An interview with Hazel White from The Write Stuff series:
Hazel White is the author of Vigilance Is No Orchard (Nightboat 2018), which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, Fence Ottoline Prize, and California Book Award. She was one of the winners of a 1-minute monologue competition, in Tony Labat’s public art project at SFMOMA. Her monologue was titled I Want You to End Racism. She’s writing now about violence.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I’m a poet.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Language—how to articulate something with enough registers of resonance, precision, depth, curiosity, and surprise that language becomes an event, like a storm or a petal drop.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Work hard on structuring the support needed for such an interior life.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
The real world. I was an awkward, quiet student in the CCA MFA writing program. I hadn’t had a U.S. education, so I felt a bit ignorant. Whereas, the real world is very vibrant for me. Vigilance Is No Orchard began with an experience of a garden, and figuring out what made me so superalert there and how to write of it took me 20 years! My new manuscript, What’s Not the Same as a Purchase?, comes from my experience and exploration of violence, straight from the real world of the English countryside, a former slave-trading town called Bristol, and the liberal Bay Area.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Could you take up running, or some athletic activity that becomes a lifelong habit of being present and strong in the body in the world?
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. I grew up in a poor family, farmworkers, in the middle of nowhere, in the southwest of England, the second of six children. I was the one child in my middle school who passed the exam that allowed me later to apply to university. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and even to go to London, 150 miles away. It was inconceivable then that I would one day be a writer of published books living in San Francisco.
Why do you get up every morning?
I have trouble getting up in the morning. I love to sleep.
What’s wrong with society today?
A reckoning with the history and consequences of colonial violence, racism, and capitalism is long overdue.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
A pullout on the cliff road in the Marin Headlands that overlooks the ocean and the city. I stop there on my way to Headlands Center for the Arts, where I’ve had a studio on and off for several years. I love the long blue-gray view and the stir of the Monterey pines in the foreground.
What is your fondest memory?
Right now, during COVID lockdown, my fondest memory is of travel—being in St. Ives, in Cornwall, England, for a week, in a tiny flat across from the Barbara Hepworth Museum, 20 yards from the harbor, 1/4 mile from Tate St. Ives. I have fond memories also of being an agricultural journalist in London, covering the early UK protests against European membership, visiting peat farmers in Finland, artichoke growers in France.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Racial justice. My son is black. It cannot come fast enough.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I’m just finishing Lisa Robertson’s novel, The Baudelaire Fractal. On p. 141, there’s a fantastic description of the value of the poet as an “augmenter . . . the one who inserts extra folds into the woven substance of language . . . includes the displaced parts, because they are pleasurable, because they are moody, lazy, slutty, mannered, frivolous, unprincipled, because they are necessary, because they are monstrous, because they are angry, because history needs them without knowing it yet, because without them the world gets grindingly thinner and more cruel, becomes a parody of the sign.”
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
I love great fabrics and design. I remember vividly the feel of my childhood dresses and school uniform. I sewed and knitted my own clothes as a teenager and in my twenties. Now I have just a few things that I love and wear all the time, to please myself. I’m wearing black boots that I bought on sale in May, to cheer myself up, Doc Martens-style, soft leather, large grommets.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I’m writing about the shock of newness, a January that acts like spring.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The unequal distribution of wealth.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Dinner with friends at Lers Ros, then lecture at The Nourse.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I have accompanied a ghost. I was alone with my mother-in-law when she died. I felt her spirit move down and out of her body, then we were both floating in the air above a garden of hers long ago, her favorite place there, and then she was hesitating to leave and I wondered whether I was going too.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
It was a very big deal to leave the country where I grew up.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words, years ago, I was on the way to being a winner of a 1-minute monologue competition at SFMOMA, a public art project by Tony Labat.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Roses and damp grass, fish and chips by the sea, sagebrush, hawthorn blossom, fava bean flowers under apple trees in bloom.
What are you unable to live without?
Persian tea, from Samiramis in the Mission.
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
In mid-January 2021, I’m thinking I would be willing to spend a large part of the day maintaining that society.