It has been a hot week in New Hampshire but the heat has not kept poet hope Jordan Hope from her daily walk on a hiking trail in Canterbury between I-93 and the Merrimack River. All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with the poet about her new collection The Day She Decided to Feed Crows.
Hope Jordan’s Top Five Reading Recommendations
1. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan. These poems tell the story of MacNolia Cox, the first African American to reach the final round of the national spelling bee. The structure of this book is compelling – Jordan uses a variety of poetic forms and voices, and takes us back and forth through time. It’s a perfect example of how poetry can elevate history.
2. Without by Donald Hall. With the recent death of Donald Hall, I’ve been thinking about how important his poems have been to me over the years. His book Without is an eloquent examination of loss.
3. Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith. Her latest book was nominated for the Pulitzer, and her book Blood Dazzler, about Hurricane Katrina, is amazing, but I’m plugging this autobiographical book of poems from 2012. Nobody writes like Patricia Smith. Her combinations of form, sound and vernacular are masterful. When I finished this book it literally took my breath away.
4. Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian. This book won the Pulitzer in 2016, and I go back to it for the combination of elegance and energy in the lines. I’m even more excited about the new work I’ve heard Peter read this summer, what he calls “meditations” on things like apricots, eggplant, figs.
5. Where You'll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne. I loved this nonfiction book by a local author and press, about the death of a woman hiking in the Whites. It’s a fascinating examination of human nature. What surprised me was how much I learned about our state’s rescue operations as well. It’s really well-told.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Jordan, who is 53, seems happy to be on the trail. Lots of her time in recent years has been spent away from Canterbury in Boston, where she's working on her MFA at the University of Massachusetts. She has two dogs and one of them joins us on the walk, a good natured mixed breed named Sierra. Nature figures prominently in Jordan's poetry. In her new collection, The Day She Decided to Feed Crows, it's easy to find a reference to a tree or a flower or wildlife like crows and snakes. She seems at home as we reach our destination, a clearing with a breathtaking view.
So we're at the top of a sandy bluff overlooking the Merrimack River. There's a big curve in the river here so we're seeing some farmland that's embraced by the river and there's a line of trees and the little sandy beach and then beyond us is the summit of Mount Kearsarge.
At this clearing, I asked Jordan about the importance of nature in her work.
Being here in New Hampshire and being outside is really important to the writing that I do. I mean I don't know if I'd call myself a nature poet but probably other people would.
Other people would call you a nature poet.
Probably I guess. It’s funny because when I moved here it felt like everybody was writing nature poetry because I was exposed to the wonderful traditions of Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall. So it felt like everybody was writing in that vein. But then when I get into the larger world you know there's really just not as much nature poetry. It's not as in vogue or whatever.
And you study in the MFA program at UMass Boston, right?
Yes. One of the strange things about my program is that I actually chose to be a fiction major, which is weird.
But you're writing poetry.
I applied there in both fiction and poetry. They accepted me in both and I had to decide but I had to come to terms a long time ago with the fact that I'm always going to write poetry, no matter what. And fiction is also this thing that I'm trying to do and doing sort of well sometimes. And I took a poetry workshop at UMass Boston this past semester so I'm always doing both. And I've tried really hard to like focus on one or just not think about it and see if one emerges as the dominant genre for me but it hasn't happened yet.
Writing poetry like you do requires a lot of work, a lot of revising. How do you know when a poem is done?
Usually I'll take a draft of a poem and I'll work up a couple, three, four drafts and bring it to my writers group, The Yogurt Poets. Then I'll revise it based on their feedback. Then usually I have a beta reader, and we are each other's beta reader, so I'll run it by her. Then if I have further revisions I'll do those and then I'll send it out if I feel good about it and if it gets published then it's done. If it never gets published then maybe I'll go back to it, maybe I'll throw it away and never look at it again, maybe I'll consider it done and send it out a year later.
And you're also involved in slam poetry.
I was. I've mostly retired from, I totally retired from that but I was the first coach and slam master in the state of New Hampshire so that was the most fun thing ever.
So why give it up if it was so much fun?
To be really good at it, you have to be working at it a lot. So, like a standup comedian, you have to be out in the clubs two, three, four nights a week trying out your stuff. And there was no way I could commit to getting that good.
So the poetry you're writing right now you don't consider slammable?
Slam is such an artform.
What's the difference between a slammable poem and a non-slammable poem?
I think it's different for everybody. So for me I don't write specifically for slam but I have poems that might be slammable. For example, there's a poem in that book “Janis Joplin’s Sestina.” It's a good length for slam which is about three minutes long, a little under three minutes and it has a lot of opportunity for physical interpretation. I could even try to sing during it if I wanted to. So it's a really good poem, if I were going to slam anything it would be that poem. But I didn't write it to slam. People who are experts slammers, they write to get a reaction from the audience. So I guess maybe it would be the difference between maybe somebody like David Sedaris writing a humor piece or an essay versus, you know, another comedian writing standup. You know it's like, it's two different things.
Hope Jordan, thank you very much for speaking with me about your book.
Yeah, thanks for taking a walk with me today.