Q&A: Erin Hoover on No Spare People


Barnburner, featured in the Fall 2021 edition of Shenandoah, answers questions about her new collection entitled No Spare People. Click to read her poems “On the metaphor, for women, of birthing to creative activity,” “At the child support office,” and “Baby care instructions” from Barnburner, and check out No Spare People, available now.


Can you tell me the story of this book: When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it? How did you know when you had a complete collection on your hands? 


I wrote No Spare People from 2018-2021. I was interviewing for permanent jobs in academia and working full time. At times I adjuncted or did freelance writing and editing on top of that. Simultaneously, I raised an infant (who became a toddler, then a young child) as a solo parent. That I’m a single mother by choice is the book’s essential fact. And then Covid happened. All of us were changed by Covid—it was sometimes cruel, learning whether the places we worked and the people we lived among valued us, how we were connected to one another and whether those connections would hold or break apart. Personally, I felt the dissolution of the social supports I needed to sustain me as a new mother. I also felt ashamed for not doing more for other people. Hopefully readers will be able to feel the book’s obsession with privilege and inequality during that time. 


But to go back before that, after my daughter was born I found it hard to write—for the obvious reasons of having intense new responsibilities, but also, I needed to move on after Barnburner. Publishing a debut book has a recovery period, I found. Even during the many months when I wasn’t writing poetry I was doing the intellectual and emotional work that would make eventual poems (so I told myself). In 2020, through a fellowship I received a small fund for professional development, and I used it for a writing residency. After three years of not writing any poetry, I wrote most of No Spare People over two weeks while my parents kept my daughter. I’d been writing that whole time, of course: marketing copy, feature articles, reports, teaching materials, job applications.  


Writing that many poems in two weeks isn’t a happy story. I’ve told people about that time period who’ve been annoyed with me, as though the poems fell out of me like sweet little kittens. If some poets write their books to talk back to the time in which they’re written, I wrote No Spare People because I felt like I wanted to hold onto the ideas I was having—that I experienced so viscerally in my day to day life—and that if I didn’t, I would have failed as a human. I wanted to write about those moments I saw as important while I was still living inside of them. Anyway, I felt insane, thinking about the poems I’d written as a book, yet there they were. I found an editor, Rebecca Morgan Frank, to review what I’d written and help me shape it into the beginning of manuscript. And then there are other poems that came later and notably weren’t part of the first draft I shared with Morgan, such as “Forms and materials.”  


“Forms and materials” is the longest poem in No Spare People at eleven pages. Basically, having my daughter freed me from so many of the expectations I’d carried for a long time about families. It was Covid; I lived in the rural American South, which felt like the end of the world; I thought maybe my academic career was over before it began; I already gave zero fucks. And then Roe was overturned. And then all of the anti-trans legislation happened. “Forms and materials” was the last poem I wrote in No Spare People. 


Someone asked me the other day what I mean when I describe myself as queer in this book. My interest in poetry overlaps with gender and sexuality studies and has for a long time. For me being queer isn’t about the sex of your partner as much as it is about how you structure your whole life. There isn’t one part of my day that isn’t connected to how people read me as a woman or my family as a little dyad. I’m using “queer” intentionally and in a way that is, I hope, rooted in the place where I’m using it. While some of the most creative people come from the American South (I don’t) and the most fervent activism happens here, it isn’t always a safe place to live. I feel like I need to define myself in opposition to certain legal, social, and “moral” power structures in the place that I live, and the word I’m using to do that is queer.  


This is your second collection of poetry. What threads or interests carry through the collections? In what ways is this collection different from the work you’ve published before? 


Both Barnburner and No Spare People are about self-actualization—thinking about how to be the kind of person one should be or that is possible to be and/or the process of becoming that person. Both collections are tied to place, like it’s very clear that their stories take place in specific geographic locations and at definite times. My first book had some poems about wanting to have a baby; now I have a kid, and what’s that like?  There are other crossovers, in writing about family, about women and feminism, the environment. I think that when you write a book like Barnburner (“a candid portrait of normalized cruelty”), you can’t follow it with more of the same. I like to think of No Spare People as an optimistic book, actually. All three of the poems that appeared in Shenandoah involve reversals of a kind, and all end in moments of affirmation. 


Is there a passage/poem/image/quote you feel is a good representative of the book as a whole, or do you have a current favorite? Can you give us a taste of something you’re especially proud of? 


This is a really hard question! Here are a few lines: 


True, / some days, I’m the pioneer wife, / keeper of the homestead, but others / I’m absurdly educated for a uterus, / afraid I’ll forget how closely this place / once held water fountains as an organizing / force, still does. 

“White woman” 


Season of intense physical / loneliness, no coffee, no wine, be careful // on the stairs. / Long walks from inconvenient parking, / effort of moving a body through space. // The mother made finite, / while inside her exists any and all / unknowns, the birth / of her child its own terrific event horizon. 

“Maternity exhibit as the singularity” 


I hesitate to fold my ambition so neatly // into medieval Black Forest thinking, / that Malleus of woman-hating and -hunting // which still hacks out infinite decrees, / scrolls of punitive legislation, / judicial argument. // If form is shape and structure, I’m not / who or what I left out, // Mrs. Coney-Barrett, I assure you— // no partner of mine is dead / or in prison or simply too feckless / to keep loving me. 

“Forms and materials” 


I’m curious about some logistics: How did you come up with the title? What about the cover art? This is also a different publisher than your first collection. How did you find a home at Black Lawrence? What’s it been like to work with two different presses/editors? 


With Barnburner, I titled the book thematically, meaning, I came up with a word that I felt encapsulated the spirit of the poems, but this time, the title comes from a line in the final poem, “What if pain no longer ordered the narrative”: “One of us will die first, and there are only two, no spare people.” 


I think I wanted to experience having two different kind of books, two different titling strategies.  But in this case, “no spare people” is also an imperative—that there should be no spare people—or maybe an interrogation into the idea of anyone being “extra” at all. I often find that people view my daughter and I as extra, an outgrowth of me being extra as an unmarried person, like no one knows what to do with me/us. In a more serious reading, are some people more valid or whole or important legally?  Are some people expendable?  Even if we say they are not, is our world built on the assumption that they are? 


Black Lawrence accepted my book from one of their open reading periods. The publisher called me in May 2022 to see if my book was still available; I know it was May 6th because I still have Diane Goettel’s message on my phone. I like placing work at a press that has open reading periods because it demonstrates that they are open to discovering a new author. They have contests, too, but in this case, there was no fee to send my manuscript, which is ultimately more inclusive, I think? When I sent No Spare People, I was thinking of the excellent poets they had already published. (Obvious author tip: only send your book to presses whose catalog you admire.)  


Black Lawrence publishes more titles annually than Elixir, the press for Barnburner. Editorially, they each have easily identifiable tastes and preferences, in that if you like one poet a press published you’ll be inclined to like others. (This isn’t true of all presses, actually!)  Both tend to accept books that don’t require a lot of editing and are supportive of how the author wants their book to look (for instance, the cover choice), and they provide opportunities to weigh in on how the book is categorized and pitched. In other words, they’re both very collaborative, author-focused presses. Black Lawrence does more marketing and promotion as they have a dedicated social media manager. 


Have you been able to tour or do any events—or do you have any plans to travel and promote? What’s been your favorite moment in terms of connecting with readers? 


I have readings planned all throughout the coming year, and I’m always open to booking more events. My current schedule can always be found on my website. Some events are part of an existing reading series, others are “one off” events in which I’ll have to do a lot more promotion to get people to know they exist. One I’m especially excited about: I’ve planned a reading in Philadelphia in November with some of my favorite Black Lawrence poets: Claudia Cortese (Wasp Queen), Nancy Reddy (Acadiana), and Raena Shirali (summonings). The No Spare People Book Launch and Black Lawrence Press Poetry Showcase will be at Tattooed Mom on November 14. 


Another professor/colleague recently asked me if I lose money on events. Yes, I do. But the gift of an audience’s attention is invaluable, you know?  I also can’t think of a single poetry reading event that I’ve regretted attending as an audience member. Within reason, if an audience is willing to listen to me read, I’ll read, and if a poet comes to town, I’ll go. I prefer in-person readings as a rule, I think because you can have those moments of conversation and connection. I travel cheaply. Maybe I always wanted to be in a band and go on tour? I say “maybe” but that’s 100% true. 


With Barnburner, I received quite a few social media comments and emails from strangers. I don’t share these because they feel private to me, like, the person hasn’t agreed for me to tell others what they’ve written, the note is for me only, but I’ll say that these are some of the most meaningful pieces of correspondence I’ve ever had. It’s a big deal to get a note from a reader. I’ve been lucky not to receive letters offering to critique or make my work better; I know some poets (all women) who’ve gotten those. 


Anything special you’re working on now or next? 


I’ve started to write a book about fathers—not my father, but fathers in total. I’m releasing a chapbook out as part of Bone Machine’s Thanksgiving Break which will be in a limited edition of 25 copies. It’s called Dear Daddy.  All of those poems are very new and may or may not end up in a full-length book.  


Thanks for talking with me about No Spare People, Shenandoah! 




No Spare People is available on the the Black Lawrence Press website and through Bookshop.org, Small Press Distribution, and Amazon.   

Erin Hoover is the author of Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018), winner of a Florida Book Award in poetry. Recent poems appear in the Cincinnati Review, the Florida Review, and Poetry Northwest. Hoover has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry and Best New Poets. She teaches poetry at Tennessee Tech as an assistant professor.