Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

— Virginia Woolf

Interview with Rochelle Hurt

by Anthony Frame

The poetry of place and identity often merge, especially for non-coastal poets. This is certainly true for Rochelle Hurt, author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street Press, 2016). A Midwestern poet from Ohio, Hurt’s poetry balances between personae, myth, and confession to guide her readers on a lyrical tour of middle America and its residents—why we stay and why we runaway from our rusted towns. Hurt’s books masterfully weave together multiple voices, styles, and forms with the final result, the collections, easily outweighing the sum of each individual poem.

 

In this interview, Hurt talks about being a Midwest poet, the process of building a book of poems, distance and autobiography in poetry, and Dorothy Gale.

 

ANTHONY FRAME

Your first book, The Rusted City, is described as a novel-in-verse. Your new book, In Which I Play the Runaway, certainly has similarities in structure. In Which I Play the Runaway includes a series of Dorothy Gale (from The Wizard of Oz) poems as well as a series of “Self-Portrait" poems about various towns and cities. But Runaway definitely feels like a sequence of unique poems rather than a novel-in-verse. Could you speak a bit about the differences (and similarities) between these two books and the choice to create a more traditional poetry collection with this second book?

 

ROCHELLE HURT

You’re right—In Which I Play the Runaway is more of a standard collection than The Rusted City, but Runaway is still structured around a unifying theme. The self-portrait series that you mention serves as a frame, providing the book’s section titles and subthemes. Each self-portrait places the speaker in a town with an odd name (Last Chance, California; Hurt, Virginia; Honesty, Ohio; etc.), dwelling on a psychological experience conveyed through that name. In this way, the speaker “travels” through different versions of herself, sometimes hanging onto only small kernels of experience from the other poems. The changeability of self-image and circumstance is a major thread in the collection, so the movement through the book is designed to reflect that. Constructing a single narrative around a cohesive character, as in The Rusted City, wasn’t the right way for me to explore this fluid understanding of self and personal mythology. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives shift and warp all the time, and that’s a big part of Runaway, so I felt the structure should in some way challenge the assumption of a stable narrative identity.

 

AF

You’ve said it took five years to complete Runaway. Was there something particularly difficult—something specific to this project—that required this time commitment?

 

RH

I started working on some of the poems in Runaway while I was still completing The Rusted City, so the collection came together slowly at first. It took a while to get a handle on what this book was really about, so I didn’t start working on it as a project until I’d already accumulated a large number of poems over a couple of years. Once I knew what I was writing toward, it went more quickly, but I did quite a lot of structural reorganization as well.

 

AF

Both of your books have a heavy focus on place. I see this a lot in contemporary poetry, especially in the work of Midwestern/Rust Belt poets. What do you think it is about those of us who are Rust Belt poets that we find ourselves drawn to focus so much on place?

 

RH

I think in part it’s because place has been used to define and dismiss us. The Midwest, like the South, is often derided for what some perceive as a lack of sophistication, and this is even more pronounced for the Rust Belt. I have simultaneous impulses to prove this stereotype wrong and to embody it as a show of defiance. I’m proud of where I come from, but I also know it’s important to recognize the complex problems there. Since the presidential election, of course, the Rust Belt has garnered more disdain as media coverage has compressed the character of the region in order to make generalizations and predictions. Certain kinds of rhetoric paint the coasts as simply elitist and the Midwest as simply poor and angry. So I’ve been thinking about the ways geography is used to flatten us into the land we come from. Part of my interest in writing about place then is to counter this effect—not always in an explicitly political way, but in an attempt to reshuffle stereotypes and explode easy categories. In Runaway, I’m even dealing with the fatalistic categories I’ve made for myself based on place, family history, class, and gender.

 

AF

In Which I Play the Runaway includes a number of poems about and from the perspective of Dorothy Gale. She seems to represent the quintessential runaway. What is it about the Oz story—the desire to flee followed by the epiphanic return—that speaks so much to you and to this collection?

 

RH

After so much time and so many reimaginings, the Oz story remains extremely compelling for me. Home is conceptual as much geographical in that story, so Dorothy’s mantra, “There’s no place like home,” can be interpreted several different ways—one of which is the familiar and sweet sentiment that the comforts of home are irreplaceable, and another is that no place ever really feels like home if you keep running. I’m drawn to the tension between these two ideas, and that’s what drives my version of Dorothy, whose journey parallels that of my speaker in all her various incarnations.

 

Another aspect of the Oz story that I wanted to tease out was the characterization of Dorothy and her family as poor. (This is more prevalent in the book than in the movie.) I think that, without generalizing, there are rich connections to be made between financial struggles, troubled home environments, violence, and self-destruction—especially for women. The limitations and dangers that all women face can be compounded by a lack of resources. In Runaway, the facts of Dorothy’s class and gender rise to the surface and inform her decisions.

 

AF

Each section of Runaway ends in a prose poem. Prose poems are also preeminent in The Rusted City. Can you speak a bit about the choice to craft a prose poem versus a lineated poem? Are there particular draws to each that you use to determine which form to use? Do you know when you start a new poem if it will be a prose poem or a lineated poem?

 

RH

The prose poems in Runaway, like those of The Rusted City, are somewhat more narrative than the accompanying lineated poems, and they borrow from the fabulist tradition. When I’m working in that mode, I often turn to the prose poem because of the rich tradition of fabulism and surrealism in short prose. More recently, however, I’ve been writing lyrical prose poems that eschew narrative and traditional syntax altogether. The prose poem is a flexible form. One consistency across all of my prose poems is compression—of story or language. Despite the seeming openness of prose, the box of the form helps me apply pressure to my content.

 

AF

In the poem “Poem in Which I Play the Speaker,” you write, “Better/ if I am a metaphor, maybe … / ... Anything to save the Poem, She says.” Earlier versions of this poem appeared in Winter Tangerine with the title “The Post-confessional Poet.” This poem is a fascinating exploration of the balance we all try to create between autobiography and invention in our work. In the commentary that accompanies the poem in Winter Tangerine, you wrote, “I realized that I actually wanted to address the issue of distance and autobiography in poetry. I’d been writing a lot of poems that transformed personal memories into new scenes and voices, so I was feeling a bit anxious and guilty about manipulating the truth in poems—especially poems that dealt with traumatic or taboo subjects.” What advice do you have for those of us trying to find that balance between distance and autobiography in our post/anti-confessional period?

 

RH

I’m a guarded person. Even when I use personal details in my poems, I usually cloak them in metaphor or persona (as many poets do). For example, many of the poems in Runaway are at least partly autobiographical—especially toward the end of the book, where there is a kind of coming to terms with self and family mythology—but the confessional aspects of most of these are intentionally obscured. This is thematic, as I mentioned, but I think that very theme of shifting selves in rooted partly in my anxiety over these issues.

 

Sometimes it seems that people want autobiography as a token of authenticity. Of course writers should be thinking about things like cultural appropriation, but assuming that one is consciously avoiding that, I think it’s helpful to embrace persona and fictional characters in poetry—even when incorporating formal influences of the confessional mode. That said, I also think it’s useful to embrace the use of personal history in poetry. Criticism of the confessional mode has often been directed toward women writing about experiences that dominant culture has deemed insignificant (read: female). So my reluctance to write openly about my experiences may be somewhat gendered, and this is something I still grapple with.

 

AF

Who are some of your favorite writers, and who would you recommend our readers seek out?

 

RH

Some of my absolute favorites are Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, Harryette Mullen, Cathy Park Hong, Eula Biss, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, and Kathryn Davis. Right now I’m reading great books of poetry by Phillip B. Williams, Jane Springer, Allison Pitinii Davis, and Morgan Parker.

 

AF

What else are you working on? And where can we read more of your work?

 

RH

I’m working on a few lyric essays and a third collection of poems. This one is focused on the lives of working-class women and girls, addressing things like teenage sexuality, gendered violence, and consumer culture. You can find poems from that project in recent and upcoming issues of Phoebe, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Barrow Street, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, and The Journal.

 

 

 

Rochelle Hurt is the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (2014), published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and Jentel. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has appeared in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

 

 

 

 

The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote

© 2016 The Indianola Review