Mariel Fechik interviews Lyd Havens
Lyd Havens is the author of the chapbooks I Gave Birth to All the Ghosts Here (Nostrovia! Press, 2018) and Chokecherry (Game Over Books, 2021). Their work has previously been published in Ploughshares, The Shallow Ends, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Lyd lives in Boise, Idaho, where they will graduate from Boise State University in December 2021.
Chokecherry -- (https://www.gameoverbooks.com/product-page/chokecherry)
Mariel Fechik is a musician, writer, and librarian from Chicago, IL. She is also the interviews editor at Atwood Magazine. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Bettering American Poetry, and has appeared in Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Glass, and others. She is the author of Millicent (Ghost City Press, 2019) and prone to separation with Taylor Yocom (Ghost City Press, 2021).
Grief is a funny thing. It is one of life’s cruelest tricks; it is a blunt knife bearing down for indeterminable periods; it is a cold splash of water when you’re least expecting it. And yet, in the right hands, grief can be molded into something beautiful. Lyd Havens possesses the right hands. This is not to say that their pain isn’t palpable - their newest collection, Chokecherry (Game Over Books, 2021), is a monument to pain in many forms. The loss of three beloved family members. Parental estrangement. Violences large and intimate. But Havens’ words are teeming with life, cliche be damned. Their imagery pierces and comforts; their love for their grandparents and uncle a massive, glowing thing. The thing about this monument to pain is that it is also a monument to beauty. Despite grief, despite the often quiet violence of death, Havens promises “to remember.” And that promise, and all that comes with it, is beauty.
MF: What was the first poem you wrote for Chokecherry, and did that poem inform the rest of the collection?
LH: I think it was “Notname,” & I think you were one of the first people to read it! In some ways it did, since it’s about grief & that’s objectively the core theme of Chokecherry. And it was in every single version of the manuscript that became Chokecherry. But what really informed the book was my grandmother’s death in July 2020. It was already such a devastating time (my grandfather had died almost exactly a year prior, & the pandemic has felt like grief on the most macro of macro-levels), and after she passed away I remember just sitting at my desk, looking at all the poems I’d written or was writing, & it began to click into place.
MF: This book grieves three different people, all of whom are so tied, with you as a sort of ballast between. How did you strike this balance?
LH: This might be morbid to say, but I had a lot of practice writing about grief. My uncle died in 2008. My very first poems were about him & how my 10/11-year-old self was coping with his death & everything it brought about for my family. So when my grandfather died, I’d been writing about grief in some capacity for a decade or so. But I was also incredibly close with my grandparents—I dropped out of high school & spent all my time with them afterwards. Like, when I competed in poetry slams as a teenager, they both came & cheered everyone on. My grandma even read a poem there once. They were, & are, such a huge influence on the way I live my life.
So, I have a grief that I have lived with for most of my life—it still stings to say that. And now I’m grieving two of the most important people in my life. It’s a juxtaposition that I carry every day, so I think that’s how I got that balance. Just from the way my life has changed over the last two & a half years.
MF: Even from only seeing them in your poems, they seem so lovely and so lively. I get the sense that they've shaped your sense of self a lot more than some people who have lesser relationships with their grandparents.
LH: They really were, & I count myself as incredibly lucky to have had them, & to be related to them. Like, they hung out with my friends sometimes, & my friends adored them. I know a lot of people would be mortified to have their grandparents hang out with their friends, so I really do feel so lucky.
MF: It feels like “etymology” is a central idea to this book, especially in relation to memory and self-understanding. Can you talk about that a bit?
LH: There are two aspects of my life that shaped that lens of “etymology”: being the person who looks the most like my late uncle, and my estrangement from my father. When I was younger, it used to really bother me when I was told how much I look like my uncle—I didn’t want to be compared to a dead man, especially one I missed so much. It also didn’t help that my uncle died by suicide, and I attempted suicide at a very young age. I was so afraid that there was some kind of curse, that the eldest child of each generation was going to kill themselves. I wrote a whole essay about this earlier in the year, and maybe one day it’ll see the light of day, but that idea of etymology came from reflecting on that, as well as a more recent sense of pride in how much I look like him. It was a comfort to my grandparents, and it’s a comfort to my mother. All my best features were also his. I can appreciate the beauty in that now, even with the bittersweetness.
On the other side of that: the other “grief” of Chokecherry is my estrangement from my father. Maybe that’s more a heartbreaking rage than a grief. But in those first few months after we became estranged, I had no idea how to unpack the legacy of violence and trauma he left me & my whole family with. “Boomtown,” the very long middle poem in Chokecherry, was my first step toward that. I wrote “Someday I’ll Love Lyd Havens” while I was revising “Boomtown,” & it was quite cathartic, naming the fact that even though my father was violent, I’m not “destined” to be violent, just like I’m not “destined” to end my life. I still have a lot of work to do in unpacking that, but in a lot of ways those poems were the first steps.
MF: Reading that, I'm reminded of how often you reference mirrors or reflections in the book. Did you find that these metaphorical mirrors helped process the feelings you just mentioned, both in relation to your uncle and your father?
LH: I love that you asked that, because the essay I referenced is called “Mirrorings”! I write a lot about mirrors, and that’s definitely why. In [the poem] “Chokecherry,” I write that I was hanging up a mirror in my bedroom the night my uncle died, and that’s a memory that’s always haunted me. My connection to the mirrors goes pretty far in that respect too.
MF: There's a line in "Unsayings" that really stuck with me: "Memory: the most unreliable part of the body." This, to me, also has to do with that idea of reflection - in both a physical sense and a mental one. And it's such an interesting juxtaposition with the book's final line, "I promise to remember." Can you talk about the role of memory here, unreliable and not?
LH: I’ve always written from memory, so in a way it was just a reflex. But my grandmother also spent the last year & a half of her life with dementia that rapidly deteriorated after my grandfather died. In the first few months of the pandemic, I was one of her caregivers, and watching her forget herself was absolutely agonizing. Those months leading up to her death might be what informed the book the most, because all everyone around her could do was remember on her behalf. And since I already default to writing about memory, I was thinking about memory a lot. The memories of who she was before she got sick, the memories of my uncle & his death, & how painful it is that I have more memories of him being dead than alive. Memories from my childhood. Memories from the year I became estranged from my dad & my grandfather died suddenly, & I was the least fun person to be around all the time. In some ways, remembering began to feel like an obligation, but also a blessing? Like, at least I can remember this, at least I can record it. And some of the remembering in Chokecherry isn’t as heavy as all that. There’s a poem about my best friend holding my hand while I was getting tattooed. There’s a poem where I mention singing Bruce Springsteen at karaoke. Hopefully, the next book or the book after that will be more about that kind of remembering.
MF: Speaking of Bruce, I know that music is really important to you and comes up often in your work. How does music impact your writing?
LH: I grew up listening to the music my parents grew up listening to, with very few exceptions (KT Tunstall and Brandi Carlile were my gay awakening in 2006). But once I started using the Internet, particularly Tumblr, I started to develop my own taste, which I think back then people called “hipster” (maybe they still do??). I heard Laura Marling for the first time in 2010 and she’s been my number 1 musician ever since. In some ways I live by her lyric “I speak because I can / to anyone I trust enough to listen.” But she’s been an influence of mine ever since then—she’s incredible at telling a story through her lyrics.
This doesn’t come up at all in Chokecherry, but in 2019 I saw Lucy Dacus live and she performed what was then a new song and asked that no one record it. That song was “Thumbs,” which is on her most recent album (that I’ve been listening to nonstop). The song’s about going with her friend to meet the friend’s estranged dad, & Dacus fantasizes about killing him because he’s just so awful. Hearing that song in that moment, about 10 months after becoming estranged from my own dad, was honestly life-changing, both as a writer and just as a person. To write about love and hatred at the same time, in such a precise & devastating way—that might be what I’ve been aspiring to all this time. That song gave me a lot of permission to write an angry yet loving book, and I didn’t even hear it again until after the book was finished.
Beyond that: I’m a huge fan of The National, especially their lyrics. I quote their song “Humiliation” in the penultimate poem. All my friends will attest to my undying love for Sufjan Stevens—if I could have found a way to fit him into Chokecherry, I would have. And when I was in the process of revising the book, I listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel. “The Only Living Boy in New York” played at the reception after my uncle’s memorial, and even though it’s such a difficult memory, I’ve always had such a deep love for them, & that song in particular. My grandparents really liked them too, so it felt right to listen to them during that process. I’m pretty sure “America” will be my #1 song when I get my Spotify Wrapped at the end of the year.
MF: Laura Marling, as we both know, is the most incredible. And honestly, I can see that influence in your writing. Outside of musicians, who are the writers who sit on your shoulder when you write?
LH: Ah, that makes me so happy! Ocean Vuong has influenced me so deeply, both in his writing & what he’s said in interviews. I don’t know him at all outside of his work, but he seems like a generous person in every sense of the word. I also just think the things he does with language are mesmerizing. I’m moving in a couple weeks, and counting down the days that I get my copies of his books out of storage so I can reread them.
More recently, I read Dorothy Allison’s short story collection Trash, and I’ve felt her “presence” in my writing life ever since. She doesn’t hold anything back. There are some poems in Chokecherry that I’m still occasionally terrified of, but Dorothy Allison has helped me face that terror. She’s helped me realize that I shouldn’t be afraid of my work.
I’m also very lucky that one of my favorite writers was also a professor of mine. I’ve raved about her book, Idaho, to anyone who’ll listen, and I recognize how biased I am, but Emily Ruskovich has definitely been on my shoulder a lot for the last three years. In a class I took with her, she said that “beauty is clarity,” & I think about that a lot. I’ll probably embroider that on something and put it above my desk soon.
MF: I love that quote. I love this idea that other writers can live in your work like specters, without necessarily being overt. And truly, there is a sense of clarity at the end of each of these poems. I’m wondering about "Boomtown" specifically, which seems like the centerpiece of this book in a lot of ways, and does a lot of work to clarify or synthesize a lot of the book's themes. Can you talk about that poem's journey a bit?
LH: Oh, god. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard on a poem as I have on “Boomtown.” It started in a poetry class, where our final was supposed to be a chapbook of poems. Early on, I realized how badly I needed to challenge myself as someone who mostly writes 1, 2 pages maximum poems. So I asked my professor (Emily Pittinos, who’s a phenomenal poet & person) if I could write a chapbook length poem. She was incredibly enthusiastic about it, and helped me so much with the many revisions.
The poem started during a class field trip to the Idaho State Museum, where we were doing ekphrastic exercises. I found this painting of a house/general store near a set of railroad tracks, and the sky is just this brilliant pink-orange. I was drawn to it not just for that, but because there was a sign in the window of the house that said “Wallace”—my mother’s maiden name.
At the time, I had only been estranged from my father for two months. I was also getting over my first love. I truly was heartbroken, and like I said earlier, not very fun to be around. So, “Boomtown” ended up becoming partially an ekphrasis/alternate history, as well as a record of my coping. Because it started in a museum, I used a lot of notes & materials I had from an art history class I’d taken the prior semester for inspiration as well. And then there were just memories I was trying to process: I talk about a road trip where my mom nearly walked out of the car because my dad was just being so unimaginably shitty. There are facts about my father that predate my birth that I’d been trying to unpack for years. Chokecherry is a book I absolutely had to write, & “Boomtown” was a poem I absolutely HAD to write, & see to the very end.
MF: I love the use of a museum as a microcosm of memory. I was going to ask which poem in this book is most vital to you, but I think you may have just answered that.
LH: “Boomtown,” for sure. The titular poem, “Chokecherry” as well, if only because I am incredibly proud of that poem. “Maine Laments,” for all the life in it, especially my grandmother’s life. “A determination,” simply because it was the first “happy” poem I’d written in ages, and because it’s for my best friend. But truthfully, I have a deep love for every poem in the book for one reason or another. I’ve never been prouder of something I’ve written—and I’m so grateful that it’s out in the world now, and that people have found something to love in it.
MF: Titles fascinate me. How do you encapsulate an entire book into one brief phrase? Why Chokecherry?
LH: It had so many titles before that, & none of them were quite right. I’ve never had that much difficulty naming something. The team at GoB was incredibly patient with me, & Chokecherry eventually came up & immediately felt like the perfect fit. (Thank you, Josh & Jillian!) I think it works so well because the poem it’s named after encapsulates a lot of what the book is about: family, grief, coping, geography. A few people have also brought up that it reminded them of the idea of a family tree, and while I wasn’t thinking of that, I like that interpretation too. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized how many of these poems take place outside. So, I think it’s fitting that it’s named after something of the natural world.
MF: What is the one thought or sentiment that you hope people leave Chokecherry with?
LH: Maybe a reassurance that multiple truths can exist at once. Chokecherry is about grief, but it’s also about gratitude, and how they have collided throughout my life. That medley is confusing & complex, but it’s real & valid. Let yourself feel it, and know that you’re not alone in that complexity.
And to paraphrase a line from “A Determination”: chase joy whenever you can. This honestly goes beyond Chokecherry—it’s something I’ve clung to during the last year of isolation. Whatever that joy is, chase it, feel it, cherish it. Welcome it in.
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