an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya



Ian Haight
interviewed by Okla Elliott



Okla Elliott: Your work crosses wide cultural territories—from religion to writers of science fiction, from working class lives to ancient Greek literature—but without ever seeming disjointed. How do you navigate so many subject matters? Which techniques and tactics do you use to incorporate these materials?

Ian Haight: Asking the question in those terms feels intimidating. Do I really do that? To be more responsive, the lame answer is that is just how my brain works. But there is a process to what I do and that was learned. Where I did my MFA was such a cool and at the time different place in terms of curriculum and learning strategies for writing, and that was Goddard College. Specific to your question was the idea that we students should choose our own books to read and learn from, as well as the freedom—within some guidelines—for how to engage with the books we chose. We were also allowed to attend any kind of writing seminar we wanted. Poets might show up to fiction seminars, vice-versa, and sometimes there was a genre blending workshop or a workshop on a text that everyone might value so everyone might be there, for example. So anyway, one of my advisors was Juliana Spahr, and one of the things I loved about Juliana was the “anything goes” approach to writing. She would pass out 4-5 different texts from a range of disparate sources (excerpts from the Bhaghavad Ghita, a page from an essay on ecocide, a sonnet by Bernadette Mayer, maybe newspaper clippings from a week ago, for example) and tell us to work alone, then work collaboratively to create something. In the meantime she would go off and do some writing of her own. Juliana was available for questions but preferred we sort out whatever our obstacles were on our own. She would do that because she trusted us and our processes—she never hovered, which I found to be very supportive of who we were as artists. Then we would come together and talk about our products and maybe how we arrived at them. 

What I learned from all this was anything goes, really. But writing and art should be constructed in some way. I am not a “phone book is art” type person. I constantly collect artifacts that might inspire or somehow become a piece or section in a poem or some kind of writing. I sort different piles of gatherings that look like they might be thematically related, and so that’s one way all these different sources and ideas become relational in a poem.

OE: Who would you count among your literary influences?

IH: It changes so much over time, and the kind of influence varies as well. There’s awe, inspirational, instructive, or just “like,” and then subconscious—off the top of my head. For my first book, probably the most significant influences I am aware of are Gary Snyder, James Wright, Wordsworth, Whitman, James Kimbrell, Mark Doty, Audre Lorde, Cornelius Eady, Baudelaire, Jean Valentine, Louise Gluck, Thom McGrath, Stanley Kunitz, Kim Addonizio, and maybe Buddhist literature and Buddhist poets out of Korea, Japan and China. For my second book, in addition to the aforementioned, I would add Theresa Hak-kyung Cha, Yi Sang, Lorine Niedecker, Ocean Vuong, Hayden Carruth, CK Williams, AE Stallings, Adrienne Rich, and Charles Wright. Right now I’m working on a poem which I know draws literary influence from Gluck, Craig Arnold, and Joseph Charles. I’m glad I can continue to read the work of other poets and feel influence. It means there is more to grow with and from.

OE: How have things like the internet or recent political developments affected the literary community, to your mind?

IH: This is such a potential landmine question! I think the internet has been a blessing for literature in most every conceivable way. Unfortunately there is a risk of dehumanization with conversation when it comes to social media. It’s easy to forget there are real people on the receiving end of comments, criticism, and opinions. In that regard the internet appears to have made it easier to say things to people and treat others with a lack of respect which otherwise would not happen if people were face to face. But frankly, that probably comes out of ignorance and short-sightedness, and might not be necessarily something that should be blamed solely on the internet.

Vox ran a great article February 12th titled, “Richard Rorty’s Prescient Warnings for the American Left.” It’s not a perfect article but I think it helps explain how the Left or progressive politics got into the current situation it finds itself in. The question of political impact is relevant to literary communities and how they function as online social groups and individuals within those groups because, to a large extent, literary communities are Left/progressive leaning and care passionately about political developments of all kinds.

As was demonstrated for months before the election of Trump and particularly several months after, there was a kind of reactionary viciousness to how some literary people were treating one another online when it came to political issues or identity politics, especially on the Left. It was absurd. Seems crazy to say but it happened: death threats—the kind you could file charges on; insults and very personal attacks you wouldn’t find on the “R” rated version of Springer; lack of critical thought of any kind; no real engagement of issues; and just a general dismissal of reality for the sake of wanting to hurt someone. What was really ridiculous was this whole atmosphere was clouding positive interaction on the Left—as in people who were on the “same side” were accused of being traitors to ideologies, racists, sexists, and any number of other things. I know some will find what I am saying to be farfetched and hyperbole. Let me assure those readers it is not, having witnessed these attacks, as well as the results of them. It was as if labeling someone made it easier to dismiss that person, and it would happen simply because of a person’s profile picture—in other words, what a person looked like. Not very productive at all and I am grateful to have not been a victim. I am also sure there are those who think all the accusations and attacks were justified and completely legitimate.  Well, the result of this kind of thinking was people didn’t want to unite, and were less interested in finding common ground so that coalitions could be formed for traditional progressive issues. I think lately things are coming into balance better—mainly because Trump is turning out to be a serious impetus for unity on the Left—but I also think some groups or individuals would just simply rather work alone. Some people are thinking it is personally safer and less risky to work progressive issues alone than trying to work with the “other”—“other” being applicable to any group or individual as circumstances may dictate.

OE: What are you working on these days?

IH: I’m working on publishing and promoting my first book of poetry. I’ve gone through this process before with books of translations I’ve published but it’s all much more personal and meaningful now that my own poems are at stake. I’ve completed my second book of poems and it’s being read by peer editors so hopefully I will start sending that out for publication within the next year or two. Being read by presses for possible publication right now is a collection of poetry and prose on the topic of green tea. It’s a collection of translated literature I probably should have published years ago but my life has been too crazy for that effort until recently. This green tea book is also an illustrated book so there are a bunch of things I had to learn how to do before I could really submit it for publication. There’s more but those are the big things at the moment. Feels good to be alive.



Read Ian Haight's remembrance of Okla.

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