- Day to Day and Hour to Hour:An Interview with K. A. Hays
K. A. Hays is a poet, fiction writer, and verse translator whose work has appeared in such publications as Hudson Review, American Poetry Review, Southern Review, and the Best American Poetry series. She is the author of two books of poetry, Early Creatures, Native Gods (2012) and Dear Apocalypse (2009), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Hays studied literature and writing at Bucknell, Oxford, and Brown Universities and currently lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The natural, nonhuman world permeates many of your poems. What role does nature play in your life, and how does this relationship with the natural world affect your work as a writer?
It’s possible that my time outdoors (hiking, canoeing, camping, cross-country skiing, gardening, etc.)—in nature, as we say, somewhat removed from our larger society—helps me to be a more pleasant member of society when I return. And come to think of it, as a writer, I often hope for something similar—to look away from the human, and toward the natural, in order to return to it. Anything in nature, closely examined, can become a way of talking about human concerns: human emotions, human relationships, what it is to be ourselves. [End Page 137]
Who introduced you to the natural world? Are there any key moments from your past when you had an experience in the woods or on the water that has stuck with you or changed you in some way?
I can’t say I grew up surrounded by the natural world. I was born in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and when I was six, we moved to a new residential subdivision about thirty minutes south. Behind that new home, there were still woods, which were owned, I believe, by the real estate developer, who hadn’t yet “developed” them. (Those woods have since had more houses built in them.) I played in those woods with my childhood best friend, who lived next door, from the age of about nine onward. We’d walk into those tall old trees, run down a steep slope to the creek, and feel away from everything. Still, this wasn’t exactly a Rousseauian state of nature or a Thoreauvian Walden—we were very close to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. If you walked southwest through that strip of woods, you’d soon stand near the roaring trucks and see a strip of highway and a pipe that went under it. But if you walked northeast, you found more woods. We walked that way almost always, looking for crayfish in the creek, building a bridge out of sticks, or finding the collapsed stones of what must have once been a chimney. Those woods were crucial to me in those years. In the Philadelphia suburbs, where you had to drive to get just about everywhere and could hear the turnpike and the jake brakes of semis even from inside our house—(I’d fall asleep to that sound)—I could go to that relatively puny area of woods and ramble. I still think that when I write, I want to feel the way I did when roaming around in those woods as a child—interested in discovery, open to it. And also clearheaded. Alive.
Your poems reveal very specific kinds of knowledge about the natural world. How did you come to this knowledge?
Soon after I graduated from college, I decided along with my husband (but he wasn’t yet my husband then) to learn the names of trees. So we began taking walks with a tree guide along. The tree-identification project was more fun than a person might guess, and the trees always stood still nicely for us as we paged through the guidebook, mumbling, “Compound alternating leaves . . .” Soon we were on to wildflowers, and shrubs, and the stars, all of which also stood still for us. After that, we began learning to identify the birds, which occupy a great deal of our attention to this day— they’re my favorite thing to watch. And we’ve moved on to fungi...