Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Canadian Feature—Issue 53, May 2015)

Helen Hajnoczky
Statement of Poetics

My poetic practice is varied in terms of style and content. I wrote a book of found poetry composed of lines of ad copy called Poets and Killers (Snare-Invisible, 2010), recently finished a manuscript called Magyarázni that pairs Hungarian folk art visual poetry with poems about my cultural background and identity (final title tba, Coach House, 2016), as well as recently finishing another manuscript that’s something akin to the poetry version of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting. One long poem that I worked on for a few years, on and off, is a rewriting of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock from the point of view of Prufrock’s love interest, and I’ve been doing little pieces of visual poetry, sound poetry, and video visual poetry as well. I’m hoping to complete a book of visual and constraint-based poems about Victorian corsetry called Tight-Lacing sometime this year, and have been thinking of writing a book based on The Malleus Maleficarum, an early modern manual on prosecuting witches. I’ve also been writing poems about whale sharks.

My different projects don’t share much in common, but for me they all share the same spirit and offer me the same opportunity to explore in detail an idea, event, or existing text that I find complex, compelling, or troubling. I find I get writer’s block or that I feel unmotivated to write when I’ve already worked out in my mind what the final project is supposed to look like before I’ve started working on it. I like coming to understand the idea or topic as I write about it, as this keeps me interested as I go, and I think this results in stronger and more interesting work that reflects that spirit of discovery. That being said, this lose approach doesn’t work equally well for all topics. With Poets and Killers, the topic or focus of each poem emerged as I found source texts to work from, whereas Magyarázni is constructed as an abecedarian, and so it required more planning at the outset to make sure the progression of the book would make sense.

Just as my writing is about a variety of topics, I like to write in a variety of styles. As I choose something to write about I also start thinking about how to write about that topic, considering which mode of writing would best suit the subject matter. This makes writing more interesting for me, as I get to do different things, and I think it also makes the work much stronger. Some things are best captured in a visual poem, in a constraint-based poem, or in a lyric poem, a sound poem, or in some hybrid of these styles. The choice of style isn’t only a question of aesthetics. When I’m writing about Victorian corsets—using them as a metaphor for the objectification and oppression of women—I want to do it in a style that captures the essence of those experiences. For this topic, I use visual poetry as a way to ruminate on how women’s bodies are objectified, and constraint-based poetry to convey the restrictive experience of living in a patriarchal culture, for example.

While I write at home, alone, for me being a writer and developing and maintaining a poetic practice is dependent on a lot of interaction with others and the outside world, either in person or online. Certainly being part of a writing community when I began to write seriously was instrumental for my growth as a writer, and my friendships with other poets remain a key source of inspiration and motivation to write. Reading critical work about poetry, poetics, and writing communities is also important for me, as these keep me thinking about the larger context in which I work, which keeps me going. I can’t overstate how important reading poetry is to me if I want to be productive as a writer. If I’ve gone a while without reading poetry, my writing starts to fall off in favour of all the other million things we all have to take care of over the course of the week. Reading poetry makes me more interested in writing as I engage with the work of others—flipping through a book on the metro on my way to and from work is the best thing I can do to make sure the writer part of my brain is working, so that I don’t feel stuck and blank when I sit down to write.

For me writing is about encountering new things. I want to read books by authors I’m not yet familiar with and who have perspectives different from my own. I want to write about things so I can understand them better. I want to write about things that tug at me, that bother or trouble me, and that persistently come up in my thoughts, rather than writing about things that I already understand in styles I feel I have down pat. I want to write in different ways that challenge me. I want to accept that writing about different things is never the same—that while writing is sometimes effortless and quick, it’s also sometimes arduous and it could take years to finish a project. Life is full of wonderful things, but it’s also full of responsibilities and stress, and I want my writing practice to subvert that. I want to write in a way that doesn’t feel like a repetitive chore, but that instead feels like when I’m caught up reading a great book. When I feel like that when I write, I think there’s a better chance that others will find the work engrossing. I don’t have a firm stylistic or aesthetic stance, which I like. For me writing is about chance and change and exploration.