This week on the Sewanee Conglomerate, Erin Adair-Hodges thinks about beginnings and endings—both on the page and beyond. Her poems “Self-Portrait as Portrait of the Erinyes Pursuing Orestes” and “Epigrams Upon the Health-giving Qualities of Mirth” appear in our Spring 2022 issue. We previously published three more of her poems—“After Ever,” “Unmappable,” and “When I Say Jesus Was My Boyfriend”— in our Spring and Summer 2018 issues. In this interview, Adair-Hodges grapples with temporal distance, finding one’s voice, and the plight of owning a Subaru.
—Luke Gair, Editorial Assistant
LG: The speaker in “Epigrams Upon the Health-giving Qualities of Mirth” grapples with “the ends of things.” Earlier, in the same poem, she asserts that “it takes leaving to understand arrival.” These lines make me wonder about your own relationship to endings: how do you know when it’s time to leave a poem?
EA: There’s an imprecision to the language we use about the final turn of a poem—we use “endings” and “arrivals” almost interchangeably, though in nearly no other context are these synonymous. Instead, when we arrive at a destination, we then say our journey has ended, and the implication is that there is something new beginning in that space that’s been arrived at, which isn’t an ending at all. Generally, I try not to be too precious about this sort of thing—conversations like this are useful insofar as they allow us to imagine possibility but less so once they become prescriptive. I was very bad at endings for a long time and so I studied the poems of others to complicate the ways in which I thought about finishing a poem, and now it helps, for me anyway, to use the language of the “poem’s arrival.”
An ending connotes some sort of wrapping-up, a conclusion, but the poems I love to read and write resist that. I ultimately listen to the poem’s music for a sense of its movement, so that the arrivals of poems are less content-driven or about a rhetorical gesture than responding to momentum and rhythm and movement. I often bend logic to fit the music and to arrive (see what I did there?) in places I’d no intentions of traveling toward.
LG: After earning your MFA, you quit writing poetry for eight years. How, if at all, did this period away—its own kind of end of a thing—change your understanding of your process as a poet? Do you occasionally still take time away from your work now?
EA: As I write this, I haven’t written a poem in about six months, so yes—I take breaks. This current hiatus is born of life changes so large and foundation-shaking that I don’t yet have any vantage for reflection. I’m involved in the business of refashioning a life, but I trust that the poems will come when they’re ready. When I quit writing poetry before, it was in response to an experience that, from my perspective, made me doubt I had any business taking up people’s time with my poems. During that time, though, I began teaching writing—mostly composition but with a regular creative writing course that required me to dig into the mechanics of a poem, its architecture, in such a way that I essentially retaught myself how to understand poetry in general and my own voice.
Voice is the one thing that was clear for me pretty early on, but I didn’t know how to use it. Studying poetry as a teacher allowed me to discover that there was a place for work like mine, and that what was denigrated by some was actually a strength. When I came back to writing, something amazing happened—the poems just came. All that time reading and digging and interrogating led to poems that worked because I was not writing them for approval, wasn’t tailoring them for a particular group. My post-MFA experiences were humbling, but burning all of the previous expectations away made space for heartier, more authentic work. I’ve abandoned the notion that I will be a particularly productive poet—I’m way too busy and like to take naps. Instead, my goal is to challenge myself continuously, to write vibrantly, and live as fully and genuinely as I can.
LG: Your poem “Epigrams Upon the Health-giving Qualities of Mirth” reaches an immaculate crescendo: “I wear disappointment / like a prom dress I refuse to take off, a murder of seams.” There’s a rupture there, I think, between expectation and desire and truth. What is lost—and subsequently gained—when we embrace such disappointment?
EA: Lord Jesus, what a question. I mean, a line about the rupture between expectation and desire and truth could be my epitaph (except that I have already chosen the Bill Paxton line from Aliens: “Game over, man. Game over.”)
I went through a very long period where disappointment seemed to ravage me. In this, I am not unlike many others, particularly those who identify as women and especially mothers. With perimenopause baring its teeth, it’s natural to reflect on where we’re at and wonder “is this all?” I know that’s a very second-wave feminist question, and it comes from a place of privilege certainly, but nearly every woman I know around these ages are compelled with the desire to burn down their lives and punch and fuck. As women age, our value in the world lessens, and there can be the urge to reset the paths we’re on because they veer from the public approval we’re conditioned to want. Wait, we yell, I am still desirable and vital and alive, even in this sensible Subaru in the carpool pick-up lane! Of course, this is reducing something much more complex to a soundbite, so forgive me for what I do not say, especially if you are someone yearning for something specific to be said. What I can say now is that I have recently begun to move on from much of that. Disappointment is a dissatisfaction with the present that has us blame the past, but I increasingly believe in the potential for future joy. Of course, I still demand a reckoning, which is the project of the upcoming book Every Form of Ruin, one which holds women’s rage as just, not to be quashed but heeded.
In terms of poetry, I think courting disappointment makes room for the unexpected. I don’t ever fully write the thing I intended—it always veers off somewhere—but the failure to arrive at the sought-after destination has us discover somewhere new. Many years ago, I lived in Prague. Before that, I had only ever lived in New Mexico, and as this was the time before cell phones, I was constantly getting lost. Did you know everything is in Czech there? The audacity! Every day was an exercise in me trying to figure out, with just a map and a toddler’s command of the language, where the hell I was. Eventually, I stopped trying. Days I didn’t work, I’d just walk, maybe hop a tram or a metro and exit wherever. Rising up on an escalator from deep in the earth to unfamiliar street never ceased to amaze me, and once the jolt of wonder passed, I got busy with discovering what I’d wandered into. I suppose that’s poetry for me. I suppose, too, that’s life.