Caroline Hagood is a poet and scholar whose work takes on the strange, transformative moments that make up women’s lives. After two poetry collections, Lunatic Speaks and Making Maxine’s Baby, Hagood is out with Ways of Looking at a Woman, a book-length essay exploring the idea that women are “hybrid forms,” or “mixed genres,” comprising multiple personal and creative categories.
Ways of Looking at a Woman is itself a hybrid work, an exciting mix of memoir and poetry that looks at Hagood’s experiences of writing and becoming a mother through a lens of literary and film theory. It’s also wonderfully funny in places. When I saw Hagood read recently at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, she and the audience cracked each other up during the Q&A, talking about the inspiring postcard photo of Virginia Woolf that she keeps over her desk and the life-giving necessity of snacks.
Hagood is a lifelong New Yorker who teaches at Fordham University and serves as a staff blogger for the Kenyon Review. She and I recently emailed back and forth to talk about making art while female and how writers of all kinds can take risks and unsettle standard literary forms.
The Rumpus: You wrote Ways of Looking at a Woman while writing your dissertation. Did the scholarly work feel limiting compared with the lyric essay?
Caroline Hagood: It was the opposite, actually. I initially felt constrained by the dissertation format, but I started writing Ways of Looking at a Woman, and suddenly everything seemed to open up. I switched back and forth between these two Word documents. The research I was doing for the dissertation was feeding both projects, resulting in two very different books that still felt like blood relations. I went from feeling frustrated to elated.
My dissertation was about female poets writing on the work of male filmmakers and thereby “re-filming them.” So questions about women looking and being looked at came up a lot in the dissertation. And they were obviously going to come up in a book called Ways of Looking at a Woman, which is asking questions like, what is a woman, what does it mean for her to be looked at, and what does it mean for her to look back, especially if she transmutes that act of looking into her art?
Rumpus: That back-and-forth is exciting. Academic writing can be stimulating but it isn’t always nourishing. And then there’s that nagging question of whether anyone will ever read what you’re writing anyway.
Hagood: I think there’s a way to write academically that can hinder creativity and feed the old impostor syndrome. There’s also definitely that question of audience. Although, as a poet, I have never had confidence in my huge audience out there! But the drive to write in spite of these little brutalities—that can become its own state of writing grace.
Rumpus: You write about motherhood with a different emphasis than other writers. You describe it as a form of creative permission and expansion.
Hagood: I think motherhood is often treated as the most servile and sterile of all pastimes when it can be a wild and wildly creative undertaking. Faced with so many books on how to be this super put-together mother, I prefer Rufi Thorpe on the matter:
If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening. What if, in fact, motherhood is a boon to the artist? What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance?
Rumpus: But mothers aren’t supposed to unsettle things. They’re definitely not supposed to be the ones to shake up in literature.
Hagood: They’re supposed to be the ones who put the pieces back together instead of the ones who get to break shit and put it back together in innovative recombinations. I’m attracted to the idea of the monster as a creative principle. Women have been calling themselves art monsters and finding creative possibility in that vein for centuries. I think of the Frankenstein monster, this amalgam of diverse pieces, and how closely he resembles a textual creation. I even think about how the epistolary form that Mary Shelley used (a mixture of different letters, perspectives, and voices) felt even more hybrid/monstrous, just like her Frankenstein monster. The point is that the mother and the monster are not always allowed to play in our cultural imagination, and that’s a mistake.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your ambition as a writer? Ambition is another taboo for women, but you write about it very frankly.
Hagood: Yes, I read all the “great books” at a young age, and I hungered to have a piece of that ability to show people their world in stunning new ways. But then I noticed that this ability was often gendered masculine. It almost felt like I had to think of myself as someone that transcended gender to aspire to having that ability in the first place. Not that I’ve found my way to transcending gender or creating the level of innovate art I aspire to (there’s that ambition again), but you can’t blame a writer for trying.
Rumpus: Ways of Looking at a Woman combines different genres. It reads like an exciting personal essay, but it’s also poetic and scholarly. Do you remember when you were first drawn to mixing genres?
Hagood: I think probably always unofficially, but I took a class with Elizabeth Stone at Fordham where she introduced me to the idea of the lyric essay. Then I remember when I was younger loving books that experiment with different genres, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which plays around with combining poetry and scholarship. But it was reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets that stunned me and gave me the idea that maybe I could write something other than poetry.
Rumpus: What surprised you about Bluets?
Hagood: What surprised me about Bluets, aside from its mind-boggling intelligence and beauty, was that it’s so poetic but not strictly a poem. It’s also an essay, a work of theory, and a memoir. I was at a place where I didn’t think I could ever write anything other than poetry, and I felt sad and limited by this. It was as though I had accepted that I couldn’t fly, but then I saw Nelson invent the airplane. This realization that maybe I could also fly was mind-blowing. More exciting still, I wanted to invent my own mode of aerial transport.
Rumpus: Why did the lyric essay feel right for this book?
Hagood: Ways of Looking at a Woman is all about how people don’t fit into their categories. It seemed fitting to write a book on human and artistic hybridity in hybrid form.
Rumpus: How do you help your writing students think creatively about genre?
Hagood: I have them write graphic novel versions of their poems, essay versions of their novels, and poetry versions of their latest tweets. Another way of showing them how everything can be remade is to have them cut up famous pieces of writing and then put them back together again in new formations. They are so thrilled to see that even great literature isn’t set in stone and that they can remake something they consider genius. It opens up the possibilities for their own writing.
Rumpus: How else do you help them come up with ideas?
Hagood: I often take them out into “the field.” I was inspired by an assignment from my Fordham colleague Elisabeth Frost that treats the writer as a “flaneur,” and I try to have my students spy on their culture and write down what they find. At the very least, I like them to change environments and forms whenever possible. For instance, I’ll have them make a stop-motion animation version of their written work to a) see the project in another light, and b) both slow down and speed up their thinking in ways that help with revision and innovation.
Rumpus: Are there flaws in traditional creative writing instruction that you want to avoid?
Hagood: I’m trying to think up an alternative to the traditional structure of the creative writing workshop—as in the actual act of workshopping the writing. Speaking of structures that need to be transcended, the writing workshop is one of them! I’m not saying I don’t use the workshop or some variation of it, but I do want something more innovative. I notice that students can feel enclosed by the usual forms of giving and receiving. There’s a tendency for the class to get either criticism-phobic or criticism-heavy. The class decides which writers it admires and which it doesn’t, and it becomes a herd mentality, which is the opposite of being inventive. In something called a creative writing class, I want to offer learning opportunities that feel new. So I’ve been experimenting with turning the workshop on its head, or at least on its side, and conceiving of it in different ways.
For one thing, I like to think of the workshop more as a literal workshop in the sense of a place where we make things together, as in Santa’s workshop, rather than merely a place of criticism. So, for instance, students could use the workshop time to storyboard a short story rather than just “workshopping” the short story after it’s written.
Rumpus: I love the idea of making things together. Writing communities shouldn’t only be about giving and receiving feedback.
Hagood: That’s why I always liked it when the professor would also write when they gave us a prompt. It created that feeling that we were all in it together. I also like creating objects that fuel/accompany the writing but are not writing per se, such as making a large-scale art object in response to a class reading or as an entree into or an accompaniment to the next writing project.
Rumpus: Are people too solemn about their writing? Your work can be so exuberant. There are moments in Ways that are down-to-earth and even kind of goofy.
Hagood: People sometimes forget about the simple act of having fun. Being around kids is an amazing cure for this. Humor also seems central to invention and innovation to me. That ability to see something as sort of askew is what makes for comedy but also inventive brilliance.
Rumpus: Right. You describe giving birth to your son as joyful but also outrageous and funny.
Hagood: Yes, and I would also say experiences that are miserable and hard one second can be pleasurable and hilarious the next (or even all of these at once). The humor and horror thing also applies here. These experiences are funny, strange, magical, and horrific. What the body can create and emit has long been the subject of comedies and horror movies, as well as high art. Pregnancy and childbirth felt that way for me.
Rumpus: You describe your body as a “threshold” and a “site of travel.” Why those metaphors?
Hagood: For one thing the maternal body is often treated as a static site, something to be looked at and remain still. But I see it as a dynamic place of adventure that brings about huge changes—like suddenly becoming a mother and then embarking on that whole odyssey. I want to think of women and mothers as the heroes in these stories rather than muses, victims, damsels in distress, or decoration.
Rumpus: Motherhood is a key theme, but it doesn’t figure in your title. What’s the significance of the name Ways of Looking at a Woman? Is it a reference to John Berger?
Hagood: I was definitely thinking of Berger’s Ways of Seeing and particularly the quote, “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” I wanted to conceive of new ways of looking at a woman (and not just a mother). But, above all, I wanted to think about how a woman can look in wild and courageous ways rather than always being the object of the gaze (including her own!). I wanted to write a manifesto on the artistic act of a woman looking and making.
Rumpus: Your writing is very personal. Do you ever worry about that? Women are sometimes made to feel ashamed for writing about our bodies and emotions—as if those things aren’t just daily facts of life. But it’s also tricky when other people are involved.
Hagood: Absolutely. I feel afraid to expose too much about myself but mostly about my family. I try to imagine my kids reading whatever it is as adults and being okay with it. I hope they feel adored and seen rather than exposed.
There is definitely also this sense of shame attached to the sharing of women’s stories and particularly traumatic ones. It goes with my project, though—trying to find a way for women to look outward but also show what they want of themselves.
Photograph of Caroline Hagood by Aaron Pachesa.