A Certain Place in the World: An Interview with Jen Hirt (by Curtis Smith)

Jen Hirt is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees, the poetry chapbook Too Many Questions About Strawberries, and she has co-edited two creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg, where she is also the chair of the English program. Originally from Valley City, Ohio, she now lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Found out more about her at jenhirt.ink.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Too Many Questions About Strawberries. I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you came to publish with Tolsun Books?

Jen Hirt: I was searching around online one night, just looking for any small press who was open for submissions, and when I clicked on the website for Tolsun Books, I was right away impressed with their book design, the odd titles of the works they’d published, their tie-ins with quirky merchandise and social media, and how they were newcomers with a small staff. Prior to this, I’ve published my books only with university presses, and while they are great, I knew I needed a smaller, more agile publisher for all I wanted to do with this slim chapbook.

CS: I’ve always enjoyed your nonfiction—but I didn’t know you wrote poetry. Is this something relatively new? Or has it been an interest all along?

JH: The poems in this book include two that were written around 1998 and one that was finalized in 2018 and thirteen others between those years. So that’s 20 years to come up with sixteen poems. It’s been an interest all along, but I was never super good at it until I let myself just write some prose poems that ended up finding notable homes in The Baltimore Review and Blackbird. After that, I went back and revised many of my older poems. So I guess my answer is that revision has been an interest all along! But I will add that one new interest in poetry is the opportunity to make and share video versions easily these days. I collaborated with Tina Mitchell, who narrated and animated the poem “Foxes I’ve Seen by Now,” so now that poem-on-the-page has a double-life as a visual poem. The various social media sites run by Tolsun Books (including a Youtube channel) will have more of my video collaborations posted over the next month.

CS: I don’t write poetry, but when I am working on cnf, I find myself reading a lot of poetry. There’s something about the clarity and sparseness and the leaving of things unsaid of poetry that helps my cnf lens. As someone who writes both poetry and nonfiction, do you feel like there’s a link between the two?

JH: Absolutely. I tell this to my students all the time. Poetry should have a turn in it, somewhere in the middle, so that the end of the poem is not at all like where we started in the beginning. And nonfiction should do the same thing. Somewhere in the middle, your mental journey through all these memories or descriptions or whatever takes a turn and you end up at a destination, a conclusion, that is not at all the conclusion of the event you might be writing about. Poetry and creative nonfiction are both about associations. But, I also think that all genres blur together. The link between them isn’t like a solid link of chain. It’s more like a faint but old game trail through a field to another field.

CS: A glance through the pages of Strawberries leads me to guess you’re interested in structure and form. When in the process does this element come to you? What do you think the proper structure can bring to a piece?

JH: Well, in the case of the abecedarian poem, the structure came first (have to write in alphabetical order), and that was great fun to work through. All I knew when I started was that I had the “s” entry, the one about Tony Soprano eating too much sushi. It was the perfect structure for the piece because I was writing it up against a deadline (it was solicited by The Turnip Truck(s) for their “abundance” issue – I’d pitched the idea of a Sopranos/sushi essay to them, and they like it, and then I flipped and wrote a prose poem instead). “Out West” plays super loosely with the concept of a sestina, which repeats end words, but my repeated words are not at the end, nor are they strictly repeated, but they constantly shift and light up with different meanings depending on the context. The two greenhouse poems ended up repeating the same starting word over and over, and that idea came very, very late in the process with those two. Basically, they were boring poems until I imposed a structure on them, and then the little acrobatics I had to do to follow my own structure ended up creating neat phrases. “Elegy After the Jewelers’” ended up with line breaks that were more about the width of the pages in the final chapbook. The original published version, in Pilgrimage, had long lines. So sometimes it’s a decision made by the piece of paper and bindings and margins, not so much by me. 

CS: As I read the book, I felt a strong sense of place—both physical place and the places in your life. Is this a priority when you sit down to write—or is it there all along, providing the ground from which your work rises?

JH: It’s there all along. My earliest practice in creative writing was all undergrad assignments that emphasized place, setting, and details. I’m grateful for that foundation. I’m in the world at a certain place. So is my writing.

CS: The book is dedicated to your grandmother. Was she in the back of your mind as you wrote some of the pieces? In what ways do you feel her presence in this—and your other—books?

JH: She’s in the title poem, of course. But we were not close when she was alive. We did not have deep talks or anything like that. I feel like I know her more through the few photographs that I have, where she’s often outside in the gardens and landscape nursery that became the family business, Hirt’s Greenhouse (now Hirt’s Gardens) in Ohio. She also liked to read – she’s the only family member I know of who also liked to read (the other being me), and so I think she would have enjoyed having a book of poetry dedicated to her. She had a college degree in languages from Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio, so in some ways she stood as an early role model. But we never talked about literature, or art. I guess, with this chapbook, I’m talking to her now.

CS: Who are your favorite poets? Who are some folks you’ve discovered recently who you’ve enjoyed?

JH: Eileen Myles, Eileen Myles, and more Eileen Myles.

CS: You’re a professor who teaches writing. In what ways does that role help your work? Does it hinder it in any way?

JH: Ah yes, hinders and helps. During the semesters, I’m often too busy working with students to work on my own writing. But figuring out how to teach them the basics of creative writing certainly reinforces those ideas in my own writing. I also love finding new books to teach. This semester I even assigned a book I’d never read, and I didn’t read it until I was reading it for homework, basically, along with the students. It’s The Art of Mystery by Maud Casey. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I liked the pressure of not having pre-set lesson plans for it. It made me think quickly and efficiently for in-class activities to illustrate the ideas in the book, and in turn it gave me confidence in my own desire to thread in more mysterious approaches to my own work.

CS: What’s next?

JH: My essay collection, tentatively titled Hear Me Ohio, has been accepted by the University of Akron Press, for publication in 2020, and I have a manuscript-in-progress about my volunteer work as a dogwalker at the Humane Society  in Harrisburg, PA.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).  

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