The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land

Carol Hobbs carries herself with a quiet competence that I associate with Canadians. The fisheries collapse of the Maritimes in the 1990s forced her and many other Newfoundlanders to emigrate, but she carries her homeland with her, in her mannerisms, and in her poetry. Newfoundland, her debut full-length collection, is a testament to perseverance and an continued commitment to honing her craft. This has been a difficult year for Carol–the COVID pandemic found her scrambling to adapt lesson plans to the new realities of online learning, and she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In spite of these difficulties, she found some time to talk to me via email about her craft, her book, and the writing life.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Carol Hobbs: I’ve written poetry as long as I can remember. Poems have been a way for me to see the world around me and to understand my own place in all of it. In fifth grade I wrote a poem based on a story my teacher Mr. Hayhearst told of leaving his family farm in Arkansas to come to Newfoundland. I was moved by his isolation and nostalgia and gave him the poem. When I graduated high school, he gave me the copy I’d given him. I still have it and sometimes call it my first poem. I continue to write.

Frances Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?

Carol Hobbs: I studied English and history as an undergrad and then took a master’s degree in English. I also did my professional degree in Education. So study of English literature was formal, and in there I took as many writing classes as I could. I studied creative writing in poetry with Mary Dalton and Roberta Buchanan, and fiction with Larry Mathews at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Over the years I’ve been involved in many workshop groups, most importantly with Barbara Helfgott Hyett of PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets, based in Brookline and Newton, Massachusetts. Barbara became my most important teacher as an adult poet. She had a genius way of both nurturing and challenging her students. Through Barbara I met most of the poets I now know and love here in my adopted home in Massachusetts. Barbara sees writing as a community working together to help, to question, to support, and to celebrate each other. I hold deep love and gratitude for her presence in my life.

Currently, I am working with two workshop groups that grew from the PoemWorks community, Grey Held’s Poetry RoundTable in Newton, Massachusetts, and Alexis Ivy’s forms workshop, held currently on Zoom from Massachusetts. Both Grey and Alexis are working poets with excellent books and a deep knowledge of what makes good poetry.

Cover image of New-found-land by Carol Hobbs

“Any immigration has its deep longings. I think mine are written into this book.”

New-found-land, by Carol Hobbs, available at Main Street Rag

Frances Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?

Carol Hobbs: Eavan Boland, Kay Ryan, Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, Mary Dalton, William Butler Yeats, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Ondaatje, Ilya Kaminsky, Ocean Vuong, Shakespeare, Kaveh Akbar, Martin Espada, Margaret Atwood, Wislawa Szyborska and of course Barbara Helfgott Hyett and so many, many more. I feel the guilt of not saying everyone I’ve turned to again and again, but then this answer would go on and on. There are so many poets to read and be astounded by and so many who have taught me how words make a poem.

Frances Donovan: What are you reading right now?

Carol Hobbs: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, Mothers of Ireland by Julie Kane, Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Taking the Homeless Census by Alexis Ivy, Muddy Matterhorn by Heather McHugh, Erratic Facts by Kay Ryan, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith. Books of poetry need to be read, reread, and shared. I also picked out from my shelves Citizen by Claudia Rankine and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes to help me envision curriculum for my students in September. I’m also reading some novels: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (recommended by several of my students), and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I have lined up to read on my desk The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, and The Guest Book by Sarah Blake. One more big read I’ve purchased for this summer is How to Be and Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Frances Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. What’s your day job?

Carol Hobbs: I teach high school English and creative writing at Hudson High School in Hudson, Massachusetts. My main teaching assignment is sophomore English. I love being a teacher. These last three months of remote learning have been challenging—and in many respects heartbreaking—work. I realize I have been in mourning for the loss of my students and classroom.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about New-found-land.

Carol Hobbs: New-found-land is my first book and it has been many years in the making. I won the New England PEN Discovery Prize for the original manuscript back in 2004, and it was just published in its present form in 2019 (November). There has been much revision and reimagining of the book in those years and quite a bit of living and growing that happened along the way. The book is in two sections: I. Perfect World, and II. Exile. The first section contains poems of growing up in my family and community on that island, and is set in the love, sometimes fear, and always wonder of that place. The second section is told from another perspective, that of having left the island, existing in a longing for home, and returning to an altered relationship with the place and people of Newfoundland. In the mid-1990s Newfoundland experienced a traumatic alteration of economy and culture owning to an ecological crisis, depletion of the cod stocks and the shut-down of the fishery which drove the economy. Many young families were forced to leave as there was no work and little hope for economic recovery. My husband and I moved to Massachusetts with our baby daughter at that time. It was economic migration and we left our family and our known culture behind. Any immigration has its deep longings attached. I think mine are written into this book.

Frances Donovan:  One of the poems that really stuck with me was the one about the narwhal. Was that an easy poem for you to write?

Carol Hobbs: The emotion was easy to recollect in tranquility but writing a small poem like this requires precision. It needs careful revision and a willingness to let things go that do not serve the poem. So, from initial writing to final version, may have been a course of a few years. Narwhal is based on a childhood experience of seeing a narwhal which was trapped in the ice of the bay near my hometown, Springdale, Newfoundland. That winter, we had a quick freeze of the bay and the surface ice was thick and frozen solid for miles out through the narrows to the open sea. Three whales, two humpbacks and a narwhal, were trapped in that quick freeze and were struggling for air at a rapidly freezing-over breathing hole. The men of the community went out and chopped open the ice to allow for a larger breathing hole for the whales until the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker could come and open a passageway for the whales. It was many weeks of maintaining that breathing hole. As children, we would skate on the frozen ocean. I skated out to see what the men were doing and came face to face with the narwhal. Astonishing.

Frances Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?

Carol Hobbs: I teach creative writing for teens. I also serve as teacher-advisor to our school’s literary magazine, The Scribbler. I try to introduce my young student writers to a wide variety of poets and writers. I encourage them to take chances with their writing, and to send out their work for publication so they understand that their voices have real value in the world. I take part in workshops with fellow poets and work to make our work better. I attend poetry readings, literary readings, and I buy the work of my fellow writers when I can. For many years I also worked for PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets to help administrate that workshop group, and plan and organize workshops, readings, and Poetry of Place travelling workshops.

Frances Donovan: What does your writing practice look like now? Has it changed?

Carol Hobbs: This is a tough question, and I am trying to establish new routines for working. Quarantine during this pandemic has necessitated a switch to online workshops and readings. I am participating in two workshops currently, and I am working in a free-write group with several poet friends each week. I try to spend a part of each day with poetry, writing, revising, reading published poets, and preparing work for submission. Lately, with the demands of remote teaching, my writing life has had to take a few steps back as I worked to revise curriculum for multiple student needs in the remote format. It’s been time-consuming and tough on many levels. I am now returning to the daily practice of do-something-with-poetry-each-day.

As for change, this is a constantly evolving thing. Throughout my life parenting, family life, emigration, career, and so on have stepped in to require my attention, so I’ve had to adjust my writing practice. This year has been especially challenging as I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I’ve been moving through surgery, treatments, and all the emotional turmoil cancer can bring. I’m doing well and hoping to continue so. This summer promises to allow me time to focus on poetry again.

Frances Donovan: So sorry to hear about your breast cancer. Sending good wishes your way.

Artists often talk about the importance of refilling the creative well. How do you refill yours?

Carol Hobbs: First and foremost, making that decision to give time and space to my writing is crucial. Because I could not feed my cat on what I earn from writing, I do need to have a job that pays the bills. I also have obligations, as we all do, to family and community. I often push aside my own need for time and space to write for what is most pressing. It’s only recently, maybe since cancer focused me more clearly on valuing the now, that I know my writing is as essential to my life as every other important concern. My poetry is essential to my life. I’ve established an office in my home dedicated to this work. I reach out to other poets through workshops and readings to help sustain my own practice. I make sure I get out in nature to help clear my thinking and make me more mindful of my relationship to the natural world around me. I read good literature. I listen to music. I also bake. Baking is very methodical and therapeutic. It also produces something yummy to eat. I was once told my plum cake is a good as a poem. Maybe.

Frances Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?

Carol Hobbs: I think people said the right things to me when I needed it. Mr. Hayhearst told me I was a writer in fifth grade. My friend Medina, whom I met in college, told me I was a poet. My teachers, Mary, Roberta, Larry, and Barbara told me revise, murder your darlings, seek the best words in the best order, publish. I needed all of this. They also introduced me to great writing by amazing writers. I needed that too. I guess I would pass all that along. I guess I would also tell anyone beginning their poetry career to believe in your work and approach it with love and respect. I’d also stress finding a writing community like a great workshop group. This will help you in myriad ways.

Frances Donovan: What’s next for you?

Carol Hobbs: I’ve been writing through some pretty dark stuff — cancer, Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve also been revisiting some of the imagery of fairy tales which contain a kind of road map through darkness. I think something is developing in that. I found a character who showed up in my first book, the Giant, who is a sort of transformative force for good in his three poems. I feel I need to explore that world some more. I am so grateful to be writing now.

Frances Donovan: How can people find you?

Carol Hobbs: I have a website that requires some updating since pandemic shut down the world. Please go to read samples of my work and to find out where I’ll be reading: https://carolhobbspoet.com/

My book New-found-land is available at: Main Street Rag.

I’m on Facebook and Instagram.

People may also email me at carol.hobbs@verizon.net.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.