Back to the Garden - Part 2: "A Pretty Big Failure"

This is the second in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Part 1.

A Pretty Big Failure

Isabelle had a show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum. I wrote a catalog essay for it. A publisher of some note came to the show, became wildly interested in her work, and wanted to publish a series of books on her. Later, I had a verbal contract with the publisher to write one of the books, but due to an economic downturn in publishing, the project fell through.

 Hazel with Isabelle Greene

Hazel with Isabelle Greene

 Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

Exhibit catalog for Isabelle's show at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum

At another point, my partner agreed I could take a year off from earning income to write a book about Isabelle. At the end of the year, with nothing much written and feeling miserable, I got brave and contacted the top agent for landscape books in New York—office on 5th Avenue, the works. She was interested but thought Isabelle wasn’t sufficiently well known to warrant an entire book just about her. The agent wanted me to write a book about Isabelle and another landscape architect. I turned her down; it didn’t feel possible to compromise. I’m sure she was very surprised.

Then I decided that in order to write the book I needed to attend a Master of Fine Arts writing program. I got into the MFA program at California College of the Arts. At the end of the first semester, a professor told me that she didn’t think I could write the book about Isabelle’s garden for probably five years. I went home and cried.

By the second semester, my writing had broken down completely. I could no longer write a linear sentence. Friends were telling me I should drop the book idea. It was looking like a pretty big failure. I suppose the breakdown in sentences was related to my emotional state. Something had to break.

At that point I took a course called “Hybrid Forms” taught by the poet Kathleen Fraser. Being a good girl and following her directions, I produced these short condensed pieces in response to her exercise prompts. She called them poems. I was terrified—I didn’t want them to be called poems. I couldn’t face my inability to write sentences anymore. I made a valiant attempt to get the hell out of this huge discomfort and transfer to the Visual and Critical Studies program, but wasn’t able to.

I had grown up in a working-class family. I’d argued my way to college based on the expectation that I’d make money. So writing poetry felt like a crisis. Yet I could no longer write anything else.

 Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

Hazel as a child (Hazel's on the right)

 Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

Hazel as a teen, on a farm in the southwest of England, where she grew up

A couple years after receiving my MFA, I wrote my first poetry book, Peril as Architectural Enrichment, in the space of about four months. It was published by Kelsey Street Press in 2011. It dealt with landscape architecture—but wasn’t about Isabelle and her garden. I felt guilty. I had accrued 70 hours of interviews with Isabelle yet I had been unable to produce anything out of all that material.

Next Installment: You're a Good EggHappy Easter