Poet Lilah Hegnauer will read on campus Monday March 31, in BC 163. Hegnauer isn’t just any poet, however—she’s a UP alumna whose first book of poetry began as her senior thesis! This post offers insights about her writing from Hegnauer herself, as well as from her former professor and mentor, our own Dr. Herman Asarnow.
Hegnauer was the 2013-2014 Amy Clampitt Poet in Residence in Lenox, Massachusetts. Her poetry books have won several awards and appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Blackbird, Gastronomica, and Poetry Northwest. Her teaching interests, in addition to creative writing, include 19th and 20th-century American literature, modern and contemporary American poetry, form and theory, poetry in translation, and contemporary American fiction.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
So much. I’ve been living the adjunct dream for the past 4 years which means that I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a zillion different classes at a bunch of different universities (and I have a glove compartment full of parking passes in every shape and hue to prove it) and getting to know lots and lots of students. Every semester, my students teach me so much about the writing process. Mostly, they teach and re-teach me that poetry is a physical, embodied experience (both the reading and the writing). And the writing of poems is just 99% practice — sitting at your desk and doing it.
What are you working on right now and what does it represent in the larger body of your artistic accomplishments?
I’m currently plugging away on a project where I write just a little something every day. I started this daily writing in January of this year when I was coming to the realization that as a mother, I’d need to be both strict (write every day!) and gentle (it doesn’t have to be good!) with myself. While I’m at the Clampitt house, my project is to keep writing every day, but also to go back into these past 8 months of daily writing and start the process of crafting actual poems.
My second book of poems, Pantry, is about to be published in February after years and years of sending it out and revising and crafting and re-crafting it, so to be untethered from this manuscript is an incredible sense of freedom but also somewhat unsettling… I don’t have to work on that book that I’ve been working on for the past 8 years anymore!
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
The poet Herman Asarnow at the University of Portland was my first poetry workshop teacher and he’s still my most important teacher. He was the first person to really read poems with me and pull them apart line by line, phrase by phrase. It was revelatory for me in college that a good poem comes at you on one level on the first read and then just keeps unfolding the more you read it.
Of course this idea of the unseen mechanics in a poem might seem so obvious, but it honestly never gets old for me. I still remember reading “To Penshurst” with Herman and he was getting all choked up and I thought “Really? It’s a poem about an estate… in rhymed couplets.” But by the end, I was pretty close to tears myself. And the thing is, Herman can do this with any poem he loves. He was also the first person to point out the rather obvious existence of literary magazines to me and to lend me back issues of the Kenyon Review.
What was Lilah’s writing like while she was a student? How has it progressed since?
Well, when I first met Lilah as a student, it was in my Satire class and my Renaissance literature class. She was very serious and quiet. And she wrote excellent essays on the readings (though she found Satire a bit too bitter, I think, for her taste). She next took the Poetry Workshop where one or two of her poems showed promise, but her poems got more interesting as the semester wore on. Then she took my lyric poetry class (survey of English & American poetry) and studied the poetry very carefully and wrote really perceptive papers. After that, in May and June of her junior year, I was in England and we corresponded a lot about poetry and essays by poets. Then she went to Uganda for the summer, taking voluminous notes on her experiences, and came back to do her senior honors thesis with me, and she wrote many poems per week, each terrific. We spent sometimes 2-3 hours a week discussing them in my office. They were fabulous—and make up her book Dark Under Kiganda Stars. So Lilah’s developmental curve as a poet was rapid, remarkably steep, and awe-inspiring, really.
Progressed isn’t the right word to use for a poet’s work. Her poems have changed a lot, become more daring, more willing to risk being hard to understand at first for her readers, as she’s interested, I’d say, in putting into words the feelings and thoughts that are almost impossible to explain in words. But her poems always have used interesting and vivid concrete imagery, powerful rhythms, and often beautiful sounds to help articulate what she thinks. Now, her poems rely very heavily on unusual metaphors and images that become symbols.
What was she like as a student?
She was full of energy, self-directed, and in love with literature and, especially, poetry. At first, she was very quiet. But as we worked together longer, she was open and daring and endlessly curious. Also, she was never cowed by things that were difficult. Instead, they made her more interested.
Are there any themes that she approached/explored as a student that appear in her current writing?
Well, I would say that Lilah is a poet of passion and love, above all–love for the world, love for people, love for the artifacts of our cultures, whether here in America, inside one’s home, or in an African village. Her poems are so filled with the “things” of life–because she passionately is interested in and attached to those things that make us human.