In Conversation with Dan Rosenberg
Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collection Calenday (Rescue Press, 2014). She works as a web designer for the University of Iowa and the Iowa Review. She received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Also: She's a mom and draws comics. You can find her work at laurenhaldeman.com. Below, she discusses parenting and poeting, coding and chuckling, and the healing power of repetition.
DR: Hi Lauren! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your beautiful new book, Calenday. And I mean beautiful—not only the poems, but also the cover painting, which you did, and the book design, which you also worked on, along with Rescue Press’s brilliant designer, Sevy Perez. It’s an inviting book, immediate and intimate and joyful and earnest. And when I first held it, I couldn’t wait to get the chance to sit down and read it.
My first question actually has to do with that experience of sitting down to read it straight through. Most of these poems have dates for their titles—presumably the dates of their composition. But the dates are not in order, and not all represented. How did you select and arrange these poems to make a manuscript of them?
LH: After I had Ellie, I decided to start a practice of trying to write a single small page in a tiny Moleskine notebook each night. This page was small enough that you could only write maybe 3 to 4 sentences on it. It was small enough that it wasn't daunting, and took me less than 10 minutes to complete. Ten minutes was really all the time I had.
After doing this for a few months, I began noticing that sometimes on a page there would be a thing that looked like a poem. I would say that in a single month I would probably have five pages out of the 30 some pages that had anything even remotely worthwhile on them. So, I would transfer that page over onto a secret tumblr account and then edit it from there. Those poems began to build up. I didn’t take it seriously of course, until several of my friends – most notably Blueberry Morningsnow, Melissa Dickey and Lucas Bernhardt – read a few of them and really pushed me to share them. I am still surprised people like them.
But so many were just journaling pages that were full of complaints and worries. Some of them would just be a list of things Ellie was doing: “bangs on the table for food; asks for food with hands up going ‘eh?’; stacks the stacker and stacks that on the shelf.” Sometimes it was just me writing the word “Angry” or “Tired” over and over. So that's why there's a disparity between the dates.
DR: Calenday presents itself as the product of a kind of lack of time—as if you dashed these poems off as part of a daily routine, rather than spending lots of time meticulously crafting and revising. Yet you also made a “cranky” puppet show out of one of them, “Chess Piece Face,” which surely took a ton of time. As a new parent myself, I’m amazed by other parents who find the time to even bathe, let alone do something as impressive as this tiny luminous theatrical production. How have you negotiated being an artist (in all the media you work in) with your other responsibilities, most notably being a parent?
LH: Oh, it is so hard to negotiate time for anything as a parent! Before I had a child, I remember hearing John McPhee answer questions for a Q&A at the Englert Theater. One of the things that he told us was that he wrote all of his books in tiny segments over long periods of time. McPhee is highly prolific, so this surprised me. He said he would write for a specific amount of time -- two hours a day, maybe -- and stop right when the timer went off.
After I had Ellie I was confronted with these days that didn't allow for very much writing on my part. You are very busy with a new baby, but, at least for me, it felt like also nothing was really getting done (except – duh – raising a human being). So it became a challenge to figure out different ways to write.
I will say this: When I first had Ellie, my life was changed in such a way that I really truly believed that it was the end of my career as a writer (which wasn't even a career that point); it was the end of me as a writer. This is a phenomenon that I think maybe happens to a lot of people in the months after having their first child? The world is changed in such a way that you can't imagine it ever feeling normal again. And hey, it actually won't ever be ‘normal’ again (spoiler!), at least not in the way you knew it before.
DR: Two threads that weave through your book are the physical, bodily experience of mothering and the digital landscape in which you work as a web developer. For example, the poem dated 03/09 includes this stanza:
Hello visitor, entering this oxygen lake, a handful
of quartz pebbles in your old-man fingers.
Hello baby, glowing with foxfire
behind an ancestral field of transistors.
The technological and the biological are often seen in conflict, but not here, nor in “06/17,” in which you refer to your baby as a “huge crying computer.” How do you understand those two forces at play in your life? In your work?
LH: Ever since I was young, I’ve had this preoccupation with technology within the natural world. I loved the play between the two—a game-boy in a ravine, a tree growing out of an old bathtub—the mix of the man-made with the organic. It has intensified since I started writing code. I see computer code and computer languages as this wonderful offshoot of real language, in that both means of communication are trying to affect the world, trying to manipulate, in the base sense.
At this point in time, computer code can manipulate so many things, can create whole virtual worlds, but it is really just a raggedy, banal version of whatever code is actually making the universe itself. “Right? You know what I mean? Am I right, man?” (stoner voice).
DR: “05/16” has tickled around my brain ever since I first read it. I love it so much. The poem begins, “Child, you tried to french-kiss our cat today and it was disgusting” and ends, “I am trying to picture how you will look / instead of seeing how you look now. You look like you will.” That ending still haunts me; it haunts my laughter, which is lingering from the beginning. What role do you think humor has in your poems?
LH: I really believe that humor is a survival mechanism. And during those first few years of parenting, it was a way to lighten the emotional and physiological load. It helped me gain perspective. For instance, when my daughter, in real life, actually put her mouth on the cat’s mouth, I just about lost it. I mean, I was ready to drive to the emergency room, call an ambulance, start years of treatment. But after I calmed down, you know, DAYS later, there was enough distance for me to see: Hey, that was kind of funny. It made me realize: Maybe I should pay more attention to the odd things that are going on around me, in my own house. How strange it all was! And how much of it was I missing in the midst of worrying, and thinking ahead, and not being there with it all in that moment. There is a great blog I read called The Ugly Volvo that does this exact thing. Takes the mundane, strange things about parenting and makes them so so funny.
DR: Calenday begins with poems grappling with the birth of your daughter, and it ends with a series of shattering elegiac poems for your brother. So this collection, starting with birth and ending with death, is itself a life, shared. But shared with whom? Did you write these with a particular audience in mind? Or perhaps better: Did you have a sense of what you wanted these poems to do?
LH: I wrote these poems truly believing that no one would ever read them. I thought they were awful. Seriously. Like I mentioned before, this was during a period when I considered my ‘life’ as a ‘writer’ over. It seemed like there had been a boat, a boat for becoming a published poet, and I had totally missed it. So who was the audience? Mostly me. Maybe future-me? It took several different people on several different occasions complimenting the poems for me to believe these poems were worth anything. I still feel weird about them. Because they were so private for so long.
DR: On a related note, the elegiac final poems also seem more committed to repetition than the others in the book, with devastating effect. What do you think repetition can offer a poem?
LH: During those first days and weeks and months after Ryan’s death, I did a lot of repeating of phrases to myself. When I first got the call from my parents—when my mom said “Ryan is dead”—my immediate response was repetition: “Its ok … its ok … its ok …” and then “it’s going to be ok … it’s going to be ok … it’s going to be ok.” The repetition seemed to be part of the mourning process. In the weeks that followed, I would just walk around, saying certain things over and over. “My brother was stabbed,” I would say over and over, or “Ryan is dead,” over and over. Why? I don’t think I realized this then, but now I can see how repeating those facts—they were just facts—helped to lessen the blow of those facts. I was trying to get used to them. When you are grieving, there is this terrible thing that happens in which you sort of forget that the person is dead. Your brain will have reset back to before you knew they were dead. And then, when you suddenly remember, well, it is awful. It is like it is all happening again. There is the same unbelievable rush of sadness and shock and sickness. This ‘remembering’ happened again and again to me at first, several times a day. It was exhausting.
The poems and the repetition, in this case, provided a way for my brain to acclimate to the new reality. Amazingly, this actually really helped. I stopped feeling the shock when ‘remembering’ that Ryan was gone. I still felt the sadness and the unbelievable grief, but the repetition, both in the poem and in real life, helped to lessen the blow, the shock, the surprise of the situation.
After Ryan died, many of my friends—my loving, supportive, beautiful friends—suggested that I use creativity to help the healing process. And when they said this, well, at first, really, I was just like (excuse my language) “Fuck that.” Like, I thought, how could “art” even touch this? My brother was stabbed. That’s how he died. And we didn’t get to say goodbye. “Art” or “writing” seemed SO FLIMSY in that face of it. But, you know what, over time, over the months of grieving, it just started to happen—I started to write about it. I didn’t MEAN to; it just happened. And it helped. Amazingly, it helped. It was true—my friends were right.
DR: One final question: This book seems so deeply tied to the era of its composition—to the loves and losses and restrictions and opportunities of that time. What are you working on now, and how is that work different from the work that went into Calenday?
LH: Great question! My first response would be no, I am never working on anything except making it to the end of the day. But when I think of it—wait, yes I actually am. It is something very different from Calenday. I am trying to create a collection of poetry/non-fiction/hybrid that intertwines these subjects: The First Battle of Bull Run, a specific type of hallucination called ‘hypnogogia,’ young select soccer clubs of the 1990s and the afterlife. Easy, right?
I’ve been writing haunted sports poems for years. I played soccer for 12 years of my life, semi-professionally on three different teams at any given time, in Northern Virginia, which is a highly competitive area for the sport. (To give you an idea, Mia Hamm graduated from our ‘rival’ high school). I loved playing soccer and then I hated it, but all the time there was this feeling of otherworldliness—these huge fields amid the deep history-filled woods; fields near former battlegrounds; fields that felt haunted. We actually played most of our games on fields at Bull Run Regional Park, located right next to the Manassas National Battlefield. Around that same time I started experiencing a phenomenon called ‘hypnagogia’—a condition in which you wake up from sleep and have hallucinations: You see your own room and bed, but also there will be people there, or shadows, or spiders, or voices. It is … terrifying. In Northern Virginia, I saw a lot of people—soldiers, women, groups—that seemed like from another time. Seriously. So yeah! Look out for a book all about this soon, or never, I guess. Like I said, main priority at this point is getting through the day.