water, was a Tom Lombardo selection at Press 53; her poetry has appeared in Antiphon, Glass Poetry, CaKe, Alaska Quarterly Review, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Hemmy is a two-time Fulbright fellow, winner of the Linda Flowers Award from the North Carolina Humanities Council, and a TedX speaker. She teaches creative writing in Oman.