An Interview with Poet Rebecca Hazelton
Behrend guest speaker on holding together and breaking down
In this time of virtual connectivity, I interviewed writer Rebecca Hazelton over Zoom. Both of us were at our respective schools, she in her office at North Central College in Illinois, and I tucked away in an overly heated study room in Penn State Behrend's library.
We quickly forgot about the screen separating us and spoke freely about what it is to be an artist in the modern world. To use a fitting cliché, Rebecca Hazelton was an open book, joking about her tendencies toward "fat, monoliths of text" and challenging in serious ways the definition of love.
Hazelton is working on a new poetry collection, a novel, and a batch of experimental essays as well as fostering a love for the written word in her students.
EMMA RICHARDSON: I'd like to start by going back in time a bit. What or who got you interested in reading and writing poetry and is that influence still present in your current writing?
REBECCA HAZELTON: That's an interesting question. There's a couple of answers to that. The first one is that my father was a librarian, and my mother was a secondary education teacher. So, there were always lots of books in the house. Too many books in the house, if we're being real about it — the house was kind of made of books. I spent all my time in a library because if my dad didn't know what to do with me for a day, I would end up at work with him. I actually remember being under a library desk where he was working, and I'm flipping through Mad Magazine while he did his job. I had a lot around me that suggested, "Hey, you should read this," because it was always there. The other answer I could give you is that reading and writing was a way for me to practice escapism. If I didn't like my situation — my parents had some pretty impressive fights, and maybe, let's say hypothetically, I wasn't the most popular kid in school — there was a way for me to tune all of that out and immerse myself somewhere else. I don't think that writing functions as escapism for me anymore, but I do think that the value I got from reading and writing, even from a young age, was that I could create something of my own and I could feel like I was in dialogue with these writers that I really admired.
ER: I find all of that to be relatable in that I am a teacher's kid. It wasn't the library for me, it was my mom's classroom. A lot of time with her spent around books.
RH: You basically have no choice.
ER: Right! Back to your work. I've noticed there's tension between gender roles and expectations in your poems. "The woman" can be presented as a piece of machinery, and "the man" as a mechanic of sorts. I'm thinking here of "[To Love thee Year by Year—]" and "Questions About the Wife." The "maintenance" done by the male characters is sometimes violent and intrusive. How do the dynamics of heterosexual relationships inform your poetry?
RH: The poems you mention are from my first book Fair Copy and my second book Vow. I think it's interesting that you figured it as mechanical because — I think that's apt. I also have other imagery that has to do with breaking something down into pieces, but like an animal. I have a series in Vow that are the fox and rabbit poems, and a fox and rabbit are in love, so you can see that there are some problems inherent in that. I have one called "Fox Dresses Rabbit" and it's field dressing, so you think it's going to be about "oh, let me put this lovely kimono on you" or something (there's a lot of kimonos in the book, too, but I just think they're pretty).
ER: They are! They're beautiful.
RH: But you end up with this poem where the speaker, fox, is talking about eviscerating the beloved, like breaking them down into parts — looking in the viscera for understanding, so it becomes a blend of field dressing and scrying in organs. So the imagery that I tend to use for these relationships can be visceral, literally, or very much like breaking people down, pulling them apart — seeking understanding, but in doing so, possibly destroying the thing you want to know. I think that especially in those books, I was really interested in power dynamics. The power dynamic I often found myself trying to trace and understand was — what does it mean when someone loves you so much that they are going to destroy you in some fashion to hold on to you? Or what does it mean when there is a sense that you want to obliterate yourself in order to be with someone? I'm often looking at some form of toxic masculinity. I'm also thinking about the dynamics that men and women can get into when we can accept these narratives about love, which demand total adherence to the ideal that "love is everything." That we have to sacrifice everything for love. In those books, I'm interested in relationships that don't function, and some of that's societal, some of it's personal.
The poems in those books don't explore only heterosexual relationships, though. In Vow, it's a little oblique, but there's a series of poems written to a figure named Elise, and they are very sexually charged. It seems to be a female speaker, and Elise is a woman, but the dynamic is different. It's more complex and harder to sum up. In recent work, the poems are a little bit more peaceful. I'm not so much looking at dysfunctional relationships as I'm looking at what it means for a relationship to last over decades. How do we grow together and understand one another? What is love like when it lasts a long, long time and you don't always like the person, but you do love them, and you've seen them at 3 a.m. when they're really tired and they're feeding a kid? That's love too, but we don't valorize it in the same way.
ER: I've noticed that your poems contain transformations. For example, the girl morphing into a horse in "Trying Fourleggedness" or the moments of beauty turning into moments of danger in "The Good in the Evil World." Do you think art can only come out of a transformation, or is there space for stasis?
RH: This is a good question, and a hard question. I think I would have to land on the transformation side just because stasis doesn't seem generative to me. Some of my love for transformation I know comes from reading a lot of Greek myths as a child. And there we have the weird relationships again, too, right? We have sexual assaults that are prettied up with swans and bulls, and we have women, nymphs, trying to outrun their suitors and turning into trees.
I read some beautiful poems by Alice Fulton when I was in college that dealt with that transformation of Daphne (I think it's Daphne) as she's running from Apollo, and that's really stuck with me. I love her work. I think transformations are interesting because it allows you to consider what you might be in a different context.
ER: Do you think these transformations and metaphors make life more digestible?
RH: It sounds to me like you're asking why we have metaphors. I think that things can be so inexplicable in our lives, and if we allow something in a poem that defies a kind of regular logic, but makes a kind of emotional sense, which I think is something we get from transformations, I think it can help us better understand where we came from.
ER: Is poetry for everyone? What is the importance of poetry in America in 2022?
RH: I do think poetry is for everyone, and I think that there are different kinds of poetry for everyone. There are poems that are kind of like quick little flashes that give you something that maybe you need in that moment, and then there are poems that you return to again and again and you find something different each time. I think that there can be a tendency among artists to say, "Oh, that's not real poetry, real poetry is this," and I've been guilty of that myself. My poetry doesn't really have the same audience as someone who is looking for what gets referred to as "Instagram poetry." People want different things, and that's okay. Maybe someone who starts by reading a small little snippet on the internet that works for them, maybe they start thinking, "I want more poems," and maybe, they start checking out poems that have more complexity. I write what I hope are complex poems. They're not going to get passed around on pastel or moody backgrounds on the internet. So, I understand this desire to say, "No, no, no, don't look at that thing, look at this thing over here — it's the real deal," but I feel like then I'm telling people that what they value isn't valuable. They're clearly getting something from it, so why would I try to take that away from them?
ER: What are your thoughts on form? I particularly admired how the form complemented the content in "Vow" — how as a reader, I felt the digging and the landscaping of the garden that you evoke. How much attention are you paying to form as you create a new poem?
RH: I love that reading, and thank you for spending time thinking about what the shape of the poem was doing. Sometimes, I start with a certain kind of appearance on the page, and it never really varies from that. Since my second book, I've tended to have a style where the poem kind of undulates and goes side to side across the page. Mostly, I think it's because it lets me have more line breaks, and I love line breaks so much. But it was also interesting to me that when I looked at the reviews of my book, they talked about there being a sensuous quality to the way the words went across the page, and I hadn't thought about that. And then I looked at the poems again and realized, "Oh, it's kind of snake-y." Also, I think of it as trying to find a way to have a kind of drama as we're moving across the lines. If I can move us across the page and then I bring us back to the other side, I just kind of jerked you a little bit. And that requires the reader to trust me that it's worth doing a little carriage return there (to bring in typewriters, which no one knows how to use anymore). They have to trust me that it's going to be worth it to make that jerk across the page, that the jerk is there for a reason.
I will say that half the time I just write in a really big, fat block. It's not a prose poem — I still have line breaks — but there's something I really love about a fat monolith of text. And the thing is, no one else loves it. I try to run those poems by people, and they're like "Oh, could you vary this? Could you put some space in? Could you do something else?" because it turns out nobody wants to be hit upside the head with a block of text, but I do. A lot of times I do end up reverting to that meandering style because it does work well for me, but I don't know, one day I'm going to write a book of chunky poems, and everybody is just going to have to deal with it.
ER: This next question, if you're comfortable speaking about it — I'm curious to know how the past two years of COVID has changed the way you write? Are there new topics or themes you've found yourself gravitating towards?
RH: That is a great question. I got COVID in late April of 2020, and although I did not have to be hospitalized, I was quite sick. I don't remember much of the last year and a half. I was on a lot of drugs. I had — we'll call it "brain fog" because that seems to be what people are calling it. I had incredible difficulty thinking. It was a very challenging time, but again, I don't actually remember it very well. I was on drugs so I could stay awake, a lot of steroids, so I could teach my classes. I couldn't really write, however, because my hands hurt so much, but, weirdly, despite the brain fog, I discovered that I could dictate. It seemed to be using some other part of my brain that still worked.
So, I actually dictated 40,000 words for this novel I was working on (which is bonkers!) and later, I went back and I read it, thinking, "This is going to be trash," but I liked it. I've been working on that. I didn't write a lot of poems while I was sick, I just really couldn't, but this past summer, I wrote about 30 poems, and I've got a new manuscript that I'm really excited about. I'm looking at husbands now — I've spent a lot of time on wives, and now I'm looking at husbands because I'm really interested in the way that we construct masculinity. So, that's what I've been doing writing-wise during the pandemic, but, frankly, I don't know why I did anything at all because this is a time when we just need to be doing whatever we have to do to get by and take care of ourselves and the people we love and practice what I want to call "good hygiene for the good of all." You know, get vaccinated and do what we can to contribute to public health. If you happen to accomplish something on top of that, hooray for you, but also, if you want to just, like, snuzzle up in some blankets because you had to be a frontline worker and it was really hard, yes! Do that!
ER: I totally agree with you. I feel like there's this weird crazy push for productivity now, and it's like "I'm being as productive as I can just going to school and focusing on my classes."
RH: That is a ton. I'm going to say that's too much.
ER: As you were talking about your new work, you provided a segue for my final question here. I saw in your bio that you're writing about American masculinity, as you mentioned, as well as the #metoo movement. I want to know how you balance the passion you have for these topics with the distance required for sitting down and writing about them? Do you find yourself drained after a writing session? How do you recover after that?
RH: That is a really interesting question. I've got multiple projects going on right now that deal with toxic masculinity. I have the book of poems, which is looking at the American husband, and right now, it's called The Life of the Husband, which is a terrible title, but it's what I've got. I've also been writing, as I mentioned, a novel, and it's a YA novel. It's about some girls who decide to seek revenge over a group of boys' transgressions against women in their school. And then, I'm also writing — [laughing] I don't know what's good for me — I'm also writing these essays, these weird essays, about sexual predation in the creative writing community and the ways in which these gender roles that we have can perpetuate really unhealthy power dynamics. The novel has been nothing but fun to write because basically I'm channeling myself as a bitter high schooler and going on a revenge fantasy, and I'm just kicking people in the face and having a great time. The poems are in some ways easy too, because most of them are love poems, and love poems that are not screwed up and sad like a lot of mine, but they're poems that are sweeter and more complicated. But the essays — they are hard to write. One of them went viral. I wrote one called "The Man: A Compilation," and Kenyon Review did me the honor of publishing it, and it got passed around a lot. A number of literary figures shared it, journalists on Twitter shared it, and it had a lot of reach, and I had not really had that happen with my writing before. I had all these women in particular commenting and reaching out to me about their experiences. And that was hard. Wonderful, like an amazing gift — I'm honored that they trusted me — but also very hard. I was happy to know that something I had written had touched such a chord, but I don't want that chord to be there. I would say that the writing of these essays is very easy. For "The Man: A Compilation," I'm not even kidding, I got the idea, I went upstairs, and I jammed out most of it in an hour, and then, I rearranged some pieces over the next month. I had people read it and give me feedback, which was key, and I tweaked things, but it really did come out pretty much all at once, and that's rare, but hooray. So, in that sense, it was easy, but knowing what people made of it, that was harder.
Poet Rebecca Hazelton will read from her work on January 27th at 6:00 p.m. as part of the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. The Zoom event is free and open to the public. The link can be found at www.behrend.psu.edu/readings