A Conversation with Judy Halebsky

Forum student editors Jesse Senzer and Kristie Barlas recently met with author Judy Halebsky to discuss her newest book of poems Spring and a Thousand Years, and her relationship to past poets as well as the craft itself. The full video interview with Halebsky, and her reading of her poem “Portage” is available on the Forum Magazine blog at forumccsf.org This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jesse Senzer: I wanted to give you an opportunity to introduce yourself. I know that we’re both interested in how you got into writing specifically.

Judy Halebsky: I grew up on the east coast of Canada, and I moved to California when I was twenty-two to study poetry at Mills College. And after that I lived in Japan as a student twice, and also I did a degree in Performance Studies at UC Davis.

So how did I get into writing… I always had an aesthetic interest. And it was through just really loving reading poems and loving writing in my journal that I developed a practice in poetry.

Senzer:  That’s interesting, so you find that you gravitate more towards poetry specifically than other genres of writing?

Halebsky: Very specifically. Because it’s a relationship with the poetic moment, or the aesthetic experience. I think I could connect that with a visual art moment of a painting more so than a developed narrative of a novel. Also, one of the big parts of me writing poems is reading poems. It’s almost like I’m having a conversation in that way—that’s also part of my path in poetry. So, I think of writing as a studio-based practice.

Senzer: Right, like a fine art.

Halebsky: Yeah, something I do physically: written in relation to me like a physical practice. So I’m writing physically. Things that nourish poetry writing are like, running and walking and dancing. It’s kind of a body-mind state of perception, or experience.

Senzer: Like writing as a physical act, or physical expression.

Halebsky: Yeah, and kind of cultivating a connection to the inner contemplation, or inner synergy that allows for an articulation of embodied experience. So like, we experience the world in our body, and making the poem isn’t necessarily like describing that experience, but it’s creating a way for someone else to have that experience.

Senzer: So that leads me to questions I wanted to ask you about your new book Spring and a Thousand Years. I was wondering if you could tell us how you discovered Basho. You traced the literary forms that that influenced him, right?

Halebsky: So Matsuo Basho is the most famous haiku poet, and we think about Basho as the originator of haiku. He lived more than three hundred years ago, and one of the really important parts of his writing was traveling. He was influenced by Buddhism, and the idea of like, life is a journey and we should not be overly attached to our material possessions. A lot of his most famous work is through writing as traveling, and he felt that when he’s traveling it’s an interior journey as well as exterior journey. And it heightens many of the things that are true about our life—that our life is temporary, that I feel like I’m living in this house permanently, but really it’s temporary and can end at any moment. And that we need to diminish our attachment to material things, and that’s kind of heightened when you have to go on a trip and carry everything you own in a backpack.

So I got into Basho, and I was living in Japan and studying Japanese literature, and I started to realize that I had a very oversimplified understanding of haiku. I loved to study it and learn a lot of the complexity and philosophy of the form. I traveled to the places in Japan, where he went and wrote his most famous poems, and there’s a kind of tradition in haiku of “poem places,” so you go to Matsushima in northern Japan with its beautiful pine islands and there’s all these poetic associations, and a poet goes there and writes a poem, and then a hundred years later another poet goes there and writes a poem in conversation with the other poems that have been written there. So it’s important for me to go to those same places and see the places those poems are written from, and also write my own writing out of this.

Senzer: Can you talk about your reference to poetry as a field guide? I’m wondering if there’s sort of a dual interpretation for that statement: that a “field guide” could refer to physically traveling, but it could also refer to interacting with writers, both past and present. Sort of a field guide to other artists as well?

Halebsky: I think we come to poetry—as both readers and writers of poetry—to make our life better. I think when I am alive in my writing practice I’m also most attuned to the moments of my life, and the emotional relationships in my life. So I actually look to poetry to help me make my life more vivid, and to live the best life that I can. There’s a way that I’m looking to poetry as instructions and guidance in my daily life. It’s a side view in a way, but it’s a side view that allows me to interpret those instructions in a way that’s meaningful to me, and can be resonant with me in a way that has much more depth and meaning than maybe more direct instructions from a self-help book. I think poetry is a way to be in the world.

And then I also think there’s another layer of trying to make meaning, the way a field guide gives you material to name and remember and organize. We have writing and language, which is a tool, but it’s an imperfect tool. And so much of our work of writing is to use the tools we have to really articulate our experience, so they’re kind of imperfect. And the art is in making the words and finding the words with these limited tools. So a field guide can give you more tools to do that, in the same way as looking at a dictionary or thesaurus. As was really important in this book: like an index of geological terms and concepts; to have other theories and concepts that exist, and apply them to our emotional experience as a way to try and understand our own lives.

Kristie Barlas: I’m interested if you feel like when you’re writing your poems, like say for this collection Spring and a Thousand Years, do you think of them as reflections of your own exploration? As a field guide to moving through the world? Just your interpretation of how to be in life? Or are there some messages that you hope readers will also learn from your experiences, and your poems?

Halebsky: Oh, nice question, um… I think my concerns are about creating an aesthetic resonance. So I would say I’m more looking to create a sensory experience or… some kind of music-like experience rather than teaching readers anything. I’m more trying to make some kind of contrast that opens up a moment of illumination.

Barlas: A lot of your poems really focus just on the observations. So do you find that your practice is embodying that aesthetic resonance? Do you have to remove any personal subjectivity in your poems? If you were say, not writing for the collection, would you naturally include more of your own emotions?

Halebsky: I do like to have little bits of narrative that are kind of like scaffolding to connect these sensory experiences. And I’m looking to kind of tap into an unconscious state, which I think is my unconscious making the poem—my conscious mind is not as good at doing that at all, and might actually kind of mess it up. I think there’s a poem that wants to be revealed, and I’m trying to first access that poem, and kind of carry it along, or bring it to fruition. My conscious mind is going to mess that up, so if I start writing thinking, “Oh, I really want to tell this story” or, “I had this funny thing happen” like that’s a good place to start, but if I finish there it’s usually not a good poem. Starting in an energetic place is great, but the energy of the poem needs to come out through the writing process rather than my preconceived idea of what the poem might be.

Barlas: When you were looking at poems from Basho and translating poems as well, I think you called it “bridging time and space,” the past with the present. So, if you look at finding meaning in things like donuts or Zumba, and also the ocean, what were some of the concepts that stood out to you that affirm the things in life we already know to be true?

Halebsky: I think it’s a process of discovery. I would say the things we already know to be true, for me, are assumptions. And in the writing process often they’re revealed as not true, or they’re revealed as misrepresented. And that’s part of what I think can be resonant about writing. That can be the energy of the poem. That we think of something like “true love is forever” and we think of this idea that we hear all over the place, and then you try to write about that, and the experience of that in my body is different from the shared perceptions we have of that.

The space between the dictionary meaning of the word, and our associated meanings with it. Meanings we can imbue with it, and what is implied, and what it reveals about our condition. I think there’s something resonant in us when we find a contradiction, or when we find that our experiences in the body are different than how we socially imagine they’re supposed to be.

Barlas: I think it’s also interesting that you’re kind of switching the tradition from communicating with the poet from the past as a response. You’re bringing them into your response to kind of see your world, and I think that’s a really fun twist on it. I’d love to hear what inspired you to write [the poem “Portage”] in particular.

Halebsky: So there’s a couple influences. I moved to Oakland, California because my father had such romantic ideas of the San Francisco Bay Area, and he was stationed here at Travis Air Force Base. It was really his love for the Bay Area that brought me to live here. So, part of the poem starts with the protests following the murder of Eric Gardner. I live right off of Telegraph Avenue, and I’m not really engaged with any particular group that was organizing those protests, but I was able to just join them because they would come right by. I was really honored and moved to be part of those protests, so that was one moment inspiring that poem. 

But also talking in memory of my father about dreams he held. My father really worked a lot in his life to envision what an equitable society would be, or could be. I think that’s part of like, don’t tell my father that we haven’t reached his dream yet. And also thinking about the life he lived, and the loss of cultural knowledge between my grandparents and me. My father only spoke English, but it wasn’t the language his parents spoke. When he went to school, he failed kindergarten and then they only spoke English at home. So I only learned English from him, and the idea of a portage is when you carry a canoe over dry land between bodies of water. Kind of  like a lineage of what we carry with us, and how when the boat is on the water, it can have all this contact, but when you carry it over dry land you can only bring so little with you, was also an important inspiration in that poem. I think a lot of us in the United States have that eraser and cultural loss, and also this making-a-new-culture, which maybe I’m looking for more resonant and complex ideas and cultural practices to engage with.

Judy Halebsky currently directs the MFA program at Dominican University. She lives in Oakland, Ca with her spouse and their two-year-old daughter. For more on her work and to purchase her latest book Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged) from the University of Arkansas Press, visit judyhalebsky.com

To view Judy’s poems you can can click on the links below

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