Lilah Hegnauer

Lilah Hegnauer is the author of Dark Under Kiganda Stars (Ausable, 2005). She teaches in the English Department at James Madison University.  Her poem “Pie Bird” appears in the Summer 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Tell us a little about your KR piece.  How was it written?  What was the hardest part about writing it? 

“Pie Bird” is part of a series of poems that take their titles from the names of kitchen implements. So the pie bird is that little ceramic bird you poke the top crust of your pie over so that it can vent the steam in the oven. It’s a steam release. I knew I wanted that feeling of the buildup of steam (the repetitive “was” stuff, the alliteration and sound play) and the little releases when the syntax does something you maybe weren’t expecting given the repetitions.

This one took me a long time to write and I kept tinkering with the lineation and punctuation, trying to get the rhythm and tenor of the poem to unfold the way I wanted it to.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years? 

So much. I’ve been living the adjunct dream for the past 4 years which means that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a zillion different classes at a bunch of different universities (and I have a glove compartment full of parking passes in every shape and hue to prove it) and getting to know lots and lots of students. Every semester, my students teach me so much about the writing process. Mostly, they teach and re-teach me that poetry is a physical, embodied experience (both the reading and the writing). And the writing of poems is just 99% practice — sitting and your desk and doing it.

Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why? 

I love reading 32 Poems and Beloit.

Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.”  In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem.  The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time.  The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.”  Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?  

I love it. That’s a really smart way of articulating the poetic process, both in the poet and the reader. I do try to write with the aim of communicating “obsessive emotional concepts” to other people and I try to make poems that induce the feeling in the reader that I had in the writing of the poem. I think poetry is — or can be — at least partly about giving pleasure to both the reader and the writer, even if it’s just the pleasure of “oh yeah, I think so, too”/”oh, I’ve never thought that before” or “oh I want to say that again.”

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.”  What would you include in your own credo?  What core beliefs do you have about literature and books? 

Oh my goodness — this is rather heady. I’m going to admit to a little skepticism of credos, mostly because I like poems better and I trust actual poems to move me, not the essays written about poems and poetry. (Sorry!) But I guess I do believe that literature and books are — for me — a way of thinking with another person in a very intimate way. When I read something Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862, I get to go live with her for a moment. And then I get to carry that poem around as part of me. And even with poets and friends who are living today, reading their literature is an act of intimacy.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing. 

The poet Herman Asarnow at the University of Portland was my first poetry workshop teacher and he’s still my most important teacher. He was the first person to really read poems with me and pull them apart line by line, phrase by phrase. It was revelatory for me in college that a good poem comes at you on one level on the first read and then just keeps unfolding the more you read it.

Of course this idea of the unseen mechanics in a poem might seem so obvious, but it honestly never gets old for me. I still remember reading “To Penshurst” with Herman and he was getting all choked up and I thought “Really? It’s a poem about an estate… in rhymed couplets.” But by the end, I was pretty close to tears myself. And the thing is, Herman can do this with any poem he loves. He was also the first person to point out the rather obvious existence of literary magazines to me and to lend me back issues of the Kenyon Review. 

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