Erin Hoover‘s debut collection, Barnburner, captures our late twentieth and early twenty-first century moment so clearly that the poems feel 3D. Poems about capitalism and its ills, addiction and its moments of grace, the Internet and its evils: the poet details these topics with a remarkable forthrightness and patience, and also with a beautiful sense of pace and line. The book remains a pleasure to read, even as it often causes chills.
I’ve known Erin Hoover for several years, as we both worked with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. I’ve also been an enthusiastic reader of the work she’s published in various literary journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and Tampa Review. Barnburner was the winner of Elixir Press’s Antivenom Poetry Award in 2017 and was published in October of 2018.
I was glad to get a chance to speak with Hoover about rape culture, the writing world’s difficult relationship with class, and what it feels like to have a first book out in the world at this time.
The Rumpus: This is a tough time to launch a book into the world. In your poem, “What Is the Sisterhood to Me?” you write: “My boyfriend knew // what so many men know: if you don’t / admit it, it’s not true.” The “it” in the poem refers to a sexual assault. I’m wondering if you could talk a little about this line in light of our current political climate, this week in particular in which Dr. Ford bravely testified, and the reality of bringing a very personal book into the world at this moment?
Erin Hoover: The past few weeks have made me think again about the way the truth can at once be concealed and exist in plain sight. In that poem, the speaker is seeking an explanation for her boyfriend’s injury and expulsion from college. She says: “I needed / to hear, in person, why a woman / would try to split the bridge / of a man’s nose like the seam / on a baseball.” As you pointed out, he denies it, and she’s got to hold those two things in her mind at once—what she sees and what he says. At first, it seems easier to believe what he says, though that is ultimately an act of erasing her own sense of what must have happened.
To be fair, this speaker doesn’t come into the poem with the power to speak—the shift comes from recollecting all of the times in her life when she had been silenced before. The lines in the poem about knowing yourself are meant to signal how I see self-knowledge as absolutely tied to being able to say the truth. In some ways, people who have survived sexual harassment and assault are fighting for our sense of reality, the truth of what happened, and how it changed who we are.
No one has ever asked me who I was hoping to address in this poem, but I was addressing women, the “Sisterhood” that has become important to me but which was missing for much of my life, not because the Sisterhood didn’t exist, but because I couldn’t see women with so many men in my way. I had the mistaken idea that being a feminist was as easy as deciding to be one, but I’ve had to find many of the beliefs I hold now by testing them, as I think the speaker is tested in this poem.
When anyone writes a book filled with narratives and first-person speakers and places that can be found on actual maps, it’s inevitable that people are going to want to do a kind of biographical analysis. It’s scary to have one’s own experience viewed through a potentially hostile lens. But the impulse I had in Barnburner for the simple declarative statement and straightforward speech is part of the #MeToo moment, though I’m not sure that I necessarily knew that while writing the book, as these poems have been years in the making.
Rumpus: One thing that impresses me so much about Barnburner is how cohesive it feels for a first collection, even as it navigates quite a long stretch of time. There’s work in your book about being a childless adult and then about fertility and the struggle to conceive. And then, of course, the book is dedicated to your daughter, which adds an urgency to the work about rape culture in particular. In “Takedown,” which is one of the most extraordinary and brave poems I’ve read in a long time, you write, “I want / more for her than pussy shots and the vengeant // glow of an LED screen, a choice beyond / predator or prey.”
Can you talk a little bit about how you constructed this book, especially given how long you’ve been writing it? Did you always know how it would progress?
Hoover: “Takedown” began with wanting to write about my experience with online communities. For several years, my best friends were people that I met online and transitioned to in-person friendships, and I developed an acute awareness of what we used to call “face,” or online reputation, and its relationship to gender. Looking back, I now realize that the message boards where I spent time were boys’ clubs that operated according to those rules. It’s stunning to me that so many of the women I knew were being harassed, stalked, and in some cases assaulted by the same men, yet we never banded together. It was as though each one of us were being adored and/or cast out in isolation. That wasn’t our fault, but the fault of the rules of the community, like with Hollywood and Weinstein.
Despite my own fascination with online misogyny, I also knew that I needed a frame for the poem, a reason for why these long-ago memories are being called back. When I first wrote “Takedown,” I wasn’t anywhere close to having a child; when I was putting the poem through revisions, I was expecting a girl. There are several poems, even poems that aren’t explicitly about gender, that I saw differently because I now had something to protect. By morphing the speaker in “Takedown” into a mother, I changed her stakes, so that she’s both reliving the highly gendered Internet abuse in all of its ugliness, but also reclaiming her survival as a fuck you to those people. The speaker of “Takedown” survived, as I survived, and so the last line turns into an address to the daughter: “I’d say to her, I’m here.”
I do feel the strangeness of having written a book over time. Often what I thought a poem was about, the kernel that started it, wasn’t what the poem ended up being about. I had a chance to consider what I really meant to say about the experience of being roofied or hanging out with evangelicals or having a deep friendship, almost a romance, with an addict. I think it’s the tone of the poems that makes them cohere despite the variety of subjects, which is why I chose the “barnburner” concept as an organizing force. In ordering the book, I mostly tried to give the “heavy” poems like “Takedown” and “Nobody Wanted Such a River” room by sandwiching them between poems that were less dense, though honestly, the whole book is my best attempt at narrative compression.
There are some amazing poets who write about joy—many of them mentioned in this excellent conversation between Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith—and I guess I see myself at a stage where I want to get despair right. I used to have to psych myself up to work on “Takedown,” and leave time after working to come back to being a normal person. It’s not that I’m masochistic, but I’m trying to apply the full power of my intellect, in terms of making poems, to understanding why we don’t live in a better world. I am honestly turning that thought over in my mind again and again, poem to poem. I think your work is similarly angled toward social change, while seeming at first glance to be in touch with more rageful impulses, which is why I’m curious how you relate to all this.
Rumpus: I have to say that writing joyful poems has been so difficult for me and I admire so much those that can truly capture that emotion. I try and I fail. I think most of my work comes from rage! But I definitely angle my work toward social change and towards making something from which no one can look away.
I’m struck in Barnburner by how forthrightly you address class and small town life, and how these two factors affect so much beyond childhood. You write about capitalism, about being fucked by it when you grow up without means and being fucked by it as you try to make a living in a corporate environment. So I want to ask you about your feelings on class poetics and on work/labor poetics.
Hoover: Many of the poems in Barnburner deal with coming of age in a small, rural town. I come from a family where our lives were organized around work, and I’ve done a lot of work, both service work and higher paid, corporate work. I wanted to write poems that looked closely at how that labor was meaningful or meaningless. When you say you want to write about labor, people sometimes recommend white men like Philip Levine or B. H. Fairchild, but I didn’t connect as much with those poets. I didn’t and don’t manufacture anything that can be sold as much as I commodify my mental energy in a thousand small ways, working in customer service and then in marketing and PR, and also as part of my identity as a woman. That’s where you get poems like “Temp” and “The Valkyrie” and “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank.” I know that kind of work far better than the factory or the farm, just like I know much better what it’s like to live in an apartment than a house.
I sometimes wonder why we don’t have more poetry about class. Perhaps it has to do with the uncomfortable relationship between art and money. Since I’ve entered academia, and from my limited experiences in publishing, I’ve come to understand that relationship a little better. It’s one of the reasons that “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible” is such an angry poem. Based on my own experiences, including working in communications for a hunger organization, I believe that Americans are unable or unwilling to sustain a national conversation about class, and specifically about poverty. But I also think that poetry helps us find access points that we didn’t know existed. That’s why I write poetry about class, among other thorny topics. For instance, this explanation is probably losing people in ways the poems themselves would not.
As for my poetics, I don’t want to write anything nostalgic for the “good old” days, and I don’t want to write anything that denies that class issues are systemic. I do want to write about the spectrum of experiences I have access to, including my own privilege where it exists.
Rumpus: I love that poem, “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible.” I circled these lines when I first read them: “I only exist in proximity. / But it’s proximity that grants me a peek / into the bespoke panic room that generates / so much of what we call art and who gets // to make art.”
I know that feeling well. I had it when I first arrived at my MFA, and I had it more recently when I was on a fellowship at the NYPL and I realized: Oh! This is the behind-the-scenes, privileged, white, supposedly liberal literati I’ve imagined control everything, and maybe they do!
Now that you have a book in the world, how does it feel? Do the poems feel different? Do you feel different? You’ve been an advocate for women in many ways, including at VIDA, and I wonder if having a book in the world—being let in, so to speak—changes the way you feel about yourself as an artist and as an artistic citizen?
Hoover: I’ve sometimes felt that upon having certain experiences in my life, I’ve passed through some kind of gateway that destroyed my sense of whatever world I thought I was living in before. One of those was getting my BA at Sarah Lawrence. I realized that some of my fellow students—not all, but some—understood that the world operated according to a different set of rules, and knew how to move in it in a way that I didn’t. And I suppose that my experience of the MFA and now the PhD have been similar. Having a daughter has changed me fundamentally, too, in particular the way people understand my identity as an independent parent. I tend to see myself as increasingly more connected to other people, of wanting to be conversant with other poets and poems and also with social movements. At the same time, I did not notice my own whiteness for many years. That is part of my identity, too, and may be why I’m so interested in complicity as a subject.
Having a book and seeing people actually talk about Barnburner are both utterly strange to me. When I was working on VIDA’s public relations, I felt like I was having the same conversation every day with journalists, responding over and over again to, “Why not just publish the ‘best’ writing?” I know you were also having that conversation on social media. I still see people tweet that exact sentiment, with zero self-awareness about the context of a piece of writing, not only the process of its publication and its reception, but also that the resources to write are not universally available to all. The subject matter will shift in necessary ways depending on who is writing. How are we still pointing this out?
The perspective a poem comes out of matters to me a great deal. For my own poems, it definitely matters that I’m a woman, that I’m white, that what I thought (and what I think) is possible was largely defined by money, because these have ended up being the actual subjects of the poems. None of this is supposed to be a secret.
My ability to write poems is really, really defined by money right now, so I don’t necessarily feel “let in,” although I do have degrees. Maybe I’m here provisionally. I feel very strongly that although I’m not in many of the roles I used to be, for instance working for VIDA, or editing a journal, I want to continue to be an artistic citizen. I want to help people start journals and finish their manuscripts and find writing communities. That’s one reason I’m serving as a mentor with AWP this fall. At the same time, I have to produce actual poetry because my sense of my own citizenry is there, too.
I’m very conscious of what a fantastic gift it is to have anyone read my poetry. I want to write poems that feel worthwhile to read, that speak to concerns people have. To some degree all poets must feel that way, but I guess this is my way of saying that I don’t take a reader for granted. I want to earn whatever credibility I have.
Photograph of Erin Hoover © Kira Derryberry.