Possible Places: An Interview with Angela Voras Hills

Voras Hills cover

Pleiades interns Jessica Carnnahan and Katherine Gill interviewed Angela Voras-Hills, author of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize-winning poetry collection, Louder Birds, just out from Pleiades Press.

JC/KG: We really enjoyed reading your new collection, Louder Birds. In poems such as “When All Around Us Sky And One Perpetual Flame” and “In Which I Hoard The Air Escaping,” you mention birds, specifically storks in the first, and crows in the latter. The cover of “Louder Birds” is a bird, as well as the title referencing birds. What do birds represent to you in poetry and throughout your life?

AVH: I’m a pretty big bird nerd—I watch for them wherever I go. I’m fascinated by the ones we see all the time, the ones that hide themselves, the ones that partner for life, the ones that make other birds raise their babies. I love their songs (Robins, Cardinals, Chickadees), obnoxious sounds (Geese, Turkeys), and the mad cackle of the Barred Owl. They have been like family to me, they are a constant. No matter where I am, there are always birds, and they always surprise me. All of this said, Red-tailed Hawks have a particularly tight hold on my heart, and, (long story, but) I’m married because I once saw a pair circling the sky above a parking lot.

JC/KG: The title of the book is Louder Birds, and the voices heard in the poems are often those not represented in the media (such as in “At the Periphery…”). Why do you feel that the voices in this book need to be heard louder? What was your inspiration behind the title?

AVH: The title comes from a line in the poem “Muss Es Sein? Es Muss Sein!” which is the title of a painting by John Wilde (find it here!) and translates to “Must It Be? It Must Be!” Wilde’s work inspired me a lot while I put the collection together. Another poem in the book, “A Tribute to February,” is an ekphrastic poem in response to another of his paintings with the same title.

So, the lines are “If the day is not picked apart / first by the bills / of louder birds // I will tear into it like bread.” I’m not sure that it’s advocating for more loud voices, but instead is a kind of insistence on approaching the world with more appetite and a quieter voice. Like, when my kids are screaming, if I yell, they don’t hear me, but if I whisper, they stop and pay attention. I think whispering is sometimes a better strategy for louder birds. And I definitely advocate eating bread.

JC/KG: In the poem “Never Eat A Polar Bear’s Liver,” We noticed this particular piece discusses the topic of global warming. What do you think is the role of poetry in addressing such topics? How do you see these changes in the world around you? 

AVH: Poets have always looked to nature for answers. I mean, people have always looked to nature for answers (I’m thinking augury, astrology, bestiaries, etc.) and to understand life. Artists spend a lot of time observing the world, so it makes sense that we try to make sense of it while it shifts around us. Whether blatantly or not, I think most artists are ecologists to some extent.

 As poets, I think we keep conversations about sustainability and the natural world moving forward. We call attention to the way things are changing, we create and depict potential futures based on the present, and we reimagine the past for guidance. While some people are reluctant to hear scientific data about how the natural world is changing, reading a book or poem in which the reader identifies themselves in this changing world can potentially help them understand their role and what is at stake. The more artists can connect with people, the more willing (I hope) people will be to see themselves as part of the world around them.

JC/KG: We noticed that your poems often have a realistic, almost biographical feel. Did you see a connection between your own life in the Midwest and the poems?

AVH: Oh, definitely. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and spent most of my weekends and summers Up North, where my paternal grandparents owned a bar and resort on a lake, and my maternal grandparents owned a dairy farm. My parents hunted and gutted dear at my grandma’s kitchen table; they fished and skinned Bluegill at the kitchen sink. My dad just shot a bear a few years ago near his cottage. There are a few poems that takes place in Boston, and one that takes place in Krakow, but they are all from my completely Wisconsin-grown lens. It was while I was living in Boston that I realized how much the Midwest was really a part of who I am, and that’s kind of how this book took shape—as a study on the idea of home.

JC/KG: In the poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale,” you reference a small town. How does place affect your poems and how does your experience play into that?

AVH: I grew up in a small town (mentioned above), but I never felt like I belonged there. I had ideas and opinions that people thought were strange, so I spent a lot of time reading and having conversations with myself and was essentially learning to be a poet. I couldn’t wait to leave. While I don’t think small towns are bad, they are still just very much not for me. That said, I’m often like “I want to live in a big house in the middle of a field!” then “I love living in the city!” and I think poetry is a great place for me to inhabit all of the possible places I could live and to fully consider how the places I have lived have shaped who I am. Poetry is essentially my Zillow app substitute.

JC/KG: Reflex” and “At the Periphery, Where Life Hums” both feature the same grandmother, who has a doll and frequently hums. Throughout the book, as well, the speaker is often focused on having a child, and finally in “Reflex” we see that she does. How does family play a role in crafting poems?

AVH: When I was 19, I became a mom, and when I was 21, I started writing. So, I was trying to figure out how to be a person in this world and how to raise a decent person of this world, and I made sense of all of that through writing. For me, I don’t fully understand what I think or how an experience has shaped me or how things work until I’ve written all of it down. And since my various roles within my many versions of family are always shifting (daughter/mother/granddaughter/wife/adult-daughter/mother to an adult, etc.), it seems impossible that I would not write my way through them.

JC/KG: In “Young People In Love Are Never Hungry,” you make many nature references toward the couple in the poem. Do you find that romance and nature are connected? How so?

AVH: Oooh! Great question! I think physical attraction is completely a component of nature. I dated a guy for a bit whose smell I couldn’t stand. He didn’t smell bad, but it was a weird biological repulsion to his scent. I think pheromones and hormones are wild beasts we barely understand.

As I mentioned before, I’m fascinated by the way some animals partner for life and others just make babies and move on. After I had my first son, I felt so incredibly animal—I suddenly empathized on a very real level with the cows being milked in my grandparents’ barn. Since then, it has been hard to not see things through an animal lens (I mean a human animal here, but at the most mammalian level), and I think studying how other animals behave in relationships is fascinating– there isn’t a singular natural way they all behave.

Hooray for science and all of its gaps that look like romance and poetry!

JC/KG: We noticed in poems like “Controlled Burn” and “Unfurling” that death seems to be a large theme. Do you notice a difference between writing about experiences of death in childhood and in adulthood?

AVH: Oh yeah, death is a theme here. The first person I was close with who died was my great-grandma. She was 93, and I was 30, so I had no real first-hand experience with death until I was an adult. Dead animals have made appearances in my life for a long time, though. (And let’s be real, dead animals are hanging out in most people’s freezers and in grocery stores, etc.) So, death was always around me, but nobody ever talked about it except in a very “she’s watching down on you from heaven” sort of way. And as a Catholic, there wasn’t a lot of room for discussion outside of that lovely/creepy idea.

Going back to the whole “I realized I was an animal” bit from the last answer, after having a baby, the truth of living in a body really weighed on me—that one day it would be gone, and that one day the body of my baby would grow into a person’s body, and one day it would be gone, too. Balancing the joy and terror and pain and absolute love for all of this, believing this is the best/only chance we get is so much work. I think showing kids the joy and absolute love is so important for their survival of the terror and pain they’ll need to balance (hopefully much) later.

JC/KG: In Louder Birds, many of the poems differ in style, such as “On My Way Home”, “At the Periphery…”, and “Preserving”. What influences your formal choices in your writing?

AVH: Sound and surprise. Most poems come to the page in a form that resembles their final draft, but I love playing with the line, and I always revise for sound and surprise.

JC/KG: What is your favorite part of writing poetry?

AVH: I love the call to write– the feeling that the thing needs to come out, and then the getting it out. This reminder that the poem is its own crazy being stirring inside me.

Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin and earned her MFA at University of Massachusetts-Boston. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Memorious, and New Ohio Review, among other journals and anthologies. She has received grants from The Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar, as well as a fellowship at Writers’ Room of Boston. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, WI.