Alli Warren was born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Fernando Valley. She attended the University of California, Santa Cruz. Since 2005, she has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The author of many chapbooks, including Grindin', Acting Out, Well-Meaning White Girl, and Cousins, she formerly co-curated The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand, has contributed to SFMOMA's Open Space, and presently co-edits the Poetic Labor Project. Her first trade collection is Here Come the Warm Jets, published by City Lights Books.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m trying to take the emergence of Here Come the Warm Jets in stride, maybe in the way one feels glad about keeping a houseplant alive, or sharing in the pleasures of friends at a party. Holding the book in my hands and seeing it in bookstores gives me a tingly feeling, but not all tingles are warm & squishy, some itch. I’m happy that I now have a “first book,” and get to see the ways its making a way in the world, while I also remember that there are so many writers who deserve to be and yet are not published. What I’ve become profoundly aware of in the publication process is that the most important thing is the work, whether that work appears in my own personal journal, a photocopied magazine, a small-run chapbook, or a perfect bound book. It’s interesting to experience the book industry come alive in ways that chapbook publication doesn’t incite. Which, as a lover of chapbooks, seems strange to me. The publication of my first chapbook, Schema – in 2004 by Stephanie Young under the Oakland imprint House Press – was in some ways more “life-changing” than the publication of Here Come the Warm Jets. I was 20 years old, just starting to become friends with poets in the Bay Area while still going to school at UC Santa Cruz, and the fact that someone wanted to publish my work and distribute it to other poets without embarrassment felt like a real coup. I’ve been lucky enough since then to have a chapbook published every few years, so I’ve felt embraced by poetry communities, and haven’t had to deal with publishing anxiety. That initial hug has kept me going, and Jets feels like just another instance of my poetry life of total luck. What’s that song, the first cut is the deepest?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve been unfortunately blessed with a horrible memory, and I’ve been writing poetry as long as I can remember. As a wee thing, I never read much fiction at all (and still don’t), so I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to write it. Non-fiction, on the other hand, has always attracted me, and since penning it hasn’t come naturally, I’ve learned to think of piling one well-constructed sentence atop another as a skill one really has to work hard at, and possibly get some training in. Poetry’s peas comparatively. Maybe I’ve come to poetry through laziness? Poetry of course also gives me a particular kind of joy, as a writer and reader, and anyone who loves it knows that inarticulable feeling great poetry gives the guts, heart and brain meat. I got my first dose of that early on, and haven’t been able to quit since.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m terribly slow, and not really a project person. If spirits are kind to me, a poem can arrive all dressed up and ready to go the big dance, but mostly my poems take some honing. Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but I enjoy editing, and feel most like a poet when making decisions about a poem’s minutia. All those decisions, which can really start to pile up, enact a kind of poetics that the initial hearing-feeling-writing doesn’t (at least consciously) involve.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m a fan! Preparing for readings helps me finish poems and think of them as a collective group. Directing my attention towards a material space where I will stand before an audience and offer my voice as a performer helps me know the work differently. I can begin to see where the poem is working best and where it falters. Readings are also a chance to see how peers and/or strangers react to the work, and to either feel cheered by an enthusiastic response, or discouraged but committed to think through poems that didn’t seem to go over well. Readings in interesting settings are where we have the chance to feel what poetry can do when it’s alive in a room or in public space out of doors, and how powerful that experience can be, for all participants. I get disappointed when I go to a reading and see poetry performed seemingly with no sense of how it can and cannot hold a room, when the poet seems oblivious to (or what is worse, dismissive of?) the potentials and potencies of performance.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The concerns in my writing are the same concerns I have in my life. I’m not sure they’re strictly theoretical – they feel very material, and these realms of course inform one another. I’m concerned with love and death, with capitalism and history, with political-economics and ethics and aesthetics. I’m concerned with daily struggles and systemic problems, for myself, and for my loved ones and comrades, those I know personally and those I can imagine, in the past, present, and future. I’m concerned about what to do and how to behave. The poems certainly don’t provide answers, but maybe they articulate some of the grasping, the desire.
6 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
If by writer we mean poet, poets seem largely ignored by the larger USAmerican culture (I’m speaking here about my context. I suspect (and hope!) poets play more of a role in other cultures). Poetry seems to enter most lives, if at all, in classroom and ceremonial contexts. I’m not sure how poetry could come to play a wider role if USAmerican culture itself remains under-read and exhausted by the daily work of production and reproduction, so that there seems not a scrap of time left for the “leisure” of poetry. So if poets want to have a larger role in culture, we’ll have to change culture, which will mean changing the underlying political-economic structures to which it is tied, which can’t be done by poets alone or through poetry itself. Surely poetry is a tool, and it’s powerful not least because it is ancient and globally common, but because it can also be a voice for those who otherwise have none, as well as a deeply affective way of articulating the simple fact that we are alive, and human, and angry and desirous and scared, especially when these expressive and resistant channels are so often blocked up. Poetry is one of the ways of struggling.
7 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The caveat here is that I’ve never really read Lacan and so this piece of advice comes to me third hand, via Badiou, in his book Ethics. In that book he describes how the field of “ethics” is necessarily tied to the political-economic system through which it emerged, and so it necessarily reflects the (racist & sexist) capitalist-liberalism embedded there. In trying to lay out a positive idea of what, coming after this, ethics might still offer us, Badiou references Lacan’s maxim, which is: do not give up on your desire.
8 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
As a reader, I’ve no trouble moving between poetry & critical prose, but as a writer, I wilt. Though I’d like nothing more than to be a good critical prose writer, I struggle with it, and watch in awe as others confidently express their difficult ideas articulately and succinctly. I’d love to learn that excellent New Narrative skill of writing about critical issues in the context of one’s own embodied life, embedding abstract ideas in the living breathing spaces where they after all belong. Which is maybe why I most respect writing that deftly avoids sinking under the weight of its own theoretical jargon, and aims to speak to a wider audience, a potentially revolutionary mass which, despite inequalities in education and access, can of course think about its own conditions just as powerfully as a trained professional. If a work is explicitly anti-capitalist in its content, it should also extend this stance to the works’ form and distribution.
9 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine, which is maybe why I write so little and so slowly. There is also of course the constant struggle to find enough time to write, given the full-time job, and the Bay Area events calendar, and the necessity of reproducing oneself (I don’t have a wife). If anyone out there would like to be my benefactor so that I no longer spend eight office hours wasting away in front of a computer while the daylight thrives outside, please do contact me!
10 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Conversations and correspondences with friends, books, music, dreams and barstools.
11 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My adopted home of Oakland? Ripe bud wafting in the air.
12 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of it. I need as much help as I can get. & they all feel interrelated to me, as they are ways of understanding the world – or systematizing ways of thinking about it – so it seems no stress to collide them. They already co-exist.
13 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel more. Learn languages. Make music. Do some drugs. Bodybuild. Overcome fear (YOLO, etc.). Live outside the U.S. Sleep less. Love more.
14 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Given that poets are rarely paid for writing poetry, most of us do have other occupations, no? I’d say there’s not so much free will involved in selecting an occupation, given that we are compelled to house, feed, and clothe ourselves, and the post-war boom is long gone and not coming back. Simply finding a job and a roof is no small task, given the precarity of labor, never-ending waves of austerity, and relentless gentrification.
But it’s also true that the focus and intensity of the writing life for me has replaced or usurped from the first any other career goals I might have had. What has worked for me thus far is that the way I pay rent impedes as little as possible on my life outside work. & if these same means also offer me some sense of stability without making me completely miserable, then I’m doing okay.
That said, I have fantasies about learning a trade. A carpenter, a gardener, a barber, etc. I’ve always wanted to deliver the mail, which would allow me to whistle in the sunshine and visit with housewives, but I hear you have to toil in the dens to work up to that no-longer-flush government gig.
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