Lana Hechtman Ayers in Service of Poetry
An interview by Michael Dylan Welch, first published in Line Zero #3, May 2011, in a much shorter form. Also reprinted in Involution, a collection of stories, poems, and essays from the first two years of Line Zero magazine (the anthology is available on Amazon, and it and the journals used to be available on the Line Zero and Pink Fish Press websites, but no longer).
Lana Hechtman Ayers, who lives in a waterfront home south of Kingston, Washington, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, is a regional poet garnering increasing national attention. If you saw her at a Seattle poetry reading, you would find her to be warm and friendly, her brown eyes sparkling as she greets one poet friend after another with an embrace and a ready smile. She is quiet in her way with others, and quiet and reserved even in the poetry she shares publicly. While many poets will trip over themselves to get to the stage as quickly and often as possible, Lana is frequently happy to facilitate, to showcase other poets and their work. She does this not only in readings, but in her service as a manuscript doctor, poetry editor for Crab Creek Review, and editor/publisher for the Concrete Wolf poetry chapbook series. She holds BA degrees in mathematics and psychology, an MA in counseling psychology, and an MFA in poetry. It has also been my pleasure to curate the SoulFood Poetry Night in Redmond, Washington with her since July of 2006. In its sixty monthly readings since the series started, and in numerous other readings, just once do I recall her reading a poem of her own. That selflessness characterizes her compassion and support for others ahead of herself. Rather than hoping for gift copies, she often insists on buying copies of poetry books by her poet friends. She is an accomplished poet, with a long string of publication credits (only a small fraction of which are mentioned on her website at www.lanaayers.com). She has also published several books of her own poetry, all of which are discussed in the following interview. Despite her seeming reserve, in print her words are unafraid and transcendent, often startling and brave, sometimes fierce. And always trusting. As the signature line in her email messages has said for many years, “Leap and the net will appear.” Lana Hechtman Ayers is a poet of increasingly national significance who, except in this rare interview, lets her poetry do her talking.
What motivates you as a poet?
The answer to this question is the same as if you asked me why are you living—to make sense of life, to make meaning, to connect, to make life better for others. Writing poetry is the way I discover and express my humanity. I want to write about what I’ve experienced in various ways in the hope that doing so creates common feeling, understanding, new perspectives, or perhaps a sense of shared experience.
What motivates you as a reader of poetry?
Reading poetry teaches me about the world, about myself, clarifies what I feel, what I don’t know or understand. Reading poetry makes me feel connected to the greater human experience. The poetry of others offers new insight into how to live as a more compassionate human being.
Describe your poetry library. What are its features, strengths, weaknesses? How do you have it arranged?
I have hundred of poetry books, some spilling over onto tables all over my home, some in my car, some stashed in purses, and even a whole bunch on bookshelves. I have lots of chapbooks, individual collections, and a few anthologies. I have no system of keeping track since I don’t inventory my books, but I would guess I have slightly more books by women than men. My books are alphabetized in two sections—those I have read and those yet to read or requiring additional study. It is a largely contemporary set of books so its weaknesses are that I don’t own much poetry older than the nineteenth century and don’t have as many foreign authors as I would like. I do have a rather extensive set of books about and by Lorine Niedecker and Pablo Neruda who are among my many favorites.
Some people might think that parts of your education are “unpoetic.” Please talk about your educational background and how its diversity contributes to your MFA in poetry (from New England College) in making you the poet you are today. You say on your website that you’d like to go back to college some day to study astrophysics.
My undergraduate degree in theoretical mathematics is probably as close as one comes to poetry without using words. Theoretical math is a very beautiful language whose aim is to describe, comprehend, and express the world more fully. What is more poetic than that? Trying to make sense of the world is an extraordinarily poetic endeavor whether done via words or equations.
I also possess a second Bachelor’s in psychology and a Masters in counseling therapy. Again, another attempt to make sense of life—my own and to help others make sense of theirs. This is the main aspect of my poetry.
And then there’s the MFA. I went for an MFA precisely because I had no formal training in poetry. I had been reading poetry since childhood, willy-nilly, whatever captivated my attention. I wanted to know about all the poets and poetic disciplines that came before, what they did and why and how. I felt I owed it to myself as a writer to get this formal training so that I could better understand how to craft my own poems and better communicate whatever it was in me that wanted to be said in poems. I’ve always been a searching for meaning. I’ve always wanted to know more about the world—how it works and our place in it. I think all these degrees are consistent with that poetic drive and hopefully have made me a richer individual to come to the work.
Please share a few favorite lines of poetry, of any era, or several eras, and say why they matter to you.
Oh my gosh, where to begin? So many poets, so many favorites. I guess I will give you my early favorites. From the poem “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity” by John Tobias in an anthology we read in grade school by the same name, the first two lines:
During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
Those words hit me hard at the tender age of seven because I was already nostalgic for a childhood I never had, a childhood where anything seemed possible, a childhood of joy and imagination. That wasn’t possible in my household.
Also, in that same anthology, which I imagine would never be given to third-graders today, was “Résumé” by Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.
At the age of seven, I had wished to die many times because of my circumstances at home. Ironically, this poem gave me the courage to keep living. Here was a woman who knew pain, and like me thought about ending her life. She not only lived on but became a successful writer. This poem told me that there were others in the world suffering like I was and that if I could just hold on, I could be okay some day too.
Here is the blisteringly brilliant last stanza from Emily Dickinson, poem #640:
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
What speaks to me in these lines is the idea that connections can occur across time and distance that are deep and true and necessary. These connections can open us up, sustain us or even drown us. The voices of poets across time and distance were my door ajar. Even despair itself can be a lifeboat. As long as you are feeling, you are alive. When I first read this poem as a thirteen-year-old, I understood the words from inside my gut.
And finally, these opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which I read when I was fourteen:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Eliot’s poem felt very profound to me at the time but I couldn’t say I had much comprehension of it. And though I didn’t know what to make of it entirely, parts of it felt wrong and angered me. I had read poems that moved me and poems that didn’t. But this poem both moved me and angered me at the same time, which was very confusing. It felt very negative about humankind and life on earth. I didn’t want to believe my life was unredeemable or that the bad that happened to me early on contained future bad. Wasn’t the fact that I was writing about my pain some sort of redemption, I wondered? So naturally after this encounter with Eliot, I turned to Plath. Ah, preaching to the choir.
How does the Seattle poetry scene differ from other parts of the country? What would you make better here? And what are the biggest strengths of the community here that you would wish for other places?
I’ve only really lived in two places as a practicing poet—southern New Hampshire and the Seattle area. Naturally, population plays a role, but in the Seattle area, if you wish to, you can attend a poetry reading every day of the week. Some days, there are so many overlapping events you are forced to miss out on some. Many of these reading are also open mics, which are an occasion to connect with other poets in the area. I have found the poets at readings to be friendly and inclusive. After I had just moved to Seattle, you were one of the many kind folks who offered information and resources to me after I heard you read at the It’s About Time Writer’s series in 2004. There’s also a terrific writer’s center called Hugo House (www.hugohouse.org) that offers writers an alternative or complement to academic courses of study. I met many of my dearest poetry friends by taking classes there. I tell people you can’t toss a pen in Seattle without hitting a poet and it really does feel true. The community is vast and diverse. The only thing I would wish for the poetry community here was that there was more interweaving of the different groups—youth, spoken word, academic poets, poets of differing ethnicities and races. There is some, but I think more exposure to one another would feed and inspire everyone.
Southern New Hampshire has fewer opportunities to attend readings or open mics, and the events are spread out over a much broader area. When I lived in Nashua I was a founding member of Poets Unbound, a poetry critique circle that met weekly at the public library. I also took classes taught by eminent poets like Ottone Riccio, Patricia Fargnoli, and Kate Gleason and connected with writers in those classes. The New Hampshire Writers Project (www.nhwritersproject.org) is also a wonderful organization that provides opportunities for writers to connect. I have taken note that many new venues for readings have arisen than when I lived there, and that’s very encouraging. Poetry is alive and thriving in southern New Hampshire.
How does having a community you belong to help nurture or support you as a poet? What can other poets, especially beginning poets, do to build a community for themselves?
My poetry communities are my support systems. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, it is such a buoy and joy to find people who value and honor the work like you do. In addition to attending lots of poetry readings, I am part of an open critique circle in Auburn that meets weekly and part of a circle of women in my neighborhood who meet twice a month. SoulFood Books, where you and I facilitate the monthly poetry series (how quickly five years has passed!), is another one of my communities with many of the same folks showing up month after month.
I strongly urge poets writing on their own to find like-minded folks to meet with on a regular basis. It can be a discussion group, a critique group, or even just a social group, but it does worlds of good to check in with others who care about the work. Local writing organizations, bookstores and libraries, or attending classes and readings are great ways of building your poetry community.
What role does Facebook play in your poetry community? What changes do you see for poets in response to the growing influence of social media sites, e-readers, and other technological advances?
I don’t feel qualified to speak to how all the social sites and media changes will affect poetry. I can say that Facebook has made the world a much smaller place and I am “meeting” writers I never would have had the opportunity to know before. Facebook creates an ever-widening community for exposure and the exchange of ideas. I wonder if e-readers will lead to more folks reading poetry? Perhaps if the books are less expensive in that format more people will take the plunge? I know that YouTube, podcasts, and streaming of poetry events on the web like our reading series at SoulFood Books create more opportunities for those far and wide to experience poetry as a spoken art.
When did you first become aware that words and writing and poetry mattered to you? Who are some of your poetic influences, past and present? You dipped into this topic when describing favorite lines of poetry previously, but tell me more.
I grew up in a home with a functional mentally ill mother who was emotionally, physically, and verbally abusive. I was a scared, shy child who didn’t understand what was happening to me and I felt I couldn’t tell anyone because it was somehow my fault. I turned to books for relief and escape. I discovered a volume of poetry by Rudyard Kipling in a basement when I was five or six and read all the poems aloud. I didn’t understand what I was reading but I felt when I was saying the words aloud they had a kind of magic, like a spell or prayer. I knew, then, words were sacred.
In addition to the influences mentioned earlier (Tobias, Parker, Dickinson, Eliot, Plath), in my teens and beyond, I glommed onto Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Wesley McNair, Patricia Fargnoli, Martín Espada, Lucille Clifton, and Stephen Dunn. It was more recently I discovered Pablo Neruda and Lorine Niedecker, as different as any two poets can be. Neruda is lush and Niedecker succinct and I relate to both forms of expression very deeply.
What are some of the problems with poetry today? Does poetry matter?
What I can say is that human beings are diverse and complex, so poetry must come in many varieties to accommodate us all. I don’t believe in leaving anyone out. It seems there are different camps about spoken versus written, experimental versus formal, and so on. All poetry matters.
I said earlier, poetry saved my life. It did. It does. So poetry certainly matters to me. And I strongly believe there are many for whom poetry makes life not only bearable but wonderful. I believe all our creative expressions (as opposed to our negative expressions like fighting, vandalism, building weapons) make the world a more beautiful and livable and kind place.
Maybe what’s wrong with poetry today is that more people don’t love it. We don’t teach poems in school on a regular basis and the poems we do teach are often from another century and young children just can’t find themselves in it. I think poetry should be as included in the curriculum as mathematics or social studies, not just as a two-week segment once or twice in a child’s education. This is starting to change. All over the country, writers in the schools programs are in force and growing. But there needs to be more poetry in our lives from a very young age.
You’ve published your books with relatively small independent publishers. How important is it to you to work with indie publishers, and what are the pros and cons? In general, what could independent small publishers do to get their books more widely known and appreciated?
I haven’t chosen to work with small publishers. They chose me and I am very grateful. Small presses can’t afford publicity because there is so little profit (and often loss) in poetry. Amazon.com helps somewhat as does the web and social networks. As a small press publisher myself, I use all these avenues and am looking into making books available for e-readers. I have worked with some lovely presses and have felt like a family member there. I imagine it doesn’t feel quite the same at a large press but you do have better odds of your words reaching more readers. I like to be optimistic though. I think no matter who publishes your book, your words will make it into the hands of the readers who need them.
Please tell me something about each of your poetry books. You have been very persistent in getting them published! I’d be delighted if you could also share a few favorite lines from each book, and perhaps one entire poem that you wish more people could read.
Thanks for asking, Michael. May I also talk about the new books I’ve published as a publisher this year? I’m really so proud and honored to present the fine chapbooks of others. I wonder if this is how it feels to be a mother? Though I can take no credit for the wonderful poetry, I did have a tiny bit to do with birthing them. In 2010, Concrete Wolf, my national chapbook press, published Four of a Kind by Mark Neely of Muncie, Indiana. It’s a stunning collection of prose poems where each poem is presented in four different frames, like the squares of a window frame. And from my new Pacific Northwest chapbook press, MoonPath, two amazing collections. The inaugural MoonPath chapbook is by Bellingham, Washington poet and artist Anita K. Boyle. It thoroughly embodies the exquisite quality of voice our press envisions with its wise, funny, thought-provoking poems composed of taut, effervescent language, quiet strength, quirky surprise, and unflagging passion. The second MoonPath chapbook, Cinders of My Better Angels, by Tacoma, Washington poet and teacher Michael Magee, illuminates our ordinary lives, depicting how illness makes us not less ourselves, but more so. Magee’s voice is sure, succinct, and intrepidly sincere.
My first chapbook, Love is a Weed, was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press in 2006 about 16 months after I started sending it around to contests. It went out 16 times. This collection was gleaned from my larger MFA thesis manuscript, Chicken Farmer, I Still Love You. Both these collections contain lyric and persona poems that reflect on the nature of all kinds of love including self-love. The Chicken Farmer book, that won D-N Publishing’s national manuscript contest and was published in November 2007, takes its name from famous graffiti in Newbury, New Hampshire that carries a message of enduring love. Chicken Farmer went out close to 80 times and was accepted three times but two of the acceptances were rescinded.
I’d like to quote an entire poem from Chicken Farmer. I like to think it embodies my best philosophical/spiritual self:
I stopped to look
at that cracked teacup
moon in the sky,
hadn’t seen before—
from a distant vantage
across this expansive
for a stranger
who just happens
to look our way,
one of us
I was sending the Chicken Farmer manuscript to all kinds of contests and open readings simultaneously with my pre-MFA manuscript, Dance From Inside My Bones. Although I’d written the majority of poems in Dance prior to my 2004 MFA, these poems benefitted from being edited during the program with my new strength of knowledge about craft. Dance won the Snake Nation Press national competition and was actually published in March 2007, before Chicken Farmer. This collection is strongly autobiographical and, as dark as it is, I felt it necessary to leave the ugliest truths out. I believe if I were to send out the collection today I would be much braver. Dance was sent out about 43 times before it was accepted. I guess I’d have to say my favorite line from Dance it this one from “The Path,” a poem about my dad:
Sometimes moonlight piles up
the way snowdrifts did back when
I was a kid—
My two current collections, the chapbook What Big Teeth and the full-length A New Red, each with completely different poems, came out this year and are concerned with the “real-life” story of Red Riding Hood and her associates. The chapbook was solicited by Kissena Park Press, an imprint of Starlight Runner Entertainment, where I work as a contractor. The full-length collection was accepted by Pecan Grove Press during their open reading period after having been submitted less than a dozen times. For me, Red Riding Hood is about a woman’s path to self-love and self-knowledge. Here’s a line the wolf whispers to Red:
your eyes are like autumn
after all the leaves
have come down
And here’s what Red tells the wolf later:
Inside desire’s many rooms
are many closets,
but all of them are empty.
Is a poem ever finished or just abandoned?
I’ve abandoned hundreds and hundreds of poems because no amount of editing would ever make them feel right to me. The poems just didn’t seem to be saying something that mattered in an artful-enough way. I always hope that eventually I will find a way to say what needs to be said in a new poem. Then there are the poems that I have to put away for a long time because the emotion is too raw to really get the craft straightened out right away. And always some poems of mine appear in print that I want to tweak. Sometimes when I give readings I actually do cheat and change them a little. Oftentimes, I find myself hating my published poems when I look at them years later, wishing I could have done better. But I think this is natural. Creative people are always growing, so the you that reads your poem ten years hence is a lot different from the you that wrote it. Just as we are never finished growing until we die, I suppose our poems aren’t done evolving either.
Some poets are all too eager to read their poems aloud at open mics. I’ve noticed over the years that you are often happy to listen, or at most to read a poem by someone else. Your likeable restraint is something more poets could learn from. What motivates your reserve in this regard?
I very much subscribe to the notion that to be a great writer one much be a great reader, or as in the case of poetry, a great reader and a great listener. What you call restraint I would call self-interest. I learn so much from those who share their poems at open mics that I would rather listen more and speak less. Though I do love to share poems by writers whose work I connect with deeply in the hopes of helping others discover a new poet.
Some poets have a national and international reputation, and some poets might be best thought of as regional poets. What role does the regional or local poet play in the larger scene of American poetry? Is it detrimental to think of one as a stepping stone to the other? Should one be content with regional or local recognition? Is it good or bad for emerging poets to want to strive for broader recognition?
Oh, I don’t think I can speak to the subject of the larger scene of American poetry. It seems mysterious to me why some poets rise to national acclaim, others remain well known only in their geographic circles, and still others are famous only to their friends. I have no idea how a poet crosses these invisible boundaries. It certainly has nothing to do with talent. There are many more talented poets in the world than whose names and poems will ever cross our paths. Is it getting a poem in a prestigious journal? Maybe. Is it winning a coveted prize? Perhaps. Is it through academia? Could be. Is it a certain kind of luck or fate or drive? Don’t know. But I do know becoming known is hard work. Always.
And, how I personally feel about the idea of recognition is complicated. I am an extremely shy person and fear recognition. And though I know famous poets aren’t mobbed outside eateries like Hollywood stars, I like the idea of having a private life that’s private. It was terribly hard for me when my first book came out and I realized I had to stand in front of people and read these poems that were based on my life.
I do know that unless we send our poems out into the world, they will never find the people who need them most. So we should send them out on page and on air and let them find their homes.
Do poets always have to “make it new”? Or would you agree with Jane Hirshfield, who said to “make it yours”?
There really isn’t that much new we can do is there? We can invent new forms and new words. We can write about the new animals discovered on the bottom of the ocean or the latest technology. We can use new technology in new ways, I suppose. But for me, what matters most is that a poem makes me feel something, makes me see something differently, makes me push myself to be a better poet and person. Jane got it right. Make it your own. Tell your own truth, tell the truth of life as you see it and tell it as best you can.
You have been an editor for Crab Creek Review since 2007. What is your process with the journal, and how would you describe what pleases or surprises you and your coeditors. How much of a Northwest flavor does the journal have, would you say?
For me, reading the submissions is such a gift. I never take lightly the hope and care that goes into every envelope and I deeply appreciate that those writers are entrusting me with their words. Ronda Broatch and I read every poetry submission that comes in. We then bring poems to the editorial staff meetings with editors-in-chief Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding Convy to decide collectively which poems go into each issue. And each of us gets to pick poems we love even if some of the other editors don’t agree.
Being the first literary journal to publish a poet is one of the most exciting things there is about being an editor. It strikes me as being akin to an astronomer discovering a new galaxy. I am sure every poet who has sent work out recalls their first yes. Mine was from George Loon, and I will always be grateful to George for believing in those two poems that had been submitted a dozen times before they found their home with Lake Effect.
Crab Creek Review has been a well-known journal in Seattle, having been created more than 25 years ago by poet Linda Clifton. But it has been a national journal for two decades and gaining acclaim and appeal more and more with every issue. So although we receive a large number of submissions from regional poets, we receive more than half our submissions from all over the country and overseas as well.
Our main goal is to publish a piece of writing that, as readers, we want to read again and again, a piece of writing that stays with us.
As a poetry book doctor, with the services you offer through Night Rain Poetry, could you talk about what you look for in a book of poetry, and what you try to give it to make it a proper book rather than just a collection of poems? What makes the difference? And what are the varieties of ways that can make a book work?
Making a book a book is a very intuitive process for me. Because I am not the author of the poems, I don’t have any history, chronology, or emotional attachments to the work. I can see each poem for its words on the page and am able to see how one poem speaks to another. I make arrangements that feel like a journey or a series of journeys. And it’s crucial that early poems invite the reader into the experience.
Oftentimes, poets put poems in their manuscripts solely because those poems have been published in journals. Prior publication should never be the sole criteria for a poem to make it into a collection. Another common assembly problem is simply putting poems in a manuscript in the order the writer wrote them. Sometimes this will be fine, but most often not.
There are many ways to make a book manuscript flow. Tone, imagery, emotion are just a few that work well. But the most important thing is that every poem in a manuscript must carry its weight. There can be no filler whatsoever. If a book contest says they want manuscripts of 60 to 90 pages, I advise clients to send 60. Less is always more when those 60 poems are sailing the reader on a great voyage.
Do the same ideas also apply to judging your Concrete Wolf poetry chapbook contest? Or is the game a little different there, where you might want to please yourself with the selections? I know you have a guest judge who makes each final selection, but do you somewhat please yourself in any prejudging?
I read every manuscript that comes into Concrete Wolf, so, as the first reader, I am the first person the work has to please. I narrow the field for the next set of readers but I make certain it is a very wide field of aesthetic appeal that contains all styles of poetry from personal narrative to lyric to experimental to formal. Of the 200 or so manuscripts that come in each year, every manuscript has some terrific work and I completely fall in love with at least 40 manuscripts. I always wish the press had the money to publish all of them.
Please talk about some of your other activities in poetry, such as your Late Blooms poetry cards, or the annual Poetry Postcard month. What rewards do these and other poetry projects provide to you? What other kinds of writing do you explore?
Poetry has literally given me my life and makes my life better. I often say kindness is my religion and poetry is my spiritual practice. It feels then like a necessity to me to give something back. For me it’s a kind of tithing to run a reading series, or to facilitate a poetry postcard fest or publish chapbooks.
When putting poetry manuscripts together, less is more. When putting poetry into the world, more is more. I know this seems contradictory. I just want to help in every way I can to get more poetry by more poets into the world where those poems can do so much good work.
The August poetry postcard fest was originated by organic poetry guy Paul Nelson (www.poetrypostcards.blogspot.com). The goal of the project is to get people all over the country and the world to send a postcard poem a day to 30 different people on a list, hopefully in such a way that each poem you write is in response to the postcard you received in the mail that day. I just love the idea of a postcard poem winging its way through the mails to arrive as a gift in some stranger’s mailbox. Immediately a connection is made in just a few lines and images.
I’ve always been a lover of novels and short stories. Since completing my two poetry collections about Red Riding Hood and her associates, which are stories told in verse, I feel a tremendous pull toward writing fiction. I’ve been working on some short stories and thrown-away attempts at two different novels but I am determined to keep exploring.
What words of advice would you have for an aspiring poet? What about for poets who have published to some degree?
Keep writing and keep reading. That’s really good advice for everybody no matter how much experience or success one has at publishing. Keep trying to improve your craft by studying writers you love, taking classes, finding peers who can give constructive feedback. I always quote my grandmother when giving advice about getting published: “Cream rises.” What she meant by that was that good work gets noticed. I believe this to be true.
What’s next for you and your writing?
After my brother died last May at the age of 53, every time I sat down to write, the poem was about him. After hundreds of brother poems, I got a little worried that I would never be able to let go of him or my grief. So I stopped writing poems for a while to focus on fiction, in which, miraculously, no one I loved ever died. But I have now realized forcing myself to stop writing poetry was absolutely the worst thing to do. My heart is even heavier than it was and I feel like my entire life is on hold. So for National Poetry Writing Month this April, I have committed to several poetry friends to write at least one poem a day about my brother. I have a feeling I’ll write more than one some days. And I may continue to write about him for months and years to come. Ultimately, I know writing our truths, even scorchingly painful truths, is healing and life affirming. How did I ever manage to forget? So, I am not giving up on my poetry for fiction. I will forge ahead with both and go wherever the words take me.