Book as Chaotic Good: A Conversation with Erin Hoover

Erin Hoover’s debut poetry collection, Barnburner, was selected by Kathryn Nuernberger for Elixir Press’s Antivenom Award. Individual poems from Barnburner have appeared in The Best American Poetry and Best New Poets series, and in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Pleiades. Hoover has served as past editor of the Southeast Review, volunteer for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-founder of the literary organization Late Night Library. She earned a Ph.D. from Florida State University and currently teaches first-year writing.


Avni Vyas: Let me first just say how cool it is to read your collection from start to finish. There were poems I’d seen published in journals, one of which I remember emailing you about years ago (“What Is the Sisterhood to Me?”) because I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. So pardon my exuberance. It’s always an intimate act, reading the work of someone you know “off the page” rather than someone you only interact with through their work.

In the epigraph, we learn about the concept of a “barnburner,” and it helps frame the argument of the book, both in the external world the speaker inhabits, but also the speaker’s own interiority. Where, in the process of this book, did the idea of the barnburner emerge for you?

Erin Hoover: Everyone who read the book in early drafts, before it was titled, seemed to pull something different from the manuscript: it was a feminist book, or it was concerned with modernity in addressing technology and environmental degradation, or it was like a break-up letter to the working class town where I grew up. I wanted it to be all of those things, not point to one of them. This left me with trying to think more thematically in terms of the book’s emotional content, the tone that I felt tied the poems together. The word origins of barnburner have not only to do with anger, but with self-destruction, which appealed to me not in the sense of personal choice—a person who is self-destructive—but as a driver of American culture. I think the barnburner spirit exists not only in the content of stories, but in extreme rhetorical positions, where politically, you’ve got to dial yourself up to eleven to even be heard. I’m always wondering what people pick up from the book, politically.

AV: I enjoy how you characterize barnburning and how the speaker internalizes it, self-sabotage to earnestly be rid of something—a political framework, a history, a civilization—in order to start over. In Hindu mythology, there’s this concept of the Nataraja, who I’ve always considered a barnburner. Nartaraj is an incarnation of Shiva who appeared on Earth (according to seventh-century poets) in order to disrupt the power held by corrupt sages and rulers. Nataraj defeats his enemies by dancing the earth into flames, calling forth the end of an old era.

EH: Most of the poems have to do with the failure of some ideal that was once held very closely by the people who populate them; I don’t mean nostalgia, but basic social contract stuff around how to value your partner or the worth of work. On the other hand, I hope that readers will see that Barnburner is full of people who are trying to make real connections with one another in the midst of chaotic moral territory, from the first poem where the speaker is trying to subvert the call center script to the last poem where the robber we’re supposed to be afraid of in the poem extends kindness to the pathetic “Valkyrie” character, and vice versa.

AV: Poets have incredible power in engaging politics, and I think Barnburner rises to this occasion, indicating that language helps us identify what to burn down, and language gives us room to start over.

For instance, in the poem “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” the speaker questions the larger framework for this “opportunity.” (“This interview / shouldn’t be an interrogation, / but with the room’s folding table and awful / light bulb, two white people, / me and a journalist, it’s clear screws // will be put.”) Then, the speaker finally identifies the question everyone wants answered: “Who is responsible for your poverty?” As a reader, I could see this question being asked all along by the poem, but when it confronts the reader like that, you can’t help but engage your own assumptions within that narrative: how am I disenfranchised? am I protected? how have I contributed to others’ poverty? The poem openly engages a discomfort and vulnerability we need to better understand, especially in such a politically exhausting time. Do you think poems have a political responsibility or play a role in the process of affecting political change?

EH: In political spheres, language is sometimes used to make the suffering of other people palatable to an audience. As someone who worked in communications for a long time, it is exhausting for me to listen to politicians and pundits because the obfuscation is so apparent. I believe in using language to articulate issues of authentic concern through the vehicle of story. I think this is one reason that in my poems, I have been determined to talk as plainly as I could. For all of the reasons you mention, “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” deals very directly with the relationship between language and meaning and the theory and praxis of activism. (“Recalibration” is another poem that I would put in that category.) I want to live an ethical life, and I think that people who will like this book want to engage with how to do that.

I really like what you have to say about Barnburner in some part illustrating the potential capability of poetic language to affect change. Poetry has a limited audience, yes, but that audience is growing, and I think poetry is intersecting more now with other forms of cultural production, so that poems might have some kind of reverberating effect.

AV: It seems, too, that the people in the poems are aware of the limitations of our best intentions as a way to provide for each other. The poems present a constantly shifting tectonic landscape—how do we provide for each other when even the ground won’t stay still?  (“Every party / has a fulcrum, everyone in control / and then no one” from “If You Are Confused…”) The speaker’s interiority and rhetorical questions offer some idea as to the desire of these connections.

EH: I have to admit that I don’t have a very unified theory of the speaker to present; I think it’s the most complicated part of Barnburner, for some of the reasons you identified. I’m wary of identifying her too closely with me, in part because of a national obsession with seeking out the autobiographical threads in women’s writing. Regarding so-called Confessional Poetry, what most people miss are the other aspects of craft that you are going to have to engage to write about the contents of your life. Narrative figuration is a craft I have worked hard to learn; I don’t think that the experiences that I have had are inherently interesting. In Barnburner, there isn’t intended to be narrative arc where we as readers come to a realization. At first I played around with trying to do something like that, but it wasn’t how the poems were written. If the book had a character alignment, it would be “chaotic good.”

AV: Yes! The poems in Barnburner are seductive in a rhetorical way; they beg unanswerable questions. The subjects—sex, drugs, power—are all intoxicants, and the poems treat these themes accordingly, in moves that are all lovelorn, heartbreaking, scorned. For me, the poems some people may read as lurid reveal the stakes of the speakers, and indeed, the stakes of Barnburner as a whole. (“If You Are Confused…”, “What Kind of Deal…”, and “Takedown” are representative poems of this kind.) Stakes of power, consent, and desire are textured and detailed, which the poems establish for its reader organically. In terms of sexuality, I think of the violence and antipathy enacted by systems onto individuals. To characterize the book as lurid would be to miss the revolt and upheaval in the collection.

In the poem “Girls,” the speaker wades into the territory of desire and acceptance. The turn in the poem comes for me when the speaker declares: “I wanted to be a woman / who could Take Back the Night Somewhere, // hang with those bad bitches at Seneca Falls, / but I’d kissed a drummer from Staten Island / for no better reason than he chose me.” Rather than position the speaker’s desire to be accepted against her desire to be a badass, I appreciate that the poem calls out the temptation to separate those desires in the first place. Can you describe the “absurd position of having been found”?

EH: I’m glad you brought up that line. I intended “Girls” to be a poem that made sense on the narrative level but also lay out a theory of feminism that people could dig into if they wanted, and that is mostly accomplished through the speaker’s internal monologue as she moves through the drama of the poem. While I stand by the job I did evoking the atmospheric messiness of backstage, my interest isn’t really in what happens there, but what the speaker’s intense reaction to it, both an embrace of third-wave, postmodern feminism (the line you mention) and yet a longing for the first- and second-wave feminism of yore in earlier lines. And then it gets highly rhetorical at the end in a way that I hope I pull off as a rejection of gender essentialism. I started writing it after watching the show Girls, which for a while was a real cultural touch point, though I’m glad that I took most of the original references to the show out of the poem.

AV: If Barnburner is a kind of call to action (I read it that way, especially in the penultimate poem, “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible”: “My job // is to notice”), what kind of action would you want it to be?

EH: That line was meant to clarify the ones before and after it, which describe the overlap between New York’s leisure class and its culture class. As someone who has been adjacent to those people, I have to say, I’m not shocked when we don’t get the literature we need to help us change our toxic culture, because often producers of culture benefit from the status quo. I think the stakes for writing now should be as high as we deserve. And I think part of what we need to do is observe what is actually happening. What are the real and imperfect contents of people’s lived lives? What are our struggles? What does injustice look like?  Real change is usually messy and I really believe that poetry can help us think it through.

AV: When you call your speaker chaotic good character (yes!!), it made me think of how the speaker embraces chaos in many of the poems. Barnburner includes drugs among one of its topics, and in my reading, this serves to deepen arguments around a larger cultural anxiety and escapism. However, Barnburner doesn’t centralize addiction as one of its primary focuses, nor offer a resolution about their role, for instance in “Science Fiction: A Love Poem”: “But what if // there is no evolution, / beyond the good days / of the dope we share and its reliable / result?”

EH: Early readers of the manuscript criticized it for not having something to say about hard drug use, although drugs appeared in the poems, sort of like the rule about Chekhov’s gun. What I wanted to get across instead is how atmospheric opioids can become to a person’s life or to the life of their community.  Like what if the drugs weren’t equivalent to a gun, but the color a wall was painted in a scene? At the same time, I was really fascinated by how drug economies work, the communities that form around using. In many ways they parallel legal economics and communities, the difference being that from outside there is this notion that drug addiction is a moral failing, the very definition of not being able to resist a temptation. But of course anyone who knows anything about drugs from a sociological perspective knows that hard drug use is usually about a million other things, and to view them as a matter of individual failing gets a lot of people whose problem this really should be off the hook. Anyway, the more I talk about Barnburner, the more I think about the vision of morality it presents, and in the book, drugs are amoral, in that the people who do them aren’t bad or good, necessarily. I hope readers won’t fault the book for not engaging with the way drugs hurt people, locally or even globally. I can only say that the book wasn’t about those issues.

AV: We’re seeing a fascinating moment in the literary landscape where the democratization of the Internet has undone some of the artifices of gatekeeping in traditional publishing models. I think I welcome the floodgates opening because writers and readers are finding one another more immediately without having to go through a publisher. I’m fascinated by this moment where readers celebrate, say, Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur. Kazim Ali identifies this interesting position: “Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems—are simple and yes, I would say, simplistic, but they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience.” Regardless of the work’s effectiveness, the social response to poems becomes just as important as the work itself. In your experience, which texts “mentored” Barnburner? Were there particular writers or collections that guided or influenced the book? Who are you reading these days?

EH: Very early on in my “career” writing poems, I decided that it was important for me that an audience connect with what I had written. If I didn’t think I could interest someone else, I wasn’t interested. I often think about how the life of an individual might intersect with phenomena people share in common. For instance, part of my origin story as a poet is that I was two months old when Three Mile Island happened, a baby living in a shadow of a potential nuclear disaster whose lack of agency was only surpassed by that of the adults around her, who didn’t have the money to leave central Pennsylvania. That accident impacted my childhood in a few ways, in that I think I have always mistrusted my environment—there was always this sense that my safety was subject to an invisible danger. So of course that’s a topic I’m going to write about (“Nobody Wanted Such a River,” “The Evacuation Shadow”), not only because it’s compelling to me, but I think metaphorically will work for a reader processing their own dangers.

In her introduction to Barnburner, Kathryn Nuernberger made a very apt comparison to Robert Frost, who was a poet very conscious of wanting to write for people; he was a genius not only of the rhythms of the line but of telling stories, of developing characters. I also think that books that explore the way that the contents of an individual life or a place become part of mythology are in kinship with mine, such as Muriel Rukeyer’s Book of the Dead, and more recently, Claudia Emerson’s Secure the Shadow. I was reading these books as wrote Barnburner in a way I can’t confess to reading Frost. I was also reading Plath, who hardly shows up in interviews like this anymore—because we are all supposed to know Plath—though I think that people who read Barnburner will see her under the surface of my book.

After I’d already written Barnburner, I read Troy, Michigan by Wendy S. Walters, and I admired the way Walters connects psyche and place—what a masterful book! I also will read anything written by Monica Youn, out of pure admiration, because I think she is obsessed with the way words sound and the way they resonate, with the etymology of words and ideas. As Youn’s interest in language seems influenced by studying law, my work is in some ways drawn out of my prior career in public relations.

I tried to organize the book conscious of how a reader would see it, in terms of pace, looking at poem length, considering the perspectives in the poems. I wanted to create a book that was more successful as a book than that poems were in their component parts. In a way, it was easier for me, because although I’d written the book poem by poem not thinking of them as parts of a whole, the worldview of the poems was consistent. Getting back to what you said about Rupi Kaur, I wanted Barnburner to be readable, I wanted people to like reading it, the same way I picked up Sharon Olds’ Satan Says when I was on a break from my high school job at a bookstore and couldn’t put it down. That guided my decisions as much as wanting to tell of the racist patriarchy or make a critique of late-stage capitalism.

Barnburner was released in October 2018 via Elixir Press and is available for purchase from Small Press Distribution.



Avni Vyas

Avni Vyas is a poet living and writing in Florida. Her poetry can be found in journals such as Grist, Meridian, River Styx, Juked, Crab Orchard Review, Gargoyle, Better Magazine, and others. With Anne Barngrover, she is the author of the poetry chapbook 'Candy in Our Brains' (CutBank). She is an Instructor of Writing at New College of Florida.

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