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Interview with SWP Poet Heather Derr-Smith

Interview with SWP Poet Heather Derr-Smith

Interview by Torrey Smith

How do you begin a poem?

I fall in love. With a person, a moment or memory, a place, or an idea. I fall in love with Camus or boxing or Sarajevo. I fall in love with a stranger and want to know/learn everything, their story, their gestures, their language. The trigger for the poem is some love or obsession. Love is the poem’s breath and what fuels its energy. But I also keep a journal with just words, images and sentences and that is the craft part of the poem. I will go into the original bones of a poem–a kind of love song I have sketched out and I will add in images that fit or change the language piece by piece.

When did you begin writing poetry and how has your creative process changed over the course of your life/career(/since you began writing poetry)?

I started writing in high school. I wrote a lot of letters to my friends and made notebooks for friends full of poetry. It was very much about connecting with other people and sharing. But I didn’t think I was going to be a poet. I thought I would be in theater because I was in all the plays and loved performing. There was a lot of trauma in my later years of high school and I ended up running away from home and I could no longer go to rehearsals or be really involved in theater. Then in the two years before I got to college, I had experienced so much more trauma, I no longer wanted anyone to even see me. If you are seen, you can be harmed. So, by the time I got to college, all I wanted to do was stay in my room and write poems. It’s still hard for me to do readings or to be public, because I am fighting that impulse to hide. I took my first undergraduate workshop with Charles Wright and then that was it, I knew what I wanted to do. My process hasn’t changed much at all over the years. I’ve always had these dual currents of both writing out of love on the one hand and this other current or stream of craft and language. One notebook is for the obsessions I have and another notebook is for the sentences and images and language.

Can you give us insight into what inspired Tongue Screw? What about this collection is special to you or led you to write it?

The book came directly out of my own trauma. I am a rape survivor and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I had always been drawn to walking with other people who were experiencing trauma. My first book was about the war in Bosnia. I had volunteered in a refugee camp in Croatia in 1994 and delivered humanitarian aid into Bosnia. I returned to Sarajevo to lead workshops with survivors. In 2007 I went to Syria and volunteered in a refugee camp in Damascus and wrote about that in The Bride Minaret. I decided it was time to tell my own story. The Tongue Screw is an instrument of torture and was used in the 1500’s to keep Anabaptist women from testifying as they were led to the place of their execution. The book is about losing your voice to trauma and then reclaiming it again through love.

How do you structure your writing time? (Do you follow a regular writing routine? Or write when inspiration hits?)

I don’t have a schedule. I just make sure I am paying attention to my time and make it a priority to set aside time just to write. I try to be intentional about it, like well, this week I’ve been working, taking care of family life, now I need to set aside Saturday all day just to write and I make sure I do it. Or I will book a flight to Brooklyn or Sarajevo and carve out four days or three weeks, knowing that is my time to write. I don’t write everyday, but I do try to pay attention to the world every day and I may write down a word or two or an image in my notebook.

Which writers inspire you? (Which poets do you continually find yourself going back to?)

Charles Wright for the image, CD Wright for her use of voice and music in the lines and the way she pushes language, Mark Doty for his empathy and compassion, Camus for the deep love of others, especially fidelity to friends and lovers and his insistence on telling the truth.

Who are your favorite authors at the moment? (/What are you reading right now?)

I am re-reading Kafka and Nabokov, especially Nabokov’s butterflies. Jean Genet, Carl Phillips, Goran Simic, Larry Levis, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Claudia Rankine.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Does social media fit into your writing life and, if so, how?

After 2010, I shutdown my facebook page because I was very fearful. There was so much misogyny in my message box, sometimes men would post things on my wall, there was always men commenting about how I looked. I was afraid that the man who had assaulted me was on there. You can even see in my history my last post about the lemon trees in bloom in the Castro in San Francisco, and then silence. I tried to re-engage a couple times, but just kept shutting it down. I finally went back on social media this year at the same time that I started writing again. I also worked really hard to be assertive about my boundaries. It is crazy! I still feel so much anxiety about hurting men’s feelings when they post something on my wall or message me and I “turn them down.” I still struggle with that impulse to be nice and be kind–and I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever totally disavow that, there are good things about being kind and compassionate, but I’m getting better at boundaries. I also worked really hard to engage more deeply with my friends–with strong women and feminist allied men. That’s been a wonderful experience through the course of writing this book. I feel like I have a really good community of writers and friends and support through social media, but also in real life. I love to write letters by mail and do this weekly. And I make it a priority to go and spend time with my friends.

What projects are you currently working on? (Or planning to work on?)

I have the good, strong bones of my fourth book in place. There’s a lot about boxing, because it’s one of my obsessions, but also more about fully embodying this new power that I’ve tapped into. I feel this surge of energy and creativity right now and I’m deep in the current of it. I will be in Sarajevo again this summer and that is my heart’s home. I want to love and be free in this world. I want to continue to love deeply and not be afraid.



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