An Interview with Lydia Havens

LYDIA HAVENS is a poet, performer, editor, and teaching artist currently living in Boise, Idaho. Her work has been published in Winter TangerineDrunk in a Midnight Choir, and Voicemail poems, among other places. She is the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and the author of Survive Like the Water, which was just published by Rising Phoenix Press.


Our ever-lovely interviewer Olivia Hu speaks with the equally lovely Lydia Havens on her debut collection Survive Like the Water, healing through poetry, slam, and working within and outside of the "write what you know" rule.

OLIVIA HU: Hi Lydia! Thanks so much for joining us to chat at L’Éphémère Review! What a pleasure to have you. 

LYDIA HAVENS: Hi Olivia! Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m so excited to chat with you.

Lydia, I’d love to talk about your book that was just released by Rising Phoenix Press! Could you give a general background of Survive Like the Water for anybody who doesn’t have a copy of it?

I had been working on a manuscript on and off for about two years. It had been under many different titles, with a bunch of different poems cycling in and out of the drafts. I was about sixteen when I started working on it, so my writing style was changing a lot, and after a while I just put the manuscript to the side because I felt like I hadn’t totally “found myself” just yet.

Right before my 18th birthday I decided to come back to it because Rising Phoenix was having an open reading period. I really loved everything Rising Phoenix had published in their monthly journal, and had worked with them in the past, so I wanted to give it a shot. I spent a few weeks going through all of my work and reassembling the manuscript. There are a few poems from the original manuscript I put together when I was sixteen, but it’s mostly work I wrote within the last year and a half. In March of last year, Christian, the co-founder of Rising Phoenix [and poetry editor of L'Éphémère Review] told me he wanted to publish the book, but wanted to see if I wanted to make it a full-length collection instead of a chapbook. So I spent the summer writing and editing about twenty more poems, and now here we are!

What are some of the themes or inspirations that interweave themselves throughout the collection?

I’ve always been very theme-driven. Right now I can’t picture publishing another manuscript without at least a couple central themes. My self-published chapbook that was released right before I submitted to Rising Phoenix, GIRLS INVENT GODS, is all about my “coming out journey” as a queer woman. So with Survive Like the Water, there are three central themes: mental illness, grief, and trauma. Those have all been incredibly prominent in my life, and after a while I noticed that they were sort of creating a cycle in the way I was processing my emotions and thoughts. The book is divided into four parts (depression/bipolar I, anxiety, grief after losing my uncle, and trauma after being sexually abused as a child), and my goal was just to explore how all of these parts of my life have intertwined themselves in each other, and what that’s meant for me as I’ve been trying to heal.

Survive Like the Water , Rising Phoenix Press. February 2017

Survive Like the Water, Rising Phoenix Press. February 2017

Oftentimes, I find that writing stems from deep within the heart, as an outlet to pour burden. How does your writing connect to your story or life experiences? Do you find that emotion or trauma often plays a part in your poetry?

Absolutely. I know a lot of writers really hate the “write what you know” rule, but that’s always been what I’ve been the most comfortable and uncomfortable doing. I started writing for a class in middle school, and was going through a lot at the time. My teacher told me that he thought poetry would be a great way for me to process everything that was happening in my life, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since. Even outside of trauma, a lot has happened in my life, so I feel like I have a lot to talk about and process and what not.

Currently though, I’m actually trying to write more happy poems. I think that’s an emotion I really need to be exploring more, especially now, in a time where I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I also don’t want to just be known as the girl who writes and performs really sad, intense poems about her kinda shitty childhood. So right now, I’m trying to find things to write about that maybe I haven’t before. Like I said, a lot has happened in my life, and not all of it was bad, so now I’m just trying to figure out how to write about it.

Lydia, I’d love to hear about your poetry slams! Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with it.

Oh God, I could honestly talk about poetry slams all day! I’ve been competing in slams for nearly four years now (the anniversary of my first slam is actually coming up in March). I started off in a youth slam in my hometown of Tucson, AZ, and really would not be where I am now without it. When I was sixteen I had the opportunity to go with a mentor to the Individual World Poetry Slam when it was in Phoenix. That sort of opened up a whole new world for me—I had only seen YouTube videos from these national competitions, and now these brilliant poets that I had watched for so long were right in front of me. I wanted to do what they were doing.

For my 17th birthday, I went with my stepfather to the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Albuquerque, NM (which is similar to IWPS, except it’s only open to women and non-binary poets). I was a volunteer, and then I ended up competing in a youth slam. I won, and opened up the finals stage with a poem of mine. That was probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life, but also one of the best. I was able to prove to myself that this was something I could do. So after I turned eighteen, I registered to compete as an adult in WOWPS. That year, it was in Brooklyn, NY, and I ended up placing in the Top 25.

Today, I live in Boise, and I’m pretty involved with their poetry slam scene. I’ve actually just qualified for finals in April, so cross your fingers that I’m able to make their Nationals team! That would be a dream come true.

Any advice for poets who are interested in getting involved with slam?

If you feel like you want to get involved in slam, but don’t feel ready just yet, start out at an open mic. Many slams actually hold their own open mic before getting into the competition, but just researching other open mics in your area will turn something up too.

Google really is an amazing tool for finding slams; if you’re over eighteen Poetry Slam Inc. also has a list of all their certified slams across the country too! Before the slam, make sure you’re familiar with the rules—most slam rules are pretty similar no matter where you go, but check the website and make sure you know how many poems you’ll need, how much time you’ll have, etc.

I also think it’s important to always go into the first round with the poem you really, really want to read, even if it might not score well. Also, I’m of the belief that there’s really no such thing as a “slam poem”. Any poem you read out loud in a slam environment is a slam poem, so don’t think you have to sound a certain way to compete in a poetry slam. Slam has clichés and tropes just like any other genre or movement. And if you don’t do well in your first slam, don’t be discouraged! Keep coming back! Talk to your fellow competitors too. Chances are they’re really cool people.

Lastly, where can we make sure to get a copy of Survive Like the Water?

It’s being sold at Rising Phoenix’s Etsy shop! You can get one here.

Lovely! I’ll be sure to get a copy. Thanks so much for talking with us, Lydia! What an absolute pleasure.

Thank you so much! This has been so lovely.

Bye! Thanks again for this lovely chat.

Thank you! Have a great day.