is the author of Gloss, a New York Times New and Notable Book, Vow, and Fair Copy. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker and Poetry, and anthologized in Best American Poetry and The Pushcart Prize.
Keith Kopka: A good place to start this conversation is with the title. Gloss is a provocative word that is often used to talk about concealment, or a type of beauty that ultimately lacks depth.
Many of these poems put the speaker in conversation with a variety of glossy, staged scenarios through archetypal images of Hollywood, references to pop culture, and even kink-driven sex. In the speaker’s interactions with these scenarios there is a tension, even a kind of violence, underpinning many of these poems. Even the cover of the collection alludes to this tension by presenting readers with the image of smeared lipstick across a suggestive close-up of a woman’s lips.
What do you see as the thematic function of fostering this kind of tension as a controlling conceit across the collection?
Rebecca Hazelton: I’m so excited we are having this conversation!
I love your read on the word gloss, and how you see those meanings playing out across the book. Gloss is such a contradictory word, which is probably why I find it perfect for commenting on the self. A literary gloss is an attempt to clarify and aims to aid in understanding. But a glossy surface obscures, making it more difficult to see the form beneath, and interestingly, reflects the viewer back at themselves and doubles the world around them. And of course, there’s a gendered component as well—we like the shiny—unless it’s feminine, as in lip gloss, in which case it can be seen as trivial, shallow, and affected. The uncertainty of “gloss” is what makes it attractive to me; it draws us in, promising beauty, promising understanding, then pushes us away. To me, that’s similar to a lot of human interactions and relationships; we want to be understood, but not too much.
I feel fortunate that my press really got what I was going for with the cover. I was a little startled when I first saw the smeared mouth—I’m secretly a prudish Victorian—but it really resonates with the themes of the book. I also like that it’s clearly her hand doing the smearing—damaging the beautiful presentation.
KK: I agree that UW Press totally nailed it with the cover, and I think what you’re saying about uncertainty is really interesting. That’s a word that has been on the tip of my tongue when I’ve been thinking about the different speakers in these poems.
Because of this use of this contradictory staging as conceit, the speakers of the poems in Gloss are consistently reinventing, revising, or recasting themselves in different roles. Some of these roles seem forced. However, there also seems to be a bit of pleasure in this process of revision for the speaker. In turn, these poems force readers to interrogate their own constructions of identity. Can you speak a little bit more to these ideas of identity and revision, as well as how you see your speaker functioning as a catalyst for the reader’s self-interrogation?
RH: We all have parts we are encouraged to play in our lives, and many of those roles are necessary, and even desired. If you have a child, you (hopefully) take on being a parent. If you marry, you take on being a spouse. But even when you take on a role you want, it’s easy to start chafing at its limitations, the expectations put on you from others inside and outside that relationship. Or you might receive censure if you aren’t perceived as fulfilling the role correctly. I was sitting with a co-worker in between summer classes years ago, at a different institution than I’m at now. We’d been having a really lovely conversation, I thought, and when I mentioned my husband, he drew back, startled, and said that I “didn’t seem married.” I had no idea what that meant, exactly, but I wasn’t fitting in with his idea of a married woman. “You don’t wear a ring,” he said, in an accusing tone. “No,” I said, “my hands swell in the heat and it’s uncomfortable.” He then, quite angrily, said I’d been wasting his time, and at this point a nearby woman interceded and got me out of the conversation, because she’d picked up on the escalation. Even small, perceived slip-ups like these can become dangerous and afford us a glimpse into how fraught adherence to these roles can be.
Women are culturally encouraged to playact, to play along with the dominant discourse, to appease, and to please. In so many ways it encourages women to disassociate from their own desires, because they must constantly stand outside themselves and check whether they are doing it properly. John Berger talks about this in his essay on female representation in art in Ways of Seeing. It’s dated, but still relevant. Obviously, it would be wonderful if we could all be our authentic selves, all the time—but I’m fascinated with the art women have made about and of themselves, all to survive. And there’s a kind of pleasure to be found in witnessing that skill, even if the necessity of it is heartbreaking.
In my work, I think a lot about how much we can know ourselves, even if we can know ourselves. We are always more worried about whether we truly know other people. But our desire to connect to others, sometimes at the cost of our own agency, can blind us to who we are. I’m always fascinated by the rhetorical move so many of us make when we’ve done something we are ashamed of. We say, “That’s not who I am,” or “I’m not that person anymore.” But of course it is, and you were/are that person. My hope is that a reader will read these poems, with their often inconsistent, contradictory, even self-destructive speakers, and see a little bit of their own (mal?)adaptive processes at play, and that even the roles themselves might be called into question, might slowly become less rigid. I don’t know if that’s too much to ask from poetry.
KK: I don’t think it’s too much to ask at all! Also, if we don’t ask a lot from poetry, I’m not sure that we’re doing our job as poets. We put a lot into it, so it seems fair to ask for a lot in return, right?
I really like how you added “mal” before “adaptive.” It brings forward an essential aspect of how these poems are challenging readers’ notions of staged identity. Speaking of staging, I notice that these “maladaptive,” contradictory speakers are often connected to the idea of place.
For example, there is a recurring sequence of poems whose titles all begin with “The Room Where….” Of course, “Place” is a common subject for contemporary poetry, but your use of it often feels uniquely unsettling as well as fantastic. The rooms that the speakers and subjects inhabit seem to operate under the order of a kind of magical realism. The rooms also seem to interrogate themes of control and the ways environment is connected to identity. Can you talk about how you see setting/place functioning in these poems?
RH: I have never been drawn to writing about place in a traditional sense, although my second book, Vow, does have some place-grounded poems, particularly the American South, mostly Tallahassee, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia. I see those poems as outliers, however, possibly because I’ve never felt particularly Southern, despite being born in Virginia, and because for many years I was moving almost every year due to visiting teaching positions. I felt placeless; it is difficult to feel connected to people when you know you will pull up stakes in less than a year, when you are already making plans to leave. So, there’s some of that present in the earlier work, I’m sure. But more to the point, I think your characterization of these more recent poems as “magical realism” is apt, in that their actual physicality is less important than their emotional reality. The “rooms” function for me less as physical spaces and more as the private worlds that two people create around each other in intense relationships, to which people outside the relationship don’t have access. These rooms can be a place of refuge and peace, but also they can be claustrophobic, limiting, even deforming to the people in them.
In an earlier draft of this book, there were “room poems,” “house” poems, and “city” poems, all of which were centered in places more metaphor than reality. I was trying to understand how these small pockets of intimacy we make with other interact with the idea of home and domesticity, and then with the larger communities we make with others. That initial organizing principle—of moving from the small room to the larger city—mostly dropped out of the book when I did a radical revision, but there is a skeletal trace remaining.
KK: Oh, that’s really interesting! Was the organization of the book into titled sections (“Adaptations,” “Counterfeits,” and “Self-Portraits”) part of this radical revision? Or was this part of the organization from the beginning? Can you speak to how you see grouping these poems thematically helped build the larger thematic picture of the book, and how this organization is essential to the argument about identity that this collection is making?
RH: Yes, the sectioning of the book only happened post radical revision. Only ¼ of the poems from the original draft stayed in Gloss, so I don’t know if it’s really a revision so much as it was a scrapping? I’d put the book together, called The Other City, and shared it with several poets whom I trusted, and who told me it was working. And they weren’t wrong—I trust them like no one else. But in the end it wasn’t working for me, and I couldn’t get behind it as a book. And I basically destroyed it to make something new. I hope one day to make The Other City happen—there’s certainly a lot remaining to work with—but it wasn’t successful for me, at least right now.
As for the section titles—“Adaptations” of course speaks to the various filmic or stage references in the poems, because I’m always interested in performance and audience, but also the evolutionary sense of the word, how we change ourselves in order to survive or blend in or succeed in our environment. With “Counterfeits,” a section that deals a lot with power dynamics in romantic/sexual relationships, I was thinking about the way we re-enact our formative sexual and romantic experiences, over and over, in subsequent relationships, how one relationship can haunt the next because there’s a pattern we’re seeking to play through once more, or to get right this time. So, love becomes an copy of something you’ve lost, or never had to start with. Years ago, I was in love with a poet and we’d share poems, which is what you do when you are a poet in love with a poet, god help you both, and he crossed out a word in one of my poems, probably “imitation” since that’s a favorite, and wrote “counterfeit.” And I remember looking at the word and feeling stunned. The word’s associations with money and fraud brought in a transactional sense that sang to me when it came to unequal relationships. Is it love if we are always tallying up our losses? If we think the beloved “owes” us something? With the “Self-Portraits” I am promising disclosure—but they are the most mediated of all the poems, in that it’s always “self portrait as….” Some of these titles were taken from paintings by Julie Heffernan, a painter whose work I find lush, sensual, and unsettling. There was a period in her work where she was painting herself semi-androgynously, semi-nude, wearing fantastical dresses made of flowers, of dead forest game, or with masses of vegetation stacking up to the ceiling. I loved the excess of those self-portraits, how we are promised the self with them but have to navigate through all this stuff to get there. And the self we are offered is possibly just one more decorative front.
KK: Speaking of revision, I’m truly taken with the “tightness” in composition and craft of the poems in Gloss. There are so many instances where the poem feels like it could not have been written any other way, which I feel like is always a goal that poets are aspiring to. Can you talk a little about your process of revision, and the way you think about revision in relationship to concision?
RH: Thank you for these words about the “tightness” of the poems. Oddly, I’ve worked hard to make my poems less tight over the years. When I was in graduate school at Florida State, the poet James Kimbrell said in workshop that my words were “placed with diamond-tipped tweezers”—but it wasn’t a compliment. He was telling me that the words were exacting but there was something missing behind them—heart, if you will. I went home and felt very sorry for my robot soul. I nursed that hurt for a while, which is what you do when you are in your twenties and someone tells you something accurate but unpleasant. My first book, Fair Copy, shows that tendency. It’s more interested in its project than anything else, and while I’m proud of it, there’s only a few poems from that book that I now would want to claim. David Kirby encouraged me to let my humor out, which helped, but also my time at UW-Madison, as a fellow among MFA students with a more voice-y, emotive, aesthetic, made a huge difference in my writing and my ability to let go and take risks. My revision process shifted a great deal. I used to write a poem so tightly it was almost inert on the page. All the words were “correct” but there wasn’t a lot of energy left since I’d spent so much time tidying it up. Now I am more comfortable with letting the inexplicable onto the page, to letting my reader wrestle with an image that works intuitively but perhaps not logically.
KK: I love the idea of letting the “inexplicable” onto the page. It takes a lot of courage to do that sometimes. I feel like as poets we are always wrestling with the idea of control in our poems, and, you’re right (or Jimmy Kimbrell was), sometimes that control can suck the life right out of the line.
I have one more question for you, if you’re willing to indulge my more technical interests.
Many of the poems in Gloss use a “standard,” left justified free verse line, but you also make use of stepped/dropped lines. I’ve always been interested in the way this specific formal choice impacts poems that use it. You were talking a little about balancing “energy” on the page. Is this one strategy to help with that? Can you talk a little bit about your choices with form and line?
RH: I love the line, and I love line breaks. The line break is one of my primary methods of communication! I have so many answers to your questions, many of them contradictory. The contradiction comes from my oscillation between a very analytical outlook, where a particular line break or arrangement has a clear and apparent effect, and one that’s very atmospheric, introversive, logical in the way of dreams.
So on the one hand, I have a real love for James Longenbach’s wonderfully lucid The Art of the Line, which gave me a language for so many things I’d thought about the line but been unable to articulate, and which was a clear influence on me when I wrote “Learning the Poetic Line” for students and teachers. Whenever I think about the line’s intersection with meaning, I refer to him. But I also have a side to myself that is interested in the visual; like a lot of poets, I’m failed visual artist (I’m worse, actually, in that I never really tried), and I’m married to a sculptor, which has introduced me to a lot of art I might otherwise never have encountered. The look of a poem on the page is one more opportunity to communicate with the reader, though I suspect it’s a fairly private or unheard message most of the time. When I was in graduate school I drafted graphic guides to the line. I identified what I saw as the common stanza shapes and rendered them as long and short black blocks, aerated with caesuras. It looked like a collection of I-Ching trigrams, or a redacted report. Beside each one I wrote a little paragraph as to what the effect of this shape was on the viewer, entirely divorced from the words themselves. I’m sure no one would have agreed with my interpretations. But I was trying to think about how the layout of a poem affects us in ways we don’t consciously recognize.
I actually love writing big, blocky poems—there’s something so brash about them. A lot of my drafts are in block form. A thick block poem declares, LO! AN IMPORTANT POEM HAS ARRIVED WHAT HAS MUCH TO SAY! I love that. They are so non-apologetic. Block stanzas are the man-spreaders of poetry.
Yet I often revise those blocky drafts into staggered lines, because a staggered line gives me so many more opportunities for drama, for utilizing breaks as a method of doling out information, of giving emotional pause, or speeding the reader from one idea to another. If you look at those poems that travel across the page, you’ll notice I get to have a really radical variety of line lengths. They don’t seem as disruptive or inconsistent as they would were the poem left justified because (hopefully) I’m balancing them out visually as they arrive on the page. I like this, overall, but it does mean my lines are called “sinuous” or “sensual.”
KK: Rebecca, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. It has been truly fascinating.