Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Q&A with Erin Hoover


Photo by Keistyn Steward



Erin Hoover is the author of the new poetry collection No Spare People. She also has written the poetry collection Barnburner. She teaches creative writing at Tennessee Tech University.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?


A: I wrote No Spare People over the course of four years. I was lucky to have a book done and submitted to publishers (Barnburner) when my daughter was born in 2017.


I worried that it would be harder to write the second, and I was right in that I had less time. However, the time I did have, I seemed to use better as a writer because it was so precious.


For one thing, I’d saved up some major life experience to write about, chiefly having a baby and moving several times across the country. I had pages of ideas in the “Notes” function in my phone. 


This may seem obvious, but having written a book before, I knew what the process involved. From a large-project standpoint, I’d “solved” certain writing issues before.


For example, I understood what kind of poems needed to introduce an idea rather than develop one. I understood that even though I loved a poem, maybe it didn’t belong in this book.


Where I needed to fill in emotional or rhetorical gaps between one poem and another, I had practice generating new work through research or by using form in a meaningful way.


In short, I’d had practice making an assortment of poems feel like a poetry collection.


Q: The poet Cate Marvin said that the collection “recalls to me the sobering effect of encountering Adrienne Rich's work in the late '80s...” What do you think of that comparison?


A: One of the epigraphs comes from Adrienne Rich, and so I might’ve put that in Marvin’s head to begin with, but I hold tremendous respect for Rich as a poetic craftsperson but also as someone who spent much of her life working to build literary community.


Notably, she changed a great deal as a public person, and in her work, over the course of her life (see: “The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich”). I hope to do that, too.


Marvin seems to be referencing the influence Rich’s work had on her own work, and I like to think of my work as being influenced by someone like Rich but also being influential.


It’s daunting to be compared to someone who is larger-than-life in terms of influence, but also an honor that I will allow myself.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the book?


A: Unlike Barnburner, which had a purposeful sort of non-linearity, I think readers will perceive a distinct narrative progression in No Spare People, from instability and questioning to a sense of self-knowledge.


The timeline isn’t exact. A poem about the daughter being 4 appears before her being 3, for instance. It may make sense here, perhaps, to point out that this isn’t an autobiographical memoir that can be fact checked, anyway. You’d be surprised how often people read my poems that way.


I varied the emotional register between poems so that all of those that hit similar emotional notes aren’t gathered in one part of the book or right next to one another.


I changed or switched between topics frequently, so the sections didn’t feel like subject categories: motherhood poems, economy poems, Southern poems, queer poems, etc.

In putting the book together, I read the poems as a reader would, and tried to give attention to how I felt at the end of the one poem from the beginning of the next.


 Generally speaking, I thought a lot about the reader’s experience when editing. How would I lead them through No Spare People? How could I influence what stood out to them? (I think of this at my readings of my work, as well.)


Originally I had the manuscript structured in quarters, but I changed it to two at the suggestion of an editor. This made sense to me based on the book’s interest in pairs, couples, and dyads. It’s easier to build an idea in a longer section, as well.


In the first draft, I thought “On the metaphor, for women, for birthing to creative activity” might function as a preface poem, but I like it integrated into the first section because so it stands alongside the other poems with its concerns represented.


I wrote “Forms and materials” last, and that claiming of space for my unique family (all 11 pages of it) are really what makes the “reordered” narrative of the last poem possible.


Q: How was the collection’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The line comes from the last poem in the book, “What if pain no longer ordered the narrative.” For a moment in that poem, I’m writing about how the point of a couple is its two-ness, and so in a two-person family like mine, there isn’t anybody “spare”—there’s just a family in one instance and in the other, the person alone.


Beyond that, I started thinking about the concept of anyone being extra or superfluous in any relationship, and of course, no one is or should be. I’d like to argue in No Spare People against this idea of utility (and all ideas of utility) when applied to human beings.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on poems about fathers. My daughter is donor-conceived, so maybe my ideas about fathers and fatherhood are different, but honestly, I can’t think of a more flexible or relevant topic right now.


What can I possibly write about that isn’t patriarchy—its modes and machinations, how conceptually it changes or remains stable, how it dominates other ways of thinking and replicates its values.


Basically, this is the same force I’m talking about in my poem “On this, our last day of the decade”: “[I]s power crushingly hard, or / shapeshifting so as to appear / harmless? Which? / I do not understand it.”


Matrilineal societies are older, but that patriarchy’s enduring dominance relates to heritable property, so fathers are the basis of our economy, too.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is the second book I’ve dedicated to my daughter.


I run a reading series called Sawmill Poetry, and I produce an interview series for the Southern Review of Books.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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