Hadara Bar-Nadav is the author of Lullaby (with Exit Sign), awarded the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize; The Frame Called Ruin, Runner Up for the Green Rose Prize from New Issues; and A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight, awarded the Margie Book Prize. Her chapbook, Show Me Yours, was awarded the 2009 Midwest Poets Series Award. She is also co-author of the best-selling textbook Writing Poems, 8th Edition. Recent awards include fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Hadara is currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
TCJWW: The epigraph of Lullaby (with Exit Sign) introduces the reader to a dialogue between the speaker and Emily Dickinson. What did these Dickinson lines (“Good-bye—the Going utter me—/ Goodnight, I still reply) mean to you while you were writing these poems?
Bar-Nadav: The epigraph by Dickinson spoke to my idea of the lullaby and the project as a whole: though the dead have gone physically, they are still very much a part of our lives. They have a palpable presence, and their voices persist and insist. They teach me to listen, to become attention, and through this attentive listening a conversation is born.
Dickinson’s poetry greatly informed the music of Lullaby; her sonic skill is brilliant and infectious. It struck me as ironic and wonderful and strange that the elegy could be made beautiful through music, that is, that creation could be born from devastation. Dickinson’s strong sense of music carried me through this book and helped me write it. This focus on sound, in turn, sang to the essence of the book, as lullaby and prayer.
TCJWW: Much of this book is a chant, a prayer, an incantation to bring back what has been lost. How do you see these poems coming together as a lullaby under the title poem? How does the “lullaby” work as far as shaping this collection?
Bar-Nadav: I suppose lullaby, prayer, incantation, and chant are all intertwined in Lullaby (with Exit Sign). For me, the lullaby is a way of saying goodnight, with the idea that you will see the person again. It is a leaving and a coming back. The title poem “Lullaby (with Exit Sign)” echoes this sentiment. The speaker invites her dead to pass through her, and she will inscribe their going and coming back. The ghosts do not leave; my ghosts, my ancestors, have not left, but I needed to learn how to listen for and to them.
TCJWW: Many of the poems in this collection take the shape of prose blocks. How did the form of each poem come/not come to you? What advantages do you find in using prose blocks instead of line breaks?
Bar-Nadav: The poems themselves dictated the form in a way that seemed undeniable. In a two week span, my father died from complications related to Lyme disease, with which he had struggled for 25 years, and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The prose poem form spoke to the impossibly heavy weight of grief, which was leveling, flattening, and left me absolutely stunned. As a formal choice, the prose poem also helped to create tension and counterweight against the highly musical language that Dickinson inspired in my work.
TCJWW: Many of the poems in this collection (“Dust is the Only Secret,” “Darkness Intersects Her Face”) are deeply personal. Could you offer any advice to young writers about writing the tough stuff?
Bar-Nadav: Be brave, and honor the poem at hand. Go anywhere the poem takes you. Poems have their own stories to tell, and sometimes having a pre-conceived agenda (that is, deciding the poem must tell a particular story) actually limits the work. I was surprised many times while writing Lullaby. I had no idea where Dickinson, my ancestors, or the poems themselves would take me. That is where listening comes in.
Ultimately, poems are shared experiences. It may be helpful to ask what would make a poem important to the reader? What points of invitation are present in the poem? Is the poem working in many ways, not only through content and narrative, but through form, sound, syntax, diction, metaphor, imagery, etc.? Some writings may end up being journal entries, letters, or private rants (not every poem I wrote for Lullaby ended up in the final manuscript). I had to ask myself again and again if these poems really stood up as poems. In the end, they kept me honest.
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