Design a site like this with
Get started

An Interview with Lola Haskins

Sincere thanks to Slant contributor Claire Hamner Matturro for conducting the following interview with poet Lola Haskins for us.

With too many accolades to politely list, Lola Haskins is a poet whose voice sounds with “the starling freedom and grace of a kite flying,” per the late renowned poet W. S. Merwin. Writing within a wide and eclectic range, Haskins lives an equally wide and eclectic life—a former computer science lecturer, a creative writing teacher, an environmental activist, an outdoor enthusiast, dual resident of England and Florida, music collaborator, choreographer, and nonfiction author.

Ms. Haskins’ poems have been broadcast over the BBC and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, and others. Her body of work also includes fourteen collections of poetry, a beginner’s guide to the poetry life, and a non-fiction book about Florida cemeteries. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, she has been honored with three book prizes, two NEA fellowships, four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, theEmily Dickinson/Writer Magazine award from the Poetry Society of America, and many others. Hunger (University of Iowa Press, 1993) was a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

In our interview, we discuss poetry, teaching, silence, nature, and adventures in collaboration.

Claire Hamner Matturro: In one of your poetry collections, Forty-four Ambitions for the Piano (University Presses of Florida, 1990, Betony Press, 1993 and 1994), you speak of “pianissimo” and “fortissimo,” which I understand to mean softly and loudly respectively. In “To Play Pianissimo,” you write this “does not mean silence, / the absence of moon in the day sky…” and in “Fortissimo,” you write “To play fortissimo / hold something back. / It is what the father does not say / that turns the son.” The obvious question here is whether your interest in music goes beyond the piano. In other words, I wonder whether you’ve also been involved in, say dance, or composing?

Lola Haskins: That’s a great question. I’ll start with piano. When I was a child, I begged for lessons but was never allowed them. When I grew up and my children—each of whom I made sure did have music lessons, my son on violin and later guitar (he became and still is, a musician), my daughter on flute—had left home (aka when I hit forty) I decided to begin. I’d sung folk and jazz and banged a bass (off-rhythm) in clubs, but those styles weren’t what I wanted to play. What I did want was classical music. My first teacher played beautifully but was almost entirely non-verbal, so when I had questions (and I had many), she could answer them only with her hands, which was a problem because mine didn’t know how to listen. And the situation was complicated by the fact that for the first couple of years I was so afraid of not honoring the music I could hardly play. But when I came to and realized that being a bad pianist didn’t matter, I relaxed, and things got better. One day I asked my teacher what made pianissimo pianissimo, because wouldn’t the notes be different volumes depending on where you were? I don’t remember how she answered it, but what I do remember is that I went home and taught it to myself, not with my hands but with words. After I wrote “To Play Pianissimo,” I attacked staccato. 

Forty-four Ambitions for the Piano would never have existed if I hadn’t decided on the spur of the moment to try those first two poems out on an audience. After the reading, an African-American man who turned out to be the new piano faculty member rushed up to me and told me I had to write more like them. His name was and is Kevin Sharpe and I owe everything to him. I ran every music poem I wrote by him before I put it into the manuscript. And when I’d say I don’t know anything, I’m a musical caveman, he kept insisting I wasn’t. When I finished the forty-fourth poem (half the keyboard), I stopped, and when the book came out, Kevin and I and another musician friend, a composer named James Paul Sain, performed the whole thing. And Kevin still gives the book to his favorite students every year.

As for dance, I never had lessons in that either, so my dance style is all enthusiasm and no technique. But when Kim Tuttle, who with her sister Judy Skinner, runs Dance Alive!, a fabulous professional company in Gainesville, decided she wanted to choreograph a ballet about Mata Hari, she hired me to write the script. So, I wrote a series of monologues in Mata Hari’s voice, starting when she was 19 and answered an ad in the newspaper for a wife, and ending with the kiss she blew to the firing squad before she was executed by the French government. When I finished it, Kim said, of course you’ll play Mata Hari. I said WHAT? And she said oh yes, you were always going to do that. So I did. I played the speaking Mata Hari and a dancer played the real one. I’d done lots of readings by that time, but had never been on a large stage and certainly never involved with a whole company of collaborators, so it was an absolutely thrilling—and eye-opening—experience. Margaret Tolbert, a Gainesville [Florida] artist designed the set—a Shiva with moving arms and a massive Ganesh that even when you were right next to it looked like stone. Stella Sung, a composer from Orlando, wrote the haunting theme music. We even toured it!

I’ve collaborated with Dance Alive! twice since, both times with Kim’s sister Judy. The first was an evening celebrating the Harn’s new American Art wing, for which I wrote monologues in the voices of Cindy Sherman characters—a woman who can’t stay with anyone, a Catholic schoolgirl, and a washed-up boxer. I was on stage through the whole show, but this time as myself. I’d have sworn that was the best choreography ever, but Judy may have topped even that the last time we worked together, which was on a production called “The Land of La Chua.” My part involved voiceovers of poems from how small, confronting morning (Jacar Press 2016; released as ebook 2021), a few more I wrote for the production, and a section of an essay about Payne’s Prairie [a state park near Gainesville, FL]. That last time, I could be in the audience so my granddaughter, Lars, the guide I dedicated the book to, and I sat side by side holding hands and all three of us cried through most of it.

CHM: Fascinating how well you adapt and how well you collaborate with other artists. Have you combined your poetry with other artists in ways outside piano and dance?

LH: Oh yes. My first collaboration ever was with composer John White, who set my poems about St Cecilia for four soloists, orchestra, and dance. After that another composer, James Paul Sain set “Seven Turtles” into a 911-themed spoken piece he and I performed in Alabama, then at the Electro-Acoustic Music festival in Gainesville. More recently, UF’s choir performed Willis Bodine’s settings from how small, confronting morning for choir and handbells. The crowning jewel of all my musical collaborations, though, was probably Paul Richards’s lovely renditions of every poem from Forty-Four Ambitions, set for soprano and piano. It took him ten years to do it and it was a true collaboration because to my surprise, he consulted me about the music. And now there’s a two CD set of those, with a charming drawing by one of his daughters on the cover. Besides composers, I’ve worked with musicians (a series of jazz poetry, not mine, at the Thomas Center in Gainesville) with improvisations on guitar and bass. There’s also a CD of poems from The Grace to Leave (Anhinga Press 2012) that I made with the help of Ben Noyes, a stellar cellist from Maine. 

I’ve also performed in three multimedia productions at the Hippodrome in Gainesville, imagined and directed by Ani Collier, a Bulgarian dancer who played the lead in Mata Hari. Plus, I’ve exhibited with visual artists—sometimes my poem came first but sometimes I wrote to their pictures. I have been the luckiest person ever!

CHM: Following up on your musical talents, I am intrigued that in both the pianissimo and fortissimo poems, you write of holding something back. How important is “what [the poet] does not say” in a poem and how do you effectively use absence and silence in your work?

LH: I think silence/withholding is crucial to every art form. In music, it’s about breath, often but not always expressed by rests (there’s a poem in Forty-four Ambitions for the Piano about that). In painting, it’s about how spaces between objects define them and how the spaces themselves are shaped in ways that create their own visual poetry. In film (and literature in general), it’s what happens off screen (or left unsaid) that drives everything. In poetry, I see two ways to use absence/silence, physically by the placement of words on the page, and verbally by not spelling everything out. By placement I mean both within the poem and by where the whole is on the page, like snow or sky. The verbal silences are created not just by scenes left out but also by apparently changing the subject. It seems to me that absences and silences in all the arts are analogically the difference between renting and owning. In other words, rather than imposing agency from the top, they give it to the listener/viewer/reader.

CHM: You not only collaborate with other artists, but in a sense also with the natural world, which is often a strong theme in your body of work. You have served on the executive committee of Florida Defenders of the Environment since 2011. You are also an enthusiastic hiker/kayaker/canoer as reflected in such collections as how small, confronting morning. Your images often combine the human-made with the natural-made to evoke such strong connections with nature, such as these lines from “Will:” “My love for you is hundreds of lanterns / searching the dark. In the gathering night, / look around. I will be all the fireflies.” Yet, you also celebrate nature without referencing humans at all. For example, “A creek flows like lit dark honey,” in “Through Gumroot Swamp” or “blue air pours through your tail” in “Swallow-tailed Kite.” In “Lake Alice,” a wading wood stork’s reflection becomes “its liquid twin” while in “Oklawaha,” “lily leaves swoop so gracefully they’ve no need to bloom.” Given your obvious love of nature, do you think poetry can be used as advocacy in the environmental cause?

LH: I think poetry has a potentially critical role to play in the future of our lands, our waters, and more broadly of our planet and even our species. Here’s why. If we hadn’t already known it, we certainly know it now—it’s emotion not facts that drives voters. But it’s subtle—because what has been keeping us stuck as citizens is the free-floating emotion on both sides of every issue—which means that if you wrote the poetic equivalent of Picasso’s “Guernica,” rather than convince anyone you’d be ostracized by the people who don’t agree with you. In other words, in this climate, poetry can’t profitably rant. But what it can and should do, is advocate for what’s really needed, which it seems to me is empathy, and not just for human beings, but for trees and birds and fish and animals, and for the very air that suffers every day because of us. And how do you do that? By showing people who’ve never visited it, how beautiful the natural world is. That was actually one thing I hoped would happen when I published how small, confronting morning. And maybe it’s worked, just a little, because people have come up to me after readings saying we felt we were there, and that made us realize that we need to get outside more often. Maybe it could be a slogan: Get them there and they’ll care.

CHM: You taught computer science at the University of Florida for nearly thirty years and have taught at many creative writing conferences and also been on the faculty of the Rainier Writers’ Workshop, a low residency MFA program based at Pacific Lutheran University. So teaching, I would gather, has been a very important part of your life. How have you used poetry—your poems and others—in teaching?

LH:  I used to recite “The Highwayman” by Alfred, Lord Noyes to every Computer Science class I taught (except the ones that met in auditoria), in the long run because I wanted students to see that learning doesn’t end in a classroom, but in the short run because I wanted to show them how much fun poetry could be. I also used to put a poem on my office door (never one of mine) that they were required to read before I’d help them. Once, when I had “Those Winter Sundays” (about love in a cold family) on my door, an accounting major came in, with his printout tucked under his arm. When I asked him if he wanted me to check his logic  he said, “Actually I’m not here about that anymore”  then, “I read that poem on your door.” And when I said “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” he said, “Yes it is, and I’m going to drive to my Dad’s grave now” – it was two hours away, in Tampa—”and tell him I understand.”  That’s what poetry can do.

I also used to give my students extra credit on their exams for checking out any of the fine arts they’d not been exposed to before. and writing me two pages of personal reaction. I took great pleasure in what they, as new people, had to say. I still remember a girl who’d been given Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto to listen to, writing “I had no idea there was anything like that in the world.” And I’d have sworn the stains on that page were tears.

CHM: I am quoting you from an interview in the Of Poets & Poetry: a publication of the Florida Poetry Association, vol. 46.5, where you said you would like “to convince people who think they don’t like it that poetry has nothing to do with school and is for everyone, regardless of background, and also show them that if they want to, they can write their own.” Would you care to expand on that?

LH: Sure. Here’s an example. I dated a man in England who would mimic yawning at the whole idea of poetry. When I got properly sick of it, I told him what I always tell a poetry skeptic. It goes like this:  The reason you think you don’t like poetry is probably either that when you were a kid, some teacher made you feel stupid when you couldn’t “explain” poems to her satisfaction, or that you decided on your own that poetry wasn’t for you because every poem you’d ever seen bored you. But the fact is that most people who say they’re not “poetry people” may well be; they just haven’t met the right poet. It goes like this. If you were in a room with 100 people how many of them do you think would turn out to be your soulmates? One? Two? It would be the same with poets. Then I picked a couple of poems whose writers I figured were his type and when I showed them those, he said, well I don’t like poetry, but I like that. The write-your-own part I’ve done with groups that started out resistant—middle, high schoolers, and teachers who only grudgingly taught it—and also of course with all sorts of other groups including aspiring MFAs. I have tons of stories about all that, but this is an interview, not a book, so I’ll spare you.

CM: And now, for our grand finale, would you please share a poem with our readers. Your choice—a new unpublished or an old favorite. And thank you for your time and these thoughtful answers.

LH: Thank you, Claire, for making me think. It’s been wonderful working with you.

I’ll share a recent poem that taught me more than any poem I’ve ever written. One day I had an idea that I knew was irrational, but I absolutely could not shake. There had to be a reason why it was so persistent so I sat down at the keyboard to see if it had a tune I could play. But it didn’t. Then, just when I was about to give up, some grace I hadn’t earned arrived and showed me the truth.

The Discovery

Out walking, in my seventies, down a leafy street
behind two women in their early forties who
are chatting to each other as companionably
as birds on a limb, and having thought, with
happy anticipation, ah, I’ll be their age soon!
it occurs to me that I’ve lost my mind– but
just then the clouds evanesce and light pours
through the oaks and ash, to form lace on
the pavement lovely enough to be sewn
into dresses, and I see that time is as
random as the patterns the sun makes on
any given day as it filters through leaves,
and as illusory as a baby being born, and
as strange as the years of our lives that
go by without returning, and as equal as
the one friend’s auburn hair and the red leaf
she steps over, which the wind has abandoned
for love of her. And now, having finally
seen that the world is every minute new,
I realize that I’m only a little younger than
those women after all, and I step between
them, and we speak as we walk, and by
the time we part,  each of us in her own way
has told the others how lucky she is,
to have been alive in such a beautiful place.

Claire Hamner Matturro has been a journalist, a lawyer, an organic blueberry farmer, and taught at Florida State University College of Law and University of Oregon School of Law. Raised on tales of errant, unhinged kith and kin and more than a few nefarious whoppers, she counts storytelling as her cultural and genetic inheritance. She is the author of eight novels, including a series of comedic legal thrillers published by HarperCollins. Her poetry has been published in Kissing Dynamite, New Verse News, One Art, Muddy River Poetry ReviewFlora Fiction, Topical Poetry, Tiger Moth Review, and Lascaux Review. She’s a long-standing associate editor at Southern Literary Review. She and her husband and their rescued, cross-eyed black cat live in Florida. Her poem “An Ornate Beast” appears in our Fall 2022 issue.