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In her fourth year organizing Naked Words Open Mike, writer Heidi Hermanson comes clean with Les Femmes Folles with “1001 Loads of Laundry” (below), her writing process, her Ekphrasis multi-disciplinary project happening in July, and the tremendous work of arts innovators in Omaha. So tell me about your background; when did you get into writing? I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen: poems, plays, novels, rock operas—in fact recently a friend sent me back a children’s book I had written around the age of ten that I had given her mother. That was interesting to look at!  Recently I completed my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Writing. Are you from Omaha/how did you get here? Although I’ve lived in other places (Dallas, California) and I travel extensively, I am a native Omahan; all my family is here. I feel lucky that I get to hang out with my Mom, sisters, and nieces and nephews on a regular basis. Tell me about what you write. You could put most of my writing in two categories: I like responding to other people’s poetry. I recently finished a poem based on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. It’s not a line-by-line response, but it is another telling of the same story. A good way to generate writing when you think you’re really empty of ideas, is a have a dialogue with another poet/poem. Much of my writing is based on an experience, maybe told slant, as Emily Dickinson said, but truly based in reality. For instance, in “At the Calmar Guesthouse” (picked up by the Hiram Poetry Review last year), the little old lady running this B & B in Furthest Iowa puts me in the wedding suite because there’s no other guests that night, and says, “You can be married to Jesus tonight.”  What?! So I thought, I better write that down because I am going to use that. But the first half of the poem’s diction and imagery is a portent to what’s coming: “the moon peeped in” [like a peeping Tom] the “twisted” wallpaper pattern. One of my MFA mentors, Lee Ann Roripaugh, described my writing as one long road trip in search of kitsch, quirk, and camp. I think that’s pretty accurate. I travel a lot and my head is filled with images and ideas. I’d probably get more written if I didn’t travel so much. This March I went to Lawrence, KS for the first-ever Poet Laureate Convergence. Well, if you’ve been to Lawrence, you know it’s a magical place, and all this poetry for two days! It was amazing. I also belong to a monthly writer’s group in Lincoln, which pushes me to write.  Tell me about your latest project. I am coordinating an ekphrasis project at the Hot Shops Art Center on July 31st from 2-4. Ten or so poets will each read a poem addressing/dialoging with a piece of artwork they have selected from among four artists. The artists are Nancy Lepo (pen and ink), Ron Manabat (glassblowing), John Prouty (sculpture) and Dorothy Tuma (photography). I have selected a wide variety of poets to read, and we will also have an interpretive dancer performing to my poem. So it should be a fun and engaging afternoon. I did an ekphrasis show in March at the Gallery 9 in Lincoln, for Megan Stratman’s opening, and I also did one at the Empty Room Series that Matt Mason organized a couple falls ago, and they were great fun, so I’m looking forward to this one. I’m interested in those intersections between the arts. There’s something about having to write under a deadline, too… Tell me about Naked Words Open Mike; how/when did that start?  Well, in March 2007 Dan Leamen was going to start a slam at the [now defunct] Reading Grounds on 40th and Farnam, and I recall a terrific blizzard (he lived in Lincoln at the time), he changed his mind, so I decided to do an open mike there. We just celebrated our 4th birthday (we moved to the Benson Grind after the Reading Grounds closed and, more recently, to Soul Desires at 10th and Jackson). I had a cake, too. It was amusing to me that the grocery store clerk didn’t know if she could put Naked Words on the cake, she had to go check!   This summer I’ve been experimenting with non-traditional venues—last month we met on the pedestrian bridge and this month we are convening in the sculpture garden at Joslyn Art Museum. The names of the series? Naked Words, rather than being provocative, merely means baring your soul. Poetry, revealing yourself, takes some bravery. What’s it like? I think laid-back would be the best way to describe us. Everyone has a voice, and I want everyone’s voice to be heard. I also know how hard it can be to get up and read, so we are very encouraging and supportive to people. Who reads?  I have a few regulars but I also have quite a few people who come in off the street, read once, and I never see them again. Which is sad, because you hear some wild and varied stuff. Once Marilyn Coffey [Pushcart-Prize winning poet] showed up. She’s a stitch. What type of stuff is read? I don’t censor, but I will say this: In my opinion, angst is easy. There is so much angst out in the world and so much of it is justified, but— Sing me something beautiful. I’m not talking about fluffy kitten, pink flowers and cheerful little song birds, but beauty that stuns, that makes you catch your breath. Beauty is a lot harder to pull off—and a lot more enduring. So do you think being a woman has had an impact on your career or craft? Certainly being a woman has its own set of challenges, but I don’t know that I’d write any differently if I were a man. But since I don’t know what that particular experience is like either, I can’t really say. (How’s that for a non-committed answer?!) *laughter* Do you think Omaha is a friendly place for women in the arts? Omaha has changed and opened up so much in the last twenty years it’s unbelievable. Art is bursting out all over the place like crazy and it shows no sign of ceasing. You can go anywhere on any given night and stumble across a play, or an open mike, or an art opening or three, or a concert on the park, or a street musician or a street juggler. It’s really an amazing place to be and live. I’m really thankful for Tim Barry and the other visionaries who took an abandoned mattress factory and made it into the Hot Shops. I’m also deeply appreciative of Ree Kaneko (Ree Schonlau) and her husband Jun Kaneko, who, among others, founded the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. All these people had the vision and followed through. __________________ In 2003 Taffy Halcomb organized a show called 8 counts/24. The public was encouraged to send in themes. One day, a theme was pulled from a hat and each artist (poet, painter, modern dancer) had 24 hours to write something. The theme selected was “1001 Loads of Laundry.”   1001 loads of laundry By Heidi Hermanson Oh, sure. It couldn’t be 1001 pieces of Godiva chocolate or 1001 dollars. OK. Give me clean laundry, wicker baskets, colorful bouquets in bloom, cheerful scent wafting across the room, 1001 wrinkled old women lovingly pinning it piece by piece on the line, A line of lissome dancers floating languidly in the breeze, cumulus clouds in bright blue sky. Sometimes I feel rumpled, a crumpled pile of laundry, dreaming I’m drowning in a sea of clothes I flail among sheets and pillowcases Agitating briefs and t-shirts, I spin-cycle through my day while dreaming of oversize fluffy white towels Soft as June air to press my face into. I pay as I go, hand-washing one idea at a time The litany of the laundry: dark———————————————————————————————white dark———————————————————————————————white Let us call for the integration of all laundry, 1001 colors mixing together 1001 socks, reunited at last— Let us all be Gandhis of laundry, non-violently resisting stains and wrinkles,        Let there be peace, and let it begin in my washing machine! And remember, after enlightenment — the laundry.
From:   Enrevanche  Courtesy of Barry Campbell.
Photo by Heidi Hermanson
From:   Les Femmes Folles . Courtesy of Sally Brown Deskins.
(1)You have written very interesting and powerful stuff about basically being an introvert, and yet you are active in the "public poetry" sphere, giving readings and participating in slams and similar open-mike kinds of events, something that even as a wildly overcompensating introvert who can usually pass for an extrovert, I would find absolutely terrifying. What is the experience of reading your work in public like, and what have you learned from it? Do you think it has changed anything in your approach to the world? [Laughter] Terrifying. Keep in mind I have never won a slam. In the seven or so years I've been reading, eh, humiliating myself in public, I've asked for (and gotten) lots of advice about stage fright. There are several things the local experts recommend (Matt Mason, who pretty much single-handedly started the poetry scene here, told me, "When you read, push the energy out instead of holding it in. You won't flub up any less, but you won't care.") A deep breath before you start (on the stage) is nearly imperceptible, takes two seconds, and works wonders. If you mess up, just keep going. No apologies, no excuses. No. No one but you knows every line in the poem. Get good at improv. Learn to work out of your diaphragm – it will ground you. The same poem delivered exactly the same way two nights in a row will have wildly different reactions from your audience. The audience can feed you, or they can starve you. (Some people call this the “energy” in a room.) They can't kill you though, and I have never seen anyone booed off a stage. (I understand it's different at the Green Mill in Chicago [where slam began], but of the audiences I have seen, most wanted every poet to succeed wildly.) I still get scared sometimes. At some point, you just say, "This is it" and just go ahead with it. A nice thing to say would be that I was more confident because of my reading experience, but I doubt it. But maybe I act more confident. Hah. (2) Choose any starting point that you like and describe the perfect one-day road trip (taking up to 24 hours, but returning to the point of origin, in other words, not staying anywhere overnight.) I'm starting with me. Manhattan, Kansas (also an IRC portal for those of us old-school--or just old) is four hours away on two-lane roads. It has a magnificent art museum as well as others I'd like to try, i.e., the National Museum of Baking. The whole town is constructed of some kind of pale limestone and has a very castle-y feel. Plus there is this super dam you drive over, miles above everything, on the way in. Only twelve miles away from Manhattan is Wamego, home of the Oz Museum. I spent four hours there. Since we're talking 24 hours, I'd probably hop down to Wichita as well. The University has an impressive art museum. Plus Kansas is just flat-out cool – there's a funky museum at almost every exit. On the way back I'd stop in the Birger Sandzen gallery in Lindsborg. Des Moines would be a close second for a day trip: world-class museum, funny-shaped botanical garden, house modeled after one in England (take that, Cloisters!), and hands down (or maybe ears down, this is Iowa after all), the best State Fair I have ever seen. On the way home, stop at Winterset (Madison County) and catch all five bridges in about an hour or so-- two hours and you can head into town and see all the places in the movie--some jerk burned Francesca's house, unfortunately. One week? (With overnight stays.) No, I think driving straight through for 7 days without sleep would be more fun. Hah. A trip to North Platte (home of Buffalo Bill's Old Scouts Rest Ranch with a side trip to Carhenge. I've never been there. I'd continue west to Scottsbluff and Denver and environswould be in order-- Garden of the Gods and a couple of art museums. If I had more time than I thought, I would press on to Cheyenne, or however far I could go. I've always wanted to go West, those wide- open states in between. Going back, I'd take Highway 20 through the Sandhills. One month? (Ditto.) If I had a month, I would have to drive cross-country. I'd check out Roadside America and make a list of all those silly places I've read about, stopping to see my Net and other friends scattered everywhere. I'm especially interested in the Salvador Dali museum in Florida, and those wild horses in Virginia. I've never been in the Deep South. I wouldn't plan too much, only based on what looked interesting. Oftentimes when you listen to your gut, you hit paydirt! Wandering with only a loose agenda is my favorite kind of trip. Or maybe I'd do the Lewis & Clark trail. That would be so interesting. I havn't mentioned meals, have I. I read that you should go to the places with the most local license plates, which makes sense. I'm not a foodie like you -- half the time, I'd just as soon raid a local grocery and do an al fresco meal. (3) Who is your favorite poet that appears in everybody's anthologies of everything? Billy Collins, without a doubt. He was the poet laureate from 2001-2003. He can make you wet your pants laughing (“Lanyard”) or he can rip your heart out. Sometimes in the same poem. But e.e. cummings is a very close second. (4) Who is the single best poet you know of that nobody anthologizes? Where can we find his or her work? Don Welch, retired professor from the University of Nebraska – Kearney. He also raises and races carrier pigeons. Don wrote an entire book about what he saw in alleys while taking walks to strengthen himself after surgery. An Acre of Butterflies: “The blooms/of the alfalfa/are astounded//by the aerial/exclamations/on their page.” The Man with a Garden for a Yard: “Dirt begins to tendril like a dream.” Gutter Flowers is published by Logan House, but University of Nebraska Press may have some (many of his are hand-made chapbooks). You'd probably have to write Don in care of the U. You can read a couple of his poems here. Maybe half.com. I'll let you borrow my book if you take good care of it. (5) You take great photographs of abandoned places. Obviously, you don't photograph every abandoned property that you encounter. What is it, do you think, about the places you choose to photograph that speaks to you? That's like asking you--why do you like a certain wine? Why did a particular woman appeal to you? But, look--I think photography is like poetry in that it is a way to preserve a moment in time. Sic transit gloria...and carpe diem.