Allison Adair’s first collection, The Clearing, was selected by Henri Cole as winner of Milkweed’s Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, and ZYZZYVA; and her work has been honored with the Pushcart Prize, the Florida Review Editors’ Award, the Orlando Prize, a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, and first place in the Fineline Competition from Mid-American Review. Originally from central Pennsylvania, Allison teaches at Boston College and Grub Street.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing The Clearing didn’t necessarily change my life. I still work the same hours, make dinner, wipe the counters. I still sit down to write and fuss and fuss, still struggle to find time to write – so those daily things haven’t changed. But the opportunity to connect to other writers and readers has been staggering. Creative collaboration is incredibly sustaining, and having a book can make that more possible. And when a reader reaches out to say they’ve read and connected to something I’ve written, it makes all the late nights and obsessive tweaks feel worthwhile. Being lucky enough to have published with the incredible folks at Milkweed has helped The Clearing reach a wide audience, and – especially during the pandemic – I’ve been so grateful for the resulting sense of community.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Ha! I didn’t! I thought I would write fiction! I loved prose and wanted to write short stories and novels, but in college I couldn’t lottery my way into any of the prose workshops. I decided to try my hand at poetry “in the meantime” – I told myself that poetry’s emphasis on imagery and efficiency would help my prose…which it might have, had I ever returned to it. But I was hooked on poetry as soon as I started reading more contemporary work, and once I realized what a raw and glorious gamble a poem is. Poems shoot the moon. Not all hit, but the ones that do – there’s nothing like it.
I do still write nonfiction prose, and I’m very interested in hybrid essays. I had a great time writing this one for Lit Hub and would love to try my luck more with this genre-of-the-between.
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?
Poems’ processes vary for me. Of the poems in The Clearing, some tumbled out fully formed. “Ways to Describe a Death Inside Your Own Living Body” took maybe ten minutes to write. Maybe less. It was inside me and needed nothing more than a valve to land on the page. “Memento Mori: Bell Jar with Suspended Child” was a different story. It was originally about ten lines long – really just the opening image of an old Victorian glass dome with a landscape made out of a dead child’s hair. A year or so later, I revised it into a sonnet; then I realized the poem was resting in what it knew vs. striving for what it could discover – so I decided to try pushing it toward a long poem, sustaining it over many sections and pages. From start to finish, with several months-long breaks in between, that poem took probably three years as it found itself. Each poem requires its own line of inquiry and its own fresh methods, at least for me; and that’s something I love about poems – the constant reinvention. “Flight Theory” took several months, too. The long-line contrapuntal form required tiny syntactical articulations. But again, each poem teaches its writer so much about how to build a form unique to that poem’s utterance.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The poems in The Clearing were written with no book
or larger project in mind. I admire books that have a kind of project coherence
– Leila Chatti’s excellent Deluge
comes to mind as one example – but I haven’t yet worked that way, with a primary
driving theme or focus. So far, I’m working poem by poem. When I start a single
poem, almost anything can be the impetus, but more often than not it’s an image
– something that riles or disturbs or provokes me, that has some note of
tension. Last week I was sitting on a bridge where two brothers were recently,
and tragically, swept away at high tide, to their deaths. As I sat there, a
garnet vase full of sunflowers, placed in memorial and by then partially dry,
blew over in the sea breeze. Just beyond the vase, about twenty kids took turns
jumping off the same bridge the brothers had jumped. It was the most beautiful, sunny day, as if nothing bad would ever come for any of us on that bridge. How can all these things be true at once – the imperative of joy, the loss, the danger, the carefree sun? The truth in that paradox felt like a beginning, all sparked by a single snapshot image.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings energize me, whether I am a reader or an attendee. Poetry’s music comes to life in a completely new way in a live performance, and the reader can experiment with different “versions” of a poem, which I love. The intimacy of a live public reading is also so special. Recently I read with another poet at a bookstore in New York, and someone in the audience said she’d been waiting for her movie to start next door, so she wandered over to the bookstore where we were reading. She figured she’d kill some time there, but found herself so taken in by the poems that she forgot all about the movie and ended up skipping it to stay with us through the end of the event – Q&A and all. Talk about affirming! I’ve thought about this woman often since then when I’ve sat down to write. I’d like to write poems for her and people like her – people willing to be wooed by the word, even if they simply stumble into a poem.
6 - 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?
My poems’ questions
might fall under an umbrella of seeking truth – but don’t all poems do that? I
find disruption worthwhile, and what I call “estrangement” – defamiliarizing things
I think I know, things we think we know. I enjoy establishing and then
questioning a premise. That exercise in challenging otherwise widely accepted
premises feels vital right now. Most of my poems probably prioritize expressive
craft over theoretical concerns, though I am very interested in narrativity and how sequencing can alone create a kind of commentary.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There are so many possible roles to be played by writers in the culture at large, including as-yet unprescribed roles and roles that will become clear only in retrospect. I wouldn’t limit it to one – though I do think an especially critical role is cultural archivist. If we don’t preserve the nuanced truth, who will? Poets do that so well, embracing the paradoxes and very human “honest duplicity” that go well beyond the quick soundbites of the day.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors I’ve worked with have generally been both generous with their time and creativity and gracious in terms of leaving final decisions up to the poet – so I would say that it’s rarely difficult and more often a great gift.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A few lines from Dean Young’s excellent poem “Faculty Summary Report” rattle around in my mind constantly: “Ping ping go the dancers, ding ching the pistons,/ kaboom the clouds but what is it the heart goes?/ Are we trying to get the tangible to shimmer// or the intangible shimmer to be like wet grass/ to push our faces in? Just try being a window/ and not taking a hammer to yourself.” So simple, but such a challenge: grace – in art, in writing, in relationships.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Essays can’t accommodate the same high level of conspicuous artifice – the language- and music-level indulgences that we love so much in a poem; so unless the essay is clearly experimental, it needs to be anchored in a more traditional way. Trying to maintain that obligation while still breaking enough rules to keep a piece fresh is part of the appeal, like a combination of tradition and innovation. For me, it’s a challenge not to overwrite an essay, to over-ornament. On the other hand, it’s so lovely to be able to say something more straightforwardly and to experiment with more breathing room than my poems tend to allow.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Most of my day revolves around tasks unrelated to writing, or around others’ writing – such as the writing of my students. My own preferred routine is to begin writing around 12:30 a.m., once everyone is tucked in and the apartment is all mine, though I’m not convinced this practice is sustainable. My day almost never begins with writing. I do enjoy reading in the morning, when I have the chance; I feel really fresh as a reader early in the day. But for writing, I find that fatigue works for me, strangely. The surreal feels logical, and I tend to get out of my own way a little bit more.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My main crutch is hyper-realistic detail. I never really feel writer’s block, basically because anytime it begins to creep in, I shift the focus to an image so that the powers of observation begin to build tension toward some new conflict or question. I never tire of writing about place, and of course reading some of my favorite poets always helps to get me back on track! Tiana Clark. Edgar Kunz, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, John Murillo, and so many more can be counted upon to jumpstart my work whenever I need a boost.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
This might exist between a few senses, rather than being anchored in fragrance only, but the smell of slightly rotting old leaves brings me right back to one of my childhood homes, in Gettysburg. There’s also a very particular scent to well water that I associate strongly with a different house, once we moved to a different town when I was older.
14 - 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?
Liza Lou’s beaded installations have had a great impact on my work – their meticulous detail,
painstaking labor, the brilliance of the effect in conversation with the tedium
of the process, all of it. Doris Salcedo’s eerie furniture sculptures are
another influence. How can a chair be infused with the body that sat on it? The
way Salcedo’s work requires three-dimensional, face-to-face engagement is inspiring: Cathy Park Hong had a great essay about Salcedo in POETRY a few years ago.
I’m also a huge, life-long rap fan. The intricate braided rhymes of 90s New
York rap are often on my mind when I’m embedding sonic patterning in my poems,
as are the chewy, springy vowels of Third Coast artists, especially those from
New Orleans and Houston.For me, these influences translate to choices of Latinate or Saxon sounds as expressive beyond denotative meaning, and I love that stuff, like the differences between slough and scrub or crunch and chew, etc. Those choices feel like huge opportunities for toning and shading.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town has become a writing bible of sorts for me. I love Dean Young’s collection First Course in Turbulence, and CD Wright’s String Light, especially Wright’s poem “More Blues and the Abstract Truth.” Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought” is perfection, and I turn to it often. The pacing and ending of John Murillo’s “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Some Species of Birds” are a master class in poetry. (How in the world does this poem manage to land and to take off at the same time?)
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Writing-wise, I would love to complete a book of essays, and I’d be very interested in trying my hand at writing song lyrics or a libretto. I also aspire to write more joyful and humorous poems, as those modes are huge parts of my world, not always reflected in my poems. Life-wise, I would love to travel to Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats!
17 - 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?
Before I went to grad school to study poetry, I had tentatively lined up work in Northern Irish politics. If I weren’t engaged in writing or teaching poetry, I think I might have pursued something in that realm.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
This question is something I struggle with, actually, in the face of pressing policy issues. Though I will always argue for poetry’s absolutely critical role in shaping and progressing culture, even in saving lives, sometimes I do feel a sense of impatience with my own work and my own role: Why does [whatever I’m writing] matter, in the face of poverty? Inequality? Lack of access to potable water? Someone vulnerable being harmed, right now, as I type even this? Often I feel called to put everything aside and go help dig water wells or do research for an innocence project or deliver groceries for people who can’t leave their homes. So I don’t know what the future holds. That feeling never leaves me; it’s not an inner conflict I have resolved.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This summer I reread one of my favorite books, and it absolutely held up: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land. It’s part ethnographic memoir and part straight history, and it is glorious. Amitav Ghosh is one of the world’s most interesting writers, and he’s also managed to wrestle with ethics in a real and progressive way in his work, which I admire. As for film, my husband brought home Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies recently (yes, we still borrow DVDs from the library), and was blown away, especially by the performance from Marianne Jean-Baptiste.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m working
on an essay about risk, as well as a sonnet crown related to a dangerous flight
I took one winter night with my father.Both pieces scare me a little, so I hope that means something real is happening.
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