Friday, August 10, 2012

Hayden Saunier

Hayden Saunier is the author of the poetry collection Tips for Domestic Travel, published in 2009 by Black Lawrence Press. Her work has appeared widely and her most recent awards include the 2011 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry from Nimrod International Journal and the 2011 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her acting credits include The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia Diary, Hack, the voice of a broken-down stove for Ikea, and dozens of roles in the theatre. Raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, she now lives outside Philadelphia. 


I’m sitting in between a dead girl and a prostitute.
I play a nurse—no nonsense—powder, touch of lips,
“those test results you wanted just came in” 
then they’ll be done with me. I shake hands 
with the prostitute. The dead girl pulls a curtain 
back, says “what the hell, there’s nudity, so what?” 
She’s eighteen, grey-blue, naked and they’re gluing 
latex lacerations on her neck and shoulders, 
building up contusions, painting gorgeous bruises 
down her arms. She’s never done a film before. 
She tells us that she’s hoping for a line, 
that maybe when they see her they’ll decide 
to let her speak, create a flashback or a dream scene, 
shoot a memory of who she was, alive. 
The prostitute and I say nothing.
We tilt our chins up for the final brush. 
The dead girl’s voice trails off, they blue her lips.
I look reliable, the prostitute looks hard-mouthed,
sad-eyed sexy and the dead girl’s looking dead.
We’re done now, all of us. We’re going on.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize this poem has a series of birthdays, even though it developed directly out of a day when I was playing a nurse in a film. A day player usually performs some necessary piece of plot business (“those test results you wanted just came in”) but rarely sees the entire script or knows the story, so the makeup trailer is an illuminating place to find out what's going on. Next to me on this day was a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl being made up to look beaten and dead. She was so excited to be in a movie and as she chattered on and on that she began to look more and more dead and brutalized. It was weird and sad and hilarious--how her dream-come-true was to pretend to be everyone’s worst nightmare. I jotted down a few notes about it later that evening. That event is one birthday.

I had been thinking about a poem about women in a dressing room since doing a play called Dimly Perceived Threats to the System with a great ensemble of performers and the women were spaced youngest to oldest in the dressing room like one of those charts about the aging of the human body. The physical relationships in shared dressing/makeup areas are fascinating. We are all seated side by side, dressed, undressed, running lines, getting into character, everyone looking intently at themselves through the process of hair and makeup. It’s very intimate and yet most communication occurs through the mirror. I had been mentally working this ground, although unsuccessfully. My ideas were still ideas, very general and, to be frank, a bit grandiose. That's another birthday.

Then, I remember reading Kim Addonizio’s poem “Dead Girls,” and my mind clicking right back to the makeup trailer. “Dead Girls” is a devastatingly smart poem with a clear-eyed, matter of fact tone and journalistic images. Reading it freed me from the “big” ideas of the earlier dressing room poem and I went back to my journal and found the note: “sitting in between a dead girl and a prostitute.” That’s when I sat down to actually write. So, three birthdays over about four years and a beautiful example of how poems beget poems.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I found the main framework quickly, based on the tone of the first line and my sense of the poem as an inner monologue. I can be a terrible meddler and I muck things up sometimes if I go at a poem "hammer and tongs" too fast, too soon. I played with it on and off for a day or two and then, once settled, I tweaked and changed and rearranged and made adjustments over several months.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Events over a series of years eventually led to this particular poem. I believe connections get made inside the making of a poem that have no explanation. They feel received, but the poem works on itself when the writer is otherwise occupied--call that what you will--and sometimes problems get solved or discoveries are made in a way that seems given. I like the idea of inspiration for its meaning of “breathed in.” Taking in what is around us. Being open to connections of thought and language. That's what I've come to understand about my own "meddling." When I go after the end of the poem too fast, I seem to cut off its air, or push it too far out of its time, and I have to put it away for months or years before I can look at it freshly.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Again, it grew from the first line--I always play with line breaks, lengths and language, and work to keep it concise.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I don’t think so.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About two years.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?  

It definitely varies but I probably hold poems back too long. Again, I'm an awful tinkerer.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The poem has its own life. I can't remember now if there was actually an actress playing a prostitute on set, or if she had just been called to the set as I went to makeup—but she wasn't there as described in the poem. That was my fiction to highlight the roles that women are most often called upon to play: beautiful girls who get brutalized, prostitutes with or without hearts of gold, and asexual caregivers. I mean playing those roles literally, in film and television, although it’s getting better. Most of my poems are triggered from an actual event but they are all fiction by the time I’ve finished them. They become something else.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Clearly, Addonizio’s "Dead Girls," as mentioned above, but I wrote this when working on my M.F.A. so I was reading wildly and widely. Wislawa Szymborska. Basho. Gerald Stern. Your question about inspiration reminds me to revisit Eleanor Wilner’s wonderful poem "The Muse.”

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Anyone who is willing to step briefly into another world and look around.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I always share work—I find it incredibly useful to have other, trusted eyes on it.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don't know that it does.

What is American about this poem?

The Hollywood lens through which women are viewed and money is made. Even todays CSIs and the SVUs often feature a beautiful, brutalized girl as the hook.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

As close as I could reasonably get to "finished." (Please see numerous references to tinkering, tweaking and meddling.)


  1. One of the things I most admire is a narrative that ends in a place very different from its beginning. In this poem every step from line one to the last is clear, decisive, pregnant. Love it.

  2. Thank you so much. I loved following your poems journey.

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