Jodie Hollander is originally from Wisconsin but now lives in Montana. An alumni of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University, her poetry has appeared in a number of poetry magazines and journals both in the UK and America. Jodie has received both Fullbright and Hawthornden Fellowships. The Humane Society (Tall Lighthouse) is her debut pamphlet.
Hi Jodie. I wondered if the publication of your pamphlet last year changed your relationship to your writing, more specifically if publication has impacted your motivation to write.
Knowing there is an audience for one’s work always feels good, yet publication also causes anxiety. When my book first came out, I couldn’t help but worry that people were going to judge me/my work (I purposely link “me” with “my work,” here because I think they are tightly related, particularly given the type of writing I do, which tends to be personal, emotional, and revealing), and my worries were absolutely founded, because that’s exactly what publication does – it exposes you to judgment. I wouldn’t necessarily change that – if no one were judging my poems, then no one would be reading my poems. Yet being exposed to the overt opinions of others was definitely something I had to learn to be OK with. So I guess publishing a book has forced me to develop a thicker skin, but that’s all right.
I don’t think my motivation has changed much as a result of my publications. I seem to have this sense that there is never enough time to write all the poems I want to write. I’m also aware of ways I could improve my craft, yet poetic growth is painfully slow. It’s not like lifting weights, where you think, ‘OK, I’ve been working on my arms now for six weeks, it’s time to see some muscle definition.’ Poetry matures when it’s good and ready, and that almost never happens as quickly as I’d like it to.
It’s great to have the opportunity to interview an American poet for this series, although it would seem that like many of your predecessors you are a ‘transatlantic poet’ in that you have been published by a UK based press and also in that I imagine you have other writing contacts and associations with Britain through your studies and scholarships. Are there particular aspects of the UK scene which attract you? Are you equally active and engaged with the US poetry scene in terms of reading publications and submitting work to magazines? Also, do you detect any obvious differences in the type of poetry being published in America?
That’s a good question, and one I’m still exploring the answer to. Since I decided to devote myself fully to writing, doors have opened for me in the UK, and this has been less the case in the US. I started by trying for MFA programs in the US, and none of them wanted me, so I tried the UK, and the response was completely different. Similar things happened with journal publications and fellowships, and now with my book being published by tall-lighthouse, it really does have me wondering! Perhaps there is an aesthetic difference between contemporary poetry in the US and UK, yet there is just so much poetry being written right now in the US, it’s difficult to characterize American writing in any one particular way. I have often wondered if the musicality of my poems appeals more to a British reading audience than an American one, but I don’t really know. Whatever it is, though, I do think it works both ways, as I’ve always felt an inextricable pull not only towards British poetry, but also to the country itself. My best writing tends to happen on UK soil.
Your work has been described as romantic, surreal and tender, which seems to me to be an accurate description of the unique qualities I found when reading your pamphlet. I suppose one might add ‘confessional’ to this list, as the pamphlet has some aspects of memoir. Would you agree with any or all of these descriptions of your work, and do you find some more comfortable than others?
These are nice descriptions, and I think they do fit. I’m after extracting the raw emotion from experiences and conveying them creatively to a wide range of readers. I do work with deeply personal experiences, and I use language that shares them openly. I don’t know if that necessarily renders me a confessional poet. The problem for me is that the term “confessional” carries too many negative connotations. I’m not a big fan of poets like Sharon Olds, in part because of the subject matter, but more importantly because I think the lines can get long and prosy, and sometimes they don’t hold up. That being said, I’d rather read poems that give too much emotion rather than too little – that is one thing that can depress me about contemporary poetry – oftentimes, I’ll read through an entire journal and not find a single poem with any real feeling in it, and that’s just not satisfying. It’s like skimming all the cream out of milk, and being left with this watery and tasteless liquid, which isn’t even really worth drinking. I’m not sure why in certain circles it has become fashionable to write these types of poems, but I don’t like them very much. In my opinion, good poetry always has emotion at its core.
Would you like to mention some of the writers you admire, and why? Do you feel any of them have influenced your work in any way?
Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, David Foster Wallace, Robert Frost, and my mentor, Robert Mezey. Yes, they’ve all influenced me in one way or another. I used to listen to Frost on my headphones, particularly when I was living in Melbourne and had to commute regularly on the tram. I listened to the same 20 or so poems hundreds of times. Fortunately, Robert Frost’s poems never get old, particularly ones like “Desert Places.”
Eavan Boland said that in order to be a poet you have to have a healthy ego, or at least to be able to silence your inner critic for swaths of time. As your writing career progresses is it getting easier to silence the critic? Also, I know that you were a Tennis coach for a time. Do you think there are any lessons you learned as a tennis player that you have been able to transfer to your poetry practise?
There is plenty of crossover over between tennis and writing. Perhaps this seems obvious, but in writing, like in anything else, raw talent is never enough. As a child, I used to think a poet just sat down and wrote a good poem. I had no idea how incredibly hard it was to write well, or how many bad poems you have to write to get a good one. But beyond putting in the hours, I think you have to fight to be heard in a world that doesn’t always have its ears open to poetry – to bring this back to tennis for a moment – take, for example, Rafael Nadal, who, in my opinion, will always be a distant second to Roger Federer in playing style, yet I bring him up because he possesses one of those rare, bull-dog fighting styles that I think one needs to make it to the top of their field. Sure, Nadal is wildly talented, and puts in insane hours both on and off the court, but the real reason he keeps winning is his unbreakable fighting spirit, his ability to never lose hope no matter how bleak things look. I think you need a similar mentality as a writer; you need to believe in yourself down to the very core, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. If this belief means silencing your inner-critic, then yes, I suppose I do agree with Boland; however, at times I am grateful that I have an inner critic. How else would I be able to distinguish between the good ideas and the bad ones?
I read that you are working on writing in various metrical forms- dimeter, trimeter, and loose iambic pentameter for your next book. What aspects of using form attract you?
Trying to get the meter right is my top priority at the moment. I never learned how to scan a poem in school, nor did I work in meter even as a graduate writing student. I’ve always admired metrical poems, but I never thought I’d be able to write in meter myself, at least not successfully. I worried my poems would sound stilted, that I’d end up forcing in extra words or taking out important words just to get the meter right. Thankfully, none of this turned out to be true. A few years ago, I started working with Robert Mezey, who really pushed me to write in meter. I’m so glad he did—meter creates this beautiful musical backbone, which is much more difficult to achieve in free verse.
Unfortunately, meter doesn’t seem to be all that fashionable right now. Sure, like everything else there are trends in writing, but I think meter should be part of the basic tool kit for any poet. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of gorgeous free verse poems out there, but I do think a poet ought to be able to write successfully in both meter and in free verse.
Lastly Jodie, I wondered if you have any particular conditions that you find conducive to writing?
Movement is always helpful, and oftentimes a good walk can get things going. Being in a natural environment also helps me. Right now I live in Montana, and the muse here does seem friendlier than the one I used to court in Washington, DC. Muses have also been spotted hanging around in the shower or in the bathtub – one never really knows – but the trick is to get down what she has to say before she flies away.
Thank you very much Jodie, I really enjoyed listening to your answers.
Three Poems by Jodie Hollander
The Glass Elephants
I always thought I’d knock all twenty-two of them off
the window-sill in one clean sweep,
smashing legs, trunks and tusks
on the shiny hardwood floor, but I never
disturbed the perfect order that gave the illusion of
one seamless line of elephants.
He’d measured the exact distance between
their feet, spaced them so no trunk ever quite
touched a tail. Each elephant was a different shape
and size, and each elephant was from
a different country, but they were all from that same
woman who had left him years ago.
The leader was faceless and was made of a proud
marble-green. Its two sturdy tusks
converged around a raised trunk that appeared
frozen in a violent call of danger.
The smallest was a legless calf made of
clear blown glass from Italy. It had cartoonish ears,
unopened eyes and sat chubby on its
haunches, making it stand out from the line.
He’d often threatened to remove the little one from
his perfect line and smash its clumsy body,
but he never touched any of them, and
neither did I. Instead, each morning
I’d watch him wipe the dust and sunbeams off
each elephant’s back, rub their glass bellies
with a rag, and re-measure the spacing
between their feet, ensuring nothing
had moved during the night. Then he’d gently
circle the rag over their glass eyes, to clear
their view of the panorama of a dead brown valley,
stretching for miles and miles ahead.
She set the metronome ticking,
her children the pendulum, rocking
back and forth from Mother to Father,
Father back to Mother. Then she’d twist
the knob to Father-Mother, Mother-Father,
or call out Allegro!, and they’d speed up:
FatherMother, MotherFather, FatherMother.
Her children walked sideways, their eyes
shifted horizontally, they looked dizzy, even
possessed—missing the cars zooming in front
of them, but somehow they always heard
Mother’s tempo, and passed from this
lover to that lover, from that lover to this.
When it first stormed in Costa Rica
I knew there was nothing I could do.
Our little yellow house started leaking,
all our fruit trees were losing their fruit.
The pink Heliconia were battered,
the banana leaves swirled in the rain.
Where was my husband? That didn’t matter,
our little house was starting to shake.
So I did the only thing I know,
I dragged out a chair and opened a beer,
knowing destruction will do what it will do—
I sat back, and watched what was here.