Friday, July 12, 2013

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, Traveler, 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 work.

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, Traveler 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 (, an imprint from Red Hen Press ( 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, Traveler has 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.

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