Our poetry co-editor Erin Post recently had this exchange with Lisa Beech Hartz, our Issue #19 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her interest in visual art and ekphrastic poetry, her path toward poetry, and the work she’s been doing to bring writing workshops to more marginalized, less privileged populations.
This series focuses on artists from the mid-1800s to early 1900s. The artists you chose represent a variety of artistic movements, including Symbolists, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Expressionists. Could you talk about what inspired you to explore these artists and their art via poetry?
For years now I’ve been fascinated by the creative process, by what possesses us to express ourselves in these unique ways. I begin usually with the image. Something about the image has to draw me to it like a kind of puzzle to work out. Then I start researching the life and technique of the artist. I love history, and digging through these artists’ lives to find what sets them ablaze is pure joy. Discovering that Van Gogh was a failed missionary, or that Vuillard’s mother was a dressmaker and he was surrounded by patterns and prints, explains so much about their individual visions.
One thing we noticed and admired about your poetry is the skillful use of form, and in particular line breaks. How do you arrive at the ‘music’ of a piece?
This question made me laugh because I suffer terribly over line breaks and sometimes just have to make myself stop fiddling already. I’m never completely sure I got it right. There’s always tension between how you want the piece to sound in the reader’s mind and how you want it to look on the page – to echo the artwork, possibly. I can be very influenced by who I’m reading at the time, also – Claudia Emerson’s impossibly elegant long-line couplets were an obsession for a while. It helps to read the work aloud to catch the breaths and discover the underlying, often insistent rhythm.
These poems also create compelling characters by using spare and in some cases haunting details – a gesture, a few details of their surroundings, a turn of phrase. Could you talk about the process of writing and revising in this context?
I’m pleased to hear that – these artists come to be so alive for me in the process that I come to feel as if I know them. When you dig deeply enough you can find clues to how the artist came into being. Waterhouse’s childhood in Rome and the loss of his mother. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s conflicted feelings about having a child until the child arrived. I try to write as long a first draft as I can manage, just pour it all out and then slowly cut away what’s inessential. Fact check and check again. Walk away. Let it braise. Then the final step, that wonderful period where you’ve almost caught the poem, it’s almost almost there, and you can believe you’re going to get it if you just listen.
And then there’s the focus on familial moments in many of these pieces – and relationships in particular. How do you find your way to these subjects?
I hadn’t seen this before, but I do seem to choose portraits most often. There’s an intensity when an artist is looking, really looking at a human being – and translating that into an image – that is deeply moving. Vuillard adored his little niece – he had no children of his own. You can see that in the way she seems to be in constant motion in the painting – so fully alive. Pierre Bonnard painted his wife dozens of times as she arose from the bath – over decades – and she never ages. Cézanne painted his wife over and over and she never looks quite the same twice. These artists are deeply curious about other people and their connections to them. I think I may have the same affliction. Or I’m just nosy.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
Of course I hope they’ll be compelled to visit their local art museums and galleries to sit and stare a while. I’d like my work to remind the reader of the living artist behind the work – that these were real people who needed to make these things to feel fully realized as humans. Each brushstroke means so much more, for me, knowing that Bonnard painted from memory, or that Cézanne took minutes between each brushstroke. Or that Rothko didn’t think his work was abstract. Fantastic.
You’re a long-time teacher of writing, previously at The Muse Writing Center, where you were director, and now as director of the Seven Cities Writing Project. How does teaching writing inform your own work?
Helping novice writers get past the fear and find their own voices can be deeply satisfying. It’s sometimes hard to remember to listen to your teacher-self and apply what you recommend in the classroom to your own practice. Write every day! Keep a notebook with you always! Save your drafts to remind you of how bloody awful the early ones can be! It’s easy to let those things slide if you’re teaching more than you are writing. Bob Dylan has a great line: I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, and I still go barefoot. It’s important to remember to put on your own shoes. Every day.
What artists/writers/thinkers inspire you?
I’m especially obsessed right now with women artists. I’ve just read Sally Mann’s magnificent memoir, Hold Still, which was deeply inspiring in its courage, humility and sense of wonder. Fearless women inspire me: Edna O’Brien, Doris Ulmann, Berenice Abbott, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keefe, Eva Hesse, Natasha Trethewey, Kathleen Graber, Kara Walker, Louise Bourgeois – I could go on and on.
Through the Seven Cities Writing Project, which you founded, you teach writing and hold writing workshops in places like domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, prisons, and senior living facilities. Why did you decide to found this non-profit, and what have you learned through this work? How does introducing these groups to the art and craft of writing help them? How do you see people change?
The Muse is a wonderful resource, and I’m proud to have been a founding director there, but like most community art centers, it essentially serves a privileged population. People of means, with transportation and the money to pay for a writing class. I wanted to take the workshop model to the voices of the marginalized, the less-privileged, not often enough heard. I formed Seven Cities to do that. I run a writing workshop in a city jail, and this continues to be the most meaningful work of my life. The men I work with thank me at the end of every class, when they really should be saying: What took you so long? They are so grateful to be heard, finally, because no one has been listening. They open right up and bloom. And the work they produce will break your heart. This summer we’re starting writing workshops in group homes for at-risk boys. I can hardly wait to see what beauty arises from there.
Your educational path – MA in English Writing, and an MFA. – suggests a long-standing commitment to the written word. Did you always know you wanted to be a poet? When did you start writing poetry and how has your work evolved?
My degrees are actually in fiction. I was afraid to be a poet. I’d read too many great ones. What else was there to say? (I still think that, sometimes.) Then a few years after my MFA, I signed up for a community writing class out of the abject loneliness of being a mother-at-home. I would have written anything just to be in the company of other writers. The atmosphere in that class was so supportive, I let down my guard (and maybe my standards) and let myself play at being a poet. Soon the work was satisfying a hunger I didn’t know I had. It’s been about twelve years now.
Are you an artist? Did you ever want to be?
Oh, how I’ve tried. I was always making things, even as a child, but never one kind of thing, or a particular set of materials. I dabbled. I even took an oil painting class a couple of years ago in the hope all this study would pay off. Nope.
Since Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask: What is your best and/or worst workshop experience?
I’ll have to say I was blindsided by the competitiveness that sometimes arose in workshops. I can make only what I can make, based on the collage of my experience. And you can make only what you can make, based on yours. Apples/oranges. When that falls away – I’m going to plug the Postgraduate Writers Conference at Vermont College here – and we just enjoy being a pack of oddballs together? That’s the best. No hierarchy. No competition.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects going just now. I’m still pursuing the ekphrastic – with a focus on women artists, and moving into abstract and contemporary art which is changing things up completely as far as how to shape a poem and how much control I need to have over its interpretation. The second is a sort of memoir in prose poems that’s the first time I’ve written about myself explicitly. This is terrifying.