Girls with feels make the best poets–another reason why Hunter’s debut book Human Achievements lives up to its name.
“If there’s a cult for me to be in, that’s the one.” Lauren Hunter is talking about writing from the intuitive and abstract rather than the linear and tangible. I’ve only been chatting with her a few minutes, and already we’ve sidestepped niceties and gone straight to what poets love most: metaphors as coping mechanisms. She goes on to describe walking around a room invented in her mind solely to embody a specific emotion, and I’m all aflutter. But this southern-born poet, who co-runs Electric Pumas, an art space that aims to “encourage women to be as bold as possible and as loud as possible” in their various artistic outlets, doesn’t just dissect the doleful shadows, as so many poets do. In her debut book, Human Achievements, released this summer, Hunter fuses a sense of isolation (“I was a weird kid who read all the time” she admits), with sharp-tongued candor, delirious rhythms, and near-devotion to all things disco.
Where and under what circumstances do you like to write?
I’m not incredibly particular, but I find that I’m not good at writing in public; I get really distracted. A poem will be going in a normal fashion, and then all of a sudden there’s a line that doesn’t make sense because some person stepped on my toe or whatever. I had an office job for years when I lived in New York, and I really loved writing at work. Something about sitting at a desk and being somewhat secluded…
But it’s also nice to have people around when you write, so you don’t feel too tragic.
Yeah, it kind of prevents you from going off the deep end.
Speaking of, is there anything that scares you about being a poet?
I love this question. For me, my calling toward poetry came when I was a kid, so the decision never felt scary. But fast forward, now I have this book coming out, and there’s this feeling of: Literally anyone can read this. Everything I’ve been going through is now out in the world. But there’s always that desire in poets to be understood, to express yourself, to make a connection—like if I describe the color blue to you, I really never know if your version of blue is the same as mine, and that’s a terrifying concept to me. It’s the same reason why I write, to try to bridge that gap. But yeah, it scares me.
Music comes up a lot in your work. What is your relationship to music as a poet?
For me as a person, music is absolutely everything, and poetry is how I respond to what music does for me and to me. As a writer, I write by my ear, so I listen to how [the poem] sounds, how it rolls off the tongue, the rhythm—sound is actually what comes first for me in my writing, even before image or meaning.
That’s huge. So which musicians would you say have influenced your writing the most?
Rufus Wainwright, David Bowie… The Beatles influenced this book, too. Of course Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson are just in the blood. But I think I’ve been most productive responding to David Bowie and his work.
Part of what’s so cool about your poetry is the way you interweave vernacular with these abstractions and jarring images. “Disco Affirmation” is a great example of that. Is that organic for you, or something you had to hone?
Both. When I first starting writing I felt like I had to be really explicit all the time, to the point where I eventually decided I wanted to keep secrets.
Oh, so do you find that the abstract images are ways for you to keep secrets?
For me, I see a whole picture, but I pull out the parts that I think are the most evocative, or that are the purest distillation of the moment. It’s a way of both simplifying and complicating—like, it could be really simple, but taking it apart gives it all this space, and I like the idea of readers filling that space themselves with their own ideas and definitions. When I’m writing it though, it’s generally just how it comes out because even though I see the whole thing, I know which parts are the ones I want to be left with. Even when I don’t understand them completely, I know them because they float in their own ether.
You attended the New School and lived in NYC. It seems like New York is sort of an unspoken character who makes repeat appearances in your work.
Completely and totally. To the point where I sort of don’t even remember writing before moving to New York. I started grad school not long after moving there, and the whole atmosphere made me this really social person, which had not been my M.O. up until that point. Suddenly, you’re going to all these shows and readings, and there are all these people around and in your face, you’re walking on the street and riding the subway—and that whole time you’re striving to be this newer, better version of yourself. For me, there was some sensory overload. It didn’t occur to me until later what a huge role that played in setting the tone of this book; I honestly don’t think I could have written it anywhere else.
Speaking of that frenetic energy, there are lots of references to movement in these poems, “I Am Warm and Powerful,” for instance. Dancing also comes up, and the poems themselves move around in unexpected ways. Was movement a kind of metaphor for you?
I think I had this obsession in New York with the idea of not stagnating. Like, I felt like I always had to be doing, reading, writing, seeing—doing everything I could not to sleep, all of the time. I’m sure that has a lot to do with why movement shows up so much in these poems. Dancing was this amazing revelation, too. It was a way of having this incredible freedom out of this thing that can feel very constricting and terrifying: being in public.
Do you also experience that sense of freedom when you write?
Yes—in the moment when I’m physically writing, absolutely. Because I’m being honest. It’s a way to escape the constriction of whatever’s going on emotionally.
How has being a woman of color shaped you as a writer?
That’s actually a really hard question. I’ve never not known that this was a possibility for my life. My best friend in kindergarten was Rita Dove’s daughter, so since I was five, I knew that an amazing Black woman poet was a thing you could do and be. But since the election, I think I’ve had this new relationship with [my race], where I feel sort of invisible. Like that the country at large and the powers that be are not for me. So putting my art into the world and drawing attention to myself now means a lot more than it ever has.
You already had a chapbook out, and have now just released your first book. What advice do you have for other young women who are working to make it as poets?
I believe in the tried and true advice, which I often give but have rarely followed: Write and read all of the time. Set aside time in your life to do those things because when you don’t, you won’t. Also, find a community of people who are doing it—that puts a fire under my ass—but also who will support you. Who will read your work, and cheer you on, and come to your readings. If you feel like there’s nowhere for your poetry to go, it can be really hard to write. It’s really about the people.
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