Interview with Erin Samantha Hanson

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: There are so many interesting images in “Lakedog”; what specifically intrigued you about the image of the lakedog itself and its connection to the story you write in the poem? 

Erin Samantha Hanson: There was an urban legend at my high school about Lakedogs: the spirits of drowned dogs who inhabit Lake DeSmet and Kleenburn—an abandoned coal mine filled with water and turned into a manmade pond—in my hometown, waiting for their owners to come back for them. When you’re swimming and you feel something brush against your feet, it’s a Lakedog beneath you. Sometimes, they’d grab your ankles and pull you under, thinking you to be their master. It’s a story the boys used to tell to scare the girls when their bare feet brushed reeds and sedges, but it always intrigued me. I didn’t find it scary, I found it tragic.

Writing this poem, I was reminded of the legend. In many ways, the imagery is the same: the speaker compares herself to a Lakedog, unendingly loyal, lowering herself to the image of a cowering dog obediently waiting for her father to return. It not only calls forth an image of our narrator but of the father/master through his absence: what kind of owner leaves their dog at the lake to wait for their return? What kind of father leaves their child without a second thought? What kind of father leaves for cigarettes or bread and never comes back?

RR: “Lakedog” speaks to something innately human about life and how parental relationships can go on to affect us, and we’re in awe of the vulnerability of the speaker’s voice. Do you have any advice for emerging writers looking to start writing about and/or publishing work about such personal topics? 

ESH:  I think that writing is always vulnerable. It is absolutely a tool for empathy, for both the reader and writer. Vulnerability and honesty are necessary, and—as I learned as a very young writer—inescapable. You don’t have to write about yourself or your own experiences for it to be personal or to come from a place of vulnerability. You may not have lived through the events you’re writing about, but the emotions connected to them are very real, and they’re your own.

I always start out writing everything by hand before typing it up—this particular poem was written on the back of a cafe receipt—which helps me separate myself from any invisible audience. I treat that paper draft like a confessional. To write vulnerably, you have to sit with yourself. It starts internally, with learning to be honest with yourself, and poetry is the perfect space to play with these ideas.

If I could give a piece of advice to writers hoping to write and publish more personal topics, I would say to have fun, write about what intrigues you, what scares you, what haunts you, and that urban legend you’ve been thinking about since high school. Submit it without looking back. If someone connects to it, that’s an extraordinary moment of vulnerability and empathy. If it doesn’t find someone it connects to and fits with, that’s okay, too. Some pieces have to exist just for you, just for the sake of writing them. Sometimes, those will be your favorite ones. 

RR: We’re interested in how the poem brings in religious imagery, such as the references to YHWH; how do you approach religious ideologies in your writing?

ESH: I grew up in an extremely conservative town of mostly Baptists and Mormons, but most of my family is Catholic. My parents were raised in Catholicism but by the time I was born, they had effectively left the church, meaning I had a very interesting relationship to religion growing up. Still, the rest of my family remained very religious, and the community I grew up in was even more so. Even though I wasn’t taught it at home, Christian ideologies were hammered into me from a very young age. While these ideologies still deeply affected me, my distance from Christianity and the church only served to further isolate me from my community. As I grew older, I came to realize that my queerness didn’t simply alienate me, it made me unwanted, unclean, inhuman—the church had denied me my humanity and it was the judge and jury that my community obeyed. Wyoming has a long history of bigotry and it is a violent one. This environment undoubtedly shaped me and the way I often interact with religion, yet I have also seen how religion can be a beautiful, meaningful thing that gives people hope and purpose and love.

My intent with writing with religious imagery is not to make some broader commentary on religion or Christianity as a whole but to examine the way it affects our culture, our beliefs, our relationships, and, yes, our fiction. “Lakedog” engages with religion through imagery and metaphor. The speaker’s absent father is compared to God, her mother to the Virgin Mary. Of course, by association, the speaker is painting herself as the Jesus figure. The Father, especially the absent one, to the daughter, is divine. While the speaker’s father is compared to God (YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, being the unpronounceable name of God in the Hebrew bible), her mother is only Mary: not a figure that she finds particularly divine, but only special because her father chose her. In other words, the mother cannot be divine because she is present. She is the ordinary parent who is there to raise her daughter. The father is allowed this bigger-than-life, holy image because he does not have a physical presence to betray the speaker’s imagination. 

In both the poem and the original legend of the Lakedog, the father/master becomes a sort of pseudo-deific figure. After all, is the nature of faith itself not belief and obedience even in the absence of God? Maybe if you’re good enough, if you wait long enough, He’ll come back.  

RR: Aside from writing, we understand you are also a stage actor. How has your acting influenced your writing, or vice versa?

ESH: I think that theater has helped shape my voice in my writing a lot. Theater is also a deeply vulnerable art form—the story is unfolding directly in front of the audience in real-time, which allows us to connect to it in a way film doesn’t. Logically, of course, the story is already written and the actors know the lines and blocking as written, but it isn’t prerecorded, it’s live, meaning that there is always some bit of illogical hope that perhaps there is still time for it to change. This time, it will work out differently. This time, the tragedies won’t happen, the characters won’t make the same mistakes, it’ll all work out. Of course, it won’t. Even the slowest, calmest story has a sense of immediacy when performed on stage. This is true not just for the audience, but for the actor, too. Acting on stage, you get used to exposing your vulnerabilities to faceless strangers.

When acting on stage, all you have is your script, your text. You learn blocking, too, but the written script is only dialogue and basic stage directions. There is no internal dialogue. You either have moments of silence where you act through your expressions and body language or you say the actual verbal dialogue. Even a movie can have a voice-over or cinematic cuts and angles. As a stage actor, you are armed with your words and your emotions. Learning how people express their emotions inwardly versus outwardly in this way absolutely shaped my writing. So much of theater is subtext.

I actually started writing for stage before anything else, so there is definitely a clear connection between acting and writing for me. If I hadn’t started acting, I wouldn’t be a playwright, and if I wasn’t a playwright, I certainly wouldn’t be a fiction writer.

RR: Do you have any ideas or plans in the works for projects that you would like to put out?

ESH: One thing I’m never lacking is ideas. I never considered myself a poet, which is why this particular publication is so exciting for me. I’m still very new to the world of publishing, so recently I have been experimenting with different genres and forms.

I would consider myself a novelist, playwright, and short story writer who writes largely speculative fiction. I have several novel ideas in various stages of development, from a barebone idea to a complete draft, as well as a few flash fiction pieces currently looking for their homes and a short gothic piece in the drafting stage. Perhaps most excitingly, I recently drafted a new poem, so I am hoping to continue my venture into the world of poetry.


Read Lakedog” by Erin Samantha Hanson in Issue 11.2