What I’m Reading: Pause, Traveler + “Poems that Get Their Hands Dirty” (Author Interview)

80º ~ clear skies, beautiful air as the dew point is down at 60º, the best kind of summer in Arkansas, enough rain with yesterday’s storms to feed the yard and prevent us from having to water

I first came to know Erin Coughlin Hollowell through her blog, Being Poetry.  And by that knowing, I was able to follow her journey as her first book was accepted and then published.  It was super fun to meet up with Erin in Boston at AWP and get my hands on a copy of Pause, Traveler (Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, 2013) and have Erin sign it for me.

Recently, I finished reading the entire book, and Erin agreed to participate in an author interview for the Kangaroo.

SL: First, congratulations on the publication of Pause, Traveler.  Boreal Books (an imprint of Red Hen
Press) did a fantastic job on the production!  It is a beautiful book both inside and out.  Also, many thanks for agreeing to
participate in this interview.
The title of the collection intrigues me.  The poems are divided into five
sections that are steeped in place/setting, and yet, the speaker seems ever
traveling, until the very end, when she pauses.  We begin in the grit and grime of New York City; then flash back
to the speaker’s childhood and family connections somewhere outside the city,
perhaps in rural Pennsylvania or thereabouts; next, a cross-country journey
touching on that eastern connection and then moving through the upper Midwest
and plains.  The fourth section
contains few clear references, but by the fifth section, the speaker is
definitely in Alaska, yet still questing and questioning in some ways.  Can
you talk about both the title of the collection and the arc of the book?  Was it always titled this?  Did you write the sections
chronologically or did the poems come at random with you ordering them later?
ECH: By the time I came to rest in Alaska, I had moved fifteen
times in about thirty-four years. And when I say moved, I mean whole states,
not just moving from one block to another. If I added those short moves in, the
number would be significantly higher. I really yearned to find a home. Or at
least I wanted to stay in one place long enough to begin to explore the nuance
over the new. So much of the poetry I was writing was steeped in place, but in
very different places because of my many travels.
At some point, I ran across the Latin phrase “Siste viator,”
meaning “Pause, traveler,” that was used on crossroads and roadside tombs.
There was something so evocative about the idea of pausing during life’s
travels, both at crossroads and at the end point. Since so much of the book was
about movement, both physical and emotional, it seemed to fit. The poems weren’t
written in any sort of chronological order, but as I was putting the collection
together, I separated them into New York versus Alaska sections, then a section
of the poems about roadside attractions, and finally two sections in which the
movement is more emotional rather than physical.
SL: In these poems, much has been stripped and fractured, even
Elvis’ songs are “threadbare,” and the speaker of the poems, most definitely a
woman, appears to be searching for something to believe in, something solid, an
“easily mapped terrain” with “no dangerous edges.”  Do you think this
speaker reflects the larger search and sense of being lost for American women
who grew up post-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem or am I reading too much into
the poems?
ECH: I think that for many women, the path has not been very
clear if you weren’t following the prescribed “get married, have kids” route.
If you were in a bad relationship, you tried to tough it out so that you
wouldn’t have to admit failure. Life is so much more complicated when you start
claiming autonomy. A lot of women are still looking for Prince Charming. I know
that I was, and I kept making choices that led to sadness. Part of the journey
of these poems is learning how to be whole.
SL: There is also an element of the working-class in the
poems.  We are not seeing the
glamour and glitz of New York or the prosperous rural landowners.  Instead, we see the struggle of
everyday people just trying to keep food on the table, shoes on the feet, and a
roof over it all.  In fact, in one
poem, you raise garbage men to the level of deities.  Do you think there is
a connection between class issues and the speaker’s journey?  Do you align yourself with other
working-class writers?
ECH: This is an interesting subject. I’ve never really thought
about the issue, but I do come from the first white collar household in a
lineage of blue collar households. My family was a success story because my
father worked very hard to put us in better and better circumstances. It was
never in doubt that I would go to college, but I’ve never had a clear vision of
a career path. I just wanted to write, and so if that meant that I had to work
as a temp in New York City, or as a high school English teacher (hoping to use
summer vacation to write), or as an arts administrator (so that I wouldn’t lose
my connection to the arts but could still support myself), well then I was okay
with it. Living in Alaska, you quickly learn to be adaptable to whatever job
opportunities arise, because your dream job probably doesn’t exist here in
quite the same form it has in the lower-48.
SL: At the individual poem level, you move easily between
narrative and lyric, often melding the two.  Would you say a bit
about your writing process?  Do you
have a comfort zone in terms of style or form (line lengths, stanza breaks,
etc.)?  Do you consciously set out
to write poems of varying styles?
ECH: Most of my poems arise from an image, the windows in a diner
weeping with condensation, a truckload of butchered pigs. Sometimes from a line
that seems gifted to me, “a small bird needs a small branch.” I am attracted to
brief lyric poems, drop in with a gorgeous image and get out before I mess it
up with too much thought. As I look over my work, I realize that I’m much more
physical than cerebral. Things happen in my poems. For the most part they are
peopled and tangible. With the new collection that I’m working on, I am
spending a lot more time experimenting with form, different line lengths, prose
poetry. And still, as I read over these new poems, I find that for the most
part they are about the physical world, rather than philosophy or the speaker’s
ruminations. I guess I just like poems that get their hands dirty.
SL: As I read Pause,
, I was struck by your attention to sound, something I am always
looking for in contemporary, free verse poetry, and something that isn’t always
there.  For example, in “Atlantic
Avenue Idyll,” you write, “Below, the surge and slack of salsa / carries
through the pipes and cracks.” 
And, in “His Barn,” there is this: “Askew, timbers skewer gray
sky.”  In “Way of a Wave,” the poem
opens with “Gusts rattle loose windowpanes, / wind hurling volleys of hard
rain. / The dark sea strikes all day.” 
I’m interested in your drafting and revision process here.  Does
this attention to sound (particularly assonance and consonance, although also
the give & take of stresses) come naturally to you at this point in your
writing career or do you fine-tune the sounds during revision?

ECH: Oh, if you could read some of the poetry I wrote in high
school and early college, you’d collapse under the Hopkins-ness of it. I loved
Gerard Manley Hopkins and I read him quite a bit early on. And Dylan Thomas,
oh, I rolled around in the richness of his work. So from the beginning, I was
very aware of sonic devices like assonance and consonance, as well as sprung
rhythm and cadence. At this point, I think it’s in my bones. I will sometimes try
to heighten the effect during the revision process, but honestly, I usually
have to cut back to keep from being too purple.
SL: And, here’s the question that comes up at every reading ever
given by any author.  Which authors do you cite as your mentors;
which books do you return to over and over for inspiration?  Who are you reading now?
ECH: Yeats, Hopkins, Thomas in the early days. Then Pattiann
Rogers and A.R. Ammons. Lately, I return to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s books The Orchard and Song, as well as anything by Li-Young Lee. Kevin Goodan and Michael
McGriff have been recent poetry crushes. I’m currently reading Erick Pankey’s
incredible book Trace and C.D.
Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining. The
last book that set me back on my heels was definitely Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render/ An Apocalypse, just stunning
SL: Finally, as this is your first book, would you be willing to share your story of publication?  If so, would you talk about how long it
took for the book to find this form and how you found your way to Boreal Books?
ECH: Many of the poems in Pause,
were honed, if not developed, during my time at the RainierWriting Workshop while I earned by MFA. I sent the manuscript out to some
contests, made some contacts with possible presses at AWP, began collecting a
few rejections and a few perhaps-we’re-interested notes. I contacted Peggy
Shumaker, one of my mentors from RWW, for further advice about where it might
find a home. She suggested that she would be interested in seeing the
manuscript for Boreal Books (www.borealbooks.org), an imprint from Red Hen
Press (www.redhen.org) that she edits. The mission of Boreal Books is to bring
Alaskan writers and fine artists to wider audiences within and beyond that
great, but remote, state. The authors published by the imprint are excellent
company to be in. I was thrilled to send it to her for consideration, and even
more thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it in 2013.
Peggy Shumaker is a wonderfully generous editor (and amazing
poet), and I have been very pleased with the support that Red Hen Press has
given the book. I feel lucky that Pause,
found such a wonderful home.
SL: Thanks so much, Erin, for the book and for taking the time
to answer these questions.  I will
be looking forward to whatever comes next for you.

ECH: Thanks, Sandy. Your carefully considered questions were a
joy to answer, even though they took quite a bit of reflection. What a
privilege to have the chance to consider my work with you.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn