Heather Derr-Smith is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of three books of poetry, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, Editor’s Choice Award 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, Editor’s Choice Award, 2008) and Tongue Screw (Spark Wheel Press, 2016). The title Tongue Screw comes from a medieval torture device used to silence women as they were being lead to execution, and the poems in that volume deal with both childhood sexual abuse and rape. Her fourth collection, Thrust, won the Lexi Ruditnsky at Persea Books and will be published in 2017.
THE FEM: Your poems are filled with religious references, and it often feels like there’s a very dangerous, menacing spiritual force waiting to be unleashed. In “Tremble”, you write, “The San Gabriels rise up, fire out-flashing our longing for everything / everything in this world we want and ace and hunger for and cannot hold, / like God undressing before Mary. / If Joseph had seen it, he’d have cut off his hands.” Could you talk a little bit about the influence of spirituality on your work?
HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I was raised in a very conservative evangelical home. My biological father and my mom were both heavily steeped in the religious fervor of the early 60’s Billy Graham revival movement. My dad was at seminary. My mother kind of had this split self, both a Braniff Girl and very cosmopolitan, but also deeply religious and committed to this movement that would become the Moral Majority of the 80’s. My dad’s family’s heritage though was Mennonite and Brethren, a very different kind of culture from evangelical culture, apollitical, pacifist, and strongly attached to the land and after he disappeared from my life and the subsequent years of displacement and trauma, I later joined the Mennonite church as a way of reconnecting with him and claiming a sense of rootedness. I found healing in that community. I did eventually heal out of the church and am no longer a practicing believer, but I do still feel drawn to the idea of God and I’m very moved especially by worship and praise, just that stance of openness to revelation or what’s divine even in the midst of suffering and brokenness. I suppose it’s a sense of grace that I love. The best of religion or spirituality allows one to rest in the question and mystery. The worst, of course, demands allegiance to dogmatic answers.
That sense of a menacing presence comes from several different threads—or is a tap into several different currents. I was told by my stepfather that I was born bad, evil. I was warned by my mother that my behavior (rebellion, independence, anger) would open up the door to the Occult. There was always the threat of demonic influence and as the scapegoat in a abusive home, I felt keenly that I was the gateway for that. I fought back against my stepfather’s misogyny and my family’s values, so I was a trouble-maker and an outsider in that system. There was always the threat of violence, whether it was psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual every single day of my youth. I lived hyper vigilantly, always ready to fight or to claim my ground.
I grew up with the sawdust trail of revivals. The constant paranoia that one was not really saved. The threat of hell or of demonic influence, especially the fear of the occult that was rampant in the south in the 80’s.
I think there’s a powerful morality and spirituality both in revolt and defiance. I believe in that. I found what was beautiful in the world and what was worth living fully into through that stance.It’s very important to me whenever I am writing about beauty to include the darkness. It feels like an important act of witness. I can’t forget what is brutal and violent, because it would feel like a kind of dishonoring and denial of human experience. That’s what I hated about the religious thought I grew up with, that kind of magical thinking that erased the complexity of being human. It felt really dehumanizing.
THE FEM: The natural world is all over your poetry, and it’s often imbued with sexuality as it is in Neruda’s work. I notice you mention him in your poem “Backfire”. Is he an influence on your writing?
HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I do love Neruda, and he was an early influence. I’ve always been drawn to mysticism, probably as a way of synthesizing the religious indoctrination I had as a child with my own tendency to rebel. Mysticism weaves the religious and communal with the individual pursuit or actuation of the self together in powerful ways. I say mysticism, because I see in Neruda a fervency in his politics and morality that feels religious and communal, but also this ardor and anguish of the self losing itself in love and rediscovering itself made larger through that loss. So, to me Neruda is mystical.
It’s very important to me whenever I am writing about beauty to include the darkness. It feels like an important act of witness. I can’t forget what is brutal and violent, because it would feel like a kind of dishonoring and denial of human experience.
I do find revelation and joy in nature. I always love to be walking in the prairies or the woods. I want to know the local flora and fauna and the names for everything that grows in a particular place, the chaparral in the mountains around Los Angeles, the magpies and Lime trees of Sarajevo, the prairie compass in Iowa. I suppose that the way I fall in love with people, really easily and often, is also a way I engage with the landscape. I always think in most places where I find myself wandering that this could be home, I could make my home here. Ultimately I am always longing to be connected and to belong, with people in friendship or in love, both of which are so closely related for me I can hardly differentiate, and in the land.
THE FEM: The California landscape is also filled with the threat of danger that seeks to creep in at various moments in your poems. For example, in “Raymond Fault, Los Angeles”, after describing a trip on mushrooms, you write, “In the morning the news said a human head had been found, / right along the road we had walked.” What draws you to that kind of ever-present violence that is always lurking around the corner?
HEATHER DERR-SMITH: Oh, this ever present threat of violence comes both from my childhood family experiences that wired my brain to expect loss and pain and then from my adult experiences where I sought out places where that was unfolding or where I was drawn to walk with other people who were experiencing trauma. So, there was emotional volatility and displacement in my earliest years, abandonment. There were subsequent years of upheaval and trauma. I was just constantly exposed to uncertainty and threat, whether psychologically, emotionally, or physically, that was just a part of my reality, so my brain developed to respond to that.
In my early adulthood I found that it was really important to me to stand in solidarity with people who were suffering. I felt compelled to respond to what was happening in Bosnia at the time. I just couldn’t ignore that reality and I needed to do something. So I did what I could in my home community at the University of Virginia and then in DC and then in the refugee camp. I continued over the years to work/walk with survivors, I’ve walked with survivors of war, going back to Bosnia, going to Syria, working with refugees here in the U.S., sexual assault survivors, children who have been abused, and more recently gun-violence survivors. So, violence is a huge part of my lived experience and what I witness to in my writing.
THE FEM: What purpose do you feel art has when dealing with horrific tragedy?
HEATHER DERR-SMITH: It’s one of the ways of finding healing. There are other ways. For me art was essential to my own healing and survival. I think in naming my experience, in testifying, in claiming, in speaking, in telling the story I found so much strength. This is an old, old impulse in human healing that goes back to shamanism and witchcraft (There’s that wonderful occult influence). We cast spells and create realities out of dreams with our words and language. Creativity can stitch together the broken self. In my teen years I was a part of a group of kids who had all been traumatized in different ways, runaways, kids from abusive home situations, throw away kids. Our saving grace was this intense desire to create. We all wanted to be artists and musicians and writers. We found direction and guidance in literature. Most of us survived and thrived, even, and I believe it’s because we immersed ourselves in art.
THE FEM: You’re off of social media and you’ve said that one reason is because of the kind of messages you were receiving from men. Do you feel that the internet has caused writers, and women writers in particular, to be more vulnerable than before? Is there a way to engage without opening oneself up to unwanted attention?
HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I was off social media for a while, but I’m back on now. It’s going pretty well, actually. I had a time when I was really frustrated (and often triggered) by the misogyny and harassment, but I blocked whoever needed to be blocked and I surrounded myself with a supportive community of women writers and poets and allied men. Yes, women are very vulnerable. Our bodies are still a central location for violence in the world and we are always at risk. I am a survivor, and I’m certainly not alone. In fact, most of the women I know are survivors. This is our lived reality. I just believe in walking through it and standing defiant. I don’t believe anyone opens themselves up to unwanted attention. Women are just doing what men do, networking, promoting their work, being fully engaged and present in the world. If women are harassed it’s not because they should have done anything different. Women should be free to be as sexual as they want or as fierce as they want, as open or uncensored as men without unwanted attention. I think building a supportive network is key.