Friday, 10 January 2020

Interview with Kelli Allen



Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals/anthologies in the US and internationally. She is currently a visiting professor of English Literature at Rutgers University/RUNIN, Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China. 

She is the recipient of the 2018 Magpie Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Some Animals, won the 2016 Etchings Press Prize. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press award. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books (2012) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection, Imagine Not Drowning, was released by C&R Press in January 2017. Allen’s new collection, Banjo’s Inside Coyote,  arrived from C&R Press March, 2019. You can read a review of it here.  




Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: As well as a poet, you’re also a dancer. Do you find overlaps (or differences, for that matter) between the two art-forms? 

KA: There are many ways in which dance and poetry use the same intentions—both employ the notion of the Line to communicate forward momentum or a pause. Both require a variety of music or sound to enhance communication. Both ask the “reader” to invest time and focus in something wholly created to induce response. 

The Mayan poet, Humberto Ak'abal, once told me that I am “a mermaid on land.” He said this to me after following behind for some time while I walked around a lake, reciting bits of poems, circling my arms to the sound of the stanzas in the air, and occasionally, unconsciously, doing a soft pirouette on the path. 

I am fairly convinced that I can no longer completely separate dance from verse. 

JT: How autobiographical is your poetry? 

KA: The poetry is as much about my own life as the bird’s thirst is her own when she lands close to water. I write to give shape to what I feel swirling-up from my present and past, yes, but the language gives new meaning to anything I may have intended to be “true.” When we are children and begin to understand that “I” means This Self, and that self is one that others see and acknowledge, the world becomes both more exhilarating to inhabit and also more terrifying. For me, making poems is a way to enter those two spaces of wonder and terror with the Self watching from the passenger seat, or just letting her riding high the mast over one monster-populated sea or another. In this way, the poems are "true" because they are meant.

JT: Your poetry often confronts the most serious themes: love, sex, illness, death. Are there subjects particularly suited to poetry? Are there things poetry struggles to address?

KA: Love is the subject most elusive and most necessary in my writing. I have no firmer grasp now on what the word means than I did when I first began writing twenty years ago. I do not expect to learn enough in this lifetime to offer answers or elucidations that could pretend to be unchangeable, but the pursuit fuels the work. 

It has taken me many years to publicly embrace how much sexuality informs my writing. I am an extremely physical creature and take tremendous pleasure in what the body is capable of experiencing. I have made a decision in regards to my literary work that I will allow for no shame, guilt, or coyness when addressing my sexual desires, history, or expectations. Being open to exploration when uniting the body to language is perhaps my primary intention in my new poems and stories. This one brief life with the fleshy machine of a body is the most bizarre, fantastical gift we are granted. I hope to write more boldly, and certainly more graphically, about what sex has given me and why.

I have known death early and often. My brother’s death when I was a child, and my mother’s subsequent battles with and through mental illness until her suicide in 2012, meant that I was aware of the tenuousness of being alive from my youngest memories. I have no living siblings, grandparents, or parents and this orphaning has made me wide-eyed in a way that I am grateful for. My few close friends tease me frequently for my inability to be still, to just “chill and relax.” The reason for my near constant internal (and often external) motion is my heavy sense of impermanence and the not articulable sensation that everything, anything, could pop at any moment. To be clear, this is not any shade of anxiety. Rather, this on-my-ownness has fed and habituated a marrow-deep sense of excitement to be alive as enormously as possible. This need to be Awake and Present is also why I am nearly always completely sober and have felt so little need in my life for anything that dulls my senses. 

I have yet to meet a subject (other than accounting) for which I am not immediately drawn to bend, seduce, and spell-cast into a poem. All is ripe, and all is able. “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”

JT: Does teaching get in the way of your writing, or help it, or both? 

KA: I write this with no sense of sentimentality or grandiosity: Teaching is the greatest work of my adult life. Every interaction with a student is an exchange. I attempt to enter each lesson with passion and curiosity and in this desire I am able to remain open to what I may learn in the process of explanation and discussion. I believe strongly in the Socratic approach to the classroom: Pose questions and be prepared to change the mind of master and student at any moment. The reciprocity in debate feeds my writing when I find moments wherein I am able to put together images and scenes. There is no better way to examine and explore the human condition in all its compassion, frustration, frivolity, and depth than in the classroom day-after-day. My writing continues to benefit from teaching and, in turn, my writing benefits my teaching. 

JT: Who is your intended reader? What effect do you want to have on him or her?

KA: Anyone interested in what it means to occupy this world in tandem with elephants, ants, Venus fly traps, Tardigrades, willow trees, trapdoor spiders, birds of paradise, and fennec foxes—these are my intended readers. 

I want anyone who comes across my stories and poems to feel as though they have entered a conversation at just the right moment. I hope whomever finds my odd work is reminded of ravens and hares peeping through a thorny underbrush. I wish for my readers to put a hand on their own stomachs when they finish my poems and feel equal parts satiated and painfully hungry. I want my words to cause a blush that stays. 

JT: In your collection Banjo’s Inside Coyote, you write that ‘those birds we wept over / the first afternoon will swoop into the country / as though nothing here matters.’ Your poetry is full of natural imagery, and birds. What role do you feel nature plays in your poetry?

KA: When the sea lion lifts his fat tail to let a crab pass, shouldn’t we all pay attention?
The natural world is us. Thinking (or worse, behaving as though) we are somehow apart from the strands and puffs and goo that build and weave the world we inhabit is ludicrous. Even this sexual body is dependent upon the air it breathes, the water it needs after climax, the materials it desires to recline against … Our relationship to, and recognition of, every particle around the body is as vital as the terrible master in our brain cradle that dictates just how much praise and grief we allot to what surrounds us. My poetry will continue to give room to what thrives and dies and grows beyond and outside the solitude of this one human life. 

JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your longer term aims for your poetry?

KA: Fiction! My new collection is a series of loosely-linked flash fictions. I should be honest, though, in that my fiction is still poetry of a sort. The language of each story leaps into lyric as it wishes, and sometimes gets distracted by sugar left too long in the woods or by a sweaty bicep glimpsed during morning walks. The new work is strange, of course, and more focused on the female body’s experience of being seen rather than seeing. The collection plays with Southeast Asian mythology, too, and there are several new tricksters afoot.

My long-term desires for my poetry are simple: In the next year, I hope to finish my fourth full-length and let it into the world to offer succor and salve. The new poems are more physical than my previous pieces and I am learning how to navigate pathways that push the vertical even further. My end-goal remains unchanged: to continue to make work that allows tender spaces to be more and less so: poems and stories that remind us that the point of being here is communion, not comfort. 



About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Notes from a Swing State: Writing from Wales & America" by Zoe Brigley



‘The personal is political,’ a central tenet of the women’s movement of 1960s and 70s, is as true today as it was then, but rarely has it been expressed with such eloquence.

In the first of this collection of essays, Zoë Brigley describes finding solace in the bleak indifference of the Utah landscape after the second of four miscarriages endured in an ‘unsympathetic medical system.’ She refuses to be ‘silenced by shame.’ In a society where abortion is a political battleground she reflects ‘Somehow in writing this I have moved from the sadness I feel about the miscarriages to the right of people not to be pregnant.' She continues, ‘The way I see it though, it is all bound up because both are a source of anxiety for Western culture. What do they do with the woman who miscarries, or with the woman who chooses not to have a baby at all?’

Brigley gives illuminating insights into living in Trump’s America, in a swing state where she canvasses for the democrats. As an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, in an unfamiliar  classroom  she must routinely check out the exits and plan how it could be secured in the event of a violent attack. When a man drove his car into a crowd on campus, then started slashing people with a knife, she is at home watching on television as the car park she uses is being stormed by a SWAT team and familiar buildings are sealed off with tape. Afterwards  she must deal with the students’ trauma.

As the mother of two little boys she describes how children are drilled in what to do in case of an armed intruder. Outside her son’s  elementary school is a sign stating that no unauthorised firearms are allowed inside the building, and there is a camera at the door where parents can be buzzed in. She describes how there is ‘something peculiar about American Halloween’ where ghoulish fantasies are played out alongside real life violence. In Pittsburgh a man kills eleven people in a synagogue, while participants in ‘fright house’ theme parks and ‘haunted houses’ wear swastikas while they are entertained with ‘simulations of the most appalling violence.’ Brigley writes: ‘The fright house tells us that violence is an illusion, or an act, but the fright house lies. The fright house is America.'

But paradoxically this is a book of hope and courage. Zoe Brigley is ‘an activist, an educator, a creative writer and a survivor.’ She refuses to believe that violence is inevitable and works to challenge violence, hate crimes and discrimination against anyone who does not conform to a supposed ‘norm.’ She believes at the root of it all is a breakdown of communication, ‘an act of violent refusal' to recognise the humanity and to empathise with  an individual perceived as ‘different.’

She argues that writing, and the sharing of writing, is a way forward. She cites Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Good Bones,’ which ‘seeks hope in the face of bleakness’ and which went viral in the summer of 2016, as an example of the power of poetry in ‘dealing with the dark undercurrents of society that we find hard to face.’ She suggests that ‘human beings are born into uncertainty yet human culture does its best to ignore this very fact.’ But poetry ‘encourages us to embrace uncertainty,’ and to empathise with, and recognise in ourselves, frailty and vulnerability.

She draws on her own experience of an abusive relationship to help others, encouraging students to come to terms with violence through creative writing. While ‘confessional poetry has its place,’ she suggests, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories – as a means to talk about the difficult or troubling moments from one’s life’ can be liberating. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ’Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.’

The classroom, Brigley argues, ‘has the potential to be a life changing, transformative space for all those involved,’ and she reminds us that the #metoo movement started in a classroom setting. At a speech given at a United Nations campaign Herforshe event at the Ohio State University, March 3rd 2018, she  told the audience: ‘So this is where we have come so far, finding each other, finding empathy and a kind of collective voice, a kind of collective power.’ But, she went on, it is not enough just to empathise with ‘white celebrities,’ there must be more practical support to protect the most vulnerable in our society, such as the #timesup movement which offers financial aid to women on low incomes who seek  redress for workplace harassment or assault. For those already discriminated against, whether because of their gender, sexuality, race, or poverty, are the most likely to experience violence and the least likely to have the means to deal with it. But there is a sense of hope, ‘For we have the language now both words and images – through which to express what freedom might look like.'

As an immigrant to the United States some might tell her to ‘go home and sort her own country out.’ She is both a pioneering voice in the U.S. and a role model for young people in post industrial South Wales. She reflects on how she got here from there, considering teenage influences which include David Bowie, ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ and Courbet. There are tender and tragic family stories, and many sassy women. A companion to these essays is her poetry collection Hand & Skull where many themes addressed in these essays are expressed beautifully with luminous imagery, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories.’



About the reviewer
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University what seems like a lifetime ago, Sue Mackrell’s poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in locations and publications as diverse as Leicester public toilets (an Everybody’s Reading initiative!) to Agenda Poetry. She is enjoying seeing the world anew through her four grandchildren. 

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Hand & Skull" by Zoe Brigley


These are poems that leave a mark. They are

          the little grooves pressed from seams onto skin: hardly
          perceptible: lines crossing: pinking the flesh ...
(‘Poems with Seams’)

Zoe Brigley’s use of language is scalpel sharp in a collection which is wonderfully diverse in style and form. The delicacy and strength of Victoria Brookland’s ‘cut up’ images (‘I Too Am a Rare Pattern’) enhance and reflect the poems. There is anger and brutality but also beauty and tenderness. These are poems which cross boundaries. Hands are held out across time between women from myth, history and literature, and those today who are fighting for justice, humiliated by discrimination, silenced in courtrooms, and vilified in the press and social media. The lyrical horror of the opening poem draws on the Mabinogi, where honour codes and vengeance have disturbing contemporary resonances. An underlying theme of the collection is Celtic myth and the fragility of the veil between life and death:  

          Teens commit suicide in my home town: 25
          dead, no older than 19. They hang 
          from ceiling lights and branches. Nothing to do 

in a South Wales town where the ‘spat stone teeth of the foundries' are redundant 
        
          ...We ride the Mari Llwd, star-horse of the frost,
          her cranium stripped to yellow bone. Her head
          lurches on a stick from house to house:
(‘Letter to a Horse’s Head’) 

Violence against women is confronted and exposed. ‘Beatitudes for the Women’ draws on a language of abuse and legal discourse: ‘if you said yes once why not / sleep with one more’... a bus driver ‘hurrying you now to step / onboard lightly on the edge / of what is about to happen ...’ 'not long afterwards a man took/ photographs.’ The power of a photograph as a tool of violation is a recurring motif: ‘He opened the lens – and I did as I was told - / ....And he hung / me in pieces on his gallery wall’ (‘Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe’). ‘I said / Once there was this photograph of me / taken by a man / I loved ... It is the moment before / something terrible happens’ (‘Poem on the Edge’).

Several poems convey a chilling sense of women’s lives constrained by a need for constant wariness, for vigilance: ‘You know the women through every manmade thing / that men have used to trap them’ (Sonnet for a Hole in the Glass’). ‘I try not to look when I pass, though / they gaze at me with praise or disdain’  (‘The Amish Roofers’). ‘The garden gate creaks and someone is / behind me, always behind, but / don’t give in...’ (‘Beatitude for the Meek’).

‘Forgetting Poem’ addresses the hugely difficult issue of forgetting, forgiving, of striving for a neat ending where there is none. There are no answers, only questions about how to deal with denial, dismissal, self justification, or a meaningless claim of remorse in a society which colludes with the abuse of women:

          A woman flew out to meet her rapist, a man 
          from another country, absent for years.
          How liberating, she said, to forgive
          and forget. But what if your rapist is not
          a handsome man in a collarless shirt, not
          close to tears, or poised to make it 
          up as best he can? What if mercy isn’t asked for
          and cannot be given?’ 

‘The Eye in the Wall’ portrays an abuser: ‘Like looking / through a hole in the wall, he thinks of her again, / wonders if it was wrong, assures himself it was / right.’ But in a neat parallel, in ‘Sonnet for a Hole in the Glass,’ also based on contemporary court cases of rape and abuse, women are encouraged to ‘Punch a hole / in the glass: cracks spidering: ice too thin to carry / the weight of men: one eye to the gap just / wide enough for you to read their names.’ 

In ‘Vesuviennes,’ the redacted text suggests how those who challenge the system are silenced and erased from history. These 19th century French feminists were ridiculed and caricatured for their refusal to conform to gender expectations and for their transgressive dress: ‘ugly, comical, funny-looking, masculine ... women with monocles, cigars, and beards ...  men in skirts.’ Elsewhere in the collection are enigmatic, sensual, troubling and playful references to clothes. There is a ‘whalebone crinoline,’ a ‘bridal gown,’ a ‘mourning dress,’ and also ‘tiny shirt buttons,‘ ‘stockings and suspenders,’ and Katherine Hepburn’s ‘high-waisted pants.’

Images of transformation and shape changing are central to many poems. There are eagles, swans, horses, and ‘Syrinx, / the reed-woman, transformed into / a mournful sound: Pitys turned to pine, / rocked by the North Wind, and Daphne / who was at her end a sweet laurel. / We are all who have pleased too well’ (‘Dryad’). ‘Poem for Emily Doe’ paraphrases testimony from a witness in a Californian rape case: ‘Three nurses / prise flora and fauna / from her hair.’ The standard name ‘Doe’ assigned to give anonymity here takes on unintended resonances. Links between woman and nature are an ancient trope which permeates this collection of poems. In ‘Post Colonial,’  ‘She couldn’t blame the place where / it happened. The mountain, a blind / animal, innocent as any massive herbivore.’ The Welsh landscape has itself been violated by the ‘English cannon of colonialism.’ It is a place of bitter family feuds, where death is inevitable,‘the lamb we found dying in spring / snow. I covered the newborn thing with my coat, but the mother / ewe tore it away / with her teeth' (‘Letter on a Sheep Skull’).

Some of the most profound and heart rending poems in this collection are those about motherhood:
  
          ... I owe the world 
          for this boy, who knows the threading 
          of leaf veins, thrills at frogs, every moist
          unfurling tongue that snaps on a whir...

‘Can I protect this emptiness?’ (‘He Has a John Clare Chin’). In ‘Swan’ there is pain at the impossibility of keeping forever a ‘fluffed head on my shoulder: tiny / toes cold against my leg.’ The poems of loss in this collection are deeply personal. They are deliberately made public; there are no gaps and silences here; these poems speak the unspoken: 

          Until I had children, no one told me 
          that not all of them survive, that some die
          along the way. 
(‘My Last Beatitude’)

And in ‘Letter from Nemi’:

           ... After eight weeks, there is some blood, and 
           clotted tissue, dark red and shiny like liver. You overdress 
           tastefully, patterned collusion brilliant against
           your shiny white dress.

We hide the evidence, blot it out, make it tidy: ‘rain pulses shame.’ In the epigraph Claudia Dey suggests: ‘If we could perceive death as part of a pregnancy, we might just take women more seriously.’ For the men in this poem women are a distraction, a space to be filled: ‘Are women just a place / to put things?’ A woman has no right to refuse to be pregnant: ‘A woman died this week in Argentina, bled out inducing / miscarriage by tablet.’ This is a letter from the underworld, from Diana’s temple now beneath the lake. The moon goddess of birth and death, ‘a hunter / carrying arrows and a spear’ rides down oppressors. The poem ends with a haunting image: ‘a figure empty and white radiates in the blue storm light.’ In ‘Star / Sun / Snow’ children appear as natural phenomena, elemental beings: 

          1. Star
          You were the second...
         ... your
         head a pointed star trapped
         by my pelvic bone, but they trimmed, sliced,
         opened me up , and out you came screaming,
         slippery with my blood.

          2. Sun
          You were the third, big and radiant 
          in my stomach ...
          ... I couldn’t rest until the warm clutch
          of you was tucked beneath
          my breast.

          3. Snow
          You were the first, the one not 
          born, seen once onscreen shivering with excitement, or
          pain. 
          ...Now flakes, spin, 
          melt on the warm earth. If you had lived, we would
          have opened the door today, and I 
          would have said: Look, the snowflakes are
          trying to come in.

‘Name Poem’ is eloquent and heart searing: ‘Your name sings a feathery thing in the hand: / ...How impossible to sing your name! / This name of yours, delicate as a kiss on the eye,/ this name that sings a long drink of sleep.’ It is a beautiful elegy for a child who will never see snowflakes but whose spirit will always sing in the heart. 

An illuminating companion to this poetry collection is Zoe Brigley’s Notes from a Swing State – Writing from Wales and America (Parthian 2019) a collection of essays which give context and insight into the writing of these poems. 


About the reviewer
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University what seems like a lifetime ago, Sue Mackrell’s poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in locations and publications as diverse as Leicester public toilets (an Everybody’s Reading initiative!) to Agenda Poetry. She is enjoying seeing the world anew through her four grandchildren.