When Alison Hicks’s new collection of poetry, “Kiss” came out, I had to get it. After I read the first few poems I was hooked. Not only did I want to devour the rest of the collection, I wanted to talk to the poet as well. As luck would have it, Alison agreed to an interview with me. Here is our interview:
Wittle: It always fascinates me the way in which an author picks the flow of his or her collection or chapbook. With Kiss, there are five sections starting with “Migraine” and ending with, “House in Mind”. Could you speak a little about how you came to this vision for your poetry in this book?
Hicks: Great question! It was difficult. The order of my chapbook, Falling Dreams, just kind of came together naturally. Kiss presented much more of an arduous process. In the very beginning, the manuscript was much bigger, and included some poems from the chapbook. It took my near 100-page manuscript to the Colrain Poetry Conference, a weekend retreat focusing on putting together book-length collections of poetry, where I learned, very quickly, that a first collection should be no more than 65 pages—no one will publish it, or even look at it. So I went back and took out all the poems that had been previously in the chapbook, and culled a few others, too. The number of sections came about because I found it much easier to work in smaller groups of poems rather than larger ones. I used Maxine Kumin’s book The Long Marriage as a kind of model.
Soon after J.C. Todd’s book What Space This Body, which I admire, came out, I cornered her at a reading and asked her how she had found an order for it. She told me that she had used file folders to group poems together by various associations. I made up the folders, but found that didn’t quite do it for me, in this case. Eventually I found I was able to create groups of 8-10 poems, and those became my sections.
The other reason for the sectioning has to do with a technical challenge: the poems in section ii, American Summer, are more outward looking and deal with the larger culture while the rest of the book has a more interior focus (against that cultural background, but it isn’t directly referenced in the other poems). I felt strongly that those poems belong in the book, because I feel some pointing to that larger cultural context is important to the rest of the poems. But they are noticeably different, and so it made sense to put them together and separate them.
I did most of the work of ordering, both the first time around, with the “monster manuscript,” and second time, with the pared-down version, at The Porches retreat, where I spend a week every year. I printed out the sheets and lay them out on the floor and read them aloud in different combinations, playing with shuffling them around. Finally, these seven sections emerged.
I do intend a progression through the book, from a state of “missing” through personal landscape, cultural history, and the natural world, toward the numinous, a “house in mind” that is both “inside” and “outside,” that offers protection yet is open to the elements, where vision may be attained.
Originally, the sections were not titled. The poet Leonard Gontarek, whose Saturday workshop I attend, agreed to read over the draft I’d put together and told me to take out one poem, and that I’d know which one that was when I looked through it again. I was having a terrible time coming up with a good title, and after he saw all my lists and shook his head, he started flipping through the manuscript and landed on the poem “Kiss.” Right now, you should understand, it’s considered a risky thing to use a title of one of your poems for the title of your book—there’s all this wringing of hands about whether too much pressure is being put on that poem and if it will be strong enough, etc. Though in theory this isn’t an invalid concern, I find the anxiety a bit comical in that that used to be the standard way of titling collections. It was “XYZ, and other poems.” So I think a lot of this right now is just fashion, and that the pendulum is probably going to come around.
To come back to the question, though, Leonard also proposed the titling the sections, which is also out of fashion right now. He felt it was right for this book, and as I mulled it over I decided I agreed. I trust his instincts—he’s never steered me wrong!
Speaking of going against fashion, today’s conventional rap would probably be that there are too many sections in the book, that I should have narrowed it down to 2 or 3 or 4 at the most. But I will tell you that when I open a book of 60 or more poems divided into only two sections and see the seemingly endless list of title streaming down the Table of Contents, I feel like I’m facing a big wall. I like shorter sections that allow me to digest the poetry in smaller units. Also, of course, the technical challenge of section ii that I mentioned above contributed to the number of sections in my book, since the re were only so many poems that fit in that section, and that section in turn had to fit in the rest.
Wittle:In your first poem in the collection, “Snow on Valentine’s Day”, there is a great use of sound and the visual stimulant of the snow falling. What do you find are the three main ingredients for an author needs to “cook” a poem?
Hicks: Some sense of sound or language is crucial, I think. For me, that’s primary, whether I’m working in poetry or prose. Time also helps. And engagement with the world in some sort of way. There isn’t just one model for this. Some poets engage with nature, others with the urban environment, still others with an interior landscape, others with characters or personae, others with cosmic issues or questions, philosophy, etc. Poems can come as pure inspiration, but a poet can also set up a kind of experiment or exercise for her or himself that can serve as inspiration. I’ve had poems that come to me out of the blue, so to speak, and I’ve had others that started out as responses to assignments given in Leonard Gontarek’s workshop. Leonard says he himself works by “creating assignments” for himself, and I think that’s a good way of approaching the process. Sometimes a poem, or subject, and/or a form is just going to “come,” other times, we must go in search of them. It’s often easier, for some reason, to follow an assignment given by someone else, even if one ends up departing from it in the end, and harder to give one to oneself. But I think this is a goal that poets should aspire to, though I hate to use the word “should” in connection with any kind of writing, because the fact is, it works very differently from person to person, and sometimes even from poem to poem. There’s really no “should” about it; you find what works for you. So I guess I would revise myself to say that it’s a strategy worth trying to see what it does for you.
Wittle: In this collection, there are a few poems written in reflection of other poets. Who do you feel are the most influential poets to your work?
Hicks: Jane Hirshfield is hands down the poet who has had the greatest influence on me. I also have to say Leonard Gontarek, because he has been my teacher. The differences between his work and mine have been instructive for me; he nudged me in directions I would have thought to go on my own, that I have found productive and enriching. You might say he enlarged my compass. I’ve been influenced by Japanese and Chinese poetry in translation. Others? I’ve already mentioned Maxine Kumin, and I’d also have to say W.S. Merwin, Louise Glick, Elizabeth Bishop, Alicia Ostriker, Wislawa Symborska, Carolyn Kizer, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Gary Snyder, Marie Howe, Kay Ryan, Eavon Boland. The work of women has been important and inspiring to me.
Wittle: For me, I found the last section, “House in Mind” to be some of the greatest poems in this collection. “Table” really intrigues me because in the last couplet, your first name is used. It is also impossible to ignore the parental figure in this poem speaking with, “Alison”. Could you talk a bit about how this poem came into focus? How did this poem start for you?
Hicks: This poem started as one of Leonard Gontarek’s assignments. It is a form called a “ghazal,” which has its roots in 7th century Arabia and was favored by Sufi mystics, for example, Rumi and Hafiz, and is often sung by Iranian, Indian and Pakistani musicians. In the west, it became popular in Germany during the 19th century, and is enjoying a current popularity in America, thanks to the poet Agha Shahid Ali, who was graduate student with me at the University of Arizona in the mid 1980’s. As you can imagine for a form that old and that has jumped cultures, there are many variations. It pretty much always consists of a series of couplets (two-line stanzas) with a refrain. The couplets are supposed to be able to stand alone as a unit, and not to build on or reference each other directly. Traditionally, the form encompasses rhyme, and also the feature that you note, a reference to the poet’s name in the last line. In “Table,” the refrain is the repeated word “Table” in each couplet. I dispensed with rhyme, but I did keep the direct address to myself. I think your observation that this creates a sense of a “parental figure” is fascinating. I never thought of that consciously, and it would be interesting to read other ghazals with that effect
Leonard gave us the form. The content, in this case, is what seemed to “come” to me. There is more than a bit of a Japanese/Chinese influence here. Around the time that I wrote this, I had been reading translations of Japanese and Chinese poems. The image of the table (like a house, a frequent trope in Japanese poems), the tea, the dumplings. I think I was also thinking of Cezanne’s card players and still-lives, and Chinese dishes where the fish is served with the head attached. The image of the bowl is a spiritually important one for me. I try not to overuse it. But here it seemed appropriate.
Wittle: In a lot of the poems in this book, the pronoun, “I” is used. Could you talk about the decision to add this very personal pronoun to your poems?
Hicks: Another interesting question that I had to think about for a while. In prose, we make a big noise about the distinction between non-fiction, where the understanding is that the first-person “I” is essentially the writer, and fiction, where the “I” may be different, in character and circumstances, from the writer. One of the aspects of poetry that I’ve found most refreshing and liberating is that the distinction ceases to matter. It is understood by savvy poetry readers that the “I” in a poem may be the voice of the poet, or, in what’s called the “persona poem,” a voice of someone else, who may be historical or fictional. No one wrings her hands too much about whether the writer is trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes or using the first person illegitimately.
Sophisticated readers of poetry also understand that a poem reflects a particular moment in time. In other words, it isn’t considered inconsistent that two poems in the first person by the same poet may give voice to different feelings or even make opposing assertions. I guess I’m saying that no one seems to expect that poets to be consistent or to tell the literal truth.
There’s also the influence of the lyric tradition. Today, this is most clearly expressed in popular song, where first person is more the norm than the exception. Why? Because it conveys intimacy. When a rock singer sings, “I love you, baby,” he isn’t singing personally to every listener, yet the listener can pretend, indeed feel as if, the singer is singing to her (or him) alone. The lyric tradition in poetry works in much the same way, imparting a sense of “I’m telling this to you, and you alone,” even though of course, on the face of it, this is simply absurd.
There are several different “I”’s in the poems in Kiss. Many of those that also include the second person (“you”) — “Tu me manques,” “Nightride,” “Detachment” or “The Opening,” for example—use the first person in this traditional lyrical way. They are staged, if you will, as an overheard conversation between intimates. Some of these, like, “Black Walnut,” ”The Seminar,” “house in mind,” and “Sadness, Gardens,” don’t use “I” directly, as subject, but imply it, using “me” as object or the possessive pronoun “my,” which preserves the intimacy of the lyrical approach while softening the stridency, if you will, of the “I.”
In others, the “I” is more directly autobiographical or historical: “Head Shop,” “History,” “Childhood, with Starfish,” and of course, “Swimming to Florida.” A twist on this is a poem like “Parade,” in which the “I” figures as a minor character. “I’m” in the poem here so my son can hand me his scythe; he is the main player on the stage.
In some poems, I use the second person as a kind of stand-in for the “I.” “Snow on Valentine’s Day” is an example. So is “Stalking Migraine.” “How to Watch” is yet another variation. In addition to the second person, the “you” who describes the scene, there’s another voice in the poem, of another character, who speaks in the first person. “Platform,” and “My Mother’s Poem” include multiple “I’s,” adding the voices of other characters to that of the poet’s.
There are four persona poems: “How a Young Man Leaves Home,” in which the “I” is the voice of the young man in question; “American Summer,” narrated by a historical figure at the time of the establishment of the Methodist summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; “Lawrence in the Southwest,” in the voice of D.H. Lawrence; and “Colony Collapse Disorder,” in the voice of a bee.
The “I” at the end of “Tassajara” is a case of the poet talking to herself. “Table” also functions in this kind of way, though no “I” appears in it, through use of the imperative. “The Unraveling of the Body,” “Lessons from Trees,” and “Stalking Migraine” also use the imperative in this way to speak to readers through the self.
Finally, I’m going to mention the poems that use the second person plural, “we.” “The Courtship” places the “I” in the context of a “we,” and in “Night on Misty” and “Shelf,” the final poem in the book, the “I” is completely subsumed into the “we.”
Wittle: In general, how many drafts to you usually write until the poem comes into focus?
Hicks: That’s a hard question to answer because it varies. Also, what does one technically call a “draft”? Someone, I can’t remember who, is reputed to have noted that a poet can spend all day taking out and then putting back in a comma. This is so true! There’s a lot of fiddling with what seem very small matters, but that do make a difference in this form that is so compressed, where not only every word, but how a line or sentence is punctuated and lineated, matters. I don’t count every comma changed as a separate draft. I tend to save a poem as a separate version once I have made enough tweaks for me to consider it significantly different. So there are often lots of un-saved drafts between the official drafts that I save.
That having been said, a quick look at the poetry folder on my computer reveals that most poems that I have kept active and that have made their way to publication have between 4 and 7 saved drafts, marked with the poem’s title and roman numerals (and these numbers do not include still further versions that may have been created under different titles, nor the handwritten first stabs that predate the movement onto the computer). There’s one poem that I’ve pretty much abandoned that has 14 recorded drafts—draft 1 is a poem of 15 lines, and draft 14 has 6 lines. Every once and a while I open some of these up and take a look, but I think this is one of those cases where somewhere along the way the value of the experiment started to outweigh what it produced. But who knows, maybe I’ll find the way in at some future time. There are also a few much rarer cases where the drafts number 2 or 3. Those are the poems that come as a gift, that seem to just drop into one’s lap, fully, or nearly fully, formed. Since we were just discussing it, “Table” is one of these.
Wittle: Which of these poems in the collection were the hardest for you to write? What made them so difficult to write?
Hicks: “Swimming to Florida” was the hardest to write in terms of subject matter. Not to re-tell the poem, but I had a close friend in elementary school who killed herself in our freshman year of college. During high school, she suddenly and to me, inexplicably, turned against me. This was especially painful because we had mutual friends. At our senior year picnic she insulted me publicly, venomously, and I just took it, I didn’t protest or try to defend myself. All that summer and into my freshman year I kicked myself for that, why hadn’t I spoken up, why hadn’t I just calmly said, “That’s not fair”? Then in November I got the news of her suicide from my father, and I thought well, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I stayed silent. Because in retrospect, whatever was going on seems to have been more about her than about me. Somehow I became a symbol of something for her that she had to fight against. After so many years, I have somewhat of a guess of what that might have been, but I really don’t know.
At the time we were friends, I considered her to be, of all my friends, the one with her feet most on the ground. Later on we learned that she had been under psychiatric care during those last years of high school as well as during the fall of her freshman year at college.
This story became entwined with poetry because of a mutual friend who shares my first name and who was a very talented writer—certainly more so than me at that age. My friend Alison went off to boarding school when we were in 9th grade, just before my other friend turned against me. During a vacation when Alison was back home, she showed me a poem she’d written for her. When I learned of my friend’s suicide, there was a part of me that wanted to write a poem about it, about her, about me. I was immediately disgusted, because I felt that I would be using her death as an occasion to show off, to elevate myself. So I clamped down very hard on the impulse, and only these many years later, when I was well into my 40’s, did I allow myself to write the poem.
As I write these words, though, I think my resistance also came from something else, that the revulsion was in part of cover for my lack of confidence, a fear that I was not up to the task.
The poem that has the longest route to completion and changed the most along the way is “Tassajara.” It started with some prose observations from a week-long workshop I took there with Jane Hirshfield. I tried many times unsuccessfully to shape it into a poem, so when this version finally emerged, it was very fulfilling, and I felt triumphant.
Technically, the toughest challenge was the sestina “The Opening.” One reader criticized this poem because it doesn’t absolutely fulfill every aspect of the sestina form. So it might more accurately be called a modified sestina or sestina-inspired. Originally I did follow the form all the way through, but like many sestinas, it started to feel like a slog nearer the end. Leonard suggested some “pruning,” so that the poem becomes less talky, more telegraphic and cryptic as it goes along, which I liked, and which seemed appropriate, because it is a poem about spiritual experience that can’t be fully captured in language.
There are some people who are what I call “school-marms” about form. They love to count out all the syllables, see if you’ve gotten it “right” and wrap you on the knuckles if you haven’t. These are the people who say that if you’re going to attempt the form, you better do it to the letter, otherwise you’re “cheating” or showing ignorance. I couldn’t disagree more; I think the form exists to serve the poem, and not vice-versa. I don’t see any reason that forms can’t be “tweaked,” if that makes the poem that results better. There’s no reason a poet can’t make a conscious and informed decision to modify a form.
Wittle: What do you think all poets should do to help them reach their creative potential?
Hicks: As I wrote above, I don’t think there are any specific “shoulds” that apply to all writers, or all poets for that matter. But I can offer some suggestions worth considering.
One would think that reading would be important, to broaden one’s horizons of what is possible, and what can be done, to suggest and inspire. Also because there is an aspect of writing poetry (or prose for that matter) that is a conversation between those engaging in the form, those who came before, those who are writing now, and those who will in the future.
One of my professors in grad school told us to “know what you like.” I think that’s good advice. It doesn’t mean to close yourself off to what may at first appear strange or weird or even ugly to you, because sometimes that immediate reaction can change over time, but it does mean to be in intimate contact with what most matters to you, to your obsessions, your tendencies and proclivities. It’s important to know these, and not only because there are times you may need to fight against them.
Since advice is supposed to come in packages of threes, I’ll offer one other suggestion, to be receptive, and tack on a story to illustrate it. I recently came across a short essay by Karen Malley on the Glimmer Train website entitled “Toddlers, Cogs, Trees, and Mechanical Butterflies: What a Story is Not,” in which she relates how she desperately tried to follow the advice of her professors and the star student in her graduate writing program. She keeps working harder, but the story doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and she’s just trying herself up in knots. Finally, she lets go and stops worrying so much about “what the story is,” what she is producing, but on “listening closely to the words of people who are at the end of their rope, or have been to the end of their rope and climbed back up, or have let go of the rope and walked away.” She relates that she “spent less time revising and more time away from my computer, paying close attention to what I saw and heard, trusting myself to later recall what I found startling and memorable.” Though Malley writes fiction, her insight is easily applicable to poetry.
This isn’t to suggest that revising is not important, but that listening and paying attention, keeping the channels open, can be equally important in some instances.
Wittle: When I write, I need to have music, my Yoda mug filled with tea, and if I can, a friend nearby. What kind of things do you “need” to set your mind into “writing mode”?
Hicks: Since my son was born 10 years ago, my office has tended to be my refuge. I used to write quite comfortably in the living or dining room; now that is simply impossible for me. There’s little that I absolutely “need” other than my notebook and my pen. These are worth mentioning, though, because they are significant. For years people gave me lovely notebooks with lovely heavy pages and beautiful designs on the front. I’ve never been able to write in those. I find I need a regular old college-ruled spiral-bound notebook. My handwriting tends to get large and messy, especially when I’m inspired and writing fast. I need to write in a notebook that I don’t feel I’m going to “ruin.” Lately I’ve been very pleased with the sustainable sugarcane-based notebooks from Staples. They have an appealing simple brown paper covering with simple designs on the front that add a festive touch without tipping over into the “too beautiful to use” category.
My pen is also important to my process. It’s a Waterman Philias fountain pen, with a blue swirl design on the barrel. I use the blue cartridge ink. I love the way the ink from a fountain pen glides over the page and doesn’t clump. Nor does it get dry like a rollerball or felt tip. I start just about everything in longhand. Sometimes, I’ll move fairly quickly to the computer, especially if getting a sense of how the thing might start to look on the page plays a role in its development. Other times, I’ll keep going in longhand for a few drafts before moving to the computer.
I have experienced near panic in moments where I feared what I call “my blue pen” was lost. One time, I was traveling with my family on an airplane and I’d stuck my blue pen and my notebook in the pocket on the seatback in front of me. Little did I realize that it had an opening on the side, and my blue pen popped out and rolled down a few seats ahead of us. My son, who was about 5 or 6 at the time, found it once the plane had nearly emptied out, because he was small enough to crawl under the seats and see and retrieve it. Even the idea of going without it for the short period of time required to order another over the internet is terrible to me. I suppose I’ve just made a great case for going ahead and buying an extra just in case.
Other than that, tea is always good. Earl Gray, hot, in a heavy Fiesta Ware mug.
I have written to music at times. I tend to do that more with prose than poetry. Sometimes I get stuck on one song and play it over and over. But I am finding that as I get older, I appreciate plain old silence. When I was in college, I could easily write papers in French while listening to English rock lyrics. No more!
Wittle: What advice would you give to another poet?
Hicks: I think I pretty much gave it in my answer to #8 above. Poetry is both serious and playful. Writing can be exhilarating and frustrating. Everyone is a beginner when it comes to the blank page.
Alison Hicks Bio
Alison Hicks’s most recent book is a collection of poetry, Kiss (www.amazon.com) . Her work has appeared in Eclipse, Whiskey Island, Pearl, Gargoyle, and other literary magazines.