Photo by Joshua S. Hall
“Woeful plight, Woeful plight.
Stop your ears and quench your sight.
Where is here? Here is where?
Blink, my child. Leave here for there.”
—Ava Haymon, “The Castle of Either/Or,” from Eldest Daughter
On a sunny April afternoon, Ava Leavell Haymon sits in a white wicker chair in her backyard, looking for something to do with her mind as the photographer snaps two hundred versions of her portrait from a few feet away. She smiles for the camera, then turns to me and says, “I feel like I should be holding a book or something.”
She asks for one of the books in my hand—four of her own poetry collections—and I give her the third one down my stack: The Strict Economy of Fire. She opens it up and, her expression suddenly and delightfully occupied, starts reading her poem “God of Luck” aloud.
She melts the letters together in real-time, telling stories as if she’s looking through a stack of old photos rather than reciting a poem. No one is filming—the camera is only snapping stills—she reads on anyway. I wondered if she felt compelled to keep us entertained amid the unnatural, sometimes strange air of a photoshoot; maybe to put on a show rather than pose like a lawyer.
It would make sense at any rate: if the last hour’s conversation with her had taught me anything about Louisiana’s poet laureate, it’s that she isn’t someone who can just sit around and look pretty on command. She must be doing, going, trying, climbing, finding; something, anything.
“Out in New Mexico, there’s this shrine called El Santurario de Chimayo, where people go to eat dirt,” Haymon explained. “I did this once a year with a friend for awhile.”
Reaching back into Haymon’s bibliography—back to her 2004 book The Strict Economy of Fire—one can see evidence of her adventurous spirit, gracefully composed in verse. That collection in particular takes place mostly in the Himalayas, where Ava made the trek to Nepal with a group of American women. She’s not merely a worldly traveler, but a pilgrim of sorts—“a professional pilgrim,” in her words.
Though eating the holy dirt of Chimayo is very much a Catholic pilgrimage, Haymon doesn’t identify as Catholic—no more than she identifies as any other denomination, anyway—but that doesn’t stop her from appreciating any sacred location she comes across. “I believe in sacred places,” she said.
A panoramic glimpse of her writing studio would, perhaps, speak to that belief: artistic interpretations of religious iconography line her walls, decorate her paperweights, and title the books on her bookshelves. A massive overhead cubby keeps all of her journals within arm’s reach. She keeps company with spiritual people—artist Meinrad Craighead is among those who’ve eaten dirt with her—and she’s been known to feature religious-inspired artwork on the covers of her books.
All this considered, it might come as no particular surprise that Haymon’s father was a preacher—a fact that becomes obvious only one poem deep into Eldest Daughter. As a child, she was required to memorize ten scripture verses every week, and if she couldn’t recite them to her father on Sunday, the penalty was no comics or TV for the next seven days.
By the time she moved to Louisiana in ‘65 to attend graduate school (and to get married), she had lived in many different places—born in Mississippi, raised in Missouri, and heaps of traveling thereafter. But Louisiana was a strange land for her, indeed. “I thought I had gone to the Amazon River Valley,” she said. “Really, it was tremendously exotic, and I thought I was lost in the tropics forever.”
Pinky and the Brain
It may sound silly to ask a poet why she writes poetry rather than prose or any other wordy medium, but Haymon is full of surprise answers; and when it comes to the root of her calling, Haymon knows exactly the moment she heard it.
Years ago, after finding success writing plays for Playmakers of Baton Rouge, she found herself teaching a group of third- and fourth-graders a unit on creative writing, by way of an ambitious experiment in curriculum: novella writing.
“What I was trying to get them to learn is something you already know—which is, I think, it’s not all that hard to write, but it takes a long time, you know?” she explained. “Nobody knows that it takes a long time.”
The goal was to come up with a long story, and the class would write a chapter every two weeks or so. As the children wrote their own version, Haymon fleshed out her own during her spare time, with surprising results.
“If you’ve ever written fiction at all, there’s the sensation of the character running away with you,” she said. “Well, the characters [in my book] just took off and did things that I was just so disgusted with—oh, it was just turning so bad, but I couldn’t help it.”
The story she started writing was about two gerbils. “I thought that was the stupidest thing ever, but here they came—and then worse, they started talking,” she recalled. “One of them was really smart, could talk a blue streak, could run on the exercise wheel really fast. And the other one was really shy; he hid under the cedar shavings, could not make the exercise wheel work, and couldn’t talk very well. The smart one bullied the dumb one.”
For reasons elsewhere in the book (reasons that Haymon claims were “equally stupid”), the two gerbils—or probably just the smart one—decided to make up a fairy tale. Haymon described the action:
The smart one says, “Once upon a time!” and then stalls and can’t think of anything to say. Then he says to the dumb one, “What happens next?”
The shy one mumbles, “There was a princess.”
“THERE WAS A PRINCESS!” says the smart one. “She had on a long, satin dress, and the dress was covered with sequins and pearls and diamonds and emeralds and sapphires and citrines and peridots!”
Haymon said it went on and on like this—the smart gerbil could fill in any scene with details galore, but when it came down to plot action, he had to rely on the dumb one. That’s when she started to think that she might have a lot to learn from these talking gerbils. “It was like I was telling myself something, like a dream tells you something,” she said.
As the gerbils further weave their fairy tale within Haymon’s book, they create two mice to star in their story alongside the bejeweled princess:
One day, one of the mice—the dumber of the two, of course—is tasked with fetching the princess’ ball, which has landed at the dungeon-end of a dark, winding stone staircase, a place that even the rats wouldn’t dare to go. Finally, he ends up in this hole at the bottom, and there’s a spider. The spider gives him something to drink, which makes him drowsy. And then, the spider starts speaking to the dumb mouse…in poems.
“And I thought, I’m stopping—this is what I came here to learn,” Haymon said. “My ego is bullying my unconscious, and I’m writing the wrong thing!”
She stopped writing plays and prose and has been writing poems ever since.
It takes a long time
As she taught the third-graders, writing takes a long time.
Likewise, time is the great catalyst in Haymon’s work. Her latest collection of poetry, Eldest Daughter, was not written in the space of a few years, nor could it have been. At its deepest, Eldest Daughter is the culmination of all the darker things she’s come to terms with from her childhood, from the rigor of religion to the systematic abuse perpetrated by her father. “It’s what I came here to say,” she admitted, her smile never losing its focus.
“At the time I was writing the poems, I never envisioned them in a single book—they came one at a time, and in no order whatsoever,” she said, speaking about a thirty–year time span. During that time, she reared children, she taught nearly every semester, she wrote plays and essays and other books. She wrote journals upon journals, doodled with oil pastels, ate holy dirt in New Mexico, and climbed the Himalayas. At some point, she noticed she had a group of misfit poems that had never quite fit in anywhere else—and the only thing they had in common was that they were all about her father.
Due to the intensely personal subject matter, the book as a whole was very hard for her to release. One poem was particularly difficult for Haymon to put on paper—she described the writing process as “scraping the unconscious until it bleeds.”
Haymon’s heap of literary compost, slow-churned by time, is the point-of-origin for that poem: “The Castle of Either/Or,” an allegorical fairy tale that sits right in the middle of Eldest Daughter. The poem itself is a story that spans the semi-fantastical lifetime of an oldest daughter, from childhood trauma to an ultimate choice that follows her for the rest of her life. Unlike most fairy tales, however, it doesn’t lend the satisfaction of an absolute ending: “She lived for a long, long time, but whether she lived happily or unhappily, she would never say.”
In keeping with her pilgrim’s spirit, Haymon opened up her New Mexico summer home to serve as a writer’s retreat—an annual tradition until a few years ago, when smoke from rampant forest fires made the location a health hazard. Her choice of the mountains of New Mexico as the location for a summer home may seem curious (considering she is fleeing the South Louisiana summertime), but Haymon is drawn to extremes. You might even say she thrives on them. “Deserts are very special places,” she said. “In the desert, things have this way of rising out of the ground.”
But ultimately, it is to the opposite extreme that Haymon always returns—to the winding, oak-shaded streets of her Baton Rouge home, where the damp ground, humidity, and earth-borne magic cultivate this Louisiana poet.
Details. Details. Details.
For more information about Ava, her poetry, and her pilgrimages, visit her website at AvaHaymon.com.