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Junkyard Beauty: W. Joe Hoppe's new book Diamond Plate has working class roots

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austin photo: News_sept_2012_gentry joe hoppe diamond plate
Courtesy of Barnes & Noble

“I want to speak to people who haven't been spoken to, or spoken for,” says Austin poet W. Joe Hoppe.

For Hoppe, that means the poems in his newly released book Diamond Plate (Obsolete Press, $10.00) should appeal as much to the mechanics he grew up with in the Michigan Rust Belt as to his peers in the Austin poetry scene. Hoppe will read poems from Diamond Plate Wednesday at an Austin Community College event that is free and open to the public.

Having worked a bevy of blue collar jobs, actively participated in the punk poetry and ‘zine scene, converted to Buddhism, raised a son and joined the English faculty at Austin Community College, Hoppe gives off the impression of a man whose eclectic life has mellowed to a gentler rhythm. 

That rhythm is captured in his poems, which are succinct and quiet even when describing a world of garbage trucks and muscle cars.

“One of my favorite all-time quotes is by Goethe, who said, ‘All things perceived in their correct form are beautiful.’ It’s super easy to write about the moon or flowers, all those quote-unquote ‘poetic’ things. But let's go the junkyard — that's beautiful too.”

The poem “Junkyard Thaw” does just that. “Today’s adventure / finds me at the junkyard / where icicles give car grilles / vicious fangs,” he writes, capturing the surreal beauty of abandoned car parts in a section of the book called “The Persistence of Machines.”

Hoppe’s upbringing in Jackson, Michigan was not exactly conducive to an education in poetry. 

“Where I grew up young men weren't encouraged to do that kind of thing,” Hoppe says. “We were supposed to be more about engineering and stuff.”

Severe allergies kept him indoors much of the time, however. “I was a sickly kid,” he states matter-of-factly. Unable to explore the outdoors, Hoppe developed a love of books instead, devouring pulpy adventure tales and listening to his father read classics like Old Yeller. By the eighth grade, he was reading Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Written in made-up, Russian-inflected street slang, the book is not exactly easy reading.

He laughs. “I didn't know that there was a glossary in the back ’til I got to the end of the book, so I had to figure it all out myself. And I was pretty close!”

Hoppe says gender stereotypes and poor teachers (“I mean, literally on drugs, taking pills”) kept him far away from poetry until much later in life. 

Now, as a community college teacher, Hoppe’s own philosophy is influenced by his experience. “Young men who may have had an upbringing where you're not allowed to like poetry, or you've never been exposed to decent poetry, they're kind of my specialty.”

Accepted to the Michener Center for Writers on a fiction fellowship in 1994, Hoppe surprised himself by discovering a penchant for writing poetry there. He attributes some of this to his son Max, born around the same time.

“I got to stay home with him because I had a Michener fellowship. And the world didn't work in those long drawn out prose actions anymore. I had just little bits of time,” Hoppe says. “But it worked better with my world view and with my skills. I didn't have to worry about plot and movement over time, so much as just a single moment of clarity.”

Despite Hoppe’s background in open-mic poetry (pre-“slam” days), the poems in Diamond Plate aren’t Beat-style rants and rambles. Instead, they are cool, deliberate reflections on the interconnectedness of nature, man and machine, where you are just as likely to encounter a Galapagos tortoise as a cam shaft. 

Hoppe attributes the contemplative nature of his poetry in part to his Buddhist beliefs. “One great big idea that's very, very cool is interdependence, which you don't have to be a Buddhist to buy into. You know, the relationship between things.”

That relationship is captured perfectly in the title of the book. “Diamond plate” is the industrial metal regularly used for anti-skid walkways and truck running boards. Crosshatched with raised diamond shapes, the metal is, Hoppe says, as far from the “square-cut or pear-shaped” variety of diamond as you can get.

Yet, as anyone who knows who, like Hoppe, “grew up around the stuff,” it has a different kind of beauty, and this beauty is at the heart of Diamond Plate.

As a test, Hoppe brought his book to a meeting of the Mopar Muscle Cars of Austin, of which he is a member. “These guys are hard-core engineers,” he says, admitting that he felt “trepidatious.” 

“But they were really happy that their world was in a poem and in a book. And I felt very, very pleased and honored that they dug it. . . It’s a kind of people that should be honored and acknowledged, and things that should be honored and acknowledged.”

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