An Interview with Hannah Miet

Hannah Miet’s first collection of poems, Hello, Absurd World, is forthcoming later this year. The book’s publication was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and the poems within it are addressed in some cases to the individuals who funded its publication through their pre-orders. Miet’s poems, stories, and essays have appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, and a recent one-off Kindle edition, among other publications. She’s a frequent blogger and a student in the new media/entrepreneurial journalism at The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

JW: First off, congratulations on getting your Kickstarter project funded. You describe the poems in Hello, Absurd World as a kind of correspondence-in-verse, with each poem written to a specific person within a strict time limit — 5 minutes or less. How and when did you decide that this process had created the makings of a book? And did you give any thought to pursuing publication through the traditional route?

HM: Thank you, Johnathon. I’m so happy it’s actually happening.

I started to self-inflict a time limit on writing a few years ago. I realized that my journals and emails held more immediate truth than the poems I labored over, erasing and re-writing and tweaking. I began writing to communicate, and began communicating through poems. The idea to compile the poems in a book was a natural extension of that urge to connect. And also, the “Poet Trees” folder in my Gmail had reached over 300 messages.

There are poems I excluded from the manuscript due to the awkwardness of their specificity, their holes that could only be filled by context. But for the most part, I trust that intimacy translates, whether the hook is voyeurism or personal connection.

JW: The letter-poem as a form is fascinating to me, because of how it both solves and conflates that question of audience that all poems have. On the one hand, writing to a single person gives you an immediate context, a shortcut to intimacy. On the other, most of us want our work to be read and enjoyed by more than just one person. I suppose I want to ask how you approached that conundrum of audience, the one vs many. Was it something you thought about? Or did you simply concentrate on the recipient and trust the tendency of the specific to become universal? Also, do you have any favorite letter-poems from other poets? (Richard Hugo’s letter to Charles Simic is at the top of my list.)

HM: There are poems I excluded from the manuscript due to the awkwardness of their specificity, their holes that could only be filled by context. But for the most part, I trust that intimacy translates, whether the hook is voyeurism or personal connection.

It was always a little of both for me. I fell in love with Ginsberg’s discourses with other beat poets. The actual letters, the dedications, the casual mentions of names in poems. The emotion translates, real as fact. But there is also that peeping Tom quality. Creeping behind the curtains of a group of friends in a time period that’s easy to romanticize. (Especially from my Twitter- addicted vantage point.)

It’s not just poetry either. It’s a connection to communication as an art form. I’ve been reading the “Art of…” interviews that The Paris Review recently archived online. The best conversations can be as enchanting as my favorite poems.

Thank you for that Hugo letter. It’s a perfect example of the inherent draw to poetic communication. The words surfacing from some kind of void. “… Dear Charles, I’m glad you avoided the bombs, that you / live with us now and write poems …”

“Poetry Workshop”, from Hello, Absurd World
Audio MP3

JW: I wonder how much that “Twitter-addicted vantage point” (and you’re not alone — I’m as bad as anyone) contributes to the romantic quality of a letter for contemporary readers and writers, regardless of the time period the letter comes from. That peeping Tom quality exists because the letter purports to be a private, one-to-one communication, but also I think because some of us so rarely communicate one-to-one in writing anymore, at least not at length. We all have email, of course, and email can be one-to-one, but when was the last time you got something substantial and personal through email? My inbox is mostly bills, reminders that I’m overdue on delivering various projects, and notifications from Twitter and Facebook (well, before I deleted my Facebook account, anyway). That’s not a question, but maybe you have a response?

HM: When I receive a physical letter in the mail, I practically come on contact. What was necessity is now fetishized. But in the age of perpetual broadcast, you are right, the romance makes sense.

There’s a bridge between the intimate and the soap box, I think. There’s spill-over. When someone wraps around my mind, they color the things I see. I often read over tweets on my timeline and know exactly who penetrated my thoughts at what moment. It’s the same with the letter poems. Sometimes the recipient is more like a lighthouse in the ocean.

There’s a lot of static in my inbox, but I cherish the conversations that play out at length. There’s a thread that’s surpassed 100 emails and I’m stuck in the depth of it. Sometimes I feel my thoughts growing stronger through letters. Attaching to values, growing roots.

I also just got a notification that says, “some guy is now following your tweets (@Hannahmiet) on Twitter.”

So there’s the dichotomy. I had to share.

JW: Speaking of dichotomies, I see from your blog that you’re working on a graduate degree in digital media / journalism. And that’s fascinating to me, because I fled the beginnings of a career in journalism just a few years ago, largely because as a profession it seemed almost wholly averse to my two favorite things: literature and technology, or, to put it another way, metaphor and progress. (Which, strangely enough, could be seen as dichotomies in and of themselves.) What’s a modern J-school like for a poet, or for someone enthusiastic about the Web?

HM: It was much different just a few years ago. It’s crazy to think about that. I saw journalism shifting at superspeed, but shifting in an uncertain direction. That excited the fuck out of me. I wanted a hand in the shifting.

My grad program – to its credit – is new media boot camp. I lose track of my friends while slicing down tracks on Final Cut Pro. But I came here to get my ass kicked. To arm myself to tell stories in every possible medium.

I don’t know about holism. Comfort, yes. Learning what works for you. Holism is something I doubt. It’s different for everyone. Until the mega gadget arrives that streamlines everything and takes over our souls and brings on the apocalypse.

I don’t see myself writing or producing hard news (for the most part) in the long run. The journalistic writing and film that inspires me rides the line between poetry and journalism – and the lines between words and multimedia. I like to write about people and places. Small things that crack open larger issues. I’m a narrative storyteller, but I’m trying to expand beyond words.

JW: Let’s talk about the larger question of dichotomies. In some ways, the whole idea of dichotomies is overplayed, especially print vs digital, a conflict that’s mostly trotted out as a justification for old-world publishers to keep sitting on their hands. (Binary thinking quickly becomes reductive.) But at the same time, lots of my interests and habits frequently seem incompatible. For instance, I know that I can read a novel on my iPhone, but that doesn’t help my reflexive habit of checking my email as soon as I feel the device in my hand. I think some of us belong to an uneasy generation of cultural hybrids, where the love of competing mindsets/tools means we always have to stop and think, even if only for a second, about which approach is best when given a particular task, desire, or inspiration. We always have to decide: is this apology better sent through a letter or email, should this particular idea belong to a poem or a blog post, do I publish my Kickstarter project as a print book or an ebook or both? And those decisions rack up cognitive dissonance (or at least they can), because they’re not just practical decisions, because the decision to publish a print book vs an ebook (for instance) has at least as much to do with whether you inherited your father’s tattered copy of The Elements of Style as it does with the percentage of Kindle ownership among your target readership, which of course ultimately makes it a much harder — a much fuzzier — decision overall. It’s not the kind of decision our parents had to make, and I don’t think it’s a decision that our grandkids will make — at least not as often.

Questions: How do you find and encourage that “spill-over” between dichotomies and competing interests? Is holism possible for us, or should we all get comfortable with fragmentation? Does this make any sense at all?

HM: Oh, you’re making perfect sense. I think we are becoming more particular creatures as our options expand. Sometimes in a way that feels manic and schizophrenic — there are many poems in Hello, Absurd World written from the chaos of choice fatigue and digital entrenchment — but often it’s as organic as shifting our habits into the space where they’re most comfortable. Not just what we read, but how and when.

I don’t know about holism. Comfort, yes. Learning what works for you. Holism is something I doubt. It’s different for everyone. Until the mega gadget arrives that streamlines everything and takes over our souls and brings on the apocalypse. I digress.

I take an aboveground train to school and also consider reading or writing on my smartphone. Instead, I live-tweet the whole damn ride. The subway is my tweeting zone. There’s always a print book in my bag, all dog-eared and ready for me while I directly quote subway preachers for The Internets. I don’t have my father’s Elements of Style but I do have a used copy, it print. I found a first edition Across the River and into the Trees in New Mexico and nearly jumped for joy. Yet I’d buy an iPad if I had the money. My habits of consumption and spit-fire-tweeting would shift accordingly, I’m sure. I don’t think that’s hypocrisy. It’s finding my comfort zone. Or to pass it to Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

And there are multitudes of options that will only continue to grow.

With monetizing, it’s a balancing act. What format will sell the most to your demographic v. what format you prefer. I’m a bookie, but I also thought that my readers, a small group of people who either know me personally or at least intimately through what I choose to share on the internet, would appreciate the tangible form as much as I do. And the spillover from the digital to the tangible, the intimacy of that. So yes, I encourage the spillover. And I contradict myself.

“Insomniac’s Inspiration”, from Hello, Absurd World
Audio MP3

JW: My last question is about doing too much. You, for instance, do too much — you’re a grad student, a frequent blogger, a journalist, a publisher, a poet, etc. And most everyone I admire these days — from Mandy Brown to Craig Mod — does the same — too much. My question is — how do you do that? How do you keep each of your interests inching along without dropping one, without going crazy? Maybe holism isn’t possible, but how do we — how do those of us who happened to be born in the age of the interest-enabling engine that is the Internet — maintain our selfhood? Or if not holism, if not selfhood, then the most basic structural integrity?

HM: Christ on a cracker: that’s a good question. I think my “selfhood” has a major (diagnosed) case of ADHD and chronic insomnia. I envision electric wires shooting out of my brain in all directions, latching on to a strand with full focus and then switching to another. The unifying factor in my work is that I want to tell stories that are true. That may not explain my compulsive urge to create a new Tumblr every month. But the storytelling urge will never go away. In my dream world, I am writing narrative magazine pieces, a newspaper column, publishing poetry, and eventually chipping away at a memoir about my brother that is made up of half verbatim conversation inter-spliced with a remembered narrative (an extended version of this story, essentially). In a dream world, I am doing “too much,” but doing so successfully. There is travel involved, sometimes. Maybe following murders around for six months in Idaho, or Iowa. I don’t know. I don’t think that these genres are mutually exclusive. There is a shitload of journalistic insight in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America.” There is a seamless literary quality to Sam Anderson’s magazine writing. Then you have David Carr, who comes out with a journalistic addiction memoir – interviewing people from his past, bravely excavating and examining his own memory in relation to theirs and then posting all the interview footage online. Is that journalism? Yes. Is it memoir? Yes. Is it a brutal stab at the truth that lies in the space between those worlds? Well, fuck, yes.

I know there is a voice that translates throughout the genres I straddle. I don’t think I’ve found it yet. But I will. That’s the secret to doing too much: saying you will, and then doing it. Which reminds me, I need to crack down on this poetry book. My aim is to be finished by the end of 2011. And so I will be. Stay posted.