Photo and Story by Naffie Njie/Contributing Writer
Author and poet John Hoppenthaler spoke about his creative process and what drives his writing, and read selected poetry to a group of students and faculty Thursday.
His lecture is one in a series of MTSU’s creative writing events entitled, “In Process: A Creative Writing Event Series,” held in the Sam Ingram building at the MT Center. The program serves as an opportunity for enrolled students to gain an English credit but is also open for public attendance. It will feature authors, poets, songwriters and more giving talks about their experiences with writing every Thursday.
This week’s featured artist was John Hoppenthaler. He is a poet, editor, essayist and professor who’s written three books: Lives of Water, Anticipate the Coming Reservoir and Domestic Garden. He has also co-edited a volume of essays on the poetry of Jean Valentine with Kazim Ali. He was Toni Morrison’s personal assistant, friend and “sounding board” for nine years. His work has been featured in publications such as New York Magazine, the North Carolina Literary Review and Southern Humanities Review. He currently teaches creative writing at East Carolina University.
Hoppenthaler began by reading some of his poems and describing his inspiration for writing them. Some of his selections really made an impression on me.
One poem, called “Ice,” was about the death of his father and a memory they shared. It was a subtle, yet emotional poem that reminded me of what it felt like to lose my own father.
Hoppenthaler explained how he uses assonance and tone in the exposition of a poem to pull readers in. He referenced Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem that employs sound, setting, and movement to introduce theme.
“Triolet for Joseph” is a piece about Joseph’s role in the stories of Jesus Christ as told through his presence in the Gospels. It mixes religious symbolism with formal, poetic storytelling. A triolet is a poem with eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, and is structured so that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and the second as the eighth (which is something I googled after hearing the poem’s recitation).
At the end of many of Hoppenthaler’s poems are lines that are open to interpretation.
“I don’t know what that last line means,” he said after he finished reading one of his works, “I write hoping that others will connect their own experiences to it.” He prefers not to rigidly structure or impose exact meaning on his works.
“Sex. Ancient Aztec imagery. Eating. Women. Hot cocoa.”
“Chocolate” really struck me. A poem about chocolate can go in many directions, but this sensual and unique composition made me pay attention to its story. Loosely based on studies that say the consumption of chocolate satisfies something deep in most women, the poem journeyed through desire in the past and present. Embarrassing as it may seem, I believe everyone can enjoy a poem about romance and sex.
Hoppenthaler’s teaching philosophies are best described as simple and combative toward typical writers’ issues.
“I don’t want my students to write like I do. I want them to write like they do,” he said when describing his method of teaching creative writing.
He talked about writer’s block and how he didn’t believe in it.
“It’s a matter of getting rid of distractions and finding the right prompt.”
Overall, John Hoppenthaler’s 90-minute lecture about his creative process was invigorating. It reminded me, an aspiring writer, to be open to many forms of creating and not to give up on poetry.
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