Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Hazel White

In gardening, landscape architecture, nonfiction, poetry, writing on April 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Hazel White

Hazel White. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2012).

An introduction to Hazel White, author of the poetry collection Peril as Architectural Enrichment (Kelsey Street Press, 2011). White holds degrees in philosophy and literature, and has also studied crop agriculture and landscape architecture. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from California College of the Arts. The author of 11 gardening books, Peril as Architectural Enrichment is her first book of poems.

These two pursuits of White’s were recently fused for a UC Berkeley Botanical Garden symposium in February 2012. White described the experience as “an enormous moment. I was challenged to integrate what had previously been two separate parts of my life: the experimental poetry, and my commercial writing about landscape architecture. I made a presentation that was a sonnet, and it was a collage of prose, poetics, and  philosophy, all around landscape architecture.” For readers of Peril as Architectural Enrichment, White’s background as a garden and landscape author seems absolutely fitting. In her poetry, the natural world intertwines with an intellectual and philosophical world to create thoughtful tension as the narrator searches for balance and an understanding of her place in this space.

Quick Facts on Hazel White

  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food: roast potatoes
  • Top reads: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein; the Origins of Architectural Pleasures by Grant Hildebrand; and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Rusty Morrison, Kathleen Fraser—the whole group of women experimental writers.
  • Current reads: Rusty Morrison’s work

What are you working on at the moment?  

Two collaboration projects, actually. One with poet Denise Newman, and it’s an installation for an arts festival at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden this July. Our project is called Botanica Recognita: Signage to Facilitate a Greeting. We’re having a lot of fun playing with the idea of how people encounter plant signs and with a longstanding philosophy of beauty that recognizes beauty as an experience similar to a greeting. We have a sort of sense that people greet the beautiful plants there, and then look to the signs but the signs don’t work in that realm. They work in a scientific categorization realm. So, we’re putting poems on plant signs that speak to a greeting of human consciousness across the porous interface with nonhuman intelligent animation.

The other collaboration has to do with an artist residency in Connecticut called I-Park. It’s 450 acres of woodland, meadows, and a lake, farmhouse, and artist studios. At a symposium last February, the founder of I-Park put me in touch with artist Mie Preckler, who did a trail on those 450 acres 10 years ago. I’m going back to Connecticut twice this year to compose a sonnet-like, layered piece addressing Mie’s trail. I’m excited about that. It’s very definitely halfway home for me and it’s going to be wild for me to write to that landscape.

And a third thing, I’m still trying to write the essay that I went to California College of the Arts (CCA) in order to write. A teacher told me the sad news at the end of the first semester that she thought maybe I could write it in five years. Well, now it’s been seven and I think I’m writing it now. Talk about humbling.

How has your background with gardening and landscape architecture influenced your poetry?

It all comes out of my experience as a child growing up on farms in remote parts of England. Peril as Architectural Enrichment, the first poem in the book addresses the architecture of my childhood experience. There’s the house, there’s the tree, which I climb and from where I can look down on the comings and goings, and there’s the landscape. When I was no older than eight, I’d walk three or four miles at least into the hills by myself. I had what I think of now as a deep, uncanny life outdoors. Life was actually very boring, and it was very isolated. The activities were the coming and going of light, the shelter on one side of a hawthorn hedge, the movement of animals and birds, and what was in bloom.

“I had what I think of now

as a deep, uncanny life outdoors.”

My interest in gardening was because the garden, the way I define it, is an interface between the house and the wild. It’s a place where we are still working out our relationship to the wild. To write about gardening is to write about what’s at stake in that relationship, especially to write about landscape architecture where this space has been designed. The best landscape architects recognize that there are deeply held feelings about wanting to live at ease again in one’s habitat, which is the landscape.

When I went to CCA, I had already had one life-changing experience. At that time, for the last twenty-something years I’d been writing about landscape architecture and gardening. One day, I opened a glossy magazine and saw a photograph of a garden that was designed by Isabelle Greene in Montecito, California. I had this incredibly strong experience, a conviction that I would do whatever it took to stand in that space. It was a physical thing, and that started this whole set of steps of taking myself to that space. Two years later I stood there. I could read landscape architecture pretty well by that time; I could say why something was working well and why I felt the way I did, why I wanted to walk over here, and why I didn’t want to walk there, and how it was all engineered. But when I stood in that garden, I couldn’t understand it. At that point, I started this whole journey of trying to figure out what was happening in that space, and that led to poetry. I started at CCA hoping to write that essay. 

What do you hope readers will take away from your Peril as Architectural Enrichment?

It would be a dream to be able to write poetry that had an effect, a physical effect on the body of the reader.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

The ideal reader would be any reader who finds something in the work. But, I have an attachment to ordinary people. I tried to write about these deeper landscape things in ordinary gardening books. I grew up working class, so the intellectual world is still a little daunting to me.

When you’re struggling with a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

I turn to something that’s usually already arrived on my desk, because before being stuck, on a whim, I’ve bought this rather strange thing. A book about animal architecture, for example. Once I spent about $45 on this book about animal architecture and it was very, very boring. I regretted it hugely for ages. I’d always had this fidgety thing that something I needed was in this book somewhere. One day, I was writing and I got stuck, and I picked up that book again. Finally, I’m in the index and I realize this is why I’ve bought this book: there are all these verbs that have to do with building. All these fabulous verbs related to how animals build!

Where would you most want to live and write?

Well, I had a fantasy, and I did actually pursue it, of renting a sweet cottage in the English countryside where I grew up. I once thought I needed that, you know, to return, to not be an immigrant. So I did that, but I couldn’t write there. I’ve learned that I needn’t be precious about the place, or how I feel.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I have a complete routine. I write early in the morning, before I’ve had any conversations with anyone. I have an office across the roof, under the eaves of the house, and I write there in the mornings. I don’t think that I could write at any other time, so strong is that habit.

What do you listen to when you work?

Yeah, for a long time now, I listen to Philip Glass.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

“To see how a body wants to move

in space before habit claims

its movements.”

I’m a longtime student of Alexander Technique. For me, it’s about overcoming habit to see how a body wants to move in space before habit claims its movements. I’m very interested indeed, and this is part of my writing about landscape—I’m only in a small way interested in landscape as an idea, as a social construct—my work is about the experience of landscape prior to landscape becoming a construct. I’m trying to get below the level of habitual, trained response to what movement exists beneath. For example, it’s been found that we love a combination of shelter and a view, and we will walk toward that space. And peril is one of the pleasures identified as being essential to architecture. So, my philosophy about why I write is, I guess, that it’s an expression of an almost animal nature of being in habitat. On the one hand I would like to write more clearly, and on the other hand I would like to go farther into a sort of limbic writing that’s more feral.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I remember at CCA one of the teachers said write about what you know. I recognized in the end that I had gone to CCA wanting to become somebody different than who I was. At that time, landscape wasn’t very interesting to anybody. I wanted to escape it. I wanted to be different, to be urban and smart, say. But I ended up writing about the thing I know.

What advice would you give to the aspiring gardener?

I was teaching a class recently called Beginning Again in the Garden, and I was trying to teach people about all this sort of stuff. If you just go out into the garden as a practice, and follow how your body wants to move in the space—first you pull a weed, right? And then, things become so sweet in relation to how the dirt feels and how wet the weed is that you take off your gloves. And you stay out there for ages. To value that experience as being why you garden means that you will keep gardening. Whereas if you keep thinking I need to rip up the lawn and do all this stuff, you don’t go out there at all.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

“That when I feel uncomfortable,

I keep writing straight into that place.”

That when I feel uncomfortable, I keep writing straight into that place. When I’m lost and things aren’t working, and I get irritable and agitated, that I should probably just keep going right down that way. Not to let my feelings run the show.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I think being in a place where I don’t know what I’m doing and where I’m going, which is pretty much the place where I’m writing always. You know, I don’t know what I’m writing, I don’t know why I wrote that line.

In Peril as Architectural Enrichment, there’s one line on a page that says, “Throw the fruit out of the tree!” I wrote that one day and I knew that it had a place in the work, but I was horrified that I would have to write a whole sequence of things to establish that line in this work.

When not writing, what do you like to do?

I’m a parent, and I’m a white parent of an African-American child, so I do a fair amount of study, training, and work around anti-racism and whiteness and racism. I actually hope one day that will come into my work.

About Hazel White

Hazel White grew up on farms in the southwest of England. After finishing degrees in philosophy and literature at Warwick University, she studied crop agriculture at Bridgwater College Center for Land Based Studies, and then, through University of California, Berkeley, Extension, landscape architecture. White also earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing at California College of the Arts. She’s the author of 11 gardening books, published by Sunset Books and Chronicle Books. Her first book of poems, Peril as Architectural Enrichment, was published by Kelsey Street Press in 2011 and was a poetry finalist in the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year Awards. Poems from it were previously published in Verse, The Denver Quarterly, Blink, and Tarpaulin Sky.

Buy Peril as Architectural Enrichment, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Hazel White.” Words With Writers (April 16, 2012),

Peril as Architectural Enrichment

Peril as Architectural Enrichment by Hazel White (Kelsey Street Press, 2011).

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