An Apéritif with Heather Hartley

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Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine and the author of Adult Swim and Knock Knock both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her short fiction, poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Slice and other venues. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, and her column about literary Paris, “Apéritif,” appears on the Tin House website. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris and the University of Texas El Paso MFA program. Today, we talk about writing, travel, and inspiration.

Heather, in our 2010 interview, you explained that in your book Knock, Knock, the “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.” Can you talk about the themes of this new collection?

Adult Swim picks up on the main themes from Knock Knock and attempts to take them further. I tried to bridge the questionings of Knock Knock with some answers in Adult Swim (both collections are from Carnegie Mellon University Press). Adult Swim explores identity in its multi-faceted, sometimes magical, sometimes mundane ways. The sea is one of the main themes that connects the different sections of the book. I was interested in trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and there’s a quote by Picasso that I came across a few years ago that I think about sometimes: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” And sometimes my desk gets very dusty!

After reading Adult Swim, I feel as if I have traveled. Of course, as in all of your work, there is a deep sensitivity to language and to foreign languages, but in addition that that sensitivity, in this collection, there is an even stronger sense of place and time. Can you talk about some of the places you have journeyed?

I’ve lived in Paris for over a decade and even now, it can seem new to me. With one river, twenty arrondissements, thirty-seven bridges over the Seine and innumerable cafés all over the city, there’s so much to discover. I love to explore the city and find new cul-de-sacs, one-way streets, little parks and squares. I really like Allen Ginbserg’s quote about Paris: “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.”

I’ve had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time in Napoli, a city with a very dynamic and vibrant energy—and very good coffee! One of my favorite things to do in Napoli is go to a coffee bar and have a caffe ristretto or a cappuccino, depending on my mood and the time of day. It’s an excellent—and delicious—way to spend time in the city.

Sixteen of the poems in this collection have been published in literary journals. As a writer, who writes essays, then sticks them in a drawer, I am in awe of your ability. It takes such fortitude and tenacity. Can you talk about the process of sending work out?

Thank you for your very kind words! For me, sending work out is part of the process of writing. In some ways, it’s like a period at the end of a sentence. At the same time, I don’t think that everything I write needs to be or will be sent out, but deciding what is ready to go out is part of progression of writing. I tend to be slow to send work out; I like to sit with the writing for a while before sending it out.

In Section V of the book, many of the titles are taken from the work of the Italian poet Gaspara Stampa. I’d love to know a bit about her.

Gaspara Stampa is a sixteenth-century Venetian poet whom I discovered by chance many years ago. I was immediately taken by her work for her poignant and searching way of writing, the power and momentum in her lines and in her sonnet sequences. Counted as one of the most important female poets of the Renaissance—if not the most important—Stampa wrote over three hundred poems and from what I’ve read, most of them were published posthumously.

Section V of Adult Swim is made up of sonnets, and many of them have a line of poetry excerpted from Stampa’s sonnets that serve as the titles of some of my sonnets. I wanted to find a way to incorporate her work and have it be an integral part of the sonnet sequence in Adult Swim. I’m fascinated by the sonnet form, so traditional and at the same time I find so modern, and that’s another element of Stampa’s work that I found pervasive and remarkable: how she is at once of her era and also contemporary.

One of my favorite poems is “Rime 104” that begins, “O night to me more splendid and more blessed . . .” It’s a stunning, rich sonnet about the consolation and beauty of the night and Stampa’s sentiments are encapsulated in lines six and seven: “. . . you’ve made the bitter taste / Of this life sweet and dear . . .”

I’d love to know more about the cover. How did you find and then decide on the image?

My boyfriend and I went to the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli to research possible images for Adult Swim. As one of the main themes is the sea and the final poem, “Syrenka,” is about a mermaid, I was hoping to find an image that would fit.

We were very lucky in our first day of research to meet Dr. Vincenzo Boni and Dr. Maria Rascaglia. Dr. Boni very kindly showed us different images that came from a variety of antique maps, in particular, a very rare image from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, by A. Ortelius (where the front and back cover images come from). The image dates from 1591 and features two mermaids in the same map. When he showed it to us, it seemed so perfect for the cover. We loved it. Stacey Hsi at Carnegie Mellon University Press did an absolutely fabulous job with the design, and Connie Amoroso was so helpful, as was everyone at the Press. I’m thrilled with the cover!

What books are on your nightstand?

The Essential Groucho (on my nightstand for many years now as it’s one of my all-time favorite books), Shakespeare’s sonnets, Henri Matisse’s Jazz, A Literate Passion: The Letters of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and Cesare Pavese’s La Bella Estate (I’m trying to read it in Italian—I’m a slow reader in Italian and I think it will be on my nightstand for a long time!).

What advice would you give struggling writers?          

Struggling with writing, working through ideas and drafts, editing, revising, and then revising more for me seem to be part of the process of writing. The most important thing to me is to return to the desk, and keep returning. It can be hard, but the work won’t get done otherwise. Reading is also essential and can provide great solace, inspiration, and it’s just so fun. There’s a quote by Samuel Johnson that comes to mind: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

What’s next?

It’s great to have Adult Swim out and about; it gives me more time to work on new writing. I’m working on a novel and really enjoying the puzzle that prose provides. I’m also just beginning some ideas for a third collection of poetry, slowly but surely!

Thanks so very much for the lovely interview, Janet!

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