Knowing-Not-Knowing: A Conversation with Hannah Ensor


Hannah Ensor’s first book of poetry, Love Dream with Television, was published by Noemi Press in 2018. At turns funny and heart-wrenching, the collection spans death, the 2016 election, movies, sports games, and equity in the workplace. In a largely conversational style, Ensor often documents and interrogates visual culture. For example in “Watching the NBA Playoffs, Summer in Tucson,” the speaker says, “Is it just me or do the commentators say fewer fucked up things these days? I used to watch basketball and just be pissed.”

Ensor writes poems, essays, and reviews, and was awarded the 2019 Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging LGBTQ Writers and is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Michigan State University. Ensor is also a co-editor of, a contributing poetry editor for DIAGRAM, and has served as president of the board of directors of Casa Libre en la Solana.

Hannah and I have collaborated, in teaching, writing, and editing, for almost a decade. Here, we discuss the indefinability of poems; efficiency, or the lack thereof, of the workshops; and the self in poetry.


The Rumpus: Let’s start by talking about what we just read together, Wendy Trevino’s Brazilian Is Not a Race. Once we finished, you said something like, “This is what I want my poems to do.” Can you say more about that?

Hannah Ensor: Yes! I love this chapbook. I think we were talking in that moment about essays and thinking and the personal and poem-logic. So I wonder, is there something about the ways that these poems—sonnets, I think—operate that means they have to be poems and they can’t be essays, or missives, or or or. I feel like I’m constantly fighting with whether what I’m writing is a poem, and these Brazilian Is Not a Race poems are prose-y and think-y and are also POEMS. They move with a subjective and deeply personal mode of thinking and feeling through really fucking hard topics — always as a person. Maybe that’s how we were talking about autotheory.

Rumpus: “Can’t be essays, or missives,” yes! Also, when I read your poems, and Trevino’s, I do see argument or essay-conversation. Do you think of your work in that way? Is there some part of the poems you write that come out of or feed into your essays?

Ensor: I mean, yes. It seems like every conversation about essays has to talk about the roots of the word essay and “essaying/assaying” so I’m sorry but I’ll use it here, too, to just say that I really am interested in trying, and failure, and so forth. It’s just a bunch of problems. I know you and I both love the Marilynne Robinson essay “Puritans and Prigs.” I think about it all the time and was just telling people about it and by the end I was yelling about how hard it is to just figure out what the fuck our own moral consistencies look like and how dare we ever assume to know other people’s sets of straining through the world. But I have almost no interest in a poem or an essay that entirely knows what it’s doing, maybe even after it’s been edited five hundred times. One of the many things you’ve said to me that’s changed the way I see art was when we were first collaborating on poems and I was like, “Are we going to revise this now?” and we tried and then you were like, “Stop trying to make this less messy,” and then we talked about mess in art and roughness and not-sure-ness and I was like, “Ohhhhhhhhh.” Maybe it will still take decades to get what I think you meant by that but I’m different now in terms of what I hope art in the world is up to. I mostly do not want to read a thing that its creator is sure is successful. Or maybe not all the time, but when it comes to what I’m up to, and into, I don’t ever want to feel like I did it, or I’m done with it, whatever “it” is.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned to me a pedagogical approach to workshop which I am totally going to steal. You said you’d ask folks to bring in a packet of their writing alongside a set of writings that influence their form or content. Can you say where that came from, and, if you were workshopping your book, what you would put in that packet?

Ensor: Here we go from theory to praxis, lol. I haven’t yet had a chance to do this thing that I’ve been dreaming of doing. I got the idea from visiting the Montana MFA program and sitting in on one of their workshops. It’s been a while now, but there was some kind of pairing of materials outside of the poem with a poem or a packet by the student. It was immediately fascinating and exciting to me, in part because we tend to think in terms of this Iowa model where the writer can’t say anything when people are talking about the poem and it’s presented without context, assuming that every reader has the same backgrounds and interests and goals and hopes, etc. That there’s a “good” poem everyone is trying to get to.

You hear horror stories of workshops where there’s an unhelpful or anti-productive congealing of opinion and critique that could have all been avoided by being like, “Oh, uh, I mean, I was talking about Janet Jackson there.” Without that, everyone’s spinning themselves into a froth over some set of assumptions that might be interpersonal, or cultural, or lyric, or about who watches what TV, or who’s seen what conceptual art exhibit, or has ever read that line about the hammock, or whatever. One of the things that I’m looking forward to when I get back into the classroom is thinking really carefully with the group about who all is in that room. Let’s say you have a campus of twenty thousand people, or a world of however many billion—isn’t it weird that we would ever assume that the random seven, or eighteen, people you’re in that room with are “your readers”? To start, it’s statistically unsound. I don’t know how many workshop spaces I’ve been in where I felt like my readers were in that room with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that—I think some of those gaps can be closed with some care and context and gifting each other with our own senses of what we want to be doing, what artists we think we’re in conversation with, what article we read that blew our mind, etc.

As for my book. Yikes. I would want people to have some pages from Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking and also his chapbook Insomnia and the Aunt which does very cool things with thinking about television and culture and family and the fabric of interpersonal communication. I’d also want us to watch some cultural touchpoints, and an episode of The L Word or two, but really I’d want to be able to talk people through the episode of The L Word as we’re watching it. My partner is always so annoyed because I have this habit of pausing a show we’re watching just to say the five hundred things it makes me think about. Remember the other day when you asked me how I was and I talked for ten minutes and you said, “I feel like I just got a PhD in Dawson’s Creek”? Maybe I would also bring in some examples of contemporary feminist movie-telling, sometimes referred to as Neo-Benshi. I’d make them watch Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson talking over and with a basketball game and then we’d be like, “Is this movie-telling?”

Rumpus: Would there be something that contextualizes what you’re doing with time? Because your speakers mark time all over the place—“here with 2:49 left to go” or “this year, 2017”—and even the moment of the poem’s utterance jumps. “Elector Day in the Guest House: December 19, 2016” on its third page says, “and here it is 2017.” Or can you say something about how you build the moment of the poem?

Ensor: Yes, time matters a lot to this book. It has to do with when I wrote a lot of the poems, and then as separate points in time when it was accepted for publication, and when it was supposed to come out. It felt really weird to have changed so much over that time span both as a person and in terms of poetics, but then also the world and its expectations/hopes/needs for a poem changed a lot, too, in probably measurable and immeasurable ways. Its publication date was set to be September 2018, but I wrote a lot of the initial poems between 2011 and 2015. The election was a big hinge, of course, as well as everything that led up to it and everything that came after, has been coming after. So one of the suddenly conscious parts of putting this book together—and I say this thing in the Dennis Rodman poem—was trying to notice not exactly the timeline of what happened when, but what those things having happened was doing to the poems, to me, to the act of writing a poem. There was something weird about looking back at these older poems and trying to make them talk with poems I was writing in August, September, October, November, December of 2016, when probably a big chunk of the “new” poems for the book were being written. I was in a generative phase with my edits—my amazing editor Suzi F. Garcia gave me some really good shoves towards what new material I might want to be able to add in to make it a book, and I was working on these—and feeling a little wild-eyed.

In fact, there was one poem I’d been working on that whole time where that was the big tension I was trying to play with, as if I’d been practicing for that moment. It’s the “spectacular” about watching a New Years’ Eve Live with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin. I wrote it somewhat in real time, seven months before Anderson Cooper officially came out. I think I wrote it when I got home, or in the car after I left the New Year’s party I watched it at. The poem was about this inexplicable tension that the two of them had, and being fascinated—in real time—that Kathy Griffin kept teasing that she was gonna reveal a secret of Anderson Cooper’s, and they were both giggling and exchanging knowing glances, plus they were a little tipsy, and it was so silly and bizarre and I feel like I knew what they were talking about while also not having any actual data to back this up. So I’d written this spectacular, and then many months passed, and I’d been editing the poem, and then he came out. And that’s when people started reading this poem, like workshops and a manuscript reader, and readers were sort of like, “Um, isn’t the secret that he’s gay?” And I had a really hard time explaining—the poem wasn’t doing a good enough job of explaining—that that was exactly the thing I wanted to write about, this kind of trans-time experience and memory of watching this thing on TV and knowing something, having a hunch that excited me, but then also—I don’t know, is this classic irony?—being a writer who’s writing about this moment and knows something about it that I either did or didn’t know then, and what that means about the relationship between the writer and the speaker, in an old-school “what is the singular I” kind of way, old-school “what is sincerity” way, but also in a mediated way. All these poems about TV end up having something to do with irony, I think, not necessarily tonally but in terms of what the writer necessarily has to know about what ends up happening in the narrative. There’s an interplay of knowing-not-knowing when re-inhabiting any moment of the past. Maybe this isn’t just about TV.

Rumpus: It’s not just about TV! Though a lot of your book is talking about watching sports, or TV more generally, and I will never forget when I first read one of your spectaculars—it was “Spectacular 06: America’s Next Top Model”—and the description of a scene of reality TV in a prose poem about the theater of emotion changed what I thought a poem was or could do. Could you talk a little bit about your form, the spectacular?

Ensor: That’s the proto-spectacular! I wrote it originally as an email to my old housemates, with whom I watched ANTM in college. We used to love it in part because Tyra was so weird on this show, and one of the housemates had a theory that she was an alien so sometimes we watched to test Melissa’s theory. But of course we also loved the show very sincerely, and it was an occasion to gather around the TV together while eating our dinners or who knows what/when. It was like our fireplace. Then I was at home, maybe my parents’ house, maybe after everyone had graduated and moved away, and I was back at home with my mom and my dad, not sure what my life was about, and I was watching a rerun of ANTM. I started describing the episode to my housemates in this note. So the “you” in the poem was originally the “you [all]” of my housemates. It was kind of a love letter. I realized something after I sent it to them about writing about shared experiences of watching together, and what that felt like for me, this note about TV that was a love letter.

So that kind of birthed the form, which I’ve handed to a couple of folks as follows. It’s always a prose poem, and it has to evolve in some way—sometimes I’ve used the word “devolve” but that doesn’t feel quite right—from or toward a second person address, usually a “beloved” figure, while describing a spectacle. So I’ve written some about Super Bowl halftime shows, or being at an NBA game with my friend Claire, or watching Friends or The L Word. There are poems about TV/watching in the book that aren’t spectaculars, and ones that have held the title “spectacular” but I’m not sure it’s right. It’s a sometimes fuzzy line, which I also find interesting to play with.

Rumpus: I understand that the “I” is always a fiction in a poem, but your poems seem like they’re coming from somewhere close to your person, which is to say they don’t sound like persona poems. How do you think about the “I” or the self in your poems? Are they the same speaker? Or do you think of these poems as fiction? Or nonfiction? Or something else entirely?

Ensor: Well, my first thought is one that maybe tells you about my orientation to self. I feel like anything I have to say about the “I” is boring compared to all the fascinating things that people have said about the “I”! Ha! How dare I. But this is a really good question, and I’ll answer from my gut—I think the “I” is largely the same “I” across the book. It’s not exactly nonfiction, though it’s nonfiction adjacent. I think I can understand fiction if I think of it this way: sometimes we invent real people, and then we show how they react to made up occurrences. So I don’t know, not everything that’s in the book corresponds to a fact-checkable, real-world happening, though many of them do. For instance, I’ve marked a number of very specific basketball games, like what game in a series in what year with which teams playing, and those are real moments of origin for those poems. I’d say they’re all sincere-ish responses from this “I” who is mostly me, or was once me, and what happens in my body and brain in response to them. Then again, I recently wrote in my notebook, “AS TO FICTION / NONFICTION: POETRY IS INSISTENTLY NEITHER!”


Photograph of Hannah Ensor by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.

Laura Wetherington's first book of poems, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books), was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She is the poetry editor for Baobab Press and currently teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College and in SNC Tahoe's low-residency MFA program. More from this author →