"Traveling through Chaos to Beauty and the Power of Life": an interview with Heidi Seaborn
This issue of Gone Lawn includes a selection of poems from Heidi Seaborn's first poetry collection, Give a Girl Chaos, which will be published by Mastodon Books for AWP 2019. We were thrilled to receive a copy of the book's manuscript and an opportunity to interview Heidi.
Beth Gordon: Thank you for trusting us with your wonderful work. I know you've provided us with a traditional writer's bio, but beyond that what do you think it is important for readers to know as it relates to this book, Give a Girl Chaos?
Heidi Seaborn: I've encountered great chaos in my life. And, sometimes like the Goddess Chaos, I have created it. I have lived and traveled all over the world as a global business executive, married, raised children, divorced, remarried. Along the way, I experienced violence, abuse, other's addiction, pain—the chaos of life—and discovered that you can either succumb or overcome. I chose the latter. Give a Girl Chaos is a poetic guide to powering through chaos to find joy.
Beth: Given those details of your life, it appears that Give a Girl Chaos is autobiographical in nature (I never like to assume this). During this "challenging and exhilarating" life, when was the moment you began to write? Was it following trauma as referenced in the poem "Family Secrets" or before that?
Heidi: As a teen, I discovered poetry and was fortunate to have an English teacher who saw promise and an encouraging mother who inspired me to write, publish and enter contests.
While still in high school, I was invited to join a graduate-level seminar at the University of Washington, which I did a few nights a week during high school. Then I went off to college and wrote a little. However, shortly after I graduated Stanford, I stopped writing poetry, and didn't start writing again until two years ago. That was nearly a forty-year gap!
Which means I have a lifetime to draw on. While much of Give a Girl Chaos stems from my life's experiences, there is dissonance between the speaker and me as the poet, and in some cases, there is no relationship or other personas have been assumed. Interestingly, "Family Secrets" to me is not about a specific childhood event but about how families hold onto secrets. I used imagery from my childhood, but it is not directly autobiographical.
Beth: There is a lot of movement in this book. Movement through time, movement from one location to another, emotional and mental movement of the speaker. Was this deliberate or did it evolve during the writing process?
Heidi: I've moved 27 times and traveled extensively. For me, motion is fundamental to living. But on an emotional and mental level, I believe that forward momentum is critical to survival. Pushing through life's difficulties and challenges with a vision of the other side is the key to finding one's emotional power. Did I set up to have movement be a central theme in this collection? Not explicitly, but because I believe in the power of forward motion it was bound to be threaded throughout these poems.
Beth: I love the idea pushing through to the other side. Within the greater theme of chaos in the book, I also found a consistent thread of "weather." I chose these five poems to include in Gone Lawn because I think they best represent those themes and your idea of forward momentum being critical to survival and finding one's emotional power. I know it's not fair to ask a poet this question, but of these five poems, which is your favorite and why?
Heidi: Oh that is not fair! The five you have chosen are so different from one another and all have import in my journey as a writer. "Weather" is quite painful and yet the ghazal form allowed for me to push through that pain. "Hypothermia Survival Guide" blended advice from a New York Times Magazine column and a personal experience of a high school friend experiencing hypothermia to become a poem that about that visceral will to live.
"What We Hold On To" was actually a poem I wrote as a teenager, found again and revised. It was written about that moment right before everything changes. In this case, I was as the eldest, heading off to college. Rediscovering it, and then revising it after sending my own children off gave the poem a different level of meaning.
"When We Write About the Weather" is written for a Houston-based poet friend who was writing through his experience of Harvey, and suddenly in the middle of writing my poem is my father's death. That turn surprised me, and yet it feels right in this poem about grief, acceptance and eventually the weather turns as grief subsides.
I know I am eluding your question—I guess I'd have to say "Beyond". It is part of the section in the book that I think of as my "postcards from the aftermath" section—poems that deal with my experience of places and people touched by natural disaster, terror or war. "Beyond" is set in Krabi, Thailand nearly a decade after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly a quarter of a million people.
In "Beyond", I added the golden girl who symbolizes that sense of renewal, but she is also a seer—a human warning sign that disaster lurks over the horizon waiting to strike again. Of course, with climate change this is the reality. But metaphorically, this poem is about travelling through chaos to beauty and the power of life, no matter what is over the horizon, whatever the weather brings.
Beth: The way the poems are organized/the book constructed... reminds me of a movie: either a sweeping saga like Dr. Zhivago... or a mystery with clues and secrets to be discovered by the reader (like the dates on the postcards). Do you think of the book as saga? or mystery?
Heidi: I think of Give a Girl Chaos more as a saga, but one that, like life, takes surprising turns and holds a sense of mystery. As a writer, I want to sustain the reader's interest—that comes with both creating a complete narrative and engaging the reader in the storytelling process by withholding the obvious. For me, a poetry collection needs to work on two levels—as individual poems and as a full story—both serving to stir, delight, surprise and impact the reader. I don't think it's quite Dr. Zhivago, but the process of storytelling is the not dissimilar!
Beth: As a storyteller, what led you to poetry rather than say writing a novel?
Heidi: During those decades when I wasn't writing poetry, I read novels and thought that one day I would try to write one. Instead, I took a weekend afternoon class with the poet, Jane Wong. On the drive home, I had to pull over and start writing poetry. It felt as if my brain held the seeds of poetry, and they'd been watered finally.
I haven't stopped writing since. Poetry is a wonderful storytelling medium. Its brevity requires deftness to engage the reader, but it doesn't have to be a complete story. A poem can be a slice of a story, and that may be all that is needed to have impact.
Beth: What were you hoping that I would ask you about that I didn't? What else do you want readers to know about this book and about you?
Heidi: When I attend or give poetry readings, the audience always enjoys hearing the backstory behind a poem. Thank you for allowing me to do a little "behind the curtain" through our discussion.
People turn to poetry in life's crucial moments—weddings, funerals, graduations. My intention with this book and as a poet, is to reach both the poetry lover and the person who is seeking language to help make sense of life—everyday life. I hope that my poems engage, enrage, excite, effect and importantly, empower the reader.
Since Heidi Seaborn
started writing in 2016, her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, Yemassee Journal, American Journal of Poetry
and in her chapbook Finding My Way Home. She's won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards and prizes. Her award-winning debut book of poetry, Give a Girl Chaos (see what she can do) is forthcoming from Mastodon Books. (Preorders can be made here
.) She's a New York University MFA candidate, graduate of Stanford University and serves on The Adroit Journal