Chloe Hooks (T’18) on Idiom, Poetry, and Audrey Hepburn

Friday, April 21, 2017
by Sarah Darwiche, Digital Media Intern

Chloe Hooks (T’18) weaves the “mythed mesquite” and “sargasso green” grass that grow in her home state of Texas into poems of intricate lyrical sincerity and deft, fatally precious power. Hooks is a sophomore majoring in the Department of English and minoring in the Department of Theater Studies, with plans to graduate in an abridged three years in order to pursue acting and creative writing professionally. She is currently enrolled in Professor Nathaniel Mackey’s “Advanced Poetry Workshop,” where we first met and from which this conversation was born.

Your poetry, both linguistically and in terms of sound, physicality, and imagistic landscape, has a complex relationship with your home state of Texas. How did Texas first begin to show up in your poetry, and how does it continue to do so today?

Well,  [Laughter.]...I’m from Texas. I grew up in Austin, which is very metropolitan, but my dad’s family comes from West Texas. So that’s very heavy accents, extremely particular use of language—I mean those are the people that you hear all the Texan phrases from, the “So dry, I’m spitting cotton” all that stuff. That was the way I spoke when I was little. But then I went to a summer camp and someone just said, “Gosh, you sound so stupid,” and you know [Laughter.]…of course that was the end of that, and I would spend hours imitating the television, talking back to it, trying to standardize my own speech.

Now having a standard American accent is reflexive to me, but the Texan dialect reappears when I think of home, or when I sometimes use idioms that I don’t even realize are idioms….I remember it used to always be a point of embarrassment for me because I associated it with being less-than-intellectual or because I saw it as a less valid form of language. But then I read Ted Pearson. He uses phrases that would be considered cheesy or perhaps somewhat uncouth in other poetry. I remember in his last section of An Intermittent Music—maybe “Devil’s Aria,” I can’t remember which one—but “Who’s your daddy / what’s your line?” concludes a stanza of highly elevated language. There was something so liberating about that for me, subversive almost, that idiom could be used for everything from kitsch to prophecy, and that it had a place in intellectual poetry. Now, through Ted Pearson’s work and Professor Mackey’s guidance, I have come to see idiom as a really exciting way of examining language, of addressing a particular way of speech which is valid and which is worthy. Inspecting the meaning in shared cultural phrase has been an interesting, new direction my work has taken.

Then there’s the landscape of Texas itself. I remember—I kind of get fascinated with particular words, and there was this word autochthony that I encountered in a theology class. And it’s basically the sense that the landscape of your childhood is something that always calls you back, something that you will always miss. Until recently, I underestimated how important my native landscape wasin one sense, the landscape of my speechbut also just my personal relationship with nature. I didn’t realize how central either of those things were to my identity until I came to a very different type of southern place [in Durham], and I realized that this southern was not my southern.

And finally, there’s the meld of Texan mythsSouthwestern spirituality from Native Americans, Mexican folklore, and original Texan legend. Texas is this weirdly mystical place where storytelling and shared speech really matter. And, so far, I haven’t encountered a voice in poetry which speaks to this or which has fully addressed my sense of home. I think that’s why I gravitate toward Texas in my work ­­– as a way of filling that space, but also as a form of self-validation.

It’s interesting to hear you discuss your persona and your idiom-based, poetic space together. In reading many of your poems, I get the sense that the persona is powerful—they’re separate from the space, sure, but they’re separate enough that they can see how it’s formed and how it’s forming them, and so they’re creating a type of closeness.

One of the recurring themes of my poetry is ownership of self. So, yes, absolutely, that connects with examining my relationship with space, often the space of my childhood. I see the agent and the natural world as in a relationship – whether it be romantic or antagonistic, they are absolutely in dialogue and shaping each other. And another question related to this is perhaps...what is the most important part of the self to own? For a long time I believed that it is the physical self, the embodied self. But I’ve been toying with this concept of the throat as the house of the soul, or of speech as the house of the self. And I think that may explain why I’ve gotten into idiom so deeply, because it is intrinsic to my self-expression, and so to stifle it is to stifle a crucial part of who I am. So more than just the natural world shaping the embodied self, I am also interested in how the lingual or dialectic landscape shapes the soul, and vice versa.

That idea of voice—there’s something you said in our last workshop, about voice and the final death. Can you speak a bit to that?

Yeah, I was really taken in reading Mark McMorris’s book Entrepôt. He has this one epitaphit’s the last epitaph and I think it’s titled “Seen on a Tomb Frontispiece”and it’s this condensed and fairly standard summarization of a person’s life, and then at the end there’s this line: “tarry / here, at this neglected tomb, / to read these words aloud /  from my heart,  and for my sake.” That really resonated with me personally.

There’s something that many poets...and maybe all artists...encounter, which is this concept of multiple deaths that we may die. The first death being the stopping of breath, the second being the burial, and then the final, third death being the last time your name is ever spoken. I think that can really connect to the sense that we have of writing as legacy, or of art as legacy.

I feel like a lot of poets spend time on existential problems to become more comfortable with the concept of a bodily expiration date. But [in McMorris’s work] what he holds onto is that his voice may potentially survive his body—and yet there is an expiration date on his words as well. That concept beautifully struck me and totally frightened me—the sense that although my voice may be outlast me, no part of me will ever be permanent.

You were worried about meaning recently, after you read one of your more idiom-based poems, “Warning Belle.” You said, “I think I may be a sound poet, but I’m not sure I want to be a sound poet!”

[Laughter.] Yeah! I come from a background of theater, which means totally surrendering to expression and dedicating oneself to the transference of meaning and emotional clarity. I think that….I don’t know...I think that I liked that poem the way it was. I think it stood on its own, there was a lot of meaning to me behind it, but I mostly just enjoyed the way it sounded. I am trying to figure out what my real poetic tendencies are, because I’ve undoubtedly strayed from them in allowing myself to be influenced by the work of other poets I encounter. In writing my poetry for the next workshop, I’ve tried to come back to my original voice, while still pulling from the techniques that we’ve been reading [from other authors], which is the true strength of the course and, I think, the point of encountering these works.

You mentioned the transference of meaning, which is so important in acting and so important in poetry, too. It’s sometimes the big, important concept. It takes a lot of self-belief to stray away from it, and from the importance it imparts on the poet and their poetry. How has that factored into your process?

In my last workshop, someone wrote “You use a lot of regional words, and it makes me feel distant from the poem” [laughter]. At first I thought, goshshould I be opening up accessibility to meaning here, should I abandon this unique diction that I have, which I feel is intrinsic to my poetry, so that everyone can understand me? And then I decided no, I don’t need to do that or want to do that. The same is true for the occasional poem where my focus is on cadence and music over story. There can be a value to poetry outside of “getting it.” There is more than plot to take away. That being said, it’s something I’m trying to figure out—how broad I want my target audience to be—but at the end of the day I’m not going to sacrifice my poetic exploration for the explicit transference of meaning.

We give to one another in different ways in a workshop, and you tend to give a lot in that way—even if you don’t relate to one aspect or aspects of the poem, you still always seem to be searching for your way into it. Or for a way that you can sympathize with and appreciate the poem.

This is out there, but it brings to mind this scene in Funny Face, an Audrey Hepburn movie. I don’t know why it’s bringing it to mind…Audrey goes to Paris and she’s traveled all this way to meet this fantastic, philosopher-professor type, but she can’t talk with him–or with anyonebecause she doesn’t speak French. Yet she’s so, so convinced that just through listening to people and looking at people, she can learn from them. The film makes her seem totally naive, of course. And to an extent it is sort of foolish.

But at the same time—that is often how I encounter poetry. I’m in a workshop where people’s primary task is usually clarification of word and intention. So, simply reading poetry and explaining what I receive from it, even if it’s not an intended signal, I think that’s valuable. In a sense maybe Audrey Hepburn had it right, maybe just receiving a message, even if it’s an inadvertent message, can be an educational thing.

Because when you’re a young poet and you’re offering things to people, you’re not sure what language you’re speaking. You don’t really know what you’re doing, you don’t really know what you’re giving, but you’re still giving something. And so the act of naming that is helpful, because honestly I feel like everyone in the workshop, myself included—or, well, maybe only myself actually—doesn’t yet know what kind of poet they are. We don’t always know what the intention is of a poem when we sit down and write it, or even after we write it.

And that’s one of the things that’s been such a blessing in working with Dr. Mackey. He takes note of tendencies beneath the surface of a poem and then suggests, “maybe this is a different kind of poem then we think it is, maybe this poem is valid in its current form, so let’s identify it.” Now, I find myself consciously illuminating elements of my poetry that I was only dimly cognizant of previously. Without a doubt, I owe much of this to many figures in the English Department: Dr. Joseph Donahue–an ever-perceptive poet who I am fortunate to call my advisor, Dr. Mackey and his galvanizing questions, and my insightful peers in the poetry workshop. It sounds too simple to be revelatory, but just listening to these people name and call to attention my poetry’s potential offerings has been immensely beneficial to my work and self-awareness as an artist, so I try to do the same for other people.