Hadara Bar-Nadav Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

April 20, 2009

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s book of poetry A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight (Margie/Intuit House, 2007) won the Margie Book Prize. Recent publications appear or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, TriQuHadara Bar Nadavarterly, Verse, and other journals. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Of Israeli and Czechoslovakian descent, she currently lives in Kansas City with her husband Scott George Beattie, a furniture maker and visual artist.
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1. You are a contributor to 32 Poems, but you are also an Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. What “hat” do you find most challenging to wear and why?

My writing informs my teaching. What I figure out, struggle with, and am inspired by, I bring to my students. And certainly my teaching informs my writing. My students help me rethink what I think I know and remind me to start at the beginning and entertain possibility—a kind of idealism I lose if I listen to the news too much. Teaching and writing and publishing are challenging in different ways. I’m at my best when one informs the other.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

This is an interesting question for me because I was a spoken word poet for a time. As a teenager, I used to slam at the Nuyorican on 3rd and Avenue B [in New York City]. Spoken and written poetry are both powerful. Spoken word makes wonderful use of rhythm and sound and is often political in nature. Of course, it can be contrived and predictable, but so can poetry on the page. I think spoken word can teach poetry on the page that it is alive—a wriggling live thing that is full of music. Poetry on the page can teach spoken word that you need more than good music and emotional content to drive a poem.

To respond to the second part of your question, I teach Black Women Writers and the Harlem Renaissance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and am always inspired by the premise of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement that art can affect change. Certainly, the Black Arts Movement was more about poetry for the people, poetry in the streets, in the schools, the kitchen, the bar, whereas the Harlem Renaissance was critiqued for its Talented Tenth values as elitist. Nevertheless, both movements shared the belief that art can affect change. And I know it does. I see it in my students. I hear them tell me how poetry changes the way they perceive language, speak, write, and see the world.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Chocolate, standard poodles, and James Brown. And going to museums. I painted for many years and studied art as an undergraduate and in graduate school. I enjoy going to museums and taking in other forms of communication. Ditto for aquariums.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)

Books of poetry and art have been my best teachers, along with studying music. Jazz was my first teacher, I believe. Though I had written poetry since I was a child, it was when I was a teenager and started listening to jazz that I really started to study language, to think about its rhythms and sounds, and to wonder what I could do with language, how far I could push it.

I didn’t have an active writing community until I went to graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now that I live in Kansas City, I meet informally with a few poets and we discuss each other’s work. I also email poems to friends for feedback, if needed.

As for books on craft, I like Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun, which I use in my poetry workshops. Hoagland is smart, has a sense of humor, and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Obligation is a heavy word. I’m not sure that poetry has an obligation to anything other than to the poem itself. I write, publish, teach, and give readings. I suppose that’s my way of making poetry accessible or at least available to people. Of course, popular culture doesn’t tend to value things that take time, make you think too much, and don’t involve making money. That just means poetry has a lot of work to do to wake people out of their many modes of passivity. But writers can’t do this work alone.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

Generally, I don’t listen to music when I read or write. It’s too distracting. However, PJ Harvey, Beck, and the soundtrack to The Royal Tennenbaums have all figured into my manuscripts. The rise and fall and various intensities of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire helped me come up with the final configuration of my first book, A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Much of my work as a writer is solitary, but I’ve always had many groups of friends. I think my insistence on friendship is both a counter to the solitary writer’s life and serves as family replacement, especially now that I live in the Midwest (most of my family is in NJ and Israel). I definitely have more writer friends than I’ve ever had, but I think it’s important to have a variety of friends, both writers and non-writers. My husband is a furniture maker and visual artist, and he is able to help me stay grounded and rediscover perspective when I lose it.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I work out at a gym several times a week. And I’m vegetarian. I also try to get outside and play with my dog. My dog and the gym help me keep cool. Talking to my husband and friends helps too.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

Chocolate. And Jersey pizza, bagels, and cannolis, which I miss now that I live in the Midwest.

As far as keeping myself pumped up, when I’m not writing, I revise. When I’m not revising, I send out. Or I read, or go to a museum, or get art books from the library. I’m not sure chocolate helps me do any of these things, but I like it. A lot.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I converted a bedroom in my house into an office and work on a gorgeous, huge dining table my husband made (we don’t currently have a dining room and no room for it elsewhere—lucky me!). My writing space is filled with books. I like having books around me when I write so I can move from reading to writing and back again. I fantasize about having a cork wall so that I can hang up poems on which I’m working and see them all at once. I’m a multitasker at heart and tend to work on a few poems at a time.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m currently working on a new manuscript, tentatively titled Radio Nurse. This manuscript was inspired by my many years as a medical editor. (The poem that was published in 32 Poems, “Ode to Lymph Nodes,” is part of this manuscript). I’m also trying to find a good home for my second book Architecture at the Mouth. I have an anthology project I’ve been thinking about, too, and a story I’m revising. I guess you could say I’ve been keeping myself busy.

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