Never Get Tired of the Little Miracle:
An Interview with Poet Alison Pelegrin
Alison Pelegrin is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Hurricane Party (2011) and Big Muddy River of Stars (2007), both with the university of Akron Press. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, her poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. She teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University.
I’m curious about your literary trek from Louisiana to Akron, Ohio—not the usual trajectory for place-based work. How did your books about hurricane Katrina and life in Louisiana come to be published by The University of Akron Press? How has your life changed since winning the Akron Poetry Prize?
My first editor at U. Akron was Elton Glaser, who has Louisiana connections. I submitted my
first book, The Zydeco Tablets, and it was a finalist once or twice for the Akron Poetry Prize. (This was in the 1990s.) Years later when I finished Big Muddy, I felt sure I would least get a fair read from the press, though I had no expectation that I would be getting a phone call from Elton in September telling me that I was the winner. When he called and said his name, I both knew I had won the book contest and thought it was a crank call at the same time.
Mary Biddinger’s transitional year as editor was the year Big Muddy was published. She was a huge cheerleader for me and my work, but I wondered what would happen to me with U Akron in the future—would my work fit her aesthetic, or would she want to go in a totally different direction? But Mary was on board with Hurricane Party long before it was finished—the collection went through many visions and revisions, and even titles.
I have to say that having an editor waiting for your work—asking after poems, offering substantive feedback—there is nothing like it. And in the long term that was even more exciting than winning the contest. Once you get to a certain point, you know that your work is strong. Once you start being selected as a finalist or semi finalist, you know it is just a matter of time before your book finds a home. To work outside of the contest structure is a much different experience.
How did it change my life? Well, it validated the poems I had been killing myself to write—my children were very young at the time, and my work schedule was hectic—it was nice to know that someone else was interested in what I was doing, especially since at the time I was so isolated in my life with the day-to-day of teaching and two small children.
How do you start a poem? When coming up with concepts, what are some ways in which you generate material?
I get a lot of ideas when I am about to fall asleep, but am ashamed to admit that I typically do not
write those down. I tell myself that I’ll remember in the morning, but I rarely do. I love visiting
museums, reading poetry, but also novels and nonfiction, and listening in on conversations. When
I am listening in the south, it’s the music of the voices that moves me. Elsewhere, it is the topic
of the conversation, or the half phone call I am privy to.
The least glamorous and most frequent way that poems begin is simply sitting down with my
notebook when I have no ideas at all—not even a title. I never get tired of the little miracle I
witness when, in pen or pencil, right in front of me, something comes out of nothing.
Sometimes, when people ask where a certain idea came from, I have to tell them honestly that I
have to clue. I am just as surprised as they are.
You wrote about the effects of hurricane Katrina on your home. How do you feel or what input do you have about therapeutic writing as an art form or a component of the art?
I would consider my poems about Katrina to be the poetry of witness more than poems of therapy. The poems didn’t help me get through the hurricane: I got through it, and then I wrote the poems. The ones in Big Muddy came pretty quickly, which is unusual for me. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my half-repaired house working on those poems while a crew took four pine trees out by crane. This would have been in the summer of 2006, just before I submitted my manuscript to the Akron Poetry Prize.
The poems in Hurricane Party are a bit different because I was writing from the distance of time. It was odd to feel near nostalgia for that period in my life. I was so out of it and distracted by the endless complications of the day to day, that when I read my poems I feel like someone is telling me a story.
Again, I wouldn’t consider this therapeutic writing, but more along the lines of writing to find out what happened, just as sometimes I have to write down an idea to know what I think.
How did form influence the direction of your book? Can you talk about your use of forms such as the villanelle, pantoum, and others as a structure for explaining the chaos of Katrina?
I think on one level the lyrics of music in general and Cajun songs in particular may be behind some of the formal elements in my work.
My first book, The Zydeco Tablets, had many poems about Cajun music and musicians. In addition to being part of my culture, I also had a lot of exposure to this music because my father was a Cajun dancer—teacher and performer. I would often go with him to dances and bars, and I think that some of these songs and the lyrical impulse behind them took root in my brain.
I do tend to turn to forms with repeating lines, but I have never set out to write a villanelle or whatever. The subject matter of the poem leads me there, and after a while my writer’s intuition helps me to figure that out. I do like the theory that the repetitive forms "explain the chaos of Katrina" but I can’t claim to have devised such an approach myself while writing the poems.
Over the arc of the books I think I see less and less of an influence by way of fixed forms. I have sometimes been called a formal poet and that always bothered me—not because I have a problem with formal poets or poems, but because I feel like I cheat way too much. To me, formal elements are something I want to hold at arm’s length. Of course, this doesn’t apply to villanelles—in that form, either the poem is, or it ain’t.
Where does locally-focused poetry fit in the canon?
A poet’s job is to rant and rave about the world in all of its ruin, beauty, and cruelty. The south, this small pocket of southern Louisiana, is my world and I will never run out of ways to sing about it. At the same time, I love poetry that is from landscapes and experiences other than mine—I give thanks for other poets daily. One poet doesn’t make the canon any more than a single region or particular life experience does.
The notion that "locally-focused" poetry has to justify its place in the canon is troubling. It implies that my work, and this is just one example, being from and of the south, has to do a little something extra to be considered "worthy" of critical attention or acclaim. A great poem belongs in the canon because it has staying power, and probably that staying power is connected to the fact that the poem taps into the universal that everyone can feel. Geography should have nothing to do with it.
It seems to me that a "good" southern writer must be doubly good, because there is this additional stigma to overcome. If I were in NYC writing about the subway, nobody would call me a "locally-focused poet." I’d simple be called a writer. I hate to think that someone is passing my book along and saying something like, "Well, these are regional poems, but they’re pretty good."
I think southerners are perceived as being afflicted—outsiders are so willing to bash the south, and then, when the land is in ruins, happy to swoop in and write about our losses for us. Oh, how I resent this. I mean to the point that it makes me inarticulate.
How do you know when a poem is finished, and do you always write the lines of your poem in order?
I don’t ever really know when a poem is finished, outside of my intuition. I think that most of the time what happens is that I am finished with the subject, and move on to something new. I have ruined more pieces by trying to continue than by stopping and I try to remember that when I am nearing the end of a poem.
One thing I have learned recently is that the poem is better if I start it and finish it as close together as possible—for me this would be not in one sitting, but over the course of a few days. If I stretch out the composition process for too long, I lose the original impulse or spark that got me going, and when I do return to it the poem feels strange, as though it belongs to someone else.
I would say that generally I write my lines in order, with a lot of scratch outs along the way. Any fiddling with this is usually at the end of the poem, where I have to move things around, or at the very beginning if the opening lines don’t startle me and establish the tone of the poem.
Is there a place in Louisiana or an experience that you haven’t felt you’re able to write about?
I know of some things I would never tell, and there are situations that I choose, out of respect, not to write about. I also might stop myself if I were writing a poem that was purely mean.
What challenges did you feel you had to overcome, or feel like you’re still overcoming, when it comes to writing about something personal or people close to you?
It’s not the writing so much as it is the reading in public! In my first book I hid behind personas a lot. I used to kid myself and say that even first-person poems from the poet’s life would be seen as removed. But both of my books with U. Akron poems, Hurricane Party in particular, were personal books, and I still tremble a bit when I read certain poems. My current project is even more personal. Doubly so. I’m taking my sweet time finishing it.
This interview was conducted by Mary Biddinger's Spring 2013 NEOMFA Craft & Theory of Poetry and Publishing class at The University of Akron: Jimmy Bigley, Sharon Cebula, Sarah Dravec, Jacob Euteneuer, Genevieve Jencson, Meg Johnson, Nathan Kemp, Kati Mertz, Ellene G. Mobbs, Krysia Orlowski, Katrina Pelow, Tina Puckett, Nicholas Reali, Mirissa Rini, Jessica Smith, Brew Wilson-Battles