Heather Kirn Lanier’s poetry chapbook, Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima, a finalist for the 2014 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, reflects an obsession. But it should not surprise us that most of her work does this. Like many writers, she finds she must follow her obsessions wherever they lead.
“The collection is about trying to understand the brutalities of war through mediated forms—memorials, museums, news headlines, biographers. It’s about trying to bridge the chasm between the citizen and the far-away war her country is waging. It’s about feeling responsible to bridge that gap, even while it’s ultimately impossible,” says Lanier.
Lanier works with both poetry and nonfiction, and says that she sometimes finds that determining which genre an obsession wants to take is tricky. This was true with one of the poems (“Hometown Tours after the Base Shuts Down”) included in Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima—tricky because she did the same kind of research for the poem that she would have done had it turned out to be an essay. The poem, about a military base neighboring her childhood home, enabled her not only to conduct research but also to “obsess” over language. Lanier wrote “pages of notes of research—on the base, on its connection with the NASA space program, on the chemicals still remaining in the land. At one point,” she says, “I was convinced I was trying to do too much, that there were too many ideas in the poem, so I tried writing the piece as an essay. But I missed what the poem’s form had enabled. I got to obsess over the density of the couplets and the rhythm of the long lines and the sound of the internal rhymes. And I got to lie. Not about the base itself, but about the speaker’s world around the base. I would never include invented details like that in a piece of nonfiction.”
While Lanier loves nonfiction for its ability to tell a more complete story, she loves poetry because it allows her to include fictional details. “Poetry allows me to lie,” says Lanier, who also wrote a memoir titled Teaching in Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America. “Sometimes drastically. And it allows me to focus on sound and rhythm erasure in a way that I don’t do as much with nonfiction.”
And, perhaps, poetry allows her to explore more deeply the emotional truth surrounding her obsessions. For example, she’s written several poems about what seems to be the public nature of pregnancy. “There’s a strange sense of entitlement that strangers have over the pregnant woman’s body,” says Lanier of her own and other women’s pregnancies. “And our culture is brimming with beliefs about how she must be and how she must feel. Meanwhile, a pregnant woman is growing a person inside her. To the whir of her rushing blood, cells are dividing and dividing, making arms and legs and lungs. I’m interested in the deeply personal and private and even spiritual things that are happening inside the pregnant woman’s body, even while simultaneously there are all sorts of strange projections and mythologies happening outside her body. I’m interested in that tension. The public and the private. The quiet inside and the noise outside. I’m bothered by it, I’m fascinated by it, and nine months wasn’t nearly enough time to process it. Hence, poems!”
Along with Heart-Shaped Bed, Lanier is the author of The Story You Tell Yourself, winner of the 2010 Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima has also recently won the Standing Rock Literary Series and will be published in February of 2015. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Bread Loaf Scholarship in nonfiction and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, also in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, The Sun, Salon and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont and teaches at Southern Vermont College.
Jennifer Ochstein is a writer and teacher living in Indiana. She has published book reviews with the “Brevity” and the “River Teeth Blog” as well as essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Evening Street Review, Lindenwood Review and Connotation Press. Follow her at jenniferochstein.com.