KATHERINE FALLON: I am here today with Heather Sweeney, she/her, who lives in San Diego where she writes, teaches and does visual art. Her chapbooks include Just Let Me Have This from Selcouth Station Press and Same Bitch, Different Era: The Real Housewives Poems from above/ground press. She is also the author of the collections Dear Marshall, Language is Our Only Wilderness from Spuyten Duyvil Press and Call Me California from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in Bombay Gin, Harbor Review, The Hunger, Terrible Orange, The Velvet Giant, Pigeonholes, Occulum, and more. Her newest chapbook, The Book of Likes, was released in 2021 through The Hunger Press, and was the 2020 Tiny Fork Chapbook Series Contest Editors’ Choice Selection. You can find her at www.heathercsweeney.com. Welcome, Heather and thank you for being here with me. We’ll start off with a few poems you’ve selected to read to us.
Heather Sweeney: I’m going to read from The Book of Likes which came out this year and I’m going to start with a poem called “#BORED”
The ghost in my selfie has gone viral
I’m loved for fifteen minutes
This selfie contains an antelope
You can’t see foraging on a hillside
It is a hill of glitter and I cradle
the animal with arms of glass
This is hell with a dramatic filter
Hell is the clambake you are not invited to
Please don’t correct my grammar
Hell is when you make me wait for you
& now even the ghost is bored
The next poem is called “#SORROW.”
In this selfie I’m a bleak garden
Full of holes I am a box of roses
From Trader Joes in ultra vintage
A leopard coat a private road
A portrait of your mediocrity the link
in your bio a Sears catalogue model,
The moss of your sorrow
The next poem is called “#CONNECTION.”
In this selfie my tone has soared
Like a date with Don Draper
That ends with him crying
Into my lap even after
I shared my record collection,
& my favorite Boones Farm
Wine which is strawberry hill
Which is discontinued I know
but I have a special connection.
The next poem is called “#FEED”
Can honesty go viral?
The truth is my casket
Is a hot dog bun & the mirror
Is reversed the truth is that someone
Is haunting me from the future
& I woke up with a cold sore
Caked with glitter I woke up wedged
In a garage full of lazy boys & lit cigarettes
I’m going to read one more called “#CELLOPHANE.”
In the selfie you’re touching my face
My face is an ice sculpture
From a music video
My face is a melting chandelier
A wine cave wall
A mid-80’s sunset
A laminated menu from Chilli’s,
A pastel ocean of cellophane.
KF: I wanted to start off with some broader questions that are about three books of yours —Call Me California, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness, and your newest, The Book of Likes. I am curious about your relationship with you and I. Is an organizing epistolary principle with a clear second person in Dear Marshall, but in the other two I also see it as giving directives in Call Me California or as an implied audience in The Book of Likes. What is the difference between the second persons in these books?
HS: Well, the Dear Marshall book was written to imagine a culmination of different people I’ve met and known. I feel like that was a very intimate book and it contains things that happened and I imagined might have happened. I think it’s more directed towards this imaginary “other.” In Call Me California the “I” is more prismatic meaning it’s not a personal “I,” it’s more of a multifaceted imagined “I,” not just me speaking to one person, it’s thinking about my multiple selves, and how we contain all these layers and perform different “I”s in this world. So Dear Marshall is more specific in terms of the “I” then I kind of veered off into a prism of different selves.
KF: Do you always intend for a second person in your poetry?
HS: I don’t think I intend or plan things out artistically, it’s more impulsive. It’s not anything that I say “Okay I’m going to write some poems to this audience or this group of people or this person.” It just naturally evolves and the “I”, “you”, “We’ just emerges as I’m getting the lines down. The poems themselves are never written in one sitting, there are multiple days, multiple times of re-writing, and pulling lines from different places. It’s sort of like a collage kind of experience.
KF: I understand that you are also a visual artist and I noticed that the cover art of Call Me California is your own original artwork. Which art came first for you? Do you often paint in concert with your writing?
HS: That’s a great question! The Call Me California cover is a photograph I took in San Francisco and that photograph was taken in 2016 and then I wrote Call Me California a couple years later. I was trying to figure out what the cover would be for Call Me California and I was trying to use different images from different photographers considering different artists. I was scrolling through my phone and came upon that photo that I took at the beach in San Francisco, instantly popping into my mind as the cover art. That wasn’t particularly planned, it just kind of happened. I do write and paint every single day but for me writing is more of a mind experience, it’s more about the mind, and painting is more about the body. The ways that they overlap are similar in that they are in the moment and unplanned, wherever it’s going to take me it’s going to take me. Whenever I try to force something to happen it doesn’t feel right. My thing is not to force something that doesn’t feel organic. It’s always about letting things happen and let whatever emerges, emerge, and don’t plan it.
KF: Do you ever get confused when you get a creative impulse and not quite sure whether or not you’re supposed to be doing visual art or writing?
HS: You know, I’ve never had that happen to me, I generally have a feeling that I need to go to the studio or I need to sit down with my journal. I don’t really ever have that experience having to choose one or the other, it’s more that something is pulling me into the art studio or something is pulling me to my journal. My dad passed away two months ago, so something I’ve been thinking about a lot is what I really want to do with my life, which is to be an artist. So whatever’s calling me, I just go with it and don’t question it.
KF: Have you had an opportunity to do any more art for your books?
HS: That’s the only one I’ve done so far. This wonderful photographer Ian Castello did the photograph for Dear Marshal and I got to know him through a journal that we were both in, in which they paired my poems with his photography. I asked him if he would be willing to share one of his images for the cover and he was very open to it. It was amazing for that to work out like that because his photography embodies that feeling of Dear Marshall.
KF: Your books are heavy with notes and acknowledgments, and you actually call them in Dear Marshall “The Borrowed, The Stolen, The Modified, and The Commodified” and these notes do cause readers, at least me, to go back to the poems and re-read them with new information in mind. What is your relationship to external material, and how do you collect it?
HS: What I do when I write these poems is I think about what’s going on in that time, in that moment. For example, oftentimes I’ll be inspired by pop culture like a T.V. show and I’ll make a note in my journal about it. So it’s a parallel world that is going on and the notes to me are just an extra, for me the notes are a fun extension of the poems. For Dear Marshall I had a lot of fun writing the notes and it was kind of liberating where I didn’t need to write poetically, I just had to write what was going on which made it easier to write. I see it as a fun little exercise for me to do them.
KF: They add a lot of personality too, because you can get away from the poetic voice. Are these tidbits that you write in your journal the genesis of a poem or do you find a way to weave them into your poems?
HS: Often their inspirations for a poem or a line for the poem. So I feel they started with the experience when writing the notes that led me to writing that poem or that line specifically. It shows the reader a little insight into what inspired the poem.
KF: So again you just touched on this but I’m going to make you talk about it a little more, which is the idea of pop culture in your poetry. In all three of these books I see regular references to pop culture where it’s The Real Housewives or horoscope apps or anything else that comes up. I’m wondering what your strategy is for making these things poetic once you identify them?
HS: It’s not something I try to make poetic, it’s more like trying to find the why in something. For example one of the reasons why I started watching The Real Housewives I wanted to know what the deal is with this show and why it was so popular. So as I was writing I one day said to myself that I’m going to watch this and it was so compelling because it’s like watching an accident in slow motion, where things are horrible, horrific, and absurd but also really funny and kind of sad, so that spoke to me about humanity. There’s a line in the Book of Likes “In the selfie I’m running through a field in a negligee” which of course I didn’t do but someone on The Real Housewives did and then someone talked shit about it, which I found hilarious, so I pulled that story from The Real Housewive and created a line from it. So I am pulling from everywhere when I write.
KF: So let’s move on to your newest book The Book of Likes churned out by The Hunger Press. From your perspective as a writer how would you describe this book in a sentence or two?
HS: This book is about the world of social media and how that can influence one’s reality. Also how that shifted during the pandemic.
KF: Tell me about the first selfie that inspired you to write about it or if it was not an actual selfie and something else like a television show, what was the first spark of this project?
HS: So I’m going to go for the first poem I wrote for this book, so this first poem was not even inspired by a selfie but it was inspired by a camping trip I took with my sister and her family. It was me taking pictures in northern Arizona, and I was always asking everyone what the name of the tree was. Then my sister said “I don’t know, I’m bad about the trees” and I said “That is a great fucking line, I’m going to write that down.” During the same trip my brother-in-law, who works at a school, told this really funny story about this fourth grader who got made because someone called her fancy and she responded saying don’t call me fancy, I said “That’s a great line too, I’m going to write that down.” So those two lines ended up in the first poem that I wrote for this book, which I didn’t know would be a book initially.
So this poem I’d like to read is called “#NEED”:
In the selfie I am bad about the trees
I throw a wrench into the clouds
So don’t call me fancy
I am not your family camping trip
your bonfire cocktail
your girlhood on ice
your outpouring of need
KF: Were there any that you did write from looking at a certain selfie and were they ever yours?
HS: Well, let me just say that some of these are partly inspired by celebrity selfies. I have a poem in here that references Demi Moore and I’ve always been enamored by her hair cause it’s black and I have black hair but hers is so shiny, it’s almost unreal. So this one poem is inspired by her selfie where I wrote a line that says “I want to shine the way Demi Moore’s hair shines.” One other one is about a vague reference about Sarah Jessica Parker and I wrote a line that says “I’m wearing my Dior baby tee” which was an iconic shirt that Sarah Jessica Parker wore in Sex In The City. Now that I think about this a lot of these poems are not about a specific selfie it’s more of an idea of a selfie or the possibility of a selfie. There’s a poem about me at a bar watching the Kentucky Derby which I’ve never done but I wrote a whole story watching that and then asking for a specific drink and wanting to glow like the animals glow. So I would say most of these are not about real selfies.
KF: So you actively participate in social media as you have said in terms of looking at other peoples accounts. Which platforms are you on?
HS: The short answer is that I’m on Instagram and Facebook. For a long time I was not on Facebook. I went off it because I wasn’t getting much from it. Then when the pandemic hit and my family asked me to get back on Facebook since they wanted to see what was going on in my life. I was on Twitter but now I’m off Twitter because I’m a low drama person, I don’t want to be around drama, I want to write about drama, I just don’t want to be personally involved in drama. I feel like on Twitter there was a lot of literary world drama on there that I wasn’t personally connected to but it was still confusing, hard, and heavy. I just didn’t want to be involved in that and it felt really good. Every time I go off on social media it feels good but I always feel good about Instagram because I follow a lot of visual artists on there and it’s more inspiring than heavy or dark like the other platforms.
KF: So these poems are primarily about an Instagram selfie rather than another platform for the reason you just like Instagram more or is there more to it?
HS: I think what happened was after I wrote that first poem I had been writing a little bit less than usual and then the pandemic hit then I wrote for about a year a lot of these poems. So many of these poems touch on or hint at the pandemic. I also thought about how social media changed because of the pandemic, like people taking selfies of empty shelves, or people taking selfies with their vaccine, it’s all about the pandemic. I’m sure other authors write about selfies but the format I was using propelled me forward and it felt good.
KF: Tell me a little about the decision to have a strategic line break. How would you explain that decision based on your past writings?
HS: I think what happened with this particular book is that every line is almost like a snapshot and every poem is the size and shape of an Instagram post. I feel like they are shorter because they are posts to reflect social media, like a selfie or a photo. Every line is a little insight into that whole selfie or photo.
KF: When did you know that this book would be a collection?
HS: I don’t know the moment or time but I knew when I started writing about the selfie shortly after the first poem that I knew that this could be something. I didn’t know what it would be, but I felt that it could be something new or different. It felt really fun to write this which was different when I wrote Dear Marshall where it felt like work and I worked my ass off everyday on it for nine months. There was a different feeling or mentality that I had about this book where I didn’t feel any pressure writing it.
KF: How do you go about organizing something like this?
HS: Before I went about organizing the poems I cut out all the lines of the poems and I rearranged them on a poster board and I found out new ways for the lines to interact and live together. I wanted to mix it up and create an element of surprise or juxtaposition. The poems themselves felt too linear and didn’t feel right. For The Book of Likes I printed out all the poems and laid them out on a table even a floor at one point, and moved them around trying to figure out what the arc looks like. Sometimes I would randomly shuffle them and see if that works. I never know what poem is going to be first or last until the end. I also get feedback from friends and other writers to help me organize as well.
KF: Could you read the first poem in the book and explain why it’s the first one in the book.
HS: Sure, this one is called “#MIND.”
In the selfie I arrange the spots
of a fawn into a new constellation,
It receives zero likes I am a baggie of dirt
In the selfie I am screaming–300 likes–
In the selfie I am running through the field
In a negligee–lots of comments
In the selfie there is no way to slow this down
& in this selfie can you please pass the champagne,
No one likes this but I want to express my feelings
this may seem funny but it is all to real
In the selfie I am selling out
These are the sequins of the mind.
I think that I put this in the beginning because it has that “In the selfie…” repeated several times and it sets the tone and it allows the reader to experience multiple images, some poems have one central image but this one has different varying images, some seem fantastical, some seem boring, some seem dream-like, so I thought this was a good container for variety for the reader.
KF: At one point did you feel like you became a writer and when did you feel like you became a professional writer?
HS: Well, I’ve been writing my whole life, I used to write my whole life as a kid, as a teen, writing in these little diaries. I kind of did it privately for a long time, then I started taking creative writing as an undergrad and I really liked it. My professor told me that I was a good writer and it was exciting for me. I feel like I’ve always been a writer and I don’t really know what it means to be a professional writer. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied, I always feel like I need to be ahead of where I am. I hope this doesn’t sound weird but I’m a very ambitious person, I’m always thinking to myself what I will do next and that I need to keep going and moving forward.
KF: What is the most impressively worst rejection you’ve ever received?
HS: Oh my god, that’s a great question! You know, I sent out Dear Marshall for about almost a year to different presses. So I remember a lot of rejections trying to get that book published. I never really get upset about a journal rejection, because there are so many avenues for writers to publish in journals that if something doesn’t land it’s not that big of a deal.
KF: Finally I want to ask you what advice you have for people trying to get into this industry?
HS: So I recently was a guest teacher at someone’s creative writing class so what I did for these students was I introduced them to some journals and asked “Who wants to be published?” and everyone raised their hand. Then asked “Do you know how to get published?” and everyone shook their heads. So I would say research some journals, to see what aligns with your writing, and do a lot of reading. Reading for me is key, I’m always reading a book of poems or a book of essays. People who don’t read poetry but write poetry don’t make sense to me. So read and get acquainted with journals that you like, places where you’d like to see your own work published. Also just keep going, the poetry world is very slow, it took me a long time to get things going, but you just have to keep going.
HEATHER SWEENEY, she/her, lives in San Diego where she writes, teaches and does visual art. Her chapbooks include Just Let Me Have This from Selcouth Station Press and Same Bitch, Different Era: The Real Housewives Poems from above/ground press. She is also the author of the collections Dear Marshall, Language is Our Only Wilderness from Spuyten Duyvil Press and Call Me California from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in Bombay Gin, Harbor Review, The Hunger, Terrible Orange, The Velvet Giant, Pigeonholes, Occulum, and more. Her newest chapbook, The Book of Likes, was released in 2021 through The Hunger Press, and was the 2020 Tiny Fork Chapbook Series Contest Editors’ Choice Selection. You can find her at www.heathercsweeney.com.
KATHERINE FALLON received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of DEMOTED PLANET(Headmistress Press, 2021) and The Toothmakers’ Daughters (Finishing Line Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Juked, Meridian, Foundry, and Best New Poets, among others. She teaches at Georgia Southern University and lives with her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses.