John “Jack” Hopper is your newest Tompkins County Poet Laureate. (Yes, for those of you who just arrived, this county has its own poet laureate. Broome County does too; it’s not that weird.) Hopper, a Philadelphia native, moved to Ithaca in 2005. His most recent collection of poetry is Doubles: Poems 1995-2012, from Cayuga Lake Books, a publishing venture Hopper runs jointly with Edward Hower and Peter Fortunato. His other books of poetry are Miscellany (1962) and The Ympes of Wanton Youthe (1994). We sat down with Hopper to talk about his writing, his publishing, his role as poet laureate, and characters and places he has known.
Ithaca Times: So how do you spend your days as a poet?
Jack Hopper: I still edit for AMS Press part-time. We do a lot of things you see in libraries, but not in bookstores. It’s humanities, social studies, the Dickens studies annual, Spencer studies, studies in medieval and Renaissance history. All written by professors for their 10 best friends and their mother. But now that I’m retired, I’ve turned my full focus on poetry, which I’ve always been interested in and been writing.
IT: How did you end up in Ithaca, anyway?
JH: My wife and I used to come here in the summers, and everyone always say ‘Wait till you see this place in the winter.’ For the last nine years it’s been mild, but this year … I bought a house over in Fall Creek, knowing nothing about Fall Creek. It turns out I have this gorge on one side and the falls on another. And these incredibly good neighbors, and that’s the whole town. It’s amazing. I seem to have just walked into it, and it’s been such an adventure for me. And you know how busy for a small city this is, it’s like Manhattan shrunk. I’ve made more friends in eight or nine years that I had in 20 years in New York.”
IT: Tell me about your publishing venture, Cayuga Lake Books.
JH: Edward Hower said he was sick and tired of traditional publishers, and the rejection letters that he’d been getting. He said he wants to start a press of his own, so he can make his own rules. And he asked me to join and another poet, Peter Fortunato, and it’s been a little over two years and we’ve done seven books. We’re more agents than publishers. It’s what used to be called vanity publishing, but we don’t use that word except in very small print. We walk people through who might have had stuff sitting around forever, but it was good and they had a talent. If the three of us like it, that’s the hitch. The three of us have to get together on it, and we show them who to go to, who to use as a publisher, as a jobber. We arrange readings for them, we arrange interviews.
Just as an example, we have an English lady well into her 80s, who came over here during World War II as a small child on a boat that zigzagged across the ocean ducking U-boats. They fired at her, and they almost brought the ship down. She had all this written up in poetry, it’s beautiful stuff. Ann Day is her name. These are people who say, ‘You want to publish me, really?’ Yes, you’re good.”
IT: What are you supposed to do as Tompkins County poet laureate?
JH: I’m not quite sure officially what they are. It’s more of an honorary thing. It means a bunch of people like your poetry, so you’re the poet laureate of this town. I think it’s pretty well laid out by the people who preceded me. They may have classes, or get people together at Lifelong—I’ve noticed at readings that there’s always a coterie of old ladies, mainly, and some old gentlemen, too, and they’re really excited, really listening. They have intelligent questions afterwards. I’d love to tune into these guys. Spreading the word of community. I’ve read out at the library in Trumansburg, and they have a whole program that people turn out for. That sounds like exposure for me, but it’s exposure for somebody else, because I’d share the podium with someone with whom I feel a certain kinship.
IT: What drew you into writing?
JH: When I came out of college I was drafted into the Army. Just after the Korean war, or police action. And I got sent to Paris, I don’t know how, pure luck. And I was there for 16 months or so, and then I came home, did a quick turn and went right back. I stayed there for two years, writing the Great American Novel, hah, and having a helluva lot of fun. And writing a lot. Writing more and more became meeting people over there, and truly involved, it spurred me on. I pursued it when I came back, started a magazine (called Works). We published 14 issues. It was good—paid contributors, which is unusual.”
IT: Any good stories from your time in Paris?
JH: Seeing Burroughs was good. I was taken to see him by a good friend of mine who was a French writer and translator. We went up to his hotel room and knocked on his door, and immediately you could hear this (tapping)—the paraphernalia being put away. ‘Come in,’ with his rapsy cigarette-laced voice. And he was the sweetest guy in the world. He was always the nicest person, the couple times I met him, in New York in his bunker on the Bowery.”
IT: And you spent some time at Time magazine?
JH: I worked there for exactly one year. My girlfriend at the time was working in a gallery, and she quit her job the same day. And the rest was history. It was political—they were still under the thumb of the Luce family. Every Thursday when the issue would come in, I’d throw it the length of the office. And the guys I’d work with would say ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ After a year I went to this wonderful old guy who was our boss, Alex, and said ‘Alex, I’ve got to go.’ He immediately offered me a pay raise and a new job. And I said, ‘Nope, I’ve got to go’—I had lunch with my girlfriend, and that was more important.
Hopper’s website: johnhopperauthor.com