Howdy, Erin! How ARE you? How DO you take your coffee?
October has been a hard month fighting the capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy that is the current U.S. government — but hey, Barnburner came out on October 1! On the official day of the book’s release, some of the journals I’ve been published in made announcements, and friends who have been supporters of the book, including a few longtime supporters, tweeted about Barnburner. Erin Belieu, Kaveh Akbar, Daisy Fried, Maggie Smith, and Garrett Hongo have been steadfast in their support of the book. So have you, Russell Bennetts — I appreciate you.
I read in Tallahassee and Gainesville on the days the Senate was voting to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, and I decided to read poems I’ve written about sexual assault, including “Takedown” which was in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, plus “If You Are Confused About Whether a Girl Can Consent” and “What Is the Sisterhood to Me?” I used to be afraid to read these poems to people, since folks have actually gotten up and left while I’ve been reading them. “Takedown” has literally almost emptied rooms. Thankfully people stayed this time — and they seemed to want to hear about the subject. In Gainesville, my 18 month old daughter stood up on the stage with me when I read. Erin Belieu called that a radical act, having my daughter on stage with me. In retrospect, maybe it was a statement about identity. A mother wrote those poems.
Okay, so coffee… I normally drink coffee while I’m driving my daughter Hester to school. I look forward to it. Our daycare commute is long, and I spend about two hours in the car a day listening to podcasts. In the morning, I drink coffee. I picked up the coffee habit as a diner rat in high school, when I lived in Pennsylvania. Because I spent so much time chugging coffee as a teenager, caffeine doesn’t really affect me anymore. Nowadays, I drink coffee in the morning because other people do, and because I enjoy it. I take my coffee with milk, no sugar. I’ve come to enjoy the commute, too, as Hester and I yell things back and forth to each other and it’s become a time to bond, even though I’m in the front seat and she’s in the back, usually with a sippy cup of juice.
Wow, people actually leave the venue? Kinda rude. I spotted Hester on Instagram. She’s grown since Shuwei and I met her! How did you get on during the hurricane? Hope all is okay.
Hester has grown into a fantastic traveling companion. We got on the road post-hurricane before realizing that was a bad idea, potentially. (Driving a long distance in Florida can feel like a Mad Max movie, but the hurricane certainly aggravated this.) We made it safely to St. Petersburg, where I read at The Dali Museum in a very nice auditorium and Hester played with blocks in a nearby children’s education room. Everyone at the reading was very nice — special shoutouts to Allison and Melissa, who helped me out with Hester, and Helen Pruitt Wallace, who invited me to read in the first place. I read with the poet Wally B., a well-known spoken word artist from Tampa. He performed a piece about how our lives can feel anachronistic, like we exist outside of our own time. I admired it and wish I could watch the performance on YouTube right now. After the reading, Helen and her husband and I had dinner and talked about her work curating the Poetry at The Dali series. I think that there is a lot of pressure to get any reading series right — to invite people who will engage and challenge the community, and I admire Helen’s work and The Dali for investing in it.
The day after the reading, we walked around The Dail Museum. Dali is the first major artist that Hester has seen, as we don’t have much exposure to museum-caliber visual art in Tallahassee, or maybe I have done a bad job at seeking it out. I wonder whose art I first saw — I think it may have been the traveling exhibit of King Tut’s tomb, when I was elementary school-aged, possibly in Boston. Or maybe it was non-Tut-related Egyptian art. I was so obsessed with Egyptian art when I was young. That makes sense to me, like it makes sense that Hester will be a fan of Dali one day.
Our apartment in Tallahassee didn’t have power for a few days. I knew this because I kept refreshing the online utilities outage map from my hotel in St. Pete. The morning after the hurricane, before I left Tallahassee to come to St. Pete, nobody had cell service and a few people were wandering the streets on foot for information, as our ancestors must have done, and I saw my neighbors who told me that we are often the last to have power restored. Anyway, The Dali offered me and Hester an extra night at the B&B where they had me staying, and I was glad to stay away from Tallahassee a bit longer. After our visit to The Dali, Hester and I spent the rest of the day in our hotel room screaming into each other’s faces (sample pic of this practice attached, photo by CD Davidson-Hiers) and watching “Law and Order.“
Sometimes I wish that hurricanes like the one we just went through would occasion a conversation about climate change, so those poems were the ones I read at The Dali, the poems I have about environmental destruction, namely “Nobody Wanted Such a River.” “The Evacuation Shadow” is another one of those poems. The way people disassociate from environmental crisis has been studied—how long-range problems that specifically require communal solutions are especially difficult to work on—but I’m annoyed that we can’t even get a mention for climate change during a news cycle where it seems relevant. I think people might want to talk about it. Some 1.3 million people lost power during this hurricane. Whole communities have been wiped off the map. People reading this article in the future won’t know whether you and I are talking about Hurricane Michael here because there will have been, there will be, so many others.
What more can you tell our readers about Barnburner?
Try and stop me from talking about Barnburner. First of all, the book is a series of narrative poems. There are poems that critique capitalism and poems that examine false binaries in contemporary understandings of gender. There are poems that describe complicity in the face of our violence to other people and violence that is self-inflicted. People who are interested in how a story can be complicated will like this book, I hope. Much of American culture is sick and sad and Barnburner is my way of taking it apart. In some ways the book is record of my thought process as much as it’s a scream. At the same time, I’m an idealist and I believe that people yearn to connect with one another, and this comes out especially in the poems I’ve written about children or about activism, poems that are earnest and even sweet. I think the classy word to use for such poems is “heartbreaking.” I’m still so much worse at talking about my ideas than I am at writing poems.
While there are moments in the book that may make it hard to read, people also tell me that Barnburner is an exciting book that they enjoyed. In places, it may even be funny. There were two poetry students at my reading in Tallahassee who snapped and gasped and clapped all throughout the reading and just completely dug it, and I think that in the twenty years I’ve been writing, I hoped someday an audience would feel about my poems the way those readers did. For all of my time writing, I’ve been a quiet and persistent worker, trying out different ideas in my poems, finding different forms for them. This is certainly true of the longer poems; I have other long poems that did not make it into this book because I needed more time with them. I learned that my poems got stronger when I concentrated on getting the story right — not fidelity to the literal truth, but calibrating the story to the stakes of why I was writing about something, subjects like sexual assault or the despair of laboring in a corporate system. I also believe that the poems have been helped by proximity to one another, by existing in a book. A full-length book offers more space to think inside.
After writing the poems, which took maybe three years, I spent another two years putting Barnburner together and sending it out under that name. “Barnburner” seemed right to me because of the word’s origins (see the epigraph) and because it’s also got that other meaning, to describe an exciting event. I sent my manuscript to Elixir because the press published my friend Josephine Yu, whose book Prayer Book of the Anxious is tender and wise, as well as other poets I respect, like Kathryn Nuernberger who selected my book. The editor of Elixir, Dana Curtis, is a poet herself and committed to seeing the published book live up to the author’s vision for it. For the cover, I commissioned Seana Carmody to make a modern-day version of a hex sign. I am happy with Barnburner and so, so excited for people to read it. I hope that they will. I worked so hard on this book! I suppose that every author says that.
Thanks so much for talking to me. Always a joy! You and Shuwei must come visit again soon.
Sure! What coffee will you serve?
I have a little coffee grinder, so we’d all have fresh-ground coffee. Beyond that, I am not very picky about types of roasts, but it has to be something plain, no flavors like french vanilla or anything else made in a laboratory.
As for what else we’d have with the coffee, please see above regarding my past as a Pennsylvania diner rat and know that I strongly associate two foods with coffee: grilled cheese sandwiches and pie. Pie seems more formal, so let’s go with it. I’m preparing to make a pumpkin pie now, so get here soon if you like pumpkin pie.
The Evacuation Shadow
Every disaster can be drawn
as a target on a map,
radial circles of streets and farms
round a compass point. Once,
that point was the colossal spun pots
of Three Mile Island, and me,
a child pinned to the evacuation
shadow my parents didn’t
have the means to leave. Our yards
watered by clouds so absurdly
normal, our tomatoes grown
brawny, sullen fish hooked
from the river. I imagine someone
pulled my infant body close
as the countryside emptied
with its fear around us. Today,
in the still-standing block
apartments of Ukraine, where
Chernobyl permanently blights
the Soviet breadbasket, pictures
tilt on their walls, curtains
drag from their hooks,
backyards are seeded with dolls
and basketballs decades
flat. Those badlands are different
from Appalachia’s weedy
hills where we remained.
In those years I remember playing
in the backyard, press of mating
insects so loud I could
disappear if they wanted me
enough. I began to leave the place
I lived from the day I was
born, when adults believed the air
poison, and the water, believed
in the death drive of nations
and worlds. But everyone
has to live somewhere, so like adults,
we children pretended the cornstalks
could be fine after that, the river
clear to its depths, still good
to swim. No choice but to count
our own bodies as safe to roam
inside, protected in our skin.
This poem first appeared in Sugar House Review.
Erin Hoover's debut collection, Barnburner, was selected by Kathryn Nuernberger for the Antivenom Poetry Award and was published by Elixir Press in 2018. Her poems have appeared in the 2016 edition of The Best American Poetry and in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Awl, Bennington Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. Originally from Pennsylvania, Erin currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida.