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Multiverse: An Interview with Hannah Faith Notess

by Ryan Teitman

Poet Ross Gay called Hannah Faith Notess’s debut poetry collection, The Multitude, “quirky, mysterious, weird, grave, and full of wonder.” One of the winners of the 2014 Michael Waters Poetry Prize, the book pulls together subjects as disparate as video games, religion, and travelogue, and combines them into a collection that’s as intellectually versatile as it is linguistically accomplished. Southern Indiana Reviewcontributor Ryan Teitman talked with Notess about her book, her influences, and why someone would make the strange decision to turn Dante’s Inferno into a video game.

Ryan Teitman: Can you talk about the process of putting the book together?

Hannah Faith Notess: The process of composition for this book has been to add a bunch of stuff, take a bunch of stuff out, add a bunch of stuff, take a bunch of stuff out, and trying to cohere the poems around certain themes. 

I finished my MFA in 2008. So between my MFA thesis and this book, there’s maybe a one-third continuity between the two. I remember taking a walk with Ross Gay, who was one of my thesis committee members, and he said, “So those poems, that whole twenty-poem sequence you have, I don’t really know what’s going on with that.” And I said: “Yeah, I don’t know either.” We both knew it wasn’t that great. That section got cut. I don’t feel the need to publish every poem I write. At the same time, I hope I won’t become like Marianne Moore who constantly revised things after they’re published. Sometimes you need to just let it into the world, and write the next poem. At least that is what I tell myself.

The oldest poem in The Multitude is about ten years old, and the newest one is less than a year. In between that time there have been various forms of the manuscript, maybe over the last four to five years especially. Every year I would lay all the poems out on the floor and arrange them in a way that seemed pleasing to me, and try to take out the ones I thought weren’t as good, and then put it back together. 

RT: The thing I was noticing when I was rereading the book was that things that seemed like they didn’t have connection with each other on the surface, like poems about faith and myth and videogames, actually had surprising connections between them. You said you were looking for the common key that tied them together. What were some of the things you thought linked the different kinds of poems you had in your book?

HFN: One is the experience of going into an unfamiliar place and not really knowing what to do with yourself. The idea is to create certain places and spaces that are disorienting. Those can be literal places, like the travel poems where I’m writing about visiting different holy places in India. I think it also applies to anything where I’m writing about a kind of faith experience, which is interesting when it’s characterized by uncertainty. That’s something that I try to record, because so much of the discourse around faith and religion is about people who think they’re right about stuff. That’s just not my experience at all.

I was intrigued by the idea that gameplay worlds are constructed spaces. When you’re going into a place as a character, an avatar within a game, you go forward and you don’t know what you’ll find. And then you die, and you learn from that, and you try to figure out what to do next. It seems like a perfect metaphor for that kind of uncertain journey.

RT: Tell me if this is completely crazy or not, but it seemed to me like one of the other connections between the poems about videogames and the poems with the witch was a space where life and death weren’t as final as we think of them in the world. Like you said, in a videogame if you die you just get another life, and you just start right over again. Where you playing with that in these poems?

HFN: In videogames the afterlife is very literal—you literally get another life. You keep coming back, and maybe that’s a kind of obvious parallel to whatever happens in different religious traditions after you die, at least the ones that I’ve participated in. There’s an element of imagination to the afterlife—we don’t know what heaven is going to be like—and that’s where metaphor and poetry come in.

Dante’s the best, most obvious example of that from the Christian tradition. He, of course has levels in every part of hell, purgatory, and paradise. I haven’t played it, but there’s a video game based on The Inferno.

RT: I remember seeing that.

HFN: But what would you do in a Paradiso game? I think that’s interesting—what would you do once you got to the top? I guess nothing, cause you’d be in perfect—your soul is in perfect communion with the eternal being.

I think of myself as being a kind of tourist both with regard to gaming and when I’m writing about some of these spaces that are sacred to other traditions. It’s risky because you will always get some of it wrong. It’s not yours; you don’t own it. How do you write about a place, and how do you exist in a space that is holy to someone else and not to you?

I find those questions interesting, and I don’t think I have a good answer or a knowledge of how to do that without some kind of cultural appropriation. That’s actually something I think about a lot and have a lot of uncertainty around.

I’m trying to imagine a space where there’s always something on the other side of the door, and you don’t know what it is. That could be the afterlife, or the next life, or what you come back as if it’s reincarnation. To me poetry is a vehicle for exploring that part of life. I’m not going to write a propositional essay on what the afterlife is actually like, because people who do that are obnoxious.

The imagination is the perfect tool, because how else are we going to approach it? We use metaphor and poetry to try to talk about these big question marks in the world.

RT: It sounds like you’re saying you’re not particularly interested in certainty—you’re more interested in the exploration of something, how it could be.

HFN: I really approach it through sensory language and metaphor. There are other poets who use what I would say is more like propositional truth language in their poems around the issues of faith. But I’m just not really interested in doing that, because it’s too much like writing theology. That has its place, but it’s not for me; I get bored with it really quickly. I’m not wired to approach these topics that way. I’d rather approach them through the lens of some image or narrative that already is really weird.

Fortunately, within religious texts—at least in the Bible, which is what I’m most familiar with—there are passages oriented toward propositional truth, and a lot of people like those, but then there are crazy stories and poems about people getting their eyes gouged out and breaking babies on the rocks. That’s the stuff that I gravitate towards.

RT: Can you talk about poets that specifically influenced what you were doing in this book?

HFN: I often find myself drawn to poets who are willing to talk about their own mortality, probably because the first poet I ever fell in love with was Emily Dickinson. Lucia Perillo is a great example of that. Part of her own story is that she was a super outdoorsy person and then was diagnosed with MS. She went through this reckoning of: “What does it mean to now be in this body that I know is going to die.” We’re so invested in the idea that we’re not really going to die. Like if we do these twelve weird tricks we can maybe cheat death. Perillo is also very funny; the dark humor is very appealing to me.

There is an issue of TriQuarterly edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby about an aesthetic that’s talkative, distractible, distracted, and somewhat narrative, but still really within the realm of lyric. Campbell McGrath is another example of a poet that I think does a sort of talkative voice.

Wislawa Szymborska and Yehuda Amichai are poets I’ve spent a lot of time with in translation. Really dark, funny, and wanting to talk about mortality and death.

Wordsworth and Frost and Coleridge appeal to me because they would get off topic and then something interesting would happen within the movement of the poem.

And Elizabeth Bishop’s touristy poems: “Crusoe in England” and “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” and “At the Fishhouses.” She was interested in writing about art that sucked and the aesthetics of crappy places, like the gas station. I like that about her work. Bishop is really known for her talent as a formalist, but I was attracted to her subject matter.

RT: Can you talk a little bit about your goals for The Multitude?

HFN: I understand that some people write books that are supposed to be really coherent in theme or revolve around one particular world or one particular narrative. This book is not one of those. I return to certain subjects and characters and worlds—and this is how I read poetry too. Often times I’ll read a book, and then I’ll pick it up two years later and read it again, and I’ll carry it around with me for awhile. Sometimes I’ll read the same poem for a month.

To me it’s interesting when poems are from different worlds or spoken in different voices, and yet they’re juxtaposed next to each other and you see similar images coming together. So as I was shaping the book, maybe one poem is a travel narrative and then the next one is an ekphrastic poem that’s responding to a piece of art or a videogame, but there is a common image.

I used to make a lot of mix-tapes when I was a teenager, and I would try to put the most disparate songs in terms of musical genre next to each other that I could get away with, but often times they would be in the same key or similar rhythm. I think putting The Multitude together was something like creating a mixtape for me.

In this book, I wanted to create a multiverse where you can walk into one poem and you’re in the “real world.” You can walk into the next poem and you’re in a mythical world that’s connected to this world. Then you can walk into the next poem and find you’re in a virtual world.

We all live our lives across multiple worlds. We have our day-to-day life, and then we become an online avatar, and that’s a different self in a different world. And there’s more—like who you are with your family versus who you are with your coworkers. That’s part of life, and it’s what I wanted the book to reflect.

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia.