Reading Erin Coughlin Hollowell’s first poetry collection, “Pause, Traveler,” is like sipping single malt Scotch whisky, with its complicated and subtle tastes. Seasoned in New York and then matured in Alaska, the palate of her poetry evokes the nature writing of Robert Frost, the simplicity of Marianne Moore, the metaphors of Hart Crane, the imagery of Ezra Pound and the pure delight in language of Walt Whitman.
“If you go all the way back, like when I was young, I read Yeats,” Hollowell said when told of the analogy. “That list could go on forever.”
Hollowell, 47, reads at 5 p.m. Sunday at Bunnell Street Arts Center with another poet that could go on that list, her mentor and editor, Peggy Shumaker. Both poets will have books on sale, with refreshments by Maura’s Café.
“Her fingerprints are in there,” Hollowell said of Shumaker’s influence on her collection. “You take those things and make them your own, which I think is the beauty of waiting to get your master of fine arts, because now you’ve waited to make them your own.”
It’s no accident that “Pause, Traveler,” comes out at a stage in Hollowell’s life where a few gray hairs appear in her wild mane of curly brown hair. Most of the poems are from her master of fine arts thesis she did for the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, which she completed in 2009. After graduating from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., in 1988, she applied for the MFA writing program there. A professor told her she wasn’t ready for an MFA.
“That was before I had apprenticed myself to writing. He was right,” Hollowell said of that professor. “In order to get something out of a master of fine arts program, you have to have lived enough and read enough to have something to write about.”
Born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., Hollowell said that since early childhood she had written poetry. At age 8 she became more serious, digging into William Butler Yeats, for example. At Pennsbury High School in Levittown, Pa., where she lived for a time, she was poet laureate. She also was editor of her high school literary magazine.
“I took myself seriously,” Hollowell said. “I read poetry and actively sought it out and tried to write it better.”
At Cornell, she started out intending to be a biomedical engineer, because her father thought she should do something that would make money. That lasted less than a year.
“But only because my freshman seminar teacher said, ‘You’re not an English major. You should be an English major.'”
She did so, graduating with a bachelor of arts in English with a concentration in creative writing. She also got a teaching certification through Wells College. After college she taught high school for six years in Syracuse and Cortland, N.Y.
It was through John Crowley’s novel, “Little, Big,” that she met her future husband, Glenn Hollowell, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Little, Big” is their favorite book, and they met through an online chat group while she still lived in Syracuse.
Erin moved to Homer in February 2000, and married Glenn in December. She worked at the Homer Bookstore and the Homer Public Library. She moved to Southeast Alaska when Glenn got jobs in Ketchikan and later Cordova, working as program director for the Ketchikan Arts and Humanities Council and as a high school English teacher in Cordova. The Hollowells returned to Homer in 2011.
Like many Alaska immigrant writers, Alaska helped open up her writing, Hollowell said.
“Alaska gave me the mental and physical space to write, to really apprentice yourself to time to write every week and systematically read,” she said.
Hollowell decided the time was right to get an MFA when she went to the Sitka Symposium a few years back. She had submitted a batch of poems for review by the poet David Lee and he asked her where she had gotten her MFA. She told him she didn’t have one, and he said she should get an MFA.
“That’s when I started thinking seriously about it again,” Hollowell said.
Rainier Writing Workshop is a low-residency program, where students visit every year for a short residency and then go home to work on their writing. Hollowell studied with Shumaker and the poet Fleda Brown. Professors correspond with students about their work. Hollowell now is an adjunct instructor at Kachemak Bay Campus, where she taught poetry writing last year and assists with the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference.
Before moving to Homer, Hollowell attended that conference starting in 2009 and has been every year since.
“Pause, Traveler” is the translation of the Latin phrase “siste viator,” a slogan the ancient Romans put at crossroads and roadside tombs. Its rough story arc is of a journey from New York to Alaska. Some poems are semi-autobiographical while others are fabricated to fit the structure. Hollowell, who organized the Tim O’Brien Big Read event this winter in Homer, is a big fan of O’Brien’s concept of “story truth.”
The last section is the Alaska section, even though the word “Alaska” doesn’t appear in the poems. Alaskans will recognize the images in a poem like “Boreal Reveal,” about the northern lights, with the lines “the light gathers together / writhing for your pleasure” and “the swirl of mysterious skirts.”
Officially, “Pause, Traveler” has a June 1 release date, but it’s already on sale at the Homer Bookstore and other bookstores. Hollowell did a reading at the Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles with Shumaker and fellow Homer poet Eva Saulitis. She’ll read elsewhere in Alaska for the Alaska Literary Series in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
For more on Hollowell, visit her websites erincoughlinhollowell.com and her poetry and writing blog, beingpoetry.net.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.