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'What Does Not Return' With Tami Haaland

Kathy Jones

"What Does Not Return, is a rare account of the experience we have come to call, rightly, care-giving. With ritual attentiveness, in small, deeply considered gestures, in words exchanged at the altar of grief, she shows us what it might mean to honor and celebrate what is given to us and what is taken away." -- Melissa Kwasny

The following highlights are from a conversation with Tami Haaland about her collection of poems, What Does Not Return. To hear the full interview, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast. 

Sarah Aronson: Although poems don’t necessarily have to be about something, there’s a clear sense in the first section that there’s something autobiographical happening. Can you explain where that part of the book came from?

Tami Haaland: Yes. My mother died from Alzheimer’s and in her decline, as a family, we went through various stages of spending time with her, becoming closer and closer. Eventually she moved in with me and then we had assisted living. . .

Working with the mind that is coming unraveled is really quite an experience that involves loss of memory, obviously, loss of boundaries, loss in so many ways, but also the imagination fills in. It feels very fluid when you draw close to the experience.

It sounds like that must have impacted your writing then.

It did. It was inevitable; it was the world I was living in. It causes some reflection because when you’re watching somebody’s imagination too, you begin to reflect upon your own imagination.

I was wondering then, I this is one of the ways writing serves you and served you during this time of unraveling. To use the Robert Frost quote: that poems are a “momentary stay against the confusion" of the world. Did writing help you or support you in the process of caregiving for your mom?

Well I think so, yes. I mean, we could say it was therapeutic, but I don’t think that’s exactly what it is. In some ways I felt I was documenting. I was trying to put into language what this experience was, and then there was a lot of crafting. This particular poem went through many iterations and the last stanza in particular was not what I originally envisioned. I had in mind the way you look through a window and you can see the people standing in the kitchen. The needs of the poem finally overrode everything else. But the documenting was really critical. It was very sad and it was also fascinating. I was able to see sides of this person I had not seen because before that her guard was up.

Can you speak to this notion of the “needs of a poem”?

Oh yes. I always feel that my role is to really serve the poem. The poem will have its own direction. In order for the poem to work out, it may need something other than what I think I would like to put in it. Laughing

My role is to try to help that to happen so that the poem has what it needs.

How on earth are you able to tell what is yours and what is the poem’s?


I don’t think I separate it actually. I mean obviously it starts with some impulse--something happens, whatever the spark is--and I run with it. Ultimately I want to make a good poem. I think of it in terms of what the poem needs but it’s because I want the poem to do well. I want it to be a good poem and I guess over the years I’ve acquired some skills so I can help make that happen.


About the Book:

What Does Not Return is remarkable—pity and common joy intermingling. The ceremony of language that poetry is carries throughout the book. We hear a lift in the writer’s sentences and deft handling of pace in every poem. We see the entrance of light and the light that remains after the poem is finished, a mother’s life put away. Our life’s story is told, the end especially, with grave dignity. And, as it is with ceremonies, a sense of what is pure also remains, a sense that we are “awake in ways” that we “couldn’t have sustained earlier.” —Carol Frost

Credit Michael North
Tami Haaland

About the Author:

Tami Haaland is the author of three poetry collections, What Does Not Return, When We Wake in the Night, and Breath in Every Room, winner of the Nicholas Roerich First Book Award. She earned a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Montana and a MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Haaland has offered creative writing workshops in prisons, schools and community settings. Her poems have appeared in High Desert Journal, Consequence, Ascent, The Ecopoetry Anthology and many other periodicals and anthologies.  Her work has also been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and American Life in Poetry. She received an Artist Innovation Award from Montana Arts Council and a Governor’s Humanities Award. Haaland has served as Montana's Poet Laureate and teaches at Montana State University Billings.

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