by Matt Heitland, former Fourteen Hills Asistant Poetry Editor
Ivan Hobson is a graduate of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University and is published in Fourteen Hills 18.2. He is also a fourth generation machinist, working with his dad in the two-employee shop his great-grandfather built in 1935. Metal working and family history have
guided his poetry towards the sparks and shadows. His poetry has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in publications including The Fourth River, South Dakota Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, and California Quarterly. He has been recently nominated for a Pushcart Award by Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment (Iowa State University).
When I first got to Ivan Hobson's machine shop, I felt like I was transported back to a friend's home in Iowa. Outside his shop there is a rusting 1950's GMC pickup truck, ancient tractor parts, and a stretch of railroad track that came from Carnegie Steel more than 100 years ago. The whole setting is a contrast to Oakland's Rockridge District, and felt pleasantly rural.
Fourteen Hills: We are kindred spirits in a way, poets who grew out of a blue collar environment. Your current work seems to have some roots in the historical narrative of your family. Do you try to stick to the truth of those events?
Ivan Hobson: One of the things I love about working in this space is that my family has been in this same spot for five generations now. I never met my great-grandfather, and my grandfather passed when I was five or six. This shop is where I'm able to have a relationship with them. The same bunker oil that poured over their hands on the turret lathe has poured over mine. Most of the tools I use are worn down from their hands. I stand where they stood. Those types of things comfort me, and tell me I'm home. That's where my poem "Our Machine Shop" came from.
In general I think there's a lot of historical truth in my poetry, but I enjoy wandering from the facts too. I often find myself searching for something that is closer to an emotional truth; that is something that speaks more to the spirit than to the memory.
FH: Can you talk a little more about truth and emotional truth?
Hobson: Sure. For me poetry is so much about exploration that it's important to stay flexible. Many times I have to go beyond what I simply remember as true. See how I'm holding this metal rod [picks up a 6" piece of metal rod], see how it springs back a little after I bend it? If I want to bend it to a forty-five degree angle, I have to go past forty-five degrees; I might have to go to fifty-five degrees and let it spring back. Emotional truth can be like that, going beyond the facts to get to a different type of truth.
I took Playwriting classes [at San Francisco State University] with Michelle Carter and Anne Galjour and that helped me write better poetry. Playwrights often talk about their characters arguing with them, or doing unexpected things that go against the writer's original intentions. I try to apply that philosophy to my poetry; I often let my poems fight back and take me somewhere unexpected. It's a way for me to take an emotional risk and get somewhere new.
FH: When I write, I try to keep in mind the men and women that I grew up with, and worked with later on the assembly line. Many of them were raising families and staring down mortgages. They always accepted me when I came back needing work, and they treated me fairly. I often try to capture that world, and write poems that they would want to read. Do you think of people when you write?
Hobson: For the most part I want my poetry to be accessible to everyone and that's a conscience decision; in many ways it's a class decision too. I think of my family, workers I've met and heard about along the way. The Bay Area has such a rich history of manufacturing, machining, shipbuilding, and unionization, that I'm drawn to the people who occupy, or have occupied that space.
FH: You told me your stepdad is a longshoreman in the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union]. Have you written a poem about [labor leader] Harry Bridges yet?
Hobson: I have not, but labor leaders like Harry Bridges and Maud Younger have done a lot for the entire Bay Area working class landscape. In many ways even though I'm not writing about them directly, I know they directly influence my writing, my paycheck, and the way I think about labor. I have a lot of love for the ILWU and its history; God bless them, and may we never forget the people who lost their lives on Bloody Thursday.
A lot of old timers used to come into the machine shop and visit with my dad. My poem, "The Patriot" is meant to honor them. Many of them were around 80 and worked at places like Bethlehem Steel [Alameda & San Francisco], and Caterpillar Tractor [San Leandro] before, during, and after WW2. I heard them repeatedly talk about all the local industry that had disappeared over the decades. My dad told me you could see it in the phone book; there used to be dozens of yellow pages filled with machine and production shops, now there's just two or three.
FH: We've spoken about the men in your family, but I know that you have been just as influenced by your mother and two sisters. Their influence on your exploration of gender identity and gender expectation can be seen in many of your poems. I think "Cutting his Teeth" is a great example of that.
Hobson: My parents divorced when I was three and it was hard going back and forth between their houses. I would go from a real masculine environment made up mostly of male machinists and my Great-Grandmother (who was about as tough as they come), to this really feminine environment that was controlled by my mom and two sisters. In a lot of ways I identify with both environments.
FH: You do a good job honoring those two worlds in your poetry.
Hobson: Thank you. As far as my poetry is concerned, I think the working class environment I came from always keeps gender identity and gender expectations on my mind; even as a kid I wanted to be a manly man, and I had an idea of what that looked and acted like. Fortunately my dad was open minded and respected me for me, so most of that pressure came from outside the home. I think every kid in America can feel the weight of gender expectations. I would encourage them to be who they want to be. I love seeing people express themselves the way they want to; I think it makes us all a bit freer. For a lot of my life I felt uncomfortable expressing my feminine side, so I hid it. Somewhere in my late 20s I started realizing it was an asset and strength, and that it was important to my personal growth and to my poetry.
FH: I know you are familiar with Carl Jung's anima and the animus, in regards to the masculine and feminine. Does that influence your work?
Hobson: It sure does. For me, I think it's important to explore the anima, the unconscious psychological qualities that men possess that stem from the women in their lives; to let her push against the internal and external gender expectations that often act as constraints. I not only want to feel comfortable with my own integrated masculine/feminine self, but I also want to continue the conversation on a larger scale through poetry. For me it's really a conversation about individual freedom. Jung said that the anima/animus is one of the primary sources of creativity.
FH: How does your anima find her way into your work?
Hobson: In a poem like "Cutting His Teeth," I think her spirit is pretty direct. In a poem like "Migrations" I think there's just enough of her to give a little contrast. I find a lot of butterfly images showing up in my poems, and often I think it's a representation of my anima poking her head up and saying hello, I'm here too.
FH: You've talked about accepting the feminine side of yourself and it coming to the surface in your poetry. In the same vein, Jung also spoke of shadows: unconscious aspects in the personality that the conscious ego doesn't often recognize in itself. In what ways do the shadows affect your writing, if they do at all?
Hobson: They do, but I never made that connection through reading Jung. I was close to finishing my MA in English and I was walking with [San Francisco State University poetry professor] Dan [Langton] when I asked him what I could do to become a better writer. He simply said "you need to go into the shadows." It took me a year or so to understand what he meant, but once I got it, my poetry improved.
FH: So what do you think he meant?
Hobson: For me it meant exploring and writing about the things that are uncomfortable and hidden, or things I intentionally put into the shadows to hide. I think bravely exploring the self, is the best way to put it. By no means have I mastered that, but I'm braver than I used to be.
FH: Did he give you any other advice that's helped?
Hobson: Dan's been a huge blessing to me, and no one has helped me with poetry as much as he has. One of my favorites is "Wake up, wash your face, and start writing, and if you don't feel like writing, wake up, wash your face, and start editing." Another Danism I really like is "You're either ten minutes or ten years from finishing a poem and you won't know which."
FH: How have you applied the discipline of your industrial craft to the craft of writing?
Hobson: I write around three hours a day and much of that time is honestly not that fun. In some ways I approach writing the same way I approach machining, it's something I know I have to practice in order to improve at. I think every writer has their own way of creating and managing time. Time spent writing is a personal thing and I think most writers can feel it when they're being lazy.
FH: Are there any other ways in which your craft of poetry mirrors your craft of machining?
Hobson: In machining there is a lot of reduction. Reducing metal and being precise about how you do it. I'm often working with metal tolerances that are in the thousandths of inches and that act of reduction influences my editing style. Not very often, but sometimes I have to remind myself to not reduce my poems too much.
FH: Let's talk about reduction. You have a Picasso print that you say really helped inform your approach to your writing process.
Hobson: Yeah, it's a lithograph series of eleven different bulls in a particular order. For a couple of years I thought the sketches went from simple to complex. I think when my own writing changed, I realized that the bulls actually went from complex to simple. The last bull in the series is seven lines that are absolutely essential to make the sketch of the bull; if you take one or two lines away you don't see a bull anymore. The print hangs above my fireplace and it acts as a type of guide on how to go from a rough draft to a finished poem.
Lately I've developed a new relationship with the print. I've started thinking about the white space around the bulls. I think the white, or empty space, around a poem is worth considering. Sometimes a poem is about what's there, and sometimes it's about what's not there.
FH: What are you working on now?
Hobson: I'm finishing a manuscript that explores relationships and history through a personal working-class lens. It's been good for me to get some of my own experiences, as well as other ones that have been told to me, down on paper. I'm not only trying to document some of what my family has been through, but some of what other American families have been through as well. In the end I want people to be able to read the book and think, hey some of that is part of my American experience too.