Editor’s Note: We ran Alexandria’s poems Fertility, After Follain, Oh Massachusetts and Rattle in May of 2013. We are running Alexandria’s interview today in celebration of our upcoming print poetry anthology currently in the works. The anthology will feature poems paired with interviews and is scheduled for release in the late summer/early fall of 2014 (check our website for updates).
In “Fertility, After Follain,” you take us through such an intense image spiral that ends with the woman holding the lake by its handle, so surprising and startling. If we look at Merwin’s translation of Follain’s “Speech Alone,” in so few lines—eleven total–Follain moves us from the vast to the particular to the vast (language, to planet, to tiny flower, to a specific gate–overtones of the eternal again–to specific table and chair, culminating in the celestial move outward to image of the sun).
I see you playing with scale in a similar fashion, moving from fruit to the intimate to making a sort of celestial body of the mother as fertile being, holding both inside of herself and outside of herself the family, by the “handle of the lake.” Can you talk about how Follain inspired this poem, where you feel you align and where you leap from Follain? Loved the images and leaps of intimacy.
I started really reading Follain’s work a few summers back and was drawn to how he pivots through imagery—by which I mean, he’s able to sustain ambiguity between lines. The reader isn’t sure whether a line of description is supposed to apply to what just preceded that line or to something else, something lingering a few feet away in what he’s already said. Follain’s poetry looks simple but contains great—sometimes seismic—activity, like with his “The Silence,” the poem which evoked my piece, “Fertility.”
Follain starts with a very long line, practically a thesis, from which the rest of the poem hangs: “In the depths of time a marvelous silence turns green.” How much each of those unpunctuated phrases pulls off! Then the second line of “The Silence” is “made of the cities, the towns, and the slopes.” Is the green silence made from these locations? Or does that landscape list apply to the third and fourth lines? It’s marvelous: as though Follain is building a holographic haiku, a syllogism that shimmers and reveals other layers.
One of the poems in my second book, “Prodigal,” is also an attempt to recreate this quality by Follain, and in “Fertility,” I was of course also borrowing Follain’s character of the woman. I wanted her not to die, however, as she does, crushed by a stone (which falls mysteriously out of that green silence). I wanted to give her an escape plan, so she stands at the end of a gangway, holding her genetic future, her family, inside a suitcase.
“Oh Massachusetts” is rich with play on locations, specific and tangible, those you’d find on the map to that stunner of a last line, “I am only a mile from my heart.” Can you talk about writing this poem? What inspired it? How you chose which images to string together, including the “door knob to the women’s restroom in a Starbuck’s” to “the granite floor / in the baby’s room”?
My one year of long and tortoise-like commute to teach at a college in Boston was the inspiration for “Oh, Massachusetts.” Each day (I still commute from New Hampshire to Massachusetts but on a much more friendly route), I wave to the “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign at the state border. I say, “Hello, Massachusetts. Thanks for having me back.” This poem is my equivalent to that hand gesture. It also speaks to my conflicted emotions back then (and now) as a mother of young children who has a demanding fulltime job outside of the house.
I’d get stuck in traffic jams, ones moving so slowly that my then two-year old daughter would have arrived at work sooner than me, and be staring at the side street signs, names of restaurants, objects on apartment stoops—hence, the detail in “Oh, Massachusetts.” What strings together these details is the sense of being on a path, a paved path surrounded by other people in the same boat. I always felt more than a “mile away from my heart” and from the crib where my youngest would surely be sleeping by the time I arrived home at night from work.
In “Rattle”, so full of delightful definition play regarding writing itself, I’m moved by that last line, “Tears stream down the sunflower. Saying goodbye to / stop signs it passes on a rattling truck,” taking from it a sense of invitation to forego stop signs, both in thought and in terms of what a writer might write down. An invitation to play. Can you talk about writing this poem and where the last line took you? Or any part of the poem you wish to discuss?
“Rattle” is childlike (child’s rattle) but it also (at least to me) suggests adult dissatisfaction, feeling “rattled,” and needing to sit well with jangling, loose, rambling, awkward parts of existence. Part of one’s own poem can pass in front of one, rattling, distracting one, reminding one of the fundamental change and inability to find permanent balance.
How has your relationship to your poetry been affected by motherhood? You addressed some of the complexities of balancing writing, teaching, and motherhood for us over at Mother Writer Mentor in your guest posts, Water Breaks, Writer’s Block, and The Revision of the Sandwich. Do you have anything to add to the conversation on balancing writing, teaching and motherhood?
I feel immensely grateful to be a mother and a writer. I often can’t believe how my life has turned out. I think motherhood and the domestic life put useful timers on my writing life; they install planks over the well of time. I am aware of my three-dimensional obligations (fix school lunches, drive to daycare, honor the request to read a library book on the couch), and this awareness helps me see the limits of my life in the imagination.
What I mean is that the figures and emotions and imagery and developments which I encounter by myself in my mind while writing are usually that much more vividly delineated because I know my daily time with them is limited. I have less time to write, but when I write every day, it feels all that more sacred and existential. Writing is the Being inside me that may go unspoken as I lean over a child to wipe a nose or when I’m pulling wet towels out of the washing machine. Family is the Being inside me that leans over my shoulder when I’m typing and tells me that I can head back to them whenever I’m ready in the next hour or twenty minutes.
How did your Mindful Writing Blog: Your Ability to Write is Always Present come about? How does keeping a blog impact or effect the poetry you are writing?
I started my Mindful Writing Blog one summer. I was working on the screened-in back porch, as I usually do during weekdays in the summer, on a rewrite for a scholarly journal. For me, it was an unprecedented amount of rewriting: I had never been asked to do so many revisions by a single journal editor. I was losing grip on the value of that type of research writing. As a sort of reaction, I decided I wanted to hurdle beyond the editorial process and develop a blog (though the topic, mindful writing or mindfulness pedagogy was altogether different from the journal article that kept boomeranging back to me).
I felt—and still feel—fulfilled when I check my blog stats and see that someone from Japan or Slovenia or Kenya was looking at my blog that day. It feels great to not be limited to a narrow academic audience, the twenty or so people who might actually read the scholarly journal article one labored over for six or seven months. I didn’t want to be limited to those sorts of conversations—especially about a topic like mindful writing which seems like it could provide some help to others who want to write.
What are you currently working on?
I always have several ongoing projects in different genres and different states of completion. To match the clutter of intrapersonal or inner talk—those floes that move past our consciousness. It helps because I can ask myself during each writing session: what do I feel inclined to work on right now? So I’m wrapping up editing work on a scholarly book (with Tom C. Hunley, Creative Writing Studies: An Introduction to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming in 2014 from Southern Illinois University Press), plus a pair of scholarly articles from the field of Composition-Rhetoric. I’ve also started work on my next poetry collection and really having fun with it. I’m holding off purposefully keeping my creative nonfiction fallow until I can get at least one of those scholarly articles sent out but intend to return to writing creative essays by late spring.
Who are your poetry mentors or can you list any favorite poems you’d recommend to other writing mothers?
My poetry mentors are Caroline Knox and Laura Mullen—both fabulously gifted and kind women writers.
Alexandria Peary maintains a dual career in Creative Writing and Composition-Rhetoric and her degrees include a MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa, a MFA in Poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a PhD in English/Composition from the University of New Hampshire, Durham. Her third book of poems, Control Bird Alt Delete, won the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize and will be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2014. Her other books include Lid to the Shadow (2010 Slope Editions), Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008 Backwaters) and Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies (co-edited with Tom C. Hunley) forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in 2014. Her work has received the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Slope Editions Book Prize, and the Mudfish Poetry Prize. Her published research on nineteenth-century women writers was a finalist for the 2012 Theresa J. Enos Rhetoric Award. Her scholarship has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, Pedagogy, WAC Journal, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. Her poems and nonfiction have recently appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Volt, Superstition Review, Hippocampus, and The Chariton Review. She is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Salem State University.
Additional Links for Alex:
Your Ability to Write is Always Present (blog we discussed above on Mindful Writing)
Collections (University of Iowa Press on Alexandria’s collection, Control Bird Alt Delete)
Published creative nonfiction (Superstition Review)