S.H. Lohmann has her MFA from Hollins University, where she was a Graduate Assistant and Assistant Editor of the Hollins Critic. Her work has been honored with the 2012 Melanie Hook Rice Award in Narrative Nonfiction, the 2011 Gertrude Claytor Poetry prize from the Academy of American Poets, and a 2010 artist grant from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014, the Indiana Review, Rattle, and Third Coast. She lives in Roanoke, Virginia, where she runs programming for English literacy education to adult immigrants and refugees at Blue Ridge Literacy. She is from Texas.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “What It Means to be Taken”?
S.H. Lohmann: The poem was motivated from two different goals: the first to write a sestina that was a bit sneaky, and not immediately recognizable; the second to tell a story. Storytelling isn’t often the purpose of poetry, and trying to stay true to the form while still getting to the heart of the story meant that at some point, language would have to trump plot, and it did. I think that’s why it ultimately wasn’t a prose piece, despite a deliberate attention to plot: in the end, the language, and the turns of the words through repetition and varying ripples of meaning, were what mattered.
Geosi Gyasi: Roughly how long does it take you to write a single poem?
S.H. Lohmann: For a long time, the rule was that the poem had to be produced in a single sitting, usually somewhere between one and 6 hours. I’ve since eased off this sort of manic production style, but I haven’t strayed too far– I’m what my MFA program describes as a “binge writer,” someone who rarely maintains a regular practice or routine but rather goes through stretches of not writing and then a very intense period of non-stop work. I have a full-time job, so the writing bursts tend to be in the morning, and I will usually produce a draft of a poem within an hour or two. The tinkering then, is constant.
Geosi Gyasi: Where and when do you often write?
S.H. Lohmann: I am an avid journaler and always have been– my office at home is lined with notebooks from as far back as 1997, when I was eleven. My journals are filled with bulky notes working out what I’m reading, feeling, and stressing about, and rarely figure directly into my poetry. But I suspect that they make up a good deal of the invisible force that will suddenly make the writing of a poem feel quite urgent. I write poems on a computer, usually my laptop, often hunched in the early morning and making me late for work. I also will sometimes write on my work computer, which George Saunders gave me permission to do. And recently, I “wrote” a new poem by voice memo in the middle of a run, which was very strange.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a formal education in writing?
S.H. Lohmann: I have a bachelor’s in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from Hollins University.
Geosi Gyasi: If there is one main reason why you write, what is it?
S.H. Lohmann: This is a question I ask myself all the time. There is no doubt that I feel endlessly compelled to do it, though I go through seasons of writing and not, sometimes for many months. I don’t think I write with autonomous motives, or I might be only a diarist. It seems hugely important for the inclination to put words into a physical space of permanence to consider a reader. A longing to communicate something, maybe, though what exactly I don’t know. Something essential rather than specific. I think that’s the journey.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you begin to write?
S.H. Lohmann: My first memory of poetry-making is from middle school, and it was in a grimy notebook with a lot of ballpoint doodles of moody girls wearing chokers. It involved some metaphor of life as “my song.” I read it to my mother while she was cooking dinner, and a very awkward silence followed. I wrote a lot of bad imitations of e.e. cummings poems in high school too– blindly copying the spacing and egregiously abusing punctuation. It wasn’t until college that I studied it formally.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important poem you’ve ever written?
S.H. Lohmann: I have absolutely no idea. I have to consider what “importance” is and how to measure it in the hundreds of poems I have on my hard drive. I have a number of poems that come to mind when I think of the poems that did what they were meant to do very well, or the ones that felt most accurately to hit the mark for which they aimed. Then there are the poems that felt the most authentic, and those that were among the first that l could show a workshop unembarrassed. Most of my work is considering my family’s histories, and some of those poems have had to balance delicately on the line between truth and lore, with the judgement lying not in the phantom reader but with my mother. I know while some writers maintain a divine right to their subjects and feel no real concern for the reactions of those whose stories might be explored, but I can’t say that I would be a good poet if I didn’t consider the emotional stakes entirely. It matters very much to me that there is at least a reckoning of these stakes, and that I take a good look at my motivations. For this reason, I think I can say that the six poems about my parents that I sent to my mother are the most important I have written. My mother read them, and didn’t speak to me for some time, and then said “It was like getting a kick in the gut. But it’s your story too.” For my mother to give me that permission meant to me that I was able to write about this story with some integrity, rather than as only a vulture.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you plot out your work before you write?
S.H. Lohmann: Never.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your audience?
S.H. Lohmann: I don’t know– readers of poetry, I hope! And perhaps my peers. I think a lot about how, thanks to social media, people who might never pick up a literary magazine on their own might click on a website link just because they know me, and see that I am excited about it. That’s interesting to wonder, when so many of my readers are only other writers, and people who have studied with me. To imagine those who have no formal background in poetry reading the work makes me hopeful.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about subject matter when you write?
S.H. Lohmann: Yes, deeply. I write about my family history, specifically my father’s death from AIDS and the many layers of events leading up to and after the fact. He was a Chilean immigrant and I have spent much time tracing back those roots as well, even traveling through the country in 2009 to meet his favorite cousin and see where he came from. It’s a funny thing, the way our own histories can be so fascinating, that question of where did I come as loud and its quieter counterpart, “Where am I going?” It’s a bit of a cliche maybe to be a poet fascinated with mortality but there you have it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see any connection between reading and writing?
S.H. Lohmann: I can’t remember who said that you should be careful who you read because they will start writing in your work but it is a very accurate observation for me! And the funny thing is that I read quite a lot of fiction, though I can’t write the stuff to save my life. But I do look at my poems with a narrative arc that is maybe not as common a concern for some poets who read only poetry, or for those poets who can work microscopically. I think I watch too many movies too, and I have a keen awareness of revelation and scope that comes from a filmmaker’s aesthetic.
Geosi Gyasi: What else do you do apart from writing?
S.H. Lohmann: I am a program manager for an adult literacy nonprofit, specializing in refugee and immigrant English classes. I also make art, cook, and photograph.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered a writer’s block?
S.H. Lohmann: I think of it more as being out of season and trying to garden. But yes, of course.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think inspiration matters a lot to the writer?
S.H. Lohmann: I struggle a little with the romantic terminology that blankets poetry, of a “muse” and “passion” and all that. But I think when it comes to the root of the meaning of the word, of an idea having divine or unidentifiable roots, then yes, I think it matters very much. Art is made from a place of obsession, be it with an idea, a process, or the self. Inspiration is the initial seed of obsession, of the continuous turning over a thing in the mind until you must do something with it. When I go through the seasons of not writing, I think it’s because I am gathering these seeds, waiting for something to grow.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?
S.H. Lohmann: Both, though the notebook is more of a kinesthetic activity and less so the actual poetry. I just like the feel of a good pen in my hand.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read lots of poetry?
S.H. Lohmann: No, actually. I flit around books but have only read a few poetry books straight through: Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies, and Stacey Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song. Otherwise, I read poems singularly and slowly. Sometimes I will read an entire literary magazine front to back at high speed, almost impatiently, and go back later to whatever stuck out to me. I read mostly fiction, though my favorite kind of fiction is that by writers of poetry, of whom, happily, there are many. I also love food writers for their attention to textures, and would call Tamar Adler one of my favorite poets without hesitation.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been happy as a writer?
S.H. Lohmann: Yes.
Geosi Gyasi: Can you describe your voice as a writer?
S.H. Lohmann: I know it exists only because a friend who has been reading my work for years had come across a poem of mine somewhere without attribution and knew immediately it was mine. I have a kind of meandering voice, one that will spiral out and wonder, and I think a lot about speed and sentence structure which I think is fairly apparent. I think there is also a kind of arsenal I’ve collected of favorite words that, even as I stray from them, I somehow seem to remain bound. I like to find a good economy of drama and quiet, and there is a kind of rhythmic force to which I feel quite loyal, even if I can’t define it formally. I have been working on a book that includes two voices going back and forth between poems, and though I think that I have been able to distinguish one from the other with various devices, the “voice” is still utterly mine: a little chatty, prone to listing, with a strong emotional bent. I am also very concerned with meat and the body.
Geosi Gyasi: Which sort of books interests you as a writer?
S.H. Lohmann: I love books that are made of many individual parts– novels in stories, especially. Books told in multiple voices, are especially fascinating. While working on this one project of two voices, I have been trying to decide whether it is a single poem or not, and what makes a book-length poem as opposed to a sequence or a collection, especially when I imagine books that live so happily in that hybrid space of smaller complete pieces making up the larger whole. Books that have been supremely influential for me are William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Sandra Cisneros’ House On Mango Street, Charles Wright’s Little Foot, Stacey Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Some theories claim that multivocality makes a novel, but I find that all of these works were one genre or the other to me at various times. There is poetry in all of them, and a deliberation of structure and trajectory. I’m a poor map maker, but I am certainly mapping something with my work, learning slowly from these texts. I think there is a fair amount of negative capability in my book interests, and in finding those who can transcend their confines well.
Food writers who have fascinated me as well are Tamar Adler, Molly Wisenberg, and of course MFK Fisher. The ability to write a cookbook that reads as literature is nothing short of magic.
Geosi Gyasi: Do your contemporaries interest you as a writer?
S.H. Lohmann: Oh yes. I had the great fortune of studying with a number of peer writers of whose work I have tremendous faith and awe: keep an eye out for Annie Mountcastle, Eric Thompson, and Mary Catherine Curley. I am excited about the work I am seeing published now, but I do feel particularly invested in the people of my little writing community. The writers I studied with will be my peers for life, and whether we are actively engaging in a workshop or simply congratulating one another on a publication from afar, we get to weigh the measure of this journey together. It feels very important to keep supportive roots on something that is so often an isolating and humbling experience.
Also, I am very competitive, so it is useful that I respect my contemporaries so much– keeps me on my game.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of the future of poetry in general?
S.H. Lohmann: Poetry (or any other kind of art) has existed for thousands of years, persisting through superficial challenges and adapting to suit the needs of the people who make it without much heed to those who claim, continually, that it has died. It will continue to do so.