Hadara Bar-Nadav, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is no stranger to recognition. With an exquisite command of language and affinity for arresting detail and imagery, she has authored five books of poetry, with all but one garnering local, regional and national awards.
Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Bar-Nadav one of its 37 $25,000 creative writing fellowships for poetry.
With these fellowships, the NEA aims to give writers the time and space to “create, revise, conduct research, and connect with readers.” The fellowships are awarded for prose and poetry on alternate years (next year’s winners will be solely for prose). Former American NEA recipients include winners of National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes.
The Star recently sat down with Bar-Nadav — who lives in Kansas City with her husband and their son — to discuss her poetry, influences and what winning the NEA fellowship means to her.
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Q: How did you become interested in poetry?
A: I was called to poetry as a really young person. When I was about 6 I started writing poems and keeping a journal. Nobody was asking me to, it was a really natural impulse. It was around that time that my family started to kind of fall apart, and writing was something that steadied me and gave me a way to process things happening in my life and the world. I feel like poetry found me.
Q: How does your ethnicity inform your poetry?
A: It hasn’t, always. For a long time I hid from my identity as a Jewish person, as an Israeli person, as someone who is the child of family members killed in the Holocaust.
That history in my family is extremely painful and shrouded in deep silence. I was scared to invite that into my life. I had been taught to be afraid and silent, and to some degree I think that was a way of honoring and giving reverence and space for unbelievable loss. It took the death of my father for me to be willing to face death and my history.
Q: What other impulses have influenced your work?
A: My first and second books are largely driven by visual art. They are about paintings and sculptures by artists whose work interests me or horrifies me, even.
After the loss of my father to Lyme disease — he died and two weeks later my mom was diagnosed with melanoma in her face — that kind of shifted my creative compass to the elegy and to personal and social histories. Right now I’m working on a manuscript that’s informed by the three years I spent as a medical editor.
Q: That’s peculiar; how does the medical field act as an inspirational source?
A: One is my work experience as a medical editor and being around all this weird language. Doctors have a different way of constructing grammar. I wanted to play with that grammar and syntax and language.
For instance, I knew I wanted to put Warfarin into a poem. Warfarin. Doesn’t that sound like its gonna punch you in the face? It’s a heart medicine, and my father was on it. It’s just brutal! Why would you name a drug Warfarin? Like warfare? I don’t make this stuff up, it exists in the world!
This is also partly about me coming home to material that I had been too afraid to write about. It was too close to me or too consuming. My father was ill for so much of my life, and then my mother. I’ve lived in a medicated house for a long time. Talking about it is scary and painful. But this is a truth we all live with. Everyone is going to die eventually, everyone is going to lose someone.
But horror and silence don’t have to be the only responses. There is even joy and silliness available in considerations about grief. There are bigger things to think about here. It can give you an appreciation for life.
Q: The NEA is filled with illustrious alumni. Do any names make you go, “Wow, I’m in the same category as this person”?
A: Simone Muench, she won several years ago and happens to be a friend. David Baker, who is from Missouri and is now the editor of the Kenyon Review.
I’m also really honored at the people I won alongside this year, like Patricia Smith, holy cow! She’s an amazing poet. I just taught her book in my graduate seminar. There’s also Kate Nuernberger and Rita Dove; so not only people who have previously won, but those who won this year.
Q: What are a poet’s greatest tools?
A: Language is the obvious. I’m also an imagery nut. Imagery in poetry means all of the senses, not just the visual.
Q: How will this award help your career and writing moving forward?
A: It’s interesting, my spring classes are suddenly exploding with people and I’m wondering if word has gotten around already?
In practical matters, there’s a nice $25,000 award that goes with it, which will allow me to take a break from teaching so I have enough time to dedicate full-on to my writing. Having the NEA will also afford me (the chance) to be able to put my son in full-time child care. I’ll miss him! But it will give me more time to write.
Q: What do you want readers to understand about you and your poetry?
A: That feeling and thinking and being afraid of something does not have to silence you.
I guess I’m less concerned with people knowing me. I want them to get to know language. And to know that language is for you and it’s good for you. That doesn’t sound very grandiose, but language is available to us as a tool and inherently promotes community and conversation. I think that’s medicinal.
Dirty, dirty boy,
what have you done?
Your bath splattered
with cigarette butts, leaves,
the droppings of doves.
No chlorine can clean
your iron-eating years.
Eyes peeled open,
A mounting rod lodged
in the base of your back.
Children poke you
and steal your pennies.
The loose change of your mind
emptied by the smallest hands.
Who isn’t barbaric anymore?
The people no longer notice
you, bound in stone,
as a taxidermied swan.
Splayed on the plaza square
you wait to be turned on.
Hadara Bar-Nadav, from “Fountain and Furnace” (Tupelo Press, 2015)