Han VanderHart is a queer writer and arts organizer living in Durham, North Carolina. Han is the author of the poetry collection What Pecan Light (Bull City Press, 2021) and the chapbook Hands Like Birds (Ethel Zine Press, 2019). They have poetry and essays published in The Boston Globe, Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, AGNI and elsewhere. Han hosts Of Poetry Podcast, edits Moist Poetry Journal, and co-edits the poetry press River River Books with Amorak Huey. 

Your book, What Pecan Light, explores the intimacies of a speaker’s long and winding relationship to the American South. It seems that the poems fluctuate between love and criticism quite fluidly while pausing at many different points in-between. What made you decide to write an entire book on this subject? 

I love that you entwine love and criticism in your question—I think of Iris Murdoch (via Simone Weil’s) “just and loving gaze”—there is no love without justice, or justice without love. Poetry does this work so well: holding the tenderness and the anger together (for example, the collected work of June Jordan, which I’ve been reading the past few months). I think the answer to your central question of what made me write a book on the topic of the south and my family’s relationship to it is that I couldn’t not write this book—it is an account-giving, in the old, congregational sense of the expression, where you stand up in front of you community and you tell your story, and where you have come from, and where you are now as a person. 

Coming from a small, rural town myself, I really enjoy the speaker’s fascination with life on the farm. Why do you think your poetic imagination is so drawn to this particular landscape? 

The late Louise Glück wrote, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” That young, pre-frontal cortex is so open to the world—to image, to love, to harm—to learning how to move through the world. Environment ALWAYS gets into our poems, no matter our age, but the growing mind’s early impressions are an Ur-impression of the world—almost a platonic ideal, not in the ideal or positive sense, but in their importance in how we read the world. I grew up in an isolated, rural environment, locked into my mother’s back-to-basics world while my father was deployed overseas. Writing What Pecan Light is definitely a version of Diane Seuss’s “building a bearable myth.” 

 What does your process look like when writing poetry? Do you consistently use a certain space, how many drafts do you go through, etc.? 

Chaotic and varied, ha. I was born under a new moon (Cusp of Energy: Taurus/Gemini), and I am happiest when I bring a variety of energies to my writing. I joke (but it’s a serious joke!) that the best thing you can do for your writing is something else. Go garden. Go spend time with animals, music, baking. The poems will come to you more willingly this way, if you don’t hunt or stalk them. I often write on my phone, in the notes app (this method results in saved poems, as I’m impossible at remembering physical drafts). I try not to be too precious about writing time—I do it when I feel like it! I don’t experience writers block, which I suppose is something writers who force themselves to sit in a chair experience. I don’t think writing should be forced, or painful; I think it should be pleasurable.  

Who would you say are your strongest literary influences and why? 

Like which writers a reader might see in my poems, or who I like to bring up in every conversation? Haha. I adore Iris Murdoch, an Irish novelist, philosopher (and sometimes writer of very mid poetry—forgive me, Murdoch). Murdoch was genderqueer, and deeply invested in human desire and self-fantasy; you know a Murdoch character is intensely in their fantasy-comfort when they quote Saint Julian of Norwich’s “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Murdoch impresses me by richly detailing the impotence of that comfort, in a human life—no, it will not be well! But we can still “find something good and hold onto it like a terrier” (from her novel, The Good Apprentice). I also love Simone Weil (“it is better to say you are suffering than that the landscape is ugly”), and Wittgenstein (“a word’s meaning is its use in the language”), and basically many of the ordinary language philosophers. For poets, I’m deeply attached to C.D. Wright, Linda Gregg, Carl Phillips, Diane Seuss—all of them paying great attention to both recklessness and restraint. 

 What is the best advice you could give to beginner writers, especially in this unprecedented age of AI and collapsing humanities departments within higher education?  

Find your community; build the spaces you need. Your peers are the support who will keep you going, who will be there for you. The world is big, and various, and having non-transactional relationships where you make art together, at the end of the day, is what will sustain you and keep you going. Isolation is the death of artists. 

How has co-running a press affected your writing? Do you ever feel hindered by having to read so much of other people’s work? Or do you think it keeps you inspired and curious?  

River River Books has brought a greater understanding to my own manuscript submissions—I see my work as one among many. I think more (because this is a never-ending process and cycle in a writer’s life!) about the times I have falsely concluded my manuscript was “done,” when no—it was not. It is hard to be patient with one’s own writing—but you can’t force bloom a book, and you shouldn’t want to. Oscar Wilde said there are two tragedies in life: not getting what you wanted, and getting it. But there is a real inspiration in working with someone you admire and respect, and Amorak Huey is probably the greatest inspiration to me, along with our beautiful press authors. 

If you could change anything about the current professional writing world, what would it be and why?  

Do I have to choose between healthcare, or childcare, or job stability? Doom-jokes aside: we are somehow creating out of scarcity—we are somehow loving each other through forced competition, hierarchy, and gatekeeping. In some ways, we have never had such great access to information and art—think of everything we can stream! from a sonata to a French film to a museum talk or poetry reading—at the same time as such economic stratification and polarization between working and professional and upper classes. We can’t act like these things do not affect our colliding artistic communities—they do, at every level.  Every $30 press reading fee financially prohibits some poets from submitting their work—so let’s start with that: making these fees optional, as we do at River River Books. 

What has been the biggest challenge to your success as a poet so far?  

First, I would ask what you mean by success—a book? A community to make art with? I think the biggest challenge has been the lack of parental leave after giving birth (I was back in class a week or so postpartum, and I should not have been, but the department pressure was real, and birthing bodies are supposed to act like they never birthed) and the lack of care for years as a chronic pain sufferer. Artists are best able to make art when their bodies are cared for and when their bills are paid. 

Why should people in today’s world take an interest in reading poetry?

We see how profit reduces our bodies and our labor to numbers: to hours, to datapoints. Poetry refuses to be reduced: it subverts capitalist values, it thrives especially against censorship and political oppression. I think there IS something deeply populist about poetry, and when the academy tries to rarify it or keep it ivory-towered, they lose the heartbeat of poetry. Poetry is for the people the way graffiti and street music and parks and libraries are for the people. Eugenio Montale wrote that all you need for poetry is a pencil and paper, and he was right. 

What are you currently working on? Can we look forward to seeing anything new from you soon?  

I finished my second poetry manuscript Larks—largely about my sisters, trauma, birds, Ovid’s telling of Philomel—and am mostly finished with my third manuscript, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely—erotics and art and the geneaologies of desire. I’m hoping Larks finds the right press home this year! 

Tell us a little about “Of Poetry Podcast”.

Of Poetry Podcast has been a space of abundance and friendship and craft for me—I began it in summer 2021, as a way of supporting other poets with books published during the pandemic. It has grown and flourished and transformed, and I’m so grateful for the way it expands my own thinking about poetry, and brings the gift of other’s poetry to me. It is a community space in a way I could not dream of, and recently reached 10,000 downloads across listening platforms (Apple, Spotify, Google, etc).  

––Meagan Chandler, Mid-American Review