Author and visual artist Cathryn Hankla has published more than a dozen books of fiction and poetry. With deep roots in Southwest Virginia, she is chair of the English department and professor of English in the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University. She’s the poetry editor of The Hollins Critic, and recently, she led the catalog of a new poetry press.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Great Bear is among the first works published by Groundhog Poetry Press, LLC, R.H.W. Dillard’s new endeavor. What’s the experience been like working with a new (and local!) press?
Cathryn Hankla: Great Bear was THE first finished product before the official launch with four additional titles. It took us about a year working on the book after the press itself was already a legal entity. Starting a press is more complicated, even, than collaborating with an author to prepare a print ready book; the publisher has to set up a company, contracts, partner with distributors, be granted library of congress numbers, initiate a web identity, which means a logo, and what have you. I think Richard enjoys each part of it, but perhaps the design part is his favorite area. With GB he was testing out a lot of comprehensive designs, because he wanted all of the books to have a cohesive identity while being unique.
Richard was great to work with, as you would expect from a renowned professor; he exercised extreme patience while I discovered things (over and over) I wanted to refine. He’s done this with all of the poets by turns. Isn’t that what every writer wants from a publisher? He was learning the ins and outs of his publishing program while I was thinking up things to change in the poems.
I think it’s very cool that Roanoke has a poetry press.
BCR: Definitely. And you’re a great author for the launch. You’re prolific and have published, I believe, nine collections of poetry. How was Great Bear new territory for you?
CH: I’m sure you noticed that the title poem is very long! There are also some epigrammatic poems in the book and even a couple of prose poems. I like to mix it up. I’ll tell you something that’s unique to this book: sections. I’ve never used sections in any other poetry collections. There’s a longer poem in each section. Longer poem, shorter poem, in between poem: Pacing is difficult in a book of poems, but I made it a particular challenge in this one.
BCR: I did notice that title poem length, but the placement made it feel integral and slightly culminating. And the section titles give the collection additional clarity of form. I have a theory about well-structured works; somewhere near their center rests an essence. Here, near the middle of the poem at the center of pages is the line, “Even the dead can be consolation / after love.” As you reflect on the collection, where do you find its center?
CH: I think you answered your own question!
BCR: Oh, no. I’m that interviewer I hate! But that must just point to how well formed this collection is. Here’s a better question: where can we buy it?
CH: We are pretty much in a bookstore free zone here as far as independent or university press literature is concerned. I suggest going online to Groundhog Poetry Press and from there you’ll be directed to SPD (Small Press Distributors). You can also find my titles on Amazon. It would be wonderful if one of the chain stores started carrying books by local presses and authors. Unfortunately, even Hollins has gotten out of the business of book selling except for campus events.
There’s certainly room for BOOK CITY to sell books!
BCR: Yes! One with a community sense, and a place for signings and readings. You’ve read from Great Bear in a variety of settings. What are your readers and those new to your work most responding to?
CH: I will know more about that question as I travel more this summer and fall, but so far it’s the title poem, especially other professors and teachers have embraced it as true to their work and lives; and some of the very short poems have been favorites, too. One reader said she laughed out loud when she read “Root Vegetable.” She got it. Some appreciate the poems about death or grief because they are dealing with that in their own lives or know that territory from experience. The themes are universal ones: love, loss, the vanishing natural world, family, friends, and art.
BCR: Those are definitely there. I also found a pleasant rootlessness in the work. It encompasses travels to the Western U.S. and the Mediterranean with poems centered in life and intimate relationships at home. Yet there’s a strong continuity throughout your explorations. Over what period did you write the poems?
CH: I selected poems that I thought worked well together, some of which had been in an earlier version of the book, and was mindful of combining textures of worlds and layers of emotional experience. I’m not sure when I started the earliest poem or finished the latest; I worked intensively during my sabbatical in 2007-8 but I was also working on a collection of stories. The Malta cycle was drafted in June 2009 during a residency there; but some poems written during that period also turn up in Galaxies. Great Bear and Galaxies, another poetry book that was released this spring from Mercer University Press, were written nearly concurrently. I’ve worked along on these two poetry projects, the stories in Fortune Teller Miracle Fish (2011), and some of the essays I talk about below, since 2004 when Last Exposures came out, but a few things exist in much earlier versions.
I work along on multiple things and eventually but not always there’s a resulting book. A lot of my time is obviously broken up by my duties as a professor, which might be the explanation of why I shift gears a lot, jumping from project to project in fits and starts until one takes hold or winds up.
BCR: You mentioned vanishing as a theme, and I really felt that. I wrote ephemeral a couple of times in the margin. Skies shift. A still life is anything but still. Constellations fade. Preserved peaches prove not to be. Attempts to photographically freeze time somehow don’t do the trick. And while there’s loss throughout the work, I also found hopefulness. What helps you in approaching change in the world around us?
CH: I love all of those details you picked out. Thanks for being such a close reader. I think there’s a kind of hope and faith in closely reading the world, even as it shifts and transforms, in observation, listening. We tend to love what we wait to understand, what we give many chances to, study openly, return to, abide with. I tend to have extended relationships with people and places and things—not because I can’t let go but because I keep finding more mystery to understand and thus more to love, study, exchange, give.
BCR: That’s really lovely. I can think of half a dozen friends I want to share that thought with. And while we’re sharing, you’re a visual artist as well as a writer of poems, short stories, novels, and essays. If you were to pair one of your works in another medium or genre with this collection, what would it be?
CH: There’s a painting of mine entitled “Body and Soul.” Long before we had the “Save the Next Girl” movement, I saved an article about a murdered girl who was found wearing a tee-shirt that said “Body and Soul.” I must have saved that yellow newsprint for twenty years before incorporating some of the words into a painting.
There are also several essays in my forthcoming book that live alongside, especially ones that mention spiritual moorings, the home front, my mother, family and friends.
Bear also pairs well with a fine cabernet, or perhaps with Galaxies.
BCR: I think I had a scotch with Bear, but I’ll I’ll try the cab with the Galaxies. Find the forthcoming Lost Places: on losing and finding home and the poetry collection Galaxies at Mercer University Press. ★