Hilda Raz: New Voices Interview

Hilda Raz is a former editor of Prairie Schooner and was named the first Luschei Professor and Editor in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is the poetry editor for the University of New Mexico Press, ABQ (in)Print, and Bosque Press. She is the author or editor of fourteen books, including List and Story. Raz has several books coming out in April: Letter from a Place I’ve Never Been (Nebraska), Trans (Nebraska), All Odd and Splendid (Nebraska), Divine Honors (Nebraska), What Happens (Nebraska), and a new edition of What Becomes You (Nebraska).

The transcript below is from an interview conducted by the staff of New Voices, Monet Calhoun & Duana Parker, and their advisor, Dr. Biljana D. Obradović, published in 2020-21 New Voices, Xavier University of Louisiana’s student literary journal.

Interview with Hilda Raz

Monet Calhoun: When did you start writing? How has your writing changed since then? 

Hilda Raz: I’ve been writing since I was in my teens. My writing has changed according to my teachers’ and students’ examples. And the examples of poets and writers I read and teach and meet.

MC: How does your work as an editor influence your poetry? 

HR: The writers I’ve edited and published and taught have changed my poetry and ways of thinking about poetry and continue to do so!

MC: Who were you influenced by? How has Robert Lowell’s teaching affected your poetry? 

HR: That list is longer than my books! I love the work of the many poets I publish in my role as editor of the University of New Mexico Press’s poetry series and have published in Prairie Schooner during my tenure as editor.

And Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, the many writers whose work I’ve used as epigraphs, Kevin Prufer, Carole Simmons Oles, Jake Skeets, Proust, Robin Becker, Grace Bauer, your own brilliant teacher, Dr. Obradovic, who was my student and whose wonderful poems and translations wedge open the world. And many, many more. 

About Robert Lowell: to be taught by a major figure in their field is a formative experience. Lowell is someone I will not forget in my lifetime. He was a quietly supportive and brilliant presence in the classroom, a great teacher. He was writing the poems in Life Studies, a book that changed the face of poetry in the 20th century and beyond, at the time I was his student. And he brought his poems to the classroom. 

Duana Parker: Does narrative poetry about your personal life appeal to you for writing?  

HR: Not so much. I’ve already lived it. But some of my experiences have shocked me awake and they may find their way into a net of fabricated details in order to make a poem or essay.

MC: The title poem, “List and Story,” is very emotional. Is it hard to write about heavy emotions? 

HR: Life brings everyone the same kinds of emotions. Living is hard. Writing can be. But both living and writing can be joyous. Putting words to emotions must be like putting notes into patterns. The sounds support and reveal/ conceal the emotions.

MC: You change the form of your poems a lot in this book. Do you know the form initially or does it change as you write?

HR: Another great question! Sometimes I want to play in form. The words then fill in the lines and let me approach difficult subjects. Sometimes the form appears in the writing and all I have to do is clean up the lines a little. 

MC: What role does visual art play in your poetry?

HR: All the senses are entries to poems. And I love ekphrastic poems, both to write and to read. (I love collaborations of every kind. This one we’re in now is great for me! Thanks.)

MC: A lot of poems in List and Story feature epigraphs which add another element to the poems. What role do epigraphs play in your poems and why are they frequently used?  Do they give more context to your poems and are therefore necessary?

HR: You’ve got it! I write the poem and then may find the epigraph. And the epigraph is always for context. For example, “Women and Poetry,” the name of a seminar I taught for several years over ten years ago, made me write that poem. But I found the epigraph just last year, decades later, when I was reading a marvelous novel. The author was writing from similar assumptions and experience for her protagonist.

DP: It seems that weather and seasons play a huge role in your poems; why?

HR: Context. Setting. And the pleasures/ terror of the senses in a changing world of seasons and weather. The body of the earth.

DP: Many of your poems are centered around women; was that the specific audience you wanted to attract?

HR: No. But I’m a woman and located in a woman’s body. I read and appreciate poems by men, etc. I don’t like matchy/ matchy in style and I don’t assume my readers are like me. I want to be like them in my writing.

DP: In the poem, “Women’s Lib,” you write about detailed sexual advances, when you say, “We were making love in the weeds, slamming the daisies flat…” Were you concerned that it would make your readers uncomfortable? 

HR: Um, depends on whether human sexuality makes you, as a reader, uncomfortable. Does it? 

DP: A father figure is mentioned more than once in your poems, does the relationship between you and your father have an impact on your writing? 

HR: No.  He was a truck driver and a businessman without much use for writing. But he was a loving father and all relationships of any depth change us, don’t they?

DP: Can you describe the experience of writing What Becomes You with your son? 

HR: Wow. Well, I write and publish essays, but I’m a poet. And Aaron and I knew that we had to write a book together but not a book of poems. The subject of sex change needed a conversation and we thought a conversation between mother and son would get to the heart of a lot of things; and we decided that essays would be the best, most flexible form in which to have that conversation. 

What Becomes You is about to be re-published by the University of Nebraska Press with a new Readers’ Guide that Aaron just wrote. And life has changed some of the ways people think about trans experience.  It was his letter to me that made us write What Becomes You together, to understand each other better and open our lives.

MC: What is your next writing project? 

HR: A big book called Letter from a Place I’ve Never Been: New and Collected Poems, 1986-2020 will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in April 2021. I’m excited and pleased. Beyond that, I’ve begun to write the poems for my next single collection. It doesn’t have a title yet but the poems reflect the changing times. And I live in New Mexico now, a very different landscape. So you’ll see a lot of the high desert and the mountains. And the pandemic and political change and challenge and BLM and our lives as diverse people assailed by factionalism.    

Thanks, Duana Parker and Monet Calhoun for asking these great questions!

Hilda Raz’s books discussed here are now available for purchase.

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