Sunday, December 21, 2008

Barbara Helfgott Hyett: A Poetry Teacher that looks for work that sings!

Barbara Helfgott Hyett: A Poetry Teacher that looks for work that sings!

Barbara Helfgott Hyett, has published four collections of poetry, the most recent titled “Rift”, that is out from the University of Arkansas Press.” Poet-in-Residence at Emerson College (Boston) Richard Hoffman writes of her collection:

“ …Rift is a book born of acute psychic necessity and there is not a trifle or bauble in it. Faced with the annihilation, of the life she has known, Helfgott employs imagination, her learning and her poetic virtuosity to search among biblical and mythic narratives for a way forward.”

Hyett’s work has appeared in a slew of top shelf literary journals including: Hudson Review, Agni, Ploughshares, The Women’s Review of Books, and has taught at MIT, Harvard, and Boston University. She is the recipient of two Massachusetts Cultural Artist Fellowships, a fellowship in poetry at Yaddo, to name just a few honors. She founded the well-regarded poetry workshop “PoemWorks” some twenty-five years ago.

Doug Holder: Barbara you are a cofounder of the Writer’s Room in Boston, a sort of writing colony and collective in Boston. Can you describe the genesis of this?

Barbara Helfgott Hyett: The “Room” had begun when I came to it. There were three or four members when I first arrived. Someone had given us office space in the Transportation Building in Boston. Later we had to move and so we decided to become our own cooperative. This was the piece that I co-founded. I wrote my entire book on Christopher Columbus there. It took five years. I had a cubicle there where I would do my research. There were other writers like Ruth Butler (a cofounder) writing all these wonderful and important books. It was terrific, sitting in your own cubicle, with other writers. At the time I was reading all the Psalms and copying them out. I was getting in the mood for Christopher Columbus—he copied all the Psalms.

DH: Since 1984 you have directed a well-regarded workshop from your home in Brookline: POEMWORKS. There are many workshops in the area of all stripes, what’s unique about yours?

BH: We just had a press release because it is our 25th anniversary. Over 800 poets have come through the workshop. The 80 books that have come out of the workshop are remarkable.

I spent eight years in workshops learning how to be a writer. I used to call the poets who came to town, and ask if I could sit in their classes, or work with them. Denise Levertov, came to Tufts University in Somerville, Mass. I sent her my work and asked if I could sit in. She said that I shouldn’t sit in, I should lead workshops. And that’s how it began. I was a fulltime instructor at Boston University., and I left to teach my private workshop. My first workshop was with four people. Three were friends and one was a paid customer. We sat in my dining room… and it took off from there.

DH: I hear you really work your students.

BH: I think that’s what makes it unique. The emphasis in the class is to write well enough to be published. Four people in the workshop have won NEA awards, several are department heads at universities. This is how I earn my living now. I just built, quote unquote, a school out of my woodshed and a small sliver of my garage.

DH: In your collection “Rift” you deal with among other things, a painful divorce. In your poem “Fists”, there is almost na├»ve anger at your husband for his desertion, but also a faint hope for reconciliation. Was this ying and yang a consistent presence throughout this time?

BH: I had no idea that this divorce was coming. It was a 33-year marriage—to my high school sweetheart. We actually gave lectures on our marriage. I didn’t know what hit me. I have a poem that deals with how I learned the news.

DH: It’s been said that happiness does not provide good fodder for writing, but pain and conflict provides a rich mother lode.

BH: I think I have written some books that have happiness, I’m sure. In “Rift” I had a very different approach than the others.

This is my fifth book. Before this book I was very scholarly. I wrote a book about Columbus. I had to travel, research, and learn several languages. It took me five years. I also wrote a book about the Holocaust. I wrote about things I really didn’t have much understanding of.

The book “Rift” started when I got a call from the husband of my husband’s lover. Then I knew my marriage was over.

DH: Did your husband ever read the book?

BH: I don’t know if he ever read it. If he did he would be furious. We don’t speak.

DH Rift is a big departure from your other books, right?

BH: It is a departure. It is the most intimate of the books I’ve written. I stand behind various masks in other books.

DH: So in a way the divorce freed you up?

BH: It would either kill me or it wouldn’t. When I took that call I wrote notes…I took out my pad out and wrote.

DH: Does your teaching take away from your writing?

BH: Every minute, every second my teaching and writing are one.

DH: Could you tell me some of the poets you worked with and have published books?

BH: Pam Bernard, CD Collins, Celia Gilbert, to name just a few. Most everyone has come through the workshop at one time.

DH: What does a good poem make you do? Auden said it makes him cut himself while shaving. Another poet I know said it makes her miss her subway stop. How about you?

BH: It makes me sigh. I believe in truth and beauty. That’s what I look for. You know it when you see it. A poem could be a horrible piece of nothing, but there is one thing that sings. I am always digging for that.

For more information about Barbara and her workshops go to

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