Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: On un becoming by Hokis

F WORD WARNING

on unbecoming new caver

-Hokis

is an American Poet of Armenian descent. She is senior editor of Headline Poetry & Press and a regular contributor to Reclamation Magazine. Her work is found digitally and in numerous print anthologies, including SMITTEN (Indie Blu(e), Oct 2019), Pandemic Poetry Anthology (Gloucester Poetry Festival, Oct. 2020), and Heron Clan VII (Heron Clain). You can her digital work and information on her debut collection, UnBecoming, at hokis.blog

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?  

I wrote poetry in my early teenage years, more puzzles really. I can remember sharing some with my dad at the dining table one afternoon. He was a college professor, so used to being the advisor. I can remember him asking me questions about what I meant by certain things so he could understand the poem. Looking back it was pretty wonderful for him to take an interest, but I felt (can still feel as I write this) a bit in my stomach. Like he was asking me to reveal some secret that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to know just yet. 

Fast forward about 45 years (2017), and my father passes away. We were very close as I grew up, and even moreso his last few years of life. I walked him right up to the veil, went numb for a year, and then fell a part. 

Right after he died, I had a series of dreams. I would wake up panicked he wasn’t dead and we had some poor souls ashes or dream he was ten feet tall and standing next to my bed. These sorts of ridicioulsness. 

Just after the first anniversary of his death I had a dream where I was chasing time through the coridores and stairwells of a building that melded architectural designs of a university and a hospital. I was rushing, to save my dad from something – an experiment, maybe? It is unclear to me now. When I arrived, he was laying on a white sheeted bed with his eyes closed. I touched his hand and noticed a bruise near the knuckle on his index finger, where his pencil would rest. The second that bruise raised my curiosity he shot up and forced these words out, “You must write!” He laid back down and I woke up in a cold sweat.

I went for my morning dog walk – the standard two hours get lost in the woods grief walk. I came home and wrote my first poem. Those first 10-12 months were intense – I excavated that secret that my teenage self wasn’t sure I was ready for, and then some. These are the poems in On\Un\Becoming. 

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I am confident I learned poetry in school, but do not remember any of it. I also was obsessed with the sister of poetry, song lyrics – often writing them over and over again in a notebook. This is especially true of Peter Gabriel’s genesis and Bob Dylan. In terms of being introduced to poetry, though, I would say I have only two memories – both before the age of ten. My parents had many books in the house. I would often sit on the gold shag carpet behind the Lazy Boy and pull books off the walnut shelving my dad built. There was a shelf of poetry books, but I only remember one: e.e. cummings. I remember being fascinated by his unapologetic approach to breaking a primary rule of writing – not capitalizing anything. Something about that set me free. I am laughing now as my second example also exposes the rebel in me. We had a poetry book called “Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls” in the night reading pile. I have no memory of who read it to me, but someone did. “Nothing to do, nothing to do / put some mustard in your shoe……put some jelly on the latch / now go upstairs and take a nap.” I cannot recall all of that poem, but it always made me happy. The romance of poetry was never a part of my evolution with the genre. I preferred puzzle-like song lyrics and rule-breaking, satirical poetry. Although my birth mother was a poet, I am sure that these aspects of my nurture fed any poet blood that flows in my veins. 

3. How did you decide on the order of the poems in On Becoming? 

Oh, how I appreciate this question. I feel the tedious task of ordering was as potent of an experience as writing any of the pieces in the collection.  The easy answer is, the order is I as I wrote them (aka experienced life in a way that led to their existence). When I decided to create a collection, I wanted it to read like a story rather than a collection of poetry. It has a start and end, a middle. A rising action, climax, and resolution. Characters, plots, and subplots. As I curated and curated …. and curated … I pulled pieces that felt repetitive and added pieces that better fleshed out a character. It may seem that I do this because I know how to create a story. I do not believe this is true. It is more accurate to say that I am insecure if my reality is accurate, that my lived experience makes sense, so I attended to the order and content of this debut collection to cover all bases. The tenacity, borderline obsessiveness, in explaining one’s story is a classic symptom of complex trauma. I want to pause here and say thank you to the pre-publication readers were saints guiding me through my mind maze, to a place of wholeness. The coming together of Me, and the ordering of the pieces, feels like one and the same. 

4. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary? 

As I was writing OnBecoming I was completely unaware of any poet. I was not trying to be, or not be, anyone in particular. One reader offered me feedback with a stanza in “Drips of Dew,” saying that I might want to rethink it because it may be an exact line in a poem of (I don’t even remember who). About eight months into writing poetry, I decided to start listening to interviews with poets and read contemporary poets whose aesthetic I was drawn to. I began to understand that my mind has thought like a poet for as long as I can remember, but I had no colleagues, cohorts, or curriculum to align with. It wasn’t the style of this poet or that poet that stood out, at least at first. It was the soulmind of The Poet. The best example is an interview I heard with Jericho Brown on OnBeing. Please realize that I had no idea who Jericho Brown was when I listened to this. The leader of the writing group at the local public library sent me an email, “Jericho Brown is on OnBeing today. You might want to know who this is.” What Jericho said that struck me was:

“It’s a very dangerous place to be. It’s the reason why, if I’m on an airplane and somebody asks me what I do for a living, I very quickly tell them I’m a poet. Then I don’t have to worry about them talking to me anymore. [laughter]  Do you know what I’m saying? Because people intuitively or instinctively, people know, “Oh, you’re dangerous. You’re hugely problematic. You’re asking yourself questions that I’ve been avoiding my whole life, and you think that’s a good time.” Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I related to this. In this way, the presence of poets, from whatever time, were all a dominating presence because I was one of them. I found a like mindedness that was as much a part of the journey as the writing itself. I am not this annoyingly complex thinker. Well, okay, maybe I am…but I am annoying to “who” exactly. I am not annoying, people find me annoying. There is a big difference in this. 

I actually listened to that podcast while working as a shelver at the local library. I chose to tidy up the poetry section on this particular day, and found Amanda Lovelace and Annah Antipalindrome. Both female contemporary poets with aligning stories whose direct wording and wide spaces left for visceral interpretation made equal sense to me. 

So, to answer your question. I am not very aware of direct lines of influence that poets have had on me, but I am viscerally aware that there is a collective consciousness among poets in which I am a part of. I prefer this ignorance.

5. what is your daily writing routine?

I don’t know. How’s that? 

{laughing} 

I tend to find inspiration in podcasts and nonfiction books. There are hints of NPR’s RadioLab throughout ON(UN)BECOMING as well as books like Cosmos (Druyan), Gaslighter (Sarkis), Laws of Human Nature (Green).  I am always scribbling in the margins with questions, circling words that catch me, bringing in shimmers from the podcast, writing lines of poetry that may or may not end up in the same piece in the future. These scribbles are my centerpiece. It seems that my brain takes a snapshot of these pages, tucks them away, and then I live my life. As I go to the grocery store, talk with a friend, watch the news, tend to my animals, or ______, I add polaroids to these brain pictures. The writing that comes from this isn’t a daily habit; it is more of a sense that a collage is ready to become words on the page. 

5.1. Why are the images of the phase of the moon important in your book?

There are many reasons, and I am not sure. (I am hoping that statement makes at least one writer smirk and nod.) It was a Tuesday about 4:30 pm when the book was complete and ready to push “publish paperback” on Amazon’s self-publishing site. I paused. I thought, “it isn’t done.” I decided to go drive around and listen to other voices – specifically, Radio Lab (NPR Podcast). The episode was about falling, falling in love, the feeling of falling in a dream, why time slows when you actually fall, even what would happen to your body if you fell into a black hole. The rising and falling in that episode struck me. The motion of it. The impact on reality and the body. The power of gravity has on our body when entering into a dark hole. It was like I was listening to the intent of my book in a different form. I kept seeing That Universal Moon mentioned throughout OnBecoming, seeing the phases rise and fall. I said to myself, out loud, this has to go into the book. So there they sit, the moon phases aligning with the “becoming” within the story. The infinity symbol under chapter headings. The astral infinity starburst at the end. I like to think the universe is yet another character in the memoir.

6. How important is nature in your poetry?

Any answer I come to seems simplistic. Essential like water to a fish. So easy to forget the necessity when you’re in it, but when another is studying the fish it is so obvious everything. 

6.1. Why is it “like water to a fish”?

Nature is the air we breathe, the sunlight that stimulates vitamins and hormones, the water we drink. We depend in it and yet we do not need to take time to notice this for us to function, so we forget about it. About it’s essentialness. Without noticing the water, we have no sense of reality – are we in a fishbowl or the Atlantic Ocean? To stay grounded in nature, to intwine nature into my poems, is necessary for me. It reminds me of the reality of my placement in the world. I am small, and large. 

I have only just now realized that I have always been way more interested in nature than people. Learning to navigate humans, and coexisting with other humans, was a natural survival strategy rather than a preference. There is something about the puzzle of nature and the puzzle of poetry that aligns with me. Not puzzling, like humans, but puzzles. There is a certain way everything fits together – and while different things fit differently – deserts and rainforests are different puzzles, for example – there is a universal method to putting together a puzzle. Finding the bits with the edges, pulling pieces together by color or pattern, seeking that oddly shaped beg for that aligned round hole. I could sit all day and ponder a leaf, all the way down to the circulating chloroplasts singing with sunlight, just as I could sit all day and map out a poem. It feels much the same to me. It is rare that a poem of mine is void of any natural science terminology; desserts, lumens, pistols and stamens, mountains, birds, dermis and meat, stalagmites, base pairs, cells, roots … it would be fun to go look now – huh, I wonder if there is a poem without a hint of the natural word in it. I will get back to you.


7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

The strongest memory of reading was the encyclopedia, Scientific American, or National Geographic magazines. I am aware that I read Tolkein as a school aged child, but I was not a child or young person with my nose in a book. I’m not sure why this is. I needed glasses? I wasn’t provided choice on books to read? I was too anxious to sit and follow a story?  

I believe my lack of reading impacted my spelling, which is seen in my poetry. I will often use homonym for a word…figuring that out when someone edits and I realize the wrong word is the perfect word. An example is this stanza from “Southern Crows”:

“Here in the aboretum where I walk my dogs

gravity pulls at the souls of my feet

each thump of my boot leaves the imprint of my elders-

land and life forms who instructed my childself

to listen to the lack of noise created by the darkest crow.”

Southern Crow is found in “Pandemic Poetry 2020,” (Ziggy Dicks, editor)

and

“As the World Burns,” (Indie Blue, 2020)

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I have the hardest time remembering who I am reading. Who I have read. Who is a modern writer. Who has been long past, passed. Right now, I am reading an elder – Donald Hall. I only know he is an elder because the cover of his small collection of essays is a very clear close-up of his face – scraggly beard and wild eyebrows. The book is “Essays After Eighty,” and I think I admire it because it is about something. It is not about thoughts about something, it is filled with stories that happened told by the man who lived them and who is still able to share them as if he is not sure what they are about. That, perhaps, none of us know what any story is about – but this does not mean they did not happen. I guess I find comfort in this. That the world is full of stories, but perhaps not answers. Perhaps I can stop looking for answers, then. 

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Believe you are, and act as if. If that feels too easy then I recommended reading emails you have sent to friends – the authentic self ones – and piece them together in one long word document. Start to organize them, cut and paste, play with your deepest meanings. Notice that you knew exactly what to say, you just didn’t call yourself a writer at the time. You called yourself a friend. (Secret: It is the exact same thing, and everyone can use a friend)

10. How important are white space, brackets and repeated phrases in your poetry?

Each of these are subtext cues, nonword expressions of physiological responses to emotions. White spaces might communicate my breathing rate. Brackets could tell you the thought is deep inside, like a whisper. Repeated phrases might be indicated my blood is boiling, heart racing. While I am writing, their placement is completely unintentional – one might say like the involuntary muscle of your gut keeps you alive by moving the food and chyme through. 

11. Having read the book what do you hope the readers will leave with?

I would hope that readers leave in awe of the complexity of being human and how in continually choosing awe we can take ourselves to places of beauty – even if through a dark cavern first. I remain uncertain as to what love is, but I am nearly certain that the humility it takes to be in awe is not far off. My hope is readers will consider my attempt to communicate the complexity of these ideas worthy of their time.

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: On un becoming by Hokis

  1. Pingback: Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: On un becoming by Hokis — The Wombwell Rainbow – Hokis | Poetry

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