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

Beyond Narcissus’ Pool by Thomas A. E. Hesketh

My friend,

            Let me ask of you, if I may,  
                         with the aid of the Muse who has guided me thus far,  
                                     along the path I have travelled,  
                                                 which intersected yours, as you may recall,  
                                                            when the Sun shone brighter in the sky, stars were fixed, 
                                                                        and storm clouds were another person’s shadow, 

                                                 about a matter of some concern, personally;  
                                                              an imposition I would not think to assert,  
                                                              without having known you, in the time when words had left  

us each,  

             the time we no longer mention, except by the most oblique of references  
                         conscious of the sorrow underlying our efforts to survive, persevere,  
                                      looking into the mirror of our souls, finding there no well of insight, no  
                                                   center within the iris,  
                                                                no plumb line between our heads and our hearts, yet 

         we took  

whatever  

                      we needed to take,  
                            sometimes two, 
                                           grasping at air with our tongues,  
                                                        still bleeding from vain attempts  
                                                                 to quell the instinctual need  
                                                                          to howl at the Moon’s craters’ lightness; albeida;  

           starring at our fates, dust in cold orbit 

I find myself these days poised, unsteady;  
           as if reaching for balance: blindfolded; a snail crawling the length of a straight 
                      razor; an island under siege from all directions, with the volcano
                      stirring 

inside,  

                      birds’ beaks thrashing my Promethean liver; severed fingers in buttered bowls; 
                                   bards’ slit maws’ gargles, a baobab adrift at sea; 
                                                                                                                         out of place – 

           It is not about the bedbugs of life, I think; (certainly) therefore, in grids; I made my peace 
                      with a cockroach, a pumice stone, and an iron griddle; have seen the Grand 

                                 Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the cathedral of Notre Dame – before the fire; 
                                 more than mere trifles, less  

                                                                                                                                    than mortality; 

           “Which wishy-washy witch wishes wishbones well”, was whispered once, wistfully. 

Are you distracted yet, again?  
           Is this the point on the line when the circular becomes perpendicular, properly  

triangulated? 

                                                       Meet you halfway, 
                                                                                                   yours can be the bigger half,  

but the last word is still 

                                      uncertain, albeit ineffable, they say, . . .  

                                                                                                   So, we’ll dispense with the  

foreplay, 

                                                     squaring the edges at the horizon of introspection, calling  
                             the surf to retreat, wishing good tidings, prizing drift-would with all Kant, 
at least for a mo(re)-ment; an extended pause, a hiatus between assignments of being  

            Why haven’t you answered my dream mail? 

                                                                             I inhale, you exhale 
                                                               We have the same birthday 
                          We share the same fingerprints We should not be so incommunicado,  eh?  
           I look forward to your reply, Or will we each be  left, alter-half-egos? 

                                                                                                                Be well,  

Thomas A. E. Hesketh was born in Toronto, Canada, on a cusp, last millennium; none of it his fault. Most of what has happened to him has happened to others, too. He enjoys poetry because of its verbal range, except the caesuras, and chess, which is non-verbal, except the regicide.

Portage by Judy Halebsky

Don’t tell my father                               that the police               drive down my street
in armor               standing on their bumpers                 holding AK 47s

we march down Telegraph with signs
people come out of their houses       cheer for us as we pass

at the Berkeley Y, I hear women speaking my grandmother’s language
the one she tried to pass on to my father

don’t tell him               country of his sleep dream
of his overland passage

he learned physics in high school so when he got drafted
they didn’t send him to be boots on the ground

raised unbridled I was               unhindered by reality     I didn’t know
that luck could take or leave your life

Dad says at 84 I’m doing pretty good                         I nod 
I forget the words sometimes he says                that’s all

Judy Halebsky is the author of the poetry collections Tree Line and Sky = Empty. Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she spent five years studying in Japan on fellowships from the Japanese Ministry of Culture. She lives in Oakland and teaches at Dominican University of California.

Interview Hatchling by Temme von Lackum Dedlow

“Hatchling” (Poetry) by Temme von Lackum Dedlow

Forum: How did you start writing?

Dedlow: Writing has been a creative and emotional outlet for me for probably nearly as long as I’ve been able to produce words. I owe a lot of that to early encouragement from family (related and not) and mentors, notably a first grade teacher with a knack for getting poetry out of six and seven-year-olds.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I wish I had a pithier response for this, but a list of writers whose language and stories have stayed with me would have to include Monica Furlong, Zora Neale Hurston, Karen Joy Fowler, Ocean Vuong, Charlotte Brontë, and Ralph Ellison.

What was the inspiration for this poem?

The impetus was a prompt to free write about a lingering memory; the subject of the poem is an experience I had working in the field a few years back that stuck with me. The egg in question was a wood duck’s.

What drew you to write this as a poem as opposed to a short story?

There’s certainly a narrative element here, but the way this came out onto the page—maybe because it was such a brief, vivid experience, maybe because it felt so personal—seemed more suited to the form. I never really considered trying to shape it into a short story.

This poem is so remarkably visceral. Could you describe your approach to writing the sensory details?

I think a lot of this comes down to the memory itself of what I experienced as a very visceral moment, but my usual approach is to write more, and cut that down to what’s working for me, which I definitely did in this case. I also use a thesaurus to scan for words that feel most true to the image.

Interview Angel of Chill by Veronica Voss-Macomber

“Angel of Chill” (Visual Art) by Veronica Voss-Macomber

Forum: We absolutely love this piece! It is so original — what inspired you to create it?

Voss-Macomber: I was inspired by my love of illuminated manuscripts (Sixth Century to 1600s) for their display initials, elaborate designs and, as well, with prayer cards because of their “ability” to provide the holder of said card with spiritual comfort and fortitude. 

Then add to this mix my LOVE of COFFEE(!!!), stained glass windows, the beautiful ocean, and my use of humor to deal with very trying times (like the past year or so), and the result is a prayer card I made for myself that makes me smile and I hope brings a bit of levity to others.

Is this work part of a series? If so, can you tell us about it?

I definitely have given thought to creating a calendar of angels with their accompanying prayers, but I will see, as I am in the midst of a few other creative projects that are tugging at me to complete. 

I do have similar work, but only regarding the materials I use to create with. I like to work with mixed media– that is combining “analog” media– watercolors, pen and ink art with digital media (Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate…)

Where do you get inspiration from?

I am inspired by the great outdoors/nature (shout out to San Bruno Mountain), the ocean (any body of water, really), seeing a hummingbird, ALL art periods, current news, history, conversations on art, the creative process and that thing called life with loved ones (a BIG shout out to my husband, and to Diane and Elaine), recipes with cheesecake or salted caramel in them and, of course, when I am drinking coffee and that comforting cup is warming up my hands– my creativity is lit!

Are you working on anything else right now? Tell us about it!Some of what I am working on now are two short animation films (you can find my older videos on my YouTube channel), developing a web comic series that I hope to transition to a printed graphic novel. I am, also, continuing to work on my comic strip “The Mortal Coil Cafe” which was published in the Guardsman Spring 2019. But right now, I am working on finishing my second cup of coffee. Ahhh, bliss!