Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Coffee Chat #4: Allison Benis White

My favorite book of poetry over the last year has been Allison Benis White's Self-Portrait With CrayonIt's published by Cleveland State University Press.  I know I've written about this book before, but I have had the pleasure of getting to know Allison a little bit because she also lives in Southern California.  Only in poetry can a fan get to know an author so readily and so easily.  I have asked her a series of questions, partly based on conversations I have had with her in the past, so I may have been a bit too blunt here, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time self-editing my thoughts.  If you don't know this book, it's worth reading for sure. 

There are so many things I love about this book, but what I think I love about this book the most is it's simultaneous deep emotional heartfelt feeling combined with intellectual and philosophical thinking about disappearance and the self in a surprising way (the surprise in these poems truly delights me, not in a sort of "I'm so smart and clever" way, but in a "Wow, that's an amazing idea or image").  There are so many contemporary poets that are writing intellectually interesting work (and a lot is not even interesting to me in truth), but there's no heart.  This book is bursting with heart and sadness.  Here's a link to her website:


VC: I still remember my friend at Open Books saying to me: "This book is interesting...worth reading and buying" and when I read the first poem, I instantly felt connected with the work...and then the rest of the world found out.  Your book has been a great "success" in so many ways for a first book.  Do you feel that way?  And how does that make you feel?

ABW: First, I really love that you put the word “success” in quotes because it reflects how strange and elusive that concept is, especially when one has written a book of poetry. I’ve always liked Sophie Cabot Black’s definition: success is writing well. Anyway, I don’t know if I feel Self-Portrait with Crayon has been a “success” in measurable ways, but I do know that it was reviewed quite a bit, and that people, such as yourself, have connected with the work. Mainly, I feel very grateful that the book has been read and responded to.

VC: Assuming #1 is true, do you have any challenges following up your first book?  Or is it the case that book #2 was already done before book #1 came out?

ABW: My second manuscript, “Small Porcelain Head”, was halfway done when Self-Portrait with Crayon came out. As far as challenges go, I was conscious of not wanting to simply repeat myself in a second book. There is that T.S. Eliot quote that says something to the effect of ‘I’m only capable of saying what I’ve already said.’ I guess the main challenge in writing a second manuscript, in avoiding the patterns of the first book, was that I had to relearn how to speak. It was really awkward at first, but eventually I learned how to say what was in front of me.

VC: I had never heard of you as a poet prior to reading your book (perhaps due more to my lack than yours!--I know this is a bit of a blunt question) and I had never read any of your poetry in journals.  Was that a conscious decision to stay hidden, for lack of a better word? 

ABW: I know it’s not meant to be, but that is a hilarious question! No, no, I didn’t make a conscious decision to stay hidden. I think that most writers stay hidden rather effortlessly. A number of the poems in Self-Portrait with Crayon were published in journals over the years, and I won a few prizes, etc., but the idea that you had never read my work prior to my book makes perfect sense to me. I was shocked when I went to the AWP conference, when my book came out, and people said they were familiar with my work. I thought that was amazing, almost ludicrous.

VC: Do you think you would have been a poet if you didn't have the subject matter of abandonment that called you?  Said another way, how important is subject matter?

ABW: It’s hard to say who I’d be, or what compulsions I would have, if my mother hadn’t disappeared when I was a baby. For me, the depth of the loneliness and bewilderment that shaped my life certainly triggered the obsession to articulate. Of course, subject matter without language, without music, doesn’t result in poetry. So I think I have some facility in those areas, but being abandoned when I was so young is what gave me the compulsion to replace—to make something.

VC: And if you weren't a poet, what would you be otherwise?

ABW: I like what Louise Gluck says about being a poet—that it’s an aspiration, not an occupation. She argues that one is only a “poet” when one is in the act of making, when you’re kind of lost to yourself. Anyway, to answer your question, if I couldn’t write, hopefully (instead of going slowly insane) I’d try to lose myself in whatever other art form, or act of empathy, I could.

VC: What about the prose poem do you find so appealing (as I know your second book project consists entirely of prose poems too).

ABW: Initially, when I read Killarney Clary’s book of prose poems, Who Whispered Near Me, I was impressed with their avoidance of quick, lyric conclusions, and the kind of casual intimacy they fostered. There seemed to be more space to explore, more space to get closer to the speaker’s mind in her poems. I’m not saying that traditional verse causes writers to come to quick conclusions or stay distant, but at the time, that’s what I was doing, and I was really frustrated. So writing prose poems initially gave me a way to shift out of my bad habits, and then gave me the space to slow down and to work with sentences in a new way that was vital to the material I was exploring at the time.

VC: You had mentioned to me once that your second book is about your friend's suicide...also a bit of a dark subject like your first book.  Are you drawn to these subjects and if so, why?

ABW: I don’t think I’m necessarily drawn to dark subjects, but rather these are the subjects that compel me to write—to make a new, internal world. I remember when I was first writing “Small Porcelain Head,” circling around my friend’s suicide, another friend said to me, “Don’t write about that,” as if it would make me sick or suicidal too. I remember thinking, I have to. There’s nothing else to write about, nothing that would make me work that hard besides remaking this terrible emptiness.

VC: I recall that your mother came back into your life at some point.  Did your mother ever read your book?  If so, did you have any reservations writing about your mother in your first book?

ABW: After I knew the book would be published, I called her and was very upfront about what the book was about. Mainly, I wanted her to know that I didn’t disparage her. After it was published, she did read it, and she actually sent me a letter soon after that said something like she was able to understand that this was my experience and my vision as a writer, not hers, so she could feel proud (of me) as opposed to ashamed (of herself).

VC: What's your writing process like?  Do you have any rituals?

ABW: I like to write in bed at night, in a spiral notebook, before I go to sleep. What I write is fairly stream of consciousness—I don’t worry about making sense or writing what anyone would consider poetry (actually I’d be pretty horrified if anyone ever read these notebooks—they’d think I was sentimental and deranged). Anyway, when I gather up enough material, I look for interesting phrases, sentences, images, relationships, etc., and then I work on the computer from there.

VC: Does anything frustrate you about the poetry world?  If so, what?

ABW: I think the things that frustrate me about the poetry world are simply the things that frustrate me about the world in general: limited thinking, prejudice, cruelty, nepotism, egomania—the usual suspects. 

VC: Is there anything you love about the poetry world?  If so, what?

ABW: There are a lot of things to love about the world, the poetry world included: generosity, humility, kindness, integrity—many of the writers and editors I’ve come to know or work with possess these qualities.

VC: What, if anything, are you trying to achieve when you write a poem?  

ABW: I want to see differently (to be surprised, as Frost says). I want to be changed, to learn something—to clarify something that haunts or bewilders me. More than anything, I want to respond to the poems I’ve read that make me feel less alone and allow me to know another obsessed or luminous or grieving mind intimately.

VC: Any favorite poets that inspired you while writing your first book?

ABW: The books of poetry I read and re-read while writing Self-Portrait with Crayon were Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Killarney Clary’s Who Whispered Near Me, John Berryman’s Dreamsongs, Charles Simic’s The World Does Not End, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (not technically poetry, but I think it counts).

VC: Is there something people don't know about you that you want to tell them?

ABW: Hmmm. I think whatever is interesting about me as a person, biographically or perceptually, is in my first book, and hopefully in my second manuscript as well.  

I did just start working on a third project called “Please Bury Me in This” that meditates on this question to some degree. So I guess I’m still figuring out what I want to tell others, or what’s important or valuable to say, while I’m here.

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