I spoke with the poet Alessandra Lynch on a rainy, October Sunday. We were hoping to conduct our interview at one of the many wild spaces in Indianapolis, as both of us feel more at home in nature. We had our hearts set on the 100 Acres Art and Nature Park at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (a favorite for us both), but the skies had other plans.
Instead, we had our conversation on her screened in back porch–rustic and wooden, full of collected natural objects, books, and paintings by Alessandra, as well as artwork created by her two boys. We spoke over lemon-ginger tea and the sound of rainfall, interspersed with interruptions from our children: each of us have two boys; they are ages 5, 6, 7 and 8, and create quite the wild rumpus whenever we get together! In fact, during much of this interview they were running around outside in the rain with sticks and plastic weapons, and came inside soaked to the bone by the time we were through.
Full disclosure: our children are close, as we are close. I met Alessandra in 2009 when I was a poetry MFA grad student at Butler University. She would later become my thesis advisor, and after graduation, our friendship grew into something life sustaining for me. Beyond Alessandra’s supreme talent with words, she is also known to be something of a counselor and empathic mentor to many in our poetic community.
But that supreme talent of hers is what I was there to discuss, though I knew her wisdom pertaining to life and relationships would also come through. And it did.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Alessandra grew up in New York but now lives in Indianapolis with her husband and teaches poetry at Butler University. She has published three collections of poetry: Sails the Wind Left Behind (winner of the New York/ New England Award from Alice James Books, 2002), It was a terrible cloud at twilight (winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Award, Pleaides/LSU Press, 2008) and most recently, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (Alice James Books).
Though Daylily centers around extreme trauma–an experience of sexual assault–the book follows an arc from erasure of self to emergence of self in the physical, as well as psychic world. The book itself, 101 pages, is an artifact meticulously honed and imbued with Alessandra’s fantastical music. She dedicates the book to “survivors” and has said that it is not for survivors of physical assault alone, but survivors of any emotional or physical trauma. Indeed, anyone alive on this mess of an Earth is surviving something and can find resonance in Alessandra’s words.
I attended a September reading of hers at Indy Reads Books, where her husband, the writer Chris Forhan, introduced her and stated that “each of these poems has been through their own dark night of the soul.” I thought that description particularly apt and furiously took notes through her reading, jotting down gorgeous fragments from her poems that one after the other struck me like little bolts of her signature lightning:
“It was air that had forced me down,
pinned me, heaved till I
became little of a self”
to-pull, are you ready
“Fox in the woods today, an emblem
of female. Bee flew past a puddle–”
“following the unseen, sniffing for evidence
that it had been”
“Rape felt stripped. And spare. Brute.”
“Shame is her orientation”
“can’t find the body that belongs to my voice”
“you have to be a god to get away with it
and the women always turning
into something else: bull-flower, frog, that laurel tree she asked to be
I don’t need a god to tell me to turn into a fox”
“Daylily called it a dangerous moment. It teetered”
“I walked through myself, holding
with tenderness her wilted headdress.”
These are just some of Alessandra’s brilliant lines, but you will find that Daylily is full of brilliance to its brim: open any page to confirm it. If you don’t own her book already, I hope you will give it a try. And at the very least, I hope you will read our conversation and glean something from it. We open with Alessandra’s epic retelling of the “creation myth” of how Daylily came into being:
Natalie: At your recent poetry reading at Indy Reads Books, Chris (Forhan) mentioned that you were “married to these poems before you were married to him.” How far back do some of the poems in Daylily go? When did you begin working on them?
Alessandra: OK. I will now proceed to tell you the Creation Myth, or really the Creation Story of the book. I never set down to write on this subject, never thought to do it consciously; that ‘s not how I work anyway. I tend to have a phrase come into my head and I follow that phrase. It’s more just this intuitive thing; it’s more just a discovery of my subject as opposed to starting with my idea or subject in mind, and I think a lot of poets have this. This is how we make things. If you don’t, you know, you’re not surprising yourself if you’re not discovering anything. And for me, especially, there’s no song in my work if I’m thinking of an idea to write about. It just kind of flattens the language out, which feels horrible.
N: Yes. Exactly.
A: I was fortunate enough to have a fellowship at Yaddo in 2005. It was two months long, which is just an incredible amount of time and space and it was a very generous gift and thrilling. I brought my old IBM typewriter, which is blue and bulky and named Gertrude, after the famous Gertrude Stein.
A: And every morning I had a little routine. I would have a couple of sips of coffee and I would run for about 5 miles on the trails through the woods into Saratoga. Then I would come back and I would have a little breakfast and then go to my studio and it occurred to me that I wanted write meditations. I just loved the feeling of the word meditations.
A: I typed the word “meditation” at the top of the page, and I’ll never forget that very first day being there, I was typing, and a poem just fell out. And it was very short and lyrical and I was really excited and I still felt that “poetic light” that C. D. Wright talks about; I felt that I was in that right space in my head and body. So, I typed “meditation 2” under it and I wrote another and then I wrote another and another.
And I spent two months doing that. It was very thrilling and unprecedented. I had never had that kind of experience writing before; then again I had never had that kind of time and space for writing before. But sometimes even with the time and space, some elements don’t come together or coalesce to create that poetic light or sustaining quality of mind.
So anyway, summer of 2005 I left with about 100 meditations, these small, lyrical poems that seemed that they were wrestling with the idea of having a body, and having a body that desired. They were kind of like lyrical love poems in a way with a bunch of yearning in them. I showed them to a friend and she said, “Oh it’s a book!” But I myself felt that I don’t care whatever happens to these poems because I had this sort of mystical experience writing them. I didn’t care whether or not I published them; I just wanted to stay in that experience more.
However, these poems weren’t as alive as poems need to be alive to make up a book. They were kind of striking the same note. There wasn’t enough dynamism in the collection as a book itself. I’ m still very fond of them, and a number of them turned up here in Daylily! Those were the first poems in the book.
N: Oh, do you remember which ones?
A: I do! Can I look at my book here?
N: hahaha Yes!
A: So, the poems that used to be meditations: “pond & flies,” “adios,” “I lose the street to the street to the street,” “When the yellow bird dropped,” “Fox in the woods today, an emblem,” “When the body revoked itself,” “ I was flat as pool water,” ” I tear the questions into little squares,” “I beg to turn back,” “Can thinking wend a way,” and actually all the poems in section VII are from the meditation poems. So, that was 2005.
Now, let’s just fly swiftly and surely into the future to 2007, when I had another two month stint at Yaddo. I was in a very different place psychically, of course, as we all are when two years have passed, but no less grateful to be at Yaddo. I was going through a time in my life that made me feel very restless, more restless than usual, very kind of agitated, and I was thinking back very fondly to my previous time at Yaddo, and I started writing “agitations.” I started out as kind of having a joke with myself, but it turned out that I started writing about the assault. Initially they were kind of oblique and more suggestive. I remember there were days when I said to myself that I’ve gotta confront this because it does seem to be an important thing; it’s starting to surface. Maybe I was kind of hiding, even. It was startling to me because I had not allowed myself to think about it at all. And the assault happened when I was 25.
N: And to give the reader some sense of time. . .
A: This was about 20 years after it happened. . . I just wrote and wrote these “agitations” and I thought I had this second book. So, I had these two manuscripts and about five years later, I realized that these needed to be together. But anyway, it was a slow process to put them together and then to sequence them. It took me another three years to figure out that there was a burgeoning narrative in the book; that the arc of the book could be a narrative. The whole process of the book was very slow.
N: And in the meantime, you got married and had kids. . .
A: Yes! In the meantime: 2008 I got married; 2009 I had a kid; 2010 I had another kid.
N: Can we tell everyone that you met your husband at Yaddo?
A: Yes, I met Chris Forhan, poet and memoirist, at Yaddo while I was working on my “agitations” and I even shared some of them with him, and he found them quite strong and gave me a lot of great critique for them and helped me immeasurably in terms of sequencing them. I think we all need help a lot of help in shaping and sequencing our books and making them beautiful and crafted. We all need those extra eyes, and he has very, very fine eyes for this type of work. So, I am very grateful for him and for my times at Yaddo, which helped me write these poems. I know I needed to write these poems; there was an urgency in writing these and an inevitability about these poems happening.
So then I did what everyone does: I sent the manuscript to various contests and publishers, and I got lots and lots of warm, positive attention. The book was a finalist and semifinalist at various contests, etc, which was good because I realized people were understanding that this was a book that was worthy of being published, but I was frustrated because no one was saying what was missing from it. So I started thinking more about the subject matter more of the book; I had been tentative about it. I wasn’t really thinking about the subject matter so much until one editor suggested moving a particular poem to the front, and then I realized, “Whoa. That poem has been hiding. I have been hiding.” A lot of the process of writing the poems and sequencing for the book had to do with concealing and revealing. And we know that every poem does that anyway, there is a level of disclosure . . . the trick is understanding the balance in that, so that we still feel what is inexpressible through words can be felt through space and juxtapositions of things. Also, when are we burying the heart? When are we like, presenting the heart as a complex, faceted thing? All of that was kind of difficult and challenging and rewarding, but I have to say that as I kept revealing and uncovering the narrative, I started to feel more vulnerable, and I started really second guessing the poems and myself and everything and I started to be able to . . . feel.
N: Yeah, so one of my other questions is related to that, but I guess we need to go back and wrap up the creation story-
A: -because it’s still not done! (laughter) So, on to the last part of the creation story: Alice James took the book and I was so happy; I adore Carey Salerno. She has an amazing vision and the Alice James books are getting better and better because of her shrewdness and wisdom and support and tenderness.
And after the book was accepted, I had a two week fellowship at MacDowell and there I was, puttering along on my typewriter, and I started writing about the assault and I was wondering, What is this doing here? I thought I was done writing about this! So, what do I do? I followed the pull of the language, and I ended up writing this long poem that actually ended up being a central, important poem in the book: the “P. S. Assault” poem. And I showed the poem to Carey and asked her if she thought we should include it in the book, and she said “Absolutely.” And that was such a gift, and also what a gift it was to have that time and space, that she wasn’t publishing the book immediately. What’s most compelling to me about my own creation story is the fact of time.
Poets are still civilians and we rush around and we have jobs and responsibilities, but you cannot rush the things are that most beautiful and valuable. We need to spend more time and honor ourselves and others by spending more time writing and reading. It’s just incredible that I had all these opportunities and eventually-
N: -things just came together. So, one of the things that poets talk about is that in order to write quality poetry, we must ‘risk’ something, whether it be style or substance, but how much of a factor do you feel risk is in creating good poetry? What is risk to you?
A: That’s such a great question-
N: It’s very hard to define.
A: It is! It is. I often say that to my students, you know, “take an emotional risk. . . ”
N: I think when I was in school, I always heard that, but I had no idea what it meant. I think I kind of do now, now that I feel I am taking some risk in my work, but it is still very hard to define.
A: Yes, we’re not going to be able to come up with a precise definition, but let’s come up with a working definition right now. I think risk has something to do with authenticity, with allowing yourself to be absolutely committed to your own vision and your own voice. I think of the Robert Bly quote about opening your body to your own grief. Just being open, open, open and receptive, receptive, receptive and willing, willing, willing to face those things that flood through without judging them or shrinking from them.
When I have taken a risk emotionally or stylistically, I can feel it in my body. I feel wide open. The phrases feel alive and alert, almost like animals and birds and it feels like they came through me, like I wasn’t in charge of anything, really.
N: That’s a really good definition!
A: It’s a beginning of a definition. It’s really hard to teach that, though. How do we cultivate a mind space and an environmental space which permits us or helps us ease into this? And that’s tricky too, because there is no formula for these things.
But I know when I was at Yaddo, I had this whole community of artists around me, all intent on creating something authentic, true, beautiful, etc. And I think even the reverberations of that community are like a womb. It’s like a real protective place to take those kinds of risks.
N: And I think that being drawn to write about something that scares me, it can come out poorly at first. I don’t know how to write about this new stuff, whereas maybe I knew how to write the old way. I know how to write a formula for this certain type of poem that I know I can publish, but writing about something new; it might not come easily, but you still need to do that thing that is drawing you, that is more alive. . . Also, in thinking about writing about certain subject matters, sometimes I really worry about the audience and how it’s going to be received because I just don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s very difficult subject matter!
A: You just have to sink deeply in yourself and it has to be coming from your experience, coming from your vision, because if you start thinking about other people, then it’s no longer your poem.
The other thing about the “agitations” story is that I was pacing while I wrote those. I would type a little bit on the laptop, type a little on Gertrude, scribble a little in my journal. It didn’t just all come out peacefully like the meditations, everything was jagged. . .
N: That’s something that is important for people to hear: that it doesn’t always come out in a beautiful, peaceful process. I know there are many poems that I’ve written, that are stronger poems, where I was just crying and a mess while I was writing them. In fact, I’ve written things that have sort of triggered me or sent me into some sort of spiral because they revealed things that I was trying to hide from myself that were painful and upsetting. Sometimes you unearth things that you are subconsciously burying. And unfortunately, often times those poems feel more powerful, or people resonate more with those.
A: Yes, but in terms of crafting the poem, ultimately there’s gotta be a certain objective feeling about it. But initially, we when we are writing our first drafts, we laugh, we cry, we yodel, we bark, I don’t know. . .
But yeah, the risk thing. It almost feels like for me that it’s not gonna be a real poem to me anymore, it’s not gonna be my poem if I’m not feeling that edge in it, that surprise in it. And I can tell, I mean, I’m writing new poems now, and I say “Well, “that’s a perfectly fine poem”, but if it doesn’t have life in it, I say “Where’s the blood here?”
N: It’s like certain poems have a shorter life span. Like I can write a poem that feels like a ‘perfectly fine poem’ but then when I go back to read it later after a couple of days, I think, “Oh, that’s kind of boring,” and I don’t feel like working on it or tinkering with it. The ones that have a lot of life in them, you constantly want to be working on.
A: Yes, the poems that have a lot of energy and risk in them, I literally carry them around in my pockets to continuously work on because I am so excited about them. And those other poems that we were talking about, those ‘perfectly fine poems,’ they help us exercise line making, and music making and image making, but they just don’t have the psychic weight; they’re not full-blooded things.
N: What do you make of the 10,000 hour theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that after we put in 10,000 hours of practice, that we will be experts or we will have mastered our art?
A: Oh, my goodness. I always innately distrust when people say, “You’ve gotta do this thing to get that thing.” I also think that some people just level out, which is a shame because you always want writers to keep evolving and growing. I also think that our bodies change,and if we’re not changing with our bodies, than that means that we’re not changing along with our art.
N: Well, I was just reading about this because of teaching composition classes, and a lot of Gladwell’s readings are taught in these classes, and I was watching videos of Gladwell, and I was just thinking that there is certainly truth in it, that you definitely have to practice, but I don’t know that it’s a formula that you put in a certain number of hours and then you become a genius! haha
A: haha. . . Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice, but I don’t know that I’d want to be a genius.
N: And like you said, even if someone produces a book or work of art that is at a genius level, we all know that they can have a decrease in quality or quit evolving or-
A: -they can come complacent. I guess the point is that writing is a process and it’s a practice, but what if you’re not engaged, and you’re just sitting down and doing your writing every day like-
N: -like a robot!
N: OK, so what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve gotten from a mentor, since you are my mentor. . .
A: Aww . . .
N: I know you studied with Gerald Stern and-
A: -Tom Lux, my beloved Tom Lux. Tom was first teacher at Sarah Lawrence. I think that Tom, his first piece of advice was just: read, read, read everything and anything. That was really his biggest piece of advice that I took to heart. And Gerry, Gerald Stern once said to me, “You have all this lightning and you need to find a way to ground it.” And I think I’ve spent my whole life as a poet trying to figure out how to ground myself.
N: Wow! That’s such an interesting piece of advice and such a powerful metaphor!
A: It is, isn’t it? It’s beautiful. I think that over the years, every time I think of that, I think it means something different, or I take it in a different way. When I was younger, I thought that it meant I needed to write more narratively, but then I realized that lyricism is really my heart. And my first poems, when I was a child, were walking through the woods and making up songs, and that’s really what I’m all about. But now I feel that grounding the lightning has more to do with what we were talking about in terms of taking risks.
N: How important to you think it is for poets to have mentors?
A: Well, I think if we are readers, we all have mentors. I am thinking about Emily Dickenson, and her mentors were the people she read. But we all want to be loved, right? And a good mentor, in part, reaffirms us, and helps us nurture ourselves as artists.
N: And I should say too, that maybe not just having mentors, but having relationships with peers and other poets who are friends . . .
A: Yeah, I think we are all having conversations all the time with other poets through our books and also in person with those who are still alive who we can have lemon-ginger tea with. It all depends on the artist as to how important a physical mentor is to them. Plus, some of us aren’t lucky enough to have a good mentor. Or our friends are our mentors. Or our children are our mentors. Or our cats are our mentors.
I think that just by virtue of writing a poem, even if you live in a cave in a hill, you are still part of the poetic discussion and you are still receiving mentorship from the people you read and you’re are still a part of the community or communion with other writers.
It’s an intimate act. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong. He was visiting Butler recently, and talked about how he started writing poems as postcards to friends, and he said that writing poems is an intimate act between writer and reader.
N: I was going to ask you about revision because I don’t really like revising, and I always want to just write new poems. . .
A: Well, I am going to say three things in response to that: one is that if you’re feeling that, you’re probably not ready to revise those poems and another is that the writing of the new poems is the revision and lastly, you’re rushing it.
N: What is your revision process like?
A: It’s a mess! When I want to have communion with words, when I want to write, I have about five different folders, and for no other reason than that all the things I have won’t fit into one. So, I just rummage through the things and look around and find something that catches fire for me, and if I find something that I want to work on, it’s a physical feeling in my body. And then I’ll go back in, and it can be really great or frustrating because I might have misperceived that I’m ready to do it, and if I start doing bad stuff to it, I just stop. It’s a very intuitive process for me. Nearly every aspect of writing poetry has a large degree of intuition involved.
N: From what I know about you, you could just look in your book Daylily right now, and start revising. . .
A: Yeah, yeah. Mostly, it’s just taking words out.
N: Well, we’ve been talking for awhile, and I just a have a couple questions left. Is there a question that you wish someone would ask you about your book?
A: You have really great questions! That’s a good question.
N: Well, I stole that. I don’t remember from who. I think it was from Kaveh (Akbar)!
A: Well, I guess we all want our poems to reach people, to enrich them, to move, to help, and for this particular book-
N: You have a lovely dedication in this book “For the survivors.”
A: Yes, I just want this book to be able to help someone; that’s my biggest hope for the book. It feels very important to me that it helps someone else.
N: Yes. I’m sure that it is helping people right now who are reading it.
OK, now we have to go to my kind-of silly questions. You were raised in New York, but you’ve lived Indianapolis for 9 years. Do you feel like an Indianapolis resident?
A: Well, since I wasn’t raised here, I don’t know what that means. And also, aren’t there different kinds of Indianapolis residents? We’re near Broad Ripple, which feels like-
N: Do you feel Broad-Ripple-ian?
A: Well, even when I lived in New York, I didn’t feel like a New Yorker. I just feel that wherever I live, I don’t feel like I belong to a place. Sometimes the New Yorker seeps out, and I feel myself exhibiting that stereotypical New Yorker, like what people see on TV. So sometimes I feel like more of a New Yorker since living here.
I always feel I’m more like milkweed, rather than being defined by a state or a place.
N: I just wondered if you feel grounded to this place? Has your lightning grounded itself in Indianapolis? Because I’ve been here for like 13 years and especially since I’ve had kids, I just feel like this is my place now, I feel more connected here, like Indianapolis is my city.
A: Yes, because of the children. I think the children help me root to this place, and also my gardening, as well as trees and birds-a lot of the Indianapolis birds help me to root to this place. Let me tell you a story-
The other day, I was on Butler campus; it was about 6 o’clock and I heard an owl. So I just stood there and looked up into the tree and I heard the owls calling back and forth with another owl and then I heard this little bird skittering away, and then this enormous owl opened it’s gorgeous wings, and chased the little bird right in front of me. And speaking of electricity, my whole body felt electric.
N: Wow. I almost feel like you conjured that experience by having that owl poem as the last poem in your book-
A: Yes! And the story doesn’t end there. I was having workshop the other night, and I was telling my students about the owl story and I was making the owl noise- hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo. And then one of my students said, “Look!” And right outside the window was a hawk. And he was looking at me, thinking, “You’re no owl.” And the whole class was transfixed.
Maybe this is a good place to end this interview. Maybe the next book will have a hawk in it!
N: Thank you so much!
A: Thank you so much. I just feel that what you’re doing for the poetry world in Indianapolis and the greater poetry world, and your own work is so gorgeous and you’re just being an excellent poetry citizen. . .
N: Thank you so much. You are too kind!