An Interview with Lauren Hilger & Dionissios Kollias

Lauren Hilger is the author of Lady Be Good (CCM, 2016) and Morality Play (Poetry NW Editions, Spring 2022). She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens. Dionissios Kollias’ work has appeared in Hobart, No, Dear Magazine, Raleigh Review, and elsewhere. Their collaborations have been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, GlitterMOB, Pouch, The Tiny, and Zone 3.

Their collaborative poem Highlighted by a low, yellow light appears in Pinhole Poetry’s launch issue.

Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context? 

DK: Lauren and I have been co-writing for several years. We choose a concept (or formal structure) and then alternate lines as we write, then edit the piece to create something that feels cohesive. We both reach for similar motifs or feelings which drive our co-writing. Our backgrounds are different, but how we interpret the world around us is very similar and I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have a co-writer who helps me expand my thoughts on what makes for a good poem—what purpose does poetry hold. When we used to both live in New York, Lauren and I would visit museums, go to the theater, galleries, anything really to continue to find inspiration in art, and then combine that with our own families' heritage and background, with pop culture, the vernacular. 

LH: For our poems, this one in particular, we get to lean into each other’s memories and experiences, and as we’re writing we are invited to inhabit the line that precedes and initiates our own. Cowriting for us is sharing our perspective, pronouns, hopes, embarrassment. It’s a connection that demands vulnerability. 

Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone or a lodestar? 

LH: There are poems and collections I love and those that are close to the work I want to do, but there is a poem above others that has more, I guess, molecular weight for me. I’ve been reentering this poem for years: Song of a Man Who Has Come Through

DK: For me it’s Etel Adnan. Her work touches on all the senses and even the small, the ordinary, feels momentous. Every line feels like it was written just for me.

If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life? 

DK: Writing poetry for me has become second nature, but in order to be a good writer I must occupy my time with multiple hobbies and interests, reading lots (poetry and non-poetry) and spending time traveling or in nature (ok mostly the beach). Seeing friends and family and spending time alone are also important to ensure feeling grounded before taking off into a surreal or lyrical world. Poetry has become the pause. It’s beyond therapy or a journal entry, it’s a way of trying to connect, with others, with my environment, with myself. It’s fun writing.

LH: I’ve been looking through childhood diaries for my second book and I discovered a forgotten period where I wanted to be a country singer? I do remember the moment where the arrows started turning to poetry. But I would have loved to be a backup dancer on tour.

What are you working on now? 

DK: I am working on a manuscript of poems I’ve had for a few years but including newer pieces I wrote after I spent some time in Greece last summer trying to recover a connection to a place which I felt I was neglecting. 

LH: Essays. I am so invested in them, but I tend to write and edit them for years and they never end or leave my Google drive. Poetry I’m better at finishing. My second book Morality Play will be out this spring from Poetry NW Editions.

How or where or with what does a poem begin? 

DK: Anything really, but I mostly start with an emotion. What do I feel today.

LH: Yes, choosing an emotion first is a fun organizing principle for us. That chosen emotion will be pulled out by following a kind of color scheme or tone that fits the bill. We both keep notes – these will be lines or images that stop us throughout the day and are always being collected in the background. When we come together to write, we’re doing a number of things we don’t get to do when we write on our own: we’re writing live, responding to the prompt of the co-author’s previous line, and also pulling from our notes – these notes aren’t kept with the express intention of collaboration so they may go in our own work or in our cowritten work. I like that chance-element of image collecting. It reminds me of being a kid and organizing rocks and those colored stones popular in the 90s to see how they look together. When working with our notes I think of it as finding something that “matches” (be it sound or mood) the lines that have come before. I like including different places and moments but finding a throughline of feeling. Working in that patchwork style feels kind of sexy and alive. Different from my solo work. 

DK: Agree, there tends to be more breathing room when we co-write and a bouncing back and forth of ideas and in some cases the repetition of words to create a piece that does not feel wholly Lauren or wholly mine, but rather a merging of ideas, of lines to build up a new poem that challenges our own work. We get to experiment more here and have built the trust that what works works and what doesn’t work, doesn’t. Our personal feelings are put to the side in order to get a poem with meaning, emotion, truth.

Are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry? 

DK: For sure! Art, dance, history, architecture, cinema. It’s what makes me want to write. Lately, I’ve been hooked on chiropractic videos on YouTube as well as documentaries on the Sea Peoples, and finding ways to incorporate that into my writing has been fun.

LH: Each art form gets at the unsayable from a different angle, so seeing how it’s done in different disciplines helps me understand what I can do in a poem and what we’ve yet to do. 

How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine? 

DK: Lauren and I tend to try to co-write every few weeks. Sometimes we can dedicate several hours, but sometimes we can only spend a lunch hour writing. 

LH: We’re always talking though! Once we’re in it’s always hard to leave especially when we just got going. But sometimes when we can only spend 20 minutes it’s still nice to just organize some lines and put our head into the work. It always feels like play. In terms of a daily routine, I have to read. Even if just a few pages.

Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it? 

DK: How a poem is first written on the page does not necessarily mean it is complete or has to remain that way. I believe in the importance of a good edit—cut out a line, re-arrange a stanza, alternate a word, all of these small things help create a stronger piece. I also was told to avoid bitterness, and that has really stuck with me. A bitter poem has less longevity—too focused on a single emotion instead of understanding a bigger idea or connection. It can make for an uncomfortable read.

LH: 1) Read your work aloud! 2) For yourself decide what’s part of the mythic: what are YOUR motifs, what are the images, things of the world you can bring in, that only you could do? The things that are your DNA, that break your heart? Toss the rest. 3) Reading others’ work can help you better understand your own. Thinking through books and poems you admire can help you better articulate what you like about your own work and what you’re trying to do alongside those who are publishing today and those who’ve come before. I know sincerely amazing writers who don’t read very much, but I am not one of those. Everything I know and anything I’ve ever done of which I’m proud is thanks to studying someone else. 

Do you belong to a writer’s group? If not, where do you find poetry community and feedback? 

LH: The past few years I facilitated a monthly generative workshop and had the opportunity to see poems collectively. It helps to be reminded there’s so much before you that you might miss and someone else can bring forth. Even in our cowriting I’m glad for that broadening of scope, remembering there is more to understand beyond what I take in on my own individual first read. 

DK: I’ve participated in a few writer’s groups and I find them useful. Having the ability to be in a room (virtual mostly lately) with other writers is profoundly valuable talking about poems, reading some together, working on drafts and receiving feedback. All of this creates a space that allows for encouragement and growth and the reminder that poetry does not have to be a solitary act. I also love a writing prompt.

In terms of poetic style or craft, is there a big question you are trying to find an answer for?

LH: I am drawn to the second person. Soon as I hear “you” I don’t doubt it for a second – there’s no looking over my shoulder, I fully accept they are speaking to me. I don’t care if it’s a mysterious 2,000-year-old poem, my heart immediately accepts it. How is that feeling possible? I don’t know, mechanically, but I love that move of apostrophe nonetheless. In lyric poetry, it can work as magic: a message, an oracle. Different from how I sense it falling flat in fiction, essays, etc. That said, as a writer, I am always asking myself who my “you” is. Is there a way I can choose to connect, or must it remain a subconscious desire, a level below my own awareness and understanding? With our cowritten work, a question could be plainly put: who is our addressee? Who are these for? The “future?” Someone I love, or someone I can’t really communicate with? Sometimes it’s Dio, but another Dio, or a part of Dio I approach but don’t know. Sometimes I step outside myself turn around and I’m the “you” too. 

DK: It all goes back to emotion for me. Reading poetry, writing poetry, it all has to have a touch of reality, feelings, something to hold onto, to connect with. It’s all about the human experience and I could say yes, I write to find some purpose in life, but I write because it feels human to do so.

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