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After the MFA: Some Questions for Jeremy Hoevenaar
Encountering Jeremy Hoevenaar several years ago, I found him to be such a pure poet that I said, “Jeremy, you’re such a pure poet that I think you would only quit writing because you were heartbroken,” and I meant heartbroken by poetry itself. Of course, I can now hedge my statement by claiming that I was trashed, but, no, I actually said it sober. In any case, here’s an update on Jeremy:
What were some of the biggest surprises, pleasant or otherwise, upon leaving college as MFA graduate in creative writing?
Something that surprised me quite a bit after finishing my MFA program was the degree to which I suddenly felt bereft. There was a kind of cloying emptiness in my core (appended to the one already present!) for about a year after I left and which I felt all the more sharply the following summer when the program was starting up again and friends of mine were departing for it. There was a sense of missing the boat, although I had already been on the boat, gone where it was taking me, gotten off in a new place. I think that’s a testament to the general loveliness of the people that are/were involved in the program and the success of the program’s attempt to generate a real community within its confines. Though it’s more complex than that: not everybody was lovely all the time – not even me – and as a community an MFA program is very selective, could even be accused of a kind of elitism, and of course it’s a community you pay/go into debt to participate in. MFA programs are under fire a lot these days, and there is a lot to be critical about. But I had an amazing, life-changing experience at mine, which I am very grateful for. I was surprised at how depressed I felt when I was finished – and what broke me through that was continuing to participate in the community of folks that I had met there, an ever-expanding community that is a kind of indefinite extension of the MFA program in space/time. I loved that place, and I missed it for a long time.
I was also surprised by how little work I made for a while after I finished school. This was mostly a reaction to the intensity of feedback and criticism I received over the course of three summers. There was the gradual and expansive shock of no longer making work for the relatively defined context of the MFA program – of knowing I would be writing in the larger, even more confusing, less interested “real world” (that was a distinction often made – the MFA program as “not the real world” – which I don’t agree with, actually, feeling like I did real work there and had real conversations and made real friends). I felt scrambled, overinformed, and it took some time to find a head space where I could use what I learned as an extension (is education prosthetic?!) of my own sensibilities. I was also surprised to find that I had been given honors, which I don’t say here to brag (who’s impressed?), but to illustrate the fact that, contrary to how I felt, my participation in that community was valuable to others, which was really gratifying. Because I worried about what I was offering to that group, and at least some folks thought I offered something valuable, which meant a tremendous lot to me.
Knowing what you know now, would you have gone to college to study creative writing?
Well – even if all I have learned over the past six years was knowledge/experience I “possessed” when I applied – I would say yes. Not only did I learn a lot, I also had fun. Some of the most fun I have ever had, I think. And the fun was important, half of the value of the whole experience. I’m not down on fun – it has a useful side as well as a sinister one. You have a line in previous Harriet post: “Avoid amusement parks, especially MFA writing programs.” Which of course gives me pause, makes me wonder what the overall tone of this interview actually is – but which is a very useful line in a variety of ways. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that there was something amusement park-like about the MFA program – its kind of contained, insular, thriving and mutating spectacle of thought, expressiveness, conflict, confusion, doubt, and generosity. It felt like a roller coaster. Getting all that frequently conflicting feedback felt like being in a hall of mirrors. My relationship to my work and to myself as a writer and to myself as a self were distorted, jerked around, roughly handled, given a ride, a few rides, more than a few, all in the name of – what? Well, not fun, but breaking apart my expectations regarding my own work and its place in the overall continuum and community of working. In all of that violence done to my poetic personhood I still always felt cared for. But yes I had to pay to be so generously and craftily abused, I had to be tall enough to ride the rides, and I found myself unable to avoid the temptation to spend even more money in the gift shop. I’m unquestionably a better person for it. Mostly because of the people I met who continue to be a positive and intelligent and graceful (and fun) force in my life. I’m also unquestionably a person in fairly significant debt. I heard someone say the other day “Life’s no fun if you’re not in debt.” I don’t resent it. It may be a corrupt system – but the other debt I incurred is to those I learned from, faculty and students, and is one I evolve and grow through as I repay it by incorporating that learning into my practice as a writer and my life as a human. I could potentially have found my own way to things without the program, but I am not really sure it would have happened that way. In some respects I was ideally suited for the MFA program when I applied. There was a vast amount (as there still is) that I was unaware of. I had no bachelor’s degree. I was so certain I wouldn’t get in that I almost didn’t care if I did or not. Being able to map my course through things in retrospect – yes I would still go. I’d like to go again, actually.
I don’t think an MFA (and attendant debt) is necessary, at all, if one wants to become a better or more informed writer/artist. I think for some people, if they find themselves in a position to do it, it makes sense. It made sense for me because of how little I knew, basically, and how poorly self-motivated I was at the time. Which is an argument for the idea that, the less informed and resourceful a person is, the more attractive that person should be to institutions of higher learning – simply because such a person may stand to gain more than someone who can get their own ball rolling.
What did your writing professors teach you? How were you inspired, mislead, discouraged, nurtured or misshapened while in college?
It was very important for me to be in dialogue with and get conflicting opinions about my work from people who, in my view and relative to me, possessed authority (or were granted authority by me) and had more experience. This put me in a position to figure things out for myself while also having an evolving set of variously informed opinions to turn over in my hands, have all kinds of feelings about, and go through various stages of anxiety over. I was posed questions I would never have thought to ask myself at that time. A question like “Who’s Speaking?” – this coming from being lead to read Lyn Hejinian, whose work ended up being important to me. It was a question that blew my mind and made me feel like a fraud for never having thought to ask it before. But feeling like a fraud was good, useful, and a good place to start from when writing poetry – if one can incorporate it, use it to get somewhere, rather than getting choked off by it. Most of my default modes when it came to writing were subjected to questioning. During my first year, I was told by a faculty member to “be generous” with myself. The work I was making then was clipped, careful, afraid, staid, and probably boring to read. I myself, as a person in that environment, was also clipped, careful, afraid, though hopefully not boring. Being told to be generous in practice as writer and student and person effectively exploded these insecurities and got me to write and interact with people in ways I hadn’t previously. I learned that my unquestioned notions about what constituted a poem were just that: unquestioned notions. Then I started to learn how to question them. After making various messes it was suggested that I anchor them, tether them into legibility. So these two concepts in play with each other – anchoring a mess – became a kind of appropriately vague paradigm for me. Which is really just an interplay between chaos and order, which is always at work in the language, and everywhere else. But I was inspired, mislead, discouraged, nurtured, and misshapened into being able to see that. Once I was told that my work was violent, like George Orwell’s image of a boot coming down on the face of the reader at each period. I still think about that. I’d like my boots to be poethical, as it were.
How are you surviving now? How do plan on surviving in the future?
I survive off of freelance art handling work and odd jobs. Much better than working retail, which I did for almost ten years. In the future, or even now, if the future decided to be now, I’d like for my survival work to run more closely parallel with my writing/reading work – which means that I would like to teach. But I like my jobs and the people I work with now very much. And the jobs I have happen to have come through people I met and developed relationships with while in graduate school. So that’s an important aspect of the extended community of that place. The MFA program expanded my world in quite a few beneficial ways. I think the idea that one goes to such a program for a degree to secure future employment turns out to be not very realistic. I have an MFA now, which means, maybe, I’m more likely to get hired to teach somewhere. But I’d be more likely to find such work through people I had met there. Again, there’s a lot one could choose to be cynical about regarding this, and maybe I’m missing a real opportunity that way. It’s just that I feel like things are gradually getting better for me employment-wise, and the relationships I made in school have a played a significant role in that trend. I’d like to quit smoking, which certainly couldn’t hurt my chances for surviving in the future.
Who do you associate with now, and how are these people different than when you were in school?
I don’t feel like there is much of a difference in terms of who I associate with. I know more people who write and make art than I used to. The community that makes up “the people I associate with” – and I’d like to consider that a community, though not everybody always knows everybody else – this community gets bigger as it gets bigger, if that makes sense.
What is your relationship to the poetry community?
I’m not sure a single poetry community exists. I’m positive it doesn’t actually, except maybe in the sense that Lyn Hejinian talks about it (she’s on my mind, now) – where a person doing something that someone else is also doing, or has done at any point in the past or will do at any point in the future, is a member of the community of those people doing that thing. Which is interesting to think about in terms of what the word “community” might be held to mean and where one chooses to set those parameters. There are provisional and impromptu and mutating communities everywhere all the time. And there are those that people are working very hard to sustain. There are a whole lot of poetry communities that interact in various ways at various times. But while all poets are doing the same thing, they are also not doing the same thing. Sometimes very pointedly and with not very generous attitudes. A single poetry community would have to in some way be in dialogue with itself in constructive ways – but too often people are just hurling claims at each other. Maybe that’s a way for a community to evolve – but I don’t think it’s the best way. I also don’t think it’s likely to change. Do communities need to work against other communities to define themselves? War all the time! Maybe if all poets were banished from the republic – maybe then we would have one nice smoothly functioning monolithic poem-culture for ourselves.
I find myself more engaged with more people who also write poetry these days. I tend to benefit from those engagements by gaining knowledge. I hope those I engage with feel the same way. But I am not involved in anything as rigorously engaged as something like the Nonsite Collective – which is a group whose writing work and efforts at building, re/defining, and transforming community I greatly admire. Maybe – just by saying that – I’ve thrown myself into their community in some way. But I go to as many readings as I can, read as much poetry as I can, and talk to people about their work and my work when there are opportunities for that. Which are opportunities that I sometimes help create as a member of some kind of poetry community.
How have you evolved as a poet, post college?
I’m more constructively confused. Maybe I’ve gained something in the negative capability department. The more I read and the more I talk to other people who write or think about poetry, the more capably confused my work becomes. It’s strange to think about capability in relation to making poems, even stranger to think of the capability of a poem. But me and my poems are trying to handle things that we haven’t handled before all the time, which is what the evolution has been, and where I aim to keep it going. I like the idea of “Make it new to me” – where what’s new to me is always changing based not only on what I do but the work of others’ that I engage with. The MFA program shot me out on a trajectory that I’m still following, and mostly I like where I am in terms of the writing, so I’m grateful to that program.
What would be the ideal role for a poet in this society?
Unlegislated acknowledger? This question begs a thousand more, and needs its own dedicated blog. Luckily I have a stack of books in my lap to aid me in hazarding an answer. I find Chris Toll’s lines from The Disinformation Phase agreeable: “The job of poets is not to explain the Mystery. / The job of poets is to make the Mystery greater.” Which is not to say that poets should set out to mystify people (or animals), but that unclear and possibly unanswerable questions may be fruitfully addressed/explored/clarified though various non-prescribed performances of/engagements with language. This in the sense of Charles Bernstein’s statement in Content’s Dream that a poem may become “a method that shows how ordering and sequence assert values, how form limits/conditions what you can say in it.” Which is to say that poets can work with language and make language, meaning, and the world (our forms) unfamiliar enough so that we question how they are operating/being operated. There are plenty of prescriptions that look and feel like choices. Ideally anybody, not just poets, should be able to learn to look closely enough to see what’s being/has been prescribed. I think poetry is useful in that respect. And I don’t mean to say that one can’t work successfully toward solutions through writing. Oppen’s lines from Primitives, also – “till other voices wake / us or we drown” – this kind of working with/in language can pull one out of stupor and foster community. One ideal role for poetry is to limit (or delimit, measure) stupor. Perhaps poets just need to make poems the poems themselves have the ideal social role to play. But I think there are too many roles (and too many societies) for there to be an ideal one. I admire this statement by Robert Kocik: “It’s the hallucination of unrestricted literacy. The poet impersonates who the poem requires until it is redoubtable.” Perhaps the ideal role for the poet is the performance of self that the poem at hand requires. It’s really a tough question to try and answer seriously without sounding vaguely ridiculous and/or messily half-stating a flustered politics – so thanks for asking it! I’m tempted to say that one is a poet when engaging in certain ways with poetry. Not burning it, but thinking about it, writing it, reading it. Because those are acts of a kind of attention that I’m going obviously to call poetic attention. Which might lead to poetic intention. And we can hope those intentions are ethical as well as poetic as they lead to actions. But I think poetry can reveal what’s stubbornly embedded and unquestioned (ethics included) in language and in thinking, unearth it and move it around, for the general betterment. I’d like for you to answer this question, if you will: what’s the ideal society for the role of the poet?