An Interview with K. A. Hays
By Connor Small
Stadler Center Intern, Spring '13
Connor Small: As a former student of yours, I'm interested in what you get out of teaching, especially teaching poetry. What do student/teacher relationships mean to you, are there any special instances that stand out in your mind, and what do you think is the value of teaching poetry?
Katie Hays: I think I'll begin with your question on the value of teaching poetry. Poetry is, to paraphrase one of Emily Dickinson's letters, a way to take the top of the head off. Poetry makes the world fresh and raw and strange by finding new language for it. It lets us appreciate details that would otherwise go overlooked, unsung, and therefore unfelt. If poetry gives us all this, and yet many students feel they can't or don't want to read it, then that alone is an argument for teaching it. If a student is wondering how being able to read and write poetry will possibly help "in the real world," by which I think one often means "when pursuing a career," I'd answer that being able to use language imaginatively and cogently, and to use metaphor well, helps a person to succeed in a variety of fields, from medicine to engineering and beyond. When we talk about economics, we say "the stock market crashed" and "we're approaching the fiscal cliff." Those expressions, familiar though they are now, are the children of innovative, poetic thought. We use poetic techniques to communicate difficult ideas. To teach poetry is, in part, to teach some of our most vital and basic skills: communication, innovation, and empathy.
And finally, from a selfish standpoint, discussing poetry in the classroom with talented, thoughtful students, who often see something in a poem that I have missed despite many readings, gives me energy that goes into my own work and reading. Often, when I'm working with a student on his or her own writing—trying to find fresh words for an old subject, for instance—I'll return to my own drafts and see them in a new way.
One of the most gratifying elements of teaching, which I'm only now coming to discover, is the way that my relationships with students unfold not just over the course of a semester but over the course of years. Now that I've been teaching at Bucknell for six years, I'm in touch with several students who have gone out into that "real world" alluded to above. It's rewarding to see a student's promise when she or he is handing in work in my class, and then to witness how that promise develops, and the opportunities that that student finds, in the ensuing years. To bring you back into this, Connor, I saw your skill and ambition and promise as a writer when you showed up in my ENGL 106 class last spring—and now, a year later, I have the pleasure of this interview with you during your Stadler Center internship. I still occasionally receive new work from students of years ago—students who are writing in graduate programs now, or writing beyond graduate school—and it's satisfying to feel that I played a part in encouraging those students and in helping them toward where they wanted to go.
CS: Now that you've published two books of poetry, can you elaborate on your writing process? Which aspects of writing come easily to you, and which challenge you more, and did your writing process differ from your first and second collection?
KH: My writing process is generally like this: at any time during the day, I jot down scraps, a line, a word or two, an image or a thought. I think of these notes as seeds for poems. Each morning, I work for as much time as I have—which some days is as few as thirty minutes, but can be much longer—on a new draft, or on revising a poem already drafted. My drafts are often weedy at first: overwritten or clunky or unmusical. Eventually, after many drafts, I'll feel a poem is ready to be typed. And from there follows more revision. As my teachers conveyed to me, and as I now convey to my students, revision is where the real writing takes place. That was as true when drafting my first book as it was for my second, and is now.
CS: Bucknell is often described as being in a "bubble." As a former Bucknellian yourself, how would you describe the writing culture at Bucknell, both from the perspective of a student and as a professor?
KH: Ah, the bubble! There's another example of a metaphor we use to communicate an idea! Well, first, I'm convinced that the "bubble" has much more to do with the dominant social norms at Bucknell than with Bucknell's intellectual culture. Bucknell is a relatively small, undergraduate-centered school, and yet we have the resources for writers that many creative writing graduate programs lack: for-credit internships at a nationally distributed literary magazine; a major literary arts center with fellowships and residencies that bring emerging writers into regular contact with undergraduates; a reading series that brings to campus some of the most well-loved writers of our time; and an all-expenses-paid summer program that allows twelve undergraduate poets to work with Bucknell poets and visiting poets from around the country. To find and participate in the writing culture at Bucknell is to move well beyond the "Bucknell bubble."
I was a first-year student at Bucknell in 1999. I would never have predicted, in those early months of my first year, as I witnessed the "dominant social norms" of campus at that time, and worried that this was the "wrong" school for me, that there was no place for me here, that ten years from then I would be back here, as a member of the English department faculty. That faculty—both from the English department and other departments in the Arts and Sciences, including Philosophy, French, and Physics—along with the programming at the Stadler Center for Poetry, were the reasons I stayed, and thrived, as an undergraduate at Bucknell. I'm happy to be back here now, contributing to those other communities—the intellectual and artistic communities—that nourish so many talented current Bucknell students, and that stay with them long after they go.
K. A. Hays will present a reading of her poetry at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 5, in Bucknell Hall. She will share the reading with poet Tyler Mills and memoirist Kimi Cunningham Grant. This and all Stadler Center Writers Series Events are free and open to the public.