An interview with Jennifer Hasegawa from The Write Stuff series:
Jennifer Hasegawa is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet who has sold funeral insurance door-to-door and had her suitcase stolen from a plastic surgery clinic in Asunción, Paraguay. She was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi and lives in San Francisco. The manuscript for her first book of poetry, La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai Living, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Bamboo Ridge, Bennington Review, Tule Review, and Vallum and is forthcoming in jubilat.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
If I’m at my day job, I tell people I’m a poet. If I’m with poets, I tell them I’m a content designer.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Aside from the fundamental struggle to remain healthy, housed, and fed, my biggest struggle is writing new poems. I don’t write in a steady stream. There are long dry spells in between. When I’m in the middle of one of those spells, it feels like it will never end. The idea that what brings meaning to your life has left. That’s my struggle.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I’d say, “What am I doing?” I can’t imagine that anyone would want to do what I do. I work 12-hour days in tech and then struggle to write a new poem once every 1-6 months. It took me 20 years to publish my first book. If anything, people can learn from my mistakes more than what I’m actually doing.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
Oh, that’s so difficult to answer. I’d like to say the real world. But for me, because I need external pressure to get work done, education may have been more important at the start. An education in creative writing gave me the frame of reference that I needed to be able to begin to create a belief in my writing. I needed the rigor of an educational setup to learn about the nuts and bolts of the craft so that today I can sort of feel secure in doing my own thing, knowing where I’m pushing and pulling on the craft. Not everyone needs as much structure as I do, so formal education may not be as important to some people.
But all that said, of course, writing truly great poetry can’t be taught! Real world experience must be in the mix. And I’d add in something like belief—belief in the act of writing. It sounds obvious, but there have been periods in my life during which I had the education and the real world experience, but lost the will to write. And this belief may be the most difficult thing to maintain through the years of rejection, doubt, and little successes that are fleeting, at best.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Don’t date that coke addict.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I can’t think about it. If I do and the answer is yes, I stop working. If I do and the answer is no, I stop working. To keep working, I can’t think about it.
Why do you get up every morning?
I get up every morning because anything could happen. I think of myself as a pessimist, or an extreme realist, so I’m not saying that I get up because of all of the wonderful possibilities that could arise in my life. I get up because; good, bad, and in-between; as a poet, I’m here for all of it.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
My favorite sanctuary is the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Of course, I can’t always get to Houston on a whim, but now that I’ve experienced the chapel, I can transport myself there by looking at a postcard of the chapel’s interior, closing my eyes, breathing, and staring at the patterns of dark and light. A poor recreation of Rothko’s black paintings, but better than nothing!
What is your fondest memory?
My memory is broken. Whatever I manage to remember just comes back in flashes. Nothing more than a video clip about 30 seconds long. Of these video clips I have, my fondest memory is of being a teenager at a campsite near the top of Mauna Kea, which, when measured from its underwater base, is the tallest mountain in the world. I walked out of a cabin very early in the morning with my best friend. We stood in awe as everything at our ground level was covered in clouds. We were standing above the clouds and everything that could remind us of our constraints was hidden. It was a moment of pure potential and I look back at it with great joy and sadness at the same time.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is creation. The act of creating something that didn’t exist before. Is it necessary? For me, as a person who needs to create to feel alive, it is. If I weren’t able to create, I don’t know what I’d do. I definitely have a skewed view of life, perhaps because I’ve been made to be good at disassociation, but in order to feel like I’ve lived, I need to see proof of art.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
My relationship to clothes has changed since March 2020. After 9 months of sheltering in place, working remotely via video conference, and rarely going outside, my desire for physical objects beyond housing and food, is nearly non-existent. I am shocked because for all of my adult life, I’ve been a clothes horse, accumulating clothes and accessories to the point of being excessive. I knew that what I was doing was not correct, but I could not stop myself. In hindsight, I recognize that I used these things to self-medicate and, as strange as it sounds, to protect myself as I moved around in the physical world.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I am working on an opera libretto based on a novella-in-tanka I wrote a couple of years ago. It is inspired by the life of Sister Agnes Sasagawa, who witnessed the Virgin of Akita. It is inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge UFO abduction case. It is inspired by the work of technologist Jaron Lanier.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I have not seen a ghost, but I have done acid and I saw some things that changed my perspective on the nature of the world we live in. For example, I saw light shining out from my navel and this light connected with the lights coming from the navels of everyone around me. I have no idea where this vision came from. I had zero New Age dogma in me at the time. I was just a dumb college student experimenting with drugs.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned?
I wish I had an answer to this one. I need some important life lessons right now. I want to say something like, “Slow down. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” But what’s the fun in that?