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The Discipline of Hope: An Interview with Dawn Morrow

Earlier this year, I read and loved Dawn Morrow’s poetry book The Habit of Hope. The poems are profound and honest in a way that’s easily accessible—Dawn writes “for people who don’t like poetry.” The collection weaves together poems about family and growing from childhood to adulthood. The refrain throughout the book is hope, but the poems never shy away from the reality of suffering.

I was excited to speak to Dawn about the collection, her writing process, and practicing hope amidst despair. I called her during the delightful juxtaposition that is her evening commute, beginning at FBI Headquarters (where she runs all of the medical and psychological services at the FBI) and ending at a dance studio (where she takes lessons at West Coast Swing).

Caitlin Coats: I love that you say that you write poems for people who think they don’t like poetry. How does that guide or inform the kinds of poems that you write? Does it change anything at all, or does that kind of come naturally?

Dawn Morrow: I think it comes naturally because that was me for a long time. If you’d asked me eight or nine years ago if I liked poetry, I would have been like, “Absolutely not.” I still remember reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I wanted to die twice. It was terrible. I thought poetry was all of these secrets. I thought you had to have secret knowledge to understand what was going on, so I was out on poetry.

And that’s really because of the canon that we teach high schoolers. At least when I was in high school, it was all the classic canon. Very few women. Very few people of color. Very little contemporary stuff. So that was my understanding of the world of poetry.

That was true, until I heard Andrew Peterson during a Hutchmoot seminar read “Adam’s Choice” by Jeanne Murray Walker. And I was like, “I love that, and also, I could have written that.” I’d written some poems before, but I wouldn’t have called myself a poet. That was the first time when I heard something that sounded like my own writing voice in a poem. So that really shaped the way I write poems. 

I'm super interested in those liminal spaces and those thresholds between the dark and the turning point of the story. All of that informed what I was writing toward—how I’ve thought about hope, and how I’ve written about hope. Dawn Morrow

A lot of times when I’m writing, I think of an old boss I had here who’s a law enforcement officer. And when she had a bad day, she would text me and say, “Send me a poem.” So I always wrote with her in mind.

The Habit of Hope. How did you land on that title? It’s a great title for a poetry collection. I’m curious if there’s a story behind it, or if you just found that after you had finished the poems that title felt right.

My book actually started out as my grad school thesis, and it was titled Family Stories. My intention was to tell the stories of my family, and then 2020 happened. As I was turning out a lot of work for this book, I was in the middle of DC as COVID was happening. I was in the middle of all the protests. I was in the middle of all the January 6th stuff, and all the stuff that happened coming up around the election. And I was living in the second perimeter, which meant you couldn’t enter where I live without credentials of some sort that said you should be there. It was crazy.

So I started writing a little bit broader across the spectrum. In my book, there are not overtly COVID poems but definitely ones that were colored by that time. There are overtly protest poems in there. One is called “June 1 2020.” And that’s part of the change of the tenor of the book. 

At some point, I realized there was a kind of pulse through the book where I would have a lot of darker poems, and then there would be this kind of bright spot. So it felt to me like hope was the heartbeat of the collection. That’s kind of where the title came from. I love the idea of practicing hope—that it is something we return to in a focused, determined, disciplined way.

What does practicing hope look like to you? Is part of that writing poetry?

It is, but I think it’s more about being able to tell our story. And I think it’s revisiting the places where God showed up—where there is that bright spot in the midst of all this darkness. Those are my favorite parts of the Bible. I’m super interested in those liminal spaces and those thresholds between the dark and the turning point of the story. All of that informed what I was writing toward—how I’ve thought about hope, and how I’ve written about hope. 

There are a lot of dark and vulnerable moments in your collection. As a reader, it was a gift to read these moments that are dark and painful, but honest. But I can imagine that as the writer of these really vulnerable poems, that might be a different experience. So I’m curious, how was that experience of sharing the dark moments? Was it ever a question of how much to put in these poems? A couple of the poems even seem to touch on that experience of writing and figuring out how much to share when your emotions are fresh.

The poetry isn’t necessarily nonfiction. While a lot of my stuff is either biographical or kind of rooted in some part of my story, it’s not always fully true. Some of it is other people’s stories that I heard and wove together. Some of it feels a little bit more personal than it is. That being said, there are a lot of personal stories in there that are exactly out of my experience. So there’s one that talks about Christmas and my mother dying a little more every day. And that story is fully autobiographical, down to decorating the Christmas tree that sat next to her as she died. So I think for every story that’s an amalgamation of other people’s stuff, there’s one or two that are really mine.

But sharing those moments never bothered me. I kind of removed myself from that until I published the book because I never thought people would read this book. Until my boss’s boss came up to me, and he was like, “Hey, I read your book. It’s great.”

And I thought, “Oh, wow, I feel really awkward now.” There are people that I work with now and that I’ve worked with before that have all read my book. And that turns out to be weirder than I thought it would be. You get used to it after a while. And I chose to put those poems in the book, knowing they would be read. I think I just didn’t think about that in real life, what that would be like. So it got a little awkward. Now I’m kind of over it because it’s out there now. 

I also had readers who got the first copies of the book before it was really on sale. So that helped to ease into it. Pete [Peterson] and Jennifer [Trafton] actually, were some of my first readers. And they both called and texted with these super encouraging messages. It made it worth the cost of putting myself out there.

Going back to that idea of hope. I’m curious if you chose to include those dark moments as a way to bring about more opportunities to encounter hope. That was my experience of reading, so I’m curious if that was intentional.

I don’t know. I think a lot of things in poetry are happy accidents. I see where you get it, but I didn’t mean to do that. It was just accidental. That was something that turned into something else, but I think that’s what poetry does.

I think every dark poem in that collection is a message that says you’re not alone. In every part of your story, you’re not alone. You’re not the only one out there, and I don’t think we tell those stories enough. I think we love to live in this happy, whitewashed Instagram life—especially as the church—and we don’t tell those stories. A lot of times we tell stories that end happily ever after, and the reality is that most of us are in the middle of the story. So I think every story or poem that I have is an invitation to hope. It means that you’re not alone.

That’s all I want is for a poem to tell me that I’m not alone, and your poems definitely do that for me. They’re really, really beautiful. This could be a stressful question, but do you have any other projects in the works?

I do! I actually have another poetry book in the works. The working title is Dancing Lessons. It’ll probably change three times before I get to the end, but that’s kind of the working title.

This last book was a lot about disconnection and figuring out where you fit. The next book will be the opposite of that, so it’s about embodiment and connection. Which is also the power behind partner dance, which is what I do. My dancing teacher tends to say things like, “You just need to dance your own dance.” And I’m like, “Hey that’s a little too close! Get out of my soul!”

There’s a whole series of poems right there. 2025 is probably when those will come out, if I pick up my writing speed.

You can order a copy of The Habit of Hope from the Rabbit Room store now.


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