The Work Lives Outside of Me: Talking with Erin Adair-Hodges

 

Colette Arrand: Your first published poem, “Of Yalta,” won the 2015 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize. It’s also the poem that opens your debut collection Let’s All Die Happy. You’ve lived with this poem for some time now. Is there any special significance to its first-in-line placement? How important is “Of Yalta” to you now, when revisiting the arc of your writing or when considering the publication of this debut collection of poetry?

Erin Adair-Hodges: That’s a great question because in many ways I feel like this poem, and specifically The Georgia Review’s recognition and support of this poem, changed everything for me. I actually remember its composition, how all of the techniques and ideas I’d been playing with for the previous year or so finally came together in a way that I’d intended and yet still surprised me. My decision to open with this poem came from the recognition that it sets tonal and content expectations for the scope of the book in a way that perhaps no other piece could do. Ordering a book is very, very confounding, but no other poem seemed to want to begin the collection, so “Of Yalta” has had to do some heavy lifting. 

CA: Can you speak more to what surprised you about the poem? There’s a confidence to it, a sense of arrival despite the palpable absences it speaks to. There’s a sad swagger to statements like “I’ve been rejected in two centuries” that runs throughout the rest of the book. Is the tone of “Of Yalta” what ultimately made the project come together in ways it maybe hadn’t before? 

EAH: The surprise for me as the poet came from how the revelations and realizations the poem achieved were far from my conscious intent when sitting down to write. I’d been obsessed with Chekhov for a long time, and in grad school I even wrote a series of fairly serious poems about him and his work (though I look back and see in them sparks of the weirdness and humor I’m now willing to embrace). Ultimately, nothing came of those poems, and I grew to understand that many writers go through their own Chekhov crushes. I thought that perhaps what I’d write that day would begin with a joke and grow into an examination of artistic inspiration, but the poem quickly wanted to go somewhere else. Writing that poem, and a few others in the spring of 2014, helped teach me to give in to the poem, to put aside my ambitions or overarching intentions and let the music and images and impulse take me off-road from my initial vision.

I like what you say about the piece’s “sad swagger,” which—I think it’s fair to say—is a thread throughout my work. The voice in many of the poems I write tends to confess how little authority she has on anything in life aside from loneliness—in that the voice is an expert consulted the world over and demands a kind of respect for that achievement. 

CA: That lack of control is particularly resonant in poems like “Pisces,” where you not only engage with the lives of Kurt Cobain and Patty Hearst but, from the title of the poem forward, the idea that events in our lives are set in motion by forces much larger than we’re able to comprehend on our own. Do you put much stock in things like astrology? If so, how much do you feel like you fit the roles assigned to Pisces? I know that every time someone asks after my star chart, they nod sagely and say that I’m such a Pisces, which makes the sign feel like a huge part of my identity but also something that’s beyond my ability to understand. 

EAH: I am a former Christian who is now firmly agnostic, so I’ve always viewed astrology dubiously, either from a religious lens that forbade it or from a skeptic’s view of having easy answers to anything. Having said that, I have several brilliant women friends who are disciples of astrology and their understanding of it has encouraged me to see the value in it, despite being uncertain of its veracity.

I’m with you—I get told how Piscean I am (creative, emotional) all the time by these friends, but I’m also bossy and driven, which I’m told has to do with my moon sign, my rising. With that poem, I was interested in playing with these ideas of shared traits based on the day of our birth, the presence of some stars or others. I remember for a few years after Nirvana had become popular, the fact that Cobain and I shared a birthday seemed impressive and indicative of how I could turn pain into art, but then after he died, it became more loaded, of course. Ultimately, I’m not arguing for our astrological signs as determinative, but rather I’m interested in the little clubs we become a part of for a host of reasons—the one in this poem maybe is the “sad/messed-up/misunderstood artist birthday club,” but I’m in lots of other clubs too. Perhaps that’s what all writing is—charters for tiny clubs we didn’t know we’d already joined.

CA: I like that idea a lot, these incredibly exclusive clubs, and will have to sit back and think about what connects me to Liz Taylor and JWoww beyond drinking, of which the three of us are quite fond. 

“Of Yalta” and “Pisces” are both poems that lean on reference and imply that the speaker of the poem and its reader hold enough of an image of a person in common that they can come to a mutual understanding of that person for the sake of the poem. That’s another thread that runs through Let’s All Die Happy. Do you find reference to be a maneuver that’s freeing or thrilling in some way, or do you worry about the possibility of missed connections with your reader?  

EAH: Reference seems to me a way of orienting ourselves, declaring through our contexts that we exist and that the subjects of our work have real stakes for real people—I like the idea that these references can create a sense of tension and danger, and that references help challenge a reader’s impulse to dismiss a work for the experience it expresses.

I definitely used to fear references (especially pop cultural ones) as alienating, but I don’t any more. First, many of my references are literary and are going to be understandable to most poetry readers, but secondly, we live in a time where information has never been so easy to access, so I’m of the mind that if someone doesn’t know what I’m talking about they can figure it out, and if they don’t want to, then I’m good without their eyeballs on my work. Increasingly, I’m bringing in the culture that has shaped my life, which has definitely not been exclusively Russian authors and poetry. For a long time, I refrained from doing so because I feared the kind of confusion you refer to, but I think you can frame a reference so that it guides the reader who is new to the subject while also providing joy to those who are already familiar. I just did an exercise with my poetry students where they had to use a song title as a poem title and riff off of that (à la Danez Smith in “C.R.E.A.M”). I had to look up so many pop songs by Selena Gomez, but the best poems from that exercise didn’t require contextualizing.

CA: I’ve done similar things with students and find the difference in the cultural experiences of people who aren’t quite ten years younger than me to be fascinating. They’ve lived through their own culture and the subsequent boom in nostalgia for the things I lived through, but they don’t experience those things the same way I did, and that gap in experience makes for some interesting conversations and, like with your students, some Googling to make sure we’re on the same page.

When it comes to the use of reference in your work, is there anything you wish you’d fit more of into this book, or that you’re using in what you’re working on now? What emerged in Let’s All Die Happy that was the most surprising for you as a writer trying to let the poems speak for themselves?

EAH: I don’t think about the poems from Let’s All Die Happy as being available for revision, so mentally I’ve moved past wanting to do anything to them—I’m no Marianne Moore, for many reasons. The work I’m creating now seems to draw heavily from myths of women as agents of anger and retribution—La Llorona, the old women of European folk tales offering sweets in exchange for souls. Some new poems are persona-driven, delivered in the voices of these women—they want their stories to be heard from their own perspectives. Other poems reflect a channeling of these . . . spirits? Having grown up along the Rio Grande, La Llorona feels very real to me, and what I’m seeing is that the older I get, the more sympathy I feel for the witch, for the scorned woman left alone and with few options. Perhaps it is also that I am newly living in Ohio, where it is dark and green, staying in an old house that’s not mine and filled with someone else’s life and memories.

In terms of what surprised me about Let’s All Die Happy, I’ve been struck less by the composition of the poems than the turn in my own concerns. Many of the poems in the book have to do with family, the one I was born into as well as the one I made, while none of my new work does. I apparently said what this recent version of myself had to say on this matter, but in the future, as my parents age and pass, as my son moves into adolescence and away from me, I will no doubt use poetry as a means to sort through the impact and implications of those changes.

CA: We’ve talked a bit about “Of Yalta,” but there’s something really nice about how your first collection’s publication history was bookended by your three poems in the Fall 2017 issue of The Georgia Review. Seeing poets develop an ongoing relationship with a literary magazine is rewarding as a reader, but how has that relationship affected you as the poet? In the space between “Of Yalta” and “Pisces,” “The Cartographer Gets Lost,” and “Self-Portrait as Alone with Thoughts,” did the work itself change significantly? And what about the process of working with The Georgia Review

EAH: I really cherish the working relationship I have with The Georgia Review and feel beyond fortunate that such an amazing journal has been a supporter of my work. I don’t know that I could have envisioned that for myself, and it definitely wasn’t something I was aiming for. In fact, I was berated (lovingly) by Jenny Gropp and Thibault Raoult at AWP last year for not sending them more work, and so I did, and they pulled one from the book (“Pisces”) and two very new ones. Part of the business side of poetry is self-promotion, which as a woman raised in the 20th century I’m just terrible at and very uncomfortable with. I’m trying to unlearn the messages I’ve internalized about silence and demurring. That these editors reached out to me, and out loud wondered why I hadn’t made that move myself, was actually a huge moment of realization for me—that promoting my work is a separate muscle from promoting myself, my Erin-ness. The work lives outside of me and wants a home. As its mother, I have to care for it. The Georgia Review has been instrumental in helping me do that. 

Colette Arrand is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon (Opo Books & Objects, 2017), and the co-editor of The Wanderer. Her poetry and essays have appeared in CutBank, Fanzine, The Toast, and elsewhere.