The internet still amazes me. You read a great poem by a poet somewhere out there in the ether and it changes the way you think about not only poetry, but maybe a lot of other things too. This happened to me with Heather Dorn. I read some of her stuff online and was so floored, I clicked around until I’d found the right Heather Dorn and BLAM, it’s that easy. That was a long time ago: 2006.
To this day, Heather is still one of my favorite poets and writers in general and I am so psyched to hear about the launch of her new website that will feature her writing. It’s called “Facts About Neuroplasticity,” Add it to your ‘Must Follow’ list.
So, I wanna introduce you to my friend …
BIO!: Heather was born. She did some stuff and had some times and found herself here, in the present, with a broken washing machine and no expectation of escape. Sometimes she eats tacos to make up for this.
—–by H. Dorn
I’m afraid of heights so when my six year old
decides the Ferris Wheel looks fun
I try to discourage her, “It’s just a looping
circle” I say, “Wouldn’t you rather ride
the racing lady bugs or the spinning tea cups?”
“Later mom, Later,” she says running
to stand in line with her father. I stay
back, “I’ll just take pictures.”
As the line gets shorter I remember
the kid on the news who fell from his seat
dangled mid-air, grasping that plastic rocking
chair until some attendant could wheel him
back down to the ground and I wonder
how long a six year old could hold on
and whether my husband is fast enough
to catch her before she falls to the pavement
below. Now they are boarding. I fake
a smile, forget to turn the camera on
watch the loose bar slide over
her lap, a bar she could slide under
and then I wait as the huge wheel
turns slowly at first, then faster. My husband
sits with her laughing and rocking the seat
back and forth! “Don’t rock it!” I scream as they
pass, but they are posing for pictures
my trembling fingers cannot take.
Bud: You have two poems in Uno Kudo volume 2, for me they are an absolute highlight. The poem “Disney World” encapsulates a lot of what life is in a narrow space. You went to Disney World with your family? Tell me about the trip.
H: We have three kids so we’ve been to a lot of fairs and parks, including Disney World. The “story” of the poem “Disney World” revisits an ongoing obsession I have with the safety of my children, something that always becomes an issue on vacations.
I don’t want them riding in cars late at night. I really wish they‘d stay out of the pool. Horses and donkeys and bikes are unpredictable. I don’t want them ascending mountains or standing near cliffs. I used to have this intrusive thought of Sarah, at two, running off the side of a mountain and falling through fog and clouds until I couldn’t see her fall anymore.
I really don’t like my kids riding rides either. Except the teacups.
I think I’m overprotective, but not in the way most parents these days are. I don’t do my kids’ projects for them, they have chores, and I’ve made them each negotiate for anything they’ve wanted (from a later bedtime to dinner choice) since they could speak. “Give me three reasons why,” I’ll say. “Reasons that mean something to mommy.” I just think a tornado is going to eat them in some spectacular Final-Destination-display, leaving me as empty as Job.
I think this comes down to the back and forth tug between playing it safe and YOLO. Don Marquis wrote a persona poem in the 1920’s called “The Lesson of the Moth” from the perspective of a cockroach who was talking to a moth about his reckless behavior. The cockroach couldn’t understand why the moth was so reckless, always landing on or near fire. The moth responds that fire’s beautiful.: “ it is better to be happy/ for a moment/ and be burned up with beauty/than to live a long time/ and be bored all the while.” I’m more a moth myself, but I want my children to live forever.
The poem “He Said Something About Hemingway” is another highlight for me. Talk a little bit about that poem. The narrative surrounding it. The circumstances of where it came from.
The Hemingway poem came from the experience of my pacemaker surgery. I was “awake” but unable to communicate. The whole incident was very sterile. Everything was metal and light. Even the blanket that covered my body felt metal.
As I was in surgery, I thought I heard my surgeon say something about Hemingway and I became concerned I wouldn’t be heard on the subject. I knew nothing about medicine, but finally, now, I could add something worth a damn to the conversation. I made sure to mark it in my mind for the Post Op discussion, though I never did actually ask him. I don’t really know *that much* about Hemingway.
My life was falling apart and I’d just spent days wondering if I’d be getting a transplant or if my heart would do well enough on medication to stabilize me. The rejection letters from PhD programs had been filing in and I didn’t know if I’d live to finish my thesis anyway. At the time of the surgery my Bipolar Disorder was also unmanaged. I was being treated for depression. Later when I went manic, the doctors realized their strategy had been all wrong.
When I first met my cardiologist, the day I was sent to the ER, he told me my “heart was shitty” and that he thought this was the “literary term” for the condition. As he gave my husband orders for admitting me, he gave me a persona. He liked Cormac McCarthy but I couldn’t get into No Country for Old Men so we talked about female writers who killed themselves or drank excessively. These were criteria he strangely picked on his own. I wondered if I gave something away when we met.
After the surgery, he would make comments like I should find a “bikini” that hid my scar. I’d laugh because he’d seen me naked but still thought me a person who’d wear a bikini. We’d discussed psycholinguistics and he thought I would expose my skin to criticism and sun?
Sometimes I thought it was a tease, but in the same voice he’d ask about The Bell Jar and if I thought Plath would have better luck today. I didn’t know, but given my success with depression I doubted it. I didn’t think myself much like Plath literarily, but I thought he might be disappointed if I didn’t eventually stick my head in an oven. So maybe this poem was partly for him.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in California. But we moved a lot. First within Cali and then to Missouri, Arkansas, many places in Texas and even Pennsylvania. Those are long stories though. They have to do with divorce and debt dodging and step-dad’s and limerence. But those details are not what make up my stories.
Then what are your stories about?
My stories are about always being the new girl, no friends and no place to call home. Insecurities. My stories center around the chaos I came to love and expect. Thrive on even.
I spent the longest time in Texas. I used to even consider Texas home. But since coming to NY State it’s not the same when I go back. But of course NY won’t have me either. Like being caught between the world of the poor and working class and the world of academics, nobody will claim me as their own.
So I’m resistant to answer hometown questions because I feel like people will say, “She’s not one of us! No, she’s nobody at all.”
What was your childhood like?
I like to joke that I grew up feral.
It’s somewhat true. My mom was a single mom most of the time and she always had long hours. Even when we had a new step-dad. I remember once we lived in a motel on Leopard Street (South Texas). Leopard Street was mostly drug dealers and hookers and a really awful (and poor) middle school.
Mom cleaned the whole motel so we could stay in one room for free. It was a room with two double beds, so my step-dad and mom stayed in one bed and my brother and I in another. It was somewhat swanky because we had a TV and could watch the Summer Olympics. But of course we only had a coffee pot for cooking.
It’s amazing the things you can cook in a coffee pot (Ramen is a-maz-ing), but luckily we got free school lunches and breakfasts too. And I ate every bite. I hated kids who swirled their food into a messy joke. I would’ve liked that applesauce before you poured milk and green beans into it, you fucking elitist.
Eventually we got a hot plate too. The hot plate brought much more variety to my diet.
But we lived (or “stayed”) lots of places. Apartments, campgrounds, parks, the van. Peanut butter was a staple. Once I remember a burned-out, abandoned, apartment building. Everything was burned. The couch and the walls and the bed. But it kept rain off and it was free as long as nobody knew.
But I preferred to be outside if I could be. The roaches and bugs were gross.
I remember things in crumbs – in flashes or bits, so that’s one reason it’s hard for me to talk directly about my childhood.
Tell me a funny story from when you were a little girl—adolescent.
Once my younger brother fell through our rent house ceiling. Well, really just his leg.
He was always doing something unfortunate. Drink all the cokes in the six-pack. Set our chair on fire. Break into a church.
Once he waited until my mother had just cleaned out the litter box and then he peed into it to make her think the cat had really had to piss that day. He couldn’t stop laughing, looking at the solid dark clump filling the entire box he hoped she’d find. He was about 13 then.
The day his foot fell through the ceiling he was older. He’d scared my cat up into the attic. Since he scared my cat up there, I asked that he get him down. I guess my brother didn’t know to step on the beams because BAM, his foot, then leg, came pummeling through the ceiling, right in front of the living room TV (which I remember being on top of a bigger, non-functioning TV).
Almost immediately my mother walked through the door with a bag of groceries. I remember it being a full paper bag with bread sticking out, like in comics, and she was very angry. I tried really hard to remain calm, but after only a few seconds, I started laughing uncontrollably.
My mother dropped the groceries and rushed to push my brother’s foot toward the ceiling, yelling at him to pull himself up. My brother cried he was trying. My mother pushed more. My brother’s leg wrangled around like a caught snake. I just laughed and gasped and my mother yelled at me to stop laughing. “It’s not funny!” she yelled over and over.
But it was. It was actually really funny.
What’s the craziest thing that you’ve ever seen/done/witnessed.
There are different kinds of crazy.
Once I sat with my two toddlers at the front desk of the daycare office for over 5 hours waiting for a spot to open up even though I’d been told many times there were no open slots. (I was very sick at the time.)
I’ve felt some craziness personally too.
One moment that stands out to me as formative was the time that I was sitting outside church waiting for Tuesday night “witnessing calls” to start and I saw a homeless man go into the church office. I was probably 14.
I was glad he’d found our church. I knew we had sandwiches in the fridge leftover from some activity we’d had. I imagined him taking 3 or 4 halves. Maybe he liked pimento cheese.
I went to church everything back then. I was doing the mission trips and the sandwich handouts under the bridge and the Jesus musicals and the door to doors and phone calls and testimonials and choreography and I was in the process of reading the Bible through and even though I had some questions, they were always on hold and I should really be less difficult, ok?
But instead of coming out happy with sandwiches, the homeless man came out of the church office pissed off and cussing about how he should be able to get help at a church and how he knew they had food in there.
I don’t know what happened in the office and why the man didn’t get some pimento cheese, but I knew we had sandwiches and it made me suspicious. I started to look at those questions I had more seriously and to trust the church’s answer of “faith” less after that. This made me more “difficult” over time as well. Suspicion is the start of a lot of good thinking.
That’s intense. Really. Come on, people, give the guy a damn sandwich! Hey, Where do you live now? Where have you lived?
I have physically lived a lot of places. I live in “Upstate” NY right now. What is “Upstate” about it being next to the PA border you will have to ask NYC peeps, but we are considered “upstate.”
I live in a very quiet neighborhood. Mostly single children households of 40-year-old parents and retired teachers. We are the loud ones. We have three kids and six pets (guineas count!) and two under forty adults who spend most of their time home.
I feel my neighbors must think we are into selling drugs.
I wish we were because we probably wouldn’t have problems paying our medical bills. But really, my husband works for a Texas company from home (software development) and I run community poetry workshops, which allow me a flexible schedule.
We are home a great deal.
But we also care for three children. That takes time. Being home time. Listening to who-hates-who time. We also have two dogs and three cats. That takes effort. Being home effort to train and work with them. Sit-drop-leave it-effort. But they are soooo cwuuuuute. Pwetty baybeees! The animals I mean.
I’ve lived in Cali, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and PA. Several places within some of those.
But I also lived with Jane Eyre at Lowood when I was about 11. I was in love with Helen (who wouldn’t be?) and Ms. Temple was so nurturing. I lived on Mango Street with Esperanza too. I lived alternate realities everyday. I still do. That’s not something one gives up
“Life is reflected in art. How is your life reflected directly into your art?”
You know, I feel like lots of poets are snobs. Just “art” people in general. They want things to be exclusive. They want to say what is good and that they get to decide. They want to make things more difficult than they have to be. Maybe to show off. Prove they are clever; smart. I don’t know, I’m not them. Eliot was brilliant, but reading “The Wasteland,” I can only think ‘what a fuckin’ douche.’ His book on cats was much better.
He wrote to show off. Languages. Allusions. Let’s all see how we can ejaculate our greatness into the void. But I just want people to understand and connect with me. I’m fundamentally lonely.
I write things for people like me (and therefore myself). Sometimes that means poems that the people I grew up with would understand. Sometimes that means writing to academics that are interested in the same narrow topics I am. Like Peter Elbow suggests, I am my own first audience.
In poetry that normally means working class to poor people. I think my poems can be deceptively shallow. They don’t use big words normally and they use the real life situations I grew up with. This to me is reality though. Depth without pretense. And so through simplicity of language people ignore the complexity of craft and it sometimes catches them off guard.
And subject/topic is more important than craft anyway. Craft is the clever way. It’s what I do to play. For fun. The truth of the situation – the subject – is what I hope people will take notice of.
I talk about issues I’ve experienced. Issues of poverty, abuse, mental illness, graduate school. I write about almost everything.
Once a friend said that the people who played their cards closest to their chest were the ones who seemingly told the most. I agree with this. He’s a wise man.
I think that you’re writing has an untouchable charm to it, because you do exactly that … just write for yourself. What are the similarities between your work life and your interest in art?
I’ve taught composition and creative writing to college students for the past many years, but my job now is running community poetry workshops for The Binghamton Poetry Project. These are grant-funded workshops that are free to the public and taught by Binghamton University creative writing teachers. I just finished a summer workshop for kids at the library and I’m about to go back to The Boys & Girls Club for this semester.
My workshops are mostly generative. We write together and we share with each other. My main goals are to get (and keep) them writing and to get them to see themselves as writers who have a unique voice and important things to say.
And they do. They have amazing things to share.
I am never more inspired than when I am leading a workshop.
I also enjoy lesson planning and research a great deal. Lesson planning is fun for me. I love to come up with a set of goals and then map out the readings, discussions, and writing that will help us reach these goals. I love to make the first day of class connect to the next on through to the last. Like a comedian who keeps coming back to a joke throughout her act, I want things to build and become more significant each time we return.
That is a different kind of art.
Heather, What’s your daily life like?
This question is too hard.
Maybe one day I stay up all day and night and day and I’ll work with the dogs on commands and jumps, and them I’m a therapist, listening to playground politics, and a tutor and academic advisor. I’m a taxi! I make collages! I make tacos! I make everything all better. The kids go to bed and I write and write and watch some TV and write again. Then I’ll fall asleep reading an article in School Library Journal which looks at some ideas for libraries who want to run workshops for children. “Get grants,” it advises.
Other days I can’t get out of bed because life hurts, so I stay in bed until I hear the 2:30 bus and I must be.
I’m working on it.
Also: for your interest, here is a review of Uno Kudo Volume 2 featured on one of my favorite lit. sites, Drunk Monkeys.
Thanks for being cool as ice.
… and below, Heather Dorn will answer your questions!