Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Erin Coughlin Hollowell: Fire in the Belly

Welcome and thank you to our June featured author, Erin Coughlin Hollowell. Pause, Traveler, her first collection of poetry, was published June 1st by Boreal Books.

“I write so I will become rich and famous,” said no poet ever.

When I was a gawky middle-schooler, I started keeping a notebook in which I wrote poetry. It was a secret. I’m not sure why I started, only that once I did, I never seemed to stop, squirreled away in my bedroom listening to record albums (really!) and scribbling. All through high school I kept at it. My English teachers said nice things about what I turned in for the very few and far between creative writing assignments, but I knew (and more importantly my father knew) that I was going to be a doctor.

Cut to college, cut to me switching majors to Theater. Cut to a few months later when my Freshman Seminar professor said, “You’re not an English major? The way you write, you should be an English major.” In the end, she was right, I loved literature and writing. But at holidays, my father wondered aloud what I would do with my English major.

I never thought I would make my living from the sale of my writing. And that’s good, because the chances of a poet making a living from book sales are, well, infinitesimal. In fact, I never dreamed that I would publish at all. And then I began to, in literary journals. Wow, what a rush. Every acceptance (interspersed with far more rejections) was like some marvelous high. A high that would slowly ebb away. After a while I only felt that incredible rush when I published in a “upper tier” journals.

Recently, I held my first published book in my hands. Wow (again). I was dancing inside (even though on the outside I was just grinning awkwardly and shaking my head in disbelief). Then one night a little while afterwards, I was working (okay, maybe that should read fretting) over my next manuscript. Wondering where it would stand the best chance of publication…

Suddenly, it became very difficult to write.

I descended into a funk. Is that the word for it when you curl up in a ball on the end of the sofa and surf gossip websites and Facebook for hours at a time? The very idea that I would write filled me with the desire to shop for shoes. I fretted about this. I also played a lot of Sudoku.

Then I visited my parents. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of story going on between me and my elderly parents. Each night before I could go to sleep, I would pull out my notebook and write a little. Just a few lines. Then one night, a poem. Another. I was processing my life the way that I have since sixth-grade, through poetry. I wrote because I couldn’t make sense of the world otherwise.

For me, that is the fire in the belly. That is the reason I write. Hayden Carruth wrote, “Why speak of the use of poetry? Poetry is what uses us.” Poetry is the lens through which I see the world, the practice I use to listen and focus. Poetry uses me as a conduit for each day’s unfolding. When a poem reaches completion, it feels like a mirror held up to my life, but one in which other people see their lives as well. And if I have worked hard enough, the beauty of the language is the light that illuminates the reflection.

Each of us must find the reason we write, the reason far beyond money and fame. Some write to persuade, others to celebrate. Most of us want to share what we find beautiful or moving. Quite a few are looking to create an emotional terrain in which our readers learn more about themselves. Mary Karr wrote, "I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world.”

And so I urge you to examine why you write. Ask yourself and really explore the answer. Maybe write about it. The answer will point the way for you when you get temporarily lost. The answer will be the whisper in your ear, “Now sit down, darling, and write.”

Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. Prior to landing there, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009. Her poetry has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Her first collection of poetry Pause, Traveler was published on June 1, 2013 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her blog is 


Emily said...

Lovely, Erin. Thanks!

Vivian Prescott said...

This is just what I needed today. Gunalchéesh, Erin. I'm going to share this post with my writers group.

Ela Harrison said...

Thanks for the laugh at the start!
And yes, yes, yes--you subliminal Latinist, you: what you're talking about is "sine qua non."