Ten Questions for Erica Hunt

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Erica Hunt, whose latest poetry collection, Jump the Clock, is out today from Nightboat Books. Collecting new and selected poems from the past four decades, Jump the Clock is a wide-ranging yet focused examination of the mechanisms of language. In the first poem, “Preface,” Hunt proposes, “We could eliminate the ritual of walking around ourselves, meet head on.” Here, and elsewhere, the poet models how to speak directly, honestly, and without foregoing complexity. She observes and speaks of body language and grief, love and justice, in scenes that feel at once surreal and hyperreal. Reinventing itself at every turn, Jump the Clock is a master class in attention and engagement. “These poems are embodied,” writes Yanyi. “They are meant to be savored and thought with the heart and the mind; they exist in our world.” Erica Hunt is the author of several previous books of poetry, including Local History (Roof Books, 1993) and Time Flies Right Before the Eyes (Belladonna*, 2015). Her poems and essays have also appeared in BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, Poetics Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She teaches at Brown University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

Erica Hunt, author of Jump the Clock.

1. How long did it take you to write Jump the Clock?  
Jump the Clock assembles selections from five books of poetry written over a span of almost forty years. There are a few poems, never gathered in a volume and unpublished, but the majority passed the “would I read this poem more than once” test.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging aspect of assembling this selection was suspending my inclination to look for a single integrated through line in the work and accepting that the through line is about the operation of multiple time signatures in poetry. By multiple time signatures I mean the time encapsulated in the poem, the “snapshot”; the time a poem prolongs as feeling or experience; that time contrasted with the time of reading the poem; and then the present time—the poem’s appearance here, early twenty-first century, amidst crumbling structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, maldistribution of wealth, and so on.

Many of my poems seek to invent a language—as if to break out of conventional usage, illuminate the sand pits, and find open paths to emancipation. Meaning binds the generic to the situation-specific, and readers use intuition and reason to see past language’s strictures on thinking and feeling and imagining. That sense of orchestration between our language for mediating the world and our social apprehensions is the book’s through line.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write almost every day, though when I was working full time and raising a family, that was not always possible. When I was working full time and parenting, I sometimes managed the exercise of writing one computer page a day, and many of those pages turned into poems over time. With that said, I have been writing for many years, keeping a journal practice for forty-eight years.

Often I write in response to art, a gallery, or museum show. I will write in the dark while watching a movie, what I see and hear, answers and questions to the scene unfolding in the intimacy of a theater, which is like writing after waking from a dream. I will write in response to newspaper articles, particularly outrageous reports—the strong emotion is an impetus to write my scorn or resistance. I will also write to music, especially music without words, though the soundtracks change from very abstract soundscapes and jazz improvisations to beats.

I am never without pen and paper.

4. What are you reading right now?
Like many writers, I read several books at once. Right now, I am enjoying Ossuaries by Dionne Brand, {#289-128} by Randall Horton, and Numbers by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. I am reading them as book-length poems, though their strategies for achieving a “rested” but still mutable cohesion are different.

Increasingly I am interested in literature working across media and genre that incorporates the visual—DuPlessis, for instance, works with poetry and collage. I am also interested in how writers manifest their work through performance in the reading itself. Julie Patton, Tracie Morris, and Douglas Kearney are brilliant innovators in that realm.  

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
There are many poets who have received attention and then fallen out of fashion. In this group I place Melvin Tolson, Lorenzo Thomas, and Larry Eigner. Other writers deserving “wider” recognition are Wilson Harris, Carla Harryman, and Sarah Schulman. In poetry, Julie Patton, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Impediments are shape-shifters, different at different times. Time and money—and the apparent lack—are constant. I am also a person who keeps busy: I teach, I am a community activist who is also attentive to care for family and friends. Sometimes I am the “impediment” and have to remind myself that a “no” is a “yes” to the chunk of time required for writing about difficult subjects with complexity, resistance, and seeing beyond the despair of the present.  

7. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
I participate in multiple writing communities, and they have provided different kinds of sustenance to me as a creative artist: Cave Canem, the Poetry Project, Belladonna Collaborative Language Poets, and the Naropa Summer Writing Program all have provided “homes” for my writing and thought. When I teach poetry, I urge my students not to get hung up on the “schools” and to be sure they sustain multiple sources for their work, and just as importantly, to participate in and outside literary communities: to be a part of multiple social worlds. The experience of working in community settings in a workshop, in a voter drive, in planning a demonstration, any volunteering or listening, provides material for one’s work beyond oneself.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Jump the Clock, what would you say?
Trust the process from notes to draft to next draft. From reading critically to reading out loud. From performing to listening again. From redrafting to reframing. Books are not monuments but are particular instances for conversation and thinking through with readers.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
The poet and scholar Tonya Foster, who is the author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court, and my partner, the composer and performer Marty Ehrlich.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
From Elizabeth Alexander: As a poet, “Write—and publish—one piece of critical appreciation of another poet per year.”

From Rachel Blau DuPlessis in “Statement on Poetics”—paraphrasing now: A poem is “bottomless,” “intricate,” and “tangible” in detail. I like thinking this is true regardless of “school” or length. Here is what it has helped me to appreciate: A poem is a work made through language that bears rereading, to discover that difficulty is never without love.