Margaret Hasse has published five books of poems: Stars Above, Stars Below (1985); In a Sheep’s Eye, Darling (1993); Milk and Tides (2008); Earth’s Appetite (2013); and most recently, Between Us (2016). Her honors and awards include the Minnesota Voices prize of New Rivers Press, the Lakes and Prairies competition of Milkweed Editions, and the poetry award of Minnesota Independent Publishing Association. Margaret has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, Jerome Foundation, and The McKnight Foundation through The Loft Literary Center. She lives in Minnesota as a “citizen poet” — an indefatigable supporter of other poets, the literary culture, and efforts to enrich people and communities through the arts. Poet Ethna McKiernan writes that “Margaret Hasse’s unique voice — or maybe it’s vision or interpretation of the world — has a generosity to it, an expansiveness of gaze that doesn’t skip over the sorrow and rawness of the world, but works to integrate them and retain balance and joy.”
You grew up on the edge of Vermillion, South Dakota, and from there went on to earn a B.A. in English at Stanford University. What was it like to move to California as a young woman from a small Midwestern town? It must have been a very exciting time in your life. It brings to mind a moving poem from your collection Earth’s Appetite called “And All Points West,” which describes a young woman leaving home after graduation: “she has a new watch / and a new suitcase with an alarm clock, / wallet, shoes, clothes she sewed for 4-H …”
My adventure started on a cross-country bus trip from Omaha to Oakland with ever-changing seatmates and scenery. I arrived at Stanford University, sight unseen, as a freshman in the fall of 1968. The campus dazzled me with its arcades, quadrangles, and red tile roofs. Educational opportunities were almost endless — high-caliber classes, visiting writers (Tillie Olsen, William Stafford, Adrienne Rich), and radical speakers (Eldridge Cleaver, Tom Hayden). A peasant blouse, jeans, hair down to my derrière, and a miasma of patchouli oil became my new style. I explored the region’s roan-red foothills and San Francisco’s museums and street life, then later took advantage of Stanford overseas programs to study in Germany and volunteer in Korea.
These coming-of-age years enlarged my view of the world, although it was a turbulent and difficult passage both politically and personally. It took me a long time to get over feeling awkward around other Stanford students who seemed affluent and sophisticated. I tried to keep my sense of inadequacy and vulnerability secret. The people whom I knew and had lived with all my life were far away, my family preoccupied with care for my gravely ill father. Telephone calls were an expensive indulgence. I was ungrounded without the familiar landscape of prairie and farmland that would not be mine again, except through imagination and memory. To this day the piney smell of eucalyptus, pungent in the air at Stanford, reminds me of the ache of loneliness.
Writing became necessity and refuge. I think the pain of that time made what Leonard Cohen would call “a crack” that opened me to compassion. My yearning for home also moved me to write “High School Boyfriend,” “Artesian Well Water,” and other poems of the rural Midwest for my first collection, Stars Above, Stars Below (New Rivers Press).
Were you ever advised against getting an English degree for something more practical?
It was bred in my bones to be an English major. I loved books and reading. In school I was always wild for literature and writing. My mother had a degree in English so following in her footsteps was natural. I wanted a future with many choices and could see that strong English language skills are fundamental to a variety of occupations, such as teacher, lawyer, administrator, editor (a list that sounds like a “Tinker, Tailor” counting game).
With my spanking new English degree, I returned to the Midwest in 1973, not to my small town, but to the Twin Cities where I thought I could make a living in the unconventional realm of freelance work, and I did. Over the years, my English degree came in handy teaching in prisons and schools, writing everything from newspaper articles to grants for nonprofit organizations, and awing people with a wave of my red correcting pen.
Please tell us what inspired you to become a poet and the writers that have influenced you over the years. What was that first poem that blew you away, sent chills down your spine?
My mother, Gladys Johnson Hasse, had a beautiful voice for reading, and she delighted me as a child with nursery rhymes and poems of A.A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. She wrote poetry and was an early advocate for listening to children and letting them know their voices are important, an idea central to programs like Poets in the Schools. When I was in kindergarten she copied things I told her into a notebook. She called them poems. Here’s one: “Little gold lights, I like you. I pick you every day for my mama. Little gold lights you will die on a windy, windy day. Good night, gold lights. Goodnight.”
As a girl, I loved and memorized many poems. I could trot out (pun intended) the entirety of Alfred Noyes’ ballad “The Highway Man,” which thrilled with its passion and sacrifice. The first collection of poetry I purchased, when still in high school, was James Dickey’s Drowning with Others. His poems made me feel terribly aware of the magnificence of people and animals and land. In “The Lifeguard,” a boy drowns and the voice in the poem seeks to save him afterward through memory and words. The poem, in the jargon of the Sixties, “blew my mind.”
Among hundreds of poets whose work sustains and influences me are Jalal al-Din Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, and many poets living in Minnesota who are colleagues and friends.
Your newest collection, Between Us, just came out. It is published by Nodin Press, a publisher located in the Twin Cities — a place you have lived and worked in for the past 40 plus years. Would you speak about the literary culture in the Twin Cities? There is a rumor that some of your poems are actually engraved in sidewalks around town.
The Twin Cities is the right place for writers, borrowing from Robert Frost, “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” There’s no accounting for genius in writing — some people are so naturally talented and fierce, they are a force unto themselves. But most writers need support and our region has all the ingredients, including a literary history with giants and ghosts whose words help us understand where we come from. We have publishers, a reading public, libraries and bookstores, analytics reviewers and programs of The Loft Literary Center and other organizations. We have mentors and models, retreat centers and grants, creative writing classes and reading series. Plus, our area of the upper Midwest has long winters, conducive not only to going crazy as Beret in Giants in the Earth, but also to spending many hours indoors reading and writing.
I appreciate being a community poet whose work is easy to find in public places — on radio and the Internet, in sidewalks, yes, and soon to be on regional buses and other public transport, thanks to our populist Saint Paul Almanac. Sister Black Press used a poem of mine on bicycle spoke cards. I like coming across poems where they are unexpected. Where next? Poems skywritten? On Jumbotrons at sporting events?
What’s your typical process? Where do you like to write and at what time of day? Do you need anything in particular, such as silence or music playing? Do you insist on writing X number of hours every day even if it’s not terribly productive some days?
Most of my poems begin as a journal entry. Almost daily, I add to a long ongoing document or “scroll” as I call it. I used to write longhand before I became a fast typist, which has proven to be a nimble way to catch random images and ideas. A sparrow, dreams, two window washers, or a scientific fact might show up. Occasionally I use a prompt from a textbook, especially if I’ve asked students to do so.
Many things I record in the scroll remain prose-like. But as I’m recollecting and writing, a passage might startle me with an odd association, an interesting image, or a musical aspect. I feel a sudden tug of the unknown — pay attention! There’s more to explore. My lines get shorter, as if they want to be verse. An intense concentration bears down where conscious and subconscious thought blend; the self and the world are inseparable. Time doesn’t exist. When this state ends, if I’m lucky, I have a draft poem, a skein of words that I can cull from the scroll to work on later with a more critical mind.
About habits: I prefer to work in silence, at home or in a library, near a window, sitting in a comfortable chair with a warm computer on my lap like a cat. To prepare for writing, I like to read some poems new to me. On an ideal day, I spend two or three hours writing before noon, including time woolgathering, gazing out the window, stretching. Revision — that’s an afternoon or evening task. Bimonthly I schedule a half day of what my dear friend, the late poet Roy McBride, called “po biz” — the poetry business of submitting for publication, corresponding, and responding to the work of students and other poets.
Joyce Sutphen describes your latest collection as “a book you won’t want to miss.” Between Us begins with a quote by Walt Whitman: “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.” Poetry really is more intimate than other forms of writing, isn’t it? When a poem ‘clicks’ it feels as though you (the reader) have been let in on a secret — the poem becomes a friend. And it’s always there; it can be returned to. Do you agree? I hope that doesn’t sound too sentimental. I often wonder why more people don’t buy poetry books because I feel surrounded by friends when I read good poetry — and who doesn’t want that? What inspired you to include that quote and the title Between Us?
Well put, what you said about poetry and intimacy. Also about the pleasure more people could find in poetry if they’d give it a chance. I’d like to see members of book clubs add at least one poetry book to their annual list. Reading out loud and discussing poems that please, confuse, or otherwise affect people might open doors to even more poetry.
My new book’s title, Between Us, and the Whitman quote from Leaves of Grass are meant to suggest the relationship between a poem and a reader. A poem offers access to a heightened sense of aliveness. Although a reader or listener may share the experience of a poem with others, the response is still uniquely one’s own. In admiring the writing of W.S. Merwin or Mary Oliver, for example, I’m one of many, yet when I read or hear a poem of theirs, my interaction with the poem is intensely personal, as if the presence in the poem is speaking to and stirring my deepest self.
Writing is essential to my life; I’d write poems even if no one else read them. But since the meaning of a poem is re-created by the convergence of what is written with the unique person who reads it, a poem, like a gift, accrues new vitality when it is received.
Advice for aspiring poets and fellow English majors?
Protect your writing time. I agree with whoever said: “How will the muse know where to find you if you don’t keep an appointment with her?” Read broadly and deeply for pleasure and to understand how poems work. Create a personal anthology of favorite poems and memorize some. Write fan letters to other poets. Find mentors and stay in touch with them to learn about their process, how they repeat or change their themes, and what they see as their role in the world at large. Participate in writers’ groups for camaraderie, feedback, and useful deadlines.
I also advocate that poets and readers contribute to a capacious poetry community that welcomes all comers — all voices. And all forms: narrative poetry, language poetry, lyrics, strict form, haiku, confessional, meditative, humorous, and poems created to be spoken — why not embrace abundance, make a big home for poetry and let the rooms be filled?
Interview by Joy Biles