Haya Pomrenze’s first collection, Hook, was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including 5AM, Lake Effect, Lalitamba, MiPOesias, Poetica and Rattle. Haya collaborates with Denise Duhamel on poems of faith and family. She is an occupational therapist who uses poetry as a healing tool with psychiatric patients. Haya considers herself the founder of the Jewhitsu poetry form. Her second book, How It’s Done, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in December.
Geosi Gyasi: You studied creative writing at Barnard College and poetry with Denise Duhamel at Florida International University. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Haya Pomrenze: I did always want to be a writer. But I felt pressured by my peers and professors to have a career that paid. Nobody I knew was studying creative writing in an MFA program. That was considered “fluff”. I pursued my master’s degree in Occupational Therapy for practical reasons and, as it turns out, I think it’s one of the more creative health field professions. I use writing as a healing tool as an occupational therapist.
Geosi Gyasi: Which living poet has been most influential to you?
Haya Pomrenze: Denise Duhamel is by far the most influential poet on my writing. When I began studying with Denise, I didn’t realize the scope of her writing. Denise’s poetry is so layered I actually visualize an image in tiered form. She has a wonderful poem about her thighs and it’s about much more than a body part. It’s a thigh layer cake, really. I have the privilege of studying with her going on over ten years and we’ve begun a series of collaborative poems.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you start a poem?
Haya Pomrenze: My poems start with ideas. I went to the park the other day with my granddaughter and I started thinking about the dynamics among mothers in the playground. It’s fascinating to see how they treat their kids and treat each other. Once I get an idea, I write a short draft in my head (I actually envision a yellow memo pad with lines in my head) and the poem really writes itself. I may do ten or more revisions but I always end up coming back to the core of the poem which is always on that yellow memo pad.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem “A Beautiful Town” is an ode written in memory of your father’s passing? How difficult was it to write this poem?
Haya Pomrenze: It really wasn’t difficult writing “A Beautiful Town.” I’ve written several poems about my father since he died and I find each one captures a specific trait or event and I often feel he’s still here. It’s comforting. My mother had the personality which overshadowed him totally. While work took him away from home a great deal, even when he was home, he was in the background. My Mom was the exclamation point and he was the parenthesis. A Beautiful Town as well as other poems honor him as the exclamation point.
Geosi Gyasi: How much of your poems are autobiographical?
Haya Pomrenze: Many of my poems have a part of myself in them. I hold by the writers’ creed to write what you know. It’s not always an actual experience. It can be an experience I imagined could have happened, would have wanted to happen. The amount of autobiography in my work ranges from a cookie crumb to an entire loaf of bread. I like that people keep guessing which poems “really happened.” I never disclose that information. It’s my role to write good poetry that is accessible to people. It’s not my job to tell them what’s real or not. That’s up to them.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that “with the exception of eating rice pudding and chocolate babka, writing poetry is the closest I’ve come to a true spiritual experience”. I am interested in the spirituality of poetry?
Haya Pomrenze: That’s an interesting question. I think writing poetry is an actual spiritual experience so I don’t define poetry as specifically spiritual. I can tell that a poem is spiritual when I have a hollow feeling in my stomach because I’ve literally held my breath. Sometimes it’s an audible gasp and if I’m in a public place, I feel foolish. I have a strong sense of a higher power and I’d like to think that I live my life in a spiritual manner. I often hear people say that they’re a practicing Jew or Catholic (I’m the former by the way). And I found that hilarious. What are we practicing? Life?
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific place(s) where you write your poems?
Haya Pomrenze: I’ve tried to create a specific writing space for years. At one point, I had 5 desks in my house, hoping that one of them would become my sacred writing space. I write in my car (at red lights), in bed at night when my mind is quiet and in coffee shops. But there’s a down side to coffee shops. I end up eavesdropping and sometimes forget the poems.
Geosi Gyasi: You teach creative writing at senior centers and substance abuse treatment programs. Does teaching have any effects on your writing?
Haya Pomrenze: Teaching has influenced my writing in two ways. I use creative writing as a therapeutic tool with my psychiatric patients. So I listen a lot of poetry. I’ve become a better reader of my poems, a more honest critic, if you will. My patients are very brave writers. There’s a sense of brutal honesty I rarely see among other writers. Sometimes I get lazy and scared and don’t take risks,. Then I’ll remember a poem from work and will indeed compare an unkempt vagina to a terrarium.
Geosi Gyasi: Your first book, “Hook” was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, 2007. Do you think you had much success with your debut?
Haya Pomrenze: I think “Hook” had a great debut. I had fun promoting it in varied venues. Many readings took place in friends’ living rooms. I did reading at charity events and often gave a percentage of my sales to the cause. I’m fortunate that the Miami, Florida bookstore, Books and Books, promotes new writers and I had a successful readings there which segued into a reading at the Miami Book Fair. I love reading and I’ve added some stand-up comedy to my routines.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of things did you write when you first started to write?
Haya Pomrenze: I started out writing short stories but my voice wasn’t authentic and was certainly forced. I wrote about family interactions, dynamics between Jewish and secular worlds and tried writing sex scenes which were horrible. I was always writing for the audience and not giving my characters their due.
Geosi Gyasi: Which poem of yours do you feel most attached to?
Haya Pomrenze: Tough question. I’d have to say “Pastels at Midlife.”. I cried when I finished it. People tear up when I read it. So here goes:
Like cups of scooped sorbet
my daughter’s bras drip
from the shower rod.
Lime, peach, pistachio:
my favorite flavors. Mouth-watering,
I watch them dry
and count my pills.
Pink for anxious, breathe breathe.
Baby blue with its name
formed into a smile , mocking.
Peach for fear of flying—
or of living. I clothe myself
in black. On good days,
vibrant finery, lace and silks
of scarlet, magenta and sapphire.
The click of my pillbox comforts
even as I feel deceived
embracing pastels at midlife.
Geosi Gyasi: Permit me to ask a typical Geosi Reads question. Does writing pay the bills?
Haya Pomrenze: I’m fortunate. Writing does not pay the bills. It might pay for several pairs of shoes for my overflowing closet. I’m actually surprised I haven’t written more about shoes.
Geosi Gyasi: Would you describe yourself as a better writer than when you first started to write?
Haya Pomrenze: I think I’m a more experienced writer but I have to work harder to be good. I miss those days when I didn’t know how much better my poetry could be, how developed. And I can’t get back those days. I can’t deceive myself into thinking a poem is done when it needs time to rest, percolate and then be tweaked.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any weakness as a writer?
Haya Pomrenze: Just one?! I’m not disciplined. I get distracted by my life and I’m grateful that it’s rich and multi-faceted. I’ll go through bursts of writing. I have a suitcase full of poems I’ve started, lists of ideas, poems that need editing and I have a hard time getting to them.
Geosi Gyasi: I understand that you’re a second degree black belt in Karate? Could you tell us a bit about Karate?
Haya Pomrenze: I began karate eighteen years ago. I’d describe myself physically as a Rubenesque woman and I had tried every type of exercise program known to mankind. A friend suggested karate. It has changed my life. It’s truly a physical, emotional and spiritual work-out. As trite as it sounds, it becomes a template for living. I feel more confident about my body and see its strength instead of flaws. Wow – that sounds a lot like my growth as a poet!