Q&A: Erin Block on Writing Emotionally Charged Poems About Hunting
Erin Block's new poetry collection delves into the intimate details of hunting scenes to get at greater truths
When I picked up Erin Block’s poetry collection for the first time, I read it in one sitting. Her poems gripped me with their jarring juxtapositions of pain and beauty, suffering and release. Her irreverent voice steeped in the language of the natural world calls to mind Jim Harrison, a clear inspiration for several of the poems in ‘How You Walk Alone in the Dark (Middle Creek Publishing),’ which is Block’s first poetry collection.
Block is a longtime outdoor writer and has published her work in publications such as TROUT, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Midcurrent, and Field & Stream. In ‘How You Walk Alone in the Dark,’ Block, who lives in a cabin in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado, demonstrates a profound understanding of hunting with her intimate descriptions of the pursuit of turkeys, jackrabbits, snow geese, and other critters. Like all good writing, her work far transcends the acts she writes about to get at deeper truths, in this case, questions of mortality, loss, and heartache, among other themes. I recently sat down with Block to discuss her approach to writing poetry, her relationship to the natural world, and more. Here’s what she had to say:
I got interested in hunting in 2015. I took a canoe trip to Alaska with my husband Jay Zimmerman. We were going to hunt grouse and catch fish. We had very limited provisions and were going to hunt or catch all of our protein. I started just by using a slingshot to kill grouse. When we got back, I started hunting grouse with an air rifle. I knew that I needed a progression of some sort in terms of weapons and the size of the animals.
When my grandpa died about a decade ago, my dad was cleaning out his basement and found a shotgun. I was the only person in the family who had a use for it. It was an old Savage Model 24 Over/Under. It was just perfect. I started hunting snowshoe hare with it. A lot of my hunting education has just been trial and error.
There is something about hunting that makes it ideal for poetry. Poetry is an art form that can deal with very difficult things in a distilled way. I’ve always found that the most powerful poetry is about life and death. As I age, it increasingly seems like all of my life is about learning how to die. Hunting brings that into such focus. You have to interact with death on a regular basis. One of the revolutionary things I’ve been forced to think about while hunting is how tenuous life is and how close you can be at every moment to death. Just one little movement and things could be totally different.
Poetry only happens when there are stakes.
As humans, we want everything to have so much meaning. Sometimes the meaning is just eating and getting through another day. We don’t have to have this grand ‘we’re going to change the world’ meaning in our lives. Hunting has a beautiful simplicity in life and death. I think it’s in a Jim Harrison poem where he says we do death alone. In a way, hunting has demystified death. It doesn’t seem scary or unknown. It seems very natural and you can accept and live with it.
I got my dog Banjo free on Craigslist in 2010. He was already 5 years old. I was newly divorced and had just bought a cabin in the mountains. I wanted a dog more than anything in my life. He was just my partner. We did everything together. He was exactly what I needed. You develop a different bond with an animal when it’s in your life at a certain time. As he aged, it was so difficult. I grew up on a farm and was never a stranger to things dying. But it was hard for me to fathom what I would do without him.
I live in the mountains between Golden and Boulder, Colorado. It’s a small cabin and was dilapidated when I bought it. I’ve done a lot of fixing up on it. I never thought a house would mean that much to me, but it has a lot of character and has definitely become a character in my life. I bought it when I was single. It was just me, Banjo, and the cabin. I was like ‘This is it. I can live forever here.’
I love feeding birds. My grandma fed birds. My mom is a big birder. It’s just kind of a tradition of the women in my family. Just watching birds outside my kitchen window, you can learn so much. You get this window into other species’ lives, which is important. Being aware of the natural world makes you feel more connected to it.
Jim Harrison’s influence on my work is very strong. His work was some of the first poetry I started reading. It really spoke to me. The themes of his work are similar to mine, from his rural childhood to the Western part of his adult life and hunting. I also really love Ted Kooser’s book and the book they wrote together, Braided Creek, is really beautiful. I don’t see my life in a lot of poetry, but I can so clearly identify with Harrison’s work.
The snow goose in my poem “Feather” was from my first- and only-time goose hunting. It was the only goose I shot. I don’t have a gun dog or waterfowl hunt. My friend invited us to hunt a property he had access to. I got home late at night and plucked the goose. My cats loved the plucking ordeal. I put some of the feathers into the compost bin and for half a week you’d see feathers in random places. Well, this one feather got stuck on a current brush right outside the kitchen window. It hung on all winter in the wind. That was the winter Banjo was 15. You could tell it was going to be his last winter. He had very white hair and the feather reminded me of it. I put those two ideas together for that poem.
I structured the book based on mountains and plains primarily based on how my years are structured. In the spring summer and early fall, I live in the mountains on the Front Range of Colorado. In the late fall and winter, I take a lot of trips to the eastern plains of Colorado. Those are the two areas from which these poems came out of.
I started writing this book a couple of years before Banjo died but was writing a lot of them in the year before he died. Poetry usually ramps up for me if I’m feeling really low. That’s when I produce better work.
I work at CU Boulder in electronic resources and access. One of the laws of library science is ‘save the readers time.’ That influences my work and is part of why I love poetry. It doesn’t need to be a certain word count. If you can say what you need to in three lines, that’s perfect.
I don’t remember what poem my favorite Jim Harrison line was in, but it goes like this: “Death steals everything but our stories.” I’ve always loved that. It makes writing seem so important when a lot of times it doesn’t, compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world.