Undergraduate Poetry Reviews: Sean Hill

Poet Sean Hill reads from his work (19 Feb 2021)

Visiting Writer Sean Hill made multiple appearances for K-State students this year, despite the COVID pandemic’s cancellation of his in-person visit to campus. Students were studying his collection Dangerous Goods, especially the way historic research feeds his poems, both in their formal composition — using footnotes — and their exploration of other personas. Readers of this blog can find open-access copies of some of these poems along with Hill’s comments in Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life. Following his public reading (co-sponsored by the English Department and SGA Fine Arts Fees) on Friday, February 19, students in English 463 “Introduction to Poetry Writing” reflected on his reading in their online journals. Here are some of their thoughts, which they’ve agreed to pull from their private reflection and share with you.

Elizabeth Dodd, University Distinguished Professor

For the first time in my life poetry is starting to make sense. Granted, I’ve never put forth much effort into to making it make sense. When Mr. Sean Hill visited our creative non-fiction writing class in the fall, I was gripped by the art he was able to create with words. The language was more flowy and playful than I was used to — not quite poetry, but on the brink of it. I didn’t dissect the enjoyment much further, until I ended up taking poetry this spring! I was PUMPED to hear about Mr. Hill’s perspective on the writing style that was his bread and butter. I enjoy people who constantly seem to be thumbing through some exorbitant number of thoughts, and he is one of those. Poetry is a window into the soul no doubt, but there’s something different about it. Reading a poet’s work makes you earn your glance into their soul. 

With every poem, there’s deeper (one-sided) connection between reader and author. Previously, I couldn’t find the appeal in poetry books filled with work by solely one author. I imagined it would get repetitive and fail to provide new insights after a certain page. I was so wrong. Even one million poems by the same poet would still leave you with questions about the story they’re telling. 

When Mr. Hill read his aubade (a word that previously resided outside of my lexicon), I was taken aback. He placed it in Fairbanks, Alaska! My birthplace! What are the odds that he would read a poem that I would connect with in such a random way. My favorite line was “morning sleeps in this time of year.” In that moment I was gifted the words to describe something I’ve always felt. The more poetry I read for class the more I realize that is what makes poetry powerful. Witty lines that expand perspective and resonate deeply because there’s been a lack of explanation in the spot that was just filled.

Another thing I took away from his reading was the bravery it takes to be a poet. To let people into the most intimate corners of your life. To risk misunderstanding and embarrassment for the sole purpose of connection. When Mr. Hill read about his child, initially it felt too personal, like the audience were flies on the wall somewhere we shouldn’t be. I was still in my creative non-fiction writing mode, where the essays written have more boundaries about what is “too personal.”  I had a revelation as he was reading that poetry is the place to share those intimate corners, it’s the place to get too personal, it’s the place to feel.

Also, it was really cool to hear Mr. Hill read the poems. To have the poems delivered to us exactly how he wanted them to be. I couldn’t help but to imagine how lovely the moment would’ve been in person. Looking forward to in-person poetry readings some day!

— Ellie Pirog (B.A. ’22, English)

One notable thing about Sean Hill’s reading to me was the way in which he flowed from one poem to another. It almost felt like I was listening to one long poem rather than a bunch of shorter ones. The sentences he’d speak leading up to a poem had a poetic quality themselves. I think one of the professors described it as “cinematic,” which captures the feeling perfectly. Especially for the poems of his I’d yet to read, it was useful to hear these prefaces and connections before diving into an unfamiliar work. It made it something even more unique, as we were provided subtext that poems and footnotes alone can’t replicate.

I’d never experienced a poetry reading before, and hearing such a tailored rendition of his work was a special thing to behold. It reminded me of how some film directors will insist on their audience seeing their film in theatres or IMAX. The poems are delightful on their own, but hearing the poems read and explained by the author feels like the closest thing you can get to experiencing the poet’s original intent. Sure, reading the book at home was nice, but this was something else entirely. It’s poetry in a vacuum, and I was happy to see what that’s like.

I also really appreciated Hill’s responses during the Q&A section at the end. He was very upfront and honest, not always having the most exact responses but giving fascinating insights into the mind of a published poet. When reading the book Dangerous Goods, one of the standout things he did was use footnotes in different ways. Usually, footnotes are for interesting, maybe even fascinating details, but nonetheless, pieces of information that are deemed non-essential to the story and therefore relegated to the margins. Specifically in the Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports section, he hides information that reshapes the lines above at the bottom of the page. One instance of this that was brought up at the end of the reading was the footnote that reads “I’m sitting here striking keys and wondering.” The poem that this addition follows poses this question; how long you have to live somewhere before becoming a xenophobe. The footnote recontextualizes this by doubling down on the word “wondering,” emphasizing just how tricky he finds this question. The footnote brings Hill into the room with the reader, as it clarifies that it’s not a question that the audience is meant to flat-out answer, but one we must all think about collectively. Footnotes like these provide a sort of physical subtext, reinforcing what may have already been an implied meaning into something you can’t miss.

At the reading I felt like I got a whole novel of footnotes, which was great, that’s one of the most interesting parts to me. Hill could probably write a whole other book on the extra details he shared between poems. It’s crazy how much information is in the book, but then how much more is hidden in the mind of the poet. I was happy to see a glimpse into the margins.

— Jacob Hatton, (B.A. ’22, Journalism and Mass Communication)

I really appreciated getting to listen to Hill read his own texts. I thought it was fascinating to get to hear the author read his poems in a way that he intended them to be read.. He put voice where I wouldn’t have put voice and read his poems in a way that helped me to understand them better. I was driving home and my service was somewhat cutting in and out so it was choppy but I found myself on the edge of my seat wanting to listen to his poems more. If I’m being honest, I don’t normally love to listen to poetry but I thought it was amazing to get to hear him read about his poetry. 

Further, I loved to be able to get to hear Hill explain the background behind many of his poems. I like how he described that he was going his first road trip before he wrote some of his poems. I loved getting to hear him talk about home and how his experience of moving around has caused him to think about home differently than ever before. It helped me to gain a sense of voice from the poems, especially when he was writing about places that I have never been before like his poem about Alaska. I had never been to the place in Alaska that he was describing but just getting to hear in a more personal account how cold and lonely it was for him there. There were many poems that I felt like I could understand more because of what he had described. Another example of this was when he talked about his experience with the American Antiquarian Society because I loved how we got to explore with him. Further, when he talked about his project with the Georgia governor’s mansion it challenged me to be more curious and to want to think through the lives of different people from the past.

However, my favorite part about the whole experience was getting to listen to him read about his son. We got to hear about the background behind his son and the poem. It was then just so touching to get him to read about the whole experience with getting to see his son’s ultrasound. There truly can be so much emotion through the written word but spoken word from the person who experienced it just adds a whole new dimension that I had never thought about. He was able to express just how much he loved his son and how scared he was all at the same time. It then was so sweet to get to hear him talk about his son in the present. This is what I love about writing and about poetry — it allows us to describe experiences that are hard to explain otherwise. It also allows us to experience the emotions with the writer — to be there with them at the moment.

— Katie McKenna, ( B.S. ’21, Education — English)

I believe the best way to hear the poem is from the writer themselves. For me personally, the best way to read the poem and to understand it is to listen to it. Everyone can read the same poem differently, emphasizing different lines or words, making interpretations vary. Hearing Hill read his own poems was a great opportunity and experience. Hill reading his work was not the only enjoyable part; when he explained in detail his life grabbed my attention even more. Reading and listening to a writer’s work is one thing, but being explained and led down the pathway of their life is another. Hill explained that he always had an interest and desire to write (just like many people do) but he explained ‘what’ desire he had. During the reading questions were asked, but they were not just answered — there was a story behind them. While I do not remember the specifics of the question that was asked, I remember Hill’s response. Hill gets his ‘prompts’ from the history he learns, in some of his poems he personally reflects on that event, in others he submerges himself as if he is there. That specific explanation stood out to me, along with his interest behind that specific history. 

During my writing and ideas I have thought of writing, I never thought to write about something like that — Hill is the first poet to make me rethink what I want to write. In the past, the poems I had written had only been about depression and suicidal thoughts, since that is something I could write about with first-hand experience. While I have not gave much thought on “what” I want to write about, I know I want to help immigrants. I never thought of intertwining this. In my creative nonfiction writing class, I wrote about my Mexican boyfriend experiencing racism for our memoir assignment, I never thought of writing about experiences like those to publish, or do more than just to write for an assignment. 

Listening to Hill during that reading, listening to his answers to questions made me really think about what I want to do. While I would not hold the same relationship with his topic as he did, I can give an outlook on a loved one not being able to do anything. After he explained that he had done research into specific events made me want to do more research on the history of immigrants (focusing on Hispanic immigrants) and personal stories, helping to get their experiences out to the world. Hill gave me a different perspective, one I never thought existed. When reading poetry in high school I only thought poetry to hold personal experiences and how their emotions correlated or as a figure of speech, but not as a history lesson. I never thought of reading articles, learning more in depth history, and giving it a personal meaning.

— Mandy Summers (B.A. ’23, Political Science)

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