This week you hear from the Alaskan Poet, Erin Coughlin Hollowell. I met Erin at graduate school and I’ll be honest, at first she scared the shit out of me. She’s super tall and, when I met her, she wore Frye boots that made her even taller. And she’s extra super smart (and not just because she went to Cornell for undergrad). Erin is one of the most well-read people I know, finishing well over 125 books each year. (Yeah, do the math on that, why don’t you?) She’s a deep and critical thinker—she’s also an amazing poet. Her first book, Pause, Traveler, stopped me dead in my tracks one snowy night in Boston. I took it with me into the bath, and kept adding hot water until I’d finished the book. The poems are deeply lyric and so, so personal and yet, in the way of good writers, I felt like she was telling my story, too.
Her second book of poems, Every Atom, is being published by Boreal Books in 2018—which is a blink of an eye in the world of publishing, but I’ll tell you is a damn long time away for these amazing poems where Erin tries to make sense of her mother’s dementia and their relationship. And all that grief one has when one’s mother loses her mind. Those poems undid me. They’re in a wholly different style than the poems in Pause, Traveler, because Erin is always learning, always improving. She’s a role model, really, for what it means to be a writer, to be a literary citizen. I’m lucky enough to call her friend.
So grab a cup and sit back and read about what Erin thinks about being a woman and voting for a woman—finally and at last.
The Authenticity Experiment, the beet goes on edition. My hands are bright red as I peel beets to roast for dinner. I know I don’t have to; at least the internet tells me that I don’t have to, but my experience is that they taste sweeter if they’ve been peeled before roasting. I didn’t learn to cook beets from my mother. She was a terrible cook, almost everything out of boxes and cans. Hamburger Helper. Chef Boyardee. Vegetables from of the freezer section at the supermarket and then cooked to a uniform grey.
My mother never let me in the kitchen before dinner. My job was to wash dishes, and re-wash dishes, because they were never clean enough for her standards. I don’t think it would have helped me to have my mother teach me how to make Rice-a-Roni, but I remember my chagrin in college when a housemate had to teach me how to separate garlic cloves. To be honest, I’d never seen a garlic clove. My childhood home only had garlic salt.
Things my mother taught me: how to iron men’s shirts, how to dust, how to polish a silver tea set, how to vacuum the carpet so that the nap lay evenly, how to fold clothing to the same size and shape so that the drawers were neat. She also sent me as a six-year-old to “White Gloves and Party Manners” where they taught us how to sit properly, wear our hair to suit our face shape, scrub our white gloves, set the table for a formal dinner, and diaper babies.
When I was in fifth grade, the local paper asked our class if the first lady should get a job. We each wrote our answers. Mine was chosen for publication. The abbreviated version: No, the first lady’s job is to make sure that the president is happy. It should be no surprise that my mother had that little snippet of newsprint laminated. I found it the drawer of her night-stand after both of my parents had passed away. An almost forty-year-old news-clipping.
As I cut up the beets for roasting, I remember two years ago sitting in a friend’s backyard in Portland. Her delight at her garden that was compact and varied and filled with good things to eat. Her daughter sat with us as we ate cheese and crackers. The adults with glasses of wine. I didn’t know that my mother would die the next week. I was thinking of the writer’s residency I was about to go to. I was admiring how easily my smart friend got along with her smart daughters. I wondered what it would have been like to be raised by a woman who was both a poet, a lawyer, a teacher, and a community advocate.
Fast forward two years, now sitting on a different patio in Portland, same smart friend and daughter. It’s sweltering and we’re all perspiring and eating fried green tomatoes. We’re talking about stress and anxiety. I know what’s smothering my friend’s daughter, all the stress to be pretty (but not vain) and strong (but not too strong) and popular (but not one of those girls) and nice (but not too “nice”) and smart (oh but not too smart) and perfectly dressed for every occasion not showing too much skin but still being sort of sexy just in case a boy is looking at you.
I had thought that as I got older that all of those conflicting cultural dictates would go away. But crossing over the threshold to fifty, I can tell you that although they’ve dimmed a bit, they’ve not disappeared. I still have a hard time leaving the house without eyeliner. My 89-year-old mother couldn’t remember my name, could barely lift her hand to feed herself, and still insisted that I position her makeup mirror so that she could put her lipstick on.
During this election season, the debates have been excruciating for me. As a woman who has experienced both egregious sexual harassment on occasions too numerous to count and domestic violence in my twenties, the gas-lighting, stalking, and threatening rhetoric have wreaked havoc on my limbic system. Adrenaline flooded me so completely that I spent the entire second debate pacing the house. I could not sit still, but I could not look away.
I remember very clearly my mother and father’s reaction to, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” I was twenty-seven years old and my first marriage was coming to a brutal and violent end. I knew that my parents did not believe in divorce. I knew that my mother believed very strongly in what I had written as a fifth grader about the role of a first lady. Hell, in her opinion, the role of any lady. And there was Hillary Clinton, a woman who had the gall to suggest that her profession might mean something. That she might have some worth outside the contract of marriage.
It’s 28 degrees and I’m putting the garden to bed. Spreading mulch over the flat-cut nubs of Swiss chard, throwing frost-burned leaves on top of the compost, pulling the last beets. The abundance of the garden recedes, August’s bursts of calendula blossoms, three kinds of kale, more carrots that two people could eat in a calendar year. My fingers and ears are cold, but nothing compares with the satisfaction of closing the growing season under the clearest vault of blue sky, snow line evident on the mountains across the bay. Every year the garden teaches me something.
Every day the world teaches me something. I know how to cook vegetables. I know how to write poems and teach and build houses. I know how to stare down a screaming man at 11:30pm on a rainy night in Portland and how to back away from a brown bear with two cubs. And at the beginning of November, I know how to vote for a president who has withstood our culture’s edicts of what a woman is, who has refused to stay small and meek, and through it all has fought so that my smart friend’s daughters can define being a woman however they want to.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives at the end of the road in Alaska. Prior to landing in Alaska, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. In 2013, Boreal Books published her first collection Pause, Traveler. Her second collection, Every Atom, is forthcoming from the same press in 2018. She has been awarded a Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship, a Connie Boochever Award, and an Alaska Literary Award. She blogs about poetry, life, and the intersection of the two at www.beingpoetry.net.
I’m finishing the final edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment which will be published by Two Sylvias Press in June 2017, and it’s hard to write and edit simultaneously. So, until December or so you’re get to hear from a variety of amazing writers. You’re gonna love their writing. Dark and light, both/and from voices you should know and will soon want to be following.
If you miss my voice too much, you can always buy yourself a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. And those of you in Portland, I’m reading at two Lit Crawl events on November 4th, including Ashley’s Get Nervous at 6pm at Tugboat Brewing and Grief Rites (natch) at Literary Arts at 7pm–and then at Wordstock the next day. In fact, I’m reading in a whole bunch of places. Check the my Facebook page for more info and while you’re there, like the page, will you? Until then, be well.