Karen Paul Holmes: I’ve dog-eared so many pages in this beautiful book, A Cartography of Home. Please tell us how this collection came about. I note a thread of homestead/weather/growing things that almost feels pioneer-like, but in a modern sense. And you do, after all, live on a farm. But there are other-located poems too: mini-market, hotel, church, for example. What can you tell us about the sectioning of the book into four parts? How much of the choosing and ordering of poems throughout the collection was purposeful and how much intuitive? Did you write any of the poems for this book specifically or did you assemble poems already written?
Hayden Saunier: I’ve been thinking about place for a long time. I’m a southerner who moved north into cities for theatre opportunities, but I grew up attached to a rural landscape and with an awareness of the innumerable lives that have inhabited a place long before me. Moving to the farm where my husband grew up reignited that deep connection to a particular landscape, but I also wanted to expand on the ideas of home and place to the those “other-locations” you mention (superstores, mini-markets, churches, press conferences, customer helplines) that have become our current and shared cultural landmarks. And when you walk the same fields and woods every day you are confronted by how time is stacked up in layers in a place, like tree rings and soil, so writing about place and home naturally becomes writing about time. That’s been given as an argument for art: It’s a means to stop time. Or a means to enter a single moment and that feels like stopping time.
I love sectioning a book because I think a reader needs a place to rest between poems. I know I do. The way a bench is situated on a walking path to allow a moment to consider the view or tie your shoes or just sit. In A Cartography of Home, the first section begins with concrete considerations of home and habitation, and then those ideas ripple outward in the second and third sections, returning to the concrete and actual by the end. The way a walk works when the mind loosens and makes wider associations between the fixed points of beginning and end.
Some of these poems were begun years ago—I am a constant reviser— and some came into being as part of the process. In general, I’m slow to put a manuscript together; it takes me a while to understand around what center of gravity the poems are orbiting. The title poem came together after many revisions and a recognition that people are places too—until they are no longer here—because here is a place. “Navigational Notes” was among the last poems I wrote for this book so it grew out of the endeavor. It grew directly from the Rene Char quote “how do we bring the ship near to its longing,” and how home is a longed-for place. I loved including that imagined landscape as part of the mapping of home. By the end of work on this collection, like all obsessions, everything I wrote was attached to time and place and home.
Karen: Thanks for that great answer! I’m a northerner who moved south, and your ideas of place and time resonate with me. I also sensed in the middle sections of Cartography the “ripple outward” you mention, and that really did work for me as a reader. And “Navigational Notes” definitely got dog-eared on my first read!
This book and How to Wear This Body were both published by Terrapin Books. (And by the way, both have such compelling covers!) You’ve had two other full-length books and a chapbook published with other publishers. Of your 2013 book, the wonderful Laure-Anne Bosselaar wrote, “Hayden Saunier is a poet of wit, irony, and a huge generosity of heart.” I happily find that to be so true of your work today, too. Why did you choose to publish a second book with Terrapin? Tell us about timing, especially considering the pandemic.
Hayden: Yes, Laure-Anne is a treasure. I’ve been fortunate with book prizes and excellent publishers and working on How to Wear This Body with Diane at Terrapin was a continuation of this great good luck. As for the timing of Cartography, it was a gift that my focus on this manuscript during the first months of lockdown coincided with Terrapin’s decision to launch the Redux series. I’ve learned to recognize luck when I see it! I didn’t trouble myself worrying about the timing of publication with the pandemic and the dearth of readings. I just didn’t. Poems find their way in the world all by themselves, I think.
And thank you for the compliments on the cover images. An extra pleasure working on these two books with Terrapin has been that when we couldn’t quite settle on a cover image for either, I created my own. I’m not a visual artist but I know how to look for inspiration, so full disclosure: the multimedia artist Cecilia Paredes inspired the coat image and Rosamund Purcell’s photographs inspired the nest. The experience of creating and photographing the coat and the nest informed both books as much as the books informed the images. That’s been another way the process of working on this book has been layered from beginning to end.
Karen: It’s very cool that you’ve got the skills to create images that exactly work for your books. You’re also an actress and therefore, of course, an excellent poetry reader. In your work, I can tell you take such care with word selection and sound. When I’ve edited one of my poems to a certain point, I often record myself (or read it to my husband) so I can listen to the sounds and line breaks and feel the poem in my mouth. Do you do something similar? How much does your acting background influence the way you write? What are some actor’s tips you can give to poets who are about to do a reading?
Hayden: I am always speaking a poem as I write—it’s natural to me. I love to read aloud and I love the sound and vibration of words in my mouth and head and chest. My favorite moments as an actor have been the times—which are very rare—when all aspects of a play come together with the sound and the meaning of someone’s brilliant words in your body—it’s transportive. Poetry is the essence of that, and it was through theatre that I came to poetry. It’s so much cheaper to produce—no lights, no costumes, no crew! And best of all, you don’t have to wait for someone to give you a job. But I miss the collaboration of theatre and the discoveries one makes when minds and imaginations knock against one another and work together to create a whole world. As for reading tips, I try to let the images and rhythms of the poems tell their stories. And no “poet voice.”
Karen: So true about poetry! And speaking of collaboration, I’d love to know more about the program you founded called No River Twice (www.norivertwice.org/). Your website calls it “an interactive poetry performance group in which the audience interacts with a group of accomplished poets to determine the direction of each performance from beginning to end, poem by poem, co-creating a reading that is never the same twice.” What else can you tell us?
Hayden: No River Twice is so much fun. We’re a group of poets who do readings from our books but what we read is determined by audience interaction—so we never know where we are going to start or end or what we are reading along the way. We follow the images or ideas in poems like stepping stones across a river and make a cento poem from the connecting lines—a collective poem of the reading. It’s surprising and wide-open and encourages us all to listen to poems in whatever way we like and be playful in whatever way we respond to it. It’s never even remotely the same twice. The idea is to connect without judgement to other voices and finding deep human community there. Another reason for poetry.
Sample poem from A Cartography of Home:
A Cartography of Home
My mother was a place. She was the where
from which I rose. Once on my feet, I touched
my forehead to her knee, then thigh, then hip,
waist, shoulder as I grew into my own wild country,
borderless, then bordered, bound
by terrors, terra incognita and salt seas.
I took my compass rose from her, my cardinal points,
embodiments of wind and names of cloud,
but every symbol in the legend now
belongs to me—rivers, topographic lines and shading,
back roads, city streets, highway lanes that end
abruptly at the broken edge of cliffs
where dragons snorting fire
ride curls of figured waves in unknown seas.
Monsters mark the desert blanks on her charts too.
Before she died, I folded myself back
to pocket-size, my children tucked inside
like inset maps and I lay my head down on her lap.
My mother stroked my hair
the way her mother had stroked hers,
and hers before hers, on and on, and we
remained like that—not long—but long enough
to make an atlas of us, perfect bound,
while she was still a place and so was I.
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Hayden Saunier is the author of five poetry collections, most recently A Cartography of Home (Terrapin Books, 2021). Other collections include How to Wear This Body (Terrapin Books, 2017) Tips for Domestic Travel (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) a St. Lawrence Award Finalist, Say Luck (Big Pencil Press, 2013), winner of the 2013 Gell Poetry Prize, and Field Trip to the Underworld (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012) winner of the Keystone Chapbook Award. Her work has been published in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review, featured on Poetry Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and Verse Daily and has been awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize and the Rattle Poetry Prize. She is the founder and director of No River Twice, an interactive, audience-driven poetry performance group.
Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on The Writer's Almanac, The Slowdown, and Verse Daily. Her publications include Diode, Valparaiso Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Pedestal, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She’s the current “Poet Laura” for Tweetspeak Poetry. Holmes founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly reading with open mic in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has an MA in musicology from the University of Michigan, was VP-Communications for a global financial company, and has led workshops in business communications, creative writing, and poetry.