Guest Post, Erin Adair-Hodges: Greater Than or Equal To

Greater Than or Equal To: What We Lose When Poetry Celebrates Youth


Picture of Erin Adair-HodgesWhen I was 32, I worked three jobs in two cities. A typical day had me awake at 5:45 a.m. to drive an hour north to teach developmental English classes at a community college, drive back south to work several hours as a copy editor at the local weekly newspaper, then finally zip across the city to teach at a second community college. Other days reversed the schedule, with me teaching in a different city late at night and returning home to get just six hours of sleep before the next packed day began. I had a recent master’s degree in poetry and no time to write poetry, but I was too harried to worry, figuring I had plenty of time to refocus once my life wasn’t so chaotic, so unformed. Yet, at 32, I had already aged out of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. I hadn’t even really started and it was already too late.

At 40, I am now also not eligible for the Stanley Kunitz prize from American Poetry Review, years past dreaming of being one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. I also would have been too old for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, which until this year required its winners to be under 40—it’s notable that the 2016 winner is just over 40, which should tell us a lot about the limited scope these kinds of age restrictions create.

This may start to sound like a wine that’s turned—sour grapes and all that. It’s not this at all, or at least, it’s not only this. I recommitted to writing again at 38, and in just over two years have published over two dozen pieces; my first book is coming out next year as the winner of a great (and as yet unannounced) prize, which is to say I’m good. I begrudge none of these younger writers their support and success, but that they earned their accolades does not take away from the fact that poetry has an age problem.

I discovered the extent of this while seeking support as an emerging writer over the past two years. So many kind friends have forwarded me prize or fellowship opportunities that, because of my age or too many years having passed since earning my MFA (such as the Emory University or Kenyon Review fellowships, which require the degree to be no longer than five years old), I don’t qualify for. Why is this a problem for anyone but me? The reasons, as I’ve laid out in multiple shower and car ride monologues on this topic, are:

  1. These limits on age and time spent out of school are classist. They are remnants from an antiquated system where poets (usually white men of some means) are exposed to poetry early, decide to pursue it in college, find mentorship and support and begin publishing soon after matriculating. This apparently still happens for some, but this trajectory is almost impossible to replicate if you are poor; if you come from a rural place with little to no artistic community; if your passions and talents have to be put aside so you can work a lot to live. These constrictions validate and enforce a system that keeps many voices out—they say that if you have not made it by a certain age, it’s because you were not good enough. If anything, those who count themselves as older emerging writers should be celebrated for pushing on when all messages indicate to do otherwise.
  1. These limits are sexist. Misogyny is humankind’s oldest song, and even the throats of poets open up to sing it. While things may be shifting for millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomer women came up when their male peers were more likely to be singled out and supported by professors and editors. To penalize them for society’s slow (and ever-halting) shift out of this bias is to perpetuate the problem. Moreover, women are more likely to put their careers, artistic and otherwise, on hold for caregiving. The median age for women who hold master’s degrees or higher to have a first child is 30. Five years after my MFA, at the end of my eligibility for a host of fellowships, I had a newborn child and could not pursue such opportunities—the idea that there is a clock on not only our bodies but our creative lives as well is demoralizing. The message to many mothers who write is: get your success early or not at all, as the time you take to care for a family will be counted against you. That’s not unlike the rest of American society, of course, but the poetry community should acknowledge that in its pursuit of challenging injustice and bias, it continues to uphold structures that marginalize the voices of many women.
  1. Such restrictions impoverish us all. I keep thinking back to my dear friend who won Yale’s contest which, just the year before, she would have been ineligible for because of the year of her birth. How much longer would it have taken to get to fully embrace this voice, fully formed and with so much to say? How many poets and poems have we missed because there weren’t enough opportunities for older emerging writers? How many talented people struggled for years to balance family and jobs with finding time to write, only to decide the sacrifice of time away from other obligations could no longer be justified? If we, as poets, are truly concerned with issues of representation, limits on age and even time spent out of a degree program cannot be supported.

Of course I have skin in this game. I wrote a book in two years while raising a preschooler and teaching five classes a semester at a community college. That is, to use the parlance of my culture, freakin’ loco, and frankly unsustainable. If something about my circumstances doesn’t change, I don’t know that I can do it again. Even writing this blog has required that I ignore my child for hours on a day when we usually spend time together making crafts he then tapes all over the wall, messy with handprints, a jungle of art projects past and present.

But I’m not writing this for me, or at least, I don’t think I am. Like I said, things are working out alright — they’re beginning to take shape, an event which required me ignoring nearly every message I’d received about my writing or worth for a decade. I’m posting this because the first time I shared my story about returning to poetry while as a full-time instructor and almost 40-year-old mother, the feedback was overwhelming. A short interview on my institution’s website done after I won The Georgia Review’s Loraine Williams Poetry Prize led to so many people, nearly all women, reaching out to me to say—me too. Women I’d never met emailed me to say they’d stopped trying to write or publish, that they felt the time for their creative work had passed. That’s the message we’ve been given, and it’s bullshit.

I know there are other emerging writers contests in journals and nearly a score of first-book poetry contests that do not have maximum age requirements. These are necessary because they invite new voices into the conversation, broadening and expanding it. I have myself have benefitted from these, allowing me to make the slow and fitful transition into having “emerged,” but I almost didn’t make it that far. Our celebration of youth is dangerous because it is necessarily also a denigration of age, and for those struggling to find even a spare fifteen minutes to write, these messages can stifle and snuff such voices entirely.

We should continue to support the work of emerging voices from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives, but we must no longer equate emerging with young. Finding a hot, young writer with loads of talent makes for a great story, but the older writer working despite all of the odds may have more of a story to tell.

Guest Post, Erin Adair Hodges: The Joy of Quitting

KnittingThough I grew up in a small New Mexican town in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I somehow found feminism. In my child’s understanding of the women’s movement, I decided that anything related to traditional domesticity was oppressive and not for me. Being bad at chores was a sign of my liberation. Cooking, sewing, baking, and knitting were tools used to limit my ambitions, designed by The Man to keep my hands too busy to put up a fight. By the time I entered college and early adulthood in the ‘90s, I found I was not alone. Women in my circles wore aprons only ironically with combat boots and shaved heads. We mended clothing holes with duct tape.

But by the mid-aughts, this same artsy circle found Crafting. I had long resisted the call to develop expertise in some method of fabric/yarn manipulation, but at 30 I had a no good, very bad year. I was in control of almost no aspect of my life, so in a fit of moderate optimism and self-determination, I borrowed some knitting needles and a book and began the work of teaching myself to knit.

Knitters extol the craft’s meditative aspects, and I admit that being able to focus on something that was not the financial and spiritual hardship I was in had a transportive quality. Soon, I knit several crooked scarves the length of a Florida boa constrictor before moving on to baby blankets for the scores of friends having children. Sure, while my friends were starting families I was 30 and working a minimum wage job at a cupcake shop where my manager was a girl ten years my junior whose penchant for posting misspelled signs worked like a burr in the boot of my soul. But I had knitting! Knitting, which allowed me to transform the formless to works of art and function. Knitting! A feminist reclamation of artistry previously disregarded as purely craft because of its usefulness! Knitting! Knitting would save me!

Except that I hated knitting.

I knit for five years. I watched videos, knit purl purled. I went to knitting circles, printed patterns, dreamed lofty woolen dreams. But knitting is unforgiving. Other crafts allow for the imperfect: so your embroidery looks like a thread monster sneezed? Quirky! Seams on your skirt uneven? Fashion-forward. Knitting, though, requires precision. A missed stitch means that, 40 rows and two weeks later, it becomes clear the piece will not work. It is a Yeats poem, what with the not-holding and the falling apart. The very talented can sometimes work in a solution to what’s already been formed, but mostly you just have to tear it down to the mistake and start again, as many agains as needed. In this way, knitting began to resemble too much my real life, not a distraction from my struggles but a manifestation of them. Knitting reminded me that I had no natural aptitude for anything, and that even in trying my best, I would fail.

So I quit. I broke up with knitting.

Like any really good breakup, I marked the seriousness of the separation with a big dramatic act. I had said I’d quit before only to take the needles back up when some friend produced a hat she swore was a cinch to make and I was so smart I could get this, just try again. I thought each time would be different, that maybe knitting could learn to love me the way it loved so many others. Once I finally admitted that this thing which was supposed to make me feel good instead filled me with frustration and sadness, I knew I had to make the break loud and permanent. I filled a garbage bag with everything connected to my relationship with knitting: books, scores of needles, skeins of artisan yarn, and curiously hooked tools. I then took the bag outside and called my friend Christie to tell her what I’d done. If you don’t come and get this stuff, I said, it goes to the dump. As one of the primary knitting pushers in my life, she drove over right away, happy with the haul even if she thought I was making the wrong decision.

But in the years since, I’ve never regretted pushing knitting out of my life. I am tremendously glad I don’t knit, purl, wind, wend, whatever. I was bad at it and it made me sad, so I stopped. That decision runs counter to an American ethos that derides quitters for somehow lacking character. As a kid, I quit all kinds of things I didn’t like and often felt bad about what this must say about me, and so as an adult I’ve tried to make up for this by sticking to commitments far past the point where it would have been healthy to stop. There’s a perverse puritan satisfaction in doing a thing that makes you miserable, and while my forebears have no doubt looked upon my perseverance from their sedately appointed heavenly quarters with the closest they can come to a smile, I have decided to reclaim the joys of quitting.


The year I began knitting I also earned an MFA in poetry and then quit writing poetry. I returned to it many years later, and while there’s plenty about being an emerging writer with wrinkles that I don’t love, I don’t regret having quit that, either. My MFA experience, while positive in some ways, ultimately served to turn me off of the form—I no longer felt that poetry was necessary, and if it was, then I was not necessary to poetry. So for seven or so years, I simply lived—not as a writer but just as a person, navigating and amassing the kinds of experiences that suck us in: marriage and career and babies and sickness and 5Ks and deaths and debt. For several years, the weight of it all threatened to silence me under so many waves until one day an acquaintance at a party threw a life saver and I caught it and it was poetry.

I started writing slowly again, having panic attacks every few poems. I wrote terrible, clunky chunks, garblings I could not show to anyone. But then I started to find value in the making, the crafting, the weaving and suddenly there was joy. Writing! Writing had saved me!

I don’t know where my writing would be, what my voice would be, had I not quit years before. Maybe it would be stronger, less messy, lean and ghost-like. But I don’t care. For me, removing myself from both poetry and even thinking of myself as a poet meant that when I came back to it, I did so with clarity and context. I don’t take myself seriously though I take writing seriously. Years of crappy, humiliating jobs and disappointments tend to beat the pretension out of you, and that’s a perspective I want my poetry to reveal. That’s a truth that being away from poetry has helped me to understand.

In the penultimate episode of the television show “Mad Men,” a main character diagnosed with terminal cancer decides not to fight it simply because she’s expected to, because it’s the show we’re supposed to put on. She defends her decision by saying that she’s fought for plenty in her life and feels blessed to know when to give up, when to move on. I’m not using cancer as a metaphor, even a fictionalized depiction of cancer, because cancer is an asshole that has taken people I love, but rather it’s the attitude of the character that’s instructive. We stand to gain much when we quit, when we strip our lives down of struggle. Most of life is a fight, for food and jobs and parking spaces and love, so why put voluntarily put ourselves in the path of conflicts we can avoid? We can’t quit everything or everyone who drags us down, but we also often don’t allow ourselves the chance to see what we really can cut out.

I say: be a quitter. Release yourself of expectations in order to see what other opportunities that empty space attracts.

Maybe my surrendering knitting and its sister crafts allowed for other creativity to creep back in. Maybe accepting that while I had no knack for knitting, writing for me was a different kind of difficult, not a chore but challenge. I now understand that when I quit poetry before, I did so without ever having really, really worked at it. In my wondrously packed life, there’s little time to take things up as a whim, and so writing again was a decision, creativity handled logically. If you’d asked me ten years ago why I wrote poetry, I couldn’t have given you much of answer. After our reconciliation, I now can, but I think I’ll quit here because I want to and because I have a poem to write.