An Interview with Casey Harloe
By Poetry Editor Jonah Meyer
“Experiencing poetry of others makes me emboldened to let my guard down in writing even more, to be more trusting and personal.”
Your poems we have published here—which I find outstanding, by the way—obviously appear to have been born from specific autobiographical experiences. Does most of your creative writing (poetry and otherwise) dig directly from the wells of personal narrative? Describe your process of choosing ideas for that which you feel lends itself to the creation of a poem. What, in this complicated, beautiful, oftentimes messy life, speaks to you most in terms of subject matter and style, or voice, for poem-possibilities?
Thank you! Yeah, my writing is sourced from my personal life. Often I write about real people and events, experiences I witness first-hand. I often joke that it is purely fiction, however, it’s deflection. My work is overly honest.
I don’t know how or what I feel until after I have written about it. I’m left surprised once I finish. Whatever is bothering me (in any positive or negative sense) at the moment, I write about. Writing is how I ground myself when I’m anxious. Right now I’m twenty-two and there’s an unspoken urgency to do something more with my life (professionally, creatively, both). Poetry is like a cigarette, a relief. I write because I am stressed, and do it to take the pressure away. My voice, I think, reads as unsure and nervous, maybe shy. It rattles of someone who is frantic and spirals.
I live in the Midwest, and I aim to battle the belief that in order to make Good Art you have to be situated in a physical environment deemed beautiful. I don’t think I need to be in a city with grandiose architecture and intricate marble fountains and interesting people (which, is very not Midwest, and not to make it sound like I don’t have a strong desire to escape Ohio, because I do). What speaks to me are cicadas and cinder blocks and suburban street cats—I dig into what makes my current surroundings unique, ways they have and are sculpting me.
Often I imagine how situations that actually happened could have gone differently. Usually I switch from external scenes to internal thought—things that I (or the ‘speaker’) wish I said, so I think my voice is also wistful and regretful. I find myself biting my tongue, writing what I fail to say out loud. Right now, I am in a constant cycle of desire, depression, and desperateness (and delusion, for the sake of more alliteration).
What is your process, generally, for composing poetry? Do you have a preferred location to put pen to paper (or, keystroke upon your computer)? A preferred time of day? Describe the ideal environment, for you personally, in which to write? How often do you write? Does your work go through many drafts, or iterations? Do you seek feedback from others?
I am situated in a parking lot somewhere in Ohio suburbia. A Dollar General, a gas station, or my old middle school. My dark green Leuchtturm notebook sits astray in the passenger seat with a pen I borrowed from a friend and most likely will never return. Dotted paper, though, I never follow the dots. A London Fog with oat milk. Windows peeled down and music from my radio playing on low volume—usually indie or folk.
My writing process has been described as manic. Environment isn’t set for me; I get bored at a desk or somewhere that is too still. I like to go on long drives because I am able to think more actively while in motion. And I feel at peace when I am alone. Night is when I write, after my work shift at the bookstore. I have the most consecutive hours to spend time on a piece during the evening, and I try to write even if I’m tired. I might write bits and pieces of poems on receipt paper during my 15-minute and lunch breaks, and elaborate on them. Otherwise, I drive and let whatever is weighing on my mind come to me.
I spend hours on a piece at a time, but don’t revise a lot. I find it harder to write after the passion of a moment, which is why I jot down with a sense of immediacy and then fixate, so my emotions don’t rot and it feels like I am artificially replicating them after they faded. I go through 2-3 drafts. I bring my notebook everywhere—on a hike, the café, the bathroom, my work locker.
Highland Coffeehouse, a local coffeehouse, is usually where I go as well to write. It’s ambient and there is always at least one Smashing Pumpkins song. Chessboards and ashtrays. The café sits a block away from the University I attend. Brick building with a green awning, the windows filled with green hanging plants in terracotta pots, some leaves wilting and yellowing and browning. Each table has a design—a nude woman, cats, a shower drain. The one with Richard Brautigan’s face is my favorite. The chairs are disjointed and unstable. Green vinyl, wood, rusted metal. Handwriting of strangers covering the walls. Musings to lovers, death threats, phone numbers, social media handles, obscure sketches—neat.
I go here every Thursday to meet with our writers group (called ‘Highlands Writers Group’), which started as a small group of friends. It’s lax and casual. We read, drink, discuss, smoke, play card games, and repeat (Shout out to Jay!).
When did you first start writing poetry? What is it about the craft which speaks to you, as a writer? What is it that the art of poetry—unique among literary genres—allows for exclusively, in your opinion?
I started writing poems at thirteen, nothing good. Real cringy stuff in glittery gel pen. I used to send my friends poems over Facebook messages in middle school. Even possessed a WordPress (now deleted).
During my second year of college, though, I read a poem by Cecelia Knapp called “Eating KFC Zingers Without Hating Myself,” and it changed my entire concept of poetry. It felt filthily human. Details that back then, I never found important to include, like cleaning cat shit or crying uncontrollably. Reading stuff that felt not like a peephole, but a window into a speaker’s living was captivating to me. I was drawn in and desired to create something resemblant. I wanted to be that intimate with my life to a reader in the way she was.
What makes poetry unique to me is its perception amongst the general public. Poetry being seen as eloquent, flowery, pretty, ignorant of reality, pure romanization and blind optimism. I like how writing the poetry I do feels like defying these traits (not that poetry can’t still be these things), and that it comes off as refreshing to people. Writing about how awkward my interactions have been on dating apps or my nights bar hopping or when I watched Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time.
In general, I also have a short attention span, and have trouble reading longer works. Even though my poetry is verbose, it makes me feel like I am practicing brevity.
Who are some of your favorite poets, past or present? What is it about their work that you like? Do you feel a certain affinity for any particular poet(s), or group/movement/strain of poetics among the larger bodies of work in publication? Why?
Frank O’Hara is my favorite poet forever. His work feels vibrant and lived in; he has a way of putting action and his feelings plainly and it’s adoring. Generally I lean toward the New York School poets. Some other favorites are Ted Berrigan, Eileen Myles, and Alice Notley—I love how delicate and forthright the work is, and I admire the dynamic, the relationships and intersectionality between the arts and friendships formed between poets and painters.
One of my professors, Marianne Chan, is someone I read and refer to a lot. Her collection ALL HEATHENS inspired me, frankly, to write all of my poems that were published in Mud Season Review. Reading someone who was also Filipina and her experience made me realize that I had all of these feelings to articulate, narratives to tap into.
I also love Victoria Chang, Charlie Brogan, and Caroline Bird. Different writing styles, but similar in focusing expressing big feelings through small details, being expansive and brief simultaneously.
In your experience, please speak a little to the notion of a poem being experienced silently on the page (or website) by a reader, versus that same given poem or poems being read aloud by the poet, such as in a spoken word, open mic, or other performance setting? What do you regard as the strengths and weaknesses of either experience of poetry?
I frequent and perform at open mics and readings as well as possess an online presence of poems. I do notice a contrast. I enjoy that a reader can hold the power of experiencing a poem entirely their way, but I also almost always prefer to witness the poet perform their piece how they intended to. Their rhythm, pauses of breath, small stresses, etc. all contribute to the poem. I would read poems from collections of my professors, then listen to them at readings in the library. It felt as if I was hearing something different, anew. I like open mics because I get to understand how my piece comes across in real time, I listen to reactions via snaps or murmurs or nods of affirmation.
In my city there is a community house called the Grove House, and every Monday they have a poetry night—everyone sits in a circle, reads poetry they’ve written or are fond of, and discuss. It is refreshing to have a place outside of academia and close-knit friend groups, a space of people you may not know well and be automatically vulnerable in. Experiencing poetry of others makes me emboldened to let my guard down in writing even more, to be more trusting and personal.
While in these spaces I am immensely inspired, it grants leeway to me feeling insecure about my own poetry. I get into a headspace of my voice simply being another one, ordinary rather than unique. But these places are so especially supportive that it’s easy to get out of that mindset.
On the other hand, I do like not having complete control over how my poem is experienced. Existing on page as is, the reader has more freedom, or ability to apply the writing to them because they are the ones narrating it (whether out loud or not), rather than it feeling like someone else sharing their story. I like sharing my poems online, outside of publications, because I also have found writers whose work I admire and share a mutual appreciation for.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you about writing poetry? Likewise, what advice would you share, perhaps with a beginning reader out there, who is interested in writing poetry, but feels they don’t necessarily know exactly where and how to begin?
The best advice I’ve been given is to not care. Because I write so explicitly of my experiences, I find myself questioning and hesitating whether or not I should incorporate specificity of a situation, details that are too revealing, direct dialogue or a verbatim retelling. Even if fictionalized to an extent, I don’t like to withhold—and I would say to a beginning writer to never get rid of anything they create. Preserve the poem that they think is crap. Even if at face value there is nothing they view as good, there was a reason it was written. I think the feeling or emotional peak of that poem can be revisited, if anything.
I would also find a community of people that write as well—I am constantly motivated to write because I am excited to share things with friends, to have outside input, to have voices outside of my own head to see potential in a piece.
Why do you write poetry?
I write because it has become stitched to my identity. I am known by my friends, by acquaintances, by distant strangers in similar social circles, as a poet and I feel the responsibility to execute that perception.
Initially I found writing as a mode of processing. However, I recently read Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, about the experience of trying to write to get over something but ultimately not achieving that goal. I don’t believe I do, either.
To me, writing is a way of witnessing something twice. An excuse to relive something without feeling guilty by just thinking about it, because there is a product by the end of it—even if not clarity or closure—I created a poem that I can print and hold in my hands and feel proactive that I made something out of my brooding.
What are you currently working on? What projects or publications are on the horizon for Casey Harloe? And where can we find more of your work?
I am working on a collection of poetry. Also, my friends Mary Klein, Lili Alimohammadi, and I are compiling a zine titled EAT YOUR HEART OUT, which is filled with our creative work. Outside of here, some of my work can be found on yolk literary, DIALOGIST, poets.org, and ucity review. Sometimes I post poems on my Instagram, @caseyharloe. For anyone in the Cincinnati area, I will be reading at The Littlefield in Northside on August 19th!