Published April 27, 2022

Cathryn Hankla, author of Not Xanadu, is a writer, artist, and professor emerita at Hollins University. Author of fifteen books, her work spans genre to include stories, essays, poetry, and a novel.

Get to know Cathryn in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, April 28 at 12 PM ET to hear her in conversation with poets Kathy Davis and Danielle Beazer Dubrasky as they read from and discuss their recent collections. This virtual event is FREE to attend and open to the public. To attend, please register to take part on Zoom or simply make plans to watch the livestream on Facebook.com/VaBookFest.

Festival: What is your method for assembling a book of poetry?

Hankla: Aside from revision poem by poem, there are structural issues in shaping a collection. I’ve seldom favored sections—only one of my books uses them (Great Bear, 2016)—but rejecting this tactic presents other challenges. No compartments, now what? In Not Xanadu I started out with sections and then shuffled the deck to create a rotation of types of poems. Several mini-sequences make up the bigger movement of the book, in consideration of human time, histories, and ecological time. One has to think about how poems build on each other or reflect on each other. Readers will read as they will, though, maybe dipping in randomly, yet I try to organize a book so that reading it from the beginning to the middle to the end produces more understanding and pleasure. 

The last poem in Not Xanadu, “River School,” reminds us of our place in things, adrift in a deep river of time that supersedes us, existing before and I hope long afterward. We are drifting in a slice of this river, without seeing its source or where it is headed; it knows more than we do. A river remains a potent metaphor for time itself, at least as we tend to experience it, as time rushing forward. 

The first poem sets forth the idea that there are alternative poems being written, which gives rise to the thought that there are alternative lives and endings. I want to be optimistic about the chances of our planet’s survival, even though it’s hard some days. I think it’s important to focus on possibilities, on the positive outcomes that one person can affect, because it’s all adding up from individual choices. Choose your reality, choose a sustainable reality. Here below, we’re about free will and courage while feeling some days like we have no choices. Writing a poem is like setting out a row boat in a maelstrom. It takes courage to keep thinking your poem is worth writing, your oar worth dipping. After you row along for a while, a shape emerges that’s made of individual poems. I call that a book.

Where did you draw inspiration for your most recent book?

Long, long ago on a planet far, far away in the early days of my high schooling, I decided to sign up for a forensics competition without knowing anything about what it would entail beyond reciting a poem out loud for a little audience of peers and teachers. I was already writing poetry and reading a fair amount of contemporary poetry, so I chose a poem by James Tate, “Teaching the Ape to Write Poetry.” Admittedly, it was a little tongue in cheek to perform that particular poem on such an occasion. I got through it fairly well, but then I was handed some “sight-reading.” I had not anticipated having to sight-read, but I understood what it was from taking piano lessons. I looked down at the heavy open book that had been placed into my hands at some very small print. The poem was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” 

After mispronouncing the title and Shelley’s middle name, my reading was passable but not good enough to take the win away from the senior who had actually prepared for a forensics meet. That was my introduction to the English Romantics, and the next thing I knew I was reading Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and came across Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The opening of the poem stuck with me for decades: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree….” Xanadu resonates with the excesses of those who should know better, worship of materiality and power that sets in motion some very damning outcomes in this world. But not Xanadu isn’t the opposite of Xanadu, like suffering or pain is the opposite of pleasure. Not Xanadu is a way of embracing what’s in front of you, its complexity of feeling, beauty, and mystery in the midst of personal pain or heartbreak. Ultimately, we are all living in not Xanadu, and learning we are part of something much larger than the reality between our ears.

What are some challenges that you encountered in your writing process?

I think form defines the art and discipline of poetry, which is a way of knowing and not knowing; without humility before form’s history and importance, poetic work can be flat and ultimately without tension. Playing around with the art of poetry and practicing it and researching its history inform the challenges of writing it. I read a range of poetry past and present. Revision is necessary, and I take a layered approach, letting time also be a teacher, so sometimes the challenge is just to stay with the poem until I figure out how to make it better.

What types of preliminary research do you do before writing?

It really depends on the poem or the book of poems I’m writing. I do field work, visiting places and museums, read for facts and subject matter, or immerse myself in poetry like it’s a mystery school, which it is. In the past I listened to music to capture a certain mood and maintain it throughout the writing of a particular poem or piece of prose.

What are you working on next?

Next spring I’ll be releasing a book of prose poems, Immortal Stuff, so I’m doing some refinement on those poems, working on the cover idea, etc. I’m also playing around with a strange memoir thing that I probably shouldn’t yet discuss, and painting as an antidote to my wordiness.

What books are you currently reading or excited to read soon?

This is my fourth year reading the whole Bible in one year, so I read along daily. Having finished Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen, I find it’s time to read The Corrections. I’m reading The Energy Codes by Dr. Sue Morter, and several books of poetry including Dara Barrois/Dixon’s latest, Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina. I’m rereading The Book of Thomas. A friend sent me These Precious Days, essays by Anne Patchett, and I’ve been dipping into that. Next on the to read shelf: The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T Wright.

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