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

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!

Interview on “Sestina,” by Amy Miles

“Sestina” (Nonfiction), by Amy Miles

Forum: Why did you decide to write this particular piece?

Miles: Writing has saved me many times; it brings my non-linear mind a sense of calm and focus. I can impose order on my thoughts, seeing and finding patterns through the many messy drafts I write. I can organize and reorganize my words until my thinking makes sense. This particular essay, “Sestina,” helps me make sense of my childhood, my college years, my life as a mother; I wrote this to find calm: to deal with my worries, to access my strengths. To find my voice.

How do you deal with the challenge of memory when you write nonfiction about your life?

This is a great question, one I didn’t consider until now: are my memories reliable? As I reread my essay, I discovered that I wrote “burnt-orange stove.” Our stove wasn’t orange, but our linoleum floors were–or at least that’s what I think I remember. As I reflect now, I realize my writing is about impressions–I see colors and furniture. Maybe that’s another reason I love Bishop’s “Sestina”: in an unfocused world, there are these images, these tangible things we can count on to serve–and comfort–us in the present moment. 

Was writing this piece a fast process, or did you have to return to it multiple times?

At a Puente Professional Development event five years ago, artist, poet and UC Davis professor Maceo Montoys asked us: who do you want to remember por siempre (for always)?  His question prompted me to dig out a version of my unpolished “Sestina” and read it aloud to my Puente students as soon as I returned to the classroom. Since then, when sharing my own short term goals at the beginning of each semester, I tell my Puentistas: I want to submit this essay for publication. This is the first year I have been brave enough to do so. 

Have you ever written a Sestina?

I think I did–maybe once in a poetry writing class about 25 years ago? As an English major who did not see herself as a “good” writer, I was intimidated by the form. Six key words reordered with precision through the poem? How would I ever find those six words? Perhaps I can spend my summer tinkering with a sestina and its language. I imagine this as a tactile activity–playing with words on notecards, moving them around like pieces on a checkerboard. 

Your piece touches on the beauty and importance of the present moment. Did 2020 inspire your writing? Or is this a piece you’d been working on or thought about before COVID times?

My 93-year-old grandma had COVID in December. At one point, I imagined having to read this unfinished piece at her memorial. My inscrutable grandma survived. And I realized how important her story is to my story, my way of seeing and existing in the world. I also realized how important writing has been for me in my most vulnerable times, like now.  It was time for me to take the risk and finish and submit this work.  I did it in honor of my grandma, my daughters, my students and my 13 and 32-year-old self.

Glossary (excerpt) by Judy Halebsky

Li Bai — I should tell you that Oakland is a city on the coast of California with lots of things people want to buy with paper money or lines on a page tracked by a bank. This is called abstract wealth. It means money that exists separate from bags of rice or seashells or gold. It is collected and traded for actual things but in itself is just a concept (see Moneymaker).  

Localizer — a landing instrument in an airplane or a writer who translates in proximities — button-fly jeans, Stairway to Heaven, Beachcombers.  

Matsuo Basho — in monk’s robes in Kanto, writing to Saigyo and Li Bai, driving a four wheeler over all that precious court poetry with his bed bugs and buckwheat and working girls.  

Martin — purple martin, sand martin, house martin. The so-called bee martin is not a martin but a kingbird.  

Moneymaker — lady butt, booty, backside. 

       Note: Different from honeymaker, which means a bee, not a bumblebee but a baker of sweets, a lover, a sharer of bubbly water and homebrew and jeans, a collector of shells, a man who sends me pictures of wisteria vines trying to get into the house.

Murasaki1 — purple. The name of a character in the story of the Shining Prince. Purple for  wisteria. A name attached to the author through the character (b.978—), like calling Jane Austen(b.1775—) Elizabeth Bennet. Except Elizabeth did marry, while Murasaki and Jane did not.(Leave this space blank if no dependents.)

       Note: Dear Encyclopedia Britannica, I was checking to see if Murasaki really didn’t marry. And you say that she did. But for starters, it’s the 21st century, why do you list her as a lady of the court first and the author of Tale of Genji second? Would you ever say that William Carlos Williams was a physician first and an author second? (I’ll check.) And why in the world would you write that Murasaki married a man and bore him a son, as though the baby were a gift she would pass on, a gift she would present to him like a new platter or an award for outstanding service?

       Note: William Carlos Williams (b. 1883—), American poet who succeeded in making the ordinary appear extraordinary.(Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Monday, September 26, 2016,7:50 a.m., ten minutes after I got out of bed, realized I should go straight to the office, and instead walked around the house naked, saying out loud, fuck you, work.)

Murasaki2 — unforgiving of those who lack elegance, who would stumble stepping up into the  hallway, who would make excuses to visit her after dark, to ask to see her unshielded, to open the blinds. She was the one to have studied, to have learned to write by eavesdropping on her brother’s lessons, to not contain herself at his dim wit, to answer the questions in a whisper, to have her father lament she was not born male.

Noise — radiator, electric lights, freeway, music as the sound between dial tone, trapped fly, door lock — if we can change from busy to still. 

Normal — a red Speedo, line dancing, eating at the sink, chocolate cake, skin that heals, monologue as conversation, snow melt (we calculate normal based on the last 30 years so we can  measure slow changes in the climate). 

Off-grid — unaffiliated, a township, a farm, a handwritten note, a harmonica band, hip-hop in Tokyo, folk songs in Nashville, a lemonade stand

Open1 — the thing about the butterflies changing colors and the leaves on the ground is that a merchant would come home in fall. Not that I need this kind of accuracy. I’m just trying to read  the annotations in the text, the margins.

Open2 Midrash, notes to align the written testament with the oral transmission with how we live or how to live (still working on this while knitting pink cat ear hat).

Portage — to carry a canoe over land between bodies of water. 

Quasi-steady state — a situation changing slowly enough that it seems constant. Marriage. The location of islands and land. A forest.

Red Pine (A.K.A. Bill Porter) — Taking on a poet name might seem like trying too hard, but this is how it is in a language that wasn’t brought in from another one, so our names became sounds rather than words.

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.

An Interview with Angie Chau

Interviewed by Katerina Argyres

Angie Chau’s daring 2010 short story collection, Quiet As They Come, has been adopted for classroom curriculum at universities and high schools across the country–including at our own City College of San Francisco.

Finalist for both the Commonwealth Club Book of the Year and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year awards, Quiet As They Come explores the lives of Vietnamese immigrants as they struggle to adjust to life in San Francisco. Three families share a house brimming with secrets, dreams, and desires. Some thrive while others are destroyed by the false promise of the “American Dream”.

Chau, winner of the 2009 UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction, has been published in many distinguished literary magazines. Her work has earned her a Hedgebrook Residency, an Anderson Center Residency and a Macondo Foundation fellowship.

Chau was born in Vietnam and traveled throughout the world before settling in California. She earned a BA in Southeast Asian Culture and Political Economy from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree in English with emphasis in Creative Writing from UC Davis.

How old were you when you left Vietnam? Where did your family move to?

I was three years old when we left and four by the time we arrived in San Francisco.

In many immigrant stories, most people are caught in between two cultures and trying to find harmony with both. What was your experience of leaving home and moving to another country? Or if you don’t remember, what was it like for your parents or the rest of your family?

Your question is beautifully put and it’s an eternal question. How does one find happiness, balance, harmony, and live life gracefully? I think it’s a question that every individual struggles with regardless of country or creed. Maybe this question comes to the forefront in immigrant stories because the differences in cultural norms and tastes can be so striking when a person is uprooted from one country and put into another. It sets up tensions that are accessible for good storytelling if done right. In practical terms though I whole heartedly confess to picking and choosing what I like best from each culture, whether Vietnamese or Western, and selectively integrating what I like.

Continue reading An Interview with Angie Chau

“Contemplation” by Kaylo X.


by Kaylo X.

Nic Alea, published in the Fall issue of Forum, wanted to readdress an issue briefly
mentioned in our interview. Nic casually responded “Hopefully not for committing
suicide” to my question “What do you want to be known for?” I appreciated the candid
answer and felt it should be brought to the public forum as it is all too often ignored and
silenced. We met prior to the release party to discuss the matter. Before the conversation
Nic read me the poem “Queer Kids,” which is available to listen to and read here on
Boeotia. My reflection of our conversation follows:

Kaylo X.: Do you have friends/people who have committed suicide?

Nic Alea: Yes. Both contemplated and succeeded. More who have contemplated which is intense in of itself.

I’d rather do many things right now besides talk about suicide, which is why I am just
typing this (weeks after meeting with Nic for the discussion). But, who really does want
to talk about it? Isn’t that the status quo of our society anyway? Don’t talk about it. My
family didn’t when my sister attempted. It isn’t a time or memory I want to think about
and so I don’t. And we heal and move on. Or do we? I shared with Nic my story of my
family surviving my sister’s survival. I find things too dreadful to speak are the ones
most imperative to be spoken for everyone’s sake. If it has happened to you, chances are
it has happened to someone else.

We didn’t talk about it that night, but Nic knows and has helped me with my own
struggles with suicidal ideation. Both queer individuals, we are familiar with
the “subliminal” message that society teaches us: destroy yourself. Or at least: you
are not worthy of a “normal,” happy life because you are less than. The word queer,
although I and many claim it as an identity, literally means strange or abnormal…kind of
weird. As a kid it was difficult to embrace such an identity for myself because of fear of
being alienated, ostracized, or even excommunicated. I am not alone in the sort of fear
and anxiety “being in the closet” brings as countless people I have spoken to and stories I
have heard speak to the dreadful experience.

Nic’s poem tackles the programmed destruction ever so eloquently. It allows the reader
or audience to vividly imagine an act of suicide in real terms. This kind of writing is
activism. It raises awareness and addresses that our ideology is controlled by the media
which promotes a culture of fear, hostility, and misguided anger—the kind of culture that
harbors lynching. In our top down society one is typically forced to choose a place, a
role, an identity. If the identity threatens, destabilizes, then it risks being destroyed and
what more convenient a way than brainwashed self-destruction.

Nic spoke of children’s malleability and the violence that exists in our language for them
to pick up on. Children, without knowing the meaning of their words, say things to each other that they have heard from some media outlet, from their parents, or other people in
their environment. A radical organization led by Fred Phelps “preaches” a message of
hate and often times with very young children as part of their pickets. The message in
three words tells so much more: “God hates fags!” When one little girl was asked if she
knew what the words meant that she was shouting along to. Her response: “no.”

Our society is indifferent to suicide. We ignore people when they’re going through
depressions. Mental illness isn’t taken seriously. Suicide is often glorified, especially in
the case of celebrities. We see famous people reach epic stardom postmortem over and
over again. Is the work of celebs who committed suicide (accidentally or not) brilliant
because they killed themselves, or would they have found as much success living? It’s a
question Nic asked me at the end of our conversation on the topic. It brings me back to
the question I asked Nic in the beginning: “do you know anyone…? Don’t you? Even if
just Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, Romeo and Juliet, you’ve heard some tragic story
fiction or actual and so it must affect you. Each human life should matter to everyone as
we all exist together in this dimension of reality.

I recently heard news that hit me hard as such events do. A young, 22-year-old woman
was murdered in the nation’s capitol. I wrote a poem out of the anger washing over
me. The poem is called, “How to Say RIP | For Deoni Jones” and can be found here on
Boeotia as well.

Kaylo X. is Forum’s poetry editor.