A Continuous Conversation through Time: An Interview with HR Hegnauer

Jennifer Denrow speaks with HR Hegnauer about the writer’s journey.
Memorization and recitation, reading faces for editing, and paying the opportunity cost.

HR Hegnauer, Sir
HR Hegnauer’s Sir, cover art by Brenda Iijima, detail

Jennifer Denrow: Could you talk about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and what this poem means to you?

HR Hegnauer: When I was in elementary school, in 5th and 6th grade, every Friday you had to recite a poem to the class. You could recite a long poem and do a few stanzas each week. I chose “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” because I thought it was about the Seattle Mariners. It turns out it wasn’t. It was months and months I spent memorizing this poem just waiting for Ken Griffey Jr. to appear.

JD: Do you think this is why recitation became so important to you in your life as a writer?

HRH: It became this very natural way to read poetry — to memorize it and to read other people’s poetry, and then when I was getting more interested in it as a young adult, when I was 19 or 20, I would go do these open mic readings at cafes, I had terrible social anxiety and couldn’t talk to people. When I would go up to read my poem and try to focus on the paper and then on the audience, it would make me really dizzy, and I couldn’t do it, so I needed a better way because I couldn’t read in front of people. I just started memorizing poems, which was such a normal thing I did as a kid, and so then it became this thing that worked on a couple of levels: it worked that I could read in front of people, it worked, frankly, as a parlor trick because people thought it was a nice feature, and then it worked for me as a writer because it had this really great effect where I could read something and see people’s immediate response and I could use it in editing. Based on their responses, I could figure out how to edit the thing to get the response I wanted. I would then do it again to see if I would get a different response.

JD: So you were actually looking at the faces of people as you read?

HRH: Yeah, so what would be helpful is that I wouldn’t look at all the faces because it would be too disorienting, but I would at like 3-6 faces and just watch their reactions and use them as this immediate editing tool.

JD: Do you still use this technique?

HRH: Yes, although I try not to read things that I’m in the middle of writing because then it becomes this confusing thing that I can’t remember what the final version is if I have too many versions, and so I try to only read the final version, but if I consistently get not the right response, I change it.

JD: Was it hard in the beginning because as you were reading, you were also marking in your head how to change it?

HRH: It wasn’t too bad; I would just mark it. When I went back home I was able to visualize what was happening in the audience and change it.

JD: For you, it seems like a big part of your writing is editing and considering how the audience responds. Do you think audience factors in quite a bit in the initial process of writing something?

HRH: I don’t know. Sometimes I think about that a lot and sometimes I try not to think about it at all. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about writing communities and what they’re good for and how they can also self-destruct, and trying to figure out how they’re good. Maybe that’s a separate question, but it’s so important to me to not be writing for other writers only and to think of the work as having a bigger impact. For instance, I got a letter in the mail a few months ago from my high school teacher who had gotten a copy of my book through my mom’s friend at yoga, and I was thinking this is exactly the person I want to read this. She was my Japanese teacher; she’s not a writer. I want my work to communicate to non-writer people. Like within the last couple of months my accounting teacher and his wife and two daughters read my book and wanted to talk to me about it, and that’s really exciting that these super academic math people are able to connect to what I’m writing.

JD: Going back to your beginnings as a writer, did you think of yourself as a writer early in your life?

HRH: I was very involved with journalism and my school newspaper and was the editor, so not very interested in the mystery of writing, but more the practicalities of it and would write my own poems and stories, but not because they were for anyone. Journaling was also a big part of my practice, which started in high school. The amount that I would journal would reflect how lonely I felt, so if I was especially lonely I would be prolific in my journal, which is something I want to change — that my journal isn’t a reflection of only being lonely.

JD: Was there a moment in your life that helped you understand yourself as a writer? Is that part of how you think of your identity now?

HRH: It’s twofold: to non-writers I can feel like that and I do feel like that, like to my accounting professor I can say I’m a writer because I don’t know anything else; to other writers I feel like it’s my work to uplift their writing because that’s my experience with other writers, and so it kind of depends on who the audience is.

JD: When did you make the decision to do an MFA program in writing?

HRH: I remember it kind of distinctly; it was in the spring of 2005 and I was a student at Evergreen College in Washington. It was an amazing, incredible place where I had more space to do things because it didn’t cost a fortune (it’s a state college and I worked part time in my dad’s machine shop and I paid for the whole thing out of pocket). It was this incredible education. It really meant and still means so much to me. I studied with Leonard Schwartz, who was in his first or second year there and really just kind of clicked in, but I remember I was sitting there that Spring and I was about to graduate, so I was trying to figure out what I should do, and I had been reading all these books about Beat writers and when I read the bios they all referenced Naropa somehow. I equated it in my mind to the Black Mountain School and thought wow, what a cool, special place — too bad it doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know, I just assumed this.

Somehow I figured out it did exist, and I was way past the deadline to apply but I applied anyway, but had a terrible application — it was awful—like my letters of recommendation — one of them was handwritten by Leonard Schwartz, who had just written this note on a scrap of paper and handed it to me and I was like this is not how this works, this is not an official letter; you have to at least put it in an envelope or something. It was only two sentences long; it said something like: Dear Anne, I really recommend my student HR. She wrote a really nice poem based off this poem Jack Spicer wrote. That was the whole letter. It looked like a second grader wrote it, but we put in an envelope and sent it off.

They wrote me a letter that said I was accepted and I was like wow, I guess it worked. That was in 2005—ten years ago. I moved to Colorado.

I went there to study poetry, and I wanted to study poetry with Anne Waldman because I had heard her on a recording. It was in a class called Finding your Voice, and we listened to a recording by Anne and one by June Jordan and they both blew me away, and I was like this is how I want to be a poet in the world; this makes sense to me.

JD: So you knew you wanted to study poetry, but did you think about what your life would look like after you had an MFA in poetry — what your life would look like as a poet?

HRH: Well, no. All I knew was that I wanted my life to be working with other poets and that was what was so important to me and that was what I saw — I wanted to work with other poets who were working with other poets, and so that’s what made sense to me as far as publishing; publishing to me was poets working with other poets — to imagine it as a continuous conversation through time: what is the contemporary conversation, what was it last year, and what is coming? It was important to me to think of all the work in conversation with each other, and to work with the people who were contributing to that conversation.

After finishing Naropa, I moved to New York to try and work with these people who were having this conversation. There was this moment of deciding whether I should move to San Francisco or to move to New York. I had this job offer in San Francisco for this amazing, terrible job working in a type foundry, which there are only two left in the whole world. One is in the Presidio in San Francisco and the other in Germany. The job consisted of pouring metal alloys together to make this metal type for letterpress shops. It was this great job where I would work as an apprentice for this guy and do this very unique work. They gave me a job offer that was $18,000 and no benefits, and they made this point: not only do you have no benefits and a terrible salary living in a very expensive city, but also you’ll have no contemporary job skills ever because you’re making metal type. So I was like okay, this sounds great! But the more I thought about it, I thought it sounded kind of miserable. I knew I would be good at the job, but I knew I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I drove to New York with nothing set up to just try and figure it out. I remember having a conversation with Lisa Berman and Reed Bye about the geography of New York because I didn’t understand it. I had never been there before. I was trying to figure out how Brooklyn was east of the East Village, and I was totally clueless. I drove out there and basically convinced people to hire me. I got a regular paycheck, but then I was able to work with people who couldn’t pay anything. That’s where I met Rachel Levitsky and got involved with Belladonna. I would get design work for little presses.

JD: Did you think of the design work as part of that conversation of writing — the way things get arranged and presented?

HRH: Totally. I try to think of the design I’m doing as this visual representation of what the content is and what’s happening through the language. I remember the first conversation I had with Rachel was this quick ten-minute conversation about the history of feminism and language, and then she was like we need someone who could make a website and design our books and I was like I can do that, even though I had never done that, I figured I could do that, and she was like great, you’re hired — we’re not paying you, but you’re hired.

JD: You’ve recently started an MBA program and I’m curious what effect this has had on your writing and how you think of yourself as a writer. What are your wishes going forward in your life and/or career as a writer?

HRH: As a writer, the first thing that was immediately clear to me is that this part of the world has its own language — a finance language that people learn and do well in, just like Spanish or French. It’s very beautiful. It can be used to screw people over, but so can the English language. I started thinking of all the new words I was learning and what they meant as far as my own practice as a writer. This phrase “your opportunity cost” became very important to me. It’s the cost of the thing you’re not doing. When I think of it in terms of my own business and all the benefits and things I enjoy about it and I think about if I was doing something else that had its own benefits, it’s the difference between these two things. So, me continuing to do what I’m doing is me making a decision, consciously or unconsciously, to pay the opportunity cost. When the opportunity cost becomes so great, you can’t continue to do what you’re doing. When the cost becomes too great, you have to make a change.

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HR’s books and projects can be found at www.hrhegnauer.com.