Prose Feature: “To Cast Ourselves Backwards and Forwards: An Interview with Rebecca Hazelton” by Emilia Phillips

March 14, 2014

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), and Vow (Cleveland State University Press 2013). She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Creative Writing Institute and winner of the “Discovery” / Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Best New Poets 2011, and Best American Poetry 2013.

Emilia Phillips: Fair Copy, your first collection, came out in 2012 and Vow arrived just a year later. I’m always interested in writers, especially young writers, who are prolific or who publish two collections in a short period of time. Would you mind talking about how those two books arrived? Were they being drafted at the same time? How long did it take from writing to publication?

Rebecca Hazelton: They were actually published even closer than that—I think Fair Copy came out in late August or September of 2012, and then Vow was out by March of 2013. So I had very little time to adjust to having one book before I had two, which is certainly a nice problem. Fair Copy was picked by Andrew Hudgins for the Ohio State University Press/The Journal prize, and the second was chosen by Michael Dumanis at Cleveland State University prize as an editor’s pick.

They were drafted years apart. I wrote Fair Copy during my fourth year at Florida State, while I was (avoiding) studying for my preliminary doctoral exams. I drafted the bulk of it within a few months, a speed which I credit to the book’s formal project (acrostics of the first line of every 29th poem by Emily Dickinson). I worked on revising it during my fifth and final year of my PhD, defended it as my thesis, then revised it further the year after that during my fellowship year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was during that fellowship year that I wrote Vow, which I started writing very quickly about a month after I arrived, and drafted over nine months.

For Fair Copy, it was nearly three years between drafting and publication. Those years felt long, mostly because like most authors I wanted instant gratification. I’m grateful I had that time to revise now, because the book was much stronger by the end of that time than when I first wrote it. For Vow, the process went much faster—I think I only submitted to a handful of contests before it was accepted.

Although they weren’t drafted at the same time, it was interesting for me to be editing Fair Copy while I was writing Vow. It gave me an insight into themes that I tend to deal with in my writing, and I retrofitted some of the looseness I developed while writing Vow into the revisions of Fair Copy, which benefitted the book.

EP: When you say “looseness” do you mean in terms of the form? Or in terms of subject matter? Or both?

RH: Looseness in terms of form, I suppose. Fair Copy was all acrostics, which is a really interesting form to work in. It’s both rigid and fluid—the line can be anything you like, but you don’t get a choice about how it begins. There are certain letters that really present difficulties in terms of keeping a line fresh. This can provoke a lot of creativity and surprising word choice, but at times can be really frustrating for the writer. Shaking off that form for Vow felt liberating, even though the acrostic had been really generative for my writing. It was exciting to start a line any way I wanted.

In terms of content, the poems in Vow are actually less loose, or less diffuse, than in Fair Copy, which often approaches its themes in an elliptical or sidelong fashion. Vow in many ways is a more direct book, comparatively.

EP: I think this directness manifests itself immediately in the titles of Vow’s poems. Flipping back through the book, I spy: “I Love His Profile,” “Not Here to Buy the Leopard,” “Love Poem For What Is.” It seems like you’re open to providing us with emotional or situational content from the get-go; you may not reveal everything about the poem and you certainly don’t hem yourself in with these titles. I often feel like I have a little sense about where we’re at and my interest is also piqued because of what you don’t reveal. It strikes me that writing often begins with the title (or ends there), and that some poets see the title merely as scaffolding when it really can be the foundation for a poem. As an inventive titler, talk to me a little about your impulses when it comes to titling a poem.

RH: I think titles should be both informative and seductive—they should situate you and draw you in. This is probably more direct than a lot of writers prefer, but I got so bored with coy, mysterious titles. They always seem to lead to coy, mysterious poems. My titles started improving as I used more and more rhetoric—once I was comfortable actually stating something in a poem, and not only suggesting, I became more comfortable with titles that did likewise. Besides, there are so many one-word titles—what can I say in a poem called “Autumn” that hasn’t already been said? Titles also do work for me that I sometimes veer away from in the poem itself, so a poem titled “You are the Penultimate Love of my Life,” or “On Sleeping With Elise in the Presence of the Ex-husband” lets me say hard things without having to say them—which I guess means I’m also guilty of being coy and mysterious.

EP: This answer sort of brings up this notion of being compelled to write what one wants to write while also being wary of the subject matter’s insistence, even concerned about the consequences. I don’t mean autobiographical material, per se; that’s another rabbit-hole. I often wonder how other poets deal with their subject matter, if it’s ever as agonizing as it is for me sometimes to simply allow myself to approach a topic. What’s it like for you?

RH: It’s difficult for me as well. If I worried about what people would think reading my poems, if people would like them or not, or whether I’ll be judged based off their content, I’d start censoring myself, which leads to evasive poems. It feels disingenuous when an author waves a bit of lovely imagery or language play or research our way in hopes we won’t see what they can’t look at themselves. Poems like that leave me cold.

My poems aren’t entirely distinct from myself of course, and I’m not treated as if they were. I have been flustered on more than one occasion when someone assumes knowledge of my life based off my poems, which is flattering if one thinks about it in terms of creating a world for the reader, and appalling that people think I’m capable of everything I put forth in my poems. I have poems about chopping people up into pieces, after all.

Even though you’ve kindly given me a way out, I’ve been answering this in terms of autobiography. I have been asked more than once if the figures in my poems are “real” or not, which is always a strange question to me. There’s no answer to this that isn’t in some way a trap. If yes, then you are cribbing from reality—cheating a little. If no, then it’s not “true” and the reader has been manipulated. It seems like such a dull way to look at the question, and such a simple way to look at personal history and experience. I’m more concerned with emotional truth than literal truth, which means I don’t have to be totally faithful to personal history. That distinction, or rather, that refusal to draw a clear distinction, frees me to write.

For myself, the more difficult it is to approach a topic in writing, the more I feel it’s probably a topic I should try to tackle. But I also think that it is important to know when you are ready to write about the hard stuff in a way that does it justice. That’s different from avoidance. That’s recognizing you don’t yet have the distance or the skills you need. So we have to be kind to ourselves as well.

EP: An incredible answer, especially that distinction between avoidance and recognizing one doesn’t have the distance or skills the poem requires. Do you ever go in search of those skills as a means to distance yourself to write subject matter? As in, do you ever search for the means in reading? In experience? Or does that have to happen on its own time?

RH: I’m definitely aided by seeing how other writers approach hard subjects, and what strategies they employ. Richard Siken taught me a lot about this, and I am a fan of how he views one incident from multiple angles. Marguerite Duras is a seminal writer for me, and her books circle obsessively in a way that I love. But mostly for me it’s time.

EP: It’s interesting that you bring up time in terms of process, as I’m interested in how you use time in your poems. In your poem “Love Poem for What Is,” you write: “There’s nothing in the world that loves you / more than the space you take up.” I can’t help but think about how time, really, is a kind of space that we take up and fill with the span of our lives. Sometimes in your poems it seems that things that are separated by time collapse into one moment; elsewhere, you have signpost for the progression of time like “Later” and “for months / to years.” The use of these two strikes me as an insistence that poetry can be both that place where time can collapse and become something other, the lyric, as well as where it can be charted narratively. How does time work in poems for you? How does it help determine the progression of a poem?

RH: I think you may have done a better job summing up my use of time than I could! As humans, we have the rare capacity to not only move forward through time, as we must, but to cast ourselves backwards and forwards via memory and imagination. There’s comfort in knowing where we are in time (later, then, after)—it gives us stability and reference. But because we can do this strange work of visiting the past and projected future (and sometimes we visit too often), we can also give ourselves the sensation of simultaneity, which feels like a broader, more informative way to view one’s life—but it’s not a state in which you can remain. You need both —the linear progression and the big picture—to live your life, and I attempt in my poetry to reflect that as well.

EP: What are you working on now? Any projects planned for the future?

RH: Lately I’ve been working on prose pieces—a short story here and there, a small essay. This is probably because I have a large bank of poems I wrote after Vow that I haven’t quite figured out what to do with. It’s clear to me that my writing is in transition again, but as I don’t know where it’s going to just yet, I don’t know what to make of the in-between poems either. This makes them difficult to revise, so I put many of them aside for the past year. I just now started taking them up and giving them serious workovers. In many of these poems, I’m seeing a clear divide between more emotional, persona-driven poems, and more distant work that avoids the “I” entirely. I suspect the latter is what I’m heading toward, but I can’t yet tell.

Gary Jackson*: When I read interviews I always want to know something that doesn’t directly deal with poetry in the poet’s life. So give us something else that contributes to your understanding/navigation of the world you live in, besides writing poetry, besides writing, period. What else do you do, do you share a passion for that may inform your work, but not directly tied into your work as a poet? Besides writing, what’s another act that keeps you sane (or insane, if that’s your pleasure) in the world?

RH: I love movies and I love food. My taste in movies is a lot broader than my taste in food—I like low and highbrow fair for movies. I’m not a cinephile, and there are few directors or movements I can speak about with any authority. I just love the whole kit and caboodle, and I also love the ritual of movie going, which is magical to me. As for food, I’m a sucker for various trends, especially diet trends (I don’t mean diet here in terms of weight loss)—I like to try cooking under constraints, like no legumes or no grains. I like learning the proper technique for something, like cutting up herbs. Movies let me leave my body and inhabit other worlds, and my interest in food keeps me grounded in it.

EP: Now give us a question to ask our next interviewee.

RH: To what extent do you feel personal experience is necessary in order to create “authenticity” in a piece of writing?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013), the prose editor of 32 Poems, and the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

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