Contributor Spotlight:
Interview with Hannah Dow

A black and white photo of Hannah smiling is captured. She is wearing a shirt with a floral design and hoop earrings.

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the religious themes and symbolism that compliment the dark tone in “What I Didn’t Know at 23.” How do you approach balancing the light and dark, naivety and awareness, in your work?

Hannah Dow: I think I’ve always tried to find some balance between light and dark in my poems. I tend to gravitate toward writing images that I find beautiful, but beauty is only interesting (I think) when it’s complicated, tempered with ugliness or some other kind of complexity I don’t quite have a name for. As for balancing naivety and awareness, I think I’m just coming to a place (both personally and in my writing) where I finally have some distance from the influences—people, relationships, institutions—that were not good for me. A decade’s worth of living, learning, and reflection is the reason this poem can exist. I’ve started writing more poems like this (what I lovingly/facetiously call the “mistakes I made in my 20s” poems), so this attempt to balance naivety and awareness is still quite new to me.

RR: We read the poem as a devastating exploration of manipulation and false promises. How do you feel that juxtaposition plays a role in the narrative?

HD: Thank you! I love the way you’re reading this poem. I was trying to write a narrative that interrogates and holds accountable the parties (institutional, individual) who wronged this speaker—a speaker who has been manipulated by institutions and individuals for the simple fact of existing as a woman. I know I was socialized to give the benefit of the doubt, to be polite, optimistic of others’ intentions, etc. But I realized at a certain point in my life that placing my trust in men, as well as Catholicism—bodies that professed to want only to protect me—led to disillusionment because of the false promises and manipulation that you pointed out. I’m definitely not trying to generalize about men or religion, but in the case of this poem, the romantic interest represents the inherent patriarchy that exists within Catholicism, as well as the manufactured seductiveness of the Christian God (the one I was introduced to, anyway).

RR: What is your writing process typically like? Were there any roadblocks that came up as you wrote this poem?

HD: Truthfully, I don’t really remember writing this poem! I do remember revising the last few lines and experimenting with different lineation, but I think this poem is a rare example of one that came out all at once. I should say I write most of my drafts this way, to completion: I can’t walk away until I’ve reached a possible ending. That said, most of my poems are either abandoned or revised substantially before they see print.

RR: You have been published in a number of literary journals in the past as well as publishing your own poetry book. In your experience, is there a difference between writing individual poems and working toward a book manuscript or project?

HD: My first book was my PhD dissertation, and I started my PhD when I was still quite new to writing poetry (I didn’t do my MFA until afterwards). At the time, I was writing individual poems without much thought to how they fit together; I was experimenting with new subjects, forms, tones, speakers. Before I compiled the manuscript, I was worried the poems were too different, but I think the themes emerged naturally enough to cohere. I’m sending out a manuscript now that’s a little more driven by continuity and sequence. For me, one of the benefits of writing with a project in mind is that there are inherent prompts for individual poems—but the drawback, I suppose, is that I feel I’ve lost a little bit of the spontaneity and freedom to experiment as I did when I first started writing.

Hannah Dow’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.