Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn. Photo by Nancy Bareis


"This is a very practical side to the arts: opening up space for creativity---be it in painting or biology!---and nurturing it." --- Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn is the author of several collections of poetry, including Toxic Flora: Poems, released by W.W. Norton in 2010. Her many awards include NEA Literature Fellowships in 1986 and 1992 and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. As Laurie Sheck noted about the poet's work in a 2006 interview for BOMB Magazine, "[Hahn] suggests that 'a sense of disorder might be artfully ordered by fragmenting, juxtaposing, contradicting, varying length or---even within a piece---topic.” We spoke with Hahn, one of the writers appearing at this weekend's National Book Festival, about her use of form, the relationship between artist and community, and the importance of creativity in contemporary life.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

KIMIKO HAHN: A friend believes that being an artist is a calling and I agree. Of course, there is the everyday-ness of reading and writing. In fact, there is no such thing as a vacation or day off. My day is pretty organized as much as possible around a writing routine. But "calling," to me, means responding to a powerful internal, human impulse.

NEA: What do you remember as your first experience/engagement with the arts?

HAHN: We lived in Rome when I was a baby and my mother's story goes that, in imitation of my father painting on white canvases, I scribbled on his studio walls. One of my own early memories was my mother read Kipling's Just So stories. The words were so magical that I kept laughing and begging her to reread the same story. I was in love with her, with the storyteller and the words.

NEA: What has been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?

HAHN: That's difficult to choose. I was the warm-up act for Adrienne Rich at the Guild Complex in Chicago (1992?)---a great honor and totally cool. A small, private one: a few years ago in Florence, while standing in front of a Byzantine triptych of the Madonna, I suddenly began weeping. There was something about the flat gold background, the mother and child, and the delicate brushstrokes.

NEA: Can you talk about the use of form in your work: What interests you about the forms you use? How does form inform your subject matter, if at all? Or perhaps the question is, does using form allow you to access subject matter that you might not be able to get to/at/through with free verse?

HAHN: I write in very distinct forms: three arrive from my background in Japanese literature, the tanka, nikki, and zuihitsu. I love reading these (now only in translation) and subverting the forms to my own needs. I tend to write more autobiographical material, especially in the zuihitsu. The nikki is a Japanese diary form that is not the same as the Western non-fiction record of events; my own are based on autobiography but not factual. It's a different mindset really. Most of my poetry is conventional open verse. Over the years I have been creating a style that suits my aesthetic needs: highlight diction with one- and two-lined stanzas, play with slant rhyme and word associations. I have never felt restricted to any particular subject matter and for my recent collections of this kind of work (The Artist's Daughter and Toxic Flora), I have used a great deal of outside material. Sometimes actual research.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

HAHN: The artist is a citizen like everyone else and should participate as such. This might mean participating in the PTA, leafleting for a campaign, or adding art to the community (public library or street or school). There is no one way to engage. The point is not to be isolated.

NEA: Conversely, what do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?

HAHN: It was very thrilling to see, in my youth, how artists participated in Nicaragua. They were part of overthrowing the dictator and later helped to rebuild society with their art. Art and artists were not marginalized but a part of the culture as a whole, an integral and necessary part of one's life. Not separate. Not icing. Fundamental. Because of our history---Americans are suspicious of intellectuals and art is not always taught well in schools---people are often fearful of the arts, especially poetry. It's as if artists are going to make them feel stupid. Various partnerships between artists and communities could make a difference. Children express themselves so joyfully and then it stops.

NEA: Why do you think the general public needs poetry? Why do you need poetry?

HAHN: Everyone needs to express her or himself. Some people hum as they walk down the street. Others dance at a club or wedding. It's all expression. And poetry could have a place like that in people's lives---something as simple as poetry in the subways set up by the transit system and The Poetry Society of America. Poetry allows me to explore and express my authentic self---whether the poem concerns childhood or social change or a poisonous plant.

NEA: How do you think we can get younger generations to engage with the arts outside of what they might see on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance?

HAHN: Considering how the arts are being slashed out of school budgets, I think young people are doing really well. Art is surviving in many forms---be it spoken word poetry or computer graphics. There needs to be more spaces, real or virtual, where this can take place. More mentoring would be good---I think that's why audiences respond to someone like Simon Cowell. He was giving a kind of ten-second critique that was very clearly stated as opposed to just thumbs-up-thumbs-down which doesn't reveal anything about a medium. The audience wanted to learn what makes someone a powerful performer.

NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.”  When it comes to the field of poetry---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work that poets and the community of writers are making that isn’t yet there?

HAHN: Along with other writers at The City University of N.Y., I initiated a Chapbook Festival sponsored by such programs as The Poetry Society of America and The Center for Book Arts. We will have our fourth one this spring, and the list of sponsors keeps growing because more and more writers and arts administrators see the need for this renaissance. In the changing environment of publishing, this "outlaw" means of expression is necessary.

NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?

HAHN: Citizens should contribute and benefit to the arts. I know I would prefer having tax dollars go to an artist fellowship or a theater company than, say, building a prison. The National Endowment for the Arts radiates art outward into communities in as many ways as there are artists. If our nation is going to stay/become competitive, if it's going to be a full participant in progress, then future generations will need to have creative minds. This is a very practical side to the arts: opening up space for creativity---be it in painting or biology!---and nurturing it.

Kimiko Hahn will take the stage in the NEA Poetry & Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival on Saturday, September 24 at 3:30 p.m. Can't make it? Follow @NEAarts. We'll be tweeting all weekend with the hashtag #natbookfest.


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