Jude Cowan Montague questions friend and fellow poet Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick before she leaves the USA to settle in the UK for a while with her family.
TST: Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick you are a writer and thinker, philosopher and poet. Let’s begin with what you’re doing right now. Tell me what projects you’re engaged in at the moment.
SEH: Currently, I’m working on a couple essays and flash fiction pieces with an editor that I love. I took some flash fiction course workshops online a few months ago and generated some work from that experience. It’s been exciting to delve into different styles of writing that I previously had only dabbled in here and there. Additionally, I’ve been slowly revising a Young Adult novel that I started back in November of 2017.
TST: I believe you’re a long-term journal writer. How does diary writing influence your other work? Why do you keep a diary?
SEH: Honestly, I think it’s just great to go back to writing in a journal, especially when I’m in a writer’s block. It feels good to have written at least something down on the page. Also, I find it helpful to jot down ideas, keep track of things I’m reading or interested in, and also keep track of my dreams. I believe dreams are a rich source to draw from in one’s creative life. In fact, I once made it a point to work with a Jungian Analyst. She described her services as “Creative Analysis.” It was therapeutic, I guess, but more than anything it helped me tap into my creative mind. So, I do keep track of dreams when I have them. I love the imagery it can produce, and the associations that can be made. Some people complain that they don’t have a rich dream life. And I definitely go through phases where I don’t remember my dreams. However, I find that if I write about how I want to remember my dreams, things start happening. Also, my journal writing has come in handy now that I’m working on my Young Adult novel. It has helped me immensely to go back and read my journals from when I was a young teen. It helps get me in that mindset, reminds me of what it felt like being on that “knife edge present,” as sociologists call it. Also, it’s just wonderful to be reminded of events that have shaped me. Patterns are very central to creative works, aren’t they? And there’s nothing like reviewing old journals. So many patterns!
TST: Did you always think you were going to be a writer? Tell me about your childhood ambitions.
SEH: I actually vividly remember the day my Kindergarten teacher (Year One, I think, in the UK) explained to the class what poetry was. She put up words on the white board, explaining how they rhyme, and then explained poetry. I remember thinking it was magical and wonderful. I wanted to try it. For me, it was almost like a puzzle in my brain, the connections made by words and sound. Fast forward my ten-year-old self, I was in tutoring for math. I was behind on some subjects in school and so my tutor, Mrs. Brown, took me under her wing. I wanted to impress her with my poetry. By then I had started keeping a journal at the request of a therapist I was seeing after my mother suggested it since my parents were in the process of a divorce. So, I really started my journal writing life there and with that, poetry. Mrs. Brown really became enthusiastic about my poems and showed a great interest in what I was creating. I think there was something about that attention and validation from her that really made me think, I want to do this! Writing is what really got me through so much. I was / am somewhat of an introvert and writing helped me process so much. It was like a best friend I could always run to. Additionally, we were not a specifically religious household, but I, for some reason, found myself often writing to God. I figured if anyone could answer my questions, it was God. I went on to study Literature in college and then got my master’s degree in writing. I just love it so much that even going into debt for a degree in writing was worth it for me.
TST: What piece of writing are you particularly fond of, and why?
SEH: This is really difficult for me to answer. There are so many texts that I love, so I will stick with the things I cannot live without on my bookshelf—works that I find myself going back to again and again. Rilke’s Duino Elegies. John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Daniel Deronda by George Elliot. Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter, and the Mishnah. So, Rilke is a spirit animal poet for me. I just find such comfort and beauty in his work. Paradise Lost was the first major work of poetry that I studied in college and I have so many fond memories of that course and the text. It was the highlight of my semester, I remember. Similarly, Daniel Deronda was one of my favorite novels to have really dissected in school. The Godel, Escher, Bach book is absolutely mind-blowing. Hofstadter is capable of talking about science, art, music, etc. with such knowledge and passion. There’s so much to draw from that text. Just a brilliant work. The Mishnah I came to a bit later and wrote a whole series of poems based on the style the Mishnah is written in. The oral tradition of the Torah is an interesting text.
TST: Who is a mentor or a figure whose writing you not only admire but which you use to guide your own work? What is it about their work that is a light that shines on your own process?
SEH: My actual mentor in graduate school was Marie Howe. I really appreciate everything she taught me. She was also one of the first people to tell me I was “writing to God” and that is was okay. Additionally, she assured me I should stay true to my “line” and my “voice” when I told her I didn’t feel like what I was writing was poetry. In essence, she told me it was okay to break the rules I had in my head. Now, I don’t necessarily write the same way I did back when I was in my early twenties, but she really helped me have more confidence in my choices. And her work is so steeped in the everyday, in that sort of devout attention to the ordinary that she’s capable of raising up a moment of staring at yourself in a drug store window and make it somehow a spiritual experience. C. K. Williams and Larry Levis were both poets my advisors pointed me to after reading my work. The way their work celebrates the long lines, etc. really resonated with me and my work from that time (which I guess is why they suggested I read them). I remember the first time I read Levis’ The Widening Spell of Leaves and the top of my head just came right off. I was actually a bit jealous and angry that some guy was writing what I was *attempting* to write years later having never read him. These are just a few of the people I can think of. In terms of something outside poetry, I really love Miranda July’s work. And I absolutely adore and love the fairy tale novella that was recently released by Maryse Meijer. Again, another work that I read and was instantly jealous.
TST: You are a great writer about the inner world as we go through troubled times. Can you share some thoughts on how we navigate emotional and relationship difficulties?
SEH: Humans are social creatures. Even the most introverted person needs a sounding board, especially if they are navigating some sort of difficulty. As a child, writing was that sounding board, and it continues to be that for me. As a teen, I wrote a lot in online writing communities and in there, I felt like I had more than just a piece of paper or my own internal dialogue to respond. But still, writing into the void (even if that void is the internet) can never replace the importance of reaching out to people in real time, in real life. That is becoming increasingly hard, I think, these days. And our relationships suffer, perhaps, because of that, too. It’s very easy to turn to the web, isn’t it? Or, say I want to confide in a friend. I’d rather text someone than call or meet for coffee. It’s the path of least resistance, isn’t it? There’s always a sort of safety buffer if you’re screens apart. But I think meeting with someone for a coffee and a chat is so important. I work from home as it is and am already pretty isolated. So it’s important for me to make sure I’m checking in with others in meaningful ways when life gets difficult, or stressful, or some major event happens in my life. This is why humans have rituals and traditions, like weddings and funerals and such. We used to have a lot more, but some have survived. When major events happen, we need to connect, to celebrate, to feel and mourn with the collective. I think we’ve forgotten that these days. And that sort of isolation is so hard yet so easy to fall into without noticing how detached we’ve become from the people that ground us and support us. When I was living alone in new places (as I have done a few times in my life) I’d find meetings or events to go to in areas of interest that I was fond of in hopes of finding a community. Failing that, I’d always try to find public places to write. Sometimes just being around people conversing and such helps. In terms of difficulties in relationships. Yes. I’ve had my fair share of those. I think it’s important to remember there are ways to reach out to someone who can hold the light for you when you’ve lost, or let someone else burn out, your light.
TST: I know you were a horse rider in your youth. And probably still are. Can you tell me about horses and their role in your life.
SEH: I have not had a horse, or ridden, in quite a while. 8 years, to be exact. But as a child and young adult, that’s what I spent most of my free time doing. Horses were a saving grace for me. My horse was the ultimate grounding rod for me and helped me feel connected to my spirit and nature and another being. It also made me feel powerful and confident even in the worst and most traumatic times of my life. Horses really are magic. You can see the entire world in the eye of the horse—both the outer world and your own inner world. One of my life long dreams, which I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fulfill, would be to run a barn for kids and teens at risk. I really feel like working with horses have a way of healing inner trauma.
TST: You’re coming to live in Cambridge, UK soon for a while. What are you looking forward to doing in the UK. Do you have any ambitions for while you’re living here. You are from the USA and have lived in different states there, do you have any thoughts you can share about different places you have lived and how they have stimulated you as a writer?
SEH: I studied in undergrad in London for a semester. It was wonderful. I was so inspired by the land and people I met there. Coming from a small town in Texas, a girl who rode Hunter Jumpers and wrote poetry, well I was kind of out of place I guess in Texas. I remember telling someone at a pub in Islington when I first arrived that I was a writer and they were genuinely interested. I was shocked. I guess I didn’t get that sort of reaction as much in Texas, where I’m from. Of course, there are parts of Texas that have a long and deep history with the arts, but I just never lived in any of those areas. Additionally, I went on to study and live in New York for graduate school and I felt so alive there. It was draining, yes, both physically and mentally (I do love nature) but I met so many people passionate about the arts and carrying around these brilliant, massive creative ideas. It was stimulating and freeing. I look forward to returning to the UK as I have friends there and I know I could easily find a community of people who are passionate about the arts. I want to get involved in all sorts of projects and events.
TST: I know you have thoughts on body dysmorphia. This is so important. How can we help young girls in particular have a positive attitude to their own bodies. I have family members who struggle terribly with this issue and feel very strongly that we should all be doing more to be aware of the stress that young women put on themselves each day and to fight the bad feelings that overwhelm so many. Can you put this in your own terms and discuss this issue?
SEH: It is a mental struggle daily dealing with body dysmorphia. I am not sure I know any ways other than what I’ve found works for me. It’s all about balance, which is so hard to achieve and I don’t think I’ll ever perfect it. Taking the time to do healthy things with ones body like going to the gym or biking or walking or yoga, helps a lot. I also found that having a personal trainer helped me a lot. It doesn’t have to be a personal trainer, but someone who can remind you what’s natural and normal and beautiful about your working body is a gift to have. That’s what I found in my gym buddy, I guess. Learning how to connect the mind with the body was so helpful, too. Mediation can help with that and just generally checking in with ones body consciously. Finding support groups can be helpful, though sometimes they can be triggering. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves and our loved ones is to model love and appreciation for our own body, to remind our self just what we are capable of. For me, I also want to strive to set a good example for my daughter. I make it a point to try and avoid any negative self-talk, so she doesn’t see it. In fact, modeling that for her has helped me. Underneath the body stuff, for me, is just a deep, deep well of anxiety—anxiety that I’m not good enough, that I can’t achieve what I want, that I won’t be accepted, that I’m somehow “dirty” and vulnerable in a bad way. So, things like mindfulness, breathing, etc. and learning to stop those snowballing thoughts before they get too big has been helpful. Also, running was a way to help me feel better, in control, even. But coping mechanisms like that can easily become troublesome, too. (Again, back to the balance thing). And indeed, I ran too much and broke my hip. Then, I couldn’t run for more than a year and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to run again, and there I was back with my anxieties having to learn new coping mechanisms. Support from others is so important, too. It’s a long, never-ending journey, but I think we can all work harder to reach out and help others see their own beauty. To do so, we have to be able to see our own first.
TST: Finally, on a lighter note, I am personally looking forward to having you in the UK where I’m also living, being having been brought up myself in the north of England and having mostly lived in London during my adult life. I hope you will have a brilliant time and share much of your writing with us. I look forward to seeing how this change impacts on your work.
Do you have a thought that you’d like to leave us with? Thank you!
SEH: Last thoughts: I’ll borrow from Joseph Campbell for the first bit: Follow your bliss. And then, Listen to your gut. And also: Be a good human. I’ve learned lately that life doesn’t always have to be one great achievement after another (though social media would say otherwise). Sometimes, our biggest challenges are hidden. For me, right now, my biggest challenge is learning patience and peace while parenting two small kids. And to stop and look at life and the day’s events through another person’s perspective for a moment. I fail at this every day in little ways, but I keep trying to improve. Meanwhile, I will daydream about my next big achievement because we should ALWAYS keep striving for the big stuff, too.