In February, I had a chance to speak with Tami Haaland, former poet laureate of Montana (2013-15) and the author of three poetry collections, What Does Not Return (2018); When We Wake in the Night (2012); and Breath in Every Room (2001, 2021), winner of the Nicholas Roerich First Book Award. Haaland’s poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, American Life in Poetry, and The Slowdown. She is a professor of English at Montana State University Billings and currently serves as Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
Sandra: You write a lot about your experience as a woman — as a mother, a daughter, a caregiver — but you don’t seem inclined to delve into gender politics; instead, you seem to use those experiences as a starting point for reflection on the inner life. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Tami: It’s the world from which I express myself; it’s my experience. I grew up in a very rural area, and there were certain assumptions about what women did and didn’t do. It was fine to be physically strong, but there were not that many options for how to live your life. I think I’ve always, from a very young age, been thinking about what it means to be a woman and expanding that vision and speaking about the interior life. In my public life, I speak out about the disparity in the treatment of women and men. My sons grew up knowing that men and women are equal and were later startled when they encountered classmates who believed otherwise.
Sandra: Yes, in one of your poems you speak about keeping the interior, as if you’re tending the interior space. I found that so evocative.
Tami: I feel that’s the biggest part of us, the interior, but maybe that’s what most introverts say? (laughter)
Sandra: Your poetry seems to move between the world of magic and myth making, and the world of science, very hard science — you write about molecules, particles, pheromones. I found that tension very interesting. Are the worlds of myth and science both rich sources of poetry for you, or do you feel torn between them?
Tami: Not torn, but the dance between these worlds really appeals to me. I made up my mind a long time ago that I would not define a hard boundary between what we normally call “reality” and the internal world, the dream world, the world of myth. If that boundary isn’t there then it’s easier to go back and forth between the two. The science doesn’t negate the myth; I think they live together. That’s the richness in it — that they live together. In “Exhibit,” I mention pheromones, the docent in the butterfly pavilion is delivering all this information — about how the butterflies don’t eat when they breed, how and when they hatch — but, at the same time, there is magic in the air, butterflies of all different colors. And the thrill of having one land in your hand, on your skin — it’s amazing! There’s an exuberance in that poem — the multisyllabic rhyme scheme in the sonnet is over the top, but it parallels the mindset of the speaker.
Sandra: There’s a richness in bringing all of that together — the science, the celebration of beauty, the sound, the form. It’s a very intense kind of expression, which brings me to my next question. Dreams weave their way through your work, and prayer and meditation also come in. It seems that these ways of knowing the world play an important role in your poetry. Does your reliance on these more intuitive ways of knowing have roots in your spiritual life or your beliefs as a Bahá’í?
Tami: I don’t often write directly about the Bahá’í Faith. There are a few allusions, but I’m not sure I know how to write directly about the Faith. It seems too big; I don’t know the way to work with it in poetry, but what I can work with is the nuance of prayer, of meditation — the interior spiritual core. I love those encounters in the world of dream with people who have already passed away, the conversations that take place, so I have introduced them into my work. Usually I avoid saying “in the dream.” I don’t want the label and the division from the waking world.
Sandra: The world of your poems seems to be a kind of liminal space, somewhere between dreams and reality, the body and the spirit. It is a very fertile place, the home of poetry, but to see the connection between dream and reality made so explicit is powerful. To me, it seems an open acknowledgement, an affirmation of the spiritual world, which is itself a kind of spiritual poetry, isn’t it?
Tami: Yes, it is. When I write, I try to write without too much consciousness or control. I take the words as they arrive and try not to judge too much. It would be easy to dismiss what comes, but I think poets live in a riskier place — liminal as you say — where material can surface that has much more substance than anything our more conscious side can invent.
Sandra: Yes, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that art is the gift of the holy spirit. And that’s what you’re describing: the given dimension of art. But I also know that you are a poet who engages in rigorous revision — you really work with your poems. That’s something people who are just beginning to write may not understand: how important that process is. Art may be given, but work must follow if the art is going to be the best it can be.
Tami: Exactly. I always tell students that the poet works in service to the poem. The poem has arrived, as if it wants to be something. And it’s the poet’s job to try to work with that. Sometimes people will ask me what I wanted a certain poem to be, and I’ll tell them that’s not my job. It is not my job to work with the ego and make the poem into one thing or another. The work of revision continues the creative process of discovery, to find how this poem can best exist. That said, I’ve taken myself through many exercises, learning about form and experimenting with ways of creating poetry, so that I have broad knowledge and skill to draw from. Every culture has traditions of poetry that have been passed on from one generation to the next.
Sandra: Tell me about a time when a poem took you to a different place than you wanted to go or anticipated going.
Tami: Yes, that happens to me all the time! And I bet that happens to you too. (Laughter) Yes, you start with something. I always think of it as a little like a labyrinth; you have an entrance and then you follow a path. You often arrive at really surprising places.
Sandra: I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for describing the poetic process — the given art, the revision, and all the while finding your way through this labyrinth. In your recent volume of poems, you are very preoccupied with time, with loss, with what does and does not endure. This line of enquiry is, of course, closely connected to spiritual search.
Tami: I like thinking about the poem as a place of inquiry. If we are simply writing down what we know, what we are writing is exposition. I find it much more interesting to approach a poem as a place of discovery. Impermanence, that old quarrel with time and space, the fact that the people you love are far away or they’ve gone into the afterlife — separation is part of what drives poetry and drives discovery. Maybe it’s the desire to connect. It’s a familiar theme. Of course, Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” when he knew he was dying.
Sandra: Yes, what other theme is there, really? In a sense, all of poetry is about our mortality. In poetry, we delve into the present moment and celebrate it, perhaps because of the haunting sense of loss we always carry. That sense of loss, it seems to me, lies at the heart of what it means to be alive on this earth.
Tami: And there are elements of story, as well, in this exploration of loss.
Sandra: Yes, your poetry is very narrative. I don’t feel the lyric impulse as much as the narrative one in your work.
Tami: I am really fascinated by story. It’s primal. I believe that as humans we evolved with music, with story, with art, with poetry. And I think a story is as much a way of approaching mystery as the lyric voice.
Sandra: Yes, and, as you write in “As Many Stories as Stars,” a story can change as it evolves: if you go further with it, it can have a different ending.
Tami: I think of story as Platonic in that sense; there’s the ideal story but its manifestations in the world can be very different.
Sandra: Tami, I can’t finish this interview without mentioning your affinity for animals, not just cuddly mammals like the chihuahua or graceful ones like the deer but reptiles and amphibians — snakes and salamanders. And in one of your poems, a mosquito is buzzing and, for you, the buzzing is a kind of song, whereas for me, a mosquito is never anything but an irritation! Where does that affinity come from?
Tami: I grew up in rural Montana with rattlesnakes. My parents always told me to watch out for the snakes. It was a world full of grasshoppers as well, and as small child I couldn’t tell the difference between the rattle of a snake and the buzzing of grasshoppers, so I was always on edge thinking that snakes were near. In retrospect, I see how that sense of danger generated a kind of alertness to the world, which I appreciate so much. I have two children, who are grown men at this point, and the one loved insects and drew my attention to them. I began to see them in a way I had not seen them before. I find all kinds of creatures fascinating. I love listening to birds, knowing them by their songs. I love the interaction and the engagement they have with one another. I appreciate even the more dangerous animals that live in the prairies. I am grateful for that edge. The lack of pure safety is a treasure.
Sandra: Yes, the idea of danger comes up in your work frequently, and I think that gives it a kind of energy. And then there’s this tenderness, this kindness, especially in this most recent volume. This, it seems to me, is a rare gift. Where does that come from and how did you come to write in this way?
Tami: I think you get to that point in your life — when you care for other people. When you are taking care of the dying, those are the necessary expressions. To write those into poetry can be risky because the work can seem sentimental. But I prefer to take that risk rather than trying to create some other kind of edginess that might feel false to me in the context of a given poem.
Sandra: I think the remarkable authenticity with which you speak, especially in your most recent volume, What Does Not Return, is essential in writing about caregiving and imminent loss. In fact, I don’t think there’s any other way of writing about illness and losing a loved one. I think writing about caregiving is something of a new frontier, and I found the honesty, the tenderness very moving. Before we go, I wanted to look at the last poem in your most recent book, “Deer at Crazy Creek.” The ending is so powerful — when you speak to the deer. Do you have anything you want to say about that ending?
Tami: Sure. Actually, it’s very realistic. But I think that the imagery says so much about what our lives are like. Beautiful butterflies on sage in contrast to the flies that bite, both of them on the same trail. And then there’s always something on the horizon and we’re not sure what it is. I think that’s the way we navigate our lives. The idea is embedded in the imagery. There’s a threat that a bear could be lurking somewhere, but it's not a real threat because it’s not really there.
Sandra: I think the bear at the edge of the mind is an enduring image, one that stays with the reader, because it’s so powerful and because everyone has one — a bear at edge of the mind. And giving it a name somehow helps, doesn’t it?
Tami: Yes, it’s important to appreciate the bear, too, because it’s part of the context, part of the whole scene.
Sandra: Yes, the joy and the pain, the moments of triumph and the tests and difficulties, all wrapped together in one human life.
Tami: Then “step ahead, step ahead” because that’s what we do.
Sandra: Yes, we are always going towards the horizon and we don’t know what we’ll find there. One last question. This one is a challenging one, I think. How do you view the role of the poet in the community, the Bahá’í community and the community at large? What unique gifts do you think the poet brings to a community?
Tami: I like that question and think it’s important. At the same time, I don’t want to presume too much. The Romantics viewed the poet as a kind of priest, with Wordsworth as the prime example, translating the natural world into poetry. But that is an old view, and it doesn’t ring true today. I think most poets feel compelled or they probably wouldn’t be writing. I think you can liken poetry to a spiritual journey, a long journey. In a poet’s lifetime, there may not be any particular understanding or acceptance of the work. Some of it may last, some of it may not. The poet’s job is to do the work, for whatever life it has in the world. Some people find solace in poetry. They find things they need emotionally in poetry. They find encouragement. There is not necessarily a direct correlation between what a poet writes and who reads it. It’s like setting the boat free on the water, it will find where it needs to go. Luckily, many poets are writing in any era. I believe we poets just need to write, and probably share our work, to teach. That’s our role.
Sandra: Yes, and, as you know, poetry is such a big part of the Bahá’í Writings. The Persian mystical poets are alluded to so often in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
Tami: And Bahá’u’lláh wrote poetry.
Sandra: Yes, that’s right and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did too. I think poetry gave them a different way to speak. I can’t presume to say what way. But it did offer them a different form; they could say the same things but in a new way. Yes, poetry touches hearts, touches souls. Changes people’s hearts, changes souls. Incremental change. Maybe enduring. Maybe not. Change in the moment. We don’t know where the work goes, but I think there is a spiritual dimension to the task: it has a spiritual impact, just like every kind of holy deed that brings truth into the world — truth and beauty,
Tami: To go back to Keats again. (Laughter)
Sandra: Yes, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Laughter) Well Tami, we’ll end there. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us.
Tami: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.