An Interview with John Hoppenthaler
JOHN HOPPENTHALER’s poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Southern Review, Christian Science Monitor, Barrow Street, The Laurel Review, Copper Nickel, Blackbird, and Subtropics, and in many other publications. His essays, interviews, and essay/reviews appear in such journals as Arts & Letters, Southeast Review, Chelsea, Bellingham Review, Pleiades, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, North Carolina Literature, Cortland Review, and Kestrel, where he is served as Poetry Editor for eleven years. He currently edits A Poetry Congeries at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. He is the author of two books of poetry, Lives of Water and Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. A new collection, Domestic Garden, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon in 2015.
DEAN JULIUS: Let me begin by saying how excited I am to interview you for the upcoming issue of storySouth. I recently finished reading Anticipate the Coming Reservoir and couldn’t put it down. The collection has so many haunting poems. I was especially moved by "Ice Jesus," and "Oh, Danny Boy." The speaker’s voice in these two particular poems is powerful and the narratives of the poems are striking and elegiac. I also like the way you deal with nostalgia and innocence in the book like in "Treehouse" and "Crop Duster." This might be a bit biased on my part because my second dream in life was to become a crop duster. But clearly, I’ve eschewed that goal for now at least.
So to start, Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, as well as a couple of the poems appearing in storySouth, aren’t at all afraid of humor. Perhaps "Busking" from your last collection is a good example for you to discuss humor as a poetic vehicle, but don’t feel limited to this particular poem. Especially with the Phil Collins/Genesis play on words at the end of the poem "& I can act, & I can sing." How do you find the funny bone in your work? Does it come early on or does your wit evolve alongside the poems?
JOHN HOPPENTHALER: First, thanks for featuring me and my work in this way. I’ve been a fan of storySouth since Natasha Trethewey turned me on to it some years ago.
Yes, humor has always been important to me. In fact, when asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was usually “a comedian.” Later, this ambition was a problem as “class clown” was often scrawled on my report cards by less-than-amused teachers.
I admire those poets who can be funny with regularity because a humorous poem is perhaps the hardest sort to write. Poets like Stephen Dunn, Tom Lux, and Frank O’Hara are favorites. It’s all about delivery, even if the poem isn’t being performed in a reading situation, and the poem has to work in other ways besides the humorous to earn its ink.
For me, then, the humor is organic and occurs as part of the synaptic energies that engage one another during the composition process. Because I try to crack jokes as John Hoppenthaler, in class, with friends, and so forth, it’s only natural that this impulse finds its way into the mouths of my speakers from time to time.
In “Busking,” I’m playing around with the idea of insincerity as it relates to art, I think, and the speaker is both a poser AND an artist who realizes that part of art IS falsehood and manipulation. The humor comes about partially because the speaker realizes that his desire to be a serious artist has to play second fiddle to the “acting” required to live; it is therefore a bit sarcastic. Of course there’s the more juvenile pun on G string, too, likening him to a stripper. He’s both a cad and a victim.
DJ: Several of the poems in your next book are about family, or members of the narrator’s family are introduced. This is often a question writers struggle with, but do you find it difficult to write about family? Do you feel a heightened anxiety or pressure when you feel the urge to write about them? Perhaps you could talk about this in relation to the poem, "A Walk by the Old House before Visiting the Nursing Home"?
JH: Yes, writing about family is hard in many ways, and Domestic Garden, as the title might suggest, does deal with family life.
You know, the majority of my poems are persona poems. One value from this is that I can create a story or lyric moment that isn’t factually “true” while incorporating something of the truth of my own life. And many of my poems may seem like they’re first person poems in the confessional or personal mode, but they’re really not; they’re stories I made up. I have a poem in my first book called “Farm Sitting” which mentions Christy, who many years after I wrote the poem became my wife. But at the time I wrote the poem, she was an ex-girlfriend who had broken my heart. The poem is entirely made up; however, the feel of the relationship between the speaker and the Christy character accurately describes the relationship at that point. So it’s about the larger human truths for me, not whether or not a poem’s personal details are accurate. Who cares? It’s art.
The poem you mention here is a poem that functions the same way. My mother suffered a terrible stroke some years ago, leaving her wheelchair ridden and badly damaged. She’s now in a nursing home. Dementia. The whole bit. I wrote the poem in Florida while collecting personal effects from the condo in which she lived before the stroke. My sisters and I could no longer afford to maintain it or pay the taxes. It had to go, but we have never told her. We’ve been lying to her about it for years now. Almost every time I visit her, she wants to know when she can go back to the condo. It breaks my heart.
My mom was a fan of gardening, so the plants come out of that, though we never had a crape myrtle or a rosemary plant in our yard. I never brought a sprig to the nursing home. Those ratty sneakers are symbols of the freedom she no longer can have, but I don’t remember having worn my mow-the-lawn sneakers to visit her. The last line suggests, I hope, a double meaning. First, I do have that freedom of movement she lacks; second, she sometimes accuses us of having taken all her money (the nursing home did that), so I want that sense of suspicion, even of her own son, to linger there as a final sadness, a final, undeserved indignity for us both.
DJ: I noticed in your bio that you’ve had a personal history of editing work. How has your current work, editing A Poetry Congeries for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and previous work with other presses influenced your process and what drew you to editing professionally?
JH: Pretty much from the beginning, partly because several key teachers were persons of letters, I wanted to be not only a poet but also a scholar and editor. Of course, one needs to be fortunate, and my first big break in editing came about while I was attempting a PhD at West Virginia University nearly twenty years ago.
I had met a poet and mover and shaker named Marty Lammon (who now teaches and founded the MFA program at Georgia College and State University) who had co-founded a small, regional literary journal called Kestrel. As he was on his way to Georgia, he asked me to join the staff. Within a couple of years, two of the other editors left, and it left Mary Stewart, who worked at Fairmont State College where Kestrel was housed, and me to edit the thing.
We decided that we would continue to hold true to its initial idea, to publish West Virginia writers and artists in every issue, but we wanted to expand the vision to include a larger palate. We wanted to be both nationally and internationally valid as well and so we went to work.
By the time my twelve or so years at Kestrel were up, we had transformed the journal—largely through our solicitation efforts—into a journal that published the work of West Virginians alongside the likes of Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Dean Young, Paul Muldoon, Michael Harper, Maxine Kumin, Stephen Dunn, Michael Waters, Gerald Stern, and on and on.
It was a valuable experience and led to my co-editing, with Kazim Ali, a collection of essays on Jean Valentine’s poetry that the University of Michigan Press published a couple of years ago. It also led to A Poetry Congeries, where the editor-in-chief of Connotation Press, Ken Robidoux, allows me to do as I will each month. It’s a by-solicitation-only feature, and I have so far not published the same poet twice. I aim for it to act as an anthology of all the poetries that seem, to me, valid and of value during our time. As with Kestrel, I aim to place the work of big names alongside those of the up and comers alongside those of the lesser-known working-class poets.
The editing has been of great value to me as a poet as it has allowed me to see all the poems, not just that we see published. By seeing that fine poets can also produce lousy poems helped me to keep my head up and remain hopeful in those inevitable times of self doubt.
DJ: You also had the opportunity to serve as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant. Could you talk briefly about that experience? Feel free to relate this more to your own work. I think it would be interesting to see how working with such a prolific novelist and Nobel Laureate was fruitful to your poetry.
JH: I worked for TM for nine years, and what I gained from the experience is hard to put into words. What I learned from Toni has to do with her fierce spirit, her refusal to suffer fools gladly, and her work ethic. We rarely talked about each other’s work, though she would sometimes talk through issues in her prose that I may have helped her think through (I like to believe this anyway).
Working for TM allowed me the time to complete my first volume of poems, Lives Of Water, and when the book came out she was easygoing about allowing me time to go off and give readings in support of it, and that was huge! It’s hard to take off two weeks and go in academia! I also got to go to many cool events and meet famous folks.
DJ: How have you enjoyed editing A Poetry Congeries at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact? The name suggests an amalgam of different writers. How you do find yourself selecting poems/poets for your congeries?
JH: As I mentioned earlier, it’s purely by solicitation. I’ve been in the poetry world a long time and so have made a lot of connections, and so many of the poets I solicit are friends or acquaintances I’ve met at conferences, workshops, readings, etc. I also contact folks whose work I’ve learned of through reading journals, browsing new poetry titles, by word of mouth, on Facebook, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. There are so many great poets out there today, more than there have ever been. Those who continue to rue the state of poetry just don’t know what they’re talking about. The problem is not with poets—we’ve hundreds of terrific poets—the problem is with readers. Rather, the problem is with an education system that sees little of value in poetry and what it brings to the table, which is considerable. Because this is so, poetry is rarely taught and, if it is, it is done in a way that turns off students.
DJ: What challenges have you encountered during the editing process at Connotation Press and elsewhere? What’s the most difficult task of being an editor (other than wading waste deep in slush)?
JH: Well, at CP I don’t deal with the slush pile; they have a separate poetry column with its own editors for unsolicited submissions. I guess the hard part is being timely (I try and respond within a day or two), in getting enough of the people I’ve asked for work to send it in a given month, and in doing it on a monthly basis. I guess that’s the hardest part. It’s a killer to get a new column done, including an interview with a featured poet, on a monthly basis. I do it for free, too.
DJ: Has your work as an editor influenced your poetic process? Do you find that you cast a more critical eye on your own writing since you’ve been an editor?
JH: Yes. I rarely send out poems that have been worked on for less than six months to a year. I want them to be as ready for flight as I know how to make them before they end up on an editor’s desk. A lot of people just send out work way too soon, somehow seduced into thinking that the poem is done. Maybe it’s the clean, published look of the words as they emerge from laser printers. Writing is hard work and people who aspire to be seen as literary poets need to treat it in a professional manner, not as some lark or sideline.
DJ: Do you have anything in the works over at Connotation Press that you’re willing to share? What’s forthcoming, a teaser perhaps?
JH: Besides editing A Poetry Congeries, I also curate occasional guest-edited columns by poets I have somehow cajoled into doing so. Coming up soon is a terrific selection of Canadian poets put together by a very fine young Canadian poet herself named Jenna Butler. I met Jenna at a conference in Virginia and she’s amazing. What a fresh, smart, informed lyric voice. I also published some of her poems last March. Check them out.
DJ: Teaching at ECU and editing must be taxing work. Do you find it hard to fit in time to write? This is a stock question, really, but it must be difficult to both teach edit and still find time to send out your own work to magazines.
JH: I’m still trying to figure it out. It is hard, and I was very lucky to have had so many years where my responsibilities were more modest than they are now. I’ve only had a full-time teaching job for six years. I’ve received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor a year early and, at the same time, acquired a wife and stepson. This was all new to me!
Somehow, I’ve managed to eke out the time needed to produce a third book, Domestic Garden, which will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in late 2014. I’ve mostly used my fall and spring break to write (My wife is an elementary school teacher and our breaks don’t align, allowing me to go off somewhere to hole up and write. I’m grateful to her for letting me do so!) I also wrote a good chunk of poems during a summer residency at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Nova Scotia a few years ago.
I guess that’s how it will have to be until I’m a Full Professor and my stepson has gone off to college.
DJ: Is there any advice you’d like to give current or aspiring editors and even those students/readers who want to pursue editing as a profession?
JH: Take it seriously, dead seriously, but have fun, too. People’s careers depend upon editors, so be a professional and don’t make people wait months and months for your reply. If you don’t have the time to edit, don’t edit. It can be thankless work, and some people will hate you. That comes with the turf. Deal with it.
To prepare, read a lot. Let me say that again: READ A LOT! Not only poetry, but essays about poetry and prose, too. Gain an understanding of poetic history and learn from it. Too many editors are narrow, tight-assed power freaks. They only publish one kind of poetry, denying their readers (and themselves) a fuller sense of what poetry can be. I’m bored by journals that only publish experimental lyrics or narrative poems or formal poems or whatever. Be eclectic and know what a good example of any sort of poem might look like. You may not want to write, say, an elliptical lyric, but you ought to know what one is, what it seeks to do that’s different from what you might like, and how to talk about it. Don’t be a one trick pony.
DJ: Well, lastly, what’s next for you? With three books and slew of magazine publications under your belt, what do you have in the works next?
JH: I like beer. I’m going to have one now. Beyond that, I really can’t say.