Confronted with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Jay Hopler—author of the National Book Award-finalist The Abridged History of Rainfall—got to work. The result of that undertaking is Still Life, a collection of heartbreaking, spine-stiffening, and darkly mirthful poems. This work is neither self-elegiac nor trauma-ridden; it’s a testament to courage, candor, compassion, and the devotion to what is actual. It’s a violently funny but playfully serious fulfillment of what Arseny Tarkovsky called the fundamental purpose of art: a way to prepare for death, be it far in the future or very near at hand. McSweeney’s asked me to speak with him about this new work, and through the haze of his pain meds, Jay was able to respond to a single question with the help of his wife, the poet Kimberly Johnson. — RS
RON SLATE: The Abridged History of Rainfall, touched off by the death of your father, can read like a runway for the lift-off of Still Life. But the sonic qualities of the new poems are more pronounced—as if Gerard Manley Hopkins and Groucho Marx were having lunch. What led to the heightened emphasis on word-sounds?
JAY HOPLER: Ha! That’s assuming that Hopkins would ever have lunch with somebody! I didn’t have the luxury or the leisure to be quiet; I had to fill the air with sound in order to be present. And since the poems record my only barbaric yawp, they cannot be polite. Who would make these sounds for me if not myself? I wanted to make noise. In Still Life, I made noise in part by writing in rhymes, which also have the advantage of introducing some control into an uncontrollable situation. But even more than lending control, rhymes help a poem make noise.