River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 5.2 (2004) 129-142
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"We Were Such a Generation"—Memoir, Truthfulness, and History
An Interview with Patricia Hampl
Sheyene Foster Heller
Patricia Hampl is the author of several books of nonfiction, including the memoirs A Romantic Education, Virgin Time, and, most recently, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. All three were New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and I Could Tell You Stories was a National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalist. She has received MacArthur, Fulbright, Ingram Merrill, Guggenheim, Bush, and NEA fellowships. A long-time poet, her books include Spillville and Woman Before an Aquarium. Hampl's writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, New York Times Book Review, Ploughshares, Antaeus and Kenyon Review. Her next book, The Silken Chamber, an exploration of the odalisque figure in Western art, is due for release in 2004. Hampl is Regents' Professor at the University of Minnesota where she teaches both poetry and prose.
SHELLE BARTON: You started your career as a poet and then moved into writing nonfiction with A Romantic Education. I'm curious about what the difference is in process for you as a writer, since you work in several genres, and what you bring at the outset to a poem versus an essay versus a short story.
PATRICIA HAMPL: In a way I started as a poet and a journalist because I made my living as a journalist. That's often lost because there's no book, but that was my daily life, so that I had those two pieces of the puzzle. I never took a prose-writing course in school. I was signed up in the Writer's Workshop at Iowa, so I was a poet and they didn't let you cross over. If you said you were a poet, then you had to write in those funny lines. You couldn't switch. But when I started writing nonfiction, memoir, and the [End Page 129] kind of prose that I'm better known for, I didn't really feel that much difference at the heart of it. At the real center of the enterprise, I felt like they were rather similar but that the requirements of my inquiry demanded that I go into long prose rather than something having to do with the genre itself. In other words, when you think about it, a lot of people's first books of poetry—like mine—are autobiographical. They're very much about using the self as an investigator or as a voice for what you see out there: my grandma, my grandpa, my mom, my dad. And really it has to do not just with what happened to me, when that "I" happens in the poetry, but about the consciousness that's taking in the world. So really the move from poetry to memoir wasn't this big leap; it was this very small turning of the angle of attention. It let me do things that the poem typically doesn't let a person do. The difference has to do with the way you want to go about writing something, rather than something intrinsic about the material. I still feel the heart of things for me is the poetic impulse, or the lyric impulse, even though I'm maybe not writing as many poems.
The question of fiction is another one altogether. I think the relationship between poetry and the kind of nonfiction we're talking about is small. The leap between those two forms and fiction is maybe a little more significant because you really are allowing yourself to be more synthetic. You're allowing yourself to take pieces of puzzles and put them together not where they fit exactly but to make a whole new puzzle. Even though memoir and the novel are both the same thickness on the book—they're both in chapters...