CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY ALLAN HAWKINS
The Poetry Editors, Rappahannock Review: You are, obviously, an ex-pat who has been living in Europe for the past several years. How does that interact with your experiences growing up and influence you as an American writer?
Jeremy Allan Hawkins: Being an ex-pat, especially in France, is strange business for a writer. For one, you can’t avoid thinking about the ones who have done it before you, and if you try to forget it, other people will remind you of it against your will. That illustrious company, of course, might have no relation to your personal aesthetics, your politics, or anything else, for that matter, but people will still ask you if you’ve read A Movable Feast. (It’s a fabulous book, of course, but I find myself thinking more about James Baldwin.)
Then there are also the other people you meet who are out here doing it too, trying to find their way, and the camaraderie is built on a funny mix of relief and distrust. The latter feeling isn’t out of bad faith, but rather the fact that it’s impossible to find an American making a go of it in Europe who doesn’t secretly wish, on some level, they were simply European through and through, and who doesn’t worry, just a little, that American friends are going to ruin the dream. (It’s nonsense, though as real as any other neurosis.) But there’s relief, because you’re back among people who grew up reading J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee, and you can make a reference to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure without too many glazed looks. The comforts of “home” are necessary from time to time.
But the really odd bit is when you realize for the first time that the people with whom you live have a completely different idea of what is important in literature. Suddenly you’re surrounded by folks who grew up on Goethe instead of Shakespeare, Rimbaud instead of Keats, and not only that, but they have strange opinions about American literature. Thanks to the influence of Baudelaire, for instance, much of literary Europe thinks of Poe as being the father of American poetry! I was completely caught off guard when I first came across that, and totally stunned when people shrugged at the mention of Whitman and Dickinson. “The Raven” over “Song of Myself”?! Stunning.
The point, though, is that it’s all a rearticulation of what you take for granted coming up in the American academy, especially those of us who flocked to colleges and universities with more staid approaches to the canon. Not that Europe is exactly the most progressive place in the world, but you walk differently once you’ve felt the floor on which you’re standing heave a few times.
RR: Your poem “But Who Thinks of the Skunk” does a wonderful job of capturing an experience that seems to me to be quintessentially “American” or at least North American. How has your time away from America influenced your writing and your general view of American life?
Jeremy Allan Hawkins: I’m honestly very happy that the poem reads to you as being about a particular American experience. It’s no secret that choosing to be away from something brings certain experiences and memories into relief, and that is definitely the source of my skunk. I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York State, and that’s an area where you still get these hamburger and ice cream stands by the side of the road that are only open in summer, staffed by high school kids from the area saving up their money for a car for their senior year, and families drive up at dusk to argue over whether vanilla, chocolate, or twist cones are better. You find them in other parts of the country, and maybe they aren’t that special, but there’s a certain feeling there and it was something I’d been yearning for the last time I was back in the States. So I was driving through some back country roads with my mother and she was saying, “there’s an ice cream place at the next town,” and I was saying “no, no, that’s a snooty café, I have plenty of those in France, I want the stand you drive up to, with the big plastic cone in front of it, hamburger grease and all.” We ended up stopping at a good one just on the edge of Florida, New York, and ate our soft serve at a picnic table watching a big storm roll into the valley. I could go on, but it was just a perfect moment back home with my mom, and it stuck with me. A few months later I was rethinking that feeling of the stand, the people there, and particularly those humid nights in high school when my friends and I would visit the kids we knew who were working. That led me into a long daydream and eventually the narrative that you find in the poem. I really wanted to pay homage to those stands and the lives that intersect there, and I ended up with something that was as much about the particularly humidity of a July night in the Hudson Valley. Of course, my hopes were for more than atmosphere and a shared corndog, but I’ll leave that to you to decide on.
What I can say, though, directly to your question, is that living abroad really distills these kinds of feelings and impressions. To a certain degree, growing older is enough estrangement from our childhood memories to make it the case, and I think I’d be a little melancholy over 1980s America even if I were still living in Orange County, New York. But being abroad can lead to fits of acute nostalgia, particularly because you spend most of your time with people to whom you experience is, essentially, foreign. There is a danger, of course, that it can become overwhelming, or simply bad for your art. I hope, for myself, to avoid all that and use it for good purpose. It’s a challenge, though, to keep it from taking over. I suppose it helps that I still have the chance to go back, unlike a proper exile, and I can get my fix. This is why I visited something on the order of twenty Greek diners in two weeks last summer. I needed to refuel before I came back to France and to my writing desk. (I don’t have a writing desk.)
RR: Your poem “The Salvers” deals with complex ideas of memory, recovery, and value. What was your catalyst for thinking about these ideas? Was it a specific instance, or are these ideas you’ve been wrestling with for a while now?
Jeremy Allan Hawkins: I suppose the straight answer is no, the ideas at the center of “The Salvers” don’t come from a specific instance—they’re more the product of what I’ve been working on over several years. But I also think I’ve reached a point in my writing where the event of a poem can itself become a specific instance that feeds others, and “The Salvers” is definitely of the second order, the one grown on what is given off by prior work. Throughout my current book-length manuscript, which has a working title of Salvage, you can find poems that are trying to grapple with loss and recovery, grasping and letting go. Many of them work by direct address—“you this” & “you that” & “I too,” etc.—as the speaker tires to make sense, make meaning, and make amends. In a sense, many of those first order poems are asking what can be saved. So I wanted to write something that complicated the idea, something that put an off-axis spin on the voice of the lover who wants to salvage the wreck he’s made. “The Salvers” attempts to do that by looking at salvage from a different vantage point, that of a pair of men who are more wary of going after what has been lost. They see more reasons for things to be left where they sank or have been sunk. Equal parts good will, superstition, and fear? I’m honestly having trouble talking about it, because my personal superstitions are kicking in, but this is the danger in writing poems that address poems. It’s the mise-en-abyme of failure that is at once the beauty of poetry and vortex that sucks us in. But back to the point, I’ll say that “The Salvers” owes much to Lewis Hyde, W.G. Sebald, and Mariane Moore. That’s important to say, so it doesn’t just seem like I’m talking about a totally self-referential work, causa sui. This poem owes everything to others, even if its occasion was my working manuscript.
RR: The poetry staff here is disappointed that we didn’t have a chance to dive into your 300 Reviews project firsthand. Building off of the ideas of memory and recovery, your project 300 Reviews has since inspired Kevin O’Rourke’s work The Hairsplitter and influenced many other writers. How has your experience starting and curating this project influenced your own work since the project’s completion?
Jeremy Allan Hawkins: First of all, I’m thrilled that you’ve seen The Hairsplitter. It’s all very new, but Kevin’s doing great work, and I hope he gets the attention he deserves. I was honored that he picked my piece on President Obama’s Between Two Ferns appearance as the first post, and since then he’s only published excellent reviews. I also hope readers and staffers of Rappahannock Review will consider submitting!
As it is, the web still has plenty of room for people to be covering various and sundry topics, which was a major motivation behind 300 Reviews. I wanted to carve out a space for people to be able to review Cats, Using Orgasm as a Metaphor, and the “Trash the Dress” Phenomenon. I’m sorry that you didn’t get to see it first hand, but that relates to the other major motivation: the ephemeral. I wanted the project to be something wonderful that we still knew how to let go.
In the process, I learned quite a bit. I was exposed to some truly excellent writers (the editor who succeeded me, Lucas Southworth, has a terrific story in your inaugural issue!) and I had the great pleasure of working with them behind the scenes. The truth is, though, that I learned I wasn’t really an editor. I love supporting writers, particularly in the conceptual stages of a piece, and that is something I continue to do, if with less regularity. But my talent right now seems to be in getting a machine up and running, not in the execution of a long-term plan. If I were a Silicon Valley type, I’d probably specialize in launching start-ups and other silly things like that—business breakfasts and conference calls, just long enough to get written up in Techcrunch and then skip out for the next project. Luckily I’m not that guy.
The result, however, is that I do look on my own work differently. I don’t see it as an editor would, no, but I do see it as someone who has learned he isn’t an editor. Does that make sense? I trust myself to leave that important job to other people, and to value the time I do get to spend on my own writing. Nothing makes the writing more precious than trying other things, at least in my experience.
RR: What’s the upcoming literary project that you’re most excited for?
Jeremy Allan Hawkins: I have two projects that have taken up most of the territory in my imagination lately. The first is an article/essay on the upcoming Scottish Referendum on independence from the UK. The topic is something that I’m deeply fascinated by, but unfortunately I can’t talk too much about the piece at this moment. Let’s just say I hope to have something good coming out before the referendum hits in September!
The other project is something I’ve been turning over in my head for quite some time, a series of essays on poetics that start from a fairly difficult place: the non-existence of the poem. I have some fairly strong feelings about what is and what isn’t poetry, and I suppose you could say I have been developing a somewhat Kantian passion for knowing the limits of a faculty or an idea. My feeling has been that knowing limits is not so much constricting as it is liberating and I want to apply this to poetics. We’ll see how it goes, but I hope to get the framework in place and start drafting the initial pieces this summer. Unfortunately, they’ve been marinating for too long and that’s leading to some waste and rot. But perhaps any time to wait is too long when you want to start by claiming the poem does not exist.
Thanks for your questions!
Jeremy Allan Hawkins is a poet and a critic born in New York. His work has appeared in Harvard Review, Tin House, and Ninth Letter, among other journals. He is an alumnus of the New York City Teaching Fellows, the US Fulbright Program, and currently lives in France. In at least one of a multitude of alternate universes he is taking a break to reread Cavafy.
Jeremy Allan Hawkins’s work in Issue 1.3: