An Intense Kind of Listening: An Art Talk with Poet and NEA Literature Fellow Hadara Bar-Nadav

By Paulette Beete
black and white photo of Hadara Bar Nadav

Hadara Bar-Nadav. Photo by Sharon Gottula

When poet Hadara Bar-Nadav—whose most recent collection is The New Nudity—received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in 2017, she said, “The NEA fellowship is a recognition that the arts are absolutely vital. It reminded me that there is a way to ask difficult questions, create conversation, and perhaps even to heal.” Whether taking on the persona of the sun to muse on mortality, or exploring the thumb as a microcosm of the range of human emotions, or exploring "Americanness" in an erasure poem made from the package insert of a prescription medicine, Bar-Nadav’s work asks what it is to bear witness, what it is to grieve, what it means to remember, and ultimately, what it is to be human at a particular moment in history. These questions seem even more urgent in these uncertain times, but Bar-Nadav assures us that rather than causing us to despair, reckoning with these essential questions through the vehicle of poetry, of the arts, can actually open us up to deeper and more profound connections with one another even amidst the turmoil. As she asserts in this interview, “This is what poetry [can] do.”

NEA: How did you first become engaged with the arts?

HADARA BAR-NADAV: My mother signed me up for piano lessons when I was three, and I studied piano formally for 10 or 11 years. By the time I was four or five I was heavily engaged in visual art, and when I turned six, I started writing poems. I feel like I've always been very immersed in the arts. It was really once I got to college that I decided I was going to focus on poetry and maybe that was something I could continue doing professionally. I also was in a band in my 20s… and I seriously painted all the way through grad school.

NEA: With everything you were doing, with music and the visual arts, what made you decide to pursue poetry professionally?

BAR-NADAV: I had this idea when I was a medical editor that language could heal, and I was in love with that idea, romantically in love with that idea. "Is that really possible?" What I did as a medical editor was really more about selling drugs; some of those [projects] were good and some were less good. I really just became lonely for poetry and creativity on a daily basis. Down to the cellular level I missed poetry. I had this revelation, that I could spend the rest of my life being a medical editor, make very good money, and have a solid career path, or I could do what made me happy, and really make a go of it and try to publish poems, books, and possibly be a professor. So I went right from being a medical editor into my PhD program [in English and creative writing] at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poetry helps me combine my love of the other arts.

NEA: Can you take me through your creative process?

BAR-NADAV: I would say at this point I have two distinct processes. The first one is typically I sit down with two, three, four, five books of poetry at a time, and a couple of art books, and I just start reading and looking at images and something kind of catches. I very much think of poetry as a response to the world around me. I think of it as me being in conversation with other writers, other artists. So I typically will read until a word cluster gathers. Maybe it's a poem that I want to respond to. Maybe it's an image that's really arresting. The visual art goes the same way. I'll be looking at images and words start to sort of float up to me or the way particular colors look will start to trigger a poem and I just have to let it go wherever it goes. It's sometime after that process where I've written a bunch of material that I then go back to try to revise and really think about how the poem is working, to explore certain areas or reconsider form, and start that revision activity that is both intuitive and I think craft-based and intellectual at the same time.

I'm [also] working on these erasures of pharmaceutical package inserts… drawing on my medical editing experience. I've been looking at medications my family has consumed in the past three years or so, and creating poems from these bits of language, and that feels a little bit more like puzzling things together. I'm taking a word from here and a word from there and a word from the third page and a word from the seventh page and mapping it together through these kind of constellations of language, and then trying to figure out what comes first, second, third, fourth, fifth. It's very collaborative because I'm working with given text, but there's also something that feels like translation to me, in part because the language of medicine is so different from the language that we're speaking in. It's a whole different register. Not only are the words—"pharmacokinetics," for instance—not language laypeople would use, but the way words are used changed markedly.

NEA: You just spoke of some of your poems as being collaborative, yet we generally think of poetry as such a solitary genre, right?

BAR-NADAV: You’re right, physically I am alone when I write. But poetry is something that makes me hyper-connected to the world and to the universe around me. I love writing fan mail to poets. Thankfully I also receive fan mail on occasion. But I love writing fan mail, and poetry, art in general, I think, it breaks through our isolation. There's a little knock and it's somebody saying, "I'm here. I'm here with you. I felt somewhat similarly also. I've experienced something also." It's this very intense kind of listening that the regular chaos of our lives makes hard to hear. When I'm writing and reading poetry, I'm also completely open and super connected, in a way that social media only wishes it could achieve.

NEA: You received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017. What did that make possible for you?

BAR-NADAV: I had a three-year-old and was something like six months' pregnant when I found out I won the NEA, and I was over the moon. [Receiving the fellowship] meant a kind of recognition that was very heartening to me at a time when I had actually stopped writing for months. When I'm not writing… it makes me feel crooked and off-balance in the world. This [fellowship] came through and I was like, "Wait, have hope, have faith. You can do this work. Find the language to do it." It made me brave. It made me hopeful and want to get back to language and take a chance. The NEA enabled me to take a semester off of teaching, cover some of my childcare expenses, and have time to finish my latest book, which is called The New Nudity. It was published a couple of years ago from Saturnalia Books, and I wouldn't have been able to do that work without the Arts Endowment. It may have taken me another five years to write my book, but the fact that I had months of uninterrupted writing time was absolutely what I needed. I did also use some of the money to go on book tour, which was wonderful. I was able to talk to probably thousands of people about poetry and why it matters. I'm sure I taught hundreds of students during that tour as well. I wouldn't have done any of that without the NEA; I'm extremely grateful for that award.

NEA: What is it that you want the writing of a poem to do in the world?

BAR-NADAV: Especially in these times, I hope that [poetry] makes people feel less alone, that they feel like they have a community and they have people who hear them and see them. I also hope it helps people have a space to feel and to think in a world that doesn't allow us a lot of time and space to hear and to think and to feel. The quiet and the connectedness is a tremendous life-affirming gift. Yesterday I got a piece of fan mail from somebody whose wife had passed away, and he said something like, "Your book, Lullaby (With Exit Sign), "could stop a flock of geese and a group of men lifting weights. My wife died, and it brought me such comfort." He told me to go to his Facebook page and I could see a picture of his wife who had passed if I wanted to, and that he was just grateful for the poem. I had just gotten a poetry rejection and was feeling badly about it. I’d just gotten a bunch of terrible news from the university about my job. I was just feeling awful, and this note came through to say, "Thank you for your work. I hear you. Here's what I've been dealing with," and I just wept. We exchanged a couple of messages and I thought, "This is what poetry could do."

Learn more about Hadara Bar-Nadav and read a sample of her work on her NEA Literature Fellows page.