Interview with Poet Jay Hopler

by Marian Kaufman

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Jay Hopler is the author of the poetry collections Green Squall and The Abridged History of Rainfall, which was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. He is also the editor (with Kimberly Johnson) of Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry. He is the recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, a fellowship from the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Rome Prize in Literature, among other awards and prizes. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida and splits his time between Florida and Utah.

This award-winning author has also been a contributor to Bayou Magazine. Two of his poems appeared in Issue 56. We recently spoke with him about the role of imagination, the natural world, and grief in his latest collection, The Abridged History of Rainfall.

Your latest collection of poems is titled The Abridged History of Rainfall, but in the poems “Where Is All This Water Coming From” and “Excerpts from the Unabridged History of Rainfall” you mention an unabridged version. What do you see as the relationship between the two? And is this unabridged version an existing text?

I should probably start with the second part of the question first: there is no such text as The Unabridged History of Rainfall. It was just a figment of my imagination. A productive figment, to be sure, but a figment. That word “productive,” though, brings me back around to the first part of your question. I found meditating on that nonexistent book—where it might have come from, who might have written it, and when and why, what it might contain—to be incredibly generative while working on the poems that eventually became The Abridged History of Rainfall. The two poems you mention, “Where Is All This Water Coming From?” and “Excerpts from the Unabridged History of Rainfall,” make explicit mention of the imaginary text, but more than a few of the other poems in my collection are in conversation with it. “The Grove,” for example. That poem happened because I started wondering what The Unabridged History of Rainfall might have to say about the role storm clouds played in the art of the Dutch Golden Age. The reader doesn’t need to know that, of course, to read and enjoy the poem. It’s just the thing that triggered the poem.

As I read this book, I noticed that the speaker often redefines what he’s describing. Can you talk about the role that redefinition, revision, or re-seeing the subject plays in these poems?

The speakers in these poems, set adrift in a world rendered unrecognizable by loss, have an obsessive-compulsive need to “get it right,” to fix it, whatever “it” is, in time and space—in time-out-of-space, the mind—long enough to make sense of it and reckon with its implications. For these speakers, a bird is not simply a bird, light is not just light; one species of bird is not the same as another species of bird, and the afternoon light falling through a window in a kitchen in Rome is not the same as the afternoon light falling through a kitchen window in Perugia, though it might be falling on the same afternoon, at the same time. But it’s not transcendence that the speakers are after; that would be too lofty of an ambition for them. These speakers are caught in a version of Yeats’s “widening gyre”; they’re using revision—always from the general to the specific—to narrow that gyre enough to get their feet back underneath them. I’m going to invoke Strand for a second: my speakers revise to keep things whole.

The natural world plays a significant role in this book; the rain, the moon, the stars, flowers, trees and wildlife are all common characters. How have you gained this knowledge of the natural world?

The knowledge I have of the natural world—and that knowledge is not encyclopedic by any means, though I wish it were. I have accumulated it over my lifetime. And I am still accumulating it. I live both in Florida and Utah, so I have access to two of the most beautiful worlds: the mountains and the water. I get out in those worlds as often as I can—I fish, I kayak, I hike, I ski, I camp, I walk without destination for hours on end at all hours of the day and night—and I make a point of learning the names of the things I find there. My wife and I were hiking in the Wasatch Range not long ago, and we had a fascinating discussion about the differences between a vale, a swale, a valley, and a dale. A thesaurus will tell you that all those words are synonyms for roughly the same natural phenomenon, but they are in no way the same thing. If you’re going to write poems in which the natural world appears, you have to know stuff like that. Sadly, though, I’ve noticed that many of the poets now coming up through the ranks are not writing about the natural world. Is that because the natural world isn’t relevant to their lived experience or because they don’t trust it, having never been taught how to be in it? I don’t know. But I make a point of getting my poetry students out into nature as much as possible. I arm them with sketchpads and notebooks, cameras and guidebooks, and tell them that they have an obligation to know the names of things—not just natural things, everything. That’s what the job is; if you’re going to be a poet, that’s what you have to do before you can do anything else.

You play with many traditional forms in this book. Can you speak to us a little about your relationship with traditional form?

I was never interested in working in traditional forms before The Abridged History of Rainfall, and it wasn’t until the collection was almost complete that those poems started to happen. And they really did just “happen,” in a flurry; I didn’t plan them. The villanelle came first, as I recall, then the triolet (a double triolet, actually), the rondeau, that form that Donald Justice worked in, probably invented, but that doesn’t have a name. I found working in traditional forms unexpectedly liberating and I’m doing it more and more. It looks like they are going to figure prominently in my next collection, the manuscript I’m working on now.

While reading, I felt that this book stemmed from a place of grieving. It is dedicated to your late father and includes poems directly referring to his passing. Can you tell us about creating while experiencing personal loss?

It’s funny. I wrote a book about loss—specifically the loss of my father—while trying to write, trying to think, about anything but. What I tell my students really is true: the more you try to avoid something, the more it comes out in your work. I’m thankful for that. If I’d realized from the outset that I was writing a book about coming to terms with my father’s passing, I would have written into it and that would have made the process all but impossible. The poems would have come out feeling over-determined, the themes too obvious. By the time I realized what it was that I was doing, the book was almost complete and the time had long since passed for me to reach over and grab the wheel. I had to just sit back and enjoy the ride and try to learn what I could from it. To anticipate your next question: about poetry, the writing of it, I learned quite a lot; about grief, living with it, not a damn thing.

New political activist movements have emerged in the wake of the recent election. Where do you see poetry in the current world of protest and politics? Or rather, where would you like to see it?

I would like to see poetry front and center in the current world of resistance, protest, and politics. Poetry is political. And I mean all poetry, not just protest or “political” poetry. Writing a poem, regardless of the subject matter of the poem, is a political act, and a poem is an artifact of resistance. And what is a poem resisting? It resists by its very existence the forces that seek to strip us of our humanity. When you encounter a poem, you are necessarily required to occupy a perspective different from your own. The inevitable result of that occupation is empathy. There is no humanity without empathy, and if we allow ourselves to lose our humanity, we’re done for. Just look at what’s going on in Washington D.C. right now. We have a bunch of angry people who are unable to see things from any perspective but their own. Look at how that’s working out.