Jodie Hollander and Mildred Barya discuss writing processes and inspirations for their forthcoming books. Barya’s The Animals of My Earth-School Institute and Hollander’s Nocturne will be released in the Spring of 2023. Nocturne is currently available for preorder. Hollander’s poem, “Mother’s Parrots,” appears in Volume 72.1 and Barya’s poem, “Cast Over Gorée Island,” appears in Volume 71.2.
JH: I’m really excited to hear that we both have books coming out next year. Tell us the title of your book and maybe your publisher and when it’s coming out.
MB: The name of my book is The Animals of My Earth-School Institute. It’s coming out in spring next year from Terrapin Books, a really cool press that I’m excited to work with.
JH: That’s so great—I can’t wait to read it!
MB: And your book Nocturne, will be published by Liverpool University Press. Congratulations! I’m curious about your artistic growth, how some of the things you’re doing in this book—in terms of style or themes—have changed or lingered.
JH: After I finished writing my first book, Dark Horses, it was at least a year or so before I started writing anything new. And I think I carried over themes that I was preoccupied with in my first book (maybe not even meaning to) and wrote additional poems that could have gone in that first book. When I started Nocturne I remember thinking—ah I don’t want to be doing the same thing that I did with my first book. So, I gave myself a bit of a break and found over the next few years that my writing did start to evolve. While I was working with many of the same themes—family, music, and that sort of thing—I was also writing about nature, I had started to do dream poems, some ekphrastic poetry. And I saw the landscape of my writing expanding which was exciting and I no longer felt hemmed into being the poet that only wrote about family dysfunction.
MB: I love your dream work! I read your poem Dream #1 in The Poetry Review. It’s not just the title that brings us into your surrealistic world but the content as well, which makes me wonder how you put your book together. What came first—form or content? How did you make your book into one cohesive whole?
JH: That was probably the hardest part of this whole process—figuring out how the book worked together as a whole. As I was writing poems in this new territory, I couldn’t see at first how they were fitting together. I had to actually lay out all of the poems on the floor and look at them and think “How would these poems work in conjunction with one another?” “How do I pull out a deliberate theme or texture or story arc?” So that was quite a challenge for me, but I ended up using the dream poems and the idea of being within a dream as a way to frame the book. But it wasn’t until the end that I figured that out. For a long time, I had just a bunch of poems that I didn’t know what to do with. Is that sort of how your book came together or did yours happen differently?
MB: Mine was the total opposite. I had the structure first. This happens very often even when I think that I’m not deliberate about form. That I’m just sitting down to write, unsure of where my writing is going. Form just appears. So, I’d probably written only three poems—one about beetles, another about a squirrel, and a third, the reptile kingdom. Looking at them together I thought “Oh, my goodness, I’m going to use scientific classification to structure what’s emerging.” That propelled me forward. As I wrote more poems, I could see what belonged to the Insecta section, Mammalia, Reptilia, etc. That excited and set me free. I could write about anything once I had that structure. I think it speaks to the way I approach writing. It’s unconscious, but once I start to think about it consciously, I see it on the page. I don’t see the pine trees, then the aspens, then the oaks… I tend to see the whole forest at once. I like to have a map and see where the road is going. To make intentional choices. It gives me control and freedom at the same time.
JH: I think if I were to set a structure, I would rebel against it and somehow only write poems that wouldn’t fit into that structure. I feel like I need to give myself total freedom to write whatever is happening subconsciously and to allow that to be. Somehow the poems find a way to fit together.
MB: That makes me wonder how freedom and flexibility fit within your writing regimen. Do you have a specific time or place for writing?
JH: I don’t have a writing regimen for the same reason that I don’t like to be told you have to write this particular poem at this time. When I’m at home I don’t give myself a particular writing schedule. If I have some time I wait and see if the mood strikes and if it doesn’t strike, I try not to force myself to write because I think it’s easy to ruin a poem that way. If I don’t have anything to say and I sit and try to force myself to piece something together then something that may have been there could get ruined. I don’t know if that’s how it works for you.
MB: I would want to write whenever I’m ready, but I’ve reached a point where I have to cultivate the time and, set it apart for writing because of my other responsibilities as a full-time teacher. I make room in my schedule. If I don’t write, I feel unhappy about stifling my creativity. When I sit down to write, there’s always something that comes out of me. I never feel like I am creating alone. Rather, I become aware of being in touch with something that’s larger than myself, and I like to honor that by writing.