Claire Hamner Matturro interviews poet Lola Haskins

Lola Haskins

Lola Haskins is a Florida treasure. She is a widely published poet of grand and varied range, a former computer science lecturer, a creative writing teacher, an environmental activist, an outdoor enthusiast, and the recipient of far too many awards, honors, and accolades to completely list. The late renowned poet W.S. Merwin said, “Haskins writes with the startling freedom and grace of a kite flying, and with the variety and assurance of invention that reveal, in image after image, the dream behind the waking world.”

Poetry by Ms. Haskins has appeared in such prestigious publications as The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Rattle, Prairie Schooner and others. In addition, her publications include fourteen collections of poetry, a poetry advice book, and a non-fiction book about Florida cemeteries. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, she has been honored with three book prizes, two NEA fellowships, four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, the Emily Dickinson/Writer Magazine award from Poetry Society of America, and many others.

Southern Literary Review is pleased to have this opportunity to chat a bit with Ms. Haskins.

CHM: Thank you, Lola Haskins, for sharing your time with me and with the Southern Literary Review. I want to start with a question triggered by the August 25, 2022, article entitled, “We Need to Talk About How Good A.I. is Getting.” In this piece, the author asks what it will mean when computers can write and create art. As you have both poetic and computer expertise, I want to ask what you think about this—the idea that perhaps a computer can write poetry.

LH: It depends on what you mean by poetry. If you think sounding musical and/or stringing turns of phrase together is enough, AI can write poetry. But since for me poetry is so much more than surface effects, I’d argue that it can’t. And that, furthermore, it won’t be able to for a long time, if ever. And why not? Because we don’t know how to code emotion, intuition, and understanding of context. And they’re essential. The first is what makes the reader feel something. The second enables the leaps that when you read them leave you breathless for days. And without the combination of those two and the third, poetic wit and humor would be impossible.

CHM: The natural world is a strong theme in much of your poetry. You are a long-time member of Florida Defenders of the Environment and have served on its executive committee since 2011. You are also an enthusiastic hiker/kayaker/canoer as reflected in such collections as how small, confronting morning and you have a clear passion for Florida expressed in your ecstatic poetry about the state. How have your environmental efforts and your poetry connected? And how have you used poetry in your efforts to preserve and save natural habitats? Is poetry, perhaps, a viable weapon to use in efforts to save our environment?

LH: I think poetry has a potentially critical role to play in the future of our lands, our waters, and more broadly of our planet and even our species. Here’s why. If we hadn’t already known it, we certainly know it now—it’s emotion not facts that drives voters. And in the western world at least, it’s voters that drive the choices we make to save or not to save. But it’s subtle—because what has been keeping us stuck as citizens is the free-floating emotion on every side—which means that if you wrote a poem that was the equivalent of Picasso’s “Guernica,” you’d be ostracized by all the people who don’t agree with you. In other words, in this climate, poetry can’t profitably rant. But what it can and should do is advocate for what’s really needed, which it seems to me is empathy, and not just for human beings—for trees and birds and fish and animals, for the very air that suffers every day because of us. And how do you do that? By showing people who’ve never visited it, how beautiful the natural world is. That was actually one thing I hoped would happen when I published how small, confronting morning. And maybe it’s worked, just a little, because people have come up to me after readings saying we felt we were there, and that made us realize that we need to get outside more often. Maybe it could be a slogan: Get them there and they’ll care.

CHM: Following up on that, you also spoke of your book of poetry, Still, the Mountain (Paper Kite Press, 2010), a Florida Book Award winner, as being a “very quiet book.” Can you explain that a bit? And, do you have a collection you would consider a loud book of poems?

LH: What I mean by that is that that book is probably more about the ineffable than any of my other books. The title poem— “Envoi”—reads: “The monk waits / the hands reaching from / his sleeves turn into birds. / Still, the mountain is there.”

In other words, there are things that can’t be said directly and you can’t change, so you just have to be quiet and watch. There’s a section in it called “The Seekers,” which is three long poems all set in the nineteenth century. The first is about an English painter who seeks justice for enslaved people, the second is about a boy in Argentina who loves birds and is writing to a cousin he’s never seen, and the third is letters home from a man who’s gone to the gold rush. Of course it’s not that simple, nothing is. But I’ve always felt it was quiet. As for loud, yes, there is. The Rim Benders (Anhinga Press, 2001) is driven by a series of rants, each based on a preposition. Though the book does end quietly, some of the rants are very assertive.

CHM: The analytical skills in computer science would seem very left brain and the creative ones of poetry very right brain as I understand the theory, yet you have pursued both computer science and poetry in your life.  Have the two pursuits conflicted or complimented each other? And how?

LH:  I have to confess before I answer the question, that I have no street cred in either field, since I’ve never taken a class in Computer Science, nor did I major in English. That said, I was asked that question so often enough that I had a stock answer for it: Computer Science and poetry have a lot in common, in that to do either well takes logic. Mathematical in the first case, emotional in the second. Finally, I decided that explanation was too left-brained, so I wrote a poem to explain how they’re alike, and not. It starts like this: “Either way, my hands move across the keys / even in the dark. /  Either way, my fingers are not themselves / tapping those little drums.” // It is easy to love words the way zero loves one,” at which point it digresses, being a poem not a program.

CHM: You divide your time between two landscapes, one in Gainesville, Florida, the other in Yorkshire, England, that seem to me very different from each other. You have written poetry about each, including “Moor” with such gorgeous lines as “heather, tough, clumping in gangs / that turn bruised in August– tiny purple blossoms that blend / with distance as if a thumb had smudged the page.” And, of course, many, many poems about Florida, especially in how small, confronting morning. Might you share a bit about how you came to land in both places and how their differences and similarities have impacted your poetry?

LH: I grew up and went to college (Stanford) in northern California, then after I graduated, I moved to Athens, Greece, because I loved ancient Greek theater so much that I had to see where it came from. From there, I went back to San Francisco and took a social science research job and met my ex-husband when he came to my group as an intern. We married, then, after an eventful interlude involving traveling and singing in Mexico and the Caribbean followed by a stint in Gloucestershire, we settled in Florida. I consider myself an honorary Floridian since I’ve been here now more than half a century and both my grown children were born here.

I’d been in England before I met my ex, but mostly around London. When we arrived there together (skip the details), we rented a tiny seventeenth century cottage and stayed until I got pregnant, at which point we went back to the U.S. and got proper jobs because I thought it would be wrong to take advantage of NIH by having the baby for free. During that time, I was lucky enough to have my poems often on a BBC program called “Poetry Now.” I continued being on it even when we came back to the U.S., but my luck ended when the producer of that program’s luck ended much more drastically than mine, because he died.

When our daughter was two, we decided to go back to England and consider staying there. We began in the same village as before but then saw an ad in a national paper for a cabin on the moors with an acre of land. It was cheap for a reason: it had no services, no power, no water, no plumbing, plus it was on a footpath not a road. But we bought it anyway and moved there. We worked out how to live—the only essential was water so we used a car battery to pump it into the house from the tiny river in front of us. The weather was reliably difficult, but its beauty made it worth everything. Again, we had eventually to go back to the U.S. but when we did, we came every year back to our place. Too long a story again, but we lost it and moved into a market town. After we divorced (much later), I continued to go there every year and I still do.

Yes, the places are very different, but I love them both with all my heart. If you have children, it should be obvious why that’s possible. And I’ve written volumes about each of them. One thing though, is that I never relate them to each other.

CHM: Now, finally, and I’ve been saving this question for last as a place of honor because I love the poem at the heart of this question and also am an enthusiast of sandhill cranes. You write of these magnificent birds in your poem, aptly titled “The Sandhill Cranes,” and from this poem, you also got the title of your collection, The Grace to Leave (Anhinga Press, 2012). You have mentioned that you are “obsessed” with sandhill cranes. Well, yes, me too! First, with your permission, I am going to quote the whole beautiful poem.

 

The Sandhill Cranes

The blue air fills with cries.
The cranes are streams, rivers.
They danced on the night prairie,
leapt at each other, quivering.

The long bones of sandhill cranes
know their next pond. Not us.
When something is too beautiful,
we do not have the grace to leave.

 

Now, might I ask how and when this obsession with sandhill cranes came about and what it is about them that has so captivated you? 

LH: Long before I knew there were resident cranes here, something would tell me to listen to the sky at certain times. And there, against the blue, they’d be, vees of them, crying. In other words, they’re part of me. And I find them, in their height, both majestic and tenderly awkward. After my divorce, when I moved into the house I live in now, a photographer friend gave me a large picture she called “The Guardian Crane.” It’s a (digitally altered) photo of a crane with a stone in its claw and represents the legend that a crane who watches its flock will stay awake by holding that stone. I’m so obsessed with cranes actually, that the only rooms in my house that don’t have at least one in them—each occurrence being different from all the others—are the bathrooms.

CHM: And finally, though there is no question with this, I just want to share—again with your permission—your poem which is included in the collection edited by Susan Cerulean, The Book of the Everglades (Milkweed Editions, 2002). I also want to thank you again for sharing your thoughts and times with Southern Literary Review.

Prayer for the Everglades

 A gumbo-limbo swoons in the arms of an oak.

A royal palm, smooth as sunless skin, rises

against blue.  In this whole untouched world

there seems only wind, the grass, and us.

Now silent lines of wood storks appear,

their white wings edged black. Here is

a mathematical question for your evenings.

How many moments like this make a life?

But if it were not true? What if the glades

were a dream, ancient, written on the walls

of caves, so anthropologists peering into

the darkness could say only, it must have

been lovely then, when grass flowed under

the sun like a young woman’s falling hair.

What if none of it were true? What if

you and I walked all our afternoons under

smoke, and never saw beyond? What if

the tiny algae that velvet the water, the

gators that pile like lizards on the banks,

the ibis with her sweet curved bill? What if

the turtles that plop off their logs like little

jokes? What if the sheltering mangroves?

Oh what if? Look up, friend, and take my

hand. What if the wood storks were gone?

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