Talking with Heidi Van Horn

The poet’s book-length work explores our interior lives by mixing words and photographs.

Heidi Van Horn describes her new work, Belated Poem, as "an investigation of the interior world: consciousness, memory, the complexities of selfhood."
Heidi Van Horn describes her new work, Belated Poem, as "an investigation of the interior world: consciousness, memory, the complexities of selfhood."

Heidi Van Horn’s Belated Poem is a collage of poetry and images. Fusing science and feeling as it questions the nature of verbal expression, the text accompanies stark pictures of things like dark lava flows and empty plastic bags trapped on barbed wire.

Van Horn’s words depict a speaker in pain, while her photographs convey the bleakness and solitude of the natural world. The combination is jarring. The reader is forced to confront an encompassing loneliness and the ineffable nature of our deepest thoughts. Based in San Francisco, Van Horn’s mountains are wedged between graffitied walls, and she photographs plants in silhouette against brilliant skies. She writes of “something always / coming / or going” and the “self-deception” of poetry.

Belated Poem asks more questions than it answers, yet imagines that “the scientist is a poet and the poet / is a scientist engaged in the processing of continuous data.” Through Van Horn’s eyes, we are all engaged in studying the world and searching for our own place in a desolate landscape.

Alta caught up with Van Horn to discuss Belated Poem.

What central question does your work ask?
I write poems to explore questions for which I have no answers. Poetry as divination. Poetry as enactment, not only of vulnerability but of not-knowing. This particular poem—I consider it a book-length poem rather than a collection—is an investigation of the interior world: consciousness, memory, the complexities of selfhood. And of dark places: time and transience, shadows, stains, silences, the aftermath of failed intimacy. In other words, “belated” as in “overtaken by lateness of the night; hence, overtaken by darkness; benighted.”

What obsessions, connections, or coincidences made it into this book?
It wasn’t until I saw the first proof that I realized the majority of the photographs contain twinned objects, and, although I meant the images to be devoid of human footprint, one photograph contains the “ghost” of a person, a person who appears to be walking on water.

The narrative links between image and word in this book, like human connections and shared intimacies, are fragile and bewildering, albeit ardent and undeniable. My work often centers on attachment and rupture—from a psychoanalytic perspective and a more expansive definition. For the past few years, I’ve been cocreating a poetic assemblage with David Makaaha Kwon about incarceration, the most extreme form of rupture imaginable, short of death. Another ongoing project is more personal: a series of prose fragments about growing up in Marin County in the 1970s and how family dysfunction is often absorbed and replicated, arcing forward and backward in time.


What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I am inspired by artists who operate at the intersection of one thing and another: image and text, figuration and abstraction, two-dimensional and sculptural, painting and photography, the deeply personal and the political.

I am drawn to metaphor, conceptual work, works in conversation with the past. Acts of faith, witness, resistance, and transgression that interrogate traditional ways of seeing and what’s taken for granted historically, culturally, or politically. Understanding what’s at stake for the artist enriches my experience of the art itself and often informs my own creative practice. Like most people, I am moved by beauty, bravery, and originality. Although I work on a much smaller scale, I admire artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who embeds urgency, emotion, and ambiguity into monumental works such as “Untitled” (Blood), a sweeping curtain of suspended red and white beads suggesting the advance of HIV in the body. A few other favorites, three of them local: Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Bechtle, Clare Rojas, Rosana Castrillo Diaz.

What did you listen to while working on Belated Poem?
I don’t listen to anything while I am working! Writing is a solitary and sometimes scary endeavor, and I am kept company by ambient noise: rain and foghorns (if I am lucky), voices floating up through the light well, dogs, garbage trucks, cars driving up and down our hill, airplanes, sirens. Also by what I can see: clouds, fog, a sliver of ocean, birds, tree canopies, the luminous handiwork of a tawny spider who lives outside my bedroom window. (Yes—I sometimes work in bed.)

What books are on your to-be-read list?
I love essays, and I love anything by Rachel Cusk, so I am looking forward to [her essay collection,] Coventry. Two beautifully executed, wonderfully uncategorizable books from my favorite independent publisher, Siglio: Frail Sister by Karen Green and John Cage’s experimental Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). A play by Claudia Rankine: The White Card. Bhanu Kapil’s newest collection: How to Wash a Heart.

I’m excited to get my hands on local writer Meng Jin’s Little Gods, “an immigrant story in negative.” At one point, I lived part-time in mainland China; the more time I spent there, the less I understood it. Also, a few other Bay Area authors of the Chinese diaspora: Nancy Au, Mimi Lok, Jennifer S. Cheng.

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
I’m not a good person to pitch anything. And there are no deliverables with poetry. It’s elusive, impractical, and ill-disposed to paraphrase; an offering of humility and heart, in service of connection, not convincing.

That said, I’ll cite the Drop Leaf Press description of my book as “a poetics of interiority.” Like the visual art I referenced, Belated Poem eternalizes, embodies, and shares an intimate experience—something that felt impossible to articulate with words alone. I needed a more expansive lexicon of dark apertures and reflected light, the inclination of lines, disturbances of landscape, and negative space.


  • By Heidi Van Horn
  • Drop Leaf Press, 68 pages, $20
    Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic.
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