In our newest feature, an AFTERWORD blogger tracks down a fellow alumnus to see what (s)he’s been up to since graduating from Bucknell. In our first installment, AFTERWORD site administrator Chrissy Friedlander ’09 spoke with poet Katie Hays ’03 on interpreting wildlife in both her poetry and Chris Camuto’s backyard, falling back into the dark side of poetry, and alleviating sensitive baby gums. You know, important things like that.
CF: Dear Apocalypse, despite being a collection of poetry bearing witness to a dying Earth, is surprisingly brimming with animal activity, so much so that I think Jack Hanna would have a field day writing an illustrated appendix for the back of your book. Do you find that it is these powerful images of nature – the brush wolf lurking in “That Death,” or the ground bees swelling in “I Don’t Believe the View from Here,” for instance – that inform the way you approach writing poetry? Or does the process of writing poetry lend you a framework in which to interpret the natural world around you?
KH: What an interesting question–and thanks for the idea of an illustrated appendix. That’s fun. I’m actually working with Chris Camuto on an interpretive wildlife center stocked exclusively with animals and plants from the book. The native rattlesnake population on Chris’ land is a small challenge, but we remain undaunted.
To answer your question, or offer today’s answer to your question, I think writing poetry helps me to ask questions and address conflicts or tensions that most of us (me, anyway) don’t get a chance to address in everyday conversation. “Why do we have to die? Is there a God? I am afraid! The world is violent.” You can’t just go around saying such things. But when I approach a natural phenomenon through language–the brush wolf, or the ground bees, say–the language often leads me back to these basic human problems and struggles. That’s the hope, anyway.
By the way, the Interpretive Wildlife Center will have signs looming over the ground bee display. “IS THERE A GOD? DISCUSS.” It’ll be great. A huge tourist draw in Central Pennsylvania.
CF: Although your first book is a collection of poetry, many of our readers may be surprised to learn that you focused on fiction while pursuing your MFA at Brown. What drove you back to the dark side? Do you approach the writing of poetry differently than the writing of fiction, or do you find the process all the same?
KH: I returned to the dark side in the same way that everyone returns to the dark side. There was a fall. I fell back into poetry, not realizing the consequences, not thinking about the economic repercussions. Poetry was kind of hanging there, you know, red and crisp, maybe a little worm-eaten, and I plucked it down. I held it in my hands, and nibbled a little at the skin of it. And–everyone knows the story. I was just one more victim.
As for the difference between writing fiction and writing poetry–when I write fiction, I feel outside of my own head. I’m living in a character’s world and mind. When I write poetry, I may be a bit more inside of my own head–in a part of my mind that is both far away and very familiar. Both are escapes, though. Writing is an escape, or, at least, a way to step back.
CF: As a 2003 graduate of Bucknell and current adjunct professor, you are one of a select few that can speak of your experience as both a student and a professor of writing. Has creative writing at Bucknell changed since you were a student, and – if so – how?
KH: Well, most obviously, the stone tablets that I used as a writing student have been phased out by the English Department. These days, students get a lot more written during their four years. You should have seen the trouble we used to have making revisions. A lost finger was not uncommon in that time.
Aside from the technological advances since I was a student, the number of creative writing faculty has increased quite a bit, the English Department has added the Creative Writing concentration, and high school students can apply for the Creative Writing Merit Scholarship. All of this has been attracting, as far as I can tell, a higher number of serious writing students to Bucknell.
Also, the Stadler Center for Poetry has even more programs that involve students than it did when I was a student. Of course, it had several then, too, and you can bet I took advantage of them. The attention I received as a student at Bucknell was unparalleled, and I am so grateful to each of my former professors in the English Department, some of whom have retired or moved on, and some still here–I’m jealous of their current students.
But to return to the present–when I attend readings these days, and listen to Shara introducing the year’s Sojka poet, say, and look around at the audience, I almost do a double-take. What an audience! Standing room only… for poetry! It’s wonderful. Poetry is vital at Bucknell, and its vitality is visible. (Ineluctable vitality of the visible. At Bucknell Hall.)
CF: Speaking of your experience teaching creative writing, I was excited to recognize your poem “In the Garden” from an earlier inception. I’m not sure if you remember this, but you had used an earlier draft of this poem as a “Mad-Libs” tracing exercise of sorts in our introductory creative writing class. (Okay, so this isn’t really a question, but more of a I-loved-that-exercise-so-much-and-find-the-poem-you-based-it-upon-so-bad-ass!)
KH: Oh, Chrissy, my ideal reader. I love knowing that you noticed that. Yes! Your class was so much fun. I remember how much good, humorous work came of that exercise. Some of it was better than the poem draft from which the exercise sprang. Fortunately, the draft evolved a lot and became that little poem. See, a poem can come of an exercise! (I say this to myself, so that when I become suspicious and curmudgeonly about giving myself an exercise sometime in the future, I can remind myself of “In the Garden.”)
CF: Congratulations to you and Andy on the new addition to your family! What is on the Stadler Baby’s bedtime/naptime/anytime reading list?
KH: The Stadler Baby has quite a library going, thanks in large part to the creative writing faculty and past visiting writers, and he is developing quite a discriminating literary sensibility. Right now he’s particularly fond of Donald Crews’ great tome, the board book FREIGHT TRAIN. When we finished reading it the other day, he leaned back, touched his chin with his pudgy four-month-old hand, and said, “I can’t help but feel a sense of melancholy. What an elegant display of time’s passage. Of movement and disappearance. Could you lower the book to my mouth, that I might nibble a bit? Those thick, shiny pages feel so nice on the gums.”
>>>MORE ON K.A. HAYS: Poems from Katie Hays’ first book, Dear Apocalypse (Carnegie Mellon 2009), have appeared in such venues as Best American Poetry 2009, Southern Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Missouri Review. Poems from her second book, forthcoming in 2012, appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Poetry Northwest, and many other magazines. She has also published short fiction and verse translations in Hudson Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Hays earned an M.F.A. from Brown University in 2005. She is currently serving as Visiting Assistant Professor of English, in which capacity she teaches creative writing.