Hannah Faith Notess attended Westmond College, majored in English and studied with the poets Paul Willis and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, among others. She also attended Indiana University, earned an MFA in Creative Writing, helped edit Indiana Review, studied with the poets Maura Stanton, Ross Gay, and Maurice Manning, and the essayist Scott Russell Sanders, among others. She is currently the managing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine by day and writes other stuff by night. Her first full-length collection of poems, “The Multitude” won the Michael Waters Poetry Prize.
Geosi Gyasi: Permit me to ask a typical Geosi Reads question. I am keen on learning why you were given the name Faith? Do you think the name put any pressure on you to live a perfervid religious life?
Hannah Faith Notess: I doubt it. I am a little bit of a contrarian, so if I did feel pressure to be a religious person because of my name, I would have likely rebelled against it. As a poet, though, I think my parents did a nice job naming me because “Hannah” and “Faith” sound good together. I thought a lot about the consonant and vowel sounds of different names when my husband and I were choosing a name for our first child. I pay lots of attention to the sounds of words; that’s one of the things I love about poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: As a writer and editor, how do you blend the two professions?
Hannah Faith Notess: For my day job, I am the managing editor for a university magazine, Response, at Seattle Pacific University. Most of my writing and editing at work is in the field of journalism or public relations, so it is less personal. However, it’s also fascinating and sometimes inspires my creative work. For instance, in 2012, I interviewed an astronomer and we spoke about the exoplanets that are being discovered in our universe. That indirectly inspired a (still unfinished) poem.
Outside of work, I mostly write poems. I have done some additional writing and editing in the past, for instance, I edited a collection of personal essays in 2009, and I write occasional articles on books, art, and culture. But right now I try to devote the most time to poetry, because it brings me the most joy.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you bother to give your work to an editor or you do your own editing?
Hannah Faith Notess: Absolutely, I love to work with an editor whenever possible. I have worked with wonderful editors, and I have always found that a good editor can provide help with nearly any kind of writing. A good editor develops a theory of a writer’s intent and honors it. A good editor develops a rationale for why and how to suggest changes. At the same time, an editor puts the reader’s needs above the writer’s needs. So a good editor has to point out to a writer anything that might cause a reader confusion.
Geosi Gyasi: You wrote your first poem in the eighth grade. Could you tell us what this poem was about? Was it published?
Hannah Faith Notess: It was a lengthy tale (in rhymed quatrains) of a girl who spent time sitting in a tree and imagining things. Though it was not published, I did write it out neatly in my notebook with a set of colored markers, writing each stanza in a different color. So it looked very pretty. And I may have decorated the notebook with some sparkly stickers.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your life in Westmont College and how you ended up majoring in English?
Hannah Faith Notess: I have always been interested in writing and literature, and the English professors at Westmont College shared and fostered that love. Two of my professors were poets themselves, and they took time to read and critique the poems I gave them outside of class. Also, during my time at Westmont, I studied as an exchange student at Daystar University in Kenya, and I took a class in African literature. So I am very excited to be doing an interview with a blog that highlights so many excellent African writers! Thank you for compiling these interviews.
Geosi Gyasi: Which living poets have had the most profound influence on your writing?
Hannah Faith Notess: Well, many of the poets I love best are dead, so I want to cheat and name a few dead poets first — Yehuda Amichai, Elizabeth Bishop, C.P. Cavafy, Frank O’Hara, and Wislawa Szymborska. As for living poets whose work I adore — B.H. Fairchild, Lucia Perillo, Terrance Hayes, Mark Doty, and Erika Meitner are a few.
Geosi Gyasi: You earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. What influence did your studies have on your writing?
Hannah Faith Notess: Spending three years earning an MFA at Indiana was a wonderful experience. I read deeply and wrote so much. I tried styles of writing and experimented with forms — I had never even heard of a prose poem before! So I had a lot to learn. It opened all kinds of artistic doors.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any community of poets?
Hannah Faith Notess: Yes, I have an occasional writing group here in Seattle with a handful of other poets, and we meet every so often to talk about poetry and life. Seattle is a city full of people who both work hard and have unusual hobbies (climbing mountains, dressing up as anime characters, etc.) so I like to think our little group fits right into our wonderful, quirky city.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem “A Guide for Spiritual Tourists?”
Hannah Faith Notess: In 2004-2005, I spent some time traveling in India, using, as many young tourists from around the world do, the Lonely Planet India guidebook to navigate and choose hotels, restaurants, and cultural sites to visit. I began thinking about the few Hindi phrases in the back of the book, juxtaposed against the sacred sites of various faiths that we had visited as tourists — the dissonance between what the phrasebook says and the wordless experience struck me as funny, so this poem was born.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “For Money” was solely written in the first person. Do you write mostly out of personal experience?
Hannah Faith Notess: I am glad you asked, and the answer is definitely “no.” I do not think of the first-person “I” in any given poem as someone identical to myself, and I allow it to shift from poem. I incorporate experiences I’ve had into my poems, but I fictionalize freely and make things up. For instance, in this particular poem, I did have a summer job working on a farm for several months and I spent about a month picking blueberries. But other jobs in the poem are not things I have done. In drafts of the poem, I experimented with writing the poem in first person, second person, and third person. After trying all three, I settled on first person, imagining that if someone were reading the poem out loud, they could speak as though they were one person – or a chorus of people – who had done all those things.
Geosi Gyasi: Your book, Ghost House was the winner of the 2013 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. My question is: do you believe in the existence of ghosts?
Hannah Faith Notess: I should note that the title, Ghost House, in part, refers to the Mario series of video games. Ghost House levels first appeared in the Mario universe in the game Super Mario World in 1990. In those levels, the video game character Mario must enter the ghost house alone, without his friend Yoshi the dinosaur, and he is chased by “Boos” and other ghosts that he cannot kill, but must run to outwit them and survive. This scenario reminded me of many mythical stories in which a hero travels to the underworld on some sort of quest, such as Dante’s Inferno or the myth of Orpheus. I was intrigued by the idea that a videogame could tap into a deep-rooted mythos, and I wanted to explore that through poetry. As for the existence of “real” ghosts, I’m certainly open to the possibility, but don’t feel strongly about it. I am most interested, as a writer, in ghosts as they appear in our myths, metaphors, stories, poems, and dreams.