What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I was a child with an active imagination, an avid reader, and one equally at home by myself or with others. I don’t remember that solitude ever made me lonely as a child. I spent much of my time alone by choice, whether fishing in the local ponds and streams, reading, or in my room. I guess this let me do a lot of thinking. I also watched a lot of television; on its surface, this might seem counterproductive to a life of writing but, truly, I believe that the television made me very aware of sixties, seventies and eighties culture, and those discoveries reveal themselves in my poems. Socially, I enjoyed humor and more than one report card identified me as the class clown. When an aunt asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied, “a comedian.” This prepared me well for teaching and the performative aspects of being a poet. I guess it also prepared me for the job of dealing with criticism, disappointment, rejection, and the realization of my weaknesses as a writer. Ha, ha, ha.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
After two failed attempts as an undergraduate, I found myself, in the early eighties, back home in New City, NY. My parents—off the boat immigrants who knew the value of money and the price of failure—were not impressed. I enrolled at the local community college, where I decided to give poetry a shot. I was lucky in that Rockland Community College could boast of two “real” poets: Dan Masterson and John Allman, and so my poetry career began. But I needed to support myself, as I had squandered large student loans and my parents were unwilling to house and feed a loafer. So my dad got me a job as a night custodian at the high school I had graduated from, Clarkstown North. A poem in Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, “Tommy's Earthbound Son Gets to Jump Center on Senior Night,” speaks to this experience a bit, though in a fictional context. This was the best job a young poet could ever have had! The work was mindless: dustmopping, wetmopping, straightening desks and chairs, and so I had eight hours a night to think and sit down at a desk and jot down lines. After work, I’d go to the New City Pub and get wasted. Portrait of the Artist indeed! I also have worked as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant (I’ll leave it to readers to decide how THAT may have influenced my writing), a bartender, a front-of-the-house restaurant worker, a construction worker, in my own lawn mowing business, in a neighbor’s mail order jewelry business, as a salesman in a department store, as a convention services worker in a Hyatt Hotel, and as a house painter.
Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
When my first book, Lives of Water, was published in 2003, I really didn’t expect criticism. I mean, a first book of poetry by an unknown—who would want to critique such a book? Or perhaps I wasn’t that naïve and merely exiled the possibility so as not to have to deal with it. In any case, review copies were sent out and reviews appeared.
Two of these reviews, it seemed to me then (and now, having just re-read them) fail to do what I, as a reader of them, expect of reviews. Is this the opinion of a sorehead? Perhaps. But let me explain. I share expectations laid out by Jay Parini and Abigail Thomas in a Poets & Writers feature on the art of reviewing in 2003, the same year these reviews appeared: “’I’d like an accurate description of the plot,’ [Parini] says, ‘and a fairly open-minded approach to what I intended. Essentially I think a reviewer should always ask him or herself, ‘What did the writer set out to achieve and did he or she come anywhere near achieving those things?’” Thomas suggests that, instead of this, “too many reviewers focus on how they themselves might have conceived the book.” This suggests, of course, aesthetic wars, and that’s what the two negative (versus the four or five positive reviews) seemed bent on doing, belittling the work of those who choose to write differently than they would wish instead of providing a clear-thinking potential reader of the book with the information she or he needs in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy the book. As Steve Almond puts it in a piece called “How It Feels,” “even those critics whose sole focus was ostensibly my book were often writing about something else: themselves.”
Here’s what I mean. In a American Book Review roundup of all of Carnegie Mellon University Press books for 2003, the reviewer makes it clear from the outset what is about to occur: “While some university presses—Wesleyan and Pittsburgh for example—have recently made gestures toward more oblique varieties of poetry, the Carnegie Mellon series continues to promote the flat American workshop style circa 1975 . . . .” My book is attacked first. Imagine how I felt when I read this: “but craft does not equal art, and the product is a slice of an ordinary, if somewhat sentimentalized, life filtered through an unadventurous imagination and spoken in a voice indistinguishable from hundreds that have preceded it. Perhaps this is best, since Hoppenthaler strains mightily when attempting to extend the reach of his similes . . . .” Ouch. As a first book, it is marked by weaknesses and half-realized goals that most first books exhibit, so why such hostility? And why choose a minor poem in the book (rather than any number of more fully-realized poems) to make his petty argument? Who knows? You’ll need to ask him, but the essay ends with a statement that doesn’t accurately represent my book and echoes a complaint I will make of the other bad review; that is, this reviewer assumes that the book is a collection of poems in the confessional/personal mode when, in fact, other than two or three of them, they are persona poems. This is the worst sort of an error a critic can make.
The other negative review was published in the Philadelphia Enquirer and, again, right from the start it is clear that the author is not out to review my book (or Fleda Brown’s The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives), but to skewer Carnegie Mellon for publishing a sort of poem he doesn’t like. Once again, the critical mistake is made of assuming it is I who is the speaker of the poems and not a series of personae: “Romance is a frequent subject in Lives of Water. In poems where a woman appears, Hoppenthaler is probably his best critic, aware that a “poem could easily / dissolve into that self-conscious / male romanticism we’ve all learned // to distrust.” Yet he persists in this mode for the remainder of the poem and in several others about his nostalgia for a series of former girlfriends.” ARE YOU KIDDING? I never met the guy, and the fact is that only two of those poems are about an actual girlfriend of mine, and one of those is entirely a fiction! How can he assume to know something like that and state it with such arrogant authority in a major newspaper? The poem from which he quotes is a poem in which I intentionally include the very lines he quotes so as to establish, yes, obliquely, that I was perfectly aware of what I was doing in that book. He was just more interested in dissing CMUP titles than he was in accuracy. Thank God for other reviews that were fair (if not glowing) and that did what reviews ought to do. Almond, in that same essay, points out that, when it comes to reviews, “There’s no appeals process. No way to defend yourself in the court of public opinion, nor to question the critic’s qualifications. Whatever they say, you eat. Period.” To hell with that, I’m thinking now. Let this be a shot across the bow. I’m willing to eat it if a reviewer fairly thinks my book is bad, if the poems in it do not stand up within the guidelines I set up, but I’d like to think it’s fair for me to say when a reviewer has made errors, or has not actually created a review but a piece of snark, or if a reviewer seems unqualified to have reviewed the book at all. A great book on the current state of book reviews is Faint Praise by Gail Pool.
What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)
I DO want to tell you a love story. And, two of those girlfriend poems that reviewer I write about above takes to task? They are at the heart of the story.
Years ago, as a PhD student at West Virginia University (a degree I chose not to finish when I was offered a job as Toni Morrison’s assistant), I taught graduate classes designed for students in the university’s ESL/TEOSL program. One of the students, I fell in love with. She was smart, an A student, and she was funny and cute. She loved being a student. If she had had her way, she would have stayed a student forever. She loved reading but had no desire to be a creative writer. After her stint as my student was over, I stole her from her boyfriend. I moved her into an apartment, and we stayed together for several months. Then she left me and went back to the guy I had stolen her from. Ouch. Heart-broken, I moved on but wrote two poems with her as a character. Ten years passed, and she largely passed from my memory.
The story picks up with me on a residency fellowship at the MacDowell colony, happily writing poems in Frost’s “dark and deep” woods. I go to check my email at the main building and find in my inbox a message from, yes, her! She and the boyfriend had married and had a child. Things had not worked out. She was unhappy and her thoughts had turned to me, the only other man she had ever loved. She Googled me and found, online, a poem called “Farm Sitting.” It was dedicated to her. It was entirely made up, as far as the poem’s setting and action are concerned, but the sentiment in it, the truth in it, she recognized. She loved the poem and bought the first book. She found in there a second poem about her. And she liked it, too, and she learned as well that I would be back in West Virginia as one of the faculty members at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. She wanted us to meet, and so did I. That was about six years ago. We were married last October. Poetry CAN make things happen; poetry DOES matter. Take that Mr. Gioia. Take that mystery book reviewer dissing my poems!
My advice? It’s this: seek a person who understands what it means to be a writer. They need to know that much of what we do is done in solitude, that even if we’re there physically, mentally we may be within character and a million miles away. They need to be okay with this. They need to understand that most of the money we make as writers comes not from royalties but from personal appearances and workshops, and this means a lot of time away from home. They need to not be too needy, but they need to be needy enough to have a writer as a partner! Ideally, they should not be writers themselves, but they should love to read. Ideally, they should be wealthy, too.
If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
Well, the cash is important, since that’s how I put milk on my stepson’s cereal, but I’m also a person who understands and is grateful for what my teachers and mentors have done for me along the way. Listen, as an MFA student in Dave Smith’s classes at VCU in the late eighties, there’s no way Dave, any class member, or any reasonably sane observer would have thought that I would be one of the folks to “make it” in poetry, whatever that might mean. It took me many years to get to the point that I could write a poem that was publishable, and I still feel I have a very long way to go. Had it not been for the support of many folks along the way, had they not taken the time to work with me (several purely out of the goodness of their hearts), then I wouldn’t be here to answer this question and to say that I’d feel a fraud if I didn’t try to give to others as good as these poets gave me. Old school.
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
I’d have to say that I am, or maybe that I have been, as I’m not yet sure that the poems of my third collection will be so landscape bound as the first two. This may well be because we’ve now lived in North Carolina for four years and I’ve yet to establish an alliance with the very flat, very hot, very Southern landscape of eastern North Carolina. But the poems of Lives of Water are mostly set in the Rockland County New York of my youth, with a few of the later poems in the collection (the book took me about six years to write) beginning to focus on the Rockland County of my adulthood, a place that has changed in hugely significant ways, which has gone from sleepy lower Hudson valley countryside to a bustling and marred suburban scene. Anticipate the Coming Reservoir is my attempt to process what was and what has become of the place. The speakers of the poems find much that is familiar in the landscape, yet these familiarities are juxtaposed with the unfamiliar and, for the most part, unwished for realities of the present. It’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s just that it’s not the same home you want to remember.
John Hoppenthaler books of poetry are Lives Of Water (2003) and Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), both titles from Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays on the poetry of Jean Valentine (forthcoming from U of Michigan P, 2012). His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Laurel Review, Barrow Street, West Branch, Christian Science Monitor, Pleiades, and Blackbird, as well as a number of anthologies, including Poetry Calendar (Alhambra Publishing), Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State U of New York P), September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Etruscan Press), Blooming Through the Ashes (Rutgers UP), The Sound of Poets Cooking (JACAR Press), and Chance Of A Ghost (Helicon Nine Editions). Among his honors are an Arts Fellowship Award for Excellence in the Field of Literature from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, a North Carolina Community Council for the Arts Regional Artist Project Grant, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Elizabeth Bishop House, and the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities. For eleven years, he served as Poetry Editor for Kestrel, and he now serves as the editor of A Poetry Congeries at the cultural site Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, where he also sits on the Advisory Board and curates a guest-edited poetry feature. He is also an Advisory Board Member for Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Words and Music Festival (WAMFEST). Personal Assistant to Toni Morrison for nine years, he is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East Carolina University. He lives on the confluence of the Tar and Pamlico Rivers in Washington, NC with his wife, Christy, his stepson, Danny, and their kitten, Obi.
Click HERE for the link to a collection of John's poetry on ConnotationPress.com
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