As we prepare for the release of her full-length poetry collection, Lessons in Breathing Underwater, author H.K. Hummel speaks with Sundress Publications’ editorial intern, Erica Hoffmeister about the importance of women’s stories.
Erica Hoffmeister: Can you describe the meaning of the opening epigraph, lyrics from the song, “Night Has Turned to Day” by The Fantastic Negrito in how it relates to the collection as a whole?
H.K. Hummel: “Night Has Turned to Day” is about waking up from a coma, and waking up to a world that has turned upside down. The Fantastic Negrito’s song serves as a counterpoint to the Smith’s song (“Girlfriend in a Coma”), which appears later in the collection. The tension between the two might be the joy and reckoning that we sometimes have to contend with simultaneously. More subtly, I enjoy the prayer that is embedded in the lyrics: “lord mama, oh night has turned to day.” As a collection about motherhood and survival, that small benediction—lord mama, oh—feels like the right utterance with which to begin.
EH: Why breathing underwater specifically, for the title of this collection?
HKH.: The book centers around a medical complication that started out as a result of giving birth, but one complication caused a series of other complications. During the physical crisis, my lungs filled up with liquid, and consequently, I was put on life support in a medically-induced coma. So, the collection is divided up into sections based on the breath cycle, with a ventilator briefly taking control in the middle. As a Californian who grew up on the coast, learning to breathe—or hold your breath until you can breathe—was a basic survival skill. Surfers learn quickly how to hold their breath and dive deep, below the orbital force of the breaker, to surface on the other side. I suppose this is how we survive the pounding any kind of trauma exacts.
EH: Some of these pieces weave in true stories of women, such as in the poems “Annie Londonderry Sells Advertising Space on her Shirtwaist,” and “Jeanne Baret, After Tahiti,” of which you include details in the book’s endnotes. What had you select these stories to incorporate?
HKH: As I wrote this collection, I was very aware that I was shaping the narrative of my daughter’s origin story. And, I was also aware that the story of survival is a story that belongs to all of us. I wove in a chorus of women who could sing much better than I about the difficult barters we make, about loss, and spirit. Erling Kagge, the explorer who completed the solo trek to the South Pole says, “Wonder is the very engine of life…It is one of the purest forms of joy that I can imagine…It is one of our finest skills.” Although this collection includes a catastrophe, the driving force is wonder.
EH: How do themes of memory and reality play into an overarching narrative?
HKH: Sometimes, it is unlearning that makes us wiser. PTSD wreaks havoc on one’s sense of reality. My background in poetry and in meditation meant I knew how to study my emotional and imaginative inscape. So, that’s what I did: I studied the surreal and hyperreal innerspace I was experiencing, to parse out what was me, and what was the trauma. I wanted to capture, as much as I could, the way that time bends strangely in a crisis, and its aftermath. In “Dreamboats,” I became fascinated by the detritus that exists in my consciousness. All those men I lusted after as a tween? They still live in some corner of my mind, even as I do things like wash the dishes, or stand at the gas pump, or lecture to a roomful of college students. That’s a strange fact that I find sort of delightful. As I built a poetic schema for making sense of catastrophe, I found myself reaching back into my childhood, into my own origin story. As a product of Southern California in the 80s, that means an odd mix of pop culture heartthrobs, Pacific coast landscapes, and surf culture. I had an urge to write odes—celebrations—for those mundane parts of my life.
EH: Can you speak to the language of physical movement throughout this collection, specifically how poems like “Life by Bicycle” relate to the speaker’s bodily experiences?
HKH: I wanted the poems that come early in the collection to contain a movement through space that grounds what later in the collection becomes a hallucinatory trajectory through time. Jeanne Baret and Annie Londonderry both travel around the world (by ship and bicycle, respectively). Elizabeth Eckford braves the spit-fury of a mob. Marie Curie builds a trapeze, which she really did after Pierre died suddenly. “Life by Bicycle” and “Compass Rose Spins Like a Ouija Board Planchette” address the living we do, despite (in defiance of?) the body’s vulnerabilities. We take journeys, we work, we fight revolutions, we swim, we make art, we make love, we make poems. Maybe it is necessary to affirm this once in a while.
EH: Would you like to explain the coordinates of the locations you use in the poem “The Compass Rose Spins Like a Ouija Board Planchette”?
HKH: I wanted “The Compass Rose Spins Like a Ouija Board Planchette” to have a layer of hyper-specificity to it as it works through ideas about connections and intimacies that traverse great distances. Google Maps can serve as a companion interface with the poem, and if you put in the coordinates, you can locate the exact bend in the Little Red River in Arkansas, or the inlet on Rottnest Island in the Indian Ocean that I am describing. Despite the many kinds of distances that separate us, every poem works towards intimacy.
EH: Why did you choose to include details about the U.S.’s problematic medical system in brackets at the end of specific poems, rather than within the pieces themselves?
HKH: That wasn’t really the way that I thought of them when I wrote them. When I was organizing the poems into a collection, my writing partner told me I had to let in a bit more of the “true” story. I know better than to ignore his advice. So, I began by imagining that the bracketed sections between the poems gave the reader tiny doorways into the “real” scenes in the gaps between the poems. It happens that the medical system is problematic. At a quick glance, I am your average, neurotic woman.
EH: Stories of women’s bodies and trauma used to be somewhat of a taboo to write and read about. Just how important do you think stories like Lessons in Breathing Underwater are to tell?
HKH: As I wrote, I was writing against so many things that one shouldn’t discuss in polite company. I received a letter from a minister who read my poem, “To Begin,” one Sunday morning and found solace. Taboo or not, the very plain fact is, we have bodies. And we all must do the human thing: endure. If we’re lucky, we’re awake enough to feel the sweet parts, the transcendence.
H.K. Hummel’s Lessons in Breathing Underwater lucidly examines personal catastrophe by presenting it side by side with artifacts from natural history, art, and objects of wonder. Drawing on elements of domestic fabulism and anesthetic hallucination, she maps the blurry territory of trauma. Memories of her own childhood off the coast of California help her make sense of the oceanic feelings surrounding recovery and motherhood. “We spend whole lifetimes getting unlost and unlost and unlost,” she says. Hummel asks about the difficult barters we make to live open and loving lives, and a chorus of historical and mythological women respond with a collective song of survival.
H.K. Hummel is the author of Lessons in Breathing Underwater (Sundress Publications, 2020), and the co-author of Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018). She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, one of the founding editors of Blood Orange Review, and she directs Atelier, a creative editing studio. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Southern Maine, and an MA in literature from Eastern Washington University. Her poems have recently appeared in Terrain.org,Hudson Review, Museum of Americana, Booth, and Iron Horse Review.
Erica Hoffmeister earned an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Chapman University, and currently teaches college writing across the Denver Metro area. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019).