Interview with Heather Hartley

Heather HartleyI first read and admired Heather Hartley’s poetry nearly ten years ago when I was on the board of Pharos, a Parisian literary journal. I love her beautiful imagery, sly language, and wonderful sense of humor. I admired her ability to show what many people are unable to discuss. Her recent reading at Shakespeare & Company was one of the highlights of my year, and I highly recommend her new collection of poetry, Knock Knock.


What brought you to Paris ?

Charles Baudelaire, Carte Noire coffee and Tin House magazine—this combination of poetry, caffeine (that somehow seemed more sexy in France), and an invitation from Tin House to be Paris Editor—was just about all the nudging I needed.  Add to this the wonderful encouragement from my first French professor at West Virginia University, Dr. Valérie Lastinger, who urged me to immerse myself first-hand in the language and literature.  Despite meager savings after towering student loans and with very little idea of how I’d make a living, I got on a plane. 

What keeps you in Paris?

In many ways, the same things: Baudelaire whose poems I’m still puzzling out, Tin House and coffee—rather than Carte Noire, now it’s a great Italian coffee maker, blend and boyfriend—(Bialetti, Passalacqua, Vincenzo). Add to this Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, my friends, rue Delambre, and the general energy of the city.

What books have changed your life?

L’Écume des jours by Boris Vian, almost everything by Dorothy Parker, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, David Sedaris on any subject, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Petits poèmes en prose by Baudelaire and Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Café.

What books are on your nightstand?

The Essential Groucho, Paris was Yesterday by Janet Flanner, Luc Sante’s Kill All your Darlings, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s latest book of poems Apocalyptic Swing. (It’s a small but sturdy nightstand.)

What books make you laugh out loud?

Lots of poems from Embryoyo and Skid by Dean Young, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, many books by the fantastic poet Wendy Cope and good old Groucho. As he says, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

What advice would you give to struggling writers?

It seems to me that most writers, in some way or another, are struggling—be it with words, time, finding a balance—and I definitely include myself in this group.  Getting to the page seems the most important thing.  This is what I tell myself ad infinitum: sit down and write.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Jeanette Winterson gave an incredible, inspired talk at Shakespeare & Co last year and said, to paraphrase: One has to show up for work every day.  You may not have much or anything at all to write, but you have to show up at your desk.

How does living in a foreign country affect your writing? What does it add to your writing?

Living outside of the US for the past eight years has made me more observant of just about everything.  There’s a different sensitivity to language and sound when you’re surrounded daily by a foreign language.  It heightens perception.  And all of this filters down into my writing.

Can you talk about the themes you address in Knock Knock?

I would go back and emphasize what I mentioned earlier: it’s about observing the world around you. From artichokes to spaghetti westerns to a death in the family, or from voyeuristic Madonnas to a dying houseplant to an elegy for the 20th century, the themes in Knock Knock take inspiration from individual moments, details and observations from my life. The title provides the book’s central theme and structural method: poems literally and metaphorically knock on all sorts of doors in an attempt to understand daily human life in its profound, absurd, humorous and painful ways.

How did you choose Carnegie Mellon University Press? Can you tell us a little bit about your publication process?

In fact, it was the opposite: Carnegie Mellon University Press chose my book—and I was thrilled!  I’ve read and admired their beautiful books for years; they were my first choice.

I worked a long time to craft my manuscript—I’m somewhat of a slow writer—and when it was completed, I sent it out to some contests as well as to independent and university presses. When Tolstoy wrote, “the two most powerful warriors are patience and time,” he may have had other things in mind rather than crafting a poetry collection and shepherding it out into the world, but his words seem to fit the situation quite well.

At what hour of the day does inspiration strike? (Or what time of the day do you feel the most productive?)

Early afternoons seem to be the most productive for me.  I tend to concentrate the best during these hours; it’s when things can happen (I hope).  If I waited for inspiration, I would be waiting a very long time.

What is your favorite Parisian café?

Les Tontons Café in the 14th—a neighborhood place, intimate, out of the way and close to where I live.



Read Heather Hartley’s new poetry collection 


  1. scott mcclanahan

    Great interview!!!!!!!!

  2. Dylan Landis

    I love this interview too. Especially the idea of poems knocking on all those doors; it gives poetry such a sense of purpose for me.

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