Alicia Wright’s poems, “Self Portrait as St. Peter’s Youth Group Member” and “Elegy for Marilyn with Streaks of Silver,” appear in Vol. 34.1 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.
This interview was conducted by Maari Carter, The Southeast Review’s assistant poetry editor.
First, thank you for allowing us the opportunity to publish your beautiful poems. You’re working with spacing in a very interesting way “Self-Portrait as St. Peter’s Youth Group Member.” Can you talk a little about that, and how it controls the process by which the reader receives information?
Thank you for these kindnesses. In short, it’s a way of allowing my inner teenager to rebel—her first chance! But also, spacing between phrases, and sometimes words, is something I’ve found helps me negotiate the close quarters between voice and description, and in the case of this poem, a kind of investigative nostalgia, alongside my awareness of how these devices can all have differing emotionality to them. Comment can become less about tone and more about another kind of truth participating in the poem’s present. We’re always in the process of receiving fragments of information, right? We have glimpses, bursts. And that’s also how we first attribute fact to feeling. I think we’re past in the point in poetry where we can be surprised by the phenomenon of fragmentation—it’s as much a lyric gesture as it is an experimental one. I hope that spacing in, or relative porousness, threads the poem both with the experience of recalling and also that inevitable flickering of doubt that comes when you’re working in memory. How stable can a self-portrait in the medium of language be? How can one know either way?
I think the question of stability is a crucial one in poems of self-portraiture. I often only trust a portrait of the self in so far as it participates in its own dismantling… or at least its own interrogation. And I think you’re exactly right in saying that we are past the point of being surprised by the phenomenon of fragmentation. I find it much more interesting when poems accept fragmentation as always-already present in any effort to mediate past experience or observation. After all, a way of remembering is also a way of forgetting, and the negotiation of this cannot rely solely on stance or tone, which is too self-oriented. There has to be some acknowledgment of the reality beyond the perceiver’s imposed meaning. But, therein, lies the dilemma, yes? We are inextricably bound to our own interpretation. However, what so excites me in many poems, as it did with yours, is when there is the gesture toward destabilizing the authority of those observances. What struck me in “Self Portrait as St. Peter’s Youth Group Member” was how you accomplished that syntactically as well- how the poem resists predictable phrasing in moments of exposition. Also, this poem caused me so much descriptive envy. I mean, “lark lightly.” Just beautiful.
I can thank Willa Cather for the lark reference! And yes, absolutely—I also think part of the thrill of a self-portrait is that the dismantling, or destabilizing of self, can only emit from the writer’s own investigation inherent in construction. The self-portrait offers a curious, atemporal frame for examination, though it appears to claim otherwise. For me, this self-portrait is also homage to that time in my life, and the beauty of that church-space, and the difference between that self and my present one.
The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, is cited as an influence for both of these poems. A major characteristic of that text is via negative or argument through negation. How important a role does doubt play in the epistemology presented in your poems? Do you tend to prefer this stance to a more declarative one?
The most important philosophical gesture that I’ve borrowed from The Cloud of Unknowing is how to run counter to inherited cultural narratives—which is a southern context, in my case. In so many treatments of my home region that I’ve read, I come to find that there’s a deep-running tendency to romanticize—whether natural beauty or human violence—and to veer into received patterns of mythmaking rather than lived representation. I’d like to see more challenge taking place. I think it’s much more productive poetically to temper declaration with doubt, which creates a space for others to enter into the poem. One of the responsible ways that I can engage with my southern background is to consistently sustain a kind of analytical doubt, and to not replicate those problematic narratives—which is a task that is, as it would seem, never-ending.
I often encounter this inclination to romanticize in my own work, being a Southerner as well. We are definitely not short on problematic, inherited narratives. One issue with place-bound identity, I find, is that it wants so much to legitimize its existence and gets too wrapped up in the sentimentality of its own context, while all too frequently participating in the erasure of less represented or accepted ways of being. Something so self-reflexive as nostalgia should always contain some measure of doubt. But, as I’m sure you’ve encountered, that is not ordinarily the case. Who are some of the Southern poets who you feel are successful at providing counter or meta-narratives? Someone such as C.D. Wright comes to mind, whom we so tragically lost earlier this year.
You’re spot-on about C.D. Wright—her work means the world to me. Recently, I’ve read Tim Earley’s Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, which is hyper-charged with lyric, rural language that gleefully renounces expectation—it’s blisteringly earnest and ironic indulgence both. Another poet from western North Carolina (a region that I call a spiritual home) whose voice I trust is Rose McClarney—a poem of hers I love for its tacit rebellion is called To Boys with Names like Wiley, or Loyal. And I don’t think a conversation about southern poetry can be had now without mentioning Rickey Laurentiis and his illuminating, ground-shifting book, Boy With Thorn. One line of his that I think of as an aesthetic guide is “This is what I see: the Spanish moss / as convicted to its branches—gray, colonial, / but in my century now…”
Drawing on the previous question, in “Elegy for Marilyn with Streaks of Silver,” so much of the speaker’s early identification of self is reliant upon the relation to Marilyn, and there is a lovely juxtaposition set up between that and Marilyn’s desired “apartness” as experienced through her walkabouts. While reading this poem, one line particularly stuck with me: “Some of us still go to the dark / fields for how they fill a space.” How do you see this line as relating to Keats’ notion of negative capability?
The process of elegy, to my mind, is recording as much of your experience with the departed as possible—it’s at once both a private and a public record, a contract, a depiction that’s alive in the tension between the personal and the political. So much of the challenge of elegy is knowing what to give and what to withhold, and how. And it was especially important in this relationship, given the kind of privilege I occupy, not to let the pitfall of elegy—prioritizing the bereaved experience—diminish the human presence, or loss of it, at the poem’s core. When it came to the moment in the poem of approaching that chosen, private space of Marilyn’s walkabouts, the most I could to for her memory was to respect the autonomy of her choice and not to interpolate or aestheticize beyond what I knew that time meant to her. It’s not my job to speak on her behalf. But because I knew her, I do find it my responsibility not to let her story disappear.
Part of negative capability trickles into the poem through what I did know of her. To me, that’s part of a very real sadness and failure—there were and are still extant social codes of both race and class relations which complicate what I’m able to do in this elegy, which I’m trying to undo as best as I can, in the time-sensitive effect a poem can have. The other part is the idea of an open field, which is one I keep returning to in my work as a site of mystery, of incantation, where so many histories and private spaces have overlapped through time.
I have more than my fair share of failed elegies. My experience is that often I either tell too much or withhold too much- both being a kind of distancing for the sake of the speaker. Your poem definitely finds that balance between self and other, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that you do keep Marilyn’s autonomy intact. We want so much to suppose- to inset ourselves into the unknown, and I appreciate the refusal to do so here. Everyone has the right to their own dark fields.
Thank you. They’re so hard to undertake, and every time is different. Honestly, I had been thinking about how to write something for Marilyn for almost ten years.
What are you currently working on? Are there any foundational texts that you’re drawing influence from, in the way that The Cloud of Unknowing informed these poems?
I’m still in the midst of the Cloud project, and I’m happily working through it mostly in numerical order. There are seventy-five chapters, and I’m only just halfway through!
In certain moments, I’ve been relying on this strange, Jim Crow-era “history” called A History of Rome and Floyd County for evidence of what threads have filtered psychically through to the present-day town that I’m from—for what’s necessary to deconstruct. It’s fascinating to register the topography of that history—apparently, certain families could pay the author to feature their legacies more prominently. The text preserves, however accidentally, hearsay, fact, local lore, and a kind of history all in one out-of-print binding. Repurposing language from earlier eras is becoming increasingly interesting for me, and necessary.
Danez Smith recently visited FAMU in Tallahassee and gave one of the best readings I’ve had the opportunity to witness. His Don’t Call Us Dead is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017, and I can’t wait to read it. What collections are you anxiously awaiting?
I’m wiggling in my seat waiting for Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property. Antiquity by Michael Homolka is going to be astonishingly beautiful. I’m also looking forward to Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher. No doubt everyone’s going to be reading Danez Smith’s collection when it comes out, too—lucky us.
Finally, a friend and I were recently trading our favorite toasts that we’ve encountered over the years. He submitted a lyric taken from the song “Sour Mash” by Cory Branan: “Here’s to what God can do with water.” Pretty fantastic, right? Do you have a go-to toast? If so, what is it?
Such magic! When I think of toasts, I think of one of my dearest friends, who in college would frequently raise toasts in his native Russian and this inspired, giddy stuff, which goes something like—Confusion to the enemy! For the wobblies! Onwards and upwards and leftwards and backwards and all things untoward! For Gillian Welch!
Originally from Georgia, Alicia Wright has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is pursuing her MFA. Her poems have appeared in New Delta Review, Prelude, and New South, where she was the winner of the 2015 New Writing Contest.