Awful Interview: Hannah Stephenson

14 Oct

Rad gal Hannah Stephenson hosts Paging Columbus, this beautiful little reading series in that latter word, and after meeting her bubbly self there, I had to check out her poems. Her first book In the Kettle, The Shriek plopped into our gorgeous world recently from Gold Wake Press. It’s something, a real something, somehow heartbreaking and heartmending. That last bit is even a made up word. Point is, the poems do something stellar and I’m super stoked that Hannah chattered with me a bit over email about her first release. Here you go, friend.hannah

So, here it is, your first book of poems, In The Kettle, The Shriek, is out now from Gold Wake Press–a beautifully covered collection of tensed and focused poems exploring our cities, our spaces, our lives. How does it feel, to have this there in your hands, to have it unwrapping itself into readers’ hands in the world? How did it come into being–the writing of it, the home-finding with Gold Wake, etc.?

It feels joyous. I love sharing work on my site (The Storialist), but it makes me so happy to imagine folks handling this book–tossing it into a bag, jamming it into a shelf, handing it to a friend.

Before this book, I had a previous manuscript (as do many of us–hi, first manuscripts dozing on hard drives/in drawers all over the world, I’m waving at you!). Nothing really happened with it, and I can see now that it wasn’t very cohesive (some of the poems were very old, too). I decided to let that one go, and start fresh, with more current work. All of these poems were written in about a year and a half….so I had the material, and then played and organized and whittled. I admire poets who write toward projects, but I do the opposite….I try to find the project after looking at what I’ve written.

Most of these appeared as drafts on The Storialist. Because I write almost every weekday, it can be a challenge for me to separate the poems from their chronology. But once I saw the title poem as the center poem, and thought of it as a hinge, the organizing process made more sense. It took me from February-May of 2012 to organize it.

It’s a fun story about Gold Wake Press! So, I was contacted by Nick Courtright, who is an Austin-based poet (and is awesome). I run a reading series called Paging Columbus here in Ohio, and he was coming through Ohio on a book tour. He read as part of Paging Columbus last summer, and I loved his book, Punchline (published by Gold Wake Press). I saw a lot of overlap in our aesthetic/interests, and as I looked through the Gold Wake authors, I found that I identified with many of them, and already really enjoyed their work. I submitted the manuscript to Jared Michael Wahlgren, who runs Gold Wake (so very well!), and he got back to me pretty quickly saying that he’d like to publish it.

Reading this book after meeting you in Columbus, your persona in these poems and your self as a person in the world vibrate out of a similar attention to the world, a curiosity in how the world works, how it fits together. Yet, there’s a steam that wafts off these poems, a variation of skepticism and worry, that seems removed from the pep in your step.

And of course, that’s a common, good thing. But as we scuttle into the discussion of this book I want to see how you view these poems intersecting you and your life. In that very first poem, you say, “Structures answer/the needs of the people there.” How did writing this book, building these poems from the ground up, help you answer the needs of the people inside you?

What a truly fascinating question.

Recently, a prose writer friend of mine commented that he found it funny that he is quiet in conversation, yet effusive on the page. I am the opposite. I am so chatty in person, and love talking to people, and learning about them, and am not very restrained or slow to speak. And yet I write rather short poems, with short lines, and a weird, almost flattened calmness (in terms of tone).

My writing voice is not completely unlike my speaking voice….as you’ve mentioned, both come from me, but they definitely have differences.

One quality I notice in my writing is that I’m always bringing everything together. Remember that Lauryn Hill song, “Everything is Everything”? What I keep saying in my poems is “everything is everything, and everything is also something else, but that something else is part of the everything.” The kettle (something very domestic, and sweet, and nostalgic) is the shriek (a very disturbing noise, right?). And that is ok.

A lot of my writing comes from wonder and longing. As a person, I’m not afraid to reveal when I love something or when I’m having fun…I am earnest, and quick to admit giddiness. I’m not very cool. But the voice in my poems is more cool. A strange trait of mine is that I almost never end questions in poems with question marks. I’ve tried to psychoanalyze this, as many readers/friends have asked me about it. I always feel that the question mark disturbs the mood. A question with no question mark….what does that become? It’s a phrase of not-knowing disguised as a pronouncement (a phrase of knowing).

Even though some of these poems sound certain, there is often a very neurotic line of thinking just under the surface (sometimes peeking out, as in “The Outside In,” or “Alarm,” or “Telepathy,” or any number of others). I am very empathetic and sensitive to others….maybe anxiety is the flip side of this. You mention that worry is sometimes audible in the poems….I definitely worry about others (all of the animals who walk on screen in a movie….I am almost obnoxiously concerned: “Is Artax going to be ok? He’s fine, right? In real life he’s like, living in a meadow? And he didn’t really sink in the Swamp of Sadness?”).

In real life, I don’t always share anxieties. Those usually come out to play before I fall asleep (like so many of us). My poems definitely allow me to perform anxieties, and to try to get them to unravel.

I’m pleased with your comment about “steam” coming from the poems. When I drive to work in the morning, I’m always looking at the little copses of trees and ponds off of the freeway….one of my favorite ten things in life is seeing a morning fog hanging over trees/water….just hovering there, giving shape to the air. It’s easy to imagine that these are little, isolated, magical spaces–there is a layer of blurriness and mystery over something that we often overlook. I want to sustain that floaty, drifting feeling in my writing.

These brows of mine perked up when I noticed that habit of yours, the lack of question marks. In a poem like “We Will Judge You Based on Your Wedding,” this trait somehow seems to trigger a bluntness, one that’s foreshadowed by that there edged title.

We will judge you based on your wedding,
on what you have designed. How many guests
were you expecting, and how many are present.
What did you do to the ceremony. How did
you renovate it, what did you rip out and what
did you add. What century does your wedding
take place in. Is it full of thines and beloveds,
did you invite any God. Who cries. Do you
engender jealousy. What colors did you swath
your bridesmaids in, what necklines. How
symmetrical is your wedding party. Where are
the tall people…

And this particular poem works two ways, right, seen here as either antagonistic questions or breathy list of statements marking points of judgements. There’s an unsteady tension here created by that structure–the list of non-question questions about “your” wedding–and it seems to both explode and simmer down with the final line: “What kind of woman are you. This is your day.” That last sentence seems to be the only legitimate question posed, the blurry-ness of whose day it actually is.

Let’s chat a bit about that, this idea of marriage pressure on the gals. How did you come to write about this? It’s certainly an issue that’s skirted around a lot. How did these non-question marked questions function for you as you scribbled your way through it?

I’m a happily married lady. My husband and I were young when we married (just out of college), and I feel like this let us skip some of the pressure of wedding planning. Weddings have become more and more a fully-designed experience, created directly by the couple getting married. We got married in 2004, before many of our friends, and before wedding sites, iPhones, Pinterest, choreographed Youtube wedding dances, and wedding reality shows. It was a beautiful wedding, but we didn’t know what we were doing in putting together the wedding—our family and friends were very helpful, and truthfully, we didn’t feel very much stress (just so much sentimentality and emotion!).

When I wrote that poem, I was thinking of the media’s obnoxious Bridezilla fixation. It’s an odd pressure that we put on women planning their weddings—we expect that a bride should feel that everything just has to be “perfect,” has to exemplify the couple in every way. I’d say that most women, in my experience, do not have this feeling internally….but there is a lot of support (in pop culture) for the image of a woman who knows exactly what she wants her wedding to be like. And yet, we are trained to anticipate and scold that hyper-controlling instinct in a bride (at the same time that everyone is chirping merrily, “It’s your day, sweetie!”). What does this say about femininity? What does this say about masculinity? It’s interesting and creepy. There is a lot of focus on the bride at a wedding, but ideally, it should be a day celebrating the couple, right?

I can think of a few reality TV shows focusing on weddings. In writing this poem, I was thinking about Four Weddings, where brides attend each other’s weddings in order to score them (this is a real show). I saw about ten minutes of that show, and was a bit aghast at the concept and what it suggests…women are being positioned against one another, and are held accountable for how enjoyable the day is from an outsider’s perspective (and are also policing one another and themselves).

“You better obsess over the minutia of your ceremony and reception, ladies,” we hiss out of one side of our mouths, while saying out of the other, “But this is your day, you are a special beautiful flower who is entitled to feeling attention and love.”

I so appreciated that horrifying scene in Bridesmaids (the food poisoning one!), where the women in the bridal party unintentionally but systematically defile the white gowns and decor of a snooty wedding dress shop.

Yes, weddings are fun, and dresses are fun, and love is fun, and receptions should be a celebration. But what worries me is how shallow and oddly competitive weddings (especially those advertised on TV) can become, how very focused on spectacle and performance. Last summer, at a close friend’s wedding, the bride’s sister (a divorce lawyer) gave a terrific and memorable toast (shout out to Avery and Tyler, and Angela!). She said to the couple, “I hope that today is the day you love each other the least.” It took everyone by surprise, but truly, that’s a beautiful wish for any partnership. The wedding is so much less than the marriage, but we don’t always like to see it that way.

I also want to say YAY for marriage equality, for couples of any orientation (and am wincingly waiting for a reality wedding show called Say Woot to the Suit).

Place seems particularly important to you–position next to someone like a spouse, one’s town/city, even the physical box you sleep/eat/attempt to live inside. In these particular poems, you battle with how people fit (or don’t) in their space, how they settle into their place, how they give in to pressures there. Thinking here of “The Apartment,” where you declare, “A home is our own because/we decide to pour our possessions into/its pockets,” taking over for the people previously occupying that space, often avoiding that history and trying to make our own. How important do you see place in your writing? What do you see as the major tensions, for you, in inhabiting a space?

Yes, place really is so important to me. I come back to it again and again in writing (even beyond this collection).

Two images/thoughts come to mind in response to how place fits into my writing. First–have you seen Moonrise Kingdom? There’s a scene toward the end, after a large storm/flood (no spoilers, I promise!). The narrator faces the camera and recounts how very serious the storm was (while the background shifts to show us vignettes of the storm’s aftermath–high waters with a basketball hoop just peeking out, bumper cars and fragments of a boardwalk along the shore). The sequence ends with the narrator looking into the future. He says something like, “However, the crops the following year were the most abundant and high quality that the region had ever produced.”

The other is an idea in this old book that I love (I bought it for a quarter at a book sale!) from 1883 called Old Violins and Their Makers. I don’t know anything about violins, but I love the book. In particular, there is one section discussing the wood in Stradivarius violins. The author, J.M. Fleming, says, “Stradivari…selected his pine from the Tyrol. I have no doubt there was…and still is, some quality in the timber grown there which recommended it to their attention. The density, elasticity, and durability of the wood depends so much upon the soil in which it has been grown.”

These two scenes/images are so striking and fascinating to me. Both are about how place transcends time, and shapes the reality that we know and become attached to. Place is what remains when we are no longer around to see it. But it is so precious to us–important enough that we easily become homesick, or miss cities, or look to a move to a new apartment/home to bring something new to our lives.

What’s the worst place you’ve ever lived (worst neighbors, worst physical space, worst roommate, etc.)?

It’s all relative. The first apartment that my husband and I shared during college had some quirks–a tiny kitchen, very odd neighbors (one who once drove by with a duck in the backseat of his car, telling me he was on his way to the wildlife sanctuary–here’s hoping!), and flimsy construction (the closet door just fell off the hinges during one party).

But we loved that place at the time, and had been living in the dorms—so we were thrilled to have our very own private bathroom! And we got our first cat, Quincy, there….she is an insane/adorable black cat with extra toes (she has oven mitts for hands, pretty much). We had a mosquito net over our bed in that place (because we thought we were so cool), and once woke up to a tiny Quincy dangling from the top of it by one claw….it then crashed down all over us.

Actually, I love that place.

That last bit you wrote right there, the “actually” as a switch to the positive reminds me of one of my favorite poems in the collection, “You Can Do This.” About halfway through the book, this poem sprints with spirited optimism, a cheery demeanor that you yourself show, but as I’ve said, gets downplayed in a more subtle manner in your poems often.

You have parallel parked in a space
just five inches bigger than your car,
smoothly. You know Queen Anne’s lace
from poison hemlock. You are
adept in remembering names,
and people’s small quirks, you know
who has cats or dogs, who trains
them…

But here, we see, you just can’t contain it anymore, listing all these reasons to be confident, to press forward with a smile, marked at the end by the new skill where the you has realized “to call to what you love, to see it returning.” That ending is less punchline and more closing the door on the moment, the what you love coming in form and aiding in the confidence. How do you know a poem is over? How do you recognize your ending? Or, perhaps, what do you need an ending in a poem to do?

For me, the goal is always to not strangle the poem into an ending. I am always working to be less heavy-handed, less aiming for a “perfect” or “heavy” or “big” ending. A poem in the book, “Structurally Sound,” talks about this a little. One of my biggest pet peeves in pop music is when a song ends with a gospel choir and key change–the epiphany of an ending feels so forced there. The poem ends by describing a song ending as “a whole house scuttl[ing] away,/ dragging the block behind it/ like a billowing, sparkling nebula.” The end of a poem recedes, like a car driving off, as we stand and watch. The thing that is still in the ending is the reader, perhaps. Some poets use their endings as a whip, surprising the reader with sharpness. I don’t think that’s what I do (although I very much admire it in other writers). I am listening for a quietness, a calmness in the last line. A songwriter I love and deeply admire is Damien Jurado (I listened to his Saint Bartlett and Maraqopa albums often while working on poems in this book). He never overdoes it, but there is such urgency in what he has to say. The production of these albums resonates with me, too. A song that reminds me of my poems is “Working Titles.” I love the echoing, plaintive construction of this song (and those back-up singer harmonies—perfect!). The ending just kind of rattles away, fading, drifting….that’s what I’d like my poems to do.

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