“{see what she can do}”: Marcene Gandolfo in Conversation with Heidi Seaborn, author of Give a Girl Chaos

Heidi Seaborn is Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, a New York University MFA candidate, and the author of an award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do}, published by Mastodon Books. Since Heidi began writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for nearly two dozen awards including the Rita Dove Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, Yemassee Journal, American Journal of Poetry, in her chapbook Finding My Way Home (FLP) and in a political pamphlet Body Politic (Mount Analogue). She graduated from Stanford University and is on the Board of Tupelo Press.

Marcene Gandolfo: In your biography, I read that you began writing in 2016, and in just two years, have acquired a significant number of publications and prizes. Tell us about yourself. What events brought you to poetry?

Heidi Seaborn: It’s been three years now, but yes, it has been a whirlwind. I, like so many, wrote poetry as a teen. After having lived all over the world, I returned to Seattle where I grew up over a decade ago. An old high school friend asked me about my poetry, and I had to admit that I had left poetry behind when I graduated university. I signed up for a weekend poetry class with Jane Wong at the Hugo House in Seattle. During that class, a spigot was turned on. And it has been flowing ever since. I guess you could say I was shamed into it! But it’s very different to write now as an adult with a lifetime of experiences to draw from, perspective to bring to the work and a disciplined work ethic that comes from supporting a family for decades.

MG: Could you identify your sources for influence and inspiration?

HS: Initially, I drew direct inspiration from my own life and experience. As I said, there is a lot to pull from. Give a Girl Chaos and my 2018 chapbook Finding My Way Home, while not autobiographical, are collections that certainly have their roots in the world I know, the life I have lived. As I continue to branch out, and write beyond my confines, I reach more broadly into culture, history, current events, but always connecting back to what I know, to give what I write an authentic emotional core. Of course, like all poets, I’m influenced by what and who I read. As Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, I am reading what the best young talented poets are writing. As an MFA student at NYU, I am fleshing out my poetic education by reading many of the classic modern poets as well as the established poets writing today.

MG: What do you attribute to your accomplishing so much in such a short period of time?

HS: According to Dana Isokawa of Poets & Writers, the average time to write a book is 6.4 years, and then it takes another 3.1 years for a poetry manuscript to get published. Given my late start, mathematically I have to better that ten-year average. I’ve always been someone who is able to accomplish a great deal in a short period time whether it was graduating early from Stanford, starting a business at twenty-three, or publishing my poetry. I dive in deep, learn from everyone and every experience and am very efficient and disciplined. That’s what I bring to the business of poetry and my education. Then I carve out white space for reading, writing and revising—the work that doesn’t respond to a timer.

MG: In Give a Girl Chaos, you often juxtapose the chaos in the domestic with that in the natural and socio-political worlds. Could you comment on your poems’ synchronistic travels and returns, which unify disparate experiences with chaos.

HS: I didn’t set out to write about chaos. Chaos is all around us. It always has been, although one could argue that our current time feels exceptionally chaotic. I wrote what I knew. I have experienced falling in and out of love, divorce, having children, being a child, illness or death of a loved one. These are, for better in some instances, worse in others, moments of chaos of the heart. Timeless and to varying degrees and form, experienced by everyone. These poems nestle around those that deal with the larger world, the world that experiences chaos in the form of natural disaster, war, terrorism and political destabilization. This too, is a chaos that belongs to all of us. Yet, these poems are very personal as well. There is nothing abstract about their effect on the speaker. These are lived moments, an earthquake, a terrorist attack, the aftermath of wildfires, etc. As I wrote these poems over two years, I noticed a common thread, that the natural world, cultures, people, the heart are resilient. For me that is the unifying narrative—out of chaos, comes strength and resilience.

MG: Also, could you comment on the book’s prominent theme of “home”?

HS: I’m delighted you picked up on “home” as an important element in Give a Girl Chaos. I left home like many at eighteen. I moved frequently, lived on the East Coast, the West Coast, Europe and back and forth between the three regions. Then I was lucky to return thirty years later to the place I grew up in, the place my family had never left. I fell in love a man who had grown up in my neighborhood. My youngest son attended our high school. My daughter moved here too, making it her home. That’s my back story and it naturally informs my writing. Then in addition, to coming home literally, I came home to poetry. All of this is embroidered into my point of view and eventually onto the page. Beyond my own story, home is a counterpoint to chaos. The concept of nesting, of finding one’s tribe. When there is chaos all around us, we seek the familiar.

MG: Could you discuss the construction of the book, its the arc, its structure, and your process of ordering. How do you work to embrace but also resist linearity?

HS: Ah, the puzzle of ordering a poetry manuscript! A teacher of mine said it doesn’t matter beyond putting your strongest poems at the beginning and ending, maybe in the middle so the prospective reader that cracks it open has a taste. But I’m a story teller by training and profession. The narrative arc for me is a given. My first pass at creating this manuscript had it two sections. And in fact, it was in that form that it received an award and was accepted for publication. However, I had written a few more poems, and I had been playing around with a different order that was broken in five sections. The sections are not linear, but they are each focused on a form of chaos: divorce, world (natural and conflict), childhood and youth, parenting, death and love. Then I chose poems that lead in and out of each section to create a sense of narrative continuity. Finally, I was deliberate in my use of recurring images to serve as a through line across the collection.

MG: Throughout the collection, the speaker witnesses and encounters different types of violence. Could you discuss how these recurring assaults both disturb and unify?

HS: Violence is something we naturally want to turn away from, and yet as humans we often seek it out for entertainment. This duality intrigues me. Violence is of course part of the natural world as well. For me violence is a given, it exists. How do we survive violent acts and events? How do we resist violent temptation and tendencies? How do we not live in fear? How do we shift from victim to becoming empowered? These are the questions that interest me and that I’ve explored in Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do}. Note the subtitle—that is the shift that I’m focused on. From a poetics standpoint, I endeavor to counter balance violence with beauty. With intention, I draw heavily on nature in terms of imagery and place and often assert natural beauty into the images used to describe violence. In nature, there is vulnerability, violence and then healing. In this book and in my writing, I work to bring this natural cycle to human chaos to bridge us from victimhood to empowerment.

MG: What is next for you? Are you engaged in a new project? If so, would you like to tell us about it?

HS: I’m now in the second semester of my first year of my MFA at NYU. So that’s really my big undertaking since finishing this first collection. I’m finding that it is providing me with the intense and structured learning to support my writing aspirations. Through that structure, I am working on my next collection. It’s too early to lift the lid on it yet, but I’m pushing beyond my experiential boundaries. This is both exhilarating and terrifying as I wrestle with the chaos of writing something new and challenging!

Marcene Gandolfo’s poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and RHINO. In 2014, her debut book, Angles of Departure, won Foreword Review’s Silver Award for Poetry. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.

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