Feature Poet:
Barbara Helfgott Hyett

Soul-Lit co-founding editor,Deborah Leipziger, conducted this interview with feature poet, Barbara Helfgott Hyett:

SL: How did you first come to discover poetry?

BHH: My father brought home from WWII a US Military issued collection of AMERICAN POEMS. I remember his reading from it to me: Robert Frost, Longfellow, and the like. He read with sadness in his voice and I was moved. I think I was three or so, for we moved into an apartment with a reading chair! I cried when he read me Enoch Arden.  At Massachusetts Avenue School, we kids had to memorize and declaim poems. I especially loved Flanders Field. By Atlantic City High, we read poetry in English all the time. For the Pen American Award our teacher made each student enter, I charged kids 25 cents a poem written by me. After Paul Tischman won a college scholarship from our district with a poem of mine, I became more careful with my words. I majored in English, which was nothing but poetry for three years after that. My favorite subject in those days was love— pieces about being in love and pieces about saying goodbye. Nothing good, and nothing but.

SL: Your poetry covers a wide range of themes, from history and memory to birds and love. Tell us about your journey and evolution as a poet.

BHH: After graduate school, I was hooked on poetry. I attended graduate school to become a professor, not a writer, really. Until I turned 31 and 17 members of my family died: by the end of four months I had no parents, aunts, uncles, and only two cousins left. This trial led to my first collection, NATURAL LAW, poems as memoir, of time, and place, Atlantic City, my home town. I couldn't find a publisher, though I had poems in The New Republic, The Nation, and 30 other fine national journals. I was teaching at Boston University, and met Elie Wiesel and began sitting in on his classes. My first published collection was IN EVIDENCE, poems of the "Liberation" of Nazi Concentration camps, based on oral history I conducted with other BU Faculty and graduate students with GIs who had stumbled on the camps. After that, my book of poems on Atlantic City, appeared. Second book first. Patience is all. 

My next book was on the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. I had found his journal on my shelf, a book shop sale years and years before. I was depressed after IN EVIDENCE and figured I could let the Admiral speak my thoughts about war and death, violence, and subterfuge. At first, he did. One poem for each day of his sorely lacking Diario: "Oct. Today it rained." I could bring something more to that. Of course, it took years for me to learn his languages, to travel his many countries, his voyage, the history, and my own discoveries: discovered he had a lover who was the governor on the Canary Island of Gomera, where the Santa Maria broke down. I visited three anchors in three different cites, all purported to be the Santa Maria; saw over forty portraits of the man. Forty different men. I joined "The Society of the History of Discoveries" to learn that modern historians were hunting for the true Columbus! (By this writing, he was a Portuguese spy!)

Once THE DOUBLE RECKONING OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS appeared, I began to be interested in endangered wildlife, this because the last several entries in "The Diario" were lies about the animals he was seeing. Since I had applied for travel fellowships to learn about Columbus in Europe, I now applied for grants to take a peek at the creatures on the U.S. Endangered Wildlife List. That book represents five years of travel, all the while teaching, raising my children, and growing a long-term marriage. 

When my husband left the family, I had four collections of poems that appeared as "poetry/history" or "poetry/science" in the Library of Congress Catalogue. Within a year I began writing my grief, growth, and new strength, using the figures of Bernini's statue, "Daphne and Apollo" to center the metaphor. Four years in the writing, I was healed, and found myself writing happiness, new men, and new life into RIFT, which was published. My fifth book appeared with poetry from the root of my consciousness. My mostly very new poems consider memory and language acquisition. It centers on my early experiences, and is part of a search understanding my profound love of my four grandchildren. What was I thinking when I was 5, or 8, or 11 and 12? Thus far, I find that I am much the person I have always been. Same concerns, as in an urge toward fairness, and bossiness which I have satisfied in my teaching career!

SL: Which poets have inspired you?

BHH: I read all poets, always and consider them my most remarkable teachers. Luckily I studied for several years with C.K. Williams, whose teaching style became my own, Charlie was a brilliant poet we have sadly and newly lost to our lives. I studied as well with Ellen Voigt and Ruth Whitman, who taught me all they could about my poems and how to work them. I love their work as well. I read Szymborska, Hart Crane, Keats, Joyce, Yeats, Americans Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kwame Dawes, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and, of course all of Rilke as translated by Stephen Mitchell. In my classes, I teach Ocean Yvong, Kay Ryan, and my friend, Lucie Brock Broido, all of her books when she died two months ago. My own dear friends, Kathi Aguero and Richard Hoffman, sustain me. And French poetry, and new poems from Africa and Central America, and everywhere I find it.

Happily, my students send poems from their new readings to me daily. These I study to learn ways of proceeding through time, ways of remembering, of writing to our particular political moment. I conduct private workshops for poets seeking publication. Wonderful networks arise there, everyone writing hard, and revising even harder. I see poetry as a collective art. Over and in time, over and in place. Every class I teach we end with a free write off of a poem we have read, four minutes and fourteen seconds per class. Then we each read aloud, and "steal" from one another, as well as from studied work.  This I call "literary allusion." And so my next book nears completion. And the books of my honest and brilliant students as well.

SL: Any final words?

BHH: My life is rich with experience, a world watched, and noted, incessant reading, writing and reconsidering, writing again, a life of absolute privacy in the belly of hard work, a poet's life.