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We're going to feature one poet every Monday that remains in October. Last week's interview was with Keith Wilson, and the week before that featured Ricardo Nazario y Colón. Third in our series of interviews is Ellen Hagan. We’ve had the pleasure of publishing Ellen in #13 and our latest double issue, #24-25. Ellen’s amazing stage presence has always captivated me. Stay tuned for videos of her and the other AP’s we’ve interviewed.
Enjoy the interview!
TD: The first time I heard you read, I was blown away by the energy you bring to your poems. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like for you to perform your pieces? Do you consider how a piece will be heard when you are writing or revising?
EH: Thank you so much for saying that—I appreciate that the energy is felt in the audience. For me, performing is a big part of who I am as an artist. My undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky was in theatre. I have my BFA in acting, so I was always really interested in writing work that could be staged or figuring out ways to make my words move and breathe. I am always thinking about the way my poems will sound out loud and especially before a performance or reading I rehearse the work as if performing—as if staging the poems. For the past few years I have also been bringing new poetry to the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival to try them out—it feels like a poetry solo show and I pull 7-10 new poems to memorize and block so that I can put the poems on the body and figure out how they will look and sound. I have loved this process of really figuring out what’s working and what’s not—often times performing the poems out loud makes the revision process make more sense. It helps the poems find their place—find how they will work on the page as well.
TD: You are from Kentucky, but live now in New York City. What was that transition like? Or are you still transitioning? Does writing help you move between these two places?
EH: Definitely. Writing is a huge part of moving through those different worlds. I moved to New York City late August 2001 to a New School University dorm room on William Street in lower Manhattan—two weeks later September 11th happened and everything I thought I knew about myself, my writing, New York, how to work and live was upturned. I was extremely homesick and sad for so many reasons and lonely. I moved to New York with two suitcases and didn’t know anyone, so the idea of staying was definitely something I had to push through. I remember my first fiction class and afterwards we all went to Cedar Tavern, which used to be on University Avenue and we talked and drank and every week we became more of a community. It was the community that built up around me: artists, teachers, activists— that kept me in the city. I was certainly buoyed by them, and by organizations: Community~Word Project, DreamYard Project, Vibe Theatre, girlstory—these collective voices that became part of what kept me here and writing. I was/am always writing-whether it’s journal or memoir or poems. It has only been through this process of recording, re-ordering what it means to live and work in both places that I have loved. And yes, I feel like I am always transitioning. I love going home and working in Kentucky—I think that will always be part of me and I will always search for ways to live in both worlds.
TD: You have a young child, who shows up in your poetry. Is there a distinct difference between parenting in Kentucky and parenting in NYC? Are there some universal truths you’ve discovered that exist everywhere?
EH: I love these questions! I grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, and my dad was born and raised in New Haven, KY, but my mom grew up in New Jersey and her family was Italian and Assyrian, so there was this whole other culture that I was a part of every summer when my family went to Jersey. I say this because there was always a part of me that wanted to spend more time in the North East. I loved the frenetic energy there and wanted to be there and then especially in New York.
Sometimes I can’t believe we are raising our daughter in New York City. I have a poem that talks about all the things she is not afraid of—germs mostly, but there are so many things she just rolls with: the subway, crowded buses, massive amounts of people coming, going. Kids just adapt and get used to their surroundings—I think that is the universal part. The other universal part if that parenting is really the same everywhere. Certainly there are logistical, cultural, landscape differences (those seem big), but I feel like families are just trying to raise good young people and that’s true everywhere. You try to expose your child to the world, get them to understand what it means to be kind, to be whole, to listen, to be open. I find that’s true for my friends in NY and Kentucky.
As I have gotten older and lived in NY for eleven years, I still love that energy of the city, but I also crave more balance. We try to get back to Kentucky as often as possible and we want our daughter to know where home is for us. She will probably grow up and want to live in Kentucky as soon as she’s old enough to be on her own, which is totally fine. Home will always be Kentucky for me.
TD: Can you share a memory from an AP tour or reading that is particularly special or important to you?
EH: The first time I heard about The Affrilachian Poets I was 17 and studying creative writing at the Kentucky Governor’s School (GSA) for the Arts—Kelly Norman Ellis and Frank X Walker were my professors and I loved them and all the poets/writers they introduced us to: Crystal Wilkinson and Bernard Clay (who both visited us that summer) and a video of Kelly wrapping small bags of rice in a documentary of Nikky Finney’s book of poems by the same name. I knew then that these artists were who I wanted to be and they were creating the kind of work I wanted to emulate: poems about family, cornbread, bourbon—poems that were political and sometimes loud and sometimes not. I wanted to be that poet. That’s the first real AP memory I have. As for special memories or moments—there are so many. Every summer the AP’s perform at GSA and are sometimes accompanied by pianist and artist Harry Pickens, so I love those times when we collectively come together and our voices ride, call and respond, sing—they shape what we are collectively seeing—I love that. Some highlights have been: Parneshia Jones reading her “Obama AutoCorrect” poem at the Chicago Art Institute, Kelly Norman Ellis dedicating “Dirty Rice” to me and David Flores (now my husband) in a room full of high schoolers at GSA, Mitchell L. H. Douglas singing during his set at Bar Louie, Amanda Johnston’s amazing energy at the Nuyorican and her boots at Busboys & Poets—all those (and so many more) moments that stick out in my mind. I love sharing the stage with the folks I so admire. Always I am looking to do work that meets their standards—working to be in the company of such awesomeness. Finally, after every reading getting to stand on the stage at the end with those artists I so look up to—I feel very proud to be there with them.