A Constellation of References: A2 poet Hannah Ensor's book looks at sports, pop culture & love
Jurassic Park. The Super Bowl. The Grand Canyon. The sitcom Friends. All seemingly unrelated, but they coexist in Love Dream With Television (Noemi Press), a new book by Hannah Ensor. Poems in this collection are breathy and fast, while grounded in art and pop culture.
Ensor is the Hopwood program manager at the University of Michigan, where she completed her Bachelor’s degree. She then earned her MFA at the University of Arizona. Having returned to Ann Arbor and published her new book this month, Ensor will read at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday, October 3, at 7 pm and speaks with Pulp here.
Q: You are from Ann Arbor and have returned. What was it like to be away? What is it like to be back?
A: Yeah, great question! It feels a little otherworldly, which I don’t entirely mean in a dramatic way. Tucson, where I’ve been the last seven years, is really another kind of place, and so I’m not really clear at the moment on what “feels like home.” It’s been raining a lot these last couple of days, and even nine months into being back in Michigan, every time there’s any moisture in the air I get all rapturous, like, "Can you believe it, this bounty?!"
Q: In December 2017, you became the program manager for the Hopwood Program, which gives awards for writing at the University of Michigan and also includes the Hopwood Room on campus. What keeps you busy in this role?
A: Oh, so much! There’s a pretty lovely constant hum of activity in the room, be it students coming in to get some reading/writing/studying done or more formal “activities” (we host a reasonable amount of Q&As, class visits, discussions). There are plenty of spreadsheets to deal with, of course. Where I’m at right now is determining and inviting the judges, which is one of my favorite parts -- dreaming up this whole somewhat invisible network of great writers who get to spend a good amount of time reading, thinking about, giving feedback to the student work. We thank them in the awards ceremony programs, of course, but for the most part, this is a hugely under-sung part of how the Hopwood Program works: brilliant, devoted writers who lend their discernment and thoughts to young writers.
Q: Sometimes when I write poems, they just pour onto the page and surprise me because I did not have a preconceived notion of what they would be. I’ve heard other poets describe writing poetry as a gift or spiritual occurrence. Does this happen to you, and if so, what’s a poem in your collection that sprung from such an event? If not, how would you describe your writing practice?
A: Yeah, I mean, I like this! It for sure happens this way sometimes. My favorite thing is when I “start” “writing” a “poem” -- all these words in quotation marks because what do these things even mean? -- and it’s honestly just kind of boring/predictable at first, and then all of a sudden four or five lines in something will surprise me, and I’ll be like, “OH, I guess this is what I’ve really been thinking about,” or “OH, whoa, those two things next to each other,” or, or, or. There are definitely whole poems I don’t remember writing, which I guess is kind of a flow-state thing? This is why people used to talk about “the muse[s]” all the time. I think we’re just weird mystery garbage boxes a lot of the time, and sometimes through all the trash, we have surprisingly good hearts or ideas or insights that we’re only vaguely responsible for, and that’s kind of the fun of it all.
Q: So your new book, Love Dream With Television, came out in September. What do you want people to know about it?
A: Hmm. I guess I want people to know that it was a collaboration. And/or took “a village.” There are some poems in there that I wrote in the act of direct collaboration, of course. I would be sitting with my poet-friends Jill Darling and Laura Wetherington, and we were writing poems that were in conversation with each other. Two or three of the poems in the book were from that. But even more broadly than that practice or those specific poems, when I reflect about how lucky this book process was, I think about the editorial support that I got, which truly was much more along the lines of mentorship and being seen, challenged, urged forward, by my editors at Noemi Press, and especially Suzi F. Garcia, who was at the lead of this particular editorial process. Suzi and Carmen really saw something in the weird stack of poems I sent them that no one else had seen, that I was aching for people to see, that I spent my time in school wishing my peers and mentors would see but not knowing how to make them see. Suzi and Carmen were really clear from the beginning about recognizing the work for what it was -- it felt like a huge relief to be told what I was doing, and to just be like, yes, yes, yes, yes, thank you just for seeing me -- and also knowing exactly what the poems still needed to be doing in order to make it click with readers. They made the book better -- I think about half of the book was written after they tentatively accepted it for future publication -- and honestly, they, this process, made me a better poet, thinker, literary citizen.
Q: These lines from a poem in your book convey both self-awareness and uncertainty: “I keep using words as if I know / what they mean. I want my thoughts / to refuse their own habit energy, / but then it would not be habit.” Tell us about this “habit energy.”
A: It’s a book that, for better and for worse, wants to be more awake than it knows how to be. Or I could say that I want to be more awake and don’t know how to be. There’s tons of comfort in the habit. It’s where we’re “safe.” It’s also, in a lot of ways, our connection to tradition, ancestry, family. So what is it we’re breaking from when we’re breaking from our habit energy? I’m still not sure.
Q: The poem “There’s an Old Saying: A Cover” plays on the “Fool me once, shame on me” saying. What inspired you to grapple with this expression?
A: This one’s actually taking a spin through what George W. Bush did with this phrase in, I think, 2002: “There's an old saying in Tennessee, I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, 'Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me... You can't get fooled again!'"
It was kind of an experiment, to sub in “love” for “fool,” and it turns out this substitution pleased me. This is one of three “covers” in the book, all of which, I’m only realizing now, try to make a joke out of what we try to think about ourselves as partners, friends, lovers. Not to mention what we describe as “appealing” in partners, friends, lovers. How we sometimes really suck. One of the others claims, for instance, “It’s erotic: how bad I am at loving.”
Q: On the topic of love, this whole book feels very personal to you, and in the last section called “Love Dream,” it somehow becomes more personal. Is this how you see the three parts of the book, or might you see them in another way?
A: That’s a good question. Honestly, I kind of feel like the third section is a relief, a relaxation. The first section, called “Man/Boy Line,” sets up a lot of work with identity and how engaging with media (sports, TV, etc.) might be talking with identity categories and with ethics/politics. The second starts to ask some harder questions on what we even mean when we say we want to be ethical. The book used to be called The Anxiety of Responsible Men, which is now what the second section is called -- and this section is essentially about each of these words, starting, I think, with my own version of trying to be a “responsible man” but also looking at this category as a heartbreaking near-impossibility. It’s interested in complicity, power structures, explicitly and more quietly problematic men, how I’ve been all these things myself, and how I want us all to work harder to do better. So the third, sure, I think is more personal. A little bit like: OK, what about stepping back from all that work we just did. What’s left? Do we even know? Are we changed? I wanted to end the book in a place of love. That felt important to me.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Hannah Ensor reads from "Love Dream With Television" at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday, October 3, at 7 pm.