Interview with Rebecca Hazelton

Rebecca Hazelton attended The University of Notre Dame for her MFA in poetry, and completed her PhD at Florida State University. She completed a fellowship year as the Jay C. and Ruth Hall Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Creative Writing Institute, and also received a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center.  She teaches creative writing at Beloit College. She won The Discovery/Boston Review Prize in 2012.Her book, Fair Copy, The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Book Award and is forthcoming in the fall. Recently our poetry editor, Tory Adkisson, talked to Rebecca about Fair Copy, getting a first book of poetry published, and what poets need to know about the process.

Tory Adkisson: Your book is titled Fair Copy. Where does the title come from?

Rebecca Hazelton: The title comes from a number of places. The most straightforward understanding of a “fair copy” is a neat version of a corrected draft. But there’s also the idea of a “fair” copy as an approximate copy, which seemed an attractive title for a work that uses Dickinson as a jumping off point. When you’re working off lines from your poetic great-great-grandmother, it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a little leeway. Thematically, the book itself questions whether or not we can tell if a love is genuine, if happiness is authentic, and whether that difference matters if the “fake” is indistinguishable from the real. Our notion of “true” love is an idealized one, and our actual relationships are approximations of that ideal. At the same time, those ideal relationships, because they are abstractions, are really only approximations of the possible.

There is also the sense of fair as in justice, fairness. I’m using lines by Dickinson to spin out entirely new poems, some of which are in direct opposition to the argument of hers, and others which are completely independent in terms of content—is that a fair thing to do, to borrow from and then abandon, to pick a fight with one’s literary forbearers? To the extent that my personal life influences and informs my work, is my writing fair to those people in my past and present? My writing may stem from my experiences, but in my portrayal of those moments of time I reinvent the past, just as we reinvent our experiences in our memory, which is by design inaccurate, elided, and often self-serving. It’s hardly a true copy, and so the question is, can it be a just one? Are we being just to ourselves, to the past, and those in our past when we tell the story of our lives?

TA: Can you tell us a little bit about how the manuscript came together, and how you selected the poems for it?

RH: I was working on my prelims for my PhD and I kept avoiding reading Dickinson. Instead, I read authors like Lucy Brock Broido and Alice Fulton, who are very much influenced by her poetics. I knew I liked Dickinson, but I also found her impenetrable and vexing. I had been fooling around with abecedarians some, inspired by Karl Elder’s, and I liked the way the form acted as an engine for my words, my lines propelled by the foreknowledge of the letter I’d work with next. Acrostics, cousins to the abecedarian, always held a little of the schoolroom air to me, or of childhood Valentines in 2nd grade. I was curious to see if I could use the form to express more serious themes. On a lark, I decided to acrostic one of Dickinson’s first lines, just to see what would happen. I wrote a substantially longer poem than I was used to writing. I decided to see how many I could do, and as I had recently turned 29, a cusp year, I thought I’d divide the total number of Dickinson’s collected poems with my age. It came to just over sixty, I think, and I thought that would be a good size for a book. I thought this laughingly, really, I didn’t think I’d do it. And I did stall out after fifty-four, along with a couple of misfires that didn’t make the cut. In that sense, there was no selection, aside for a few that didn’t seem to work with the manuscript as a whole.

TA: How would you describe the character of the book? What unites it or binds it together?

RH: I think it’s a very deceptive book. It has a Victorian quality to it, and I mean Victorian in the popular sense, all covered up, afraid to show an ankle. But under that prim façade, many of the poems are quite sensual or sexual, and very much ill at ease with that carnality. The poems, especially when they are investigating our relationship to the past, to our past selves, grapple with regret and with nostalgia. I want to articulate those feelings of nostalgia, of homesickness, when the past self is irretrievable, or unrecognizable, or even unlikeable.

TA: Are there any poetry collections you used as a model or as inspiration when you put together your manuscript?

RH: I’m reading this question as asking me about ordering or structure, and my answer is perhaps an unhelpful one. I find the structure of poetry books to be mysterious, and even when I can identify structure in other texts, doing so for my own work is very challenging. There were several different iterations of order, suggesting gently different narratives. In its final ordering, the first section is about a lost love, the second about the self in relation to the past and to the future, and the last about a new love and the fear that love engenders, the finality of marriage, and the beauty in that too. At least, that’s how I see the book’s arc, but that may be a singular interpretation. As for models, no, not really specific ones, no doubt to my detriment.

TA: What are five recent books of poetry you would recommend to our readers?

RH: I’m going to interpret “recent” with some latitude here, because I think everyone should read Inger Christen’s alphabet. It’s amazing, political and ecologically minded without being didactic, structurally mind-bending, sincere and touching. I’m currently reading One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t by Jacqueline Waters, which I think is so great. I am continuing my fictional love affair with Jenny Boully by reading not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, which is just a wild book, one of those genre benders, dream benders, valentine-to-the-subconscious sorts of books that is hard to describe. I’ve seen the manuscript for Sandra Simond’s Mother was a Tragic Girl and I can tell you it’s a knockout. I am still in love with D.A. Powell’s Chronic so much that I don’t know if I have room left in my heart for his new book, because my heart is so very, very small.

TA: What advice do you have for poets putting together their first book manuscript?

RH: Just the usual, I suppose. Cultivate friends with good eyes, who will tell you when you are being full of yourself and in love with your own cleverness. That’s probably good advice for life in general, too. People who praise you unconditionally want something. That’s terrible, isn’t it? But really, what good comes from a voice telling you what you want to hear? That’s how you end up buying ill-fitting clothes and makeup that makes you look orange.

Having screened for contests, I do think it’s true, unfortunately, that presentation matters. I don’t mean expensive paper, and I never even bothered with a cover letter (though perhaps that was bad?). But make your book look like a book, your formatting easy on the eyes, your table of contents in reasonable shape. It is easy for someone to form an opinion about your work before they even read it, especially when screeners are going through so many manuscripts. When I was screening, I had such a hard time saying no. I’d just agonize, because I knew my book was also out there, going through the same thing, and I wanted everyone to get their chance. I don’t think that’s the norm, though – I wasn’t very efficient.

And it’s said by everyone, but don’t give up. The day before I got the news I told my husband that I was going to shelve the book. I’d threatened to do so before, but this time I was serious. I felt like it was just going to be a finalist forever, and I was starting to feel sick about it. Like it was hurting me mentally and it might be healthier to move on.

Tory Adkisson is a Los Angeles native currently attending the PhD in English Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Quarterly West, Cave Wall, Third Coast, Colorado Review, 32 Poems, Sou'wester, Copper Nickel and elsewhere. He is the former poetry editor of The Journal.