A micro-interview with Angela Voras-Hills by KR Associate Heather Crowley.
Angela Voras-Hills earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and has been awarded a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and is forthcoming in Barnstorm and Cimarron Review. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poems “Chateaubriand” and “Nothing to Undo That Can’t Be Undone Again” were published in KROnline.
KR: Is there a story behind your KROnline pieces? What was the hardest part about writing them?
AV-H: Last January, I was in a workshop with Dara Wier at the Key West Literary Seminar. On the first night we all met for dinner, and I ate something like jumbalaya with shrimp in it because I didn’t see a vegetarian option and I didn’t want to starve. Shrimp are pretty low on the food chain, so I thought I could deal with it. Anyway, Dara gave everyone in the group a poem title and told us to go write the poem. Mine was “Nothing to Undo.” I’m always thinking about things we can’t undo, like climate change and all of the meat I used to eat, and our crummy farming practices. So, I went to bed thinking about this title, woke up, and wrote the poem. I tweaked the poem for a few days, playing with its form and a few of the images, and then everything went to pasture, and it was done.
There’s no real narrative behind “Chateaubriand,” so I’ll mention just a few things about its pieces. The incident with the girl actually happened when I was 19, and I didn’t realize I’d written about her until I was done writing the whole poem. When I’d finished, I immediately sent it to my dear friend, DJP, with the subject line: “I’m scared.” Not only because I had no idea where the girl had come from after so many years, but also because I felt a bit despicable for writing about her. At the time of the girl’s death, my favorite thing to eat was chateaubriand at this supper club not far from where she was hit. In the poem, I try to go back to that supper club, but going back to that place and sawing at a cow with a steak knife… I don’t know. The more I tried to escape, the more horrifying it all became. So, I went home. I’m always trying to understand the idea of “home.” I’m pretty sure each of my poems ends there.
Neither poem was hard to write, but they surprised me more than others I’ve written. Many of my poems start with an image, but these started with language and weaved through images bringing me places I hadn’t been in a while.
KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?
AV-H: I need to be uncomfortable in order to write what I want to write. When I’m comfortable, I write mundane things and bore myself. I’m incredibly influenced by place. Usually, I’ll leave the house and gather and collect ideas and bring them home. I read a lot of medieval literature, natural history books, and didactic texts. I like knowing how to do things I might never get the chance to do, so I study old alchemy texts, read calving guides, dabble in taxidermy instruction manuals, and learn how to sew up minor flesh wounds.
Of course, I also read a lot of poetry, old and new. Sometimes, after hunting and gathering, I know I have a poem in me, but can’t get at it, so I’ll read 5 different poets at once to coax the poem out. Maybe the images I have in my head are similar to one poet, but the lines of my poem are more like poems by another poet, and the language of this other poet is what I’m trying to get at. . . I read them all at night, and usually I’ll wake up with my poem mostly ready.
KR: Nicole Krauss said in a recent Guardian column that “We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing… People no longer have the concentration to finish things; we skim along the surface, and it’s miserable.” Do you see this absence of ambition in the literary audiences of today? How do modern attention spans affect your writing?
AV-H: I think we’ve always been programmed to do the easier thing, but there are just so many more things to do now that we constantly feel we won’t have enough time to do them all. So, I don’t know that audiences lack ambition any more than they ever have, but that they are perhaps less patient. As a member of the literary audience, I want to read everything, and if a poem or story doesn’t pull me in pretty quick, I don’t have the patience to see if it might eventually. This doesn’t mean I prefer “easy” poems, but that I don’t want to waste my time reading those with which I can’t physically (I like a poem to shake me a bit) or emotionally connect.
I prefer poems that find me sitting in full sun on the front porch, pull me by the arm through hallways and staircases, and leave me unsettled at the backdoor. The best poems make me want to go back in to explore the rooms. They make me feel something before I understand what I’ve felt. It’s so easy to watch Titanic and cry about it, because you know it’s sad before you see it. That bores me. “Sadness” isn’t as easy as crying and death isn’t as easy as a ship sinking. So, I write poems based on what I expect from a poem. I am a very demanding reader, and what I expect, I realize, might be different than the literary audience at large. But poems that don’t meet those expectations leave me unsatisfied. And why would I want to waste anyone’s time with a poem that leaves me unsatisfied? So, the impatience of literary audiences has made me work harder to emotionally compel and propel people through each poem, leaving them both immediately satisfied and curious enough to go back in to investigate the cupboards and crawlspace
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
AV-H: So much. I started reading and writing poetry seriously about five years ago, and I’ve learned and unlearned a ridiculous number of things. Specifically about the writing process: when I first started writing, I’d heard that real writers write every day to build their “writing muscles” (hands? what?) and develop “the habit.” So, I felt like garbage if I didn’t write each day, which made me want to write less. Eventually, I discovered the writing process is unique to everyone and that I have a cycle of poem-writing that works for me. Every few months for about two weeks, I stop writing completely. Instead of writing, I read a conglomeration of things all at once with brief pauses to watch NOVA and documentaries, go for walks, and listen to new music. I’ll take small notes all over the place. I’ll bake things or crochet an afghan. I forget about the idea of writing and the literary world, and then I reach this point where I can’t fit another thing into my head and miss writing tremendously. I sit down, let everything out, put all the pieces together, and discover I’ve been thinking about things I hadn’t thought of for years (like the girl getting hit by the truck while jogging.) Then I write until I’m tired. I’ve learned that not-writing time is good for my writing and my sanity.
KR: When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?
AV-H: I’m scared that someday art won’t matter at all—I mean I’m scared for that world. That’s a world I spend a lot of time thinking about.
At the same time, art has always had to adapt to changing technologies. I think it’s sad we don’t still illuminate manuscripts by hand on vellum. And most of us don’t draw on cave walls. Is the evolution of mediums of art and literature of the past different than what will happen with iThings and e-readers? Surely it’s inevitable that art and writing will have to evolve, as they have throughout time, if they are to maintain any significance and influence in our culture, which, of course, will also be so very different in the future. I’m not sure what that evolution will look like, but I’m hopeful that it will happen and that something of what we’re doing now will still survive in some way.