August 29, 2019KR BlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsUncategorized

“To evoke, provoke, engage and impact”: A Conversation with Heidi Seaborn

Heidi Seaborn is Editorial Director for The Adroit Journal, the author of the award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do} (C&R Press/Mastodon Books, 2019) and a New York University MFA candidate. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over two dozen awards and published by numerous journals and anthologies such as The Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Penn Review and Tar River. She’s also the author of the chapbook Finding My Way Home (FLP, 2018) and a political poetry pamphlet Body Politic (Mount Analogue Press, 2017). She graduated from Stanford University and is on the Tupelo Press board.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Before we discuss your book, I’d love to hear more about your story.  How did you come to poetry?

Heidi Seaborn: Like many, I wrote poetry as a teenager. But I let life get in the way, with a busy career and raising a family. It literally was several decades years before I returned to poetry. On a dare to myself, I took a weekend seminar with Jane Wong at the Hugo House in Seattle. I was shocked that I could write frankly. That was nearly four years ago. But from that moment on, I haven’t stopped writing. I’m making up for a lot of lost time but also tapping into a lifetime of experiences.

KMD:  In addition to being an accomplished poet, you are the former Chief Communications Officer for the Gates Foundation.  How have your experiences outside of the realm of literature enriched your writing?

HS: I had a long career as a communications executive in the U.S. and abroad, working in both the corporate and philanthropic sectors. My expertise was in leading teams, but also in setting and articulating strategy. For me, strategy lies in story. In crafting an entity’s story, the strategy for how to enact and execute that story would emerge. So those decades spent not writing poetry, were spent very focused on words and on the precision of language to evoke, provoke, engage and impact.

KMD:  Tell me more about Give a Girl Chaos.  How did you balance chaos and order when drafting the collection?   What advice do you have for poets who struggle to negotiate structure and spontaneity in their own creative work?

HS: As a first collection, Give a Girl Chaos, started as a pile of poems. I had been writing for only a year and half, and suddenly had enough poems to consider pulling them into a manuscript. But I didn’t see the overall construct initially, it still felt like a pile of poems. So instead, I focused on making each poem the best it could be. Many of the poems had already been published, but I kept revising. And I kept writing more poems.

It was in the act of writing and revising that I discovered the narrative heart of this collection—the idea that chaos is change—disruptive, often painful—that if embraced, can lead to reinvention, rebirth as well as deeper understanding of one’s self. I have invited a lot of chaos into my own life. I suddenly saw that not as disruptive but as generative. The actual act of taming the chaotic process of structuring a collection was easy once I had the overall idea. I focused on the different forms that chaos can take—chaos of the heart, in nature, in the world, the chaos of childhood, of parenting, of loss, etc. and the notion of harnessing chaos into power.

The struggle between structure and spontaneity is inherently part of the writer’s journey. One of my mentors, David Wagoner talks about the three stages of writing: the mad poet, the crafter, the critic. Keeping each of those stages of writing in sequence enables creativity to flow, then be harnessed into the final poem. This is true at the more macro level as well. For example, recently I realized that I was imposing a structure on the sequence of poems I have been writing. That structure was corseting my creativity when I got down to working on an individual poem. Once I realized what I was doing to myself and eliminated it, my writing responded to that new freedom.

KMD:  What was the greatest artistic risk you took when writing Give a Girl Chaos?  And what was its reward?

HS: Well, everything is a risk, right? For me, thinking I actually had a book after writing for such a short time was bold, risky thinking. Artistically, as a new poet, I was and still am experimenting with everything—form, shape, tone, voice, syntax, language—all the tools we have as poets. I tried out all sorts of forms for example in the poems that ended up in Give a Girl Chaos—ghazals, villanelles, haibuns, erasures, etc. In the end, I think this far-flung experimentation supported the overall narrative of the collection—mimicking the chaos and its transformative power.

KMD:  Your stunning first book was accepted for publication while you were still enrolled as an MFA student at NYU Paris.  What made you decide to pursue an MFA when your work was already so polished?  Can you speak to the value of arts education for established voices?

HS: Thank you! But I really felt that I had so much more to learn. I had gotten as far as I could outside of an MFA program, and needed to go deep into learning to take my work further. I started the NYU MFA program shortly after Give a Girl Chaos was accepted and am now a year into this fantastic program. I’ve quickly discovered how much I didn’t know. It’s been amazing to find myself steeped in academic learning, to be able to study with some of the greatest poets writing today and to see it impact my writing.

As an emerging poet, I can’t speak for the established voices, but I can say that the poets I admire are always pushing themselves, continually learning and experimenting. And education in whatever form that takes and at whatever stage of life, keeps our writing and our minds alive.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

HS: I have always considered myself a feminist, and not surprisingly, Give a Girl Chaos has resonated strongly with women in particular given its message of empowerment. I wanted to push further into that idea—to explore the evolution of modern-day feminism, our celebrity culture and its effect on women. I decided to approach this topic through another persona. So, I am working on a series of persona poems based on an iconic historical figure. I expect this work will form my thesis for next spring and my second collection. It has given me the opportunity to go deep into historical and cultural research, and to step out of my own skin and into someone else’s. It’s great fun—a reincarnation of sorts! Alongside that stream of work, I have been writing poems that reflect on the experience of being a woman aging. How it’s disorienting, dysphoric in its own way, a societal disappearance and yet also freeing.

Kristina, thank you for wonderful questions and for providing me with the opportunity to talk about my work with you and the readers of the Kenyon Review.