September 2023

To conjure a woman's grievances:
No Spare People, by Erin Hoover

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


    "One of us will die first, and there are only two, no spare people"




    The epigraph above, taken from the poem "What if pain no longer ordered the narrative," in some ways encapsulates the themes of this powerful new collection from Erin Hoover. While it literally refers to her two-person family, the idea grows to encompass humanity, everyone deserves a life, no one can be spared. A further implication occurs to the reader: No one is spared the difficulties, pains, or joys of existence, as Hoover brilliantly demonstrates throughout this book.

    The very first poem in the book lays out the seemingly impossible array of tasks that face the creative woman who is also expected to raise and nurture a child:

    "because in every household the metaphor is clear:

    the caretaker is a woman, and so

    when I began

    writing, I listed out my morning, the preparations

    and cleaning up of spills and toys, taking down

    and fetching, the driving and carrying of people

    that no one wants to know about

    if we believe in the reality of book contracts

    and job offers.//

    it is only the first move

    to conjure a woman's grievances,

    and it is past time to make the second, and so

    I ask her to speak,

    I call her forth,

    I open my throat."

    From contending with the state bureaucracy simply to prove that her daughter is her own:

    "At my turn, the clerk asked if I had proof, and I looked

    down at the fold of my child's mouth, her animal

    hands. I felt the diaper that held together my body

    ripped open not long before—I could hardly walk—

    but maybe that only proved, like her birth certificate,

    that I was her mother." ("At the child support office")

    through the attending of a prayer circle of women seeking help for themselves and others suffering from illness and other afflictions:

    "I'm alive, and after this prayer

    ends, I pray my bones won't

    obstinately crack on every hard

    surface in town, bucolic lampposts

    demanding my sacrifice,

    half-whisper of my prayer" ("Praying inside the emergency")

    to the hopeful assumption of a treasured academic position:

    "I hope

    myself enough

    to fill this place,

    for two years,

    for three,

    my nest, my path,

    this pitcher of words

    I pour and pour

    and pour." ("Visiting assistant professor")

    Hoover guides us through her life journey, coping with the demands of motherhood and the need to create.

    But her focus is not only on herself, though the universality of so many of her experiences would certainly justify such an approach. In "White woman," Hoover confronts racism, misogyny, and White privilege:

    "The Northern states

    are self-satisfied, segregated too,

    but here I am whiter, a white

    weapon to be wielded, a pliant, powerful

    fool. I've never been so queer as I am

    in the South, where we're taught

    to call a scrape of cells 'baby, pre-born,'

    like cake mix or powder cement

    to be reconstituted by men."

    The complexity of southern manners is the theme of "Real Arkansas," where the speaker finds it "hard as a dime to parse/public niceties from the truer,/private kind, a BBQ where I can join/the conversation," and is left to ponder:

    "Maybe it's all

    I can do to live in limbo and call out

    "not me" to no one listening, to nod at each

    We're so glad you're here that rolls over me

    like a blessing, unaware I had asked for it."

    Near the end of the book, the tone turns deeply personal again as the poet reflects on her once-feared unsuitability for motherhood. (The poem is short so I quote it in full.)

    "Baby care instructions"

    Before you lived, I lived inside my own

    loathing. Some parents have children to replace

    themselves, but we're two instead of none.

    Pushing you on a swing, sunset, my hands

    on your mammalian back, I remember

    how everyone thought I'd kill you by mistake,

    my throat in hives because I believed

    them. You made me, too, daughter drawing

    the last sip from a juicebox, wisps of hair

    rising in the dirty breeze. I show you

    how to kick to propel yourself, and all threat

    dips like the sun behind the jungle gym.

    I may have been born a knife, but my daughter

    won't be a knife, nor its willing sheath."

    This power and beauty of this remarkable, poignant, and skillfully crafted and curated collection should be experienced in full. It will be released on October 20, 2023.

    To pre-order No Spare People: -spare-people/


    I wanted to hear from the poet herself about this book and her work and experience and Erin was kind enough to answer a few questions.


    Could you explain a bit about the title No Spare People? I realize that it refers to your family of two, in other words, no spares. But what are the larger implications?

    Right, the title pulls from a line in "What if pain no longer ordered the narrative," a poem about being part of a dyad family (I think this is what I'm going to call us). But I hoped that readers would make the next logical leap, so thank you for this question. Composing No Spare People helped me reckon, over the four years of its writing, the implications of applying concepts of use to human beings. There's even a poem titled "What use are you?" That interaction between use and value underlies nearly every kind of global commerce, but it influences how we think about families, too. Childbearing may be the ultimate use to which the wombed person can be put, and I felt that so keenly in my daughter's early years, as my new mother identity influenced nearly everything I did or was capable of doing.

    The poems weren't easy to write by any means, but not for lack of inspiration. I needed to document the collective powerlessness I lived and live through, not only during Covid but in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ecological collapse we're all witnessing now, and to connect these "events" as part of a continuum that sometimes repeats. The persona of Erin Hoover appears many times, as the perpetually failing job candidate, the spoiled teenager, the cisgender white woman hiding her queer identity. As I did with my first book, Barnburner, I wrote many characters who clearly aren't me, and I hope readers see them, too: the tradwife, the society wife, retail buyers and sellers, the blind aunt, women of the prayer circle, Nicole Brown Simpson, Reality Winner. All of these figures, too, embraced and then suffered from their use. I intend No Spare People to be read as an imperative in that way. I really do believe that there are other choices, other ways to live.

    You write about having your daughter solo as a conscious choice. How has your single parenthood affected your writing? Not so much the practicalities, but your outlook, subject matter, etc.

    Adrienne Rich wrote about all of the ways that motherhood radicalized
    her, and maybe I'm going through the same sort of process, a journey which isn't over and hopefully never will be. At the same time, my decision to have my child with a donor may have more in common with the legal battles for gender equality of the twentieth century, over abortion, the rights women have to property, non-discrimination, etc., than with ideas of conventional pregnancy or parenting, because I'm not interested (for myself) in partnerships like marriage whether queer or not. In that, Rich and I may differ. Nor should I compare my experience to all single
    mothers, because although some of us may fit into similar categories of precarity, our relationship to whatever you consider a father isn't the same. I'm probably not even like some donor single parents, but I haven't met enough of them to know. 

    What I really learned over the course of writing No Spare People is that I would never again fit anywhere. I will forever confuse people. There will always be questions, and required explanations, and bureaucracy. I've accepted this but I don't think I understood the degree until writing this book. All of it has been instructional in what "not fitting" means not just materially, as No Spare People explores, but as an ethos (and even a poetics) that is ongoing—to validate that which doesn't fit without making it fit.

    Of course, I am a single, queer-identified and wombed person living in the South, and I also think about how I was able to have the family I wanted as some states are now restricting more and more bodily rights. I think that I'm writing about my daughter and I so much now to assert our existence in a place that doesn't want us. To write about the beauty of her being alive here is a conscious decision.

    I have been reading, and in some cases have reviewed, a number of collections by women poets which in whole or in part concern pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. I'm thinking in particular of Viable, by Chloe Yelena Miller, Seed Celestial, by Sara R. Burnett, and 40 Weeks, by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach. What poets have influenced or inspired you in dealing with these subjects and what writers and books would you recommend?

    I was re-reading Bernadette Mayer's 1982 book, Midwinter Day, that "epic poem about a daily routine," when my daughter was young and I was writing No Spare People. There is probably no single text that I returned to more during that time because I felt seen inside it, but also that I was seeing. I felt a new capability to "author." Mayer's project is hard to
    excerpt, but here's one of my mentors, Andrew Epstein, writing about her.

    Although I've not met this poet, I consider Olena Kalytiak Davis my poetry twin. Wish I'd written her poem "The Lyric 'I' Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School".  That poem would fit nicely in No Spare People

    Shout out to my fellow Tennessean Anna Laura Reeve; I'm a transplant, she's born and raised, and she has a relatively new book, Reaching the Shore in the Sea of Fertility. As examples, here's her poem, "Desire," and her incredible, award-winning "The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale." Writing about childbearing and rearing evokes so much self -consciousness and weight for many parents. We ask ourselves not only "what should I say?" but "who am I even talking to?" If I gave a lecture on this, I'd call that the "subject position shift" inherent to mothering, that "I'm a person" pushing back against culturally conditioned hierarchies of child and mother.

    You were born in Pennsylvania and have family there, but you have lived and taught in the South, including Arkansas and now Tennessee. Have these different landscapes influenced your writing? Did you experience culture shock after moving south?

    I'm going to try to answer this without speaking for anyone else who has lived in the places I have, though I think Barnburner probably succeeded to the extent it named the toxic entropy of the mountainous, middle part of Pennsylvania where my family has been forever. Of course, I've lived in the Southern U.S. for more than a decade and my work now reflects this place. Tennessee makes more sense to me than Florida or Arkansas did, probably because it's Appalachian; there's some kinship between Pennsylvania and the place I am now, even more so when you go further on to East Tennessee, where even a city like Knoxville has some rural grit to it.  In "Real Arkansas" I call that state a "terrifying Eden," but I wrote that line in Tennessee, where I really can see an old plantation building from my apartment, treated just like any other unaffordable house here. Maybe the kids think that's what it is.

    Those rights that have enabled my daughter and I to live independent of male protection do not actually exist—or they're not really recognized here—and I sometimes feel that I'm tolerated more than loved, or tolerated conditionally where there's great potential for me to do something other people don't like. That loneliness is certainly embedded in No Spare People. At the same time, people are people. My interactions are, on the whole, about human connection—about singular me and whatever other singular person, and when we can connect, maybe we have a lot in common independent of the assumptions we make about one another's politics. Perhaps that sounds naive when uttered outside the South. I suspect it doesn't to others here.

    Are you working on a new collection or any other type of book now? What's next for you?

    I've started to write a book about fathers—not my father, but fathers in total.

    Thanks very much for taking time with these questions.

    Thank you, Greg!

    To learn more about Erin Hoover, visit her website at


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
More at:
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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