An interview with Rachel Hyman.

30 Oct


We met Rachel Hyman in Detroit and created a chapbook with her the first day we knew her. This is the way with Rachel Hyman.


Do you find your style evolving as you continue to write, or do you find yourself continuing to explore and perfect certain forms, with all their depths and complexity?


All of the above, I think. When I first started writing, I was super into flarf and appropriation. That’s gotten toned down as I’ve found other productive ways of creative expression and developed my own voice. I guess I still take a lot of inspiration from cultural ephemera and the detritus of (post)modern life. That could be an inheritance from my roots in flarf, or just an epiphenomenal thing. I like accidental poetry (seems important to differentiate this from found poetry), and recontextualization. Poetry is a wide, warm terrain. I am always walking the line between making poetry that is wide open and utterly unsubtle, and making poetry that lies way too far beyond the pale of interpretation. Most days I lean closer to the latter, obtuse side of things. More lyric than narrative. And generally short, concentrated bursts—the same way that I think. In the last few years I’ve been exploring repetition a lot as a device.


Do you have a process for approaching a new poem? Do you tend to plan in a formal way, or do you just write?


Lord knows that if I sit down with the stated intention of Writing A Poem, that’s the last thing that’s going to happen. Poetry is integrated into my life, and the way I write follows from that. It’s not a separate sphere of higher being where I ascend to and receive wisdom from the poetry gods. Without trying to sound overly whimsical, if you listen, really listen, poetry is everywhere. So I’m always just idly thinking in poetic terms, observing the world and my interior in that way. I think of a lot of lines in the shower, or as I’m drifting off to sleep, or with other people. And then the poems grow around those. I’m working on the art of editing my own poems, trying not to get too attached to any one line.

I write when I need to say something, or work something out. And I don’t when I don’t, because nothing feels worse than forcing yourself to write when it’s just not there. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I write in fits and starts: I’ll be super creative for a few weeks, a month or two, and then I won’t for a while. And I try not to feel bad when it’s a low period, because I know I’ll tumble back into things sooner rather than later.


What is your current project?


Writing-wise, I’m collaborating with my friend Dakota to create a series of sound collages and poetry for a September reading in Chicago. It all started with a joke about a fictitious “noise hall of fame” and the sounds that would be in it–feet crunching on freshly fallen snow, the pop of a beer bottle cap after a long day at work, and so on and so forth. Poetic words got thrown around, and then the next thing we knew, we had a legitimate collaborative endeavor ahead of ourselves. It’s kind of amazing how well our poetic voices mesh together. This is new terrain for me, the medium of sound, so I’m very excited. I’m also collaborating with Tracy Dimond on a series of poems inspired by the music of Third Eye Blind (no irony–we’re both big fans).

Editing-wise, I’m co-editor of Banango Street, an online journal publishing (mostly) poetry and some fiction, creative non-fiction, and artwork. It’s thrice- yearly, but there’s always lots of work to be done around that. We’ve got a women’s issue, guest edited by Emily Kendal Frey and Julia Cohen, coming out in September. My co-editor Justin and I are also spinning off an e- chapbook arm called Banango Editions. The first echap or two should be coming out this fall. I also run an ongoing project called Anthology of Chicago that’s collecting poetry, stories, and essays based around the different Chicago neighborhoods. Through that, I co-curate a semi-regular reading series called Chi Lit that similarly brings together poets, journalists, and writers to perform neighborhood-focused pieces.


When did you first know that you wanted to write?


So, I used to put in my bio that I went to poetry camp when I was 13. Pretty good substitute for an MFA, right? I definitely wrote a lot in my teenage years, and I seem to remember that summer camp as the pinnacle of my creative production at that age. I still have my portfolio and I’d probably cringe looking back on it. Then I took…6 years off to grow up? I was never someone who’s always known forever that she’d be a writer, though I certainly was and am a voracious reader, which probably contributed. I fell seriously into the literary world during my sophomore year in college and just got super involved with reading, participating in the online lit community, and then eventually writing myself. I often find it hard to inhabit this persona of a writer, and frequently feel more comfortable identifying as an editor or curator, someone who creates the space for the creative expression of others. I wonder if this has to do with, like, embarrassment at my own work, which I maybe conceptualize as some kind of freakish baby that I cycle between being proud of and feeling a bodily humiliation about. I made this joke recently that “poetry writer” seems better to say than “poet.” Right now though, poetry is the best mode of creative expression I have. I hope that this remains true. I can’t imagine any other way of being.


Who are you reading right now?


Mostly poetry these days. Some of my favorite people writing right now are: Nate Pritts (probably one of the most influential poets for me, and someone whose work I return to time and time again), Gale Marie Thompson, Mike Young, Bianca Stone, Ben Fama, Dalton Day, Lucy Tiven. You stumble upon a lot of stuff in the small press world. I just started Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine and I’m tearing through it.

It’s rare that I have the time to read a whole novel, but when I was in Boston I sat outside and devoured Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I read a review of it on the plane there that convinced me to buy it. I also recently read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. That was an intense, difficult, important book.

Nonfiction-wise, I read a lot about the social aspects of technology. I’m also always reading up on contemporary art—I finished Terry Smith’s Contemporary Art earlier this year, and I’m currently working through e-flux’s collection of essays on the topic, which is well nigh impenetrable. I told my friend recently that I thought art writers take delight in obfuscating their argument. You kind of have to understand art writing as a creative form in its own right; the essays are sort of lyrical. I love it.


Which writers and genres inspire you?


It’s probably obvious at this point that poetry’s where I’ve made my home. It just seems best suited to the way my brain currently functions and what I care about. Being immersed in other people’s poetry opens up worlds outside my own. Poetry is also, then, a way towards empathy. This seems achingly important.

Outside of poetry, I’m into clearheaded, methodical writing that makes an argument. Things that challenge me. I am inspired by those who write with empathy, whatever their subject.


You also edit (I’m thinking of the Chicago anthology) and gather poets for performance. Where do you find the intersections between that work and your writing, if you draw connections or lines? Is there significant bleed-through? Does one feed the other?


Reading/hearing, editing, and publishing others’ work unequivocally makes me a better, more careful writer and reader of my own work. I’d say the influence runs more in that direction: working with others’ poetry helps my own work, though of course my preferences affect the lens with which I view others’ work. I feel that what I publish is very different from what I write, though. I would definitely reject my own work if it was submitted to Banango Street. And I started Anthology of Chicago partly out of a curiosity as to the possibilities of a creative lens onto place—what it means to write about a neighborhood poetically. Specifically, working with other people’s writing helps me better understand my own voice, worldview, blind spots, the devices I fall back on. Very often, my own work serves as a turning inward, a way to process the emotional vicissitudes of this wobbly world. Working so closely with others’ poetry arrests that myopic swan dive before the point of no return and helps widen my world. Genuinely caring about other people’s poetry, being invested in it— these are things that have made me more empathetic, and thus given me more of a lens onto my own work.

My various collaborative projects are where the cross-pollination between my editing and my writing most come to seed. I feel emboldened to edit, revise, rewrite with these poems in a way that I wouldn’t with others’ work. I love doing collaborative works because you end up with these beautifully chimerical poems that you’d never have written yourself, and you have the full ability to mold them into what you want. You get attached to your own lines, works that you’ve written in their entirety, but when it’s only part yours, it becomes easier to step back and slash things. Is that ruthless? Maybe a little, but I think it makes for better poems in the end. When you’re collaborating with someone, you build up a certain level of trust—that they’ll take the project seriously and see directions and interpretations for the poems that you wouldn’t—which allows for an entirely new thing to form. I write poems collaboratively that I would never have written by myself. And that’s beautiful, the generative possibilities in that mode of work.


You’re in transition right now. What is “home” to you? And what is the burden of that concept of home?


Context: I recently moved from Detroit, where I’d been living for the past year, back to Chicago, which is emphatically the place that I call home. I appreciate that you didn’t ask “where are you from?” because that’s a question I’ve always had difficulty answering. I guess the challenging year in Detroit gave me more insight onto what home is, what’s important to me in a place, if by negative example. Going to college in Chicago, being so involved in different scenes—first the music one, then the literary one—my identity became bound up with the city. These qualities that I have that are important to me–independence, autonomy, mobility, curiosity, investment in place–were developed in large part because of the life I was able to lead there. I directly have Chicago to thank for who I am and for what is important to me. And when I lived in Detroit, the structural conditions and limitations were such that I could not be the person I wanted to be, knew myself to be. So what I’m saying is, maybe home is the place that allows you to live unencumbered, that allows for the full flowering of the self. But this would mean home recedes into the background, that its fundamental component was a sort of non- intrusiveness. And I think home must have more of a presence, more positive attributes, than that.

Quoting from Perfect Pussy’s incredible lead singer, Meredith Graves: “Home is where you’re supposed to feel the safest. Home is where love happens. Home is where you’re supposed to feel best about yourself.” And the band Dads: “I’m finally realizing that home, it doesn’t have an address.”

The burden of home is this tension between comfort, safety, familiarity, and the desire for that which is different, exciting, exotic. FOMO writ large. And also, maybe home is a moving target (imagine that—home as something constantly aspirational, not as a background) as life shifts around us. Do you ever feel like you need to just have a good long sit in quiet?


So I have to ask this question of everyone. If you could become a different animal, which animal would you be? And why?


One of my friends recently told me about “girls who are super into horses” as an archetype that he was wary of/weirded out by. Not sure I understand this. I was super into horses as a kid though, so probably that: they are strong, independent, beautiful, and useful.



One Response to “An interview with Rachel Hyman.”


  1. the top 15 most-read posts | pea river journal - October 1, 2016

    […] Our interview with Rachel Hyman […]

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