Editors Blog

Heather Bell: Poet Interview

It’s been a while since I’ve interviewed some poets. Too long, in fact. So I’m going to start sharing some new voices, and I think I’ve found the perfect person to get us back on track: Heather Bell.

Heather is sort of a nomad poet in the sense that she’s been published extensively in literary journals, but she’s self-published two of her poetry collections, including her most recent (Expletive Deleted). Her first collection (How to Make People Love You) was also self-published, and then, she has two other collections Nothing Unrequited Here (Verve Bath Press) and Facts of Combat (Achilles Chapbooks).

Heather’s work has been published in many publications, including Rattle, Grasslimb, Barnwood, Poets/Artists, and Third Wednesday. She was nominated for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Pushcart Prize from Rattle and also won the New Letters 2009 Poetry Prize (judged by Kim Addonizio). More details can be found on her blog: http://hrbell.wordpress.com. Plus, you can connect with her on Facebook.

Here’s a poem from her collection Expletive Deleted, which I’m sure Heather would be willing to sell you if you contact her (or click here):

Interview, by Heather Bell

It has been two years, how am I to
explain the lack of work? Each morning:
the rhinoceros pajamas, the roots growing
from the ceiling, occasionally

the hallucinations. I dip my body slowly
into a suit coat and flatten my
hair. How to explain

that I spent the last two years as a mad
woman? Everyone suggests that I refer to
that time as a “personal matter,” instead
of strange, or drowned,

or tailed by men with hound faces.

I slip my resume across the table
like a love note.

My shoes shriek when I get up because
the floor is made of people who watched
this and it made them shocked and sad
that I can still be so untruthful.

*****

What are you currently up to?

I’m currently a stay-at-home mom to a wonderful 18-month-old daughter, Anna, and pregnant with my second.  I try to write when I can, but we live in a hundred-year-old house that we’re doing a complete remodel on, so it can be quite hard to find the time. I did finish my fifth book and am in the process of searching for a home for it.

Your collection Expletive Deleted was self-published. What has that experience been like?

My first book, How To Make People Love You, was also self-published, so I knew the process at this point. Self-publishing is interesting and I have gotten a lot of writers asking me about it, thinking it’s an easy way to “success.” I generally tell them to publish in journals and magazines first, as self publishing is pointless without “fans” of your work (AKA customers).

The best way for me to do it (and this is very different for other people) is to buy about 200 copies (my first book went through three reprints, so I thankfully knew my magic number). It will take me a year or more to sell them all, mostly through “advertising” through social media and word of mouth.

I prefer to use POD publishers in the same way you would make copies of a book you constructed at Kinko’s: cut out the middle man (the POD publisher) and just do the work yourself, because at the end of the day, a self-publishing online marketplace really isn’t helping you sell your work (I suppose there’s exceptions to the rule, but I personally don’t troll them looking for books, so I assume others also don’t). The only thing you can do is be confident in your work, continue to publish in magazines and journals and let your writing speak for itself.

This isn’t a knock at traditional publishing, because I have also gone that route and loved it, but self-publishing can be a good thing depending on how much you believe in your writing and how much other people want to see it.

I know recently you’ve been submitting work and many of your poems have found homes in literary publications. Do you have a submission process or routine?

My routine is to currently be looking for new magazines that jazz my socks off, through friends and fellow writers. That’s really where I start. From there, you obviously have to know what you’re submitting to (like using common sense, don’t send a sci-fi poem to a magazine that only publishes horror, things like that). Know who are the “big guys” in the business and if you’re ready to go there. And prepare yourself to make a three-piece suit out of all the rejections! Ha!

Just have a thick skin and press on.

This voice in your poems is often very immediate and confessional. Do you attempt to draw a line between truth and fiction in your poetry?

This is an interesting question because I get asked it often, specifically about my Klimt poem. The question usually is “is it true?”

Here’s a fun writing exercise, go and find a poem that is really boring (feel free to start at any “big” magazine … haha … kidding, kind of!). Then, take their theme and make it into something that a person will walk away from and think about it all day and wonder “is it true?”

Here’s my issue: I’m tired of love poems where people kiss and make up. When you’re in love with someone, there are occasional winters where a wolf breaks into your garage and eats all of your emergency stored food. Can you write a poem about what is on the edges of subjects and then connect it TO your subject?

And no, “Love” is not true, just in case anyone is now wondering. I was actually doing a “Klimt-esque” sort of oil painting and I admit I am a terrible painter, so it looked like the top figure was pushing down on the female. It got me thinking about the original, and how people make assumptions about poems, paintings, every kind of art. If Klimt DID beat his wife, does HIS history make you look at every one of his paintings differently or does it matter?

If I write a therapy poem but I have never been in therapy, does it matter? Or maybe I’m writing now from a mental health clinic. The poem still sits as it does, truthful or not, the point is to make it stay rooted in your brain even when you walk away.

Do you have any pet peeves when reading poetry? Are there things you try to avoid in your own poems?

Boring poems, ha!

I think poets are kind of egomaniacs and we have a tendency to think all our poems are really super amazing and glorious. The trick is to write something and then come back to it as the reader, not the writer. How many poems have I read about the winter’s beauty? How many do I remember lines from (not many!).

Modern poetry isn’t read by most people simply because it’s either flat or so abstract that you need the writer to explain what the heck is going on (at the point in which you are explaining, you have failed, sorry). Anne Carson is actually one of my favorite writers and she can get pretty abstract and yet, still make sense. You have to know what you’re doing.

When I write my own poems, I am trying to connect with another human being. Is poetry boring to any person off the street? Yes. Does that person watch back-to-back episodes of Jersey Shore at home at night?  Maybe. Does that mean we discount that person as someone who can never “get” our poetry? You know what’s the true challenge? Writing the Jersey Shore of intellectual poems and getting that person to reflect, think about it, and want more.

You aren’t writing anything dumbed down, you’re actually making someone dig deeper, but at the same time be entertained. This is such an issue with me with modern poetry, how it can really ignore a huge population of people and act like some people just aren’t smart enough to understand. It’s YOUR job to write a poem that makes people think, not the person’s job to have to get a Master’s Degree in Greek literature in order to understand whatever is in your poetry!

Best poetry experience to date. What is it and why?

Winning the New Letters Poetry Award in 2009! I was in the process of moving from Arizona to New York and we had broken down in a corn field in Indiana (sounds more romantic than it was–ha ha!). I have always thought I was hitting my head against a brick wall and winning made me feel like I had some relevance.

It shouldn’t be about awards, but I’m a weak-hearted and scared writer just like anyone else, so it really blew me away. I don’t think I ever thanked them enough or truly told them what it meant to me, but maybe someone from New Letters will read this!

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

I’m mostly reading Green Eggs and Ham these days. Ha! I actually have a backlog of books that haven’t been touched, because I just can’t find the time (I still have no ceiling in my dining room, if that’s any excuse).

Because I now feel like a terrible person, I will list my all-time favorites: The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson; No One Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July; and anything by Paul Celan, Amy Hempel, Alice Walker, and Sherman Alexie.

If you could share only one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?

That you can do it. That the world needs you to be there and bright and amazing. I know a lot of writers who blow away anyone being published now, but are too afraid to publish or keep saying they just don’t have the time. You do have the time. Because you watched TV today (could have submitted), you brushed your hair (could have submitted), you ate a sandwich (could have submitted) and you spent all afternoon researching new utensils on Amazon (could have submitted).

No excuses, guys. I’m tired of boring poetry, so you need to rise up like crazy apocalyptic looters with backpacks of poems and take over the literary magazines.

*****

Nothing like a call to action at the end of an interview! Thank you, Heather Bell, for taking the time to participate in this series.

For people interested in other poems by Heather, here are a few I found online:

 

*****

If you’re a poet or publisher interested in having an interview featured on Poetic Asides, send me an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com with the subject line: Poet Interview (I know, I make it hard to participate), and we’ll get the ball rolling.

*****

Try something different for a change!

For instance, have you ever thought of podcasting your writing? Some writers have found great success with podcasts. Learn how in the OnDemand webinar: Podcasting as a Tool for Writers, led by Mare Swallow (producer and host of the Chicago Publishes Podcast).

Click here to learn more.

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4 thoughts on “Heather Bell: Poet Interview

  1. Marie Elena

    This: “It shouldn’t be about awards, but I’m a weak-hearted and scared writer just like anyone else, so it really blew me away. ”

    And this: “No excuses, guys. I’m tired of boring poetry, so you need to rise up like crazy apocalyptic looters with backpacks of poems and take over the literary magazines.”

    Interesting, informative, sit-down-and-tell-me-about-it ease — GREAT stuff. But those two quotes above? Love them.

    Thank you Robert and Heather!

    1. Linda.H

      I agree.

      I also like this line: Modern poetry isn’t read by most people simply because it’s either flat or so abstract that you need the writer to explain what the heck is going on (at the point in which you are explaining, you have failed, sorry).

      That is so true.

  2. Khara House

    Oh, boy, can I feel a return to writing coming on! I love interviews like this … that leave me thinking I’ve just gotten a swift kick in the pants and I love it. I love that Heather isn’t restrictive in what she defines as “good” or “bad” poetry–there’s simply poetry that’s boring, and poetry that’s not boring. There’s so many things that could define what keeps a poem from being boring; I think it’s great that that’s a call left open in this interview. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your words and wisdom and wit, and thank you, Robert, for bringing this interview to the table. (… and for rekindling the interview flame–I think it was an interview that first brought me to the PA blog a few years ago, as well!)

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