Getting To Know hannah fries and Her New Book Little Terrarium
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
The first poems I heard were probably lullabies, followed by the pleasing rhymes of children’s books and the work of writers like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. I always loved the sounds of words. But a big moment for me came in second grade when my teacher asked us to write poems about fall. I wrote a little rhyme about a scarecrow and was filled with pride when my teacher read it out loud to the class. From then on, I wanted to make poetry part of every school project I did. My mom bought me a blank book and wrote “The Collected Poems of Hannah E. Fries” on the first page—and so it began.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I don’t have a strict routine at all, but my favorite time to write is late in the evening, in a comfortable spot on the couch, with a cup of tea on the end table and my notebook on my lap. During the last couple years, I’ve had a long commute to work, so I sometimes write in the car, too—scribbling at red lights, or in the parking lot waiting for my carpool. When I haven’t written much for a while, I try to remind myself to pay more attention to the world around me, all the smallest things, and that usually opens up my mind and heart to new poems.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Sometimes a poem starts with an image that strikes me as particularly “full,” sort of pulsing with possibility. But just as often it begins with a feeling that I don’t have words for, something that I want to express but haven’t pinned down yet. And occasionally a poem begins with a story I heard or a fact I learned—a miracle of science or nature, for example, that I want to illuminate or explore.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I feel like I’ve taken bits and pieces from many (or all!) of the poets I’ve read. The first poet whose work I really internalized as a teenager was Edna St. Vincent Millay. I loved both her fierceness and vulnerability, and her cheekiness and humor. Her work made me want to bring that courage and passion to my own writing. I was also deeply affected when I read Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris when I was in college—another fierce female writer. And I admired how, in that collection, she spoke through and about nature, and about God, in a variety of voices and registers, teetering between faith and despair. Speaking of faith and despair, I’ve also been influenced very much by the writers of the bible, whose stories and poems I grew up hearing on a weekly basis. These stories, along with classical mythology, are full of mystery and human longing, and they often give me a base on which to build my own poems.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
Little Terrarium takes its title from a line in the poem “Fugal Prayer,” which refers to “the soul inside its little terrarium.” I had the image of the soul as this small green thing that one might try to keep contained and protected, but which was always reaching out to the world, threatening to escape its little terrarium, suddenly finding itself out of the safety zone. That seemed like a good image for poetry writing! But “little terrarium” also became for me the outside world, all the things I hold dear, and all the things I want to collect and gather to myself, and out of which art arises. I love how the cover of the book, a painting called Specimen Cabinet by Madeline von Foerster, speaks to these ideas as well as other themes in the book. The bust of the woman in the painting, carved from wood, is full of drawers holding the particular creatures of a particular place. The image speaks to me of a connection to and concern for nature, an interest in the feminine voice, and a certain sense of reverence, an awareness of the sacred. These are all themes that are central to my work, and central to my life as a poet.
Read a sample poem from Little Terrarium and listen to an audio recordinghere:
The immodest blush, firm swell,
flared navel of the flower’s dead end—
from what black bough was it pulled,
from what spreading tree
on what busted hillside pocked
with hurt. Afghanistan, Iraq.
Pakistan and Iran, your burnt
orchards, shrouded and sick.
Fruit of the underworld,
fruit of life. Peel back
the stubborn outer pulp,
milky underside, filament clinging
to garnet drops, glassy
little hearts of bursting: granatum:
spray on the child’s tongue and hand.
A long drink in the constricted
half sweet, half
gone. The fastest-holding stain.