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Interviews with Poets Hilary Dobel and Anna Ralls

Two pages, 2,250 words

Hilary Vaughn Dobel was born in Seattle and lives in Boston. Her poetry and Spanish-to-English translations have appeared in Ploughshares, Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, and The New York Times. She is the translator of Nine Coins by Carlos Pintado (Akashic Books) and The Clouds by Juan José Saer (Open Letter Books). She is an editor-at-large for Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Shaindel Beers: Your poem “Travelogue, Day Before Departure” was published in Contrary’s Autumn 2009 issue. Had you been sending out long before this?

Hilary Dobel: I was very new to sending out when Contrary published my poem—I’d been at it for less than a year. Contrary was actually my first real publication—I called my parents and emailed my professors. I still have a copy of the check! 

Shaindel: What was your path as a poet like before Contrary

Hilary: Rocky and tentative. I had some truly incredible teachers in undergraduate and in my MA program at UChicago, but I was horribly unsure of myself as an artist. I sent to Contrary at a time when I was deciding whether or not poetry was something I could—or should—pursue in any kind of serious way. I knew how much I loved the act of writing, of making the work, but I couldn’t yet imagine myself trying to push that work out into the world. 

Shaindel: Where has life taken you since you were published in Contrary

Hilary: Since that time, I went on to an MFA at Columbia and have continued to write and publish poetry, and also to translate two books from Spanish. I’m a poet operating outside the academy, which can be a little isolating sometimes, but I’ve been fortunate to have jobs that have granted me the flexibility to take time off for fellowships or to otherwise focus on my writing. 

Shaindel: How would you describe your writing process? 

Hilary: The older I get, the clearer it becomes that I have to take in more than I put out. My best work always comes out of times when I’m paying acute attention to the world and the art around me: reading deeply, or going to museums, or spending time outdoors, or with people I love, or watching movies or plays or listening to music. I’m not fussy about whether culture is “high” or “low,” and I tend to distrust such distinctions as it is—I read as much genre fiction as I do poetry or literary fiction, and I draw on all of it. 

My writing process has always been a little like patchwork. I tend to jot down a lot of notes, observations, and single phrases or lines, and then I let them accrue over time. When I have a critical mass—or when enough of them prod me into a particular question to ask or answer for myself—I look for concordances and see which fragments fit together. It’s always felt like an unromantic way to work—more like carpentry than poetry, sometimes—but so much of poetry depends on finding connections and that’s how they manifest to me. 

Shaindel: How does the average poem “come” to you? I ask this because “Travelogue” seems so grounded yet ethereal at the same time. 

Hilary: Thank you for your kind words! Because of the way I work, when a poem “comes” to me it requires an enormous amount of patience. It’s a slow, stealthy thing, where I’ll be looking through my notes and realize there’s a thread of something that’s been tugging at me for weeks and I haven’t realized it until just now. 

I also repeat myself a lot, sometimes working on four or five poems simultaneously only to realize they’re the same poem. Or sometimes I have to write the same poem six or seven times before it finds its final shape. I’m a relentless editor. With “Travelogue,” I was living apart from the man who is now my husband, and I’d been spending a lot of time in airports when I began to write it. The idea of “something with wings” had been haunting me for well over a month by the time I used it in the poem. 

Shaindel: You get to give a good-sized literary dinner party — and invite ten guests dead or alive. Who do you invite? Why? Also, where would this party be held? What would you serve? 

Hilary: I’m firmly of the belief that I should never meet my heroes—I’d be too afraid of disappointing them. I think if I had a literary dinner party I would invite my writer-friends—who are my heroes in a less frightening way—people I went through my MFA at Columbia with or who I met at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. These are people whose work inspires and excites me, who have made my own work better, and who will gossip with me, which you have to accept as a perk in a microcosm like the poetry world. 

If I could have a ghostly cameo, two teachers that I love have died in recent years. Perhaps we could be overseen by the benevolent spirits of Lucie Brock-Broido and C. K. Williams. 

I live across the street from a park behind a beautiful old church, so I think we’d have a picnic outside. I’d make loaves and loaves of bread and offer lots of things to eat with it: cheeses, spreads, every cured pork product I can get my hands on. As I write this, it’s early September, so I’d also have a huge salad with the last of the summer tomatoes. And maybe the last of the summer rosé, too. 

Shaindel: How does your writing work serve your professional work and vice versa? 

Hilary: I’ve been fortunate in my professional work, in that it very much serves my writing. I’m a higher ed copywriter/editor, and I have very supportive and understanding employers. The work lets me use the skills that I have for an institution I respect without leaving me too burdened for my own creative work. In recent years, I’ve thought seriously about entering a clinical social work program to become a therapist, and I volunteer as an online crisis counselor one evening a week—writing has taught me to think deeply about empathy and its limits, and how to re-articulate one’s feelings or the feelings of others so they might be better understood or endured. 

Poetry Editor Shaindel Beers is the author of three full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009), The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (2018), from White Pine Press. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, where she lives with her son Liam.