The beige-colored main room of UNCG’s faculty building was buzzing with anticipation last Thursday as those in the room – a collection of professors, graduate students and undergrads all awaited the beginning of the night’s scheduled poetry reading. The poet who was reading that night was Heather Hartley, an internationally renowned poet and professor.
The event, hosted by UNCG’s MFA program, was began a few minutes after 7:00 p.m. According to the person who introduced, Hartley this was, “as close to the scheduled start time as most readings usually get.”
Over the next half-hour, Hartley read 21 poems of various lengths and technical styles. One that stood out in particular was narrated in the first person, and centered on a pool party. While this isn’t unique amongst the poems that she read, its subject matter resonated with me and provided part of a question that I would later ask.
One of the styles that she read is an invention of her own.
This technique, referred to as the “Street Sonnet,” was something that she developed to combat writer’s block. It involves finding a street, writing your impression of it as one line of a sonnet and then moving on to the next street. This process is repeated over and over again, until you have fourteen lines of poetry. Hartley has a multilingual approach to poetry, as many of her poems are set in Europe. Her work often dips into French, which Hartley speaks fluently.
To preface some of her poems, like the street sonnets mentioned earlier, Hartley would sometimes speak briefly of her life, though according to her, these events didn’t directly relate to her life.
After the reading ended, I asked Hartley a number of questions about her poetry writing techniques, including for any advice that she could give aspiring writers.
“What inspired you to start writing poetry?”, I asked.
“Writing is something that I’ve always turned and returned to from the time I was probably seven or eight years old. […] I first started off writing journals and slowly, in junior high and particularly high school it started turning into poetry. The page was something that was something that was always there for me,” she said.
“You talked earlier about the street sonnets. When you can’t do something like that how do you get inspired?”, was my next question.
“Sometimes it takes as much as just – takes as little as, I should say – as going out on the street and looking around. I think it’s important where we are, wherever that is. Travel really comes in some ways, comes in many forms, and we can travel, as I said, across the world or across the street. The important thing is to be aware of what’s going on around us,” she told me.
“You do a lot of traveling, as you mentioned a couple of times. How does that influence what you write?” was what I asked next.
“Well partially, part of it is that foreign language ends up in some of my writing, as you might have heard this evening. That’s one of the ways that travel has influenced me. Another way is that it gives you a variety of perspectives from which to see what’s going on around you, or it also gives you a different taste of coffee as well. Because coffees are different in each country and I must say that I appreciate that a lot,” she said after a moment’s thought.
“A lot of the poems you read tonight were written in the first person, the pool party one in particular stands out. How much of what you write is actually autobiographical?” I asked her.
Hartley paused for a moment then said, “I would say that there’s certain parts of my work that is autobiographical in the sense that it talks about travel and where I’ve lived, but from there it’s often a departure point to a persona or a different kind of perspective that I like to add in.”
“Do you have any general advice for aspiring writers?” I asked finally.
“Return and turn to the page. Always go back to writing and it will be there for you,” said Hartley.