A Q&A with Kythe Heller
Wendy McDowell, senior editor of the Bulletin, recently sat down with Kythe Heller, MDiv '12, to discuss her understanding of poetry. In her own poetry, film projects, and critical essays, Heller breaks down artistic and academic divisions, always encouraging her readers, viewers, and students to see poetry as a humanistic pursuit that is accessible to all.
Bulletin: I was struck by your author bio, which includes this question: “In what ways can our writings become sites of evolution, sites of resistance, parts of an array of realizing new social and ecological relationships by considering how to use language to radically change one’s way of being in the world?” Is this how you see poetry? What can and does it do for us?
Heller: This way of thinking began with my first experiences with poetry. When I encountered poetry as a child, I found a secret place—the only place for me at that time—in which the extraordinary immediacy and intimacy of what a child experiences, could be expressed. It was a secret and crucial lifeline for me. I grew up in a terrifyingly abusive and psychotic household where I needed to create a private inner life in order to survive, and reading was absolutely essential to this. I would spend hours in the public library avoiding home, and I read everything—even ridiculously boring things—as an escape, yet somehow I found lines of poems that seemed to speak directly to me—Wordsworth’s “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns…”; Amiri Baraka’s “An Agony. As Now”; Sylvia Plath’s fearless and undying character “Lady Lazarus”; Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies? / And even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: / I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence. / For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”
I remember being shocked by this realization of not being alone, because like so many people in traumatic situations, I had believed I was completely a freak, alone and unlovable. What those poems originally offered me was a profound sense of being seen and acknowledged not just at the personal level but at the soul level—they affirmed aspects of my life and my experience that were latent or unsayable or in the shadows, because there was no one around me to reflect this intuition of the vastness of who we really are. I also experienced a sense of community with a whole lineage of poets, living and dead, for if someone else could feel and express what it was that I had felt, these intimations that were so inchoate, then it made my whole sense of being alive and being a person a conscious endeavor, a shared and evolving human endeavor, rather than a private and hopeless and personal one.
I think that, throughout our lives, we are all trying to understand the big question: who am I, truly? I think what poetry can do is to open us up, first of all to acknowledge the hidden, secret parts of ourselves, to bring all that we feel and sense and imagine ourselves to be and experience and to place it truly in the open. And then, going further, to use our experiences of having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further, to use this irrepressible, anonymous conviction, determination, and insight to help us evolve as human beings and makers, and to use our language creatively to radically change our ways of being in the world. Our poetic language reveals truly visionary human possibilities—realizes new and better forms of sociopolitical and ecological relationships, new senses beyond the acceptable cliché of five, new meanings, and meaningful, sustainable political realities—new lived realities of love.
To do this, we also have to profoundly reject and agitate against anything in ourselves and in the world that makes us smaller than who we really are—the divisive stereotypes and bigotries of class, race, sex, ability, our destructive relationship with the natural world, the abuses and corruption looming in our current political situation, and more. When we truly experience the vastness of who we are, and communicate this understanding with consciousness and vulnerability—this is poetry: it allows a kind of revealing that is interfused with, yet deeper and truer than, the sociopolitical stratifications and narrow identifications that come from the situations in which we grow up. Poetry allows us to have confidence in the secret kinship system by which, in the attentiveness given to another’s poem or presence in a moment of silent contemplation, connection happens…as if one’s own life might or could, in some way, continue as a latent potentiality within another’s.
Bulletin: Do you think this confidence helps people to challenge their social and political conditions?
Heller: Because we have no choice but to live in this world, art is inextricable from the political, whether in reading and viewing it, or making and sharing it. Yet if we truly know that we’re vaster and our lives are more meaningful than what we've been told is the case, then we have this largeness to work with, even if the world makes us feel small. I think all activism is fed by this realization. I know so many activists, including myself, who work hard to create positive change and yet often feel somewhat cynical or doubtful about the results of our efforts—these states are always present if you're working tirelessly against a crushing political reality. Activism work requires a crucial sense of deep nourishment and the proliferation and sharing of unknowable beauty so that we can continue to access the deep sources within ourselves.
I think there are three dimensions at least to this process of transformation and nourishment. One is mystery—the mystery that in every poem there are these hidden voices beckoned forth, these hidden voices that are actually our own voices. When I read a poem that speaks to me, sometimes it reminds me of moments I've experienced but forgotten or been coerced by society to forget, moments of radical connection or dislocation between people and spaces that aren’t visible in the cliches of everyday life we’ve been coerced by society to accept. I think everyone feels this and craves poetry for exactly this depth, for speaking to the rich complexity of our lives and our deeper longings. There is a chorus of secret voices hidden inside every poem, but also a chorus of voices hidden inside every person—and the poem is not what exists on the page but what beckons the relationship between the page, the reader, and the moment; the poem wakes up these hidden voices in you so that they may speak.
A second dimension is that when a poem reveals something you didn’t know about yourself or about the world, it calls you to presence in a different way. This quality of presence makes you suddenly aware of yourself in a more meaningful way so that you go out into the world, and all of a sudden you're seeing the poetry in every moment of life. The poem and its reaction in you reminds you how to be alive, and how to be who you truly are. In fact every moment, including this moment right now, can be a poem. You can carry the poetry with you and you can evoke it and elicit it anytime and in any relation with others; it enables you to see into situations poetically, consciously, holographically. It's a way of recollecting yourself to be present with unconditional openness in the world.
And then there's a third aspect, which is that poetry can be visionary. I think this has to do with revealing the constantly changing self, but also with reinventing society. Poets and other artists have this capacity... and other people, too. Everyone has the capacity. If you can imagine yourself as different from what you were taught to be, if you can imagine a different scenario, a different world, this sense of potentiality and vision makes alternative realities, at first, thinkable, and then creatable, even if only in small forms. But those small forms proliferate and can interfere with actual reality and transform it and change it. All three of these dimensions are subtle, in some ways, but they are powerful backbones of change, of the ways in which art acts on us and on the world.
Bulletin: I appreciate your use of words like “hidden” and “subtle.” In U.S. culture, it often seems to me that we’re told the only way we can reinvent ourselves is to do something external—to get a makeover or land a new job or enter a new social class—as if these are the only means. Whereas the kind of reinvention you are talking about may be hidden to the outside world, but it is a more profound shift…
Heller: It's a reorientation, a revealing; it’s a remembering of the compassionate reality of who you truly are … that you’re no one and nobody, just a snakeskin, and yet remembering the immensity and the potentiality and the sense of vision and presence that you're capable of conducting--into your life and into the lives of those around you.
Bulletin: You are a poet and a performer, and you also write a lot about poetry and art. Do you find the acts of creation and reflection to be separate acts—do you use different parts of your brain—or are they intertwined for you?
Heller: It all feels deeply interconnected through a sense of resonance. I just fall in love again and again, you know? I mean, I’ll encounter a new artist, or I’ll return to someone who has been an important part of my way of thinking and being for so long, and either way, I’m naturally curious to think more about them, to spend time with them. It is a chance for me to experience gratitude, because such affinity is mysterious and helps us grow as human beings. Why do you encounter one artist's work over another? There are so many artists out there in the world doing their thing, so I feel deep gratitude for those artists whose work has been in some way opened to me. I have learned so much by sitting down with truly remarkable artists, and thinking and writing about their work and collaborating sometimes and trying to absorb what I learn from our friendships. It’s almost like a kind of translation, like a snake shedding its skin.
One time, when I was house-sitting out in the country at a little farmhouse, I was walking in the field and suddenly I found this astonishing snakeskin. It was milky and translucent and shiny in the sunlight, and I picked it up, still perfectly intact. And as I looked through the hole where the snake had been, it was such an odd experience, because it was like I was looking through the past, and my eye, or rather the seeing of my eye, was like a second snake eye-beam slithering through the passage made by the snake before me. I was looking through a skin that had been made by another, but I could see through it in this way that felt very intimate and at the same time alive and mysterious and dignified.
Sometimes I feel like that when I encounter the resonance of another artist’s work, even if the work is from a location I hadn’t been deeply aware of before, like a different time period or another part of the world. It is a grace to feel such an opening. There’s the similar sense of my eye looking through the snakeskin from the inside out. It was, in a sense, an encounter outside of conventional time, with another snake, but pulling that encounter forward into the present, into my own experience, my own life, through finding the snakeskin and being found by it. The relationship between artists is so important and sensitive. Oftentimes, the only genuine way to respond is to make another work and to be grateful for what you have learned from the lineage of earlier artists.
Bulletin: Who do you feel this gratitude for?
Heller: Recently I was commissioned to write a poem for the Doris Salcedo symposium at the Harvard Art Museums, and I wondered how I would be able to write, having never been aware of this artist’s work before and finding myself completely in awe of its meaningfulness. So first, I sat in the gallery for a long, long time just opening myself and absorbing her work—and secretly touching it, too, when the guards weren’t around. [Laughs] I also learned as much as I could from her writings and sources and the political situations to which she is responding. Salcedo writes that “When the spectator gives the work a moment of silent contemplation, in that moment and only in that moment, connection happens…as if the victim’s destroyed life, cut short at the time of the murder, might or could in some way, continue within the spectator’s experience.” So the poem grew into its own life and emerged gradually as I was naturally being present to the work and thinking and experiencing somehow together with her. Here is the poem that came to me.
Regarding criticism—A couple of years ago I wrote an essay about Cecilia Vicuña (a poet, artist, filmmaker, and activist) because I was so inspired by her ways of thinking about the precariousness of language and people. Vicuña engages with language by considering how words come to mean, and with meanings (and peoples) that have been historically silenced. Her medium of weaving is not merely a recursive practice, an image or metaphor of the structural violence imbedded in language, but rather an unraveling: her work actively unravels the sociopolitical forces with which the sheer act of apprehending a word makes us complicit, and re-narrates the shifting mesh of relations among languages, peoples, and living matter, emerging as a mode of art-making suffused with the complexities of a witnessing presence. Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this mode as “see(ing) more than one sees…where the invisible is there without being an object” in and through the structures of the world. “An object is not an object,” writes Vicuña. “It is the witness to a relationship.” Her work made me think about how every artist makes visible a sacred trust that all artists who respond to the work can carry forward. Also, as a practice, this falling in love with other artists is a way of learning. You become obsessed and inspired and want to know everything about the work and this becomes a way of moving forward with your own work, too.
Bulletin: What an interesting way to think about “criticism,” that it is about becoming obsessed, learning from, and honoring another artist, rather than judging?
Heller: Even thinking against is valuable, too. I mean, it’s not always just absorbing. Sometimes your response is, “NO!” You can have a really strong counter-reaction against a work, and that will guide you in a different direction. But I think we make a huge mistake by thinking of any maker along the lines of a post-enlightenment conception of the self. There’s so much collaboration and shared-ness that goes into any process of making, and that ranges from whatever you read to whoever you talk to, to whatever experiences you have, and all these things are so deeply interfused in the contemporary world and subtly influence whatever is being made and need to be visible and respected.
Also, I don’t think the poem exists on the page alone. I think the poem only exists in light of people reading it, absorbing the poem, and then so many of their own secret stories are the soundless participants that are brought to bear. And I think everyone has the experience of a poem reaching them strongly one day, and then they’ll read it the next week and think, “Wait a minute. Why did I like that poem or that song so much?” It is always a collaboration between the poem and the reader, at a given moment in time.
Bulletin: That circles me back to wondering about those poems that spoke to you when you were young?
Heller: Most of all it was Rilke. Rainer Maria Rilke. I discovered his work when I was 15. It completely blasted me open to these vast inner spaces. He was so important to me that I remember during my first year of college, there was a course that was only about Rilke, and I refused to take it! Even though I was so completely obsessed with Rilke, and I read every single thing by him, I refused to take this class because I literally couldn't bear it if someone else talked about him or said his name. [Laughs] Because his work was so utterly personal to me. When I ran away from home at 16, in the middle of the night with no money and no friends and then lived in squats and so forth and never went home again—his book was the only book I brought with me—Rilke’s poems—the edition of selected poems translated by Steven Mitchell. That book, you know, it’s this tattered object, but it has been so valuable and meaningful to me.
Rilke was the first person who I felt had ever seen me as a full human being. In one of his letters, he writes about how it's like he's out on a field at night, out on an empty plain, and he has so many possible selves and there’s so much vast space between that they only hear rumors of each other. He only hears rumors of all these different selves in the distance, and he can't quite make out what they’re all saying, but they’re all out there and the plain keeps going on forever. I think a poet like Rilke gives us permission to explore all the potentialities of who we are and who we might become, and he reminds us that we’re bigger than whatever circumstances we have to endure at the moment.
Bulletin: The way you speak about poetry makes me think about the relationship between poetry and mysticism. Of course, we only know about many of the medieval mystics because they wrote beautiful works, including poetry. And you have made work about contemporary mystics too—you made a documentary about the Sri Lankan Sufi teacher M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. What interests you about mystics?
Heller: It’s compelling to look at the mystics from earlier eras, for so many reasons, but from one angle, you can view them through the lens of social activism, since they represented a real resistance to the culture at the time. I'm thinking of Marguerite Porete, for example, the thirteenth-century mystic whose work (published under the title The Mirror of Simple Souls) is considered to be one of the primary sources for the famous medieval mystical movement “Heresy of the Free Spirit.”
She had an enormous influence, and activists today can be inspired by the staunchness of her vision and the fact that she refused to align herself with the premises and political powers of the time and refused to reject the work that she'd created, which calls for a direct relationship with the divine and the authority of each individual to determine one's own relation to God. I think that was a fundamentally political as well as spiritual move, as well, and a radical one insofar as it completely countermands the authority of the church, the prominent political and social power at the time. The book that she wrote truly reinvents the conditions of relationality in society. It certainly works on a mystical, religious, theological plane, but at the same time, it radically takes into consideration how people can have agency over their own lives and relate to each other differently and meaningfully from these different premises.
Marguerite Porete was burned alive at the stake in 1310, but she was so committed to the work that she had been given to create that she didn't even wince as she burned. She ended up being this kind of martyr icon of someone who really stood by her beliefs. That kind of moral courage is a strong message that reaches through historical time to the present, since it remains in the background as something that humans are capable of doing if they’re aligned with what they believe and if their work is of benefit.
Bulletin: I learned that you have studied contemporary mystics too—you made a documentary about the Sri Lankan Sufi teacher M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. What interested you about him?
I made the documentary originally as part of my work with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and Critical Media Practice secondary field. There is so much more to be said, but let me give you a sense here of the documentary and what I was trying to do—and the new project I’m working on now—by quoting a descriptive paragraph I wrote about the project:
When the contemporary Sri Lankan Sufi saint Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was invited to the United States in 1971 by the American Carolyn Andrews, he made several unusual decisions which in the current political climate of increasing Islamophobia, are deeply and critically relevant now. By the time of his death in 1986, his distinctive ethos and practice, which began in the redefinition of Islamic Sufi practice as a uniquely inter-racially diverse and inter-religious living form of spiritual training and discourse, and then continued by placing women in positions of power alongside men and by establishing the first and only mazar (Sufi shrine and pilgrimage site) in the western hemisphere. The influential and diverse group surrounding him before and since his death ranges from key African American Muslims and activists to progressive Muslim refugees fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka and political strife in Syria and the Middle East, to influential white Americans originally identified with the 1960’s counterculture—this improbable collection of Americans has integrated and developed their inclusive practice in the United States within a context of increasing Islamophobia, even as the advanced age of many of the Sufis brings to bear a certain pressure, so that this experimental documentary project which relies on extensive interviews and video portraits documenting these elders and their practices of self-cultivation, feels especially crucial to pursue now as a case study of the limits of language and its relation to the performance of the sacred. The work...combines documentary, experimental, personal, and performative approaches to this subject to explore accidental forms of intimacy, mediation, cinematic time, and transnational space, engaging the formal possibilities of film and exploiting the gap between what is perceived visually and heard aurally, to uncover a media archeology of religious presence.
Bulletin: In the contemporary U.S. context, poetry is often seen as this inaccessible or highfalutin art, when really, it can and should be accessible to anyone who uses language. Some of my favorite poets use so-called “simple” language—but it’s what they do with the language that is so evocative.
Heller: Yes, that's such an important thing! I think all poetry and all art is experimental, and I’ve found myself resisting poetry being in, for example, the poetry section of a bookstore, or a class being called “something something poetry." This is because I think that poetry exists in every single sphere of our lives. That's also why my own practice has moved outward from only writing poems on the page. I started to have these vivid dreams, and instead of turning them into poems on a page, I felt compelled to act them out with a group of people. I had started a collective of artists and poets in New York at that time, and so we started to act out these dreams together.
These became a whole set of community performance ritual pieces, kind of like living poems, or inhabited poems. It was interesting, because I had less control over what would happen in the performance. All kinds of things happen that you don't expect once you have people dreaming the same dream! Sometimes I would write about what happened, but there became this much more interesting and experimental sense of, "Wow, we’re really creating new ways of relating to each other, and new ways of using language." We experimented with silence and creation and destruction and mimesis, and all of these different ways of thinking together in dreams. We shared a sense of the dreams wanting to be enacted.
We think of poems as being written already and sitting there on the page, but there is something powerful about allowing the poem to come into being in this kind of performance practice. Then I started using film, too.
Bulletin: It sounds like the rituals provided an experience that was capable of breaking down divisions between artistic disciplines, between poetry and the world, and between participants?
Heller: They did. Even with academic work, I have been surprised to find certain papers that I have written which have put me in the same obsessed state that I've recognized before as being part of creative practice of some kind. So I think these divisions that we have in our minds are truly inadequate for the capacity of human beings, and what being a maker is.
I prefer that word "maker" instead of poet or artist or whatever. It is broader, and I think you can be a poet in any discipline, potentially. I actually taught a course through the poetry room at the Woodberry Poetry Room of Harvard’s Lamont Library that was very much about trying to create conversations between people in all different disciplines at Harvard—biochemistry and government and religion and Islamic studies. All these people who have very different expertise in different fields, but who really love poetry, were in that course. Where is the poetry in economics? What do poets have to say to economists? And what do biochemists have to say to Sanskrit scholars? These conversations don’t happen enough. Ways of thinking in poetry—especially the visionary aspect—can bring a different kind of information or a different set of solutions to the problems that are usually only approached in particular ways by different disciplines. Anyone can access these different realities and new ways of relating with language and with other people.
Those miniature dream poetry rituals are instructive here, because they create a kind of dreaming with each other that exists first in this small bubble space of the dream. But then those of us who participated would think about it afterwards and bring the dreaming, and an experimental ethos, into our actual lives. It starts to affect and infect the capacities that we have, and hopefully to provide more openness, and also ways of being vulnerable with each other, because vulnerability is required for these kinds of experiments. All of this emerges from poetry and circles back around to it.
Bulletin: I think popular music fills this role for many people, but the way you describe poetry, it can have the spontaneity and ability to connect that might be more often associated with music?
Heller: It can! Too many people don't realize that poetry is already a part of their everyday lives. It’s just that they haven't been taught poetry this way, or they haven’t been shown that it’s possible to access it, or they haven’t been given permission.
I was teaching poetry as an adjunct at colleges, before I came to Harvard, and in homeless shelters and prisons through the Bard Prison Initiative program at Bard College. And I was surprised when a lot of football players at one college signed up for one of my poetry classes—it met a requirement for them and they thought it was going to be an “easy A." They all admitted to me on the first day that they hated poetry, so it was a dilemma. I wondered: how am I going to get through to them when this is how they feel?
So I tried different things, and I remember one amazing moment that occurred from a spontaneous exercise I gave the class. I told them, “I’m going to say ten abstract words out loud. Write down on a piece of paper the first image that occurs to you when you hear these words.” After they were finished, I randomly asked this one student—perhaps the most resistant of all of them—“Okay, so what did you see in your mind when you heard the word love?” He was rather sheepish, but he replied, “Well, you know, my sister just had a baby, and I smelled that baby’s head, and I kind of think that love is the smell of a newborn baby's head.” What a brilliant image! [Laughs] I thought, “That’s one of the best haikus anyone has ever written.”
Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of finding the switch or finding the lever that opens what people already experience but don’t know they have permission to feel or share or acknowledge. This kid was holding that amazing image within himself the whole time, but it hadn’t been activated, or he hadn’t felt the permission to share it, because he has this whole other persona as the tough football guy that hated poetry.
Bulletin: I taught poetry to middle schoolers once, and what I did was to print out and put up all different kinds of poems around the classroom—from traditional form poetry to slam poetry to experimental poetry to song lyrics to advertising jingles. I had them walk around and look at it all, and they could write responses on it, to point out things that they liked or didn't understand or thought were funny or weird. And then we discussed the question: Is this poetry?
Heller: Even what they had written on it? Did you discuss that as poetry?
Bulletin: Ah…I didn’t, but that would have taken it to the next level!
Heller: That’s what I like to talk about and try to access: The hidden voices, you know, that are constantly coming up for people, and can open up new spaces. But I find most people never knew this was poetry.
Bulletin: The non-poetry stuff…
Heller: Yeah. I mean, you could easily teach a whole class on poetry without using any poems!
Bulletin: That would be a fun project.
Heller: It really would.
Kythe Heller, MDiv '12, is an award-winning poet, essayist, performer, filmmaker, and doctoral student at Harvard University in Religion and Society, with a secondary field through Visual and Environmental Studies/Social Anthropology in Critical Media Practice. She is also a poet on the faculty of Bard College’s Language and Thinking Program.