Interview with Rebecca Hazelton
This interview with Rebecca Hazelton about her collection Vow was conducted during the summer of 2013 by the following poets: Jim Davis, Dan Fliegel, Adam Lizakowski, Anthony Opal, and C. Russell Price.
Rebecca Hazelton Biography
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. 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 AGNI, The Southern Review, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2011, and Best American Poetry 2013 and 2015. In 2014, she won a Pushcart.
Fliegel: Many poems in Vow (such as “Elise, Qua Elise,” for example) have three or four different tab points, creating a good deal of space before and after the lines. Could you describe your intentions regarding line breaks and the use of space on the page?
Hazelton: I think about typographical layout in terms of speed. Moving away from the left margin, and then back again, slows a reader’s pace through the poem and unsettles the reader’s expectations of linearity, which seems in keeping with the organization of the book.
Line breaks are another way in which I try to control pacing. Enjambment was the first technique I really fell in love with as a poet. The fact that where you broke a line could impact the poem’s meaning – that was a kind of magic to me. Line breaks are reveals – I want them to have their moment. I often use indentations as subsets to the preceding line, just as one would indent for a set of supporting points in an outline.
Fliegel: You have some very funny poems, such as “You Are The Penultimate Love of My Life.” Are there poets (and non poets) that inspire your sense of humor?
Hazelton: Thank you. I’m glad they are funny.
I’ve always liked thinking about what makes things funny. I especially love how the moment you explain why something is funny it ceases to be so, and now your need to explain humor is the funny part. I think about that when revising funny poems – do I have to explain the joke? If I do, then there’s a problem.
Along with that, I think a great deal about brevity – make the joke and then get out quickly – like it’s a bomb. I use that word intentionally, of course – being funny is risky. It took me years to realize that humor wasn’t a sign of frivolity but rather a product of control. David Kirby, a very funny poet who was a teacher of mine, encouraged me to let my humor show more, but I couldn’t follow his advice at the time. Instead, I squelched my humor, though it snuck out in little flashes here and there. I was a Serious Poet, and generally committed the classic error of mistaking tone for substance. To let my humor show required me to be more secure as a writer. I had to balance trusting my intuition of what was funny, on the one hand, with not getting too invested in something only I found funny, on the other. It’s hard to police your preciousness.
I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for two years, and there’s a great poetry scene there. I don’t know if it’s a product of the various series coordinators’ tastes or something about the Midwest scene in general, but there seemed to be a stronger presence of funny poets than I’d previously encountered. During that time, I also had a lovely stretch of months where I met up regularly with the poet Matthew Guenette to share work, and I think he really helped me loosen up, to be more aware of the hilarity of everyday life. I’ve always liked poets who are playful: Dorothea Laskey, Matthea Harvey, Catie Rosemurgy, Zachary Schomburg, my friends Kara Candito and Sandra Simonds, Frank O’Hara, Jillian Weise, John Berryman.
I draw inspiration from other media as well. I’ve listened to a frightening amount of The Nerdist Writer’s Panels, which is a podcast devoted to television writers, not poets. Listening to comedic television writers in particular has been really useful for thinking about timing, drama, and the “beats” of a piece. The timing of comedy requires precision, and necessitates a serious understanding and respect of audience. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joss Whedon’s various television series, which really sharpened my wordplay, as well as teaching me how comedy and tragedy can strengthen each other. And Shakespeare’s plays, of which I read a glut of during college and love to pieces, especially Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
Fliegel: Quite a few of your poems stretch beyond a single page. How does a poem let you know when it is finished?
Hazelton: It’s entirely intuitive. There’s an ending I’m writing toward. I can just see the hint of it over the horizon, but I don’t know what it is. I write until I “hear” a click in my head. I don’t believe in pre-determinism, but I make an exception for poems.
It’s only recently I’ve started writing poems that exceeded a page. It happened at the same time I became interested in seeing over how many line breaks and stanzas I could sustain a sentence. Carl Phillips does this beautifully in Speak Low, as does Richard Siken in Crush. So does Abraham Lincoln for that matter, or any number of writers from the Victorian era. I admire how those writers don’t suffer fools – you either follow or you get left behind.
Lizakowski: In the first poem called “Book Of Memory” from Vow, I can hear the echo and see images of the Trojan War. How is important to you the Greek mythology and the past (memory)?
Hazelton: To modify the anthropologist Clifford Geert’s words, memory is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We can’t really know if it’s accurate, however we supplement it with documentation. It still has an element of subjectivity to it, which is maddening. Myth is one way to lessen that insecurity, because it gives us tropes and precedents to point to, to say, “this has happened before.” In Greek myth, the gods are the petty ones, mostly, and humans their pawns. I think that is why these myths continue to have power. Echo, as cursed by Hera, can’t speak first, and so when she falls in love she is unable to express herself with freshness or agency. Her words of love are stale recapitulations of what’s been said before. This is a situation people can relate to.
Greek and Roman mythology has always been special to me. I grew up reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bullfinch’s Mythology, Frazier’s The Golden Bough, lots of Robert Graves. Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands was a formative book for me, and I also love Carl Phillips’ deft use of mythology in his poetry. The Trojan War in particular holds great weight for me, and certain images from it strike me as particularly tragic – Hector, pulled behind Achille’s chariot, Cassandra – everything about Cassandra –Helen, and her detrimental beauty. Helen interests me because she’s an example of how meeting a cultural ideal of beauty isn’t necessarily a better situation than falling short of that ideal. I recognize that her involvement in the story is to serve as a pretext, but I’m fascinated by the idea of a beauty so extreme it’s a liability. But mostly the wall interests me – how do we get past seemingly impenetrable barriers? Through supernatural assistance? Through human craft?
Lizakowski: In many of your poems you have mentioned many animals like; wolf, fox, hare, rabbit, snow leopard, ducks, birds, even insects. But I would not call your poetry naturalistic or ecological. The animals are also not the symbols or allegories from the Aesop's Fables. Can you explain their meaning in your poetry and what they are representing?
Hazelton: A few years ago, I read an interview with Zachary Schomburg in Bomb Magazine where he talks about the many animals he has in his poems, and explains them as “a way of putting characters into my poems and still give my protagonist the ability to be lonely and isolated.” I liked this notion; it speaks to the inherent sadness of the soliloquies we sometimes give to our pets. For myself, I view it a little differently in that I’m more interested in highlighting the artificiality of the line between human and animal. It’s a completely false distinction we’ve created, and yet fundamental to the truth of who we are. We are animals and we are not. Trying to live with that every day makes us behave strangely.
I want my poems to be exquisitely detailed staging areas in the service, I hope, of honesty. To do that, the world of the poems has to be full of life. Other living creatures surround us, despite our attempts to avoid contact with those creatures, or to wipe them out of existence through intention or indifference. So they need to be in the poems as well.
As for the various animals’ meaning, what they represent – I don’t think of them as having equivalents. I was interested in predators and prey. When that dynamic is applied metaphorically to human relationships, I am interested in who gets to make that designation, and when. I was and remain interested in the idea of the wild versus the tamed, and how that plays out in social and romantic relationships. But I can’t really decode the animals and don’t really want to, though I’d certainly like to hear how others read them.
Lizakowski: In the book “Vow” you have many poems started with the word “book”. For example, “Book Of Letting Go,” “Book of Mercy,” “Book of Water,” “Book of Denial,” etc. Each of the poem is on different subject and they have different poetical diction even graphically they are different. Some of them have short sentences and some of them long sentences from left margin to right margin. Some of them look like prose poems some of them are written in short lines of two, three words only. How did you get the idea to call them “Book of” something?
Hazelton: When I first started writing Vow, I began with the “Book of…” poems. I was inspired by The Pillowbook of Sei Shonogan, and by Peter Greenaway’s movie, The Pillow Book, which was also inspired by Sei Shonogan. Sei Shonogan’s most beloved pieces often meditate on a single subject (such as “Hateful Things”) in a way that is evocative, funny, and accurate. Greenaway’s movie literalizes books as a “body” of text – his actors write on people and they are “books” – and certainly Vow is concerned with the body. Each actor, once written on, is briefly labeled “Book of….” In my book, the subjects of each “Book of…” poem determined the poems and their forms – that is to say, I chose to write on mercy beforehand, and the resulting poem is my associative take on that notion. I think of them as meditations, though that implies a kind of calmness and distance with which many of them are unconcerned.
Price: Everyone of your poems is bursting with color, can you discuss your relationship with this--do certain poems start in a "red state" then progress to yellow then orange--are you painting (in a way) as the poem goes?
Hazelton: I don’t think I have a particular relationship to color when writing that I am aware of, though of course we are not always the best readers of our own work in such respects. I am a very visual person – we all are. We have the forward facing eyes of predators.
One of the many alarming effects of time and emotional distance is how our memories lose sensual specificity. You can love someone and know everything about him or her – and years later, not remember exactly when you first saw him or her, or when you first knew you were in love. How is that possible? I suppose poetry is a way for me to preserve some of those details before they disappear, but then it’s hard to know which details are the ones to keep.
Price: Tell me about "Fox Undresses Rabbit" and the inherent reimagining or recreation of personal mythology/folklore in your work. Follow up: what's your spirit animal?
Hazelton: I think all artists pulls from personal mythologies – we see ourselves as heroes, or anti-heroes, in our own stories. “Fox Undresses Rabbit” takes that impulse further, in that Fox is asking for mutual participation in his creation of myth, even while acknowledging the falsity of that endeavor. It’s a poem about how there’s no access to the true self of another person. That’s why we don’t really have poems explicitly from Rabbit’s perspective. I wrote some, but didn’t include them in the book. I wanted the story to come through Fox, via Fox’s limited information, because in the end that’s all one has to work with when trying to understand a relationship that’s ended.
I don’t think you can answer what your own spirit animal is. It has to be assigned from an outside source. I’ve been told different animals for mine. A rabbit. A springbok, which is a particularly humorous kind of antelope. I personally like to think I’m something small, but with lots of teeth or spines. A fierce hedgehog.
Price: Can you please tell me a bit about why you picked "Vow" as the title--were there other titles in mind?
Hazelton: It’s always been Vow. I wanted to speak to the various promises we make to other people, and how we do and don’t keep them. In particular, how one vow might conflict with another. In Celtic mythology there’s the idea of the geis, a particular prohibition, like a curse or vow. The tragic downfall of a hero often occurs when he or she has multiple geis (gessa) and must violate one to preserve another, like Cúchulainn, who is prohibited from eating dog meat and from refusing a woman’s hospitality. When he’s offered dog meat by an old woman, he has no choice but to break his geis. To me, this is a more interesting method of tragedy than ones set into motion by hubris – in this version, the hero knows his misstep but is powerless to prevent it. That’s infinitely more terrible.
Davis: Certain themes and characters repeat through Vow, characters which allow not only for wordplay and expertly crafted, rhythmic verse, but true-to-life (if not transmorphed) personas to exhibit themselves and interact. What is your relationship to these personas? Do they allow you to confront difficult issues, or do they serve as metaphor for those you speak of? Where/when do they enter your process?
Hazelton: They are a way for me to talk about tough subjects, yes, but they are also a way for me to have the freedom to talk beyond my own direct experience. Personas allow me to shake off the tyranny of telling the truth as it happened, and let me get at the truth as it felt. I can look at a character from multiple angles, to imagine him or her in various situations under certain stresses. I can also create a persona of the self, that is, imagine myself as someone just slightly altered, who’d makes different choices than I would under the same circumstances.
To some extent, the personas can have metaphorical valences, yes. Certainly Fox as a fox implies predatory aspects, and he is a character with some ugliness inside him – but that predator/prey dynamic is complicated in those poems, and Fox is, to me, very tragic. He doesn’t know how to get what he wants, and isn’t that everyone? As for when they arrive in the process – they pretty much are the process. I hear a voice speaking and then I figure out who that is, what they want. Then they get a name.
Davis: In the assemblage of Vow, how do you pace your themes, i.e., when is it time to revisit the Fox and the Rabbit, when is Elise allowed to reappear? Specifically, in “Book of Memory,” you “watched for horses on the horizon,” only to discover, pages later, those “feral, descendants of shipwrecks swum ashore,” (these small charms, and the recurrence of characters--which the reader eventually befriends--are uniquely gratifying).
Hazelton: I am glad to hear that the ordering allows those moments of recognition. I wanted the poems to talk to each other, to encourage reading one poem in light of another. I’d like there to be multiple possible narratives for the reader. In putting Vow together, I knew I didn’t want to section the book because the only way I could think to do so would be to cluster all the poems of a type together. And that sounded like a boring choice that would annihilate any drama the poems might have. The arc of a character would be over in a few pages. So I ordered the book like a braid, strands coming in and out, and essentially, brought a strand in whenever I felt like we hadn’t heard from Fox in a while, or Elise, or a Book.
Davis: The structure of the poems seems to open up as the book progresses. Do these aesthetic “breaths” indicate an unraveling? a loosening/liberation of the spirit? or a slightly more casual coming-to-terms with the situation, as in, “This will have to do”?
Hazelton: I agree that the book moves towards resolution, which may suggest a kind of relief, tonally, but I’m not sure I see this reflected strongly in the formal qualities of the poems, though of course I may be myopic on the subject.
Opal: I'm interested in how you navigate such seriousness in your poems (divorce, betrayal, etc.) without allowing the poem to collapse in on itself or become too self-pitying. One device you use is humor - but I have a feeling that it goes deeper than this. How do you find yourself balancing out the 'darkness' with 'light'?
Hazelton: Possibly by acknowledging my speaker’s own pitifulness. Certainly that’s what I want when I give a self-pitying line wondering whether the world has sweetness for me, as in “I Love Your Profile,” and follow with “yes, I said it.” Humor is a great deflector, of course, but I also want to temper humor with sincerity, or the poems are ultimately standoffish, the funny person at the party you realize you never really knew, which seems damning. The most difficult part of writing Vow was to have a vulnerable speaker, to write about uncomfortable subjects, to portray some version of myself in what I find to be an unflattering way. Because we are needy more often than we are noble, and admitting that might be a saving grace.
Opal: The poems in Vow all seem to fall into one of two categories, formally speaking. This is of course an overgeneralization. But as a reader, I found myself mentally separating the poems in Vow into the category of either 'block' or 'spatial,' completely left justified or indented and sprawling. There are many questions here, but what I'm most interested in is the spoken quality of your poems and how these different forms effect your out-loud reading of the work. Maybe a better way to put it: do you see your poems existing primarily on the page, or do they also have a spoken life?
Hazelton: A poem on the page is a very different thing than that poem read aloud, just as listening is a very different practice than reading. We aren’t doing our art any favors when we ignore the differences. Some things just don’t translate well. There is a lot of play and a lot of cleverness that can occur on the page that will only hurt your reception if you try to recreate it aurally. The heft of a blocky poem on the page, the almost monolithic quality of it, has a visual weight that can’t easily be conveyed when read aloud. You can try to do so by reading those lines in a huge rush, so that the words become an onslaught of sorts, but are you going to do that for every blocky poem? That style has diminishing returns. Furthermore, an audience needs time to process, and they most often need it after an image or a rhetorical shift – just a little pause to make that mental jump, and then they’re good to go. So I pause more often when reading those blocky poems aloud than you’d see indicated by line breaks, because they’re just a lot to take in. For my more spatially sinuous poems, there’s no way for me to really convey their meandering quality, except perhaps to let a little more Southern accent slip into my voice than usual. (I say “let” but this is actually outside my control.)
Reading your work aloud requires audience awareness. I’ve learned you need to budget laughter into your reading if you are writing funny poems at all – if you made a good joke, let the audience have a moment to comprehend it and laugh. That’s a pause you won’t find in my poems on the page. Conversely, you also need to know how to quickly recover if a joke meets no response – either because it wasn’t a good joke (in which case, now you know), or because you’ve got an audience who is under the impression that poetry is always Serious. Which reminds me -- I consider poetry readings part of the revision process. I’m not saying you should read raw, unpolished work, but lukewarm audience reaction to a piece can tell you when something is going awry, if you can stand to acknowledge the moment when you’re in it, which is sometimes a painful one.
I’ve mostly talked about what you lose from page to stage, but there’s a lot a reading can do that the page can’t. A poetry reading can bring forth all those lovely sonic effects you’ve packed into the poem – they’re there on the page, of course, but they really pop when read aloud. Many of my poems that appear sprawling are in stanzas, and in reading I can emphasize that in a way that may not be apparent when reading on the page. The connection between a reader and an audience can give a poem power that it might not have on a solitary reading. It’s like when you see an anticipated movie with a boisterous crowd on Friday night – a great poetry reading can have that kind of anticipatory, communal energy, which lifts your poems up and bolsters them.
Could you tell us about any current or future projects?
Hazelton: I’m currently revising a large amount of work and seeing if I think it’s a book or not. I’ve been working on a series of ekphrastic poems where I look at the works of Cindy Sherman, Terri Frame, and Julie Heffernan, female visual artists using different media to create unconventional self-portraits.