Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re intrigued by how ideas of sexuality and religion are intertwined in “Hole in my back.” Do you find it difficult when approaching and combining these two themes?
Andrew Hahn: Sexuality and religion have really been important in my writing because they were ideas that couldn’t co-exist within evangelical culture. I grew up as a gay boy in the church, so I’ve always wrestled with why there couldn’t be a space for both. It’s important to me to ensure I’m accurately reflected in my own work because I’m carving out a space for all the different parts of me, which I’ve been able to express in community with others like me. I seek to ask questions and show an experience in my work rather than provide a direct answer.
RR: The poem is experimental with fragmentation, caesura, and white space. Can you talk about your approach to form and its significance in this poem?
AH: For me, writing reflects the rhythm of my body, and so I try to provide breathing pauses either in the form of line breaks or white space where I find myself inhaling. Inhalation is a form of expansion, and I want my poems to expand for the reader into their own experience. I typically add white space before someone speaks, mostly because in my poetry I want to show I feel disconnected from who is speaking, or that I am longing to be connected somewhere else. It’s kind of a selah moment like from the Book of Psalms—it means, “pause and reflect on that.” I want to give my readers the means to feel the space, but to also see it. Honestly I go with what feels right and how I feel myself moving in the poem in regards to rhythm and breaths.
I think of stanzas in terms of scenes or moments, and I don’t think stanzas needs to have the same aesthetic or amount of lines to work well with each other. I wanted to break down the experience of the poem so it was more easily digestible rather than having one long stanza.
RR: How did you develop the voice in the poem? Does it stem from your personal experience, or something else?
AH: I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when I was sixteen, and part of my prognosis required many spinal taps to ensure the cancer cells weren’t hiding out in my brain. Thankfully each time my spinal fluid came back clean.
I was writing an essay on when I was asked to leave a church because of my sexuality, and I didn’t realize all the emotions I hadn’t worked through surrounding that time in my life. As a way to sift through what happened, I crafted the current version of this poem. I have about twenty-two poems from those angry few months.
I was also going through a breakup. I struggle with abandonment issues, and I needed a place to channel everything I was feeling. When I had cancer, I thought I was so ugly and that no one would pay me enough mind to love me, so I combined those feelings with the abandonment issues I was experiencing.
Reading queer poets helped me commit to voice and language. I learned to trust my voice because it carries the poem, like the gravity that influences a river’s current. Watching how other queer poets trust themselves gave me courage to really trust my voice, using language that I would use while speaking to a friend.
RR: What is the revision process like for you? How many times did you revise this poem?
AH: I have ten drafts of this poem saved to my flash drive, the first dating back to March 2015. I think of the original fourteen lines I only kept three or four. My revision process has undergone an evolution this past year: I recently learned to be less controlled and to trust that what I write is good. In my prose I write out everything then snip away the inessentials in order to keep dramatic momentum. That’s what poems are, the essentials, but it took a while to figure out how to see what was and what wasn’t necessary.
Listening to and reading Tommy Pico highly inspires me during revision, like I could be as dramatic, sad, gay, vulgar, and/or angry as I wanted to—I just have to really commit to it. So when I go back and look at my poems, I see where I’ve been timid or unsure of myself and edit it toward confidence. Revision has been reflective of me learning not to care what others think of me.
RR: Does writing energize or exhaust you? Do you use it as an escape or as a release?
AH: I feel energized by it. Writing is somewhat a spiritual practice for me since I’ve stepped away from the church, but not God. I really feel my body when I write. When I am writing. I am able to enter this kind of state where I don’t have an internal monologue cluttering my mind all the time. Every thought I have is intentional. When I’m not thinking, it’s beautiful silence. I’ve found this space while writing where I’m not actively thinking, but my fingers are typing, and I’m taking deep breaths and am able to live in the moment instead of thinking about dinner or plans or whatever. I used to battle with anxiety pretty badly, so the calm I feel is very much a release. And yet nourishing; it’s my new form of prayer.
Andrew Hahn’s work in Issue 5.3: