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Erin Coughlin Hollowell

Erin Coughlin Hollowell of Homer is an accomplished, highly disciplined poet. She is working on a third poetry collection, “Flung Stone, Dark Wing,” about matriarchy and culture.

    2017

  • Fellowship
  • Literary Arts/Scriptworks

Pushing Against the Dark

Birds, flight, wings: These images work their ways felicitously, suggestively, sometimes ominously into and through Erin Coughlin Hollowell’s poetry.

A duck as “a flash of teal and russet, a daubed dabble” and its mate “with white patches among dusk” lead to the speaker’s “wingbeat of my heart” in “January Shallows.”

“How two swallows flaunt above/me, carving wedges of blue…” informs a sequence related to distances in the poem “Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

If these images in her first two books, “Pause, Traveler” and “Every Atom,” connect concretely to her Alaska life, the poems themselves fly off to distant worlds, far beyond nature poetry into deep contemplation of human connections.

“We have a lot of birds here,” Hollowell says in contemplating the appearance of birds and other elements of the outdoors in her writing. It’s natural enough that what she sees around her influences her work, but it’s more than that. “The space in the environment gives me space in my head to write.” The big spaces, the forest and mountain landscapes, the silences — these help her focus.

“We’re not the apex predator here,” she says, another good reason to pay close attention to the natural world.

Hollowell has lived in Alaska since 2000, when she joined her fisheries biologist husband in Homer. They also lived in Ketchikan and Cordova before returning to the Homer area several years ago. Her work history extends back to cities and towns on both coasts and includes finance, tapestry weaving, arts administration, high school English teaching, and more. Although she had always loved writing, she only returned to poetry seriously in Alaska. In 2009, she earned a Master of Fine Arts.

Her current project, for which she was awarded a 2017 Rasmuson Foundation Artist Fellowship, is a third poetry collection tentatively titled “Flung Stone, Dark Wing.” Her first collection focused on the idea of locating home and the second one, the relationship between mothers and daughters (and responding to lines from Walt Whitman). The new one explores “the ways we talk about women and about the natural environment.” Both women and nature historically have been devalued, and devaluation is at the root of abuse.

Hollowell reads voraciously — between 100 and 125 books each year. Last year, for example, she read “everything” that Virginia Woolf has written. Then everything that Sylvia Plath wrote, including journals and letters. Then everything Ann Sexton wrote. She became most interested in some of what Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, were talking about, and that took her to Hughes’s own books and letters. While she recognizes that Hughes is considered a villain in America for his connection to Plath’s suicide, he is seen as a more complex character in Britain and Ireland. “I became interested in how mythology and trauma and personal history all combined” in the work of both Plath and Hughes, which took her into rereading Hughes’s “Crow,” “a dark, dark book.” “I found that text to be fruitful — a good thing to push against and interrogate. I want to push against the very dark view of the world he had.”

The new collection, then, involves crows — common in her life as well as in mythology — and is largely a response to Hughes’s “Crow.” “I read one of his poems and imagine the impetus backing it and how that view might change coming from a woman.” She thinks of these response poems as “shadow poems,” envisioning the light shining on a Hughes poem and then the poem she makes below, in its shadow.

Hollowell’s other considerable recent influence was a month-long visit to Ireland, which was enabled by her fellowship. Her family came from the southwest part of the country, where she “kept stumbling over Coughlins everywhere.” Her interest was in seeing “what that landscape would tell me about myself. The topic of women’s voices is really fore-fronted in Ireland right now. Also, I wanted to listen to the way people speak — the cadence of their voices, the way they tell stories.” She was less interested in tracking down actual family connections than simply immersing herself in the language and culture, including pub life and music. “Going to Ireland was huge. I can see the myriad ways in which that trip will manifest in my writing.”

These days, Hollowell keeps to a disciplined routine. “I wouldn’t write anything if I didn’t do that.” Usually up at 5:30 in the morning, she reads nonfiction for half an hour, then responds in her journal for half an hour. She then switches to reading poetry for half an hour and spends another half hour drafting or revising poems. When she turns her computer on at 9 a.m. it’s to take care of the work she gets paid for — teaching, mentoring, serving as executive director of Storyknife (a new writing residency for women near Homer), and multiple other part-time and temporary jobs. Evenings she’s in the garden, or weaving, or reading — fiction and poetry — again, widely, from multiple cultures. She recently was given a very small letterpress to fulfill a long-time goal of using that traditional printing process for small poems and artwork.

A large part of Hollowell’s way of being in the world is connecting to and promoting other writers and their work. She uses social media strategically “to see what writers I admire are reading and thinking about.” Her network of writer friends is extensive, as she does what she called apprenticing herself to them and the world of ideas.

Importantly, she brings that world of ideas home to share with others on social media and in person. By teaching at the Homer campus, in the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program, and at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, and in myriad other interactions, she encourages others to investigate and use their voices.

“We’re in the middle of what I consider a very fertile time for Alaska writers — both in publishing and nurturing. I want to see that grow further, so I try to do things in my life to help, to pay it forward.” Noting that so many women wait until their later years to begin writing — if they do at all — she adds, “We need those voices if we’re going to prosper, to be more humane and less destructive.”

Nancy Lord, Alaska's writer laureate from 2008-10, is the author of several books including “Fishcamp,” “Early Warming,” and “pH: A Novel.” She received an Individual Artist Award in 2007.

Image credits - All gallery images and artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait by Irene Owsley.