an interview with Heather Haley
filed 27 June 2004 | Chicago
Heather Haley, interviewed by Kurt Heintz
Heather Haley is, in my opinion, a Canadian national treasure. She has long cultivated poetry in new media with an emphasis on spoken word. Her first major instigation was the Edgewise ElectroLit Centre, a lit/arts presenting organization and publisher of the Edgewise Café, one of Canada's first major literary websites. She expanded upon that with the Vancouver Videopoem Festival in 1999. She is now at work on Visible Verse, a new poetry video-screening event to be presented at the Pacific Cinematheque in November, 2004.
Haley has performed often and been widely published, but much of her public recognition comes from her work as a presenter and curator in the overlap between new media and poetry. Her life has shifted modes through the years, from gigging in the LA punk underground in the 1980s, to writing and childrearing in forested, suburban Vancouver. Today, Haley is developing her own art With the release of her new spoken word album, Surfing Season. Written and performed by Haley, the disc also features Alexandra Oliver, an accomplished Canadian spoken word artist, and Roderick Shoolbraid, who composed the original music and sound designs.
I discussed the album with Haley, to explore her process and find a better understanding of her as a person. You may audition selected tracks of the album on e-poets.net by clicking to
Haley's entry in the Book of Voices
You've done a great job with Surfing Season. I think it's one of the best albums of its kind since Sheri-D Wilson's "The Sweet Taste of Lightning." How does it feel as a spoken word artist, to produce such an auspicious disc?
Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging words. It means a lot. I often feel like I'm throwing perfectly flat rocks across choppy waters on a moonless night. I get discouraged and have been insecure about my abilities as a performer, which is probably why I hid out in motherhood and arts administration for so long. I seem to be surfacing, despite myself. It's exciting, and a little scary.
Surfing Season -- Why this title?
It refers to youth, and my years in California, which happen to coincide with my lost, possibly misspent youth... when I was golden in the golden state. Christ, it sounds like a lyric.
It may also refer to surfing the Net, which is the kind of surfing I'm more familiar with. Being a redhead, I spent a lot time out of the sun, because I only burn, and my freckles grow. I spent most of my time writing songs and fronting a rock band. Avoiding the sun was easy, not so, smoke-filled nightclubs and recording studios. I sported a well-cultivated pallor, much to the horror of a lot of sun-worshipping Californians.
The disc shows a lot of care and attention, the voice arrangements in particular. How much time did you spend producing the disc?
Actually, "Surfing Season" was a fast and dirty job, completed in about three months, so that I could include it as support material in my Canada Council videopoem grant application. I had been planning it a long time though, in my head. We would have finished the recording in even less time had there not been a fire at Roderick's studio. We were forced to complete the remaining tracks in his tiny West End apartment, during several close and humid spring days.
Arranging voice parts was similar to decreeing line length, deciding where and how to use what voice, to what end. It's all so arbitrary, and vexing. I wish we'd had more time. Next CD, the luxury of experimenting and improvisation will be scheduled in.
Heather Haley, poet and recording artist
(photo by Forrest Phillips)
Every recording session was rushed, with Alexandra and Roderick needing pick-ups or drop-offs. They had to squeeze it all in between so many other obligations. But, didn't they do a great job? I'm always happy to see Alexandra, regardless of the circumstances.
You address that certain mob (or herd) mentality, and machismo versus sexual non-conformance, in your piece "Sum of the Parts". It's political, and certainly feminist. I've heard others take the same theme but render it in a much more strident, confrontational manner. Your approach is almost ambient, a bit detached but quite effective. Why did you render the piece as you did?
Diffcult to pinpoint, because the poem evolved over a long period. "Sum of the Parts" is about puberty, certainly, a time when one is detached, confused -- both giddy and solemn. Of course the horse represents power but, beyond that, deep desire as well. I often dream of horses, but consciously harbour ambivalent feelings toward them. I'm in awe of their grace and beauty but have never ridden, despite having grown up in a rural area, with many equestrian girlfriends.
Apparently, Jung wondered whether, "[The horse might be] a symbol for the mother, the magic side of Man, 'the mother within us.'" So maybe the piece is about my mother. She looms large in my novel, certainly, and we had an intense, tortured relationship. She was terrifying to me, as a child but I still love her deeply (14 years after her death.)
on power and sex:
"I'm trying to say that power is not static... that it, and the matrix degrade, which is something a child has no way of knowing."
I think I'm trying to say that power is not static, that it, and the matrix degrade, which is something a child has no way of knowing. A child must survive without that wisdom [exit sign] at the end of the tunnel. Even if we are beaten down, have our parts taken, in many cases, we not only endure, but also mutate, find new ways of being and ultimately, triumph.
It's interesting that you describe the poem as "ambient" as opposed to "strident." A real compliment, by the way. One of the few Canadian reviews of Sideways panned the piece, the reviewer stating he, "... didn't like being hit over the head," that I, "... eschew the quotidian. [Sideways was] more Hollywood blockbuster than documentary." Oh well. I'm not very CanLit and my work has always been received with more enthusiasm in the United States, which might explain why I chose to be an expatriate for so long.
Indeed. You were part of the LA post-punk music scene in the 1980s and 90s. How does it feel, coming back to the studio after being away?
I'm spoiled, after living and working in a recording studio for so many years. I'm moving toward having a studio here on Bowen Island, and it's just a matter of time. I've been consulting with musician friends like Julie Vik, and have invited a mad cellist named Corbin Keep, to get together upon my return for a jam session. I envision a band called Sideways, performing varying degrees of song and spoken word, according to the occasion or gig. If it were a poetry or spoken word festival, obviously the emphasis would be on words or verse. My poetry and spoken word would be accompanied by music, the band, with a song or two thrown in.
If the gig were at a club or pub, obviously, we would focus on songs, music, with a (performance) poem or two thrown in. No one escapes! People are exposed to all sides, will never know what to expect.
There would probably be more room for improvisation for the musicians with the spoken word stuff as my songs are traditionally structured and melodic. Eventually, this endeavour should lead to the multimedia show I've been talking about. Wouldn't it be cool if Sideways could accompany visiting poets of renown, as well?
Continue the interview in part 2...