Nicole Stellon O'Donnell interview with John Hoppenthaler
Nicole Stellon O'Donnell interview with John Hoppenthaler
Nicole, the book in which these poems will appear, You Are No Longer in Trouble, a collection of prose poems and flash essays, is forthcoming from the Marie Alexander Series in 2019. The series is dedicated to promoting the appreciation and enjoyment of prose poetry. I think it’s fair to say that many poets and readers of poetry still have trouble coming to terms with the prose poem. It’s a slippery term since it is hard, if not sometimes impossible, to differentiate between a prose poem, a lyric essay, a flash essay, a flash fiction, a well-written prose paragraph, what have you. Many, like Louis Simpson, have denied that it IS poetry. Teachers have difficulty explaining the form to students even as they try to get them to think of the line and how one might break it as a key characteristic of how poetry differs from prose. So, why prose poetry? Can you define the perm as it applies to your work? You write poems with line breaks, too, so is there some aspect of content that, as Creeley might have said, extends into the form for these poems?
I don’t feel that I consciously chose the prose poem as a form. I will admit that I’ve always been drawn to reading prose poems long before I thought of writing them, but I didn’t set out to write them. They showed up while I was writing poems. Some of those poems were nonfiction, memoir, the true-true stories of my life. While I was writing those, the line breaks fell away. After I finished writing Steam Laundry, I shifted and started writing all my drafts without line breaks. I’d only put in line breaks later. That was the beginning of the little brick of prose for me. These days, I don’t necessarily decide in advance if a piece will be a prose poem or a lineated poem, but I often write prose bricks first. Something in the piece itself leads me toward or away from line breaks as I revise. Maybe that’s the content, as Creely said, but I’m not sure. I don’t worry much about defining genre. I focus more on getting words on the page.
The poems represented here moved me immediately when I read them. They are honest and specific in their use of imagery and detail. The first sentence of each piece, like any good piece of short writing, does the hard work of putting us immediately into the stories with no waste or buffer. Their tone is tough yet tinged with empathy. They all speak to the fact that you teach language arts at a public school housed inside a youth facility in Fairbanks, Alaska. When choosing to write about these things—about these children—there must be some soul searching involved. Clearly the poems are meant to act as windows into a small corner of a gray world few of us have considered, prompts to spur a reader’s negotiation with the incarceration of our youth, with this sort of desperation. As one with actual skin in the game, as one who deals with this sadness on a daily basis, what does writing about these things provide you? Do you show these poems to your students, and if so, what do they think about them and that you are writing about them? I am struck, as I write this, by the last sentence of a piece you wrote for Literary Mama in 2013, “Despite the dark, I am a little more aligned to the light.”
The poems in the book are set in all the teaching settings I’ve worked in—the detention center, where I’ve worked for the past two year, yes—but also in large traditionally structured high schools in urban Alaskan settings (we call Anchorage and Fairbanks urban here), and a small rural school in an Alaska village. Others are set in the Chicago suburban schools of my own childhood and built around my relationship with my father, who was a middle school principal. By visiting all these places, I try to get to some truth of who I am and the persona I’ve had to build to work in schools.
I think all teachers deal daily with the wells of sadness underneath our society. As a teacher you see neglect, abuse, illness, poverty and how it hits children in a visceral way. You see children sitting next to each other in class who live in different words—some with support, some with suffering. Working in a school, you see how that pain extends into adulthood and spreads into each generation. It’s not easy to stay in teaching. In addition, I’m not a naturally positive person. Several of the pieces in the book confront my own struggles with depression that pre-date my work as a teacher.
That sadness of life, I think, I must be “a little more aligned to the light.” A little. Enough to keep me teaching after all these years. That doesn’t mean I believe that I’m able to fix everything as a teacher though. In fact, the opposite is true; it means I teach knowing full on that, in many cases, my individual role in a student’s life isn’t going to “fix” anything. If a teacher believes they’re going to “save” students, they’re going to fail, burn out, grow bitter. And they’re betraying their students with a colonial throwback attitude. They’re going to do net damage. I work hard to stay aware of my role in a student’s life, to be mindful not to project my needs onto my students. Too much of teacher education and training is aligned to the savior mentality. So, what can I do for my students? I can be present. I can give them my full attention and help them find strength in themselves. Attention is a kind of light in this world. Really the only kind.
And yes, students know I write poems and essays. I have been known to jot things down in my notebook during class and ask, “Can I write a poem about that someday?” For many years I taught the creative writing elective at a big high school here; often I’d write with them while the class was journaling and drafting. Lots of my pieces set in the classroom come from those moments. “One Classroom Window” is an example. Students (both my current incarcerated students and former students in more traditional teaching settings) also give me assignments sometimes. That seems fair to me since I am always giving them assignments. That way they know I practice what I was tell them to do. Teenagers, especially oppositional ones, are attuned to the fact that adults are full of advice they do not follow themselves. I find that my students in the detention center will write more when they see me trying to write too. While I’d never make any students read my drafts (class is about them, not me), they are aware that I have my own writing process. If I have a piece that features a particular student and I’m in touch with them once it’s done, I will tell them about it and have them read if they’d like. That’s all done outside of class and often after a student has graduated.
I love these sentences: “You write Rhyme and Rhetoric were walking down the Boulevard. You make them do bad things together. You make them so bad you might be afraid to meet them walking down the boulevard.” There is the suggestion that when language with the characteristics we typically assign to persuasive writing and language to which we assign characteristics associated with poetry hang out together, there is the possibility of them achieving a dangerous and disruptive power beyond what they might accomplish individually. These poems are—at some level—political poems (of the best sort: not pedantic, not soap box rhetoric). What is your desire as to what these poems might do out in the world, free as they are to leave the walls of the place about which you write? I guess I am asking you to address the age-old question: can poetry make something happen?
This question makes me smile because those are the words I remember writing in 7th grade. Both “rhyme” and “rhetoric” were on the spelling list, and I disrupted Mr. Buff’s punishment by making the words mean what I wanted them to mean instead of what they were supposed to mean. I was so oppositional. I still am. It’s interesting to think of that oppositionality manifesting way back then. And it’s interesting to think I may have written my poetic mission statement back then, but it seems to be true. I do believe that argument and persuasion and something to say are integral to language, so yes, it’s the relationship between them seeps into my writing. Perhaps it’s why sometimes I let go of line breaks. I feel (whether it’s actually there or not) a pressure in the poetry writing world to avoid argument, to avoid politics, to avoid making points in service to language. Maybe my problem is with MacLeish, “a poem should not mean but be.” I don’t think it’s possible. It’s language. It means something. If I follow my thought out from there, I must have a reason for writing that’s an attempt to make “something happen.” If I had to label it right now I guess I’d say I’m writing to make people pay attention, in this case to the education system. Attention is the most valuable thing we have. The only valuable thing.
I know a few poets who have lived and taught in Alaska for periods of time. All are back on the mainland now. You were born and raised on Chicago's South Side; in 1994, you left to get your MFA in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska. More than two decades. Do you think you’ll stay put? From a practical standpoint, it certainly makes the promotion of your books more difficult as you don’t have easy access to the reading venues that those of us on the mainland might enjoy.
I consider Alaska home now, so most likely, I’ll stay put. Yes, I do sometimes feel isolated as a poet. Even doubly so sometimes. Working in public education, I envy of the professorly connections that poets working in post-secondary education have. So I feel both geographical and professional isolation. But the online nature of the creative writing community lets me feel a part of things. I plan to I travel a lot and once You Are No Longer in Trouble comes out, I hope to travel, giving readings and workshops as much as possible. I’m hoping that I can visit both creative writing programs and teacher training programs to talk about the book. Overall though, my concern is getting the words on the page, and Fairbanks has been a good place for me to do that. The pace of life here has been good for my writing process.
(and a little side note here: Alaskans everything in the world that is not Alaska is “Outside”—always capitalized. To Alaskans there are 2 places to be, either home in Alaska or Outside. If we’re being specific about the US, we call the continental US “the lower 48.” “Mainland” is used by Hawaiian residents. The fact that I feel compelled to explain this is an example of how long I’ve lived in AK!)
Finally, have you begun work on a next project? If so, what can you tell us about it?
In 2020, my third collection of poems, Everything Never Comes Your Way, will be published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press that focuses on writers from Alaska. Unlike You Are No Longer in Trouble, that collection is lineated poems. These days I’ve been writing a lot about parenting a child with cancer. Two years ago, my eight-year-old had kidney cancer. She’s through chemo and doing well now. I’m in the process of shaping all the writing I did during that period into a memoir. So far it’s untitled, but I know it will be prose, not poetry. Somehow I can’t reconcile line breaks with what I have to do in that writing. I’ll debut the first story from that memoir in October at “Arctic Entries” in at the Performing Arts Center in Anchorage. It’s a live storytelling series akin to The Moth.
One Classroom Window
—Fairbanks, Alaska, December
On Monday the sun rises at 10:40. Red sky. Black clouds. Among the slouched backs, curved necks, and notebook-scrawling hands, one student noticed. A girl, the one writing about the room in which her mother died, says I have never seen a sunrise like that. You have never read a description of a hospital bed like the one she has written. So you stop class while all twenty-nine line up at the windows to watch. Fifty-eight eyes open out onto snow, the parking lot, the shovel-scraped sidewalk. Red brake lights and dull frosted stop signs. Red sky and burnt clouds. This morning, deep winter, sunrise comes, hours late, without excuse.
Through a Different Window
—Togiak, Alaska, Winter
You should have known that the dead walrus would be a problem. You should have known not to take the dog to the beach again after the first time he rolled in it.
Everyone knows only teachers walking their dogs walk that stretch of beach, past squat village houses against the gray sky, past the aging school with CRIPS painted on the side, past the round house where the herring fisherman come to stay in the season when boats buzz the bay and helicopters pass over low. It’s not herring season though.
It’s winter, but the bay’s not even frozen, so low tide reveals the walrus on the beach no matter how many times high tide tries to carry it away. Black rot. Stink stronger than the grapefruit liquid soap you brought from Anchorage, stronger than the weak shower in teacher housing, stronger than the common sense you thought you had.
What Not to Say to Your Students in the Juvenile Detention Center
Never say it. No matter how many times you’ve said it to other classes, thirty kids packing bags, checking phones. Don’t forget where you are now, post-job transfer career change, post-background checks, post-confidentiality agreement, post-Prison Rape Elimination Act Training. No one will have a good weekend, even if they earned all their points, even if Evangelical Christians, or therapy dogs, or the foster grandma who comes to play cards visits. The key lock box clicks and beeps approval as you leave on Friday afternoon. The swing shift is coming on. Not one of your students is going home. Never forget that.
You Are No Longer in Trouble
Mr. Buff rides a motorcycle to work and keeps a knife in his black boot. He pulls it out, cuts the apple on his desk into wedges and chews. As punishment for cheating on your math homework he makes you write a story using all the words on the spelling list. You write Rhyme and Rhetoric were walking down the Boulevard. You make them do bad things together. You make them so bad you might be afraid to meet them walking down the boulevard. At recess, pebbles scatter as you jump from the swing. You are no longer in trouble.