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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview with Erin Malone

JG: The title of your collection, Hover, and the cover of your book both suggest hesitation to me, although they could equally represent the act of looking down from above, or they might have some other meaning entirely for you. Is there a relationship between the title and the cover? Please tell us about how you came to choose each, and if their selection was interrelated.

EM: Hover
is about loss—the death of my brother in childhood—and the consequential fear of loss, which I experienced when my son was born. I like the dual nature of the word hover, which can connote an active, overreaching protectiveness, and also passivity, a hovering at the edge of things. In my book, it’s both: the presence of the past and my anxious hovering over my newborn son. Honestly, I don’t remember how I came to the title, since the book was 12 years in the making and underwent scores of revisions; there is no poem called “Hover” in the book, though the word appears once, thanks to a friend’s suggestion—she noticed its absence, and thought it might bother readers. Now when you read my book, you can go on an egg hunt for the word!

I’m glad you asked about the cover, which is a painting called “Risen” by the artist Eric Zener. I searched for just the right art, and Zener was incredibly generous in letting my press use it. In it, a woman diver has climbed a long way—we can tell by the clouds behind her—and because we can’t see where the ladder ends, we get the feeling that she still has a ways to go. And here’s the hesitation, I think: she’s looking over her shoulder and considering how far she’s come, and maybe thinking about whether she can make it the rest of the way. She’s in-between; what better metaphor for motherhood? Parents are always looking back at the early days and thinking about the next stages. And though the painting uses dark colors, when I look at it I feel an earned hopefulness. She’s going to make it.

JG: A truly unique aspect of this collection is the section break pages which are each entitled “Symbols to Guide Your Viewing,” and numbered, and which then give a key to certain symbols. Why are these important to your book? Tell us as much as you are inclined to about their origin and function.

EM: Whenever I go to a museum, I find myself focusing on the plaques that accompany the art, which explain the origin of the piece and something about the artist. Who is the lucky person whose job that is? It’s an art in and of itself, I think, and so appealing: the side-note, not the star, like theater stagehands in dark clothing silently changing the props between scenes. Anyway, I saw a beautiful exhibit of Australian aboriginal art, and the placards were instrumental in explaining the symbols used. That exhibit inspired me to write “Symbols to Guide Your Viewing,” in which I borrow some of the language and symbols from the exhibit—boomerang, traveling tracks, ceremonial ground, U shapes—interpret them, and make my own as well. It started as a single poem, but I was finishing my manuscript and thinking about how to make the sections more interesting than 1, 2, 3. When I broke the poem up, I realized it addressed the themes I was setting out in the sections. So each of these little notes serves to enhance or hint at what you’ll see in the poems of each section. I feel lucky that I saw that exhibit when I did.

JG: List-making is a technique you employ repeatedly in your book, in poems such as “Questions for My Brother,” “Cuttings,” “Objects Not Visible to the Human Eye,” and “Fable.” In particular, you make lists of ephemeral things. Is this a way of trying to hold onto the ungraspable? Are these talismans against the sense of loss that so permeates your book? Are you also a list-maker in everyday life? Tell us about the function of lists in your art.

EM: I think the lists in this book are the speaker’s way of trying to keep control, and, as you point out, of what ultimately can’t be held. The brother whose death means all her questions have finite answers, no matter how often asked; the baby, growing away from her. In “Objects Not Visible to the Human Eye,” which happens to be the first poem I wrote after my son was born, there’s really a desperation underlying the list. If I put marks on paper it means I’m here, I exist, right? In that poem the speaker is so dislocated, and spinning . . . . Until you asked this question, I didn’t realize how many lists are here, so I would have to say I’m not an intentional list maker. I am an insomniac, though, and in the middle of the night when my mind won’t stop, I’ll finally get up to write things I have to do in the next day or week so that I can go to sleep. And I suppose that sometimes my poems do start from little theme clouds, like, for example, classifications of languages—so maybe I’m more of a list maker than I thought.

JG: Is there any poem in the book that you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved? If so, please tell us about why it is important to you.

EM: “Black Forest” is a poem I’m proud of and attached to and yet it didn’t appeal to journal editors. It’s a poem that took me years, fiddling with the form until I got it just right. One half of it is a poem, and the other half is a letter I wrote to a friend while I was living in Germany with my husband and one year old son. The letter is italicized, and it’s merged into the poem. You’re meant to read each half separately but also line by line, so that you experience this weird doubling going on:

Black Forest

All winter I’ve stared. This window is winter
            Dear___, no phone since we left
& reads like a block of ice, like vision
            almost a month ago. This morning
without my coke-bottles on.
            I bundled the baby & walked fast.
It shares the dark & my superstitions: three witches,
            My mouth went numb
a draft. I moved the bassinet. If this window
            from cold, my glasses fogged—
is a mind it marbles with the late afternoon
            I turned back. Tired of
light. From outside, a small room lined
            my own voice. Everything
with the radiators’ teeth. If this window
            I say I say twice. Did I tell you
is a mirror it’s a reasonable facsimile
            he looks like Shawn? Maybe a shadow of
of me, a little fatter, blurred
my brother in him. Why is it
recall. If it’s a door to my past, it’s cracked
            death is never done? You said
just so the blind clatters when I ask
            I cannot shut the door. It’s true
who’s there. This window is my baby,
            his birth made me afraid.
all eyes. Its portrait of the trees shows
            Nothing here
each bare joint as wishbone. If this window
            could harm him. Farmland, horses
is my body you must see
            serene, the sky intact. A few people,
its borders. How far can it travel?
            their dogs. If only my mind weren’t so wild.

And that doubling is key to the book, the blurring of son and brother.

JG: What kinds of poems are you writing, post-publication of Hover? Are you continuing with the themes of motherhood, loss of a sibling, discontent with traditional familial roles, and dislocation, or are new ones now prevalent in your work? Is your style consistent or changing?

EM: The poems I’m writing are again about loss, personal and communal; violence, and the fragility of memory.  They’re also different because I’m trying to tell a larger story, not just my own, so unlike Hover, I’m using more points of view. Specifically, when I was 13, two boys my age from my hometown were abducted and murdered. The first disappeared in September, and the second in December. The killer wasn’t caught until January, and for all that time the community was bound by fear. This was in a small bedroom community, that idealized place where things like this don’t happen. That’s the main story, and it’s complicated by the fact that the first boy’s body was found on the day my 11-year-old brother died. Because of timing, they were buried next to each other. But the other story is that I’d forgotten the boys, the murders, the paralyzed town—or I hadn’t confronted them in my memory—until a couple of years ago, when my own son turned 11. Suddenly there it was, like a house in my neighborhood that I’d never noticed before. Now I’m doing the research and writing poems around the subject. There’s this terrible center but right now I’m staying on the outer edges of it, just revolving here, kind of sizing it up.

As for my style changing, I’m probably not the best judge of that. But I will say that Hover is about disorientation, and the poems reflect that, I think, in their fragmentation and haste. The poems I’m writing now feel different, more direct or controlled, maybe.

JG: After readers finish your book, what would you suggest they read next?

Well, first I’d like to tell them thanks for reading my book! And thank you for these insightful questions, Jessica.

What to read next? I’ve got two of Laura Kasischke’s books I carry around with me: The Infinitesimals, and Space, in Chains. I read these poems again and again and see something new every time. I’m rereading Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, for its layers and testimony. And I really like reading first collections—right now Sonia Greenfield’s Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market, Jessica Johnson’s In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, and Michael Morse’s Void and Compensation.

You can buy a copy of Hover directly from Tebot Bach, or from SPD, or from

Poets who are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by leaving a comment in the comments field, or email me directly at  


Karen Paul Holmes said...

Interesting interview, thanks to the two of you! And the poem is wonderful -- I'm glad you explained about the alternating lines.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

It's a wonderful poem, and a compelling book--I recommend it to all poets. And all siblings. And mothers.

Erin M said...

Thank you so much!