Jack Hopper with his new book

“Jack Hopper is alive and, well, in Ithaca...”

Jack Hopper – the well-travelled, one-time two-term poet laureate of Tompkins County – and I had set up plans to meet Monday afternoon, but for a few hours that morning, this writer was left unsure it was going to happen. Like “sliding into second base” (until reality struck, he joked) Hopper had taken a spill on the sidewalk over the weekend and on Sunday afternoon, he informed me he was to meet with his orthopedist right before the meeting in order to get a full cast on.

“Let me know when you could sit down with me and I'll get right back to you,” he wrote. “Well, left to you: it's my good right arm, dammit!”

But reliably, Hopper, now in his eighties, came through – albeit a half-hour late.

I’d had a copy of his latest book, “Rafting The Medusa” sitting on my desk the past week and, thumbing through a few pages, was struck by the imagery of the prose inside; language that whisked you away to the shores of Monterey in ‘Dream Harvesters’ one moment, the streets of Paris the next, and alone in one’s room speaking hushed and rushed into the receiver in an episode from one chapter in the book simply titled ‘Sex and Fantasy.’ I wanted to know more of the construction of this latest collection and what he was trying to get across these past five years of work it highlights.

We talked for the better part of an hour, largely off-topic – bouncing between the wishiwashiness of the New York Times’ opinion pages, the infuriating compendium that is Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterpiece, ‘House of Leaves,’ the fragility of life and time. But what stuck out most was not what he was saying, but his seamless ability to switch phase from topic to topic and how easy he made it to keep up. Despite his arm being held up in a cast, Hopper was as animated as ever, gesturing about with the rising of his voice and, at the end of our interview, reflex got the best of him, and he forgot to reach out with the “good hand” to shake mine.

It wasn’t the ideal arc for an interview, but his answer to my first question – “how did you finally decide to organize all these thoughts of yours?” – should have gave me an indication of what to expect:

“Structure,” he said when asked how he describes his books, “is bullshit.”

Hopper will admit there is something different about his latest work, which the author said found him at the top of his form. While his last book – ‘Doubles’ – represented a seven year period of life-spanning reflections ending in 2012, ‘Rafting The Medusa,’ he said, approaches the world with a more honest eye, willing to embrace topics that, for his entire life, has been kept at bay by an arm’s length, always touched on but never fully explored to their greatest meaning. All of which is presented in language that is relatable, personable and most importantly, human.

“There’s too many poets in the world, and too few people who listen to it,” he said. “They just talk to each other. They write these poems and make all these magazines for each other. But what about the audience? The people driven away by some of my heroes, like Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot? They made it so exclusive. That’s something I’ve tried to break, even with my own attraction to it. That hermetic feeling about poetry – that it’s our stuff.”

In ‘Rafting The Medusa,’ Hopper is much more deliberate in where the words fall – intentional both in his narrative’s destination and the punchiness of his prose. He effortlessly alternates between reflections of lives past and present, efficiently painting the complete spectrum of his decades on earth – a story of love, lust, contradiction, confusion and contemplation shared by so many of us stumbling through the human experience. He relayed a story how, once, an editor told him in a rejection letter that his writing was “too opaque,” something he confesses stuck with him particularly close when writing this book. When he began writing it in 2013, he realized he’d come to a new chapter, this one without inhibitions and where Hopper, still, found himself with plenty left to say.

“All of the sudden in my life, I feel much more open about myself and the world,” Hopper said. “My mother’s dead, my wife is dead, and somehow all these things we never realize as restrictions at the time, like society, were gone. I’m still very much a member of society; I might not be marching all the time or tearing up the cobbles and throwing them, but I’m a lot more sympathetic to causes. Especially in this city. You’ve got to be. But this time… There was nobody holding me back from saying what I really wanted to say.”

And in his book, he travels the depth of his memory as deep as it can go, taking a scouring look into every dark corner of his brain both for the moments of levity and anxiety left untapped. There are poems about close friends living and dead. There are poems about family, and parched trips wandering lost down the Appalachian Trail. Another poem is just about those moments spent in the Wegmans parking lot, passing a few more seconds alone in one’s car with the radio on as the world rustles on around you. He talks about the past a lot too – life on the Lower East Side when “things were cheap” and sketches of his life in Paris, where he worked a while – but also the highlights of the places others may find mundane, like the scenes of an all night-diner and the ruminations of a mind left at a desk and to wander on its own devices.

“That’s what I love about poems… it might just be the brain house cleaning itself,” he said. “I think the junk that gets out is a part of you – it’s the dreamer being thrown away. You just have to grab it before it hits the sidewalk.”

The title of the book itself is not without significance in telling his story.

The Medusa was a French ship that went down with a few hundred people off the East African coastline in 1818, the demise of which was famously recorded in a painting by  Théodore Géricault, from which Hopper borrows the book’s name. The painter, in dark and heavy tones, depicts the emaciated few among the survivors who had managed to pull together a makeshift raft, where they floated for weeks without food or water, attempting to catch the attention of a passing ship in the darkness – a dire situation he contrasts with an innocent, early memory from his youth.

“When I was a kid – about five or six – my parents had a farm on the Shamonee Creek and when my father was away, my mother and her brother would take the door off the barn and put it into the creek,” he remembers. “He couldn’t swim, and I was too young, but we would take the raft down the creek as far as we could, until the current got too strong. And my mother, she would pull the raft back up the creek. In my poem, that raft is this sort of metaphor. We’re all Rafting the Medusa; pulling our way through life.”

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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