The book “Kelly Hoppenjans Takes Herself Too Seriously” plays with the poetics of the Ann Arbor indie rocker's lyrics
What makes a poem versus a song?
Setting the words to music may be an obvious answer, but the difference between the page and the studio are more complex than that.
In her new book, Kelly Hoppenjans Takes Herself Too Seriously: A Collection of Poems, Music, Lyrics, and Some Real Arty Shit, the indie rock singer-songwriter and graduate student at the University of Michigan draws attention to the lyrics from her recent Can’t Get the Dark Out EP and the divergent forms of poetry and lyrics.
As she told Pulp, “To me, lyrics and poetry are separate forms, and the process for each is quite different.”
In contrast to what the title says, Hoppenjans brings a playfulness by including drawings, handwritten notes, and QR codes on the pages of the book. Poems and lyrics are distinct but morph into one form or the other when on the page or sung in a recording. Lyrics from Can’t Get the Dark Out are all included in the book, among other songs and poems.
Hoppenjans’ collection begins with a poem called “How to Read This Book.” The poem gives the reader the freedom to pair reading the book with listening to recordings of Hoppenjans’ songs via QR codes—or not. Hoppenjans offers the reader a choose-your-own-adventure of sorts when she writes, “You can read and listen, you / can listen without reading, you / can read without listening….”
Whether you read or listen, the poems and lyrics in the book engage with love, relationships, who the poet is as a person, and the event that disrupted many of our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoppenjans puts to words those feelings that are hard to articulate when she writes about a decision in “Salt and Stone”:
Now I can’t move—
I’m stuck, paralyzed by fear.
The road ahead could be much better;
but what if it’s much worse?
There is no way to know sometimes, but the doubt can be persistent. Later, Hoppenjans becomes unapologetic in “Wish You Would”:
I just want what I want.
I’m done being sorry for that.
And you only want me
when you can’t have me.
Perhaps the takeaway is that it is best to make one’s own decisions when in doubt or turmoil.
Hoppenjans and Pulp talked about her new book, what makes a poem a poem, poetic forms that she uses in her book, and what is next for her. (Here you can read a previous Pulp interview with Hoppenjans that focuses on her music.)
Q: How has moving to Ann Arbor been for you? Would you also tell us about your doctorate program?
A: Absolutely! Moving to Ann Arbor was tough—I’d lived in Nashville for about eight years and really built a community there. But Ann Arbor is a wonderful town, and I’m loving the program I’m in at UMich! I’m in the PhD musicology program, using my background as a singer-songwriter and voice teacher to study how popular music intersects with identity, voice, creativity, and digital culture. It’s been really rewarding—challenging at times, but also world-expanding and fun!
Q: The subtitle of your new book is A Collection of Poems, Music, Lyrics, and Some Real Arty Shit. What inspired you to publish a book containing those things?
A: A few factors coalesced to convince me to publish the book: 1) I’d been writing poetry for fun, and finding that my poems could have interesting conversations with the songs I was writing; 2) I was a writer-in-residence at Willapa Bay AiR in the summer of 2021, which gave me time to focus on writing both poems and songs, as well as encouragement from other participants to step into the new medium of poetry; and 3) I wanted to make the EP available as something other than a CD. I know it’s well-meant when people buy CDs at shows that they never intend to play, just to support the artist—I know because I do it, too! But I wanted to package the EP in such a way that people could still hold it in their hands and experience it after leaving a show, and this seemed like a unique way to do that. I’ve started performing the poems at shows, too, which has been really cool!
Q: Songs on your EP that came out earlier this year, Can’t Get the Dark Out, are lyrics/poems in the book. Could you tell us more about how the book relates to your EP?
A: All of the songs from the EP are in the book, and I think the themes of the EP resonate through the book as well. The EP is a love story, all about my COVID-19 romance and the honest day-to-day of a relationship. The book has a whole “Love” section that speaks strongly to these themes, but they’re throughout the book, too!
Q: Some of the poems have QR codes that link to demos, studio versions, work tapes, recordings, and playlists. Do you see your writing as lyrics first or as poems first? What distinguishes a poem from lyrics?
A: I see my writing as dependent on the medium I’m writing in, whether it’s lyrics or poetry first. I definitely think of myself as a songwriter who writes poetry, rather than a poet—but this is only my first foray into poetry, so maybe that will change with time! To me, lyrics and poetry are separate forms, and the process for each is quite different. With lyrics, I tend to start with a melody and hum nonsense until words come, so it’s a real-time, improvisatory process most of the time. Poetry is much more of a contemplative, pen-and-paper process for me. Frankly, poetry is also less constrained by conventional form, which I’ve always found quite freeing. And I’ve really enjoyed playing with the visual aspect of poetry as well—you typically don’t think about the visual when you’re writing a song.
Q: You mention the “visual aspect of poetry.” Do you mean what it looks like on the page? Would you be willing to elaborate?
A: By visual aspect of poetry, I do mean what it looks like on the page. When I write down song lyrics, I’m not usually thinking about how they look—I’m just writing them the way that it makes the most sense for me to read them while I’m singing! But it’s so fun to mess with those natural line breaks and see what new images and meanings can occur when you play with the line breaks. Plus, I was fascinated with trying to evoke how the music sounds by how the lyrics look on the page—that’s where a lot of the unusual spacing and line break choices came from!
Q: I loved the way you play with form, such as the palindrome poem, “Cool Beans,” or the villanelle in “Forced Perspective.” The line breaks also caught my attention. Which comes first: the form or the thing you want to write about?
A: Often the form inspires the subject of the poem! I took a great class in form from The Porch in Nashville that inspired a lot of those poems, so I have to give props to the teacher Destiny Birdsong! She encouraged us to think about what the structures of forms signify and how we can play with them in our work. One other form in the book I’m particularly proud of is a sestina called “Knitted”; the sestina form itself is so interwoven and overlapping, which inspired me to write about knitting.
Q: The poem “Space” takes up a lot of space on the page. Some lines express defiance in putting those words out there because “i know it’s in me, can’t let it go to waste.” Later in the poem, the power of a single word becomes apparent, as “just one word / moves the air / out of / place—.” Does writing feel like you are claiming space?
A: ABSOLUTELY. Writing is using your voice, whether you’re putting sound in the air or words on a page—and that act in itself claims space. As a singer, I have always loved the feeling of using my voice and hearing it reverberate, and the power of that is partly what inspired this song.
Q: You also include images of early, handwritten drafts. What changes between the drafts and typed poems/lyrics?
A: SO MUCH, LOL. I only included writing drafts that didn’t fill me with embarrassment to share, because some of them are so terrible they shouldn’t see the light of day. That said, I do enjoy sharing the process with people because I think sometimes people think of writing as this magical thing, like writers sit down and immediately write a perfect finished product. Songs and poems are like a puzzle—they take work and trying different solutions and fussing with the bits that bother you until they don’t. So I like that this book allowed me to include people in that process somewhat.
Q: How do you go about including people in the process?
A: By sharing the process, I meant by sharing my images of my early drafts with the people reading the book—I wrote the book very much solo, apart from the couple of co-written songs that are included. But I did send early sketches of what it would look like to a friend at my writing residency, Sara Deniz Akant, who had some wonderful insights that helped me focus my writing as I developed the idea!
Q: COVID makes its appearance in your book with its far, deep reach visible in poems like “Forced Perspective: a COVID villanelle”:
My world has grown so small
that my entire universe is my apartment
and I have shrunk to just three inches tall.
I journey to my kitchen as to Nepal,
traverse an Everest of papers I can’t bear to part with;
my world has grown so small.
Did your writing change as a result of the pandemic? If so, how might it have changed?
A: I think the pandemic afforded me time to reflect. As I looked back on songs and poems I was particularly proud of, it occurred to me that the works where I allowed myself to be the most vulnerable were my proudest. That self-reflection instilled in me the desire to keep that courage as much as I could in my writing moving forward—and I think the pandemic is at least partially responsible for that!
Q: What are you reading and listening to right now?
A: I’m pretty obsessed with Lizzo, and I’ve been listening to her new album a lot! I’ve also gotten into Peaches recently, and like almost everyone when Kate Bush had her Stranger Things moment, I went back and started listening to her again, too. I’m mostly reading stuff for school lately (William Cheng’s Just Vibrations is wonderful!), but I also recently read Frank by Diane Seuss and loved it, and I’m looking forward to reading Joy Priest’s Horsepower.
Q: What are your next plans for writing and recording?
A: Writing is definitely the next step! I’m fresh off a tour this summer and excited about having time in one place to sit and write. It feels like I haven’t written a song in a while, so I think the next step is just to bust out the guitar and play around!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.