ERIN ADAIR-HODGES is the winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize for Let’s All Die Happy (University of Pittsburgh, 2017). Winner of The Georgia Review’s Loraine Williams prize, she’s also been a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe and Sewanee-Claudia Emerson scholar and has had work featured in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, The Sewanee Review, and more. She received her MFA from the University of Arizona in 2006 and lives mostly in New Mexico.
Jon Riccio: It was great to read your collection, Erin. Let’s All Die Happy was an AWP purchase, as I’d seen your name and publication highlights in the Arizona MFA alumni newsletters, plus that cover of Bilibin’s Vasilisa (more on her later). I’m always eager to see what contemporary poets are doing with received form, so imagine my surprise when I read “Sonnet in XY,” “Ode to My Dishwasher,” “The Robin Tanka,” “Pantoum: For My Mother,” and “Afterbirth Abecedarian,” which opens the first section. At thirty-six lines, the pantoum’s length is particularly impressive. It’s a logical choice that poems with historical rules play the roles they do in work built on personal and cultural memory. In what ways was received form both anchor and catapult when you were drafting the manuscript?
Erin Adair-Hodges: Thanks so much for reading the book–it’s a pleasure to get to speak with you about it.
I would never think of myself as a poet primarily interested in received form–I’m propelled largely by music and association, with form a consideration that clucks at what I’m doing and asks what if there’s another way? Most of the poems you’ve indicated began in free verse, but something in the logic of them wanted a different, more constructed container. That’s happening with poems I’m writing now, as well–today I wrote my first ghazal after a decision to play with repetition led me to wonder what power could be harnessed from having form as guide.
Both the abecedarian and pantoum, though, came from assignments–the first as part of a writing group I was in during the first year I started writing poetry again, and the second came from a forms class I took in graduate school. In fact, it’s the only poem from my MFA thesis in the book. In each of these cases, the forms allowed me to approach topics which triggered such deep grief (my postpartum depression and my mother’s brain tumor, respectively), I had been unable to write about them in any way other than repeating I am sad, I am sad.
While I use form, it’s not a natural fit–I’m frequently afraid it does not wish the best for me. I often can’t hear stresses, can’t scan for shit. Even to think about it usually causes me anxiety, the same kind I experience before having to make a phone call. And yet, I do it–talk to the mirror, psych myself up: You can do it. Show that sonnet who’s boss.
JR: One of your earlier poems draws inspiration from the pom-pom inclined. “On a Line Overheard in a Crowd of Middle School Cheerleaders” bridges medieval with the mini mall—
Where once dragons
smelt arcs of rocks into sand there now stands
a smoothie shop pedaling sweetness only because
we are hungry.
The conclusion pivots from dire to sardonically upbeat—
These are terrible times
to be alive if you are anyone else,
the world an unthimbled thumb and we the glorious pins.
Optimism is a choice, as is an observant ear. Are there similarities between cheerleading and poetry revision? Pep rallies and book tours?
EAH: I don’t know that this has been my read of the poem (though the poem exists on its own and I am no longer the boss of it). If it is upbeat, it’s only from the perspective of the cheerleaders, who see the world through a lens of youth-based privilege–everything seems made to please them. But of course, we understand what they cannot, that such power is built on shifting ground. We age and see how small we are.
So maybe, then, the optimism you speak of is inherently a product of delusion–that’s more in keeping with my own perhaps darker outlook on life. But let’s go with this: cheerleading, pep rallies, all of those are geared toward raising the spirits of fans united in common support of a team. The cheering ultimately matters little, if at all, to any outcome, but who cares? I was a cheerleader for exactly one semester in my junior year of high school, recruited after transferring to a much smaller school in need of really just anyone to stuff into a short skirt. It was an uneasy mix–I dislike following instructions and chaffed against the gendered aspects of it. I am also really, really terrible at jumping. I ended up quitting, using my newly diagnosed scoliosis as an excuse, but I had much more respect for the cheerleaders than I could have imaged previously. Because what does it mean to “matter”? Our cheering changed no score, but it impacted energy, that of the crowd and ourselves and the guy selling Frito pies (a New Mexican delicacy), even if only briefly.
To commit one’s self to most acts, and perhaps especially art, requires a good amount of delusion. Objectively, whether I write or not matters little. I didn’t write for years and no one knew to mourn this, but of course, that’s if we suppose that mattering is quantifiable, able to be tallied in spreadsheets. But then I imagine my life with no Wislawa Szymborska, no Lucille Clifton, no Sylvia Plath, and I am immeasurably poorer. It can be hard to understand how our poetry matters, in the moment or in the context of time yet to be lived. Social media plays at according value to work and poets, but it doesn’t lift all voices–it’s a funhouse mirror version of truth. Ultimately, I try to say the truest things I know in hopes that truth will allow others to connect and create.
JR: “Let’s all die happy” is the first line of “Everybody in the Car We Are Leaving without You,” a series of commands that include “Let’s vacuum the stars, charting their whir / around the dust canister of eternity” and “Let’s set Whitman / & Dickinson up on a date & watch / as the awkwardness flames.” If only we could delegate the past, chore-style, rather than it delegating us. We’d have a lot more top-shelving of unpleasant memories, yet wouldn’t you argue the memory catalog that lead to Let’s All Die Happy needed varying levels of the past unpleasant to succeed?
EAH: I do agree with that. I suppose I see that poem, and most of the book, as enacting a dance: quick, quick, slow / hard, hard, good. That’s in terms of pacing and movement and association, but I think the poem needs it too in terms of truth. It plays at agency while underscoring how ultimately helpless we are against so many forces, death and what precedes it.
This seems to apply to the collection, too, though I’m a bit loathe to produce an analysis of my own work–I think we’re sometimes the last to see what’s going on in our poems. I will say I felt called to examine my past as a way to better understand how I am (or am not) functioning in the present, especially in my roles as caregiver and partner. I wanted to explore patterns and inheritances. Our childhoods give us an alphabet from which we spell out our lives–as a parent now myself, it was important to engage as critically as possible with what I was passing on, the gospels and myth.
JR: “Afterlife” addresses its titular subject over seven couplets (another sonnet!), the penultimate couplet “starching collars in the spectral flicker / of eternity’s situation comedies.” We saw eternity in the prior poem. “Portrait of the Mother: 1985” name-checks Ephesians 5:22, and “The Last Judgment” states
I come to you in all seriousness, reverent
as a turtleneck—I am graceless but I am not depraved.
I went to synagogues for a year because I had lost God
and was trying to find Him, following clues
with my oversized magnifying glass held up
to my giant eye, lashes collapsing like jaws, grilling congregants
under the naked lightbulb of my longing.
Is searching for religion more important to poets than locating it?
EAH: Maybe I should start here with endings, how lately I have been struggling with how to have my poems finish. I wondered what this indicated and came to understand that for years I wrote poetry as a way to work toward some understanding, a mindset which indicates the possibility of arrival, of completion. Now, though, I see that I write through understanding, through where I thought I’d meant to go and then onward. This denial of arrival in my perception has wound its way into my work, making it difficult for me to know when one poem’s wandering has ended.
Maybe this is a way to answer this question, and possibly it is not. I don’t know what it means to locate anything abstract, be it peace or love or God or gods—it would seem to indicate that once it’s located, it can be returned to, that there is a map. Perhaps that is the role religion plays in the lives of some—a guide back to their god and what that god promises. I don’t have that map anymore, and I sometimes still mourn its loss. I’ve never forgotten what it meant to be so briefly certain of something, and though I no longer believe even in certainty (much less God), perhaps it is nostalgia for it which fuels my return to these themes. I can’t speak for any other poets on this, but I see poetry as the perfect vehicle for these ideas. Lyric poetry has no destination—its music is the destination.
JR: I love that the narrator of “Nuestra Señora de Belén” saves their myth-making for the final sentence, “I was born in a bindle on the knuckle of the world.” The next poem, “Girl, know your history.” is likewise set in Belén, New Mexico, its final couplet the astutely worded “You didn’t move out of this town. / This town moved into you.” Aside from an Arizona MFA degree, how else did the Southwest contribute to your personal mythology?
EAH: I’m a New Mexican, born/raised/formed. I grew up in the small town of those poems, and though I’ve left the state many times, it’s always pulled me back (we call it “The Land of Entrapment,” a nickname more complicated than it may initially seem and which only locals can use). There’s no way to overstate the importance of my New Mexicanness to my life and work–without a doubt, I’d be a different me had I been raised in, say, New Hampshire or Idaho. I identify as white, and with red hair, blue eyes, and freckles, I’m essentially a walking recessive gene. But I didn’t grow up in a majority white culture, and many in my family identify as Hispanic/Latinx, all of which has shaped my lens on both myself and the world. I’ve always had an awareness of whiteness, nearly never able to see it as “default,” and while experiencing life as any kind of “other” can be difficult (and has been), it’s also been a kind of gift.
My family are relatively recent arrivals in New Mexico–late 1860’s on my father’s side. That’s pretty early for Anglos here, but of course that’s just the latest chapter of this place’s history. My brother’s mother’s family traces their ancestry back to the original colonizing Spanish families in the 1600’s, and I grew up near Isleta Pueblo. But I should say I don’t own any of this, even if I don’t know anything else. I’m New Mexican because of a long series of colonial powers claiming this land as theirs after taking it from someone else. That’s true of any Americans of European descent, but it’s easier in, say, Ohio to see that as abstraction than it is here. That’s not to say many people don’t do this, or overstate the harmonious blending of Native/Hispanic/Anglo cultures–a myth written in blood. Growing up, I often felt as if this place didn’t want me, and perhaps it didn’t. Who can blame it? But I am loyal to New Mexico in an almost death pact kind of way–no matter what, it is home. My genetic roots may be elsewhere, but this is my cultural heritage, my origin story.
JR: “The Jennifer Century” moves from “the guttural yearn” to “the American J, so goddamned unique / the Commies have nothing like it.” Mallometer-wise, it goes the distance between the food court and Spencer’s Gifts. I get a nostalgia kiosk rush “the moment your fringed jackets drop.” To what America are your most prized memories attached?
EAH: New Mexico / high desert / kickball in the street / rotary telephone tolls but not for me / matanza chicharrones / Huffy banana seat model Desert Rose / mix-tape cassette art / flannel / cruising Central / that Bronte summer / folded notes that make an arrow / across the world, the wall falling down
JR: “In Barstow” is a beautiful meditation on solitude and regret—
of almosts, crab grass choking
the hyssop and sage with its homely
greed and who can blame crab grass
for seeing something beautiful
then stepping on its throat.
It ends with a swallowed name and shag carpet, the poem’s Super 8 motel a desolate pinnacle. I can relate to that feeling of cloistered erasure. Which poems and poets do you see as “In Barstow’s” tonal kindred?
EAH: When I’m writing this, I’m on an airplane experiencing turbulence. My flight was delayed overnight, I’ve had four hours of sleep, and the woman next to me is watching Fox News, which is all to say I can’t see myself at all right now—that’s a temporary feeling but speaks to how I often feel about my own work. I can point to my influences but less to the family my poems live in, though I’ve heard comparisons from others. This poem’s associative moves I can perhaps connect to work by James Tate / Mary Ruefle / Jennifer Chang / Matthew Zapruder, but even as I type that I want to untype it out of fear I’m creating an equal sign. But then I also want to yell at myself for being so self-deprecating, a hard habit to unlearn. So let’s say the moves are stolen from the best but the tone is maybe another thing—a fear of erasure that is perhaps different than some of those poets’ projects. There are uncountable ways, large and small, in which I was made to feel that both I and my voice have not mattered–it’s why I started publishing so late (only sending out my first poems in 2014). Everything I now write is to counter that, to create testimony, to deny erasure.
JR: Parts of the collection take place in 1975 and the mid-80s. Reminiscence culminates “outside of Gallup” where a then-boyfriend collides with an elk, the car spinning “around just once before the ditch opens / to take us.” “For someone alive I am good at death— / not the elk but everything else, the boys I touched to dust” (“Self-Portrait as Banshee”). Banshees are traditionally thought of as ill omens. What is Let’s All Die Happy a harbinger of?
EAH: I suppose if the book itself is a banshee, it too is a harbinger of death–indicating the demise of one phase, invoking a change into another. In many ways, the collection allowed me to work out artistically certain obsessions, fixations on that which I’d yet to quite understand: my dear parents’ flaws and sadnesses, my religious apostasy, my postpartum depression, my struggle in learning to accept my new identity as mother. I write poems not to present what I’ve discovered–rather, they are the act of discovery.
I didn’t know why these topics had worn such grooves into my brain, so I wrote until I did. For some of those, the book did the trick–I haven’t written a single poem about my parents since. But that’s perhaps responding to the question personally when I should be addressing it artistically. I see the collection, at its essence, as a burning off of the hold of institutions, which begs the question of what, then, is next? Chaos? Anarchy? Utopian matriarchy? Stay tuned.
JR: Close inspection of the Bilibin painting reveals a fowl’s leg, Vasilisa part and parcel of the Baba Yaga legend. To those not alive during the timeframes in which Let’s All Die Happy thrives, Baba’s avian hut may be as fantastic as the possibility of spare change in a Folgers’ coffee can fighting world hunger or “standing at the lip of the mall’s lazy fountain to pour in coins” (“Domestic Geography”). The modern-ness of GoFundMe and Amazon make the world an easier place in that regard, though in some cases, the trade-off risks a diminished mystique. We lose the need to explore people, places, and things uploaded and in-boxed. That being said, how does elegy inform your poetics?
EAH: Perhaps the collection’s poems do mourn a past time, a pre-Internet which I confess I often yearn for, less out of nostalgia than a feeling that something now is off, as if countless anxiety factories are endlessly pumping out shiny new reasons for despair. But if it’s mourning past time, it’s also mourning past selves: the unmother, the slutty, the still hopeful. Aging is a process of near constant mourning in this way, the loading of a you you’ll never again be onto the raft or atop the pyre. That’s not always sad, or even mostly sad: its necessity outweighs the grief, can usher in possibility. And yet, the body count grows, the whos we can no longer be pile up. Perhaps my poetics is an accounting of that: to record it, to mourn it, to move to what is next.
JR: Let’s All Die Happy consists of three sections. The final poem, “Triskelion,” begins with a list of what you’ve perfected: “French braids, roshambo, the forging / of my father’s signed name.” Another trio follows, “a slide rule, a rosary, / the coupon box I crawled out of and in- / to a life of Februarys.” The book’s last six words are a trifecta of interrogatives—
Several of the timestamped poems, in addition to “Lookback,” “Vow,” “My Son, the Night Light, the Dark,” and “Regeneration”—each of whom carry their share of seemingly autobiographical weight—are tercet-constructed. Is there a significance to this number’s high occurrence, or am I looking for connections?
EAH: I am, indeed, obsessed with threes. There’s a completion about something presented this way that’s wholly satisfying to me. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, whether it has to do with my religious upbringing and its connection to the Trinity, the holy family. As an adult, I’ve frequently been drawn to studying Judaism, and in some traditions, three is seen as the number of truth, connecting. It’s also important in Celtic cultures–life as three-dimensional. Three points turn a line into a shape. It is pattern, it is family, it is time.
But this is also an intellectualization of a tendency I already had, and I sometimes feel I’m a poet more of the gut and the heart than of the brain. I don’t know that, as poets, we always need to know from where our obsessions stem–our job is to shut up and listen to the weird music inside.
JON RICCIO’s poems have appeared in Booth, Cincinnati Review’s miCRo series, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, Permafrost, and Waxwing, among others. A PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review, and as poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review.