A Chat with Holly Simonsen

Interviewed by Rochelle Liu

Holly Simonsen’s poem, Primitive Streak, was published in the fourth issue of Niche. You can read it here. Meanwhile, we invited Holly to Niche Features for a chat, and she kindly agreed.

NICHE: Firstly, thank you for contributing your lovely poem to our magazine. Could you start by tell us how the urge to write came about?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: You’re certainly welcome; the honor is mine.

For me, poetry begins in the body. The poem attempts to uncover the lived experience of language as a product of the earth that is being sensually experienced by the body. This poem started with my lived experience of eating a garlic clove – this, and my rudimentary knowledge of embryology. As I understand it, the “primitive streak” is a structure formed during the early stages of embryonic development. I am quite obsessed with a somewhat unconventional definition of language. When I learned about the primitive streak, I immediately began conceptualizing the streak as a line of language that is “body,” yet occurs inside another body, if that makes any sense. This mysterious duality feels like language to me.

NICHE: Your work makes an intimate relationship between language and landscape. I especially liked what you did with “Topped.” In “Topped”, you used a page from This Was Logging! by Ralph W. Andrews. Here, you made not only a physical link between language and the “landscape” of the page, but the words selected seemed to be in the voice of the trees that were being logged. Is there any advice you could give the readers to develop deep and intricate writing that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but delves deep into a reader’s heart to pull up emotions?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: Making “Topped” was an interesting experience indeed. This poem came about while I was in residence at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. The residency sits on acres of redwood forest that have previously been subjected to logging using the slash and burn method. Evidence of this is everywhere – charred stumps and hollowed out trees. The whole forest seems to echo of industrial disaster. I wanted to know more about logging, so I started to read Andrews’ account, which was first published in 1954. Not surprisingly, the trees have no voice in the narrative. It felt like a natural reaction to put Andrews’ pages under erasure in attempt to get at that voice. I collected charcoal remains from the forest and set to work. I rewrote the book in this way.

In terms of advice, the only thing I could offer would be a call to work. One of my mentors, the poet Ralph Angel, told me, “form is always looking for content and content is always looking for form.” It is merely the artist’s job to match the two up in the right way. I like this idea because it seems to take some pressure off of art being a singularly cognitive or conceptual process.

My working process involves going out into the landscape and engaging my senses – coming to my senses. If I do that, I am more likely to find a poem.

NICHE: In your contributor’s highlight on Hayden’s Ferry Review, you mentioned that you delve into the basic elements of language, where lines become fragments and so forth. You also do performance poetry. Does doing performance poetry affect the way you create fragments in your written poetry? Are they correlated with each other? And would you recommend new poets to try performance poetry in order to form their own voices?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: I use performance poetry to work backwards out of language as we conventionally think of it and into a more ancient understanding of language. I use it to get at fragments of eroded material. I use it to get at animal language, at soundings. Because my working practice is set in a specific landscape, my performances within that landscape are also ephemeral. Occasionally there will be a witness. Occasionally I will make a recording or shoot a movie. But most often it is just me – my voice and my body within a landscape.

I think anything that will bring you to a risk, is something worth doing as an artist. Some things I do are totally impractical. Art is impractical. There is no reconciling it. If I leave the house and wander the salt flat and yip like a coyote for four hours, what is this? Who knows? There is no real answer. If it seems authentic and brings me closer to my authentic self, it is worth doing. It is work.

NICHE: As a poet, an artist, what do you want readers to come away with after they’ve read your writing? or seen your art or performance poetry.

HOLLY SIMONSEN: I think it is probably the same as what I tell students in my classroom. I tell them that if they leave my class with more questions than answers, then I have succeeded as a professor. As a poet, I guess the same is true. I hope my work is a questioning work. The smartest people I’ve ever met profess to know nothing, or at least very little. I aspire to that way.

NICHE: In fiction, it is often advised to read often to hone writing. Would you say it is the same for poetry? Which poets have influenced you, and how?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: Yes, absolutely. I think it is important to read things we hate (or challenge us) as much as we read things we love (or speak to us). I think that is advice I try to follow for myself. Read more. Listen more. Watch more. The most influential poets have been my mentors: Jody Gladding, Ralph Angel, and Mary Ruefle.

Otherwise, I am a huge fan of Lorine Niedecker. A new organization of her “Lake Superior” is out from Wave Books and is absolutely stellar.

I love writers who I see experimenting with what might be termed feminine language. Off the top of my head some of these poets are: Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine, Adrienne Rich, Anne Carson, Myung Mi Kim, Elizabeth Robinson, Julie Carr, and C.D. Wright.

Perhaps more classically, I admire Renee Char, Gustaf Sobin, Wallace Stevens, and many of the old Chinese poets, especially Meng Hao-Jan.

NICHE: What writing projects are you working on now?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: I’m just finishing up a new manuscript that attempts to question, if not reconcile, the figure (upright human form) within the landscape. Writing began in a posture that is bent over, facing the ground. I like to write things down, as in facing the earth. These poems question the horizon and distance – they grapple with human language.

NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readership to know?

HOLLY SIMONSEN: I’m trying to be more adept at maintaining my web presence. I have a website (http://www.hsimonsen.com (http://www.hsimonsen.com)) and a twitter handle (@hl_simonsen). I usually only tweet about politics or baseball, but I do follow many literary magazines, editors, and writers. Follow along, if you’d like.

This interview was originally posted on Niche’s website on July 31, 2014.

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