Wildness and Containment: A Conversation on Formal Structure and Poetic Surprise

Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson

Poets Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson have been married since 2009. They each have new collections of poetry coming out this spring: Hopler’s third book, Still Life, is forthcoming from McSweeney’s on June 7 and Johnson’s fourth book, Fatal, will be released by Persea Books on May 3. They recently sat down together in their home in Salt Lake City to discuss their new books, the techniques and craft decisions they used in writing these collections, and the occasion to which both books respond: Hopler’s diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer in 2017.

Jay Hopler, author of Still Life   , and Kimberly Johnson, author of Fatal.   (Credit: Ryan Johnson Photography)

Kimberly Johnson: I’ve been fortunate to have a front-row seat to your process as you’ve written a number of books over the course of your career. I’ve watched you puzzle through a poem over many, many drafts—dozens of drafts over an extended period of time. But your new book, Still Life, didn’t take you twelve years to write; it took you, essentially, four years to write. What changed about the way you wrote the poems in this current collection?

Jay Hopler: Well, you’re right. I used to take so many years to write a poem. There’s a poem in Green Squall, my first book, that took me twelve years to finish, “Memoir,” and it’s only two lines long. It was a wonderful luxury to be able to sweat every detail of that poem, every detail of all those poems in my earlier books. But after I was given a terminal diagnosis and my life suddenly had a projected end date, my priority shifted from perfection to existence. I knew I had only a small amount of time to get a book written, and I felt that I didn’t have the luxury of revision. Many of these new poems, even most of the poems in Still Life, were not revised once they were done. I wrote them knowing that I probably wasn’t going to be able to go back to them, that I only had one chance to get them right. So instead of taking twelve years to write two lines, I had to take two hours to write several lines.

Johnson: So, how do you think that process changed the final form of the poems that appear in this book? I think you and I have long shared a practice of laboring slowly over lines, and it’s certainly the case that a slow compositional process privileges or emphasizes certain aspects of the text—for example, I might argue, the folding in of etymological resonances and allusions. With this swifter writing process, what do you think you gained, perhaps to your surprise?

Hopler: I certainly gained more technical and formal control. I didn’t used to be a formalist, but I might as well just call myself a formalist now.

Johnson: I think that might surprise folks, because form is often associated with slow laboring rather than swift composition. Why do you think that swifter writing produced more formal writing?

Hopler: I suppose that in formal writing the number of variables is reduced. As I increased the number of rules under which my poem unfolded, the range of possibilities for the poem diminished. My options were fewer. Of course with fewer choices, you have to make them more wisely, but if your line ends with a word like island, anything that doesn’t match that word sonically is eliminated. Rules sharpen the focus. 

Johnson: Do you think that form introduced an element of, for lack of a better word, control into a situation where control seemed a scarce commodity?

Hopler: Yes, that’s exactly right. Form allowed me to order my thoughts—thoughts that otherwise would have been too scattered to make use of.

Johnson: And maybe too scary to take on.

Hopler: Yes. It allowed me to say things at an angle, to tell the truth slant enough that I could bear it.

Johnson: Let’s talk about what it means to “tell the truth” here, because I think that you had for a long time been, as I had been, in the habit of insisting that poetry is not autobiography, that you were not relating stories about your own life, you were playing a language game.

Hopler: I think that Still Life is probably more obviously autobiographical than my other two books. My life pretty much comes right to the page. How about you? How does your new book, Fatal, differ from your other collections of poetry?

Johnson: My books to this point have fallen comfortably within the lyric mode, their pages filled with these shortish poems, each occasioned by some kind of problem or challenge or perceptual disjunction to which the poem was the response, each mostly spoken from the position of a lyric I that wasn’t necessarily me—that I pretty insistently understood not to be me. My poems have historically been self-conscious aesthetic artifacts. I feel like Fatal is, first of all, more narrative, which was a feature that I pursued on purpose. I was endeavoring to incorporate narrative into lyric in a way that I hadn’t before. Additionally, I was more willing to include autobiographical details in the poems themselves than I had done previously—that is, not just incorporating narratives but incorporating narratives from my own experience. When I began work on the book it was almost an intellectual challenge for me, an exploration of the generic differences between lyric and narrative modes of poetry, but as the book progressed and the stories drew more and more from my own lived experience, it stopped being a merely intellectual proposition and started to seem more like bearing witness. That was a disorienting development for me, distinct from my prior method of writing poems.

Hopler: And formally, too, Fatal is disjunctive. The stanza you use in this book is full of disruptions and drama.

Johnson: Well, I am happy to have had Linda Gregerson’s stanza as a model. She innovated this distinctive three-line stanza with a long first line, a very short second line, and a longer third line. I found it to be a very generative form. I think that stanza should be called the Gregerson stanza from now on and put in creative writing textbooks because of all the things it allows you to do as a writer. There’s the tension between the long and short lines and the ways that the line endings intrude at various intervals into the sentence.

If my book seems formally dramatic or disruptive, your book is also quite formally different from anything you’ve done before. How would you describe the differences in the way you approached form in this book compared with your previous books?

Hopler: The forms in this book range all over the place. My first book, Green Squall, was pretty much all free verse, and my second book, The Abridged History of Rainfall, contained some free verse poems and a few poems in inherited forms—a triolet, a double triolet, for example. Still Life is very formal; there are very few free verse poems in this book. But these new poems work with form in weird ways. I was far more open to experimentation in this book than I was in any of my previous books.

Johnson: What do you mean by “experimentation” here?

Hopler: Well, trying to use form to amplify different kinds of meaning in a line. For example, my poem “Benediction 2” in Still Life concludes:

I was trying to get to two ideas at the same time, having them share the same space. I was open to messing with the way language was positioned on the page in order to produce surprises and overlaps. The page itself became for me more of a canvas than it has been in the past. In the past my experimentation had to do with sound and maybe also with surprising description, but in this book I was trying to extend the poem’s expressive qualities into the physical page itself. Does that count as experimental?

Johnson: I think that Still Life is differently experimental than your previous books.

Hopler: How so?

Johnson: I would say it this way: In Green Squall you were experimenting primarily with language, with signification, with function shifts in parts of speech. And now those representational wildnesses are kind of contained and the experimentation is happening in the form of the poem. Do you think that’s true?

Hopler: I do. That’s well put.

Johnson: For example, you were talking about your strategy in “Benediction 2.” In that instance, you make puns into formal events rather than merely linguistic events. I think in the past you’ve been interested in the linguistic or signifying senses of puns, and now you want to make them into formal phenomena.

So given that we’re both interested in the ways that poetic form transforms what is said, what does putting autobiographical events into form do to them? In Green Squall, you have a poem called “Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus,” which begins, “From being to being an idea, nothing comes through that intact,” right? So in Still Life, which is so much about your actual life and so ostentatiously formally experimental, you are fusing your own being into a kind of poetic idea. What do you think doesn’t come through that process intact?

Hopler: Fear, maybe. In the case of this current book and its circumstances, I think that the process of putting life into words tames the emotion, allows me to control it. Again, I think that what appealed to me so much about form with Still Life is that everything else seemed to be spiraling out of control, and to put any of that in free verse it all would have seemed too uncontained. The narrative would have overrun its boundaries. But putting the drama into quite tightly contained forms allowed me to cage it, like Rilke’s panther. Danger from a safe place. And I think that that approach has allowed me to be more honestly autobiographical. In my past books my persona was created so much out of the imagination, but this book’s self is pretty real. The “I” in these poems might well be me.

Johnson: Where you would have resisted that formulation in previous books?

Hopler: Yes, I would have insisted that I was not the speaker of my poems. You’ve already talked about how the distance between you and your speaker narrowed in writing Fatal, as it did for me in Still Life. Can you tell me whether you’re thinking of form as I’ve described it working in my new book? Does form also allow you to contain potential danger?

Johnson: No, I’d say the opposite. I’ve always needed some kind of structure to govern my writing. The form in Fatal pushed me to be wilder in my argumentative leaps and narrative turns. I am already, as you may know, a fairly tightly controlled person…

Hopler: What?! No!

Johnson: …and I think that the wild back-and-forthing, the expansion and contraction, of this stanza that I used forced me to be endlessly unsettled. Because in addition to the way the lines get longer and shorter, in the way the stanza seesaws between longer utterance and shorter chunks of utterance over a line break, my own self-imposed rule was that two of the three lines on each stanza had to rhyme. But it didn’t matter which two. Either the first and last, the first and the middle, the middle and the last—it could move from stanza to stanza, but it had to rhyme. And that requirement, in addition to the accordioning of the line length, kept me unsettled. I never relaxed into a ten-syllable line. I never got lulled by an iambic string of feet. It was always off-balance. Everything was always off-balance and kind of jerking from one expectation to another, as in these lines from “Farthingale”:

Like all tempests I say

Hallelujah for the cage,
                        The isobars,
            The wickerwork and cartilage

Within whose strictures wildness can wind
                        Itself up
            To the shape of its binding.

I think this stanza form compelled me to be wilder than I might have otherwise been. Emotionally wilder, emotionally less contained, than might be my instinct.

Hopler: We approach form from completely different perspectives.

Johnson: Maybe that begs the question: What do you think form is for in poems?

Hopler: Well, form should be part of the argument of the poem. It should further the argument of the poem. A lot of the forms I use are nevertheless working against their own traditions. So my sonnets are not like sonnets you’re going to find in Edmund Spenser, for example. I adopt in order to adapt.  And form allowed me, among other things, to expand beyond my insular self-attention. There’s a poem in Still Life called “Honky-Tonk Sonnet,” which I think of as a duet with Johnny Cash; in that poem, the sonnet form allowed me the opportunity to incorporate Cash’s voice in a way that would have been more intrusive or forced in a free-verse poem. I guess the form allowed me to fold in Cash’s words more naturally, because they seemed to respond to the structure of the poem and not be there just because of a random wild idea in my head. 

Johnson: So the form smoothed down what might otherwise have been outrageous. We’re back in the realm of control.

Hopler: Yes, for me. But you’ve described your use of form as a loss of control.

Johnson: Well, I suppose I don’t go to form for its restrictions but for the moments where it erupts, breaks down, gets capsized, surprises me by not maintaining the expectations it seems to have promised me.

Hopler: When form is working correctly, it’s like walking a tightrope between containment and explosion. That’s why it’s so hard to do form: It’s not focusing on one aspect of a poem at the expense of the other; instead, it’s a dialogue—it’s a dance, actually, back and forth. 

Johnson: I can imagine a reader of contemporary poetry wondering about the relevance of form at this moment; so many readers of poetry have absorbed, for decades, a diet of free verse. How can this conversation be relevant to a lover of poetry who invests in free verse or who has felt that free verse allows an unrestrictedness of expression that seems suited to this postmodern moment?

Hopler: Well, it should be said that free verse is not merely the absence of form. That it is, in fact, a form.

Johnson: You know how Frost famously said that free verse is like playing tennis without a net? I don’t buy that at all. I feel like the net is still there and the court is still there, and free verse poets may not feel the constraint of a recurrent rhyme scheme, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t requirements. Free verse has its own requirements. And once you’ve decided that you’re writing a poem, you are committing to the idea that the structure of the thing that you’re writing is going to be a point of concern for you.

Hopler: I never would have thought that I would ever be considered a formal poet, even though Marvin Bell once told me over a sandwich twenty-five years ago that he thought I was a formal poet. I was so offended! But he saw something in me that I didn’t see at the time.

Johnson: So, if your aesthetic as a writer has changed over the years, has your aesthetic as a reader also changed over the years? Can you name for me some poets you now value whom you might have overlooked in your younger days?

Hopler: Oh, wow, that’s a great question. In my younger days, I valued those poets who had wild leaps of the imagination, kind of broody writers like Tomas Tranströmer and all the northern Europeans, out there writing where the sun never shines.

Johnson: That’s interesting because you would have, of course, read them in translation. So you were reading pure content because you don’t speak Swedish. You were, of necessity, all in on content in that youthful reading.

Hopler: Yes, indeed—across the board. Pablo Neruda, Eugenio Montale, Arthur Rimbaud…my early reading was almost entirely in translation. It is now not. And I now value poets whose poems are not abstract, who believe that the thing itself is a thing itself and is enough. Poets whose lines are filled with concrete objects that can be sensed with the five senses. Poets whose perceptions are made up of real things. I admire the ability to get what is seemingly mundane into a poem and make it not mundane at all so that it could actually be crucial to the argument. Evie Shockley has a tremendously interesting language and is herself invested in form and the ways it subverts expectations and its own history. I find her work quite wonderful.

Johnson: I’ve always inclined toward poems whose aesthetic surfaces dazzle, poems that seduce separate from whatever content they convey. This often happens for me in the work of poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Douglas Kearney, John Berryman, and Meg Day. But I have lately become interested in poems that incorporate some kind of story into all that dazzle without diminishing the tensile strength of the poem’s structure or breaking the surface tension of the poem. I’m increasingly filled with admiration for poets who can sustain that kind of dramatic development while maintaining the syntactic and linguistic tension of a traditional lyric, poets like Joshua Bennett, Ishion Hutchinson, D. A. Powell, and Paisley Rekdal. 

Hopler: Yes, I also prefer reading poets for whom language is seductive, for whom the sounds of words are pleasurable, for whom music is important. I like to read people who are in love with words. You can tell when you read a poem that the person who wrote it loved the language they were working with. I won’t name names but there are poets whose work makes you think, “Wow, you had no fun at all writing that poem.” It’s just like James Schuyler wrote in “The Morning of the Poem”:

So many lousy poets
So few good ones
What’s the problem?
No innate love of
Words, no sense of
How the thing said
Is in the words, how
The words are themselves
The thing said: love,
Mistake, promise, auto
Crack-up, color, petal,
The color in the petal
Is merely light
And that’s refraction:
A word, that’s the poem.


Jay Hopler is the author of three collections of poetry, Green Squall (Yale University Press, 2006), The Abridged History of Rainfall (McSweeney’s, 2016), and Still Life (McSweeney’s, 2022). His awards include the Rome Prize in Literature and a Whiting Award; his second book was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry.

Kimberly Johnson is the author of four collections of poetry, all published by Persea Books—Leviathan With a Hook (2003), A Metaphorical God (2008), Uncommon Prayer (2014), and Fatal (2022)—and of book-length translations of Hesiod and Virgil. She is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Together, Hopler and Johnson edited Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale University Press, 2013).