A Conversation with James Hoch

James Hoch’s previous books are Miscreants (Norton) and A Parade of Hands (Silverfish Review Press). Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey from LSU and Radio Static from Green Linden Press were both published in Spring 2022. His poems have appeared in POETRY, The New Republic, Washington Post, Slate, Chronicle Review of Higher Education, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other magazines, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2019. He has received fellowships from the NEA, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee writers’ conferences, St. Albans School for Boys, The Frost Place, and Summer Literary Seminars. Currently, he is Professor of Creative Writing at Ramapo College of New Jersey and Guest Faculty at Sarah Lawrence.


Suzanne Frischkorn: You had two books released recently, Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey with LSU Press and also the chapbook, Radio Static, a sequence of poems about your relationship with your brother who served in the Afghanistan War, with Green Linden Press. We’ll be talking primarily about Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey, but I’m curious about what it’s like to have two books out at the same time?

James Hoch: It’s nice that the two are out. They’re very different projects, but they have a couple of overlapping poems. And they also have a sort of tangential interest in each other. You know, partly because a lot of this is about dealing with family in one form or another, and identity in the sort of “where you come from” identity—where you come from in Last Pawn Shop, which is very much developed in place, and then Radio Static, where you come from in the terms of the relationship between the people that are in Last Pawn Shop. A lot of the Radio Static poems are a direct address, and therefore there’s a lot of what I would say is direct emotion in Last Pawn Shop, which is more implied in Radio Static.

That being said, you asked me a different question. So let me say this: I didn’t expect them to come out at the same time, except they were taken at the same time and I felt like, you know, why not? I think that it’s kind of interesting that some people are coming to my work for the first time because it’s been a fairly long time since my last book, and they’re coming to Radio Static and thinking, “Oh, it’s just kind of an interesting new poet with a little chapbook out.” And then other people are coming to Last Pawn Shop, wondering, “Oh, this is an interesting poet.” Do they have any other books? Obviously a chapbook press operates very differently; Green Linden would operate very differently than LSU. So, I think what’s interesting about it, and a difficulty, is that you have to sort of feed both books as much as possible, and attend to them, and how they’re going, and how they’re developing. The benefit is that these presses are working, hopefully for me and working for the books. It’s also just interesting to be able to say, “Hey, here are two books,” to the poetry reading world, right? I feel like it demonstrates a kind of breadth of concern, and breadth of interest, and breadth of aesthetic. And there’s very few ways you can do that. Releasing a couple of books at a time is probably the easiest way to say, “This is what encompasses my work.”

SF: Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey opens with the poem “Prayer for That Little Exhaustion of Light,” and it’s a brilliant opening for this collection that honors loss and grief in all its forms. Within that poem the speaker says the prayer will always fail, “between what language says / and does.” Would you talk a bit about how language fails us in that little space? 

JH:  I feel like we want language to do so much, and it does so much. What it asserts and how it performs is often very different in that failure, because that failure is that space between what we hope a word prayer will do and what it actually does, and sometimes that failure leads to greater beauty. We thought we were going to say one thing and it did something much more beautiful than we expected. We failed in our attempt and we made a beautiful accident. And then the other way to look at it is we wanted to do so much—we want our language, our intent, we want words to make such a huge difference, and then when it fails to alter the reality we then have a kind of elegy right there, that kind of loss, and that sense of inadequacy. Sometimes I feel like there’s so much sadness in this book, and then some days I feel there’s so much hope in this book. And I think right there is the hinge, within that one line, just sort of pointed out. I think it’s that hinge that swings between the unexpected beauty and the frustration with language not being able to change reality. The poet Alan Shapiro once pointed out that—I think it was Alan Shapiro in a workshop maybe—that he would be glad to give all his poems back, all his writing back, to get his sister or brother back. So there’s a level of sadness in it, I think, a level of recognition of the structure of words and what they can and can’t do, but at the same time the opposite is also true. That sometimes we say things and the world does change, not always in the ways we imagined. That’s part of the magic of language that can bring joy and pain depending upon the day.

SF: The speaker in the titular poem says “/ The more I live, the more the rucksack / lightens, the more I can’t find myself / in the mirror of the world, and roam / storefronts, as if I have misplaced myself.” As we lose our experiences to memory or when we lose those people who shaped us, do we also disappear?

JH: I think we lose a little bit of ourselves. When your parents die—when both your parents die—whether you knew them or not, quite frankly you become an orphan. At some age 50, 60, whatever age it is, for some people it’s very young, you become an orphan, and it’s kind of an odd experience. In the book, the primary feeling is a kind of dissolution. I was thinking of that when I picked the cover art. They asked me what I thought would work as a cover and I thought of the Atlantic City Steel Pier Ferris Wheel because it’s a classic, iconic New Jersey kind of thing. I kept asking the designer to make the photo lighter than the photo actually was; I wanted home to feel perforated, to feel like it could be something different, and that I could be something different. That may be, in part, that I was shifting from being a son to a parent as a primary function. When I think of myself, before I had kids, before my parents died, I really had a strong sense of myself as a son, and though it doesn’t go away, you pivot. And you suddenly now are the father of two children. And that is a very different way of being in the world. It’s interesting how the two things speak to one another and through one another. I wanted that kind of notion of the self being a thing that’s shifting and evolving in real time in the poem. I think that that might be closer to how I feel most of the time, in the sense that I feel maybe my truest self is in the flux and when I’m not static. 

SF: One of the recurring images in this collection is the field. Do you notice when an image begins to recur while making your poems? Or does it reveal itself to you later when you are organizing a collection?

JH: I mean, this might sound silly, but I can only focus on a few things at a time. So if I have a particular image or even a syntactical structure or sentence structure, I’ll revisit it over and over and over again because I feel like there’s something about it that I haven’t quite captured, or I haven’t quite engaged. Someone once told me—this was in graduate school―that I always know that it’s a James Hoch poem because it has a hand, or a stone, and I feel like field for this one is a big part of that and appears again and again. It appears maybe as a physical entity but also as a figure. And it’s both. It’s tenuous, that word. The field is a tenuous existence. You can see the removal of a field rather rapidly, and at the same time, it has an eternal quality, like: there used to be a field, there was once a field. You watch development occur—especially in Central Pennsylvania where I lived for a very long time, the corn fields just went right up into housing complexes overnight—and you’d say, yeah, that was once a field. So then you sort of see the field beneath everything. The field beneath all those things you’re looking at. 

I’m conscious that I’m mulling things over because I can only handle so much. So many different images or so many different words at one time. It seems that it produces new effects and new interpretations of the word, or of the relationship between the speaker and that particular word. I just want the field to go away. You know, that’s my frustration. I become dependent on some of these tropes or some of these images and it’s like, oh, well, now I got it. Now my problem is how do I get rid of this thing, and that becomes part of a new poem. When I get to that place, I know that I’m opening up some emotion that I never opened up before; when I’m trying to reconcile or get rid of the reliance on a particular image or trope, that’s when I know some magic is actually going to be happening. It’s like, oh, this is a real shift in the book, because I’ve built a self around the relationship with a word, and the only way to get a new self is to get rid of this word. And that goes back to what we were talking about a little bit, about how we become. 

SF: You dedicated the book to two of your graduate school teachers, Michael Collier and Stanley Plumly. Tell me about their influence on you?

JH: Stan Plumly and Michael Collier had a lot of influence on me, and still do. Michael Collier is one of the finest citizens and people in the poetry world. I was in my 30s, and starting out from the sort of self-engaging place of wanting to write poems, when I understood Collier’s relationship and his commitment to the art, and that his modus operandi was service to the art. He once said to me, try to write poems that honor the poems you love. I thought that was a beautiful thing for someone to say. If all I do is write poems that honor the beautiful poems that I love, I’ll accomplish more than some sort of striking originality that might come up. I think that’s his orientation to poetry and orientation toward the poetry world. Whether it’s his role running the program at University of Maryland, or directing Breadloaf for all those years, and I guess his relationship with Warren Wilson as well, he was instrumental in shaping a community of writers, a very diverse group of poets and writers who continue to thrive today. That level of citizenship to the art is so completely admirable. I don’t have quite that level of citizenship, but I think that the idea of being in service of poetry is really important. 

When I was younger I thought that to be a poet meant to forgo functional relationships. It meant to forgo, maybe, being a parent. And when I saw Michael he was an object lesson, in that you can be a poet, be a functional human in the world, and be a parent, and that sort of blew my mind. To see that enacted was a really powerful thing for me. 

I came to study with Stan right after my father’s death. Stan is a wonderful American poet. His relationship with his father and his poems about his father are kind of legendary. I didn’t know any of this going into the program. I just thought, “He writes really good poems. So I’m going to go study with a good poet,” and that’s all I wanted to do. In hindsight, whatever personal trauma I was going through dealing with my father’s death, Stan was deeply keen and attentive and sensitive to that. He called me a throwback, and I embrace that a little bit, and he saw the artist in me. With that, he saw how I needed to think in order to write better poems. And that’s a very, very powerful teacher. Someone who had a way of getting inside my head that very few people did. He knew me, he saw me, he understood what I was going through, and he was able to reach me and teach me. This book is really for them and what they’ve given me. 

SF: This collection reveals a thread of uncertainty in the speaker that I was very taken with—would you talk a bit about that?

JH: Well, negative capability is a big deal for me, but I really feel like there are different levels of vulnerability in the book. There’s kind of this male vulnerability—though I kind of hate that expression, but we’ll call it what it is—there’s emotional vulnerability, and there’s another vulnerability, and that’s the vulnerability uncertainty brings. I feel like recognizing that I don’t know how to handle these things but persisting through uncertainty is part of the human condition. How do I love through something that is difficult to know, let alone love? 

The poems to my brother, who is a very interesting person who fought a war and had to do terrible things in order to survive that war and to protect his men, you know . . . I don’t know what that’s like, but I’m going to try to love through it. We’re at the far ends of each political spectrum, and his motives and my motives are very different to how we live our lives. He once said, “I like things black and white. My brother, he’s almost all gray.” He’s right. I embrace the gray. We both are adamant about the nature of how we see things. The book does a lot of recognizing that I’m not necessarily on stable ground with my assertion. I might assert something and then not be on stable ground, but that’s part of the poem. That’s the main point of the poem. It’s allowing for a sort of rhetorical erasure destabilizing the speaker’s authority to embrace something greater than that rhetoric. This book is an investigation in that process. How do we come to know ourselves, and how do we embrace our uncertainty with the knowledge of who we are and still persist through that? 

SF: You close this collection with one of my favorite poems, “The Listening”—it has the line “love is a kind of opening” and the speaker is standing in the snow among trees and listening to the ghosts of his father and friend. I loved that this book of elegies ended with hope.

JH: I knew how heavy some of these poems were going to be in what they’re asking from the reader. So I wanted the poems to persist through the elegies. I wanted that feeling of hope fulfilled, a feeling of joy, a feeling of wonder to return—where we leave the book, and that the emphasis is on surviving, and persistence, and recognizing the joy, and the wonder, and the weirdness within the sadness.

SF: You mentioned at your LSU reading that this was the last book in a trilogy. The first being A Parade of Hands, the second, Miscreants. Does that mean you are working in a new direction? What themes are you noticing in your new manuscript?

JH: I think so. Less autobiographical, or at least less overtly related to my own personal experience. So, my first book came out in 2003, and my second book came out in 2007, and I thought for sure that maybe four or five, six years later I’d have another book. Part of the process of dealing with the third book was that my former press kept saying it wasn’t ready. “This isn’t ready.” That was the response. I’m like, “What is wrong? What is wrong with these people? What is wrong with me? I don’t understand.” It was very existentially confusing. And then I realized six, seven years into it, I wasn’t writing one book of poems. I was writing three, and I just didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it. So the primary book was Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey. Then the secondary book was Radio Static, and then the rest of the poems are this third thing, and I call it right now, From the Logbook of the Ghost Ship Now. These poems are ecological, looking at environmental degradation, and then also from the other side of elegy. How do we speak when we’re speaking from the place of not just rendering a kind of desolation, but, what is the voice that comes out of desolation? These poems operate under this notion. The conceit is there’s this ghost ship floating around in a place of environmental dystopia. This is a log book, and these are the voices from the other side of that dissolution. Okay, so here’s like, a weird, philosophical problem: You see how the story of the human species ends, right? We can see it, and we can see that we’re not there yet. And so long as there’s a narrative we can tell that story, but what happens when we’re absent from that narrative? What song do we write? What’s it look like? What’s it feel like? Will it have a narrative? I don’t know. These poems are floating in this odd space. Speaking from a place that was not rendering a kind of dissolution but speaking from a place of post-dissolution poses them to be a little more lyrical. I think that’s where my poems have been residing lately in the more pressing lyric moment. I’ll have to wait until it comes to complete fruition.


Suzanne Frischkorn

Suzanne Frischkorn is the author of Fixed Star (JackLeg Press 2022), Girl on a Bridge, Lit Windowpane, and five chapbooks. Her honors include the Aldrich Poetry Award for her chapbook Spring Tide, selected by Mary Oliver, an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Writer’s Center for her book Lit Windowpane, and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. She is an editor for $ - Poetry is Currency and serves on the Terrain.org editorial board.

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