HIBF Reader Spotlight: Hayan Charara

A short interview with Houston Indie Book Fest reader, Hayan Charara:

HIBF: What piece are you planning on reading for the HIBF?

HC: I’ll be reading poetry, mostly from a new manuscript that collects poems from the past five years or so. I may also read a poem from each of my two books. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at those earlier poems–it might be good to revisit them.

HIBF: What first got you interested in writing?

HC: I’d always been interesting in literature–my mother was a school teacher and an avid reader, and so books were always a part of our lives. I was given the collected works of Shakespeare when I was five years old! Obviously, I’d not really begin to read or appreciate the book for years after that, but I have vivid memories of copying the sonnets (going through the act of writing), and loving it. In any case, this relationship with writing got started early and never ended. By the time I was a teenager and in high school, I was reading novels and poems all the time, but I had no intention of becoming a writer–growing up in Detroit, that would have meant turning your back on getting out of the city; it was beaten into our minds that we had to become doctors, lawyers, business people, and so on, to make it, and making it meant making it out of the life we had, which was hard (most of my uncles and neighbors worked in the factories, and we lived in poor neighborhoods). Becoming a poet was the most impractical thing a person could do. But then, in college, I came across the poems of Philip Levine, which I still love, and they–and he–showed me that it was possible to be from Detroit and at the same time to make it (and make it out) as a poet. So a year before finishing up my requirements to earn a degree in biology, which I’d planned to use to get into medical school, I decided to become a poet. And the decision nearly gave my parents heart attacks.

HIBF: Who would say has influenced your writing the most?

HC: Early on, Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, and Whitman were my poets. Later, the list would grow, and today, I can’t really pin down a group of poets who I can say most influence how I write or what I write about. I can say that I’ve always been interested in writing poems that are in the world. And so my poems often contain real people in them, and real events, and no matter how far I go into the imagination, the world I live and breathe in is not very far. So in this sense, the people I know and encounter in various ways are probably as influential, or not more so, than any poet I’ve ever read.

HIBF: You have written both poetry and a children’s book. Do you feel your writing process is different for each?

HC: I cannot think of anything more different than writing a children’s book versus poetry. Sure, some things remain the same, like working with images, and thinking rhetorically about narrative or character or ideas, but with the children’s book, I was dealing with something entirely new for me. I had no idea what the “rules” were for writing a children’s book. It’d been years since I read a children’s book, and honestly I wasn’t planning on writing one–a friend, who is also a poet and a children’s author (Naomi Shihab Nye) handed me an announcement for a children’s book award contest and said I should enter. I figured, why not? But I was completely surprised when the story won an award. There was something liberating about not having any expectations whatsoever with the children’s story–with a poem, I’m thinking a few steps ahead of where I’m actually at in the writing of it, and like so many other things in life, I can get ahead of myself. I’m not saying I think that’s bad, or even good. It’s just how I work with poems, and I have no doubt I’ll keep writing poems. As for a children’s book, I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll write another one.

HIBF: Are you working on anything new?

HC: I have a new book of poems, but the main thing I’m working on now are the final revisions of a novel I started writing in 2004. This is by far the largest and most sustained piece of writing I’ve ever worked on. I think it’s taking me so long to write it in part because in writing the novel I had to unlearn a lot of the habits I’ve developed as a poet, some of which (not all, but many) just didn’t work for the novel. Anyhow, the novel is a kind of love story, about dying, and about the things we keep hidden from each other and from ourselves.

The Houston Indie Book Festival (HIBF) is hosted by NANO Fiction and Gulf Coast through a collaboration with The Menil Community Arts Festival, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses at Menil Park. The 2011 festival will be on Saturday, April 2, 2011 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.. The event is completely free and open to the public and remains the only one of its kind in the Houston and Austin areas.