Danielle Cadena Deulen: In many of your poems, you engage spiritual mystery through your investigation of the corporeal, even, at times, the sexual body. I’m thinking specifically of “In the Garden of Corporeal Delights” and “Self-Portrait with Dragonfly.” How are sexual desire and spiritual desire aligned in your manuscript?
Hannah Dow: I was raised in a Catholic family, but most of my lessons in spirituality and sexuality came from encounters with evangelical Christians in high school and college. Like many young women, I was taught that sexual activity outside of marriage was not only sinful, but would be damaging and harmful to my emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. As I learned later, it was not sexual desire or any expression of it, but this way of thinking about sexual desire, that was damaging and harmful (to me, anyway). At the same time, I grappled with spiritual desire and locating a faith that would not be damaging, harmful, or effacing to myself or to others, the way religious expression sometimes is. Because I was taught to think about sexuality and spirituality as inextricable, I now find myself frequently returning to and working through this tension in my poems. For me, it has been fruitful to explore the pleasures and absurdities of having a body and a spirit.
Deulen: Although your tone and form are quite different, your method of inquiry reminds me somewhat of the great metaphysical poets, especially John Donne. What poets from the past do you feel an aesthetic allegiance with and why?
Dow: Admittedly, I haven’t read nearly as much John Donne as I should, but like the metaphysical poets, I think I am more interested in exploring or analyzing feelings than expressing them. I feel deeply, but I do not always know how I feel about something until after I have encountered it in my writing. I feel a great kinship with Dorothy Wordsworth and many of the Romantic poets. I’m not sure if this allegiance is aesthetic, but I spent a lot of time studying these writers while I was earning my doctorate. I was especially drawn to the way Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals insist on the importance of belonging to the environment. Her journals are striking and honest and literary in their own right, and there are now many recuperative efforts to teach her work as literature, not just as ephemera or notes to, in her words, “give Wm. pleasure.” A lot of my poems engage aspects of domesticity and gardening in ways that are perhaps more representative of her life than my own, and this makes me thankful for and acutely aware of the privilege I have in being confident enough and socially able to write and publish poems that my contemporaries can read.
Deulen: Your “postcard” poems lead your readers around the world through vastly different landscapes—from Mississippi, to California, to Europe, to the Middle East. How does your sense of place inform your approach to a poem?
Dow: Having now lived in different parts of the country (on all three coasts), I’ve come to better understand and appreciate the ways that landscapes and communities are formed and organized. In my poems, I think I approach this “sense of place” in terms of belonging, considering what it means to be an inhabitant of a place versus a short- or long-term visitor. My sense of belonging is often blurry; over the last decade, I haven’t lived anywhere for more than three years, so when I write, I consider home to be some amalgamation of all the places I’ve lived. I think my postcard poems attempt to enact this tension between belonging and not-belonging; by nature, a postcard is usually written from a place one is only visiting, and the writer might move on to a new place before the recipient even checks the mail. In this sense, I think of these poems as gestures of apostrophe, written without hope of response. Although these poems seem to announce that they will be about a particular place, the location mainly provides an occasion for the speaker’s mediation on belonging: to people, to self, to environment, to G/god.
Deulen: In engaging subjects of faith, these poems often attempt to articulate the inexplicable. Is faith, as you understand it, an imaginative act? That is, do you believe there are similarities between faith and the creative process?
Dow: Absolutely. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think, among other reasons, people look to faith for answers, but instead are given mysterious and unsatisfactory explanations, which then give rise to more questions. I think the creative process is much the same way. I often find myself wishing that poetry had more answers, but the inquiries and attempts at explanation are always more beautiful and compelling, if unsettling, than any answer could be. There is something very enchanting about trying to understand what can’t be understood, and there is something very humbling about the fact that I must keep trying.
Deulen: These poems are strikingly feminine in their perspective. Recurring images, such as wombs, nests, flowers, and deer arise throughout the collection. How does your engagement in feminine symbols align with or resist issues of faith, as you see it?
Of course, it’s no secret that historically, culture and religion have relegated women to lesser roles—symbolically and otherwise—and while my poems alone are not going to rewrite culture or religion, I hope my use of feminine symbols might allow for new understandings of their importance, power, and potential. On a craft level, I try to pair these traditionally feminine images with angry or threatening ones; for example, in one poem the Dead Sea is a lethal womb, while in another, a woman sets fire to her indoor plants to imitate the drought outside. Since publishing Rosarium, my poems have taken on a darker, scarier (I am told), female voice. I hope these new poems, too, can assist in ongoing efforts to redefine what femininity can be or look like.
Deulen: Many of your poems meditate on the complicated relationship between creation and its inevitable twin, loss. To what extent do you see the poems in this book as elegiac?
Dow: In a way, I think all poems are elegiac when they attempt to communicate something that will inevitably be lost between writer and reader. Of course, there is much to be gained from this process as well. In particular, I see my postcard poems as especially elegiac. In content, many address what is inherent in relationships among human beings: love, loss. In form, they engage in an imaginary act of correspondence, an epistolary moment that recalls the speaker of Mark Jarman’s “If I Were Paul”: “I send you this not knowing if you will receive it, or if having received it, you will read it, or if // having read it, you will know that it contains my blessing.” This idea—sending a piece of oneself out into the world, uncertain if it will arrive or how it will be received if it does arrive—is an elegiac gesture that I think all of these poems share.
Hannah Dow is the author of Rosarium. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, RHINO, The Rumpus, The Cincinnati Review, and Ninth Letter, among others. She reads for Ploughshares and serves as an assistant poetry editor for Memorious. Hannah received her PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Writers, and she currently resides in Southern California.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is a poet, essayist, and podcast host. She is the author of two poetry collections Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us and Lovely Asunder, winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award; a poetry chapbook, American Libretto; and a memoir, The Riots, which won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the GLCA New Writers Award. She served as the 2007-2008 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is an Associate Professor at Willamette University and host of the literary podcast “Vita Readings: Lit from the Basement” at vitareadings.com. Learn more at her author website: danielledeulen.net