Natasha Hakimi holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University and B.A.s in Spanish and English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has received several awards for creative writing, including the 2008 and 2010 May Merrill Miller Award for poetry, the 2010 Ruth Brill Award for short fiction, and the 2010 Falling Leaves Award.
Most recently she was awarded the 2012 Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship and was a semifinalist for the Dzanc Books/Guernica International Literary Award. She has worked as an editorial assistant for AGNI, Los Angeles Magazine, and Truthdig.
In this interview with Middle Gray Letters Editor Dariel Suarez she talks about her multi-cultural heritage, her travels and the poetry in everyday life.
Dariel Suarez: Your poetry seems to have a lot of historical, social, and cultural references. Is this something that you plan beforehand, or do these elements find their way into your work more spontaneously?
Natasha Hakimi: I’ve been fortunate to have been able to travel quite a bit since I was a child. What I’ve found is that what excited me most about the cultures I encountered were the strange stories people told every day that somehow linked them to a cultural history they’d inherited from their families. It’s important, I believe, to connect these stories to the present, to show how Franco, for example, and his superstitious fascism shaped modern-day Spain. Sometimes I let these histories travel through me, in a sense, as is the case with Honey Mead where I describe the process of assimilating a former lover’s culture, only to discover so much of what I took as fact was only speculation, one country’s attempt to appropriate traditions which consequently mirrored my own desire to take in what didn’t belong to me.
DS: How has your personal life and background influenced your work thematically?
NH: Growing up in a multi-cultural household, with an Iranian father and Mexican mother who each had very distinct worldviews to pass down to me based on their ethnic backgrounds, inevitably marked me. In many ways, I felt the stories I was reading in school since a very young age didn’t quite capture my everyday reality. There were languages, religions, histories continually in contact at my dining room table every night and this (albeit somewhat confusing) hodgepodge is what I wanted to read about. As a child, I adored reading anything by Dickens, and all the Anne of Green Gables novels I could get my hands on, but this was because they stimulated my imagination about worlds so completely different from my own. As I got older, I still wanted to read about these other realms, but I also wanted to see the strange magic that happened in my house reflected in the stories and poems I looked to for guidance. A lot of my work attempts to do just that. I like to bring several cultures together in my poems to express how they’ve clashed and meshed in my own daily life, and in the process, perhaps convey some clarity in the tangle for me and my readers.
DS: You have lived in several countries in the past, and now you find yourself living in Europe. How have the experiences you've faced while living in many different places impacted your writing?
NH: I find myself in The European Union as it faces an extremely difficult time. The countries I’ve lived in (Spain and Portugal) have been especially vulnerable to the economic crisis. But one of the beautiful things I’ve found is how resilient the spirit can be, despite immense hardship. Often it takes me a few years to process my experiences and write about them coherently. This was the case with a lot of my childhood experiences living in Mexico. But lately I’ve seen much Portuguese and Spanish influence in my poems, as I try to make sense of how to navigate life in new cultures, but also as I record how these peoples are overcoming difficult times. I can’t help but think it again has something to do with how they incorporate themselves into the long line of intricate national stories that inspires them to take the time to have a coffee with friends whenever they get the chance, and squeeze the best out of the moment in which they live. It’s contagious, this spirit, and graciously, it’s infected me and my words.
DS: In your bio you mention having won a fiction award. Do you still write fiction? How would you describe the process of writing in that genre in comparison to poetry?
NH: To me, the most important part of writing is to tell a story. What form that story takes on, whether a poem or a novel, often simply depends on the story itself. I let each event, each character, find its own way of speaking through me. Poems offer a limited physical space, a constrained form, but I find that compressing a story or part of a story into a poem reveals so much about it that sometimes, when caught up in plot, can be easy to miss. But then fiction represents the luxury of limitless space, where stories can expand and contract as they please until they settle into the form they choose. I write as much and as often as I can, and each time I let the stories decide.
DS: How did attending BU's MFA program change you as a writer and person? Would you recommend other young writers to attend an MFA program?
NH: BU’s MFA program has been such an important part of my development as a writer. It’s so valuable to be surrounded by great writers, both professors and peers, and frankly I couldn’t have asked for a better group of either. Rosanna Warren, Robert Pinsky and Dan Chiasson are simply remarkable mentors. Their devotion to poetry and to teaching inspired me every time I walked into their classrooms, their offices, their homes. Rosanna’s extensive knowledge of translation, languages, and the history of English verse; Robert’s musical influences waltzing through (or jazzing up, in his case) our classroom; Dan’s eloquent, precise commentary and warm camaraderie; my classmates’ innovative, ambitious hunger for art that invokes the human experience—all of this helped me grow in ways I’m still learning about. I do recommend young writers to attend MFA programs, but I would caution that the most important things to look at when choosing a program are the professors (are they writers that speak to you and your work?) and funding (because let’s face it, poetry isn’t exactly a lucrative practice).
DS: Who would you say are your main influences as a poet?
NH: When I was a toddler, my abuelita used to teach me poems in Spanish (I didn’t speak English until I started preschool) and have me recite them in front of big groups of family and friends. I didn’t know about this anecdote until recently, when my mother told me she thought this was the reason why I became a poet. And I agree that my main influence as a poet was my grandmother.
Then of course there are my mentors: Stephen Yenser who was my first workshop professor at UCLA, Alicia Borinsky whom I’ve had the pleasure of working and traveling with, and as I mentioned Rosanna, Robert and Dan. And as for poets who I’ve only had the pleasure of reading and not meeting, the list is endless. I’d love to be able to capture the beauty in the mundane the way Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop so often did. Imbue my rhythms with the music of Federico Garcia Lorca. Move hearts with one line break, the way Louise Gluck and Carl Phillips do.
DS: So people like to say things such as, "No one reads poetry anymore." What do you say to that? How can contemporary poets ensure that their work reaches the masses and not just other writers, as some people assume is the case?
NH: Honestly, I think that’s (pardon my Spanish) mierda. Of course, people still read poetry—just visit any newborn’s crib in almost anywhere in the world and you’ll hear family members reciting lullabies by their side. We’re born into a life rife with rhythms and rhymes, and well most importantly, words that try to distill the human experience. And, as long as we have language, that will not change.
DS: Where do you see your writing going in the coming years? What do you expect to accomplish as an artist?
NH: I want to accomplish so many things, but this early in my career I really can’t say what the specifics are. I want to write—poems, stories, articles, novels— that record the compelling experiences of those around me; that build bridges between centuries and continents and cultures; that move others because they hear themselves somewhere in my diction, see themselves in the images I’ve recreated; that leaves a mark, no matter how small; that changes something and someone for good until I can’t anymore. And I hope that day never comes.
DS: What projects are you working on at the moment?
NH: I recently finished translating a book of poems from the Spanish by Alicia Borinsky, and have continued to work on translating Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s work. Currently, my partner and I are also in the process of launching an online language learning community called English Tutors Live (www.englishtutorslive.com) and I’m blogging regularly for the Webby award-winning online political journal, Truthdig (www.truthdig.com).
In terms of more creative work, I’m writing sonnets and semi-sonnets now about my experiences abroad, but also a lot of free verse about topics anywhere from my mother’s perfume to the global financial crisis. Soon I hope to begin work on a novel set in Mexico in the past century that explores the profound effect the Mexican Revolution had on my family’s personal lives.