Editor’s Note: This is Episode 10 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features Corrinne Clegg Hales and Liza Wieland, recorded in April 1992 at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in Fresno. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Marisa Mata in Fall 2017. Marisa grew up in Fresno and she knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 7 years old. She’s a junior studying Linguistics and Creative Writing at Fresno State. She reads and writes every day to continuously learn and improve her work. Some of Marisa’s favorite authors include Toni Morrison, Anne Lamott, and John Hales. She writes for the Fresno State Alumni Association, and she plans to write books and become a literature and writing professor.
By Marisa Mata
For the Fresno Poets archive project
I sometimes have a hard time listening to poetry, but I didn’t when I first heard Corrinne Hales read earlier this year. It was the first time I’d heard someone bring childhood and poverty so vividly into the same poem. I was amazed by how she read with a calmness about her when her poem had such troubling images—a young girl picking up trash to pay for her lunch, who decides she would rather be hungry on the playground than roaming the school’s lawn looking for trash, who licks the taste of spit-out gum off her fingers before setting her trash on fire.
As I read Connie’s poems in a workshop class a couple months later, I was struck by scenes of violence and remorse, family and growing up, and uncertainty; and, despite the angst her words had stirred in me, I found myself thinking I had never read poetry quite so beautiful and compelling.
I considered Connie Hales one of my favorite poets by the time I started working with this video. So when she loaned me her books to double-check the poems she reads in the video, I was thrilled. It was interesting to see notes she left in the margins, words she crossed out, lines she rewrote. I felt I was getting a glimpse into her mind as a writer. And I was even more thrilled as we had an email exchange, talking about her writing process, readings and the role of a writer.
Marisa Mata: In the video, I noticed that you seemed really nervous, which I found interesting because every time I’ve been around you, you seem to have a really strong presence and confidence. Why were you so nervous to read then? How did you become more comfortable with readings?
Corrinne Hales: I actually don’t recall being more nervous than usual at that reading, but it was a long time ago, so I’m not sure how I felt. I’m always nervous to read my own work—especially in front of a local audience. When there are friends and students and colleagues in the audience, I feel more pressure to (at least) avoid embarrassing them. I’ve come to expect the nervousness, and I’ve figured out some ways to deal with it over the years, but it hasn’t really gone away. It’s still intimidating for me to read to a Fresno audience because there are so many fantastic writers here, so many people I care deeply about, and the bar is set so high.
MM: I read something recently about writers not always being confident in the things they’ve written, and since there were some differences in the poems you read and the way they were published in the books you lent me, some minor and others quite different, how do you know when you’re done with something, what does it take for you to feel confident in what you’ve written?
CH: As I recall, some of these poems were not published yet, and I was still working on them. So—by the time they were published in a book, they had been reworked to some extent. Also, sometimes I’ll read a poem with a slight change because I think it will help an audience hear (or understand) the piece better when they don’t have the text in front of them. As for knowing when a poem is done, I’m really never sure. At some point, if I’m happy with it, I just let it go. But, I’ve often revised poems after journal or anthology publication, and occasionally tinkered with them after book publications. Even if you believe a poem is solid—that it’s working well—there are usually things you can see (months or years later) that might make the poem just a little bit stronger.
MM: As I was looking through your book, Separate Escapes, I found the poems had to do with a lot of different hardships and overcoming them. And I wasn’t always uplifted by the poems, but at the end of the book I had this feeling that I/society could make it through things that are going on now. Do you think that’s part of the role of writers, to give people—I don’t know that I would call it confidence exactly, but maybe hope? Is there anything else you think good writing/writers do?
CH: I don’t know that it’s the role of a writer to offer hope—sometimes, in fact, I think it’s the writer’s job to document or witness atrocity, or to shine light on things we would rather not see—but I do find myself looking for authentic signs of hope and wanting to include those signs when I can find them—but I won’t manufacture hope where I don’t see it. Honestly, I think the real hope is to be found in the actual making of a poem or any piece of art—the fact that we can—and do—make art in the face of despair, that we shine light on those things that might otherwise remain in the dark, and that we are willing to tell difficult truths and speak to each other openly about our lives, and about how we might survive together. That’s where I find hope.
MM: If you could give the Connie in this video a piece of advice, relating to confidence in readings or writing or connecting with readers and an audience, what would it be?
CH: Write more poems. Don’t let anything divert your time and energy from that work.