Erin Hoover Interview, with Ösel Jessica Plante
Congrats on your first collection of poems, Barnburner, which is releasing this month from Elixir Press! I’m always curious about the process of arranging a collection of poems, about what holds a book together. Does Barnburner follow a personal narrative, or are there certain subjects that you worked with that link poems thematically?
Thank you for the chance to talk about “Recalibration” and “D= R x T” and about Barnburner, especially because the book will be out so soon!
The narrative arc with its inevitable sense of closure didn’t appeal to me for a book in which the poems are supposed to be unsettling, their questions unresolved. Instead, I chose an epigraph that could point to the thematic ties between the poems, which were already in draft form before I began even thinking about a book, and titled the book after it.
The word “barnburner” first applied to a faction of political radicals before the Civil War, so named for the legend of the “Dutchman who was so bothered by the rats in his barn that he burned down the barn to get rid of them.” I find resonant the idea of burning down something to save it, perhaps a barn, perhaps a community, perhaps a country. Even when I was a kid in rural Pennsylvania, this strain of thinking was present everywhere, I think because it offered an outlet for anger and the potential for renewal at once.
We’re featuring two poems from Barnburner in this month’s issue, “D=RxT” and “Recalibration.” I was struck by the remoteness of the narrator’s voice in each of these poems—it maintains a certain distance even when speaking from the center of a somewhat chaotic experience. As a poet, do you think this kind of dual state is necessary for creating art?
I think that this impression of remoteness in my poems may come from a paradox I found as their writer: because I was evoking morally ambiguous situations—I mean situations where it’s difficult to know the “right” way to act or feel—I had to built narratives that were very tight, with figurative transitions that turned on a dime. The thought process of the speaker(s) should be very clear, I believed, even if I was describing something like panic or rage or loneliness. As we move through our lives, people don’t usually have the luxury of looking analytically at our interior states, and perhaps you are right that I have used art to do this.
I admire that your work confronts many current social issues such as white privilege, race, gender, and women’s issues. Is it important to you to do so? Have you always explored these subjects with your poetry?
My earliest mature poems were more interested in exploring personal emotions and relationships because that was what I could access then. I think that poets have to accumulate experiences to inform what they want to say about social issues. Whiteness, for instance, is notoriously slippery. Poets are always seeking out nuance and complication because poetry demands this from us. That takes a certain kind of maturity, even from young writers.
As readers, we are fortunate to have writers pushing the boundaries of poetry, creating new languages for dissent, who are fully up to that task. I started to make a list to include here but it became exhaustive; Jericho Brown, Heather June Gibbons, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi are just the poets I’m reading right now.
As for my own goals, I hope that the politics of Barnburner will be clear to readers. I have tried to write from a position of social engagement that I have earned. My poetry is consistently critical of privilege in many forms. At the same time, I also write about less overtly political topics. I’ve written about aging out of the ability to have children as a single person, for instance, and about attempts to connect with other people that have failed.
Do you have a favorite place, or situation, in which to write?
This is a different question for me now than it was during the writing of Barnburner since I am the single parent by choice of a very young child and I work full time. I have to pay a babysitter or find help from a friend any time I want to write. I mention this not to evoke sympathy, but because I don’t think we talk often about how the resources necessary for creativity are not equally available to everyone.
My favorite situation may be to take inspiration from events years after their happening, such as the way 9/11 appears in a few of my poems, or the opioid epidemic, which hit central Pennsylvania long before it became a national problem. Often I’m trying to use story to explore some concept or question that’s interesting to me, and what’s most interesting in the poems usually isn’t what’s taking place but the speaker’s interior monologue about it. In “Recalibration,” I wanted to write about the forms that activism can take, flawed as they can be. In “D= R x T,” it was the digital, long-distance relationship, a phenomenon that I rarely see in poems.
Any projects you are working on now that we can look forward to?
I want to write about institutions because my own relationship to institutions (doctors, schools, sites of employment, and the United States of America) changed so fundamentally when I became part of a family construed as unconventional. I’m interested in how some things that we consider individual choices are actually shaped by institutions, and how those institutions reward and punish us. I also remain interested in writing about environments: natural, constructed, and digital. I probably need to reread Foucault.
What is your favorite food?
Selzer’s Lebanon bologna is a kind of cured and smoked meat named after the county in Pennsylvania where it’s made. It can be sliced and used in sandwiches. Being from outside Harrisburg, I’m really fond of Pennsylvania Dutch foods. In Florida, I’m able to make my own shoofly pie, apple dumplings, and red beet pickled eggs. I have no choice but to yearn for Seltzer’s Lebanon bologna.
Sometimes one person is the gravitational center
of shit going wrong. One time, I was at a bodega
in Brooklyn, scanning the beer cooler,
when townies kicked over a tower of soup cans,
cylinders of chicken rice and minestrone
pelting the stockboy. Their challenge:
Pick it up, Habib, where are your
seventy-two virgins now? The boy was Arab,
aware as anyone else of our new, still-smoldering
skyline, the malt liquor bottles on the shelves
lined up as precisely as a soldier’s salute,
and he saw the target I became
when instinctually I turned
toward our midnight shift of berserkers,
said, Do you really have to do this? In that moment,
his problem became mine,
the gameshow wheel of categorical abuses
sailing past its black people and queer boys,
past its recent immigrants, the needle finally landing
on me, a woman, just one more
kind of other. Though sometimes
I escape it. Like a few months earlier,
when during the Republican Convention,
I dully circled Madison Square Garden
as if it were an object I couldn’t find. Then
the cops told us, schoolteachers and civil servants,
political weekenders at best, without a permit
we could only march single file. So we sang
“This Land is Your Land” straight up the steel cleft
of Broadway for fifty well-mannered blocks,
until the line buckled and police nets
unfurled. I heard, then, the lead officer point me out,
cheap suit I wore for the journalists, as he told
his riot squad to arrest everyone
but me. And another cop, hissing, through his helmet:
Sweetheart, you’ll have to do something
really illegal. Hard to make a point
wearing the face of every
white cop’s daughter. And while technically
not illegal, this is why I mouthed off
at the creeps who decided to stalk me down
the long, unlit path between the bodega
and home, an avenue usually flush
with flower peddlers, moms with strollers,
hobos and their carts, but this was Sunday night,
two a.m., and I was considering how fast
I could actually run. I was considering
the next lit storefront, the safety of eyes inside,
when the men took a shot: Fat bitch!
I’ll fuck you hard enough to kill you! So I ran—
to the best hiding place I could reach, the alley
behind the church, St. Anthony’s, and crouched
in the shadow of a storage box, clutching
a bottle of malt liquor like a weapon,
I don’t know for how long,
as the men, still searching, passed me by.
I’ll leave myself there.
I’ll let you imagine how I got home that night,
though I’ll say I kept thinking about the boy
restacking his soup cans in the yellow glow
of the bodega, but I never went back. I’d turned,
as if by reflex, to help him, watched his darting eyes
settle with relief. And we’d both seen,
unmistakable, the shadow of the men’s rage
shifting, heard the cha-chunk as the crosshairs
found my body. And I’ll ask you,
ten years later, what does it mean
that I felt foolish? More often than I’ll admit,
I pass by an instance where I know
I should stop—a circle of cop cars, or a huddle
of boys, at their center, like open-air flesh
in an operating theater, a figure I can
hardly see, outnumbered, afraid,
yet resolved to accept the punishment no one earns—
and I go on past,
and though I sometimes circle back, by then,
of course, by then,
whoever it was is gone.
D = R x T
At Portland International, at LaGuardia,
in the bathroom at Lambert, I’m forever
trying to snap on my garter belt and run toward
you, an umbra in glass at Charlotte Douglas,
hear the intercom voice suggest I stay, see all
[x] city has to offer. I’ve done turned-down beds
and rental cars, skymiles and customer rewards,
and now flying past the Arch, my seatmate asks,
What brings you to St. Louis? It’s a test,
how long I’ll live out of vending machines
on industrial highways for you, on sports bar
Manhattans marooned in their pools
of tepid ice, granola bars linted from a purse.
When I’m home, I recoil from my own lonely skin
between the sheets. But you’re here in Arrivals,
keys jingling as you pick up my bag, as you did
five years ago, and you will five years from now.
Back home in a few days, I’ll leave the luggage
zipped, my time with you archived, our sex
in short-term parking tucked into the seams
of an A-line skirt, or a sweater containing
the whole of the afternoon when you teach me
to ride a bike again, let me wipe my nose on
your sleeve in the park. Neither of us willing
to dampen the thrill of a friend you never grow
used to, the romantic weekends away that refuse
to sink into a home’s worn upholstery. You and I
will end. I know this, as my limbs tumble
from the bike you’ve lent me, a squirrel bounding
sharply from my wheel. On my way home,
I’ll scan Departures and consider picking one,
any point I can find on that urge for elsewhere—
Fort Lauderdale, Omaha, Anchorage, like a girl
I knew who took her car and drove, and too broke
for a hotel, parked behind a Yukon gas station,
engine and wipers on to whisk away the ice.