Jay Hopler is a dedicated practitioner of Ashtanga yoga with a Ph.D. in contractual murder. He has many loves, and they are all bone-deep and handsome: backcountry fishing, rock climbing, creature features, punk music, Flemish art, Arsenal Football Club, and the ghost stories of M.R. James. In 2013, he edited an anthology of devotional poetry (Before the Door of God) with his spouse Kimberly Johnson, the acclaimed poet and Renaissance scholar. Hopler teaches in the writing program at the University of South Florida, and his first collection, Green Squall, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2005, a competition whose past winners include John Ashbery, Carolyn Forché, Robert Hass, James Tate, W.S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich. His second book, The Abridged History of Rainfall, is just out from the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, and has been shortlisted for the National Book Award. He talked this fall over email with the Series’ editors, Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan.
McSweeney’s: Your poems are not quite “formal” (though in many ways they are, and in some cases pretty strictly so) and yet neither are they “chatty” at all, though there are moments of what we might call colloquial plainness or directness. How would you describe the territory your poems tend to?
Hopler: I’m not sure my poems occupy a single territory. They’re sort of like secret agents: they’re constantly sneaking across borders, donning and doffing disguises, assuming identities. And they’ve got informants everywhere, from the palaces to the opium dens.
McSweeney’s: And what are the informants saying?
Hopler: They are saying: the grass is never greener than when you are deepest in debt. They are saying: that which does not kill you makes you wish you were dead.
McSweeney’s: What kinds of things is poetry for?
Hopler: When one encounters a poem, one is necessarily required to occupy a perspective different from one’s own. The inevitable result of that activity, that occupation, is empathy. That’s what poetry is for. There is no humanity without empathy.
McSweeney’s: Do you spend a lot of time by the sea?
Hopler: I don’t spend as much time on the water as I used to. I spent almost every waking moment between May 1997 (when I finished up my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and September 2001 (when I started work towards at PhD in American Studies at Purdue) fishing in Florida’s 10,000 Islands.
All that time on the water taught me how to read the water like a text, and that gave me a way of being in the natural world I’d never had before: it allowed me to be in conversation with it. That’s something that has proven to be as valuable in my writing life as in my fishing life.
McSweeney’s: What were the main creative challenges you encountered while writing this book?
Hopler: Finding ways to make it not sound like Green Squall. After Green Squall was published in 2006, I went silent for a few years because I didn’t want to rush into something that would end up being Green Squall Lite or Squall 2.0. I wanted a new way of proceeding, a new music, a new voice, a new way of perceiving and being in the world. I think The Abridged History of Rainfall meets all those criteria. If it doesn’t, it’s not for lack of my trying. Whenever a hint of Green Squall popped up in a poem, I did my best to burn it out. And when I couldn’t burn it out, I got rid of the whole poem.
McSweeney’s: Why? What’s wrong with repeating yourself, sometimes, or at least echoing yourself?
Hopler: Self-echo is one step away from self-imitation and self-imitation too easily and too often becomes self-parody. There are many poets whose early work I love, but whose later work leaves me cold for this reason. Poets who repeat themselves or echo themselves are doing what they already know they can do and that indicates a concern with product, not process. I don’t just want the poem, I want the experience of the poem: I want to say things I didn’t know I could or needed to say in ways I could never have imagined saying them.
McSweeney’s: What non-literary art, if any, influenced this collection?
Hopler: The Abridged History of Rainfall has quite a few non-literary influences. Visual art, for one. A few of the poems, like “Birds Are How the Earth Makes Sense of Heaven” and “Not All Skeletons Are Museum Quality,” wear these influences on their sleeves by either making explicit reference to the painters and paintings behind the lines (Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ in Limbo” and Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” in the case of “Birds”), or by being explicitly ekphrastic (the first section of “Skeletons” is my recreation of a version of Jacques Callot’s print “La Pendaison,” which I stumbled across in Rome’s Palazzo Corsini). Most of the poems, though, are not quite as forthcoming about the debts they owe to visual art. I created some of the skies in The Abridged History of Rainfall, for example, using techniques I learned by studying the skies that Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael painted in the seventeenth century.
Many of these poems were also influenced by music. When I was writing “The Rooster King,” the long poem that comprises the entire third section of the book, I would put in my earbuds and blast Scottish punk, The Real McKenzies in particular. There’s just something about a distorted guitar chunking under a bagpipe that I find particularly generative. Other sections are indebted to Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Still others to The Smiths and Meganoidi. But perhaps the most unexpected influence was all the time I spent when I lived in Rome at Lo Stadio Olimpico watching A.S. Roma play soccer. Soccer, though, wasn’t the influence, beautiful though it was. The influence was the Roman dialect I heard spoken at the matches. That dialect had a swagger-slouch bravura that I fell in love with, and that music inevitably seeped into my work. Some of my work, anyway.
McSweeney’s: Do you want to say anything about punctuation?
Hopler: I think of punctuation as a form of musical notation. I punctuate my poems the way a composer would score a piece of music.
McSweeney’s: Who were your “formative poets” — the poets you were reading when you first became interested in poetry?
Hopler: John Donne and T.S. Eliot. I think I started reading them when I was in the third grade and I’ve read them regularly ever since. They were my teachers. I guess they still are, in a sense. They stand behind me when I write, sometimes nodding their heads in approval, sometimes saying things like “that’s not the word you want! Listen to the line, the way it lilts. You’re not listening!” Sometimes, I hope, I make them smile.
McSweeney’s: What did you find most surprising about the process of writing this book?
Hopler: The biggest surprise for me was that I started writing in form. My poems have always had formal elements in them, but I’d never before worked with traditional forms. Never wanted to. And then one day, when the book was almost entirely complete, it just happened. First, a sestina, then a glose, then a triolet (a double triolet, actually), then a rondeau. Now, I’m finding it difficult to stop writing in form.
McSweeney’s: Do you translate a lot of poetry?
Hopler: I love translating poetry because, as a translator, I’m freed from the tyranny of plot, of having to think about what comes next in a poem, and I can spend all of my time thinking about language. What a pleasure that is.
McSweeney’s: The Abridged History of Rainfall includes a couple translations from the likes of Rilke and Trakl. What is it about German poetry that entices you?
Hopler: I’m drawn to the German language and the poets just happen to be there. I love the German language. I love the way it looks on the page, the way it sounds, the way it feels in my mouth when I speak it. It’s gorgeous and I love spending time in its company. I also translate Italian poetry, but Italian doesn’t do it for me the way German does. It’s lighter on its feet than German is, to be sure, but it’s lacking in crackle and it’s got no hum.
McSweeney’s: When you read a great poem by someone, what does it do to you? How does it feel?
Hopler: It’s like being born into a world of light. It’s a sizzle that makes my wires spark.