The Bookshelf: Poet Nancy Jean Hill

Sep 30, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

 This week, The Bookshelf features poet Nancy Jean Hill.  The Stratham, New Hampshire poet's new collection, Unholy Ghost, is full of pain. There’s the ache of depression, which is given the name "Unholy Ghost." Throw in memories of abuse and alcoholism and the loss of a sibling and you’ve got poetry that takes you deep into dark places. But the words themselves illuminate the conditions of sorrow and grief. Scroll down to read Nancy Jean Hill's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello.  

Nancy Jean Hill's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds.  “This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the poems are about the end of Olds’ 32-year marriage.  I read it a few years after the dissolution of my own long-term marriage and was astonished at how well these poems reached the emotional core of that experience.   As usual, Sharon Olds’ work clearly demonstrates how personal trauma can be transformed into art.  For this reason, I would recommend all of her books; I started reading her work twenty-five years ago, and her poems gave me permission to write many of mine.”

2.   The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh.  “I find reading Thich Naht Hanh’s work calming and hopeful, but it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered this book.  It was first written in 1974 as a letter to encourage young people engaged in compassionate acts in South Vietnam during the war (engaged Buddhism), has been translated into several languages, and has helped readers remember the essential discipline of following one’s breath and maintaining calm mindfulness in the midst of difficult circumstances.   It reminds us that we are all in this together, that ‘we can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of others’ lives is necessary for our own survival.’”

3.   Too Far To Go: The Maples Stories by John Updike.  “It is fascinating to me that Updike created this fictional couple in 1956, dropped them until 1963, and then picked up and wrote several more stories about them until their divorce, in 1976.  It’s like Joan and Richard Maple became real to him;  I guess this is probably true with all good fiction.  The stories are beautifully and simply written, and it seems to me that anyone who has experienced the ups and downs and sometimes mundaneness of a long- term relationship will identify with this couple.”

4.   One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. “Although much of my leisure reading time is spent reading contemporary poets, I love it when I find a fiction writer that grabs me.   This has happened with Kate Atkinson.  I recently finished her novel, One Good Turn, and now I want to read all of her work.  The character-driven, compelling plot of this book is challenging, yet manageable.  Sometimes I had a hard time keeping track of the characters and how they were connected, but I felt sure the author did this purposefully in order to make the reader an active participant in the mystery.  The challenge kept me alert, and I was rewarded at the end with the feeling that I had ‘figured it all out’ (or at least most of it!).  I highly recommend this novel as one that is both ‘mainstream’ and literary.”

5.   The Road Washes Out in Spring by Baron Wormser. “This is the first ‘non-poetry’ book I read by Baron Wormser, but the poet shows up in the writing over and over again.  The Road Washes Out in Spring is a memoir about how Baron and his family lived off the grid for twenty-three years.  But it is more than that.  I remember feelings that were difficult to describe when I read it:  amazement that he could do this and that his wife and kids went along with it, while at the same time a longing to do it myself.  I kept the book on my bedside table and read it little by little, looking forward each evening to learning more about this family’s journey.  Reading it like this was strangely calming.  I just didn’t want it to end."

Tell us about the origin of the term “Unholy Ghost.”

Probably several years ago, I was reading one of Jane Kenyon’s poems, titled “Having it Out with Melancholy.” In that poem, she refers to her own melancholy, her own depression as the "Unholy ghost." Her poem is written in several parts and that’s just when this poem started to take off in my head. But it’s come through a lot of revisions since that started.

Her “unholy ghost” poem is shorter than this one. Her parts aren’t as long. It’s quite different, really, but that’s where the idea came from.

Certainly there’s a long tradition of poets writing about the kind of demons that you describe. The pain of depression. There have also been psychological studies done about how depression seems to be prevalent in creative people.

Right.

Has depression always been something you’ve struggled with?

I think probably it has but it was never diagnosed until I was in my late thirties and I had a major depressive episode. That’s really when I began writing poetry, which is a little over twenty-five years ago.

At that time, I was hospitalized for depression. And it was during that hospitalization that I started writing poetry. First it was cathartic, and then after I got home from being there and some healing started to take place, I found that I loved writing poetry.

I applied to the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, and the first time I was denied. I didn’t get in. Then I took several years before I got the courage to apply again and I went up there and I was accepted. It was probably 2002. I did the festival first and then after that I continued for probably six, seven, eight years in a row. I started at the festival and then I got accepted into the master seminar for poetry. A lot of the poems in this book were conceived at the Frost Place.

Have you always written about depression?

I have always loved to write, but I didn’t know—I didn’t write about depression until I found out I actually had depression and had the experience of having depression.

You’ve been called “brave” for writing about this subject matter. Do you think it took courage to write about this?

It doesn’t feel so much “brave” for me to write the poems. It feels brave to share the poems more than writing them. One of the poets that really helped me with this was Sharon Olds. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her or not.

Mhmm.

Can I read something? I have this one quote—

Yes, absolutely.

--from Mark Doty.

Mark Doty another famous poet. He’s not from New Hampshire, although Sharon Olds does live in New Hampshire, and she actually just won an enormous prize. Congratulations to her.

A lifetime achievement award, yes.

So, something from Mark Doty, please.

Mark Doty sums up nicely what she did for me. “By writing with such candor and clarity, Olds has granted younger poets – especially women – permission to speak. Her poems, in their evocation of trauma or desire, in their grief and joy and comedy, have opened new possibilities for poetry in our time.”

I believe he wrote that just recently when she got that award. She also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her book, Stag’s Leap, which is totally about a divorce after a long-term marriage.

So that’s what she did for me. She gave me permission to write these. Reading her gave me permission to write these—that it was okay to write these poems about these things.

Lots of difficult material in this book, for sure. Depression, sexual abuse, alcoholism, grief from the loss of a sibling. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about a positive aspect of the book, which is the music of the lines here. There are several examples, almost too many to name here, that make it seem as if you did it so easily. Like the lines and the stanzas were just born to be that way.

Mhmm.

And I know from my own experience as a writer is that it doesn’t often fall out of your mouth that way.

Right.

It takes a lot of polishing. Maybe you’re the exception and it did fall out of your head that way. Tell us a little bit about your editing process.

Nancy Jean Hill at NHPR's studios in Concord, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

  No, I’m not an exception. It didn’t fall out of me that way. When I first start writing something, I really start free-writing and write anything that comes out. I use form, as you can probably see. There’s three or four pantoums in here, sestinas, a villanelle, a sonnet, because it seems contrary or paradoxical to say this, but when I use form and I have these rules, it helps me allow the poem to take on a life of its own.

For instance, if I’m dealing with a difficult subject, I don’t necessarily stick to the story exactly the way it happened because I have these rules to follow, so I have these lines that have to follow a certain pattern and I have assonance. That’s the word I was trying to think of. I use a lot of assonance in my poetry and a lot of other poetic devices.

Some of them, like “Beryllium Diary,” that’s the story exactly the way it happened, mostly. But some of them start with a memory and then sort of take on a life of their own, so it’s not all just about me.

That’s what happens. That’s the beautiful thing that happens. I end up surprised about the journey that the poem actually took.

Someone said—and I heard this quote at the Frost Place—that a poem “lies its way to the truth.” Some of my poems do that. It’s not exactly the way it happened because, like you were talking about the musicality—that sort of thing just takes over.

One of the challenges I have as an interviewer is that I’m given a book or I find a book with good poems and I have to talk to the author. I’m so happy you’re here to be able to talk to me. But one of the questions I almost never want to ask is: “Did this literally happen to you?” Because it almost doesn’t matter.

Right, it doesn’t matter.

It’s beautiful poetry. The super-curious among us may ask, “So really, was it your sibling that died?” But whether your sibling really did die or not, the emotion you get from the poem is exactly the same.

That part is true. My sister did die when I was very young. I was three and a half and she was almost eight. It was unexpected. So that part is true. But some of the other stuff is just not exactly the way it happened.

How do you know when it’s time to change a fact?

It’s really about the poem. It’s about serving the poem. It just happens. It’s really kind of strange. I don’t think I really know when that’s supposed to happen or when it should happen. I guess I just allow it to happen by using the form and by using other poetic devices.

It’s not something they teach you in poetry school?

No, it’s not something they can teach you in poetry school, but I do know that for a lot of poets, the poets that I’ve been around, they don’t stick to the facts. It’s not nonfiction. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s not necessarily memoir, although I consider this somewhat of a poetry memoir.