American poet Jodie Hollander was raised in a family of classical musicians. She studied poetry in England, and her work has been published in journals such as The Poetry Review, PN Review, The Dark Horse, The Rialto, Verse Daily, The New Criterion, The Manchester Review, Australia’s Best Poems of 2011, and Australia’s Best Poems of 2015. Her debut full-length collection, My Dark Horses, is published with Liverpool University Press and Oxford University Press. Hollander is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa, a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland, a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in Italy, a residency at Cheateau de La Napoule in France and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Avon, Colorado.
Previous Featured American Poets
THW1: March 1, 2016
The High Window is pleased to introduce Jodie Hollander. Here she is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
Anthony Costello (AC) and the poet Jodie Hollander (JH) had this email conversation at 7pm GMT/Midday in Colorado on November 8th, 2017
Thanks for agreeing to be the American Feature Poet for the winter edition of The High Window, 2017. I read your book My Dark Horses again today in a little cafe not far from a bookshop in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, where you gave a reading six months ago. I enjoyed your reading, your voice perfectly matched to the poems. I was re-familiarising myself with your biographical details, and found there is such an international feel to your journey with poetry (America, Australia, England) including numerous fellowships and grants, study in Italy, South Africa, Scotland. How important has travel and study been to you as a person and a poet? Have you ever wondered what your poet’s journey would have been like had you never left Wisconsin, where you were born? AC
Thank you so much for having me here on The High Window! It’s such an honor to be part of this fantastic journal. I just love Hebden Bridge, and still dream of going back there to write some day – such a charming and inspiring place! An interesting first question: where would I be without international travel? It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like had I stayed in Wisconsin. From the age when I was old enough to go to university, I knew I had to get out. Not only to escape my difficult family situation, but to grow, expand and learn about myself and the world. During my years as a student at Pomona College in California, I met the great poet Bob Mezey, who still mentors me today – that was certainly a key part of my development as a person and a poet. But then living in other countries, understanding other cultures, at times being confused and often uncomfortable was indispensable to my growth as both a person and a poet. Perhaps the hardest year of my life was the year I lived in a small rural town in Japan. I was only 22 and was there teaching English as a second language – I spoke just a little Japanese. I was not accepted into the community, and was often stared at and pointed at and some would even yell out, ‘Gaijin!’ (foreigner) when they saw me. But I grew by leaps and bounds that year. I was similarly challenged by the semester I lived in Kathmandu; and even Australia was challenging, despite its seeming similarity to the US. As a side note, I’m planning my next book to be centered around Australia. As for England, it has always felt like a kind of home to me. Every time I get off an airplane and step out into the UK I have this huge sigh of relief, and a feeling that I’m home. I couldn’t exactly say why this is. I’ve always felt a special connection to the UK, even though I’m born and raised in the US! JH
Good luck with the next book, sounds interesting. Your travel experiences began early then. I didn’t know you had travelled so much. But, yes, it is character building! And, I guess, a range of experiences to draw on. I know those best of Australian poetry annual publications. I read them avidly when I travelled in Australia. I was very impressed by the standard of poetry there. You draw on your family experiences in moving and challenging and beautiful ways in My Dark Horses. Was the difficulty you experienced there the main reason you left home at such a young age? I know music, classical music, was a strong influence in your young life, but was reading and poetry encouraged too? AC
Thank you for the kind words! At the time, I’m not sure I was consciously aware of my need to escape home; but looking back on it now, I’m sure that was certainly a big part of it. I’ve also always had this sense that I’ve never been fully comfortable with American culture, and therefore had this strong curiosity to explore other cultures and countries, wondering if there might be a better fit somewhere else. Bear in mind that American culture in Wisconsin often centered around football, beer, and cheese – none of which I like, except maybe the cheese! My family was unique in Milwaukee. My father was a music professor at the university, and my mother was a cellist, so classical music was the religion of my childhood – it was the only really acceptable topic around the dinner table. I did try out several musical instruments, but none of them were ever quite a fit, so I took to wandering around on my own, reading books and writing poems. Reading and writing was encouraged in my childhood home, but nothing could ever hold a candle to the importance of the All Mighty classical music. My sister was a soprano, and my brother a violinist. Thus when I opted out of being a musician, I became the black sheep of the family. That being said, there were plenty of books around the house. I remember looking at an edition my mother had of Robert Frost’s poems. Frost remains to this day one of my favorite poets. JH
The portraits you paint of your family in My Dark Horses, particularly your mother and father, and particularly your mother, are scintillating, but in brief conversation here I wonder if there is more to be written about that household, that upbringing, perhaps more rooted in place, in Wisconsin.
And I wonder if Frost (in both content and form) was an antidote to the maelstrom of family life, someone companionable, or even to run away with, poetry to ground you or bring you down to earth? AC
That’s interesting … I know there are several more family poems waiting to be written. And yes, many of them are rooted in Wisconsin. Yes, Frost was wonderful for escape. And form gives a wonderful container to ideas and feeling. JH
I like the idea of form as a container for feelings, and not containing feelings, and yet, you would have been forgiven for emoting wildly or wearing your confessional self on your sleeve in your book, given its content, given its truths. Does form allow for some kind of distancing then, because there is a very (almost) dutiful respect for setting your past experiences as a child through the prism of a capable adult; it is less a mode of feeling and more acute, but distant, observance, and it is more true and meaningful for it. AC
Hmmn, yes, that’s an interesting observation. There is a level of removal in the poems, given that the past is viewed through adult eyes. And perhaps form does allow for some distancing; however, ironically, the reason I love form is that it provides a solid musical backbone to the poem, which is of utmost importance to me in poetry. So here we are again, coming full circle back to music! JH
That’s interesting. Can you say something more about this…form and music. Even a basic example. I know many poets and critics (including Michael Hoffman) saw a high level of musicality in Donald Justice’s poetry, and he was lauded as a versatile formalist as well and, I believe, he was a classically trained musician? But musicality as applied to a range of forms, would be interesting. AC
Oh, now I’m getting excited! And you mentioned Donald Justice, who is one of my all time favorite poets. That lovely poem, “Mrs Snow” about music lessons, always feels so familiar…Justice is so, so, good; I can never quite get enough of him! To me, music is the single most important element of a poem. Without music, there isn’t much to distinguish a poem from a piece of prose. All of my favorite poets employ some form of music in their work. And musicality can take a variety of different forms. Writing in form is a great place to start, and an important tool for any poet to have. In my own case, I tend to fall into writing trimeter most frequently, but also use iambic pentameter, tetrameter, as well as varying meters in my poems. It took me a long while before I felt comfortable doing this. I used to listen to recordings of Frost reading his work over and over again, until I had a sense of meter fixed in my head. Bob Mezey encouraged me to do this, and I think this is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me as a poet. Of course form is not the only tool for creating musicality within poems … one thinks of Wallace Stevens, ‘The Snowman,’ or Justice’s ‘Here in Kathmandu’. Both of these poems are written in free verse, and yet intensely musical as a result of effective repetition, assonance, consonance, and alliteration; and of course the repeating refrain line in the sestina of the Justice poem. I do think it’s more challenging to create musicality within a free verse poem, so I’m always in awe when I see a poet like Justice or Stevens pull it off so beautifully. JH
It is strange, but for all Justice’s influence on some major American poets (from his Iowa workshops to his acolyte Jorie Graham) he is often excluded from American poetry anthologies!? Yes, I can see how music and metre (perhaps not always the same thing?) and a strong formal element runs through your collection. And, yet, your musical poems can still tell stories (like prose). I really like your acknowledgement of the music in free verse. We could talk a lot about different types of music, or what is music, and form, but our time is nearly up. (I suppose if I were sitting opposite you I might argue on behalf of non-musical poets, just for the pleasure of collegiate debate.) If you haven’t ever read it, Don Paterson has written a two part essay called ‘The Lyric Principle’; it is available online with the poetry society (UK). Let me know what you think about it. Which single volume of Donald Justice’s poems would you recommend?
I rate My Dark Horses highly, the formal elegance, the range of tone from page to page, it’s (occasionally) idiomatic authenticity, its filmic episodes, (‘Romancing Herself’), the polar opposites (The Talking Tree / Treemother), the undramatised telling of the drama of your relationship with your mother, the beauty and the rage, the light and shade, the momentum of shade, and the relief from the emotional pressure given by the ‘after Rimbaud’ poems, his and your alternative dreamscapes. AC
I’m shocked that Donald Justice is so often excluded; I simply don’t understand it. I will certainly check out Paterson’s essay – I’m very interested. Thank you for the kind words about the collection! The qualities you mentioned are all very high praise, and I’m honored. I only have the collected DJ, but would be happy to recommend my favorite poems if that’s helpful!
Thank you so much for the opportunity to have this interview. I enjoyed it greatly. JH
And here are four poems by Jodie Hollander
She set the metronome ticking,
her children the pendulum, rocking
back and forth from Mother to Father,
Father back to Mother. Then she’d twist
the knob to Father-Mother, Mother-Father,
or call out Allegro!, and they’d speed up:
FatherMother, MotherFather, FatherMother.
Her children walked sideways, their eyes
shifted horizontally, they looked dizzy, even
possessed—missing the cars zooming in front
of them, but somehow they always heard
Mother’s tempo, and passed from this
lover to that lover, from that lover to this.
MOTHER’S PERSIAN RUGS
Mother wouldn’t have liked
those three men—
with their long grizzly beards
and big Milwaukee guts,
not to mention the mud
they tracked all over
Mother’s Persian rugs.
That day it was raining
harder than it had
in years in Wisconsin,
plus the dog was barking
it never did like strangers.
And now these three
tramping through the house
in big workman boots,
and shouting at each other.
Rain’s comin’ harrrrd,
how she would have hated
the way they said their r’s.
Gimmee dat tarrp
the fattest man yelled
writing on his pad.
The dog was yelping now,
and snapping at their boots.
Don’t upset the dog
I can still hear her say—
as they slipped the tarp beneath her,
covered up her body
and took my mother away.
THE LAST BREAKFAST
One last time, breakfast with my mother:
a small plate of clouded-over eggs,
two cups of cold, watery coffee.
Neither one of us is very hungry,
but we eat anyway, chewing carefully,
quietly swallowing the little food between us.
We do not speak—what is there to say
when the doctors already say it: any day now
she’s going to fall asleep and never wake up.
I wonder why my mother isn’t crying
for all the things in life she’s going to miss?
I watch her bite into the chalky yolk,
wipe her lips gently with a napkin.
I want to ask if she’s ever coming back,
and what am I supposed to do without her?
But instead the waitress suddenly arrives,
puts the bill between us on the table.
We haven’t even finished—now I’m crying.
My mother is no longer eating. Never mind,
she says, slipping on her long black coat:
Nothing can be done, cancer has come,
she whispers—Now, finish your breakfast.
MY DARK HORSES
If only I were more like my dark horses,
I wouldn’t have to worry all the time
that I was running too little and resting too much.
I’d spend my hours grazing in the sunlight,
taking long naps in the vast pastures.
And when it was time to move along I’d know;
I’d spend some time with all those that I’d loved,
then disappear into a gathering of trees.
If only I were more like my dark horses,
I wouldn’t be so frightened of the storms;
instead, when the clouds began to gather and fill
I’d make my way calmly to the shed,
and stand close to all the other horses.
Together, we’d let the rain fall round us,
knowing as darkness passes overhead
that above all, this is the time to be still.