TM Moody: The opening epigraph to your book, This Last Time Will Be the First, is this hilariously sad letter from John Clare to an unidentified “Dear Sir.” Clare admits, “I […] quite forget your Name or who you are,” which doesn’t stop him from trying to communicate. In your poem “Understanding Oliver Twist,” you write, “A person is considered crazy if / they only have one story to tell. / And every orphan has at least two.” So, how many stories do you have to tell? And can you talk a bit about how your understanding of audience affects how you tell stories?
JA Alessandrelli: I don’t know that I ever really think about audience. I think most writers or at least most poets don’t have those considerations in their head when they’re writing. If they want to get into The Atlantic or The New Yorker maybe some do. I guess this also depends on the framework—if you’re writing an advice column and you’re a poet or if you’re writing something on a larger scale—I guess you think about audience. But I personally don’t. And I’m friends with a fair amount of poets and I don’t think any of them do either. I mean, I want to be read; that’s the thing I want most. I don’t care about tenure or getting a job. I’d like people to read my work, so that probably means I should pay more attention to that type of stuff, but I’m also not going to change the way I write or what I want to write solely to get into this or that magazine or win this or that prize.
TM: Do you think that’s what Clare’s getting at in his letter—wanting to be read but not having an audience in mind? There’s someone he’s communicating with but he really has no idea who that person is.
JA: I’ve never read a Clare biography, but he was in a mad house. So in the parlance of nineteenth-century Britain he was technically insane but had a desire to communicate and had a desire to write and to still get thoughts and language—whether sane or insane—across to people. Even Dickinson wanted to be read, though we think of her as not caring about that. She wrote to the critic Thomas Higginson to ask if her poems were “alive,” which implies she wanted her poems to live and breathe in the greater world. Perhaps she wasn’t as strident as Whitman, who wrote some of his own reviews and really really wanted to be read. I mean, I regularly send out my poems and try to publish. If I write something that I like and think it’s worthy of publication I’m willing to put in the effort and that involves—for me at least—a lot of rejection and the occasional acceptance. But if I write something I believe in I do have a desire to do that type of thing. In my opinion my hard drive isn’t that great a reader of my poetry…
TM: We shared an office for a number of years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. One day, taped to the bare white wall in front of my desk, was a large, black-and-white photo of Ashbery’s face on which you scribbled, “I’ll cut you TM.” Next to it was a small cut out of Pound’s “Notes for Canto CXX,” which begins “I have tried to write paradise.” You amend this statement in your poem “Understanding Ezra Pound” when you say, “I am writing paradise. / (I am not trying to write it.)” In a poem, what, to your mind, is paradise?
JA: Poetically, paradise for me (and I think for any writer engaged in writing on a day-to-day basis) is something that’s unattainable. Again, I think—maybe this was different for Dante or Milton or others in different periods—if I get too content with what I’m doing and if I think “this poem’s great and my last poem was great and the next one’s going to be great” (and I guess “great” would be analogous with “paradise” here) then I get too comfortable and want to move on. And this has nothing to do with publishing or any of that. This is not groundbreaking, but if I’m too happy with what I’m doing it probably means I’m not doing what I can be or should be doing experimentally, artistically, all of those big, cliché catch words. Paradise means I’m a little too comfortable with and in my work. At the same time, paradise is always ungraspable. As it was for Pound. The Cantos were never finished. If you read his Paris Review interview from 1962 he said something along the lines of, “Yeah I’m in a rut, I started writing this however many years ago, and I was trying to write a Paradiso and it turned out the opposite.” Because history and what he wanted to write didn’t align with the way things actually happened.
TM: I know you have an interest and background in creative nonfiction. This is certainly apparent in the numerous facts throughout your book, especially in “Believing Evel Knievel,” as well as the engagement with authors and artists in the “Understanding” poems. Obviously you’re still interested in research. Why have you gravitated toward poetry?
JA: As an undergrad, I was a lit major and history minor. Even in high school, I liked history and English classes the best. When I was younger I didn’t read a whole lot of creative nonfiction books and the word “essay” didn’t really stimulate me, so I didn’t give myself that option. On the other hand, as I got older I was more interested in nonfiction and wrote more long-form things and took a lot of essayish classes at Portland State University from great non-fiction writers like Paul Collins. But it takes a lot of work to write a good creative nonfiction piece; it’s not like a poem—you know, I try to write a poem a week, sometimes it’s two per week, sometimes two per month. And I don’t particularly love (or write) long poems, which also take a lot of time and investment. And when I was younger I didn’t have that kind of time and investment in non-fiction in me. A lot of the stuff like that that I enjoy is very engaged on a ground level with quotes, history, facts, on-the-field reporting, introspective from-the-desk reporting, etc. A whole lot of stuff that I didn’t know that I’d be willing to do, which is kind of sad to say but also the truth.
On the other hand I got into poetry and writing through the Beats. A book like On the Road—when I was a sophomore in high school—combined a whole lot of nonfiction elements into a fictional work. On the Road was entirely derived from Kerouac’s actual life yet it’s still considered a novel, a work of fiction— names have been changed, timelines interrupted and dilated, etc. Junky by Burroughs, Ginsberg’s Howl, Corso—a lot of those writers combined elements. I haven’t gone back to the Beats in years at this point, but when I was young they seemed to have the best of both worlds. Meaning that they could utilize something from the real world and at the same time meld it to the imaginative world and then call it whatever they wanted to. And it seemed like most of the time they simply called it literature. They didn’t call it nonfiction. Again, this was in high school, but to a certain degree those influences changed my literary perspective and scope.
TM: At your old house in Nebraska, you’d always have certain books on your coffee table, one or two in the bathroom that you would enjoy during hot baths, and some on your bed table. What are you reading these days?
JA: I just finished a book by Scott Carrier called Prisoner of Zion. He’s a great non-fiction writer; I teach his book Running after Antelope a lot. I’m dipping into Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. On my table right now are Robert Frank’s book of photographs The Americans and Miranda July’s book of essays/interviews/photographs It Chooses You. I just finished a Beckett short story called “Dante and the Lobster.” In the bathroom I was reading an old interview with John Ashbery from the 1970’s that I printed out at my work. A short story collection by Caren Beilin called Americans, Guests, or Us. I read pretty widely, and I tend to go in phases. Sometimes I’ll just read one novel and focus on that. But at the same time I always read poems. Essentially my reading habits are variously varied, which no doubt shows up in my own work. In a recent review of my book in The Rumpus the reviewer said the poems were BuzzFeed-esque, and from what I understand he meant that they included (seemingly) random facts and lists. He didn’t mean the Buzzfeed thing as a diss, but I don’t think my poems are random. Like everything, they take a hodgepodge of stuff and attempt to turn it into a whole. Are there any poets who only read poetry? What the fuck were Marianne Moore and Wally Stevens reading?
TM: Laughter comes up a number of times in your book, and your poems are often funny. And personally, I know you enjoy a good chuckle over Vietnamese salad rolls or a Moscow Mule. What kinds of poems do you find funny, and how do you think about humor in your own writing?
JA: I work at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland and I recently taught a class there on comedy in poetry writing. We read stuff by S.E. Smith, Sarah Manguso, Anne Carson, James Tate, a Robert Frost poem, a Michael Earl Craig poem, an Edson poem, even a Dickinson poem. The normal stuff pretty much. What I find funny in poetry a lot of the time is sincerity. To a certain degree, our world is steeped in irony—there’s a constant veil on what you’re saying, how you say it, what you mean. Some of the poems we discussed in that comedy in poetry writing class are sincere to the point where they’re almost comical. Meaning they really really mean what they say. We didn’t laugh out loud at any of them, and some certainly had ironic elements, but sometimes what I find funny—or surprising, engaging, alarming—is sincerity, earnestness. You know, I don’t go to poetry to laugh. There’s a prose poem called “The Wise Man” by Suzanne Buffam that’s really forthright—straightforward sentences that are cut-and-dry and it’s funny based on that. Again, it has its ironic elements because the speaker writing the poem is not a wise man and is enumerating all of the ways that he or she is not wise. And there’s no innuendo, it’s very black and white, and that kind of straightforwardness is comical because we so rarely get it.
Sincerity’s a word that gets overused nowadays, though, of course. But it might still mean something to some people.
TM: I’ve seen you read many times, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you inhabit your poems. Can you talk about why you read the way you do? And what do you like to see when you go to a poetry reading?
JA: What I like to see is investment in the fact that you’re reading on a stage. Even if you’re reading in a dank basement to 6 people, 5 of whom you know, you’re still on-stage while you’re reading, the focal point of attention. It’s the same thing with teaching, which is performative. So I try to be engaged in what I’m reading. For the most part, I read poems that I think translate to the ear, that are more narrative—some of which I don’t even think are my best—because they have storyish elements that might come across easier or more direct. I also try to be in tune with the fact that for ten minutes I’m going to be in front of people—I kind of have a deep voice, I wouldn’t say I’m loud, but I’m not shy about reading something that I believe in in a manner in which makes clear that I believe in it. Sometimes I memorize things, sometimes I just kind of shout. But I’m aware that I’m the center of attention—or should be— while I’m reading.
TM: We’ve both been through probably too many poetry workshops in our lives, and a common maxim in that setting is to avoid adjectives and adverbs unless they’re doing important work. Well, I’ve always loved how you use interesting adjectives and adverbs quite liberally in your poems. What do you like about those parts of speech?
JA: Honestly? I’ve never actually heard that maxim before in any of my poetry workshops, which might mean that I haven’t taken enough. Or that the poetry workshop experience is so subjective from teacher to teacher, place to place. But for me at least adjectives and adverbs are a double-edged sword in that if you use them properly it’s only going to be better decoration for the house that is the poem—you’re going to have nice curtains, window lattices and all that. But overkill can be easy too—i.e. in front of your nice house you might also have the carcasses of two cars in the driveway. It’s a fine line and I think the balance point just differs from writer to writer. I like George Oppen’s spartan use of adjectives, but I also like the “throw everything and see what sticks” approach of Phillip Whalen or Alice Notley. I namedrop too much because normally I use adjectives and adverbs to bulk the there that isn’t there.
TM: Let’s talk about your youth. You write, “Sometimes I read / the approaching landscape / wrong, the way I / once did as a child.” You’re from Reno, the setting of the excellent Reno 911!, and you’ve lived in many other places. You also write, “People are places are places are people.” So, as a child, what prepared you for poetry? And how have these places informed your writing practice?
JA: I grew up kind of a jock for a while, and when I was a freshman in high school—though I had skated before—I started hanging out with people who skateboarded and snowboarded. None of those people were really interested in literature, so I was a bit of an anomaly. My mom used to read to me as a kid, and I liked reading and literature and books from a young age, which probably has more to do with my parents being open-minded, reading books to me, taking me to the library, rather than Reno itself. When I got arrested I actually did my community service at a library. But if I had been into movies, I think my parents would’ve taken me to movies. But I got into books, and they were always very nurturing. Regarding Reno, Portland, Nebraska, Colorado, California, Ireland (where I lived for a little bit)—it’s hard to say. I don’t write a lot of geographically destined poems. There was actually an art exhibition in Reno earlier this year, and an artist asked me to write a poem specifically for it, which I did, and it’s centered in Reno. Which was strange for me—to establish a setting and locale for a poem before actually writing the poem. When I lived in Nebraska, I think my poems to a certain degree were more isolated because I was ensconced in a smallish college town in the Midwest and I had some close friends but really my life was school, then home, then hanging out with my dog. And bars, friends. Whereas in Portland, there’s a lot going on culturally— poetry readings, music shows, art shows, fashion stuff. To an overwhelming degree that’s constantly happening. It makes me miss Nebraska’s isolation. But some writers are more concerned with where they live than other writers, and I’m kind of in the middle. I like the rain.
TM: In “(Sharks),” one of the final poems of your book, you write, “I hope to be creatively satisfied // in the same manner as the windmill / and jetstream.” Are you creatively satisfied?
JA: Well, the windmill and jetstream are continually moving, which goes back to what paradise is. I would say, yeah, I’m creatively satisfied. When I’m 100% finished with a piece of writing—which has nothing to do with if it’s published or not—I’d say yeah, I’m creatively satisfied for that instant. I was just listening to Marc Maron’s podcast WTF from 2010 with Robin Williams, and he asks Williams the same question—“You’ve won Oscars, you’ve had all these specials, are you content at this point?” He’s like, “Well, no: the high from the Oscar lasted a week,” etc. When it comes down to it, if you’re engaged in what you do, you want to keep doing it in ways that continually interest you, even if you’ve won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, any accolade. For people who through and through are really engaged and invested and wholeheartedly immersed in their art, creative satisfaction is, or at least should be, kind of an anomaly, because again you’re going to keep trying to do it in ways that stimulate you, and those ways should be different from what worked before. Again, this is nothing new. I’m a writer, so I’m going to write something else because that creative satisfaction doesn’t last too long.
TM: In the next poem, you write, “You lose it if you talk about it.” What is it, anyway?
JA: Well, that comes from The Book of Lieh-Tzu, a Taoist book. I’m someone who tends to dwell and overthink, and that’s an aspect of my personality—maybe it comes out in my writing, maybe not—that I hate. You know, sometimes not thinking is the best way to think. I’ve never been a “first thought, best thought” kind of guy, but that first thought is still an important impulse.
TM: Well, we’ve been talking about a lot of things. Are you worried you’ll lose some of them?
JA: No, because I’m very routine-oriented. Repetition works for me. You know, it was Lil Wayne who said, “Repetition is the father of learning.”
Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length collection THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST. Other work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Boston Review and four chapbooks. The name of Jeff’s dog is Beckett Long Snout. The name of Jeff’s chapbook press is Dikembe Press.
Trey Moody is the author of Thought That Nature (Sarabande Books, 2014), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, and several chapbooks, most recently the collaborative How We Remake the World (Slope Editions, 2012). He lives in San Marcos, Texas.