After visiting one of our graduate poetry classes in the University of Central Arkansas Writers’ MFA Workshop, Hoover agreed to answer a few more questions via email.
Arkana: Who are some of your favorite poets? What writers have been inspirational or evocative as you developed your own voice and style?
Erin Hoover: I don’t necessarily have favorite poets, but two books that influenced me a great deal are Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck and Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. They’re very different books, but both could be said to attempt to situate the personal and the political side by side. I gravitate toward poetry that does that. The most recent books I read are Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Franny Choi’s Soft Science, and The Miraculous, Sometimes by Meg Shevenock.
An activity that was meaningful for me in learning about poetry – really, in learning about meter and the line – has been to memorize poems. Among the poems I memorized in graduate school were Auden’s “The Wanderer,” E. A. Robinson’s “The House on the Hill,” Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” and parts of Wordsworth’s “Tinturn Abbey.” A good poem to memorize for this purpose would be Donika Kelly’s “From the Catalogue of Cruelty.”
A: What drives you to write poems? What do you want readers to take away from your poetry?
EH: I’ve gone back and forth on whether I write confessional poetry or not, because I do think that there’s some aspect of it in my work. Confessionalism is probably most interesting to people who have experienced a kind of silencing. I try to honor the real facts of my own social and economic history, and my poems ask how to live an ethical life inside a culture that is unethical in so many ways, a world that is destructive and dangerous. Most of what I’m writing now is about trying and failing to be a good person under these conditions.
A: Where do your ideas come from? Is the coronavirus prompting you with new material, or is it blunting your creative edge?
EH: I’ve given myself permission to produce bad writing during the pandemic, and I invite other writers to do the same. I’m not writing much, but what I have produced is overtly about fear, plain and simple.
A: Do you have any routines in writing? Do you write on schedule, in a certain place? At your keyboard, or longhand on your front porch with a favorite pen and journal? Has any of that changed with sheltering in place?
EH: I don’t have any writing routines now. I consider my primary work to be caring for my daughter, and for the most part, after I’ve done that, I’m tired. In non-pandemic times I was successful at carving out blocks of time to write, and I think that as we continue to shelter in place I will be able to find a rhythm to do that again.
A: How would you describe the emotion driving the poems in Barnburner? Anger? Bitterness? Regret? Some other feeling?
EH: Anger of the self-destructive variety, where the “self” is not a single person but an entire culture, a whole way of life.
A: Whose barn’s on fire here? The rats are huge and everywhere, but what to call the structure they’ve infested? Is it the myth of love, which you say only junkies ever feel? The myth of human dignity? The myth of real community?
EH: Well, the characters in Barnburner are trying pretty hard to love one another. I think it’s easiest to see in the poems about children. I wouldn’t really say that what they’re doing is a lie. Apples to apples, the “Barnburner” is probably the individual person and the “Barn” is the patriarchal social order they despise but also reproduce. How to get out of that pattern?
A: Please comment on your choice to use the page differently in “Reading Sappho’s Fragments,” and on the lines, “Do not be satisfied / with our long pauses, if you can’t hear / my heart, at least unstop your ears / for my profanities.”
EH: That poem was originally a straight narrative poem organized as a single left-justified stanza, but I wanted to format it in a way that honored its lyric impulse and also the way Sappho’s poems appear now to us, in books, with all of their blank spaces and missing pieces. I wrote it when the news was almost entirely the killing of unarmed black people by police and school shootings, where all our politicians could offer were thoughts and prayers and tweets about how “there are no words.” I wanted to write words that reflected my internal monologue of curses. This poem is also an ars poetica in the form of an address to the reader to come along for “the ending we’ve earned.”
A: The narrator in “Tiniest of Shields” calls it denial for an adult to tell a child, ‘no one wants to hurt you,’ because the world holds far too many people who actually will do awful things to children if they get the opportunity. Her point, that children should learn about fear at home, seems like one of the overarching themes of Barnburner. Was that your intention?
EH: I said that line in a conversation – it actually came out of my mouth, before I was a parent. My mind has changed a little since then, as I’m not entirely sure what “learning about fear at home” should look like. I suppose we will find out. The town in the poem was inspired by the town where I grew up, and as a child I saw the desperation and self-destructive impulses of that place. It did not help me to deny violence was happening. Maybe one of the overarching themes of the book is why aren’t we talking about what is really happening? If denial is a shield, it’s a tiny, useless one.
A: Please say something about “Correspondence Theory.” I felt a remarkable empathy in the lines, “Now I know the inside // and outside of an accident are the same,” in the sense that it’s hard sometimes to tell if it’s your own or someone else’s body that is bleeding–even though that empathy is ironically directed toward the narrator’s lover’s other woman. Is empathy what you intended?
EH: A key line for me is “I mistrusted / my perspective.” The speaker in this poem wanders around the purgatory of a supermarket hyping Valentine’s Day while her boyfriend cheats on her, and then she sees this car accident. It’s as though there’s some realization that can only happen for her if the “accident” happens to someone else – maybe that’s a form of empathy? – and then if she gets external direction to take “another route.” I put that poem toward the end of the book because I too would like to envision another way to live. For me that route involves refusing to disassociate anymore. Be in your own body and tell the truth about your experiences.
A: The moment that most shocked me in your book was the end of the final poem, “The Valkyrie,” where the narrator takes back her money from a would-be robber and confronts him with their shared humanity. Where was that hopefulness in all the poems that came before?
EH: That poem ends the book because I didn’t think I could go anywhere else after that striking and unusual moment. As you point out, Barnburner is full of failed connections, but here is one, and it takes place in the midst of a power dynamic which involves literal economies (money) and figurative ones (gender, class position). Although, I’d also point out that the speaker has nothing left to lose, that neither character does. He’s committing a crime, although there’s this sense that he doesn’t really want to, and she realizes that her position as the semi-heroic “Valkyrie” who’s going to save everybody is ridiculous. Both characters refuse to play their assigned roles, and in doing so, they decide to be human.