Shannon Hardwick is a fantastic poet whose acquaintance I was lucky to make several years ago. Hailing from Texas, drawing her influences from science, music and a keen study of the world around her, her work exudes a rare grace and optimism. On the eve of the publication by Mouthfeel Press of Hummingbird Mind, her second chapbook, I caught up with her for a conversation about poetry, the prairie, Tchaikovsky and more.
Shannon, how have your experiences influenced you as a writer?
I grew up in an interesting household. My parents were not happily married. I grew up with four siblings…but I was the second oldest, so even though I grew up in a big family I always felt like kind of a loner. I rode horses, and so I spent most of my time away from the home and at the barn.
I remember this one memory when my parents had just separated and my mom was busy, she couldn’t take me to the barn. And I felt trapped in my home, so I called my father, which was kind of a desperate measure because I didn’t usually call him; and I asked him if he could take me to the barn. And he couldn’t do that, and he said, ‘why can’t your mom take you? Why do you have to go at this hour?’ I think it was probably eight o’clock in the evening. And I just said, ‘I want to see my best friend.’ ”
So horses were a really big deal to me – I spent a long time with her, not around other people – and so writing was a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings at a time that was very confusing. Every major event of my life I remember always running to pen and paper, to figure out how I was feeling. A lot of times I wrote to God. Maybe I felt like that was my friend in the sky as a child.
You still write to the sky, don’t you, if that makes sense?
Yeah, I know, to the bigger picture, the bigger thing out there, the Universe…yes, I still very much write to that.
I’ve been reading your work for a few years now, and each time you manage to marry imagery and narrative better and better . What I really liked about Manaquest [Shannon’s first chapbook] is that you sank completely into a different world. It reminded me of the old Coyote stories, the Tricksters and so on. I’ve always seen a bit of the prairie or the wilderness in your work, if that’s fair.
That makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, people point that out to me a lot. I grew up in West Texas in the middle of nowhere, where we were five hours from the biggest town. So it’s just plains and prairies and tumbleweeds and cows. Flatland. So yes, I think that influences my work a lot.
It’s funny reading work influenced by the geography; you read work by, say, Cormac McCarthy, and the prose feels very windswept. And reading your stuff as well, you can sense the geography which it has inspired. That’s a great strength of yours. There’s a lot of space in your work; there’s a lot of air, even in the way you use the punctuation. The words definitely breathe. Without that the imagery would be quite dense and, I think, overwhelming…But despite that space, there’s also a sense of optimism. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Yes, I think that’s fair…I think that might come from some sort of spirituality in my work. Maybe, I don’t know. [Laughs]
The Hummingbird Mind – why the title?
I wrote most of [those poems] when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College [a liberal arts college in New York]. Some of those I wrote when I visited home in Texas, but I think I was a little overwhelmed in New York and it was definitely a new landscape.
Maybe it was the disconnect of living in New York, I’m not sure, but one day I was at the library at Sarah Lawrence and I was researching schizophrenia, thought disorders, and I came across this woman’s blog. And she mentioned this disconnection of thought, and she called it ‘Hummingbird Mind’. And I loved that. So that’s how I came up with the title: of thoughts jumping from here to there.
It’s a beautiful image. And it’s funny because although it seems a particularly singular condition, I think it’s actually one that we’re living in now. In this era of urbanisation, a lot of us have ‘hummingbird minds’. Even looking out the window, we’re all dashing about. And there’s a sense of speed for the sake of speed sometimes, and not thinking where it’s taking us.
Oh, definitely. And just today’s culture of being connected to the Internet. If you go out anywhere and look at young people, they’re not even connecting with their surroundings, they’re just looking at their phones, which in itself is a whole other world. We’re just looking at the Internet and living these weird double lives, or triple lives.
It’s very weird having to define yourself with reference to the Internet. Now, for many people, being online is almost the default option.
But your work is a real departure from the world of the Internet, which is why I like it. It’s very contemplative and reflective. There was one poem of yours I was reading, where I loved this line: “There are nights when I discover universes packed in a suitcase”. What inspired that particular image?
I do a lot of work with memory learning. With the image of a suitcase, you’re travelling physically, but also back in your mind.
I had the vision there of Men In Black, where they have universes inside marbles.
There was also your Tchaikovsky poem earlier, which seemed to be about having to proceed despite what was overwhelming. What did that piece mean to you?
Well, right before I moved to New York I started getting into classical music and studying composers’ lives. And what really moved me was that Tchaikovsky didn’t even start writing or composing music until he was, I think, forty? His mother had died, and he was probably unhealthily connected to his mother. And she died, and he became an alcoholic. And at one point he even threw himself down the stairs, in a suicidal attempt, and that moment [in reading about that] I felt this overwhelming sadness, that everything in your whole world was out of control. And yet out of that, as a way to maybe contain or control that emotion, he created beautiful music. And not until he was 40. And I just thought that was fascinating, and that’s where that poem came from.
It’s a beautiful piece; and there are lessons there for all of us more broadly, I think, that it is never too late to create. So much of life, as that shows, is just hanging in there; because Tchaikovsky now, even for a casual listener to classical music like me, is such a frame of reference. There’s a powerful sense of resilience.
Let’s go into other themes in your poetry, beyond that surface level of optimism. What are the key things that you think characterise, that drive your work?
Zooming in, and zooming out. Quantum mechanics; the very large, and the very small. The self, but also getting out of the self, and connecting with the Universe. How to explain this?…Well, one time I was kind of a troublemaker as a teen and I got sent away to this programme – I think in the UK they had a show about it, it’s called ‘Brat Camp’? [laughs]
I went to that same Brat Camp – I think, the one in Utah – and I was out there and every night before we went to bed I would lay down on my sleeping bag, and basically you would see shooting stars, you would see thousands of them before you went to sleep. And I got this feeling of feeling so connected to something so large, yet at the same time feeling so small. So at once feeling insignificant, and at the same time feeling connected to all that is significant. And I like to explore our feeling of disconnect – of feeling small and insignificant and yet feeling connected to everything and everyone, of that largeness and that smallness.