Writer's Digest Books

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Hank Hudepohl that appears in the 2008 Poet's Market, released in fall 2007:

How did you get interested in writing?
When I was very young, my mom showed me by example how writing happens and the joy it could bring. She too is a published writer and poet. I was lucky enough to have encouragement at home and the good fortune of winning a national poetry contest at a very early age (cash award!). In the end, though, I simply found writing to be something I enjoyed to do, so I kept at it.

What inspires your writing?
Sometimes I'm inspired by the way light falls across the kitchen floor, or by one of my wife's long, curly hairs on the sleeve of my sweater, or by the way my youngest daughter calls everything "blue" as she practices her knowledge of colors. For me, inspiration is a mix of imagination and observation; it is the outcome of paying attention to the world around you. Landscape and history—what they mean, what they become—are also thematic interests. More recently, I find myself writing about fatherhood, though the ideas of place and memory are never far away.

Reading is a great inspiration to my writing. Once in a while, I come upon a poem that hits such a pure note it makes me say, “I wish I had written that.” These poems are a pleasure to find because I can read them over and over and still feel the strange tingle at the tips of my fingers as I hold them. Lately, I’ve been reading nursery rhymes to my oldest daughter at bedtime, and I have enjoyed rediscovering the rhythms and images of those verses.

What is your writing process like? Do you have any "rituals" that define it?
I am a late-night writer and have always been this way. I like to write poems out in longhand because I find it useful to have all the words in front of me—even the ones I cross out. Sometimes I will write toward one poem, but out comes the pieces of two or three different poems. I usually begin writing with a couple of words or a phrase that comes into my head that day, or an observation I jotted down in a notepad sometime earlier. I like the idea of writing by candlelight, but this hasn't actually helped me write better poems as I had hoped. I usually end up staring at the candle.

How have your roles as teacher and editor affected and informed you as a writer?
Teaching uses a different kind of energy than writing. For me, the reward as a teacher is connecting with other writers and helping them along their way. My teaching experiences have made me a better reader and listener, though I make no excuse to my students for being an opinionated writer like them. Teaching keeps my hands in the soil, though my own writing does not come easily during the time that I'm teaching. In my two-year role as assistant poetry editor for The Hollins Critic, I learned a great deal about journal submissions. It surprised me that so many people ignored submission guidelines regarding number of poems, format, return envelope, etc. We received a large percentage of work that wasn’t suited for the journal: I doubt whether these poets had ever read it. But I can only be so righteous, because I've been guilty of doing the same thing. Still, the experience made me realize how important it is for a poet to become familiar with a publication before submitting to it. The best way to get to know a journal is by reading it and getting a feel for the kinds of poems inside. Then pay attention to the guidelines—they really do matter. Be selective about where you aim to publish, and send out fewer, more qualified submissions. You will do yourself a favor, and the journals will be grateful as well.

Do poets need to publish extensively in journals before attempting to get an entire book published?
Literary journals are in many ways the life support system of American poetry, if not the poets. It is common for poets to first publish a number of poems in journals before publishing a book, and this has been my experience. Journals are not only a sort of proving ground for young poets, however; they are a place for poets to publish at any stage of their careers. Journals also provide a way to market an upcoming book.

What kind of writing do you admire the most?
I'm drawn to writing that has something at stake -- takes a risk, has skin in the game. There is so much poetry today that strikes me as cryptic self-indulgence. That's not the kind of risk taking I'm after. There is the belief by some that to be a really good poem, it must be difficult to understand. I'm also less interested in a poem when the poet has no sense for the meaning of sound, or little regard for the integrity of the line.

What advice can you offer about dealing with rejections?
In my experience at The Hollins Critic, I came to realize that the practice of sending out form letters, though impersonal, is at least equitable. State poet laureates and prize-winning poets were sent the same rejection letter that went to the unpublished writers. You will rarely ever (or never) receive a special editor's note with a rejection letter, so don't feel that you're in the minority if all you get back is a form letter. It's just the way things are done. Many journals receive hundreds of letters and thousands of poems to consider for each issue. Also, any kind of editor feedback by way of critique or suggestion, no matter how well-intentioned, might be misunderstood by the poet as a formula for getting published with the journal. The poet then makes the changes, resubmits the poem, and says, "I did what you asked me to do," with the strong expectation that the finished work will resonate with the editor. The matter of selecting poems is a little more mercurial than that. Most editors simply want good writing, so don't feel like you need a special pass to get through the front door. Just keep your cover letter courteous and succinct.

I recently learned that a well-known literary journal now accepts submissions by e-mail, and if you don't hear back in six weeks you should assume you've been rejected. That seems to be the harshest treatment of all. I do wonder if there's something kinder and gentler that journals could do for their writers. When I receive a rejection letter, for instance, I'd like to know if my poem just missed the mark or if I never really had a chance. Did the editors discuss my poem for an extended period, or did they simply shake their heads disapprovingly? Maybe journals will consider implementing a rejection scale—circle a number from one to ten—so the poets have a bread crumb of sense about how their work fares.

Does having an MFA increase a poet's chances for success?
Yes and no. The MFA in Creative Writing is a fairly recent invention, though apprenticeship has always been important to the art form. The MFA is a way to formalize that mentoring process. There are those who believe that MFA programs are raising up poets who produce a kind of poetry by committee. What prevents this from actually happening is the artistic conviction of each writer and the diversity of voices in the programs. But can poetry be taught? Certainly the history of poetry, the forms of poetry, and the habits that seem to benefit successful poets can be taught. The act of writing poetry is ultimately a solo sport, like golf. No one can write the poem (or sink the putt) for you. A good MFA program with good teachers should help you become a better, more avid reader of poetry—both your own and that of others—and should help you learn the optimal habits for writing well. When you consider schools, look closely at the faculty roster. Read their work. Talk to graduates and current students. Ask yourself if you think there is something to learn from these writers. I was lucky enough to find a connection with several people at Hollins. That said, it's not a setting for everyone, and for those who choose to attend, they get out of it what they put into it, like anything else. I certainly don't value a poem any more or any less because the poet does, or does not, have an MFA. I don’t need to know a poet's credentials to enjoy a poem.

How long after you began submitting the manuscript did it take to get your first book published?
The total process took about a year. I submitted the manuscript to several contests prior to my success with Word Press. It seems that the most available route to publication for a first-time poet is via the contest circuit. The problem with this approach is that a contest usually awards only a single manuscript when several might be outstanding. Also, contest sponsors often charge sizeable entry fees, and the contest itself can become a profit engine. (Granted, I might see things a little differently if I were to win a contest!) Word Press appealed to me because the editors are selective and choose manuscripts by open submission without charging a reading fee.

Do you have any other advice to offer aspiring/struggling poets and writers?
Take it one small accomplishment at a time. Do something every day that makes you a writer. Jot down an interesting phrase or word in a notebook. Read a poem. I have lost a lot of days waiting around for the big moment to come—waiting for an acceptance letter, a first book, or simply the right time and place to put words to the page. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said you have to write around the vomit (in reference to the time her child got sick on a manuscript). So, do it. Have you written anything today? Put down this book and get started.


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