Maybe The Book is Bewildered: An Interview with Hajara Quinn
I first encountered Hajara Quinn’s work in her 2013 Flying Object chapbook Unnaysayer. Less a book and more of a mini poetic newspaper devoted exclusively to H. Quinn poems, the chap found a place on the dash of my car for nearly a year. Being compact and foldable Unnaysayer was the perfect antidote when I was stuck in traffic or waiting while parked. I reread it literally dozens of times, finding newness with each perusal.
In the midst of all this unnaysaying Hajara (aka Haji) and I became friends and some years later I was excited to hear about her winning of the Big Lucks Ruth Stone First Book Prize for her collection Coolth. A few months after the book’s release I asked Haji about her writing process and patterns, how her work as Program Director at the Portland arts nonprofit the Independent Publishing Resource Center correlates with her own creative work and the nature of the “un.”
JA: Reading “Nowhere can a bush spread more richly than I,” Coolth opens with an epigraph by Franz Kafka and I’m curious as to why you chose that Kafka sentence, what work of his it comes from, and how you see the book’s epigraph interacting (or not) with the poems contained within. So much of Coolth seems to illuminate what, like a single solitary bush in a dense row of bushes, we either don’t notice or take for granted, and I wonder how out of all possible epigraphs you landed on the Kafkian one you did.
HQ: This quote comes from the Blue Octavo Notebooks— in the Publisher’s Note, Max Brod makes a distinction between the diaries, written in quarto sized notebooks, and these (octavo) notebooks, which, unlike the diaries, are “made entirely of literary ideas, fragments and aphorisms”— I found the volume at a friend’s yard sale shortly after I’d finished the first draft of the manuscript that was becoming Coolth. I think I’d gotten to the point where I was agonizing about the poems — and that little volume of notebooks— and Kafka’s delightful and uncanny asides — helped springboard me back to the pleasure in the rough sketch, and in juxtaposition or exclamation.
The nature of the “un.” The book opens with the poem “Unthank Park, Portland Ore.,” and that un is later followed by poems such as “Unsettler,” “Unspeedo,” “Unmap” and “Unnaysayer.” I’m thus interested in the quality of un-ness that inhabits both those poems and some of the others in Coolth. “I am not ungrateful/for what I have not been given” reads the third stanza of “Unthank Park, Portland Ore.” and to me that seems to encapsulate some of the negation-as-actualization tenets that the above un poems espouse and articulate. While reading I was also obliquely reminded of the below poem by Daniil Kharms, who is one of my top 5 favorites of all time. (Do you know/like Kharms’s work?) I guess what I’m trying to ask is, why “un”? What does that prefix do for you as a poem-writer?
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action
Only of spiritual angst.
The rain’s thunder spoke,
Time has come to a stop.
The clock helplessly tocks.
Grass grow; you have no need of time.
God answer, you have no need of words.
Papyrus flower, how wonderful your calm is.
I also want to be at peace. But all for nothing.
Daniil Kharms, Detskoe Selo, August 12th, 1937
HQ: Encountering Today I Wrote Nothing certainly made a strong impression on me when it came out. Michael Burkard’s Unsleeping also comes to mind, and Russell Edson was an even earlier influence. More recently I’ve been reading Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate and in the first essay “No” she ponders the political potential of a poetry that upends, refuses, transposes. “The no of a poet” she writes, “is sometimes but rarely a no to a poem itself, but more usually a no to all dismal aggregations and landscapes outside of the poem. It’s a no to chemical banalities and wars, a no to employment and legalisms, a no to the wretched arrangements of history and the greed-laminated earth” and even if the correlation is rather loose and not prior chronologically, there’s still something there that I feel myself nodding along to.
On the level of language, the attention to the prefix, and the attention to the double negative was an awe at the elasticity of language and the way small components like prepositions or prefixes can change or flip the way language lands. Words like “unsettling”, “unbecoming” or “unseemly” — are fascinating because they work adjectivally (in present participial formation?) but don’t function as verbs. One can’t unbecome, or unseem, but one can be “unbecoming”— or “unseemly”. That same fascination is what’s behind the attraction to unlikely adverb formations (“pouringly”) and to the morphological transformation of adjectives to nouns with the suffix “-th” in “Coolth” (crispth, roundth).
“We live corralled by/ or against/ a reality/ that is as though/ dreamt by a mechanical bull” asserts the fifth stanza of “Windig” and that sentiment is a predominant one in Coolth. Reality-drenched, there’s the world we’re corralled by and then there’s the world we actually inhabit or aspire to inhabit. If forced to classify yourself, would you say that you’re a hopeful writer? A fatalistic one, weighed down by so many corrallings? Or somewhere in between the two? Is, in your opinion, Coolth a book excited about its glass half fullness or rather one lamenting its glass half emptiness? Or maybe it’s just jonesing for a lime and a stirring straw, steady middle-grounding. Am I crazy?
Most of the book was written before 2016— with a few exceptions, and “Windig” being one of the notable exceptions. I don’t think I’m fatalistic; I don’t think I’m hopeful— mostly I hope the tone of the book doesn’t come off as naive. Bewildered, maybe the book is bewildered? Bewilderment can derive from awe, as much as it can derive from despair, don’t you think?
I can see bewildered, although I’d hesitate to use that exact word just because, as you imply, bewilderment can contain multitudes, but normally people land on bewilderment as naive or confused rather than awestruck and full of wonder–and I think Coolth asks its reader to inhabit a place unjaded (un!) and beyond most forms of stereotypical judgment. To trot out old an old saw (where does that expression come from?) it doesn’t say so much as be. At the end of the poem “January 1” the speaker states:
I want you to know that
I have come to terms with
the fact that everything I tell
myself might very well already be
half a truth ago.
You wrote most of the book before 2016 but “half a truth ago” seems to be a place that so many of us reside in now. Directly or indirectly, do you feel that way too? And to quote Willy Wonka, does the pure imagination that many of the poems in Coolth hang out in seem decadent in some way circa our current 2019 cultural climate? How important is the imagination–the unreal or unthought about or unfathomed–right now in your opinion?
Those lines in particular came at a moment in the revision process when I very much was coming to terms— coming to an understanding, an okayness with the fact that poems inhabit or speak to a particular time and place, and the generative constraint of that. At the time the impulse to return to drafts and versions of poems was really compelling to me— it was remarkable how generative and exciting that process was, but I think I was also horrified by the idea that I might return to a poem later and find it false or hollow. Or didn’t speak to the moment. And those lines “everything I tell / myself might very well already be / half a truth ago” that was a very human moment, a permission-giving moment. There’s something there too about the stutter in time between writing the poems, and the time in which they’re produced in the form of a book.
You work at the Portland arts non-profit the Independent Publishing Resource Center as the Program Director and you’re also the Managing Editor at Octopus Books. You’re busy, constantly moving, immersed in different mindsets from moment to moment and day to day. And I guess I wonder if your non-writing work ever seems as important or more important to you than your own personal writing. Does what you do for your community (both on a civic-level, in Portland, and on a literary level, nationally, with Octopus) have as much bearing in your life as the next poem or essay you write or publish?
I feel incredibly lucky to work for an organization whose mission is aligned with my values. I think community access to print resources as well as education outside of a university setting is really important and vital. I’m also privileged to engage daily with artists & writers— who, on top of being inspiring in the work they do, are also often thinking about shared spaces & how to integrate their creative practice into their lives. Two friends and I this past year started a community night focusing on generative writing— Poetry Practice Space— it’s not a workshop, and the idea is that we’re focusing on writing. I love it because it’s kind of non-hierarchical— we bring prompts, or ask guests to bring writing prompts, but we’re not there in a teaching capacity. There’s appreciation of the work, but we don’t invite critique into that space. Backtracking, I started working with Octopus Books at a time when I was working as a receptionist. I was between undergrad and looking towards grad school, and wanted to find ways of flexing my understanding of what poetry could be. Capitalism isn’t exactly set up to support the project of poetry and the conditions that make a life in poetry possible. So I was actively and intentionally looking for ways to integrate poetry into my life at that time. Teaching is certainly one way to do that, but I’ve never had a lot of luck in getting teaching positions. But I do think that the non-writing work is connected to sustaining a writing practice. Non-writing work, even when I was working as a receptionist— it always informs the writing work. But yes, community building around the writing practice is important to me, for sure.
I’m wondering if you might be willing to share one of the poems from the book that you think works and also briefly elucidate what it’s doing (on a line or syntactical or image or metaphor or rhythm or anything level) that makes it a success in your eyes.
Hmmm. This is a particularly hard question. I think I’ll go with “Colts” maybe? I think I feel a fondness for this poem based on how often it was rejected. And no matter how often it was rejected, I still found that I wasn’t embarrassed for it. I still felt its tiny jolt of energy that rejection couldn’t take away from it. I liked that the poem giveth the flower fangs, and taketh the fangs away. It’s cartoonish and not. I still ponder over what it means, is it saying why ascribe a fang to an unfanged situation? If a poem gives me a ponder, even long after it was written, that’s cool I think. I also think I like the two similes next to one another, not because they’re knock-your-socks-off good, or even necessary maybe, but I like that leap years gives the colt its leap by existing in proximity to it. That associational energy can transmit like that, and leap across lines, I love reading that way, I aspire to write that way. And now, this oft-rejected poem has been turned into a beautiful riso-printed broadside by my friend, the artist John Akira Harrold. So now it’s been dusted off and made into a beautiful, golden thing.
The world tried but could not keep you
in its pants
The only thing the daisies didn’t want
was to be uprooted
but you are young as leap years
young as colts
The hardest part of defanging any flower
is finding the fangs
Change of pace. Who are you currently reading, listening to or immersed in? And do your tastes—which I know are pretty variegated— change with the season?
I’m currently reading Inger Christensen’s essays, and Teju Cole’s essays (Known and Strange Things) and Blind Spot. The former because it came out recently, the latter related to an ekphrastic workshop I’ve been facilitating. I love assigning myself homework, and yes, I do find that I’m attracted to the idea of reading something seasonally appropriate. Maybe it’s sentimental the idea behind it— I mean, will Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers deliver on a summery expectation? Or John Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring? Both of which have been on my desk this past May. Probably no more or less than another collection of poems. But maybe the act of creating a scene for the book in my mind, what’s happening out the window when I’m encountering it, it becomes more memorable, gives the memory of reading that book dimensionality. And I do like the idea of setting myself up for coinciding with a text— like reading Mary Ruefle’s “Snow” when it’s snowing, or when I’m reading letters or diaries, and the month sometimes even the day! aligns with the day that you’re reading it, and there’s this collapsing of time that happens, and you feel clicked into the reading in a different way. Your sensual intelligence is deployed on a different level. Like reading the passage about smelling the linden on the same day that I bike under the linden tree, what a satisfying experience. What am I listening to? Lower Dens (the new single!), Khraungbin, Pure Bathing Culture’s recent record, Babehoven. Music absolutely is seasonal. It heightens a mood!
Finally, your partner Ben works in the music business, and also plays music. Can you speak to the collaborative nature of that partnership, as it relates to poetry in your life? Do you share work with him before it’s published or keep it to yourself?
Ben’s a great reader— he has certainly tried his hand at writing poetry, but he’s also a songwriter, so his feedback is in tune with both the content as well as the delivery, the way the syntax sits. He tells me when a poem doesn’t really land, or doesn’t seem finished. He also tends to insist on adventure, which is helpful for me. I tend to lay low, hibernate— I love getting lost in reading and writing— but sometimes the best thing for a poem is to go to the coast, or ride a bike, or hike a butte. Coolth was a word that he encountered when reading trip reports before we went on a backpacking trip. Someone mentioned the particular warmth/coolth of different parts of a hike, and Ben presented this information in this way that was like: as a poet, you may be interested in this word. And he was right, I was over the moonth about it! Like, how haven’t we been using the word “coolth” this whole time! But because I know he’d tell me if I wrote a shitty poem, I spent probably 7 or 8 months writing “Coolth” before I shared it.
You mentioned his relationship with music— his record collection is a pretty incredible resource for one thing. And with his job being in music, he stays pretty informed about new releases— part of having a creative practice is staying curious, and I’ve always been attracted to other art scenes. What else can I say about Ben? He’s also a pretty good person, and I appreciate being in conversation with his value system and ethics— as a poet, but also just a person.