What has been left unsaid about the relationship between mental health and writing?
Writing keeps me alive, yes, and writing makes it harder to live, yes, and writing, if it is healing, is healing that hurts first because it takes a frank consideration of the self to move toward change. I feel that a lot of the public talk of writing and mental health I’m familiar with (and I’m sure there’s a lot I’m not encountering!) wants very desperately for writing to NOT have to hurt, for us to not have to excavate trauma to grow, almost as a counterpoint to another sinister, zeitgeist idea: that all great artists suffer, and that it is the great artists’ suffering that makes their art great. I don’t think we have to dig around in our worst wounds to make great art, but I do think we have to risk something of ourselves. We have to risk our standing in the world by daring to investigate what everyone has assumed is a given, whether that is our sociocultural place in the world, the meaning of our experiences, or the operation of our consciousness. Daring to investigate a beautiful memory can be even more painful than describing trauma if that investigation requires us to reconsider our relationship to pleasure, to each other, and to our thought processes that we too often have accepted as our persons or our personalities or our positionalities in the world. I think without risk, art falls flat. With risk, we feel uncomfortable. So good writing, to me, might necessarily involve pain. It also might necessarily involve the irreplaceable gift that emerges through that experience.
Do you feel that your writing is assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? Does memoir play a role in your poetry?
I don’t know if anyone is assuming anything about me for any reason, but I am always writing memoir. I think poetry is wonderful for the spectrum of inventiveness it allows, but I tend to stick with the details of my life and invent only the psychic and linguistic lens I’m using to share them. That’s really it, for me: the details of my life (or any life) are continuously absurd, frightening, and beautiful. My poems have speakers in the sense that any sustained voices I use to describe my experiences are voices I write into. They’re fragments of consciousness I extend past the point of them living actively in my head. They’re more interesting than I am moment to moment.
How do you feel about recent conversations about “literary success,” prize culture, personal brands, and the idea of “poetry business?” What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?
Poetry business is nothing new, it’s just more obvious the more hyper-professional and hyper-capitalistic our culture becomes. How do we create culture outside of the economy that determines so much of our culture? I don’t fault people for playing into it all—and I do it, too. I enter prizes. I would like to be recognizable. In capitalism econo-culture, can we recognize each other outside of brands? Of course. Interpersonally, we make friends who know us not by what we can sell but by an endlessly unmarketable energy. Or at least, I hope we do. I think the best way to support poetry is to share poetry with people who aren’t poets. Make them listen to you read a poem. They will love it. I have hosted several readings in my apartment in different cities, and also given readings at venues that aren’t poetry venues, with unsuspecting people in the crowd, and I care more about what they feel in the presence of poetry than I care about most things in the world. I think the best way to support poets is to spend time with them and remind them that being a human being is kind of cool. At my readings I make food, and I make jokes, and I make a point to try very hard to look everyone individually right in the eye. I want to build community, not talk about it.
Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Are there any past or contemporary social movements that have affected your poetry? Can poetry be activism?
Art is always made within, through, against, because of, in spite of, despite, in ignorance of, or because of broader changes or desires within a culture at a given historical moment. And when I say historical, I don’t mean the past, or already past—I mean we are all acting inside of commingling influences at the sociocultural level—even when we feel we are writing something personal, there can be no personal that is not bound up somehow with everything occurring around us all the time. To the extent that art either reflects or acts as a catalyst for change, I’m never sure. I wouldn’t be writing the poems I am writing today without trying to understand queer and trans experience in America, past and present, with all its history. I think poetry, like all art, is essential. Essential because we need to experience change inside our bodies that motivates us to change our world in bigger ways. And poetry happens in the body. It demands movement. I want to demand movement that might make up a better world. But it is that movement, sustained, that might actually change the fabric of our existence. So, I don’t think poetry is activism, but I don’t think activism can happen without art. And of all art forms, I believe foremost in poetry.
If writing has been a historical instrument of our collective undoing, how do we move forward as practitioner of that undoing? What is your work’s relationship to the idea of future making? What are your antagonisms to that idea? Is investing in futurity futile or fruitful?
I want us all to spend more time outside of art, outside of theory, outside of spaces and times we decide to think and feel, and instead to think and feel our way toward modes of being that don’t hurt so much. I have big (incomplete) dreams of creating community spaces that operate within a skill-based economy, where types of knowledges and labors are traded for other types of knowledges and labors, where we don’t exactly barter, but spend time teaching each other modes of survival and excitement that will enable us to build lives for each other that don’t necessitate paying with money for anything at all to happen. Human beings are incredibly capable of adapting. We forget this, living within capitalism, responding to its constraints out of fear, out of an idea of no way out. I want to build a community-sustaining future in which we rely on each other out of love to work to solve our problems, and where we consider the harm and help we might do by endeavoring to solve them. I don’t know how much my actual poetry—which I write, despite my best efforts, inside a world where money is the only value we readily exchange and understand—can work toward that future, but I hope it makes space for it. I hope my poetry throws clear teleology to the wind, and what’s left is impossible to anticipate, something so beautiful and so new I could never describe it here.
HANNAH REGO is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. They have attended residencies and workshops through Spalding University’s Low-Res MFA, Sundress Academy for the Arts, Winter Tangerine, and the June Jordan Teaching Corp at Columbia University. They are an associate poetry editor at Rabbit Catastrophe Review and a founding editor of ctrl+v, a journal of collage. Their work appears or is forthcoming in BOAAT, BOMB Magazine, The Arkansas International, Underblong, Glass, BOOTH, and elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn and on twitter @hannahkalena.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.