Dough | Arts around Ann Arbor

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Author photo by Autumn Dozier.

What makes a poem different from a song?

Putting the words to music might be an obvious answer, but the difference between page and studio is more complex than that.

In his new book, Kelly Hoppenjans Takes Herself Too Seriously: A Collection of Poems, Music, Lyrics and Real Art Stuffthe indie rock singer-songwriter and University of Michigan grad student draws attention to the lyrics of her recent I can’t get out the dark EP and divergent forms of poetry and lyrics.

As she told Pulp, “To me, lyrics and poetry are separate forms, and the process for each is quite different.”

Contrary to what the title says, Hoppenjans brings a fun side by including drawings, handwritten notes and QR codes on the pages of the book. Poems and lyrics are distinct but morph into one form or another when on the page or sung in a recording. Lyrics of I can’t get out the dark are all included in the book, among other songs and poems.

Hoppenjans’ collection begins with a poem titled “How to Read This Book”. The poem gives the reader the freedom to associate reading the book with listening to recordings of Hoppenjans’ songs via QR codes – or not. Hoppenjans offers the reader a kind of choice of your own adventure when she writes: “You can read and listen, you / can listen without reading, you / can read without listening…”.

Whether you’re reading or listening, the book’s poems and lyrics are about love, relationships, who the poet is as a person, and the event that disrupted many of our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic. 19. Hoppenjans puts those hard-to-express feelings into words when she writes about a decision in “Salt and Stone”:

Now I can’t move—
I’m stuck, paralyzed with fear.
The road ahead could be much better;
but what if it was much worse?

There’s no way to know sometimes, but doubt can be lingering. Later, Hoppenjans gets shameless in “Wish You Would”:

I just want what I want.

I’m done being sorry for that.
And you only want me
when you can’t have me.

Perhaps the conclusion is that it is best to make your own decisions when in doubt or turmoil.

Hoppenjans and Pulp talked about her new book, what makes a poem a poem, the poetic forms she uses in her book, and what’s next for her. (Here you can read an earlier Pulp interview with Hoppenjans that focuses on his music.)

Q: How was your move to Ann Arbor? Could you also tell us about your doctoral program?
A: Absolutely! Moving to Ann Arbor was tough – I had lived in Nashville for about eight years and had really built a community there. But Ann Arbor is a wonderful city, and I love the program I’m in at UMich! I’m in the musicology doctoral program, using my background as a singer-songwriter and vocal teacher to study how popular music intersects with identity, voice, creativity, and digital culture. It has been really rewarding – challenging at times, but also fun and fun!

Q: The subtitle of your new book is A collection of poems, music, lyrics and real art stuff. What inspired you to publish a book containing these things?
A: A few factors came together to convince me to publish the book: 1) I was writing poetry for fun and found that my poems could have interesting conversations with the songs I was writing; 2) I was a writer in residence at Willapa Bay area in the summer of 2021, which gave me time to focus on writing poems and songs, as well as encouraging other participants to enter the new medium of poetry; and 3) I wanted to make the EP available other than on CD. I know it’s well intentioned when people buy CDs at gigs they never intend to play, just to support the artist – I know that because I do too! But I wanted to package the EP in a way that people could still hold it in their hands and experience it after leaving a show, and that felt like a unique way to do it. I also started performing the poems at shows, which was really cool!

Q: Songs from your EP released earlier this year, I can’t get out the dark, are lyrics/poems in the book. Could you tell us more about the link between the book and your EP?
A: All the songs from the EP are in the book, and I think the themes from the EP resonate through the book as well. The EP is a love story, all about my COVID-19 romance and the honest everyday life of a relationship. The book has a whole “Love” section that speaks strongly to these themes, but they are also present throughout the book!

Q: Some of the poems have QR codes that link to demos, studio versions, working tapes, recordings, and playlists. Do you consider your writing lyrics first or poems first? What makes a poem different from lyrics?
A: I see my writing as dependent on the medium in which I write, be it lyrics or poetry first. I definitely consider myself a songwriter who writes poetry, rather than a poet, but this is only my first foray into poetry, so maybe that will change over time! For me, lyrics and poetry are separate forms, and the process for each is quite different. With lyrics, I tend to start with a melody and hum some silly stuff until the words come, so it’s a real-time improvisational process most of the time. Poetry is much more of a contemplative, pen and paper process for me. Frankly, the poetry is also less constrained by the conventional form, which I’ve always found quite free. And I also really enjoyed playing with the visual aspect of poetry – you don’t usually think about the visual when you’re writing a song.

Q: You mention “the visual aspect of poetry”. Do you mean what it looks like on the page? Would you be willing to elaborate?
A: By visual aspect of poetry, I mean how it looks on the page. When I write song lyrics, I don’t usually think about how they look – I just write them in whatever way makes most sense to me to read them while I sing! But it’s so much fun to play with these natural line breaks and see what new images and meanings can appear when you play with the line breaks. Also, I was fascinated trying to evoke the sound of music based on how the lyrics looked on the page – that’s where a lot of the spacing and line break choices came from. unusual!

Q: I loved the way you play with form, like the palindrome poem, “Cool Beans”, or the villanelle in “Forced Perspective”. Line breaks also caught my eye. What comes first: the shape or the thing you want to write about?
A: Often the form inspires the subject of the poem! I took an excellent fitness course the porch in Nashville which inspired many of these poems, so I have to give props to Professor Destiny Birdsong! She encouraged us to think about what form structures mean and how we can play with them in our work. Another form in the book that I’m particularly proud of is a sestina called “Knitted”; the shape of the sestina itself is so intertwined and layered, which inspired me to write about knitting.

Q: The poem “Space” takes up a lot of space on the page. Some lines express the challenge of putting those words out there because “I know it’s inside me, I can’t let it go to waste”. Later in the poem, the power of a single word becomes apparent, as “a single word / moves the air / out of / place…”. Does the writing make you feel like it’s claiming space?
A: ABSOLUTELY. Writing is about using your voice, whether you put sound in the air or words on a page, and that act itself takes up space. As a singer, I’ve always loved the feeling of using my voice and hearing it resonate, and the power of that is part of what inspired this song.

Q: You also include images of early handwritten drafts. What changes between drafts and typed poems/lyrics?
A: SO, LOL. I’ve only included writing drafts that I didn’t mind sharing because some of them are so terrible they shouldn’t see the light of day. That said, I like to share the process with people because I think sometimes people think writing is a magical thing, like writers sit down and immediately write a perfect finished product. Songs and poems are like a puzzle – they take work and try different solutions and fuss with the pieces that bother you until they don’t. So I like the fact that this book allowed me to include people a little bit in this process.

Q: How do you include people in the process?
A: By sharing the process, I meant sharing my images of my early drafts with people reading the book – I wrote the book solo, aside from the few co-written songs that are included. But I sent the first sketches of what it would look like to a friend at my writing residency, Sara Deniz Akant, who had some wonderful ideas that helped me focus my writing as I developed the idea!

Q: COVID makes an appearance in your book with its far and deep reach visible in poems like “Forced Perspective: a villanelle COVID”:

My world has become so small
that my whole universe is my apartment
and I shrunk to only three inches in height.

I travel in my kitchen like in Nepal,
cross an Everest of papers that I cannot bear to part with;
my world has become so small.

Has your writing changed as a result of the pandemic? If so, how could this have changed?
A: I think the pandemic has given me time to reflect. Thinking back to the songs and poems I was particularly proud of, it occurred to me that the works where I allowed myself to be most vulnerable were the ones I’m most proud of. This self-reflection has instilled in me a desire to keep that courage as much as possible in my writing moving forward – and I think the pandemic is at least partly responsible for that!

Q: What are you reading and listening to at the moment?
A: I’m pretty obsessed with Lizzo, and I’ve been listening to her new album a lot! I also discovered Peaches recently, and like almost everyone when Kate Bush got her stranger things moment, I came back and started listening to it again too. I mostly read stuff for school lately (William Cheng’s just vibrations is wonderful!), but I also recently read Franc by Diane Seuss and I loved it, and I can’t wait to read Joy Priest’s Powerful.

Q: What are your next writing and recording projects?
A: Writing is definitely the next step! I just got off of touring this summer and can’t wait to have some time in one place to sit and write. I feel like I haven’t written a song in a while, so I think the next step is to just get the guitar out and play!


Martha Stuit is a former journalist and current librarian.


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