Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with Amy Elisabeth Hansen

Amy Elisabeth Hansen’s poems “The Highlands” & “Du Page County” appeared in Issue 23.1.

What kind of poems are you most drawn to?

I like poems that ask me to feel more, like this one and this one and this one.

Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?

I’ve been thinking about cults. All kinds of cults. Big ones, small ones, old ones,new ones. Family cults, fitness cults, religious cults, cults of personality. And sneaky cults, like academia and multi-level marketing. I am easily brainwashed, and I think a lot of that is because of how much I trust and believe in language. If poetry is the closest look at language, and if language is a primary agent of cult thinking, I want to smash them together and see what they do. Stay tuned for cult poems.

I love the strong stresses of these poems, lines like—“By the back gate shivved / by wild grass, I bend” or “From the wet and the wind, she’d stiffen: / a curtain hung with rope curling in”. What has inspired your poetry’s brilliant sense of sound and rhythm?

Brilliant! That is so nice of you to say. When I write, I use my mom’s voice and speaking style as a guide, especially when I think about rhythm. She is loud and deliberate and wise, and when she talks, everyone listens. I want to write lines like that, so I started trying to mimic her delivery, and one of the ways I do that is by crowding several stressed syllables together.

Sound is the most mysterious part of poetry for me. As an undergraduate, I was briefly enrolled in a linguistics course before dropping it when I realized there would be actual tests. I don’t remember much except the day we covered articulatory phonetics, which changed how I thought about sound in my writing almost instantly. Now, when I’m working on a poem, I’m a lot more attentive to what my mouth and breath have to do to form the sounds, and what effect that has on the rhythm and pacing of the poem. I end up with a lot of assonance that I (usually) dial back in revision.

The speaker of “The Highlands” (the title “Du Page County” suggests this as well) reveals such a deep, personal relationship to land and place. Is this relationship a recurrent theme in your work?

Absolutely. “The Highlands” was the name of my family’s farm in northern Illinois. We had to sell in 1995. Besides that, very few details in “The Highlands” are autobiographical, but the weird, generational angst that comes with being displaced from family land is very real to me. Like many people in their twenties, I have this sense of uncertainty about where to go, where to live, what to do, and the farm could have been the answer to all of that for me. In “The Highlands,” I think that bitterness (and if I’m being honest, “entitlement” is probably a better word) is most evident in the second stanza:

By now, I say forget it like a habit,

like dirt moved from place to pile

across the whole leased earth.

I say it like salt gone to clump

in the heat. I say it bitter,

like it’s mine.

If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?

Every time you begin to feel jealous of another poet’s success or anxious about whether your poems are good enough, turn around and channel all of that energy into mentoring a poet who is just getting started. When I do this, it helps me remember why I do poems at all: I want to connect. I didn’t start writing to be in competition with other writers. I started because other poets and their writing reached out and invited me in. My advice to my fellow poets is to invite in as many people as possible.

Amy Elisabeth Hansen studies poetry at Northern Michigan University. Her writing appears in or is forthcoming from Cream City Review, Hippocampus, LIT Magazine, Stirring, and elsewhere.