Lauren Hilger’s poems are not afraid to surprise and shine in the unlikeliest of ways. In her second poetry book Morality Play, forthcoming from Poetry Northwest Edition’s Possession Sound Poetry Series on July 15, Hilger interweaves themes ranging from nostalgia and womanhood to technology and moral landscapes. Her sophomore collection “reveals, and revels in, the paradox inherent in its title, angling for a tender virtue in the sensuousness of words”, with twists and turns on every page.
I spoke with Hilger via Google Docs about her writing routines, literary influences, editing poetry for a journal, and the inspiration and themes behind her collection Morality Play.
Erica Abbott: I wanted to start off by saying how much I love this book! Can you tell me about how this second collection came to be, and how you landed on the title?
Lauren Hilger: THANK YOU! That means so much! I’ll walk you through a bit of the title’s origin. I was thinking about the messaging I received growing up: what I hear in the air right now versus what I remember absorbing in the early 2000s. I wanted to dig into that moral landscape. This made me think of the morality plays which are obsessed with easy poles and binaries. In complete earnest they’ll say things like: “here is Folly; here is Valor; here is Chastity; where are you headed, young man?” I liked that tension between the nuanced, complicated cultural pulls and anxieties framed by the static cartoon virtues and vices from the Early Christian form.
EA: Themes in this collection range from grief, longing, and nostalgia to girlhood, Britney Spears, growing up, and more. With subjects that are both interconnected yet varied, what do you ultimately hope readers get from this book?
LH: I was interested in questioning what (and who) I felt was taken seriously. I wanted to work through the early ideas around Britney, not the actual human being Britney Spears, whom I don’t know, but the cloud of judgment, i.e. People Magazine stating: “Too sexy too soon? Little girls love her, but her image makes some moms nervous.”
In Bring It On, Missy tries to comfort Torrance at one point by saying “It’s only cheerleading” to which Torrance replies “I AM only cheerleading!” Watching this as a youth, I was chilled. I’m telling you I really believed that’s all I was, too. What a limiting view! Obviously there aren’t many years available or projected forward within that ontology of self. The early 00s treatment of women allowed me to ask some questions: to whom do we offer integrity, respect, dignity? Who is taken seriously? Do we still harbor these dismissive attitudes?
EA: There are also themes and nods to philosophy, travel, histories, and morality throughout. How do these different elements shape your work?
LH: I love thinking through legacies of study / wisdom, how advancing technology changes our understanding of what it means to be a human. I wanted to bring that kind of lens to the social female body in bars and clubs, to force myself to interrogate what represents knowledge to us and what is it we view as its absence. What does it mean if I grew up memorizing the lyrics of “I was born to make you happy”? I mean, that title. A feminist anthem it is not. But then I wanted to ask what does it shape?
EA: What would you say is your favorite poem(s) from the collection? What inspired them? (personally, I’m so intrigued by “Exaptation” and “The idea of logging off is done”)
LH: So glad you like those! “Exaptation” began at a Halloween party where I went as American Girl doll Kirsten, specifically, holiday-themed St. Lucia Kirsten. My friends lit my candle crown aflame for dramatic effect. Embodying Kirsten brought to mind another retired doll that influenced me: a Barbie that “gave birth” to another doll via removing her plastic midsection. So bad.
In terms of favorite poem, right now it’s “Jersey Shore” because I’m fascinated by the speech patterns I took on and had to shake off. I was told I would be respected and “sound smart” if I didn’t say “like every other word.” But also there was a sense I couldn’t just speak, I had to water it down to be palatable. Lose / lose! With a speech scarred with likes I was embarrassed of becoming the figure of the fool, too much, too Jersey, vapid. I can’t believe I got to publish a book that includes a line trailing off into: “so, like.”
EA: Can you tease/share a snippet of one of the poems from the collection?
LH: What is the knocking?
Wisemen and their golden jugs walk on sand through the night
to find this with one hand.
They whistle and the world whistles back.
Now I know the unseen end in a half phrase — almost —
we almost almost almost — its marzipan taste,
close to catastrophe, damaged by a lightning bolt 2,000 years ago.
Almost means a near flipping into the other, but it’s past.
Over white flowers, amid their inner lives,
(where lately I touched their leaves;)
I slip beneath my belief in objects and am new here
at the black wood desk.
Book, you contain the past.
I want to show you things you once said to me.
There is something you should know:
EA: What inspires you to write? Do you have any specific routines you’ve found work for you?
LH: Whenever I’m away from my computer I want to write. It’s compulsive. I want to take notes when it’s least convenient, in a movie, for example. I have a hard time, now working from home, wanting to continue at my computer at the end of the day to write. I like forcing myself to do it by hand and if I write for long enough sometimes I’ll keep a word or a line. I am fascinated by writers who log units of time or word counts. I think of myself as working with text but not necessarily producing an onrush of writing. When I do write for longer periods of time, I’ll spend twice that length cutting it all away. I can’t help it! For this book the titles, images, and many of the lines were stitched together as collage of found text, namely, diaries from the days of yore.
EA: I’m obsessed with the cover art for this collection and how it incorporates an illusion. Can you share how the artwork/design came to be and why it really fits with the style of the book?
LH: Thank you! I love the two uptilted faces, their mouths. I originally thought I wanted a stylized twin cherry, like a temporary tattoo you would get from the supermarket for a few quarters. I was completely stuck on the twin cherry. But when this appeared in my inbox I couldn’t believe how much better it was than what I had been imagining. I love when that happens – to be SO wrong about what you think you want. I can’t imagine any other cover for this book. I’m so grateful to my incredible team over at Poetry NW Editions and the fantastic designer. They’re all magic!
EA: What are some of the biggest differences between Morality Play and your first book Lady Be Good? Any similarities?
LH: It took me a long time to think I could write a second book. And a long time to start questioning what I was taught. In grad school, I remember a teacher saying “you can’t say ‘soul’ in your work, not once not ever” and I was okay with that. But what happened is I became obsessed with that resistance. If you can’t say soul, does that mean you can replace it with a better word or is it the concept itself? Where does that soul exist and go while we live and after? For the second book I wanted to zoom into those moments with the constraint of the real. Of course I conflated a lot of life details and actual individuals but tried to honor what felt true, and to me that meant obsessive and non-literary.
My favorite page of Lady Be Good was such because it felt clear, untouched, an ice crystal right under the microscope before it melts. I didn’t want to add a syllable. That feels different from what I was reaching for in Morality Play. I didn’t want necessarily what felt crafted or unsayable, but that I was pressing on something to which I could keep talking.
EA: When editing for No Tokens, what are some things that really stand out in a submission? For you, what differentiates a good poem from a great one?
LH: Great poems, to this reader, have a turn. I don’t want to feel the same way at the end as I did before I read your poem, nor do I want to be able to guess what’s to come when I’m only a few lines in. I love funny and terrifying. Love contradictions. However, this is linked to my thoughts on the cover of the book: prove me wrong. Especially any insight I just offered re: what I think I like. Show me that I know nothing and all this time I thought I knew what made up a poem and you know better. I want to be surprised!
EA: Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
LH: Lately I’m realizing how much I owe to the sharp, sharp lyric of Jean Valentine. I like writers who remind me that if you want to be a poet, you can’t turn away from your reader. Sometimes I get down hearing “well I’m not good at poetry, it’s not for me, I hate it in fact and I’m scared of your work; can you make it normal?” But what isn’t “normal” is intentional – I want to make some kind of sculpture for you, this OTHER thing! But what can you say? I often need to go back to the ones who’ve done it, who’ve come before, who are doing it right now. Look what they did! They completely committed to this strange profession against the advice of well meaning people. And they shot right through into the future right into my heart. Grateful for that!
EA: What are some of your goals and dream projects after this collection is released?
LH: What a beautiful question! Goals and dreams! Time for something else, right? I love working collaboratively and would love to continue and deepen that practice. Anyone with a project idea, let me know!