Somatic Pinging: An Interview with Hannah Ensor – Michigan Quarterly Review

Somatic Pinging: An Interview with Hannah Ensor

“Movies work,” Hannah Ensor’s speaker posits, “because we’ve forgotten // that even when someone is an antagonist / we’re not supposed to be happy / when they die. […] Because babies are cute and also terrifying. […] Many movies work because of romantic love.”

One of the many aspects that make the poems in Love Dream with Television work for me is how the relationship between speaker and reader is established. I trust the speaker of Ensor’s book because of how they teach me, in a way, not to completely trust them. There’s a prominent irony that feels central to these poems: a speaker who is at once notably calm—matter-of-fact, under-stated, carefully observant—and also deeply anxious—uncertain, concerned with the slipperiness of time and memory, often returning to the messiness of navigating privilege and the impending nature of death. The speaker is transparent about their own fallibility, therefore inviting us to wonder together.

The strings of observational statements that populate the poems, that drive the texture of the language (observable in the above assertions about movies), are sometimes punctuated with emphatic questions; or, in the case of the poem “On Instant Replay,” the two modes blend: “What are we doing here. Why am I watching this. … What do I see in the bodies moving into and around each other. Would be too easy to say the erotic.”

And this tone—this duality of calm conversational assertiveness + anxiety, of declarative + interrogative—invites a complexity that feels genuine and, well, complex.

I mean it as a compliment when I say these poems are work. There is a certain necessary difficulty, but not one that obfuscates; rather, the poems push past what would be “too easy to say,” even when the language has a plain-spokenness which might imply a sense of ease. The poems do a lot of thinking, a lot of looking (often, as the title implies, through a screen) at what Ensor calls “a particular constellation of references”: at Beyoncé, Wallace Stevens, Dennis Rodman, Anne Carson, Jurassic Park, Disney, among many many others, and alongside this constellation, or rather within it, we explore time, gender, whiteness, politics, geography.

Reading this book felt, to me, like sitting next to the poems’ speaker(s) while watching TV, the speaker(s) both casually and thoughtfully offering commentary. When that speaker states, “I want you here in this book with me,” I believe them, that we can live for a moment in these poems making observations and asking questions together: What is my place in how I act as the one seeing. What is yours.

My place and Ensor’s have crossed paths via the University of Michigan. While her bio makes it clear that Love Dream with Television was written in Tucson, Arizona, that time in Tucson has been sandwiched by time in Ann Arbor, MI. We sat down in the university’s Hopwood Room to talk about these connections to place and community, about art and media, and about the book:

Marlin M. Jenkins: I want to start by asking about what you call the “constellation of references.” Your book is heavily referential, and one thing that’s interesting to me is that within that constellation we have a lot of returns to things: we come back to Friends, we come back to Jurassic Park, to Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson, so many others. I’m wondering: in the process of writing, especially a sequence or a book, how does your relationship to those figures, to those stars in the constellation, change over time?

Hannah Ensor: That makes me grateful that I used the word constellation, although I wasn’t thinking about it for this reason. It does sort of feel like if the metaphor is the constellation they will reappear as the sky moves—and depending on what day it is and whatever latitude/longitude, etc. When I wrote that they were a constellation of references what I was thinking about was the somatic pinging out of all the things that we’re constantly surrounded by. I read this article at one point in my undergraduate career in an art theory class that was called “The Time of the Glance” by Edward S. Casey. I do feel like one of the things I took from that essay, whether or not it’s actually in it, is that our attention is never particularly a digression—I think he uses the metaphor of an arrow shot. So even when you’re looking at something and then you glance over there and then you look back, it’s not as if this was central and that was a digression, but rather that all the pieces of that are part of the lived experience. And so I think about the constellation in that way, like you’re on the gym treadmill, running and thinking about something and listening to a podcast, and then you glance up and you see whatever the CNN chyron is, like that’s all happening all at once. I think when you’re surrounded by those references that you mentioned like Friends, and Anne Carson, or whatever else, the ways in which those surrounding elements recur is very personal. I think that everyone has a different constellation of what those recurring media objects are, and I think in the poem where I say the thing about the constellation of references, that’s part of what I’m trying to say: that everyone’s are different and I’m sort of begging people to come with me with the full knowledge that I understand the readers’ constellation is different from mine.

MJ: We’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations about movies and standup comedy, as well as other forms of media, and especially with there being so many references in this book, I’m wondering if there were other things that influenced not only the content but the craft, or the form, the pieces take.

HE: NBA commentators and the ways that they talk about things has been kind of big to the process of this book. There’s the poem, “I Send Sexy Texts with Athletes,” and that, minus the “I” and the present tense of “send,” was a headline from a National Enquirer that said, like, “The Bachelorette Sends Sexy Texts with Athletes.” That’s kind of in line with the NBA commentators piece of it, where there are these media voices and the weird way they say things and we just act like it’s normal. That kind of hegemonic media language has been really important to me, to sort of sit inside of it: what happens when we make that headline “I send sexy text with athletes” instead of some kind of accusation of this bachelorette for being whatever it is they’re accusing her of?

MJ: This book is deeply invested in time in a lot of different ways, especially as it relates to place and as it relates to the anxiety around the impending-ness of death. There’s a particular moment I want us to talk about in the poem, “Dennis Rodman has me all Confused”:

The podcasts I listen to in August 2017 come with disclaimers that the world might have changed since they recorded

might have changed drastically

if you are checking the dates of these poems, I would request you do so not as a historian, but as a forensic psychologist, the kind you’ve seen on TV,

not necessarily for what has already happened but for what

those things having happened

has done to us

Even this early in the book—this is page 29—we’ve already been thinking a lot about dates, and change, and presence, and returning. I’m wondering about those types of change in terms of how the world has changed since the poems were written, and in terms of this idea of return to a different place—these poems were written in Tucson but by the time it was published you were back in the Ann Arbor area. Can you talk a bit about how those changes influence the poems’ relationship to you at a different point in time and place, especially now that they’re out in the world?

HE: The book was accepted for publication, I want to say, late 2015, early 2016. Which as we all know was before the presidential election of 2016. And so it really in some ways has felt like it’s a few books in a few moments. The oldest poems, I think, are from 2013, and the newest ones I wrote a week before the whole book was finalized. So it’s a really big time span and one in which I think not only public mood but also expectations for what work poems do were very much in flux. And I mean that for myself also, like what I wanted a poem to do was so different in 2013 than it is today, and I’m not sure I could articulate exactly what those differences are, but I do know that when I was writing probably half the poems in this book it was right after the election, when everything felt really hot and scary and raw and big. So that “the podcasts I listen to […] have disclaimers” line was right after I listened to, I think, three podcasts in a row that were all like, “well, we’re talking about how it’s very possible that our new president is gonna press the red button and we’re gonna be in a nuclear war and we just have no way of knowing if he’s gonna do that.” That sentence might still be true right at this very moment in terms of that huge fear and that huge possibility, but I think the immediacy of it, and the calling our senators every day, and trying to track down John McCain and talk to him in person: all of these things felt like they were always on the front burner, 24/7. I know my anxiety was super high, and my friends’ was as well. That’s a different place to be writing from, and I also think the ways in which that calendar got condensed around drafting new poems for the book, and knowing that it had this proposed date of September 2018 to be published, kind of meant a wild ride of drafting poems, editing poems, looking back at the oldest poems, shmushing some stuff together, all the normal revision activity took on a whole new sheen. I actually think that I inserted a lot of the “now is 2012”, “now is 2018”, “now is …”, that kind of language, later in the process, kind of as a bookmark, put-a-pin-in-it kind of thing, like “this is the kind of sentence someone writes in 2013 when they’re interested in contemporary poetry and music videos.” “This is the kind of sentence someone writes in 2014 when they discover something about androids and music videos.” Those were both music video examples, but I felt a little bit like it was necessary in putting the book together to mark that these were different selves in different moments because it started to feel almost out of control otherwise, just all the different moments holding space in the same book.

MJ: You had a collaborative poem recently on Poem-a-Day called “Feel Piece 4.” Can you talk a little bit more about what the process was for that poem and for creating in a collaborative way?

HE: My dear, dear friend Laura Wetherington and I have collaborated with each other since probably 2010. As a brief backstory of collaboration: I took a collaboration workshop here at Michigan—with Anne Carson and Bob Currie teaching it—and that must have been in the winter as I was graduating, so that sparked an onslaught of collaboration with all kinds of different people in the course of the class and in the aftermath of that class.

The Feel Pieces came about when we went together to a Naropa summer writing program, so we were there for a week taking different classes, and we’re sort of walking around talking about all the tricky stuff that is happening in the world, specifically examples of accusation and truth around sexual misconduct in the literary community. And we were processing a lot of really big feelings about it, but we were noticing that we were feeling more feelings than we were thinking thoughts. And trying to figure out: is there something wrong with us that we don’t write “think pieces,” like that we couldn’t possibly; if a big thing happens today there’s no way we’re going to have 500 words out about it by this afternoon. So we sort of came up with this idea of the Slow Feelings Institute. Part of what we were talking about is what happens when our feelings are slow, and does that mean that we’re getting left behind or does it mean something else that’s potentially beautiful, and how can we really sink into our feelings? We would go out and sit on the sunny steps in front of the room where we were all meditating and we would go back and forth and just say lines that were additive until we felt like we were done. I think we wrote like eight or nine of those when we were still sharing space at Naropa, and then we went back to our various places; she lives in The Netherlands now and I was living in Tucson and have since moved here, and so we have continued to meet on Google Hangout pretty regularly. We’re reading stuff together, and we’re talking about ideas, and I think being in that conversation where we’re building lots of different kinds of things together and deepening our conversations has made writing together really possible in a way where it seems to not matter so much whose voice is whose.

MJ: I think that’s interesting to think about Google Hangout as a tool for collaboration alongside an increasing pressure of knowing how you feel right away—

HE: And being right about it!

MJ: and being right about it!—which is an issue with digital journalism and with social media. What that draws me to in the book is the poem “Another Story about the Same Trains.” At the end we have this moment:

Technology accelerating the moment. I am terrified and unconvinced that I should be otherwise.

I love how that ending operates with kind of a double negative to emphasize its meaning. I also wondered about that relationship between fear and technology, and how you navigate that duality of how it is both a tool and limited and scary.

HE: I was thinking about this earlier today; I was listening to a Tara Brach lecture about listening. She quoted someone who said his definition of listening is “to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” I think that’s hard with social media, and I’m addicted to social media; I love it so much. I look at Twitter enough that my hands are injured. I have these giant thumb muscles now that are not evolutionarily protected. And I think that it trains us; I feel myself very much trained by social media attention. It happens pretty frequently that I’ll come across an article that’s exactly up my interest-alley or a poem that I really want to read on my Twitter feed and I will do some combination of opening it and closing it immediately or scrolling past it. There are those small moments where I ask myself, “what am I here for if not for that?” I think the answer is that it’s about the scrolling; I am here to scroll and get the broad field of what is out there today and what people are joking about today and what people are devastated about today and whatever, and I’m not actually there to spend any sustained time with any particular idea.

I don’t want to live in a world without Twitter and without technology and without the future, but I do want to figure out how to not have our brains consider that the majority experience, and I just mean the majority experience of our own days. I think there have been days of my life where half of my waking hours have been on social media or email, and that’s not something I’ve chosen, or it’s certainly not something I hope to continue to choose.

MJ: You were a student here at University Michigan, where you were a Hopwood award winner, then you were in Tucson for a while for your MFA and then were the Literary Director at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, but now you’ve come back to the Ann Arbor area; you’re working at the University of Michigan as the manager of the Hopwood Program. Can you talk a little bit about how you envision your role as Hopwood Program Manager, with special attention to the full-circle nature of the process?

HE: I’m really excited to be part of this program that’s been going for almost 90 years encouraging and fostering student creativity. One of the things I really love about this space is its library collection. Being a steward of this collection is exciting to me. I love when people use this room for access to literary journals and contemporary fiction and poetry, when people explore the former Hopwood winners’ manuscripts. I love walking out into the room and Elinam [Agbo; Fiction MFA student at University of Michigan] will be here, she’ll hold up a book and be like, “have you read this yet?” and I’m like “not yet!” and then she’ll tell me about it and then we’ll talk about it and then I’ll go back to whatever it was I was doing. Seeing writing students, and students more broadly, seeing this as a space to interact with contemporary literature is super exciting to me.

I love, more generally, talking with the students whose shoes I have also been in, at this moment that I feel like they are all about to launch into this new set of experiences and grow. So I talk to a lot of people who are thinking about going to MFA programs, or a lot of people who are thinking about other kinds of grad school, or what to do if they don’t go to grad school, or how to be a writer in the world. I think that kind of informal student advising capacity is one that’s probably pretty unique to this room and this space, given that it does attract creative writers and people who like to think really big thoughts about our world and are trying to figure out what’s next, as students often are. So that’s a whole lot of fun.

I think the Hopwood Program is a huge part of why I consider myself a writer now. I think that my experience is pretty common amongst students, submitting a bunch of times and having your fingers super tightly crossed that one of those times is going to be a win. I think that’s important perspective to keep when students are really disappointed to not win the Hopwood. There are so many talented writers who have come through this place and have never won Hopwoods. The arbitrariness of awards is actually a big part of what I think about in this job. I think that it means a lot when you do win, but it means almost nothing when you don’t.

So back to that first time of winning: I was experimenting with poem writing and I didn’t feel like I was particularly any good at it or that it was going to be something that became part of my identity, or my career, or my life, and I just submitted because it was like, “why not, it’s free.” I ended up winning the first prize that year in undergraduate poetry and it was like, at that point, you have to listen to something about what it is you’re doing with your art. I had to take myself more seriously at that moment and ask myself some hard questions, like is this actually something that I want to be doing? I think that the Hopwoods have been really good at encouraging students who don’t think of themselves as writers to put together a manuscript, to think about how it’s shaped, to think about what’s going into it, what’s not going to go into it, in the way that maybe a class assignment isn’t going to ask that same set of things. I think the big money at the end of that rainbow is part of why the motivation is different, but I also think it’s because it’s not for credit and is an extra thing you have to really choose to be doing. And I kind of never looked back from there. I had lots of interests over time, but poems have stayed with me through that. And I’m not sure that would be true if it weren’t for the Hopwood Program, so it definitely feels full circle.

You can purchase Hannah Ensor’s book of poetry, Love Dream With Television, here.

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