Erin Adair-Hodges has a knack for making the particular resonate on a universal pitch, as in one of the opening poems in her first collection, Let's All Die Happy, where she writes of childbirth, “I held him, spent, and knew then there are no truths,/just lungs that labor to form a breath, each one/knocking into the next, until/long trains of them/move a body along, which seems to/need explaining.” Here is the answer to what you must be thinking—Yes. Yes, all of these poems are as good as those lines. Winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and recent recipient of starred reviews the nation over, the local poet (and Alibi alum) took some time to talk about the work from her current locale in Ohio, where she is a visiting professor at Toledo University.
Alibi: What does it feel like to have your first book in-hand?
Adair-Hodges: There was a mix-up about where my copies were being delivered to, so I wasn't the first to get my book! I ended up going to Chicago to visit my sister … the warehouse distributor is in Chicago, so I called them and my sister drove me an hour each way … to go pick up a copy of my book. We took her out for lunch—we call her, “Book.” We took book out for lunch and bought her a drink. It turns out she likes Moscow Mules. … Seeing that this book is having a like outside of my intentions and purview, [that] people I don't know are reading it, which is what books are designed to do, but at the same time—it feels entirely novel.
I love the subtle humor in these poems, do you see that as part of your distinct style?
I view the world through a humorously pessimistic lens. … I developed a sense of humor when I was younger as a sort of coping and distancing mechanism. Now in my work I use it to do the opposite. I use it to more closely engage with challenging or dark feelings. … I take guidance from Emily Dickinson: to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Humor is my slant approach to truth.
When were these poems written?
Over a little less than three years. I was writing with a feeling of “I've waited so long, I don't know how much more time I have to do this.” Not in a fatalistic way, but in clear acknowledgement that I was moving into a phase of my life where it's not about doing new things, it's about maintaining and even moving toward the end of things. I felt this fervor to do something new.
What were you doing previously? Why did it take you so long to become a poet?
I stopped writing after graduate school for a variety of reasons. Primarily I had come away from the experience feeling like my voice, my experience, had no value. I didn't understand why poetry would need me. And also … I worked for minimum wage … and for a couple years I had three jobs in two cities, I was constantly working. … After I had my son in 2011 I did have post-partum depression and I had to go back to work almost immediately. It was an incredibly hard time. Two years later it started to let up and I came out of it feeling like I had to figure out who I was outside of the contexts of my relationships with others, whatever self that had been subsumed by responsibilities. … I sent my work out for the first time in 2014 and was very fortunate in the response … it confirmed what I carried in my brain my whole life, that this is something I could be good at.
What's your writing process like today?
I have more good days now then bad, but it took a long time to get there. And when I have a bad writing day, I don't see it as indicative of me as a writer, I see it as just having to clear the pipes of some crap. I also don't write everyday. I carry ideas and inspirations with me, so when I do sit down to write, I tend to have been sorting through some work anyway. You hear that advice—but I simply don't have the kind of life that supports writing everyday. … And for many, being economically insecure and or a caretaker are probably the two biggest prohibitors towards creative expression.
What do you hope readers get from it?
For me, I read poems all the time that make me fist pump and shout out loud. … I get so excited. My hope is that something in there does that. [And] I don't believe we've heard every permutation of people's stories or women's stories. … I hope people see the value in a deep dive into a woman's experience. So many of us are used to being dismissed and devalued and for me, I hope this book comes at a moment that says how important it is to listen and attend to our truths.