DANSVILLE — For several decades a Long Island poet has found a certain rhythm in writing poems about the Holocaust.
William Heyen was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island. Heyen’s favorite poets are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He is of German heritage, and two of his uncles were killed fighting for the Nazi cause in WWII.
Heyen’s educational background is impressive as well as the over 30 books he has published of his work.
The Dansville Artworks was proud to host him on May 5 as he read from his Holocaust book called “The Candle” which has many poems about this tragic part of our history.
“I spent my whole childhood in the woods of Long Island,” he said. “I lived a Huckleberry Finn childhood.”
Heyen said something needs to hurt you into poetry, and it is through trauma we find the words. For him at the young age of 20 it was a broken heart. He enjoyed being the first poet of residence at Walt Whitman’s homestead.
“I felt a personal connection to Walt,” he said. “I walked through the same woods he did.”
Visiting Author Series Coordinator George Guida said that Heyen is very important to him.
“I liked and admired his poetry, before I admired him,” he said. “I was from Long Island too, and I was entranced by his poetry. He writes about the Long Island that no longer exists. I found him to be incredibly generous.”
Heyen said in the start of his writing career he didn’t have much to read to people, but now he has so much to offer. He spoke of how Emily Dickinson was one of the most heartbreaking poets of her time, and how her work is inspirational. Emerson wrote about how we struggle with form and power.
“We invite wildness into our poetry even though the poem is resisting it,” Heyen said. “A great poem happens when something unexpected shows up, and makes the poem whole.”
Heyen added the importance of journaling, and said he has the longest continuous journal in the history of America. He hopes to get more of it published in the future.
Robert Frost said he wanted to create a few poems that were hard to get rid of, and Heyen couldn’t agree more.
“I have some students who will write a poem in five minutes, and I tell them it didn’t taken them five minutes to write that poem. I tell them they have been writing that poem their whole life,” he said. “I can be thinking of something over a long period of time, and finally get around to writing it down.”
Heyen feels a strong connection to the Holocaust, and in “The Candle” he asks a lot of questions in his poetry around the horror of what happened in those concentration camps.
“The burden of a poem is to convince the truth inside of it,” he said. “The Candle is about 50 years worth of poems on the Holocaust. Most of them are about Europe, but my favorite one is about Hiroshima.”
It is horrifying for Heyen to have young Nazi soldiers talking about the light in the gas chambers, when light is a symbol of hope.
“Can you imagine these young Nazi soldiers talking about lights in gas chambers as they kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” he said. “I have talked to many Holocaust survivors, and read many books on their testimonies.”
“They lost their entire family, but made it out. They get married and have children of their own,” Heyen continued. “The survivors tell you that they are dead. They are dead to the human dream after the Holocaust. People know that the worst thing that ever happened in our history is the Holocaust.”
Jackson Mahoney, Heyen’s grandson, came for support during his grandfather's reading. Although he has no desire to be a writer he can appreciate his grandpa.
“His work is inspirational, and it helps me to improve my own writing,” he said. “He got me a journal to write in, but I don’t have much time to write in it.”