We went camping with Cecelia Hagen’s new collection of poetry, which resulted in its pages becoming smudged with dirt, stained with the juice of an over-ripe pluot and marked up by a toddler with an orange crayon. This works well as supplemental art, actually, because Hagen’s poems are full of imperfection—our “daily stumblings” she calls them. Hagen takes the clumsy and mundane and works it into something more elegant and sometimes funny, finding beauty or the unexpected in the pockets of a Salvation Army jacket, on the teacups at Disneyland, studying her ex-husband as he draws her a map to get across town. Of the collection, the poet Dorrianne Laux says, “I love the clear, sensual music of Cecelia Hagen’s Entering, the strange and ruined beauty of this solitary poet’s landscapes, the bristled and voluptuous memories of growing up, each rough truth: the knife that ‘speaks to what it cuts’ (saying) ‘your turn.’”
Entering will be published October 1 by Airlie Press, a nonprofit poetry collective based in Oregon. Hagen is the author of two previous chapbooks, Fringe Living and Among Others. She teaches memoir and poetry writing in Eugene, where she and her husband do most of their tango dancing. We asked her a few questions.
If this were a radio program, we’d start off by asking you to read one of your poems. Will you pick one to share and talk about why you chose it? I’ll pick this short one, called “Glow”:
lights their abdomens.
stays on your fingers.
It’s like catching
with the shells of your ears,
though you don’t know
what sex is.
Your mother calls you
and your brother
in for a bath.
in the water, oxygen
in the air.
in the jar.
No one thinks about stars,
but stars appear.
Well, this poem is about childhood, and mentions sex—two themes of the book! Maybe I’m seeking some kind of pardon in this poem for the way I caused the death of so many fireflies as a kid. I remember them so vividly—their smell, the thrill of the hunt, the way you had to think like a firefly to guess which direction they were flying, in order to catch them. And, of course, they only show up during part of the summer, and only at twilight, so they’re fleeting, like childhood is, but you don’t realize that at the time.
The final stanza echoes another theme of the book: the beauty of the world, which isn’t there for our benefit and which we often ignore. Emerson wrote about how, if the stars showed up only one night every thousand years, people would talk about it for generations. “But every night come out these envoys of beauty,” he writes, “and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” He doesn’t wag his finger at the reader and say, “We don’t appreciate them because they’re dependable!” But he does call the stars’ collective smile “admonishing”; he went that far. And this poem is me, not admonishing but smiling, remembering the beauty and the destructive curiosity of childhood.
That feels like the essence of your collection. You’re a woman who sees ” . . . a vulgar beauty/ I can’t help loving a little more than I want to.” That line of yours, that’s the best way I can think of to describe your collection. How do you describe it? Uh-oh. I don’t know how to describe this book! A compendium of assorted ponderings? That’s not very compelling, is it? But that’s what poetry books are, mostly. It doesn’t have a convenient handle, like a novel does, that you can pick it up by, because it really is a series of moments, though I hope they coalesce into something in the reader’s mind.
But I like your description. The term “vulgar beauty” in that poem refers specifically to the South, to the place I grew up, which I felt a lot of disdain for but I also know that it shaped me, for better AND for worse. I do feel a permanent and ingrained kind of tenderness toward it. But more generally, the “vulgar beauty” is our life in the world, our fallible souls and bodies, our daily stumblings. Can I say the book is a celebration of our stumblings?
Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of stumbling, but there’s so much grace, too—both in your language and the worlds you’re writing about. I’m thinking of the boy John at your Catholic School, who flirted with Sister Sylvia by offering to fill the holy water, but you suspected he was using the drinking fountain down the hall, “at the white basin with wads of gum pressed / against its porcelain lip and a rusty stain / seeping out from where the unholy water // repeatedly touched the place everyone bent to— / so empty of thought, so beautifully— / whenever they were thirsty.”
It reminds me of the Japanese term Wabi Sabi, finding beauty in imperfection. Oh, that’s wonderful! And don’t you think that having a term for that ability helps to foster it? We need a word like that in English. It reminds me of The Meaning of Tingo, a book of words and phrases from other languages that have no equivalent in English. For example, “mokita” means, in the Kiriwana language (spoken in Papua New Guinea), “the truth that all know but no one talks about.” That could serve as a good definition of poetry!
I like that—the word and the definition. It’s much more melodic and useful than “subtext.” You’re a mother, a dancer, a teacher, an editor, and you can see how being all these people has shaped your poems. Have you always been a poet? I have, oddly enough, always been a poet. When I was seven my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson, sent some of our class poems to Highlights for Children. She called me up to her desk one day and said, Highlights is going to publish your poem!
I can’t say I was appropriately thrilled—I had no idea how hard getting published was, or what it meant, even. But Mrs. Sampson referred to me as a poet many times after that, and I just decided that’s what I would be. My parents had started what would turn out to be a years-long divorce and custody fight that same year, so probably being a poet offered a nice little raft for me to hang on to. My identity was set accidently, it seems, but it somehow stuck.
I also danced, like a lot of little girls. I took lessons and minored in dance in college, and danced in a troupe for years after college. I wasn’t ever especially good—for a long time I assumed they were putting me in the back row because I was tall, but I eventually came to see the truth. Still, I loved moving to music, giving the music a physical presence.
The rhythm of language has always been evident and fascinating to me—and my brother turned out to be a linguist, so it must be in the genes. My father was a TV announcer and had a great voice, and would read Thornton Burgess’s nature stories to us, using different voices for the different animal characters. So with this mix of dance, music, language, how could I have been anything other than a poet?
The Seattle poet and poetry bookseller Christine Deavel has talked about how books talk to other books. What books would you say are having a conversation with yours? I like that notion, though I can’t quite imagine what the books would say to one another: Each book has its piece to proclaim; they’re not interactive objects!
But I can imagine my book standing with some others, maybe the way deer stand around in a forest: not needing to speak, but being companionable. The books I like to think might be out there in the trees with mine are those by Wistawa Szymborska and Charles Simic, Gerald Stern’s Lucky Life and C.D. Wright’s Deep Step Come Shining. The several books of surrealist poems by George Hitchcock, including Turns and Returns and his posthumous Six-Minute Poems, would be somehow presiding over it all, keeping us safely assembled. And then off in a clearing Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty would be locking horns, in a playful way, with Dean Young’s Fall Higher.
Your poems read like short memoirs to me, and, stitched together, your collection is the story of your life—or a version of it. I know you teach memoir, so I wonder why it’s poetry that calls to you when you write. I teach memoir because a great friend found out that I was a thwarted teacher, and she found a group of people who wanted to write their life stories, and I started teaching them. My teaching has grown from that, but teaching memoir wasn’t my idea, really. I often give my memoir students poems as part of their reading packets, because I think even non-narrative poems tell stories, or contain slanted truths like good stories do.
I must say I prefer poetry partly because of its compressed form. When I read memoirs, I often start to skim—the prose fails to hold my interest, which makes me impatient with the author’s speed in the telling of the story. And when I read the memoirs of poets I really admire—like W.S. Merwin or Adam Zagajewski—the books are amorphous ramblings. They’re gorgeous and poetic, but they’re not memoirs, and they’re not poems.
On the other hand, fiction writers like Diana Abu-Jaber write beautiful, poetic memoirs. I guess I read for the sentence and the images, and for the sense that you’re learning about the way another person thinks. I’ll read anything that has a music I admire and whose trail of breadcrumbs I can follow into someone’s own particular forest.
That last line is a beautiful way to describe what you read. What have you read lately that has fulfilled those requirements? I’ve recently read Olive Kittredge, which floored me. I would say Elizabeth Strout knows how to work the concept of Wabi Sabi, don’t you think? I’m a big fan of George Saunders’ short stories, and am fascinated by Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Anything that can move me and make me laugh at the same time is pretty much a shoo-in for the pantheon. And Kent Haruf creates a compelling world in Plainsong and then returns it to you in Eventide. Even though it’s a harsh place to live, the people have great tenderness.
And I’m always reading a stack of poetry books. I dip in and out, like a Water Ouzel. Right now I’m especially appreciating Jennifer Richter’s Threshold, Penelope Scambly Schott’s Crow Mercies, Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains, Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary, and Matthew Rohrer’s Destroyer & Preserver. Each of these books is peculiar and peculiarly beautiful; each contains a world I can enter whenever I read it, or even later when I happen to see the world through that writer’s eyes. Is there a word for that phenomenon? We need a word for that.
Given the intimate nature of so many of your poems, do you think that some of the people you write about—including yourself—feel less exposed in poems rather than they would in longer-form writing? I do make things up, but of course the things you make up can and often do expose you more than the plain truth. There’s a great freedom in poetry—you can say anything. In part that’s true because so few people are listening, but it’s also true because the audience, such as it is, is wise enough to accept everything as a metaphor. If you write in a poem that you killed your mother, no one is going to start investigating; they’ll just assume you had a complex relationship.
But there are some deep-seated aspects of my family that I can’t talk about outright: they’re not mine to state, though the force of them drives many of my poems. It all becomes grist for the mill. You just have to work with it differently in some cases.
In the hours after spending time with your poems, I find myself writing my own lines in my head as I go about my day. It’s a really pleasant way to look at the world, even when the things that happen are seemingly not that interesting or poetic—the kid pees on the floor or I repeat myself to my neighbor, who refuses to wear her hearing aide. But imagining them as poetry makes them better, or richer. Are you constantly composing poems in your head? What motivates you to write? What a wonderful compliment! And your examples are great . . . Saying the same thing over and over for someone who can’t really hear, and maybe changing your words a bit, shortening the sentence because you can’t bear to shout the whole stupid thing—that’s poetry!
I love how you say that “imagining them as poetry makes them better, or richer”—that’s the sleight of hand of it, really. Some people just see life that way and don’t have to think of it in terms of a poem to enjoy it, I’m sure. But for me, when I can see something as material, those times when I’m able to get outside my immediate experience and see it from the balcony, so to speak—or maybe I just get truly inside my immediate experience, and see it whole-heartedly—those are the times I can use language to turn it into something worthy of taking up a page.
I’m motivated to write by things like the memories of fireflies, by the recollection of trying to catch something in your hand that only lights up occasionally, by seeing the clumsy tenderness that humans exhibit, every once in a while.