Heather Bourbeau is a writer living in Berkeley. Her poetry has been published in Alimentum, Open City, Boston Literary Magazine, Cleaver, The Fabulist, Tupelo Press and Work. Her piece “Hopscotch” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a finalist for the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, a Tupelo Press 30/30 poet, and the winner of the Pisk! Poetry Slam. Her journalism has appeared in The Economist, The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and The New York Times. She was a contributing writer to the New York Timesbestseller, Not On Our Watch: A Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond with Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. She has worked with various United Nations agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia. Her first collection of poetry, Daily Palm Castings, profiles people in overlooked professions.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I have become more comfortable with saying I am a writer, which is different and more vulnerable for me than saying “journalist” (which I was for many years).
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My biggest struggle is finding the balance to work on my creative writing, pay my bills through my paid employment, explore the world, and enjoy my people.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Remember: paid gigs are necessary, but they do not define you. Allow what makes your heart soar (not ache) be how you view yourself.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I am inspired by my father’s mother and her sister, my great aunt. They both followed their creative spirits. My grandmother was a violinist who married late for her time (in her late 20s) and supported herself through school by teaching music. She continued to play violin and was first violinist in community orchestras until she was in her 70s. My great-aunt had several jobs (and a few beaus). She won a little sum at the racetrack and opened her own diner, “the Old Gray Mare,” in honor of the horse. But in her 30s she realized that she wanted to become a nun and commit to social work. She taught in inner-city schools in Chicago and elsewhere, and all the while, wrote poetry and encouraged our creative pursuits. They were ahead of their time and for their bravery to be themselves and allow me, my brother and my cousins the same, I am grateful.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
When I was ten, I wanted to be a veterinarian and writer like James Herriot, the author of All Creatures Great and Small.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Enough to take care of myself and to keep writing.
What’s wrong with society today?
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
What is your fondest memory?
The one that is yet to happen.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I would like to see an end to the War on Drugs that has led to such discrimination and a prison industrial complex in this country. I would like to see women not questioned about their appearance, their childcare, or their cooking skills when they are running for public office. I would like to see Somalia become a peaceful and functioning nation with protections for its most vulnerable. I would like to see artists and teachers and mediators valued appropriately and financially in this country. And I would like to see the children I love live their fullest, truest lives in a world that is ecologically sound and good.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is essential. It offers new perspectives on the quotidian and the extraordinary, political and social events or issues, and our collective experience. It allows our minds to relax and expand, to be challenged and amused. But most of all, it offers joy, and we need more joy.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Oh, Evan, you are wonderful, but some things are best discovered and not written.
What are you working on right now?
This questionnaire, a collaboration with a sculptor, and a poetry manuscript.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I would like to continue working as a foreign policy analyst while writing my poetry and short stories and maybe slipping in a non-fiction book here and there.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The extraordinary rise in housing costs. We are pricing out the poor, the immigrants, the writers and artists. The me who moved here in 1987 as a teen with big dreams and not so much cash could not live and thrive here now. I am grateful to have known the city at that time, but those days are gone.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
It would involve a meal with friends (either at home or out), a literary or political event, and maybe — if I had a disco nap — dancing. Or a simple night hike through the hills.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
There was so much sorrow, documented and dissected — she searched for the belly warm, the sly smile making, unexpected and fleeting joys. She questioned children, bit her tongue, laughed too hard, and bartered with memories. Until joy became joyless. Then someone offered her 50 words for her alone to craft.
What are some of your favorite smells?
The smell of wet concrete and dirt after a particularly good rain. Baking bread. Malt roasting. California bay laurel along a long hike. The musk on a lover’s shirt or neck. Mulling cider. Spearmint found. Spice markets. Lavender, sage and fennel along my run.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
To write, travel and dance around the world with long stops in Bhutan, New Zealand, Tanzania, Mauritius, Iceland, Suriname and New Mexico.