Poet Erin Adair-Hodges discusses her new book Every Form of Ruin and accessibility issues within the literary community
Erin Adair-Hodges, author of Let’s All Die Happy (winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize), has released a new collection, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press as part of their Pitt Poetry Series. Every Form of Ruin is an examination of fury, a kind of righteous rage that women, nonbinary, and femme-identifying people are told to suppress and deny. Instead, Adair-Hodges gives voice to that anger, interrogating its sources and pushing through marginalization and violence to find purpose and, possibly, even joy, says a press release.
Erin Adair-Hodges was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. A graduate of New Mexico State, she earned her Master’s degree at the University of Arizona and taught in Albuquerque and Santa Fe at the secondary and collegiate levels. A former professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, she is now a fiction editor at Lake Union Publishing. She currently lives in Kansas City with her husband, son, and very old rescue dog.
Erin sat down for a conversation with The Pitch ahead of her book release Friday, March 31, at 7 p.m. at Wise Blood Booksellers/Mills Record Company. Erin will be reading with poet Jenny Molberg.
The Pitch: Congratulations on publishing your most recent collection, Every Form of Ruin. What are you most proud of with the process of this book?
Erin Adair-Hodges: I think that my initial or even perhaps first five emotions are not pride. I was brought up with these self-effacing expectations, particularly as a woman. One of the things my great-grandmother used to say is, “Stop talking about yourself, you sound arrogant.”
You couldn’t talk about your own achievements; you couldn’t do any of that. So even though I feel like I’ve done a lot of work to move beyond those lessons, there is still an element of that inculcation. But I also think it’s a healthy example, as a woman, to be like, “Well, no, this is something I achieved—that I worked hard at. I set goals and achieve them.”
I think the book’s existence is a bit of a surprise. It took quite a few years to write, to sit with, to order, to revise. And for a lot of that time, I didn’t have a clear sense of the intentions of a collection. I was writing individual poems for a long time before I was able to listen to them enough to get a sense of what they were perhaps collaboratively saying, and then continue to write to that.
I finished an early draft of this in February 2020, and my best friend and I went to Lawrence, and we rented a place for a night because I have a family, and it’s hard to focus and lay out poems where people aren’t going to be stepping on them. The process is laying the individual poems on the floor and visually moving them around, speaking to order what stays and what goes. And so I did that. That was a really early draft.
And then, of course, March 2020. I kind of got distracted. So, I think the fact that this exists is perhaps a testament to doggedness.
What was the greatest challenge you faced while writing this book?
The challenges in terms of writing were separate from the artistry. I think one was simply finding time, which I think it’s important for writers to talk about so that we disrupt some myths about writing and art-making. Some writers will say the most fundamental thing you can do is write every day. Joyce Carol Oates is like, yeah, all you need to do is write four hours in the morning, go on a two-hour run, write for four more hours, do another run, and then you’ll write like 17 books a year. And I’m like, “That sounds great, Joyce Carol Oates. That’s not how my life works.” So one of the challenges was definitely making a consistent effort to sit down and listen to what wanted to be said.
And that can be very difficult, especially not just the duties of work but also the duties of caregiving, which I always want to include because while I have a lot of joy from the relationships in my life, there’s also a tremendous amount of work. And that’s work that can’t wait. You can’t be like, “Oh, I’m really sorry, children. Can you learn how to cook? Can you diaper yourself? Fantastic.”
One challenge is just simply finding that time for myself, time for my thoughts, because a lot of poetry writing is simply scary. I might write down a word now and then.
The artistic challenge is one challenge I gave myself. I felt like I got fairly good at writing a certain kind of poem, and I didn’t want to keep writing that poem just because I cracked it and I can get a fairly good response. I didn’t want to settle into that safety. So, I very intentionally set some goals to use other voices.
There’s a lot of persona work in this new book, I mean, you should never conflate the poet and the speaker. I think that’s always something people do a lot, like, “Oh, my gosh, tell me about when you went through this.” And, like, the poem is about me becoming a dragon. Maybe not literal. But that was an intentional push beyond. Whenever I’m feeling like I’m playing it safe, I want to try something new.
How is your new collection both different from and the same as your debut collection, Let’s All Die Happy?
Let’s All Die Happy is very much a typical first collection in that I thought about it as a collection of poems I wrote over an amount of time, loosely united by thematic and stylistic choices. A lot of it was written out of my experiences of postpartum depression, a feeling of disappearing. And a lot of it was trying to speak against the silencing that I was feeling because we’re talking about motherhood. I was feeling very much these expectations that I was to sublimate all other aspects of myself to my role as a mother. I was expected to take that and supplant everything else. And I couldn’t do that. I started to lose it, like, where did I go? Where am I? And the poems were very much trying to find that.
In the second collection, I use humor a lot, a sort of dark humor. I’m moving more into a persona, less just through the lens of personal experience, although, of course, that’s how I understand the world. I’m going to do that really annoying thing when a poet quotes themselves.
I wrote this poem about aging. I was on this hike with three women who were all 16 years younger than me, and they were up the mountain, and I fell. And, I’m understanding that I am limited by this body, but it’s the only vehicle I have, right? So, the experiences I have in this body are what frame my initial explorations and understandings of the world. But my job is to push beyond those. I think that’s what this book was trying to do. It’s less about feeling like you’re disappearing and getting mad about that. The book is an exploration of women’s rage, righteous rage, it’s clear that we should have it, and we’re told not to express it. And then when we do, we’re belittled and dismissed, and I want to just spend time with that, and not apologize about being mad.
What are some of the most important influences on your work? This could be other writers, events or people in your life, pop culture, or anything at all.
Totally off the top of my head: where I grew up in New Mexico. Anyone who knows me probably has a bingo card that, every time I say New Mexico, they get to mark it off. I was born and raised there. I’ve lived most of my adult life there in a small town in the Rio Grande Valley. It was very formative to my experiences and my cultural understanding of myself.
My formative years were in the ’90s. That’s when I was in high school and college and early adulthood. And I know there’s this nostalgia for the ’90s right now, so I’m trying not to fall into it because I think that’s a really useless, and even maybe counterproductive emotion. I’m trying to learn where I am now by looking back at that a little bit. I am writing some pop culture stuff that looks back at the things we thought are idealized. I’m working on one that’s about The Real World.
And, of course, I’m reading a ton of fiction right now because my job is as a fiction acquisitions editor. I still read a lot of poetry, but I’m deeply immersed in fiction, and thinking about character and plot in these ways as an editor that I don’t always as a reader, and that’s been really fun, getting to appreciate the work and discovering new writers and going back to writers I love.
When I first started writing—I will be very candid—I was basically rewriting Beatles lyrics. And this other friend of mine would just do Doors versions, so it all sounded like thrown-away lyrics.
Can you tell us about the March Midwest Poetry Series reading that you just participated in?
What I love about this is it began in 1983. Beginning in the fall, they will be celebrating their 40th anniversary. It was founded to bring nationally known poetry talent to the Kansas City area. And since moving here, I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to see so many wonderful poets like Ada Limon and Naomi Shihab Nye. And, they bring in talent that lives here locally, like Bridget Lowe and Jenny Molberg, for example. The people who run this series are all fantastic and very committed to this idea of bringing people to the heartland. It’s for Rockhurst students, but anyone can come, and that’s what I love. It’s free. You go in and have access to some really, really incredible talent.
Can you tell us about your book launch party at Wise Blood Books on March 31?
We’re doing it in collaboration with Bear Review. They’re starting a reading series based out of Kansas City, so we’re one of the inaugural events. We’re really excited about that. And we also really wanted to partner with Judy at Mills for a long time. She’s fantastic—such a community supporter. And, of course, Wise Blood Books is out of there as well. It just seems like a really great opportunity to enact what some of us have been talking about for a few years, and we got sidelined because of the pandemic. There’s such a vibrant literary community here, but we don’t always know how to connect all the pieces. I hope to be a part of that, to continue that, to listen to where people are at and get them to go to more events. There’s this great KC poetry calendar that recently got started on Instagram. So I would check them out.
The book launch party involves Jenny Molberg and me reading because her book, The Court of No Record, was recently published. We’re calling this reading “Ladies Lazarus Rise Again” because our first book tour together was “Ladies Lazarus,” taken from the end of the Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus,” which goes: “out of the ash, I rise with my red hair, and I eat men like air.”
Our books are sort of companion books in that they interrogate the various ways of silencing, speaking against silencing, and asking what that entails. They’re very different; we’re very different poets, but at the same time, very aligned in thematic intentions. We’ll also be joined by poets Hadara Bar-Nadav, Bridget Lowe, and Courtney Faye Taylor.
It’s going to be a party! Sometimes poetry readings are stale, and you really don’t want to do that. But I like to say that this is worth getting a sitter for. Make it a night.
What are your thoughts on literary citizenship and the importance of writers supporting each other and promoting each other’s work?
That’s such a valuable question, and I think that it can look like a lot of different things. I think that if you are adept with social media and that’s a comfortable space for you, that, of course, can be a fantastic way to share what you’re reading. I’m not particularly comfortable in that space. I can use it, but I have to really psych myself up and be like, okay, all right. 3 p.m.—I’ll put something on Instagram. I’ll actually put on some music to get myself pumped. And it’s okay. I’m much better at promoting others than myself.
But I think it can look like a lot of different things. Going to events, for example. And then I think that if you happen to be a writer who is able to achieve some level right of publishing or notoriety, I’m always trying to look around like, who needs my hand? Because I didn’t have connections. I didn’t come straight out of a program. I was 41 when my book was published. I didn’t know anybody. And it was a few people who saw me and saw what I could do and reached out. I really try to do that as well.
Then there are things like people starting a reading series. That’s great. I did that in Albuquerque when I lived there with Rebecca Aronson. We started Bad Mouth. It was a reading and music series, and we designed it to really have a holistic art experience and have artists across genres like music, visual art, and poetry collaborate because there wasn’t something like that already in Albuquerque.
Find what speaks to you and your talents and abilities to build community. And when you can’t do it, it’s okay if you need to take a break. That’s okay.
Tell us about the accessibility collective you’re forming for writers in the KC area, especially concerning how anti-trans laws would impact the accessibility of the 2024 AWP conference in Kansas City.
This is in the very early stages, but I’m having some conversations with people. That includes reaching out to people I didn’t know, seeing them on social media, seeing them talk about certain issues, asking if they would like to be part of the conversation, and building a framework.
What I don’t want to do is say, “I have an idea, and I’m building a framework, and everyone can come in.”
That’s the antithesis because there are already support systems that exist here. So how can we connect with people who are doing that work? Mostly, it comes out of a concern to push back against our state’s legislation and to let people know who are visiting Kansas City, and also the people who already live here, that there’s a community. There are people committed to ensuring not just safety, because that’s the bare minimum, but having equal space to thrive.
I also want to be careful. It’s not about me according to space. I don’t have that kind of power. Nor is it mine to give. I’m just asking how I can be of service to others. And it might just be a lot of connecting people and listening, which would be great. But anyone interested in that can send me an email on my website. Again, it’s pretty early stages. So I don’t want to overstate what’s happening.
I’ll say that there are some calls to boycott AWP here or to ask them to move it. But then there were some responses, like—most of the AWP conferences have been held in coastal cities. Rather than just trying to move it to a space where politics align, how do we support people in spaces like Kansas City, who are doing this work already, and beyond? And really, Kansas City serves as a haven, I think, in some ways, for this entire area. Rather than dismissing that, there’s potentially more work to be done. We want to ask, “Okay, how can we all be a part of moving forward?”
Do you have any advice for fledgling poets hoping to break into writing and publishing professionally?
A lot of times, the first thing I’ll say, in terms of advice, is that I don’t listen to advice. If people are speaking, they might be speaking about their experiences, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to yours. So, for example, the advice to write every day, if I heard that, I might get really defeated because I can’t do that at this point in my life. And I might think, well, what’s the point? So, listen to what makes you feel heard and seen.
The one thing I have found that’s probably the closest thing I have to maybe universal guidance is that you will fail. But that’s not the end of it. It’s not a period after “you will fail.” It could be a comma, could be a semicolon; I love an em dash, right? That failure is the opportunity to reflect and then to learn. If I could have put that into my 20-something-year-old brain and had her really know that and how to not see failure as the end or as a value statement or a judgment on my potential, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache.
So, going into writing a poem, I don’t expect that first draft to be the end of anything. I expect it to be the beginning.