Interview by–Natalie Solmer
Nearly a decade ago, I graduated from the MFA program at Butler University. The experience of my MFA was life changing, mainly due to meeting Alessandra Lynch. She was my professor, and later, my mentor. In addition to being a phenomenal teacher and guide, Alessandra is an award-winning, accomplished poet. Here is a little more about her:
Alessandra Lynch is the author of four collections of poems, Sails the WindLeft Behind (Alice James Books), It was a terrible cloud at twilight (LSU Press, winnerof the Lena Miles-Wever Todd Award), Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment(finalist for the UNT Rilke Prize and the LATimes Book Prize, winner of the2017 Balcones Prize) and Pretty Tripwire (Alice James Books). Her recent work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, The New England Review, The Kenyon Review, and other literary journals. Alessandra was born on the East River and now lives with her family by a stony creek, two hackberry trees, and a magnolia trio. She is trying to grow a forest in her backyard while she serves as Poet-in-Residence at Butler University.
I have wanted to interview Alessandra for The Indianapolis Review for awhile now! We corresponded via email recently.
NS: I’m honored and also a bit daunted to be interviewing you! You are my long time mentor and friend, and I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview for The Indianapolis Review. I’m excited we’re finally doing this and that we get to talk about your fourth book, Pretty Tripwire, which was just released by Alice James Books. This book has been my companion for the last month or so, and it’s lovely to hold it in my hands and see so many of these pieces that I know come together and create this unified work, this body that is vibrating with life!
AL: In turn, I am thrilled and honored to be interviewed by you, Natalie! You’ve done such a fabulous job creating and editing The Indianapolis Review—it’s a gorgeous, inspired journal—fantastic art and poetry, a rich, supportive space.
NS: I hope this isn’t an odd question, but I have to ask it–the first thing I noticed when reading the new book is that you have a Roethke epigraph: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the shade; / I hear my echo in the echoing wood– / what falls away is always and is near.” You began your last book, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, with a Roethke epigraph as well: “Snail, snail, glister me forward, / Bird, soft-sigh me home, / Worm, be with me. / This is my hard time.” To give some background information on the books for readers who may not know, your third book, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment dealt primarily with sexual assault and trauma, whereas the subject matter in Pretty Tripwire ranges from disordered eating (and alludes that this is an after-trauma response), miscarriage, father and mother figures, children, and love relationship. The epigraphs might suggest an evolution from the ‘hard time’ to the speaker beginning ‘to see.’ I love Roethke, and I love both of these quotes, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the process of you choosing them and the significance.
AL: I appreciate odd questions, and I am grateful for your insight about the movement from “hard time” to beginning “to see”—yes! There is a psychic and structural shift from one book to the next.
Why Roethke? As the Greenhouse was for him, perhaps the woods encircling my childhood house in mid-state New York, for me. Skunk cabbage, wild geranium, glimpses of fox, deer, groundhog, occasional slip of garter snake, tiny stream I’d unplug by removing twigs and leaves, distant cut-glass blue sheen through the woods of Lake Kitchawan—a place to be alone with just my voice and the wind’s—a place I first stumbled across poetry when I was six, walking along, beginning to intone, then croon words to myself, following whatever rhythm and shape they took. It became a secret game I’d crave, certainly a self-soothing, and a self-empowering creative act. Amid the beech, birch, sycamore, cedar trees, I found a world I could breathe in without feeling stifled or terrified. Roethke’s poetry resonates with me on a psychic, emotional level.
Part of the epigraph for Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment: “Worm, be with me. / This is my hard time” rose naturally to my mind, especially since this is a book concerned with trauma. Ever since age 17 when I first read Roethke’s poem The Lost Son, those words have been in my consciousness—a refrain? A prayer? For my entire life, I have invoked and sought nature for comfort. As for the epigraph in Pretty Tripwire, the vast and ever vaster issues of I-ness, of selfhood returned me to Roethke. In order for my poetic eye “to see,” I’ve needed to immerse myself in my dark times, to meet my shadow, to hear my echo—all very challenging, urgent, and unbidden work. In doing all this seeing in Pretty Tripwire, I’ve essentially seen myself through to a new poetics, new shapes and voices are happening in my current work which would not have been possible without doing the work in Pretty Tripwire.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
What falls away is always and is near
The phrases in all these epigraphs have lived inside me ever since I was introduced to Roethke’s work by my beloved first poetry teacher, poet Tom Lux. I will always remember the deep tenderness and reverence I felt in Tom’s voice when he read Roethke aloud to us, his hands moving in time to Roethke’s rhythm, then his fist slowly, emphatically pounding on the table while he said: this is music, sheer music.
These epigraphs are surely in conversation; maybe this is the kind of conversation birds have—similar songs, nuanced difference. (“I hear my echo in the echoing wood—“)
I hope they help to create a bridge from one book to the next.
NS: A vital part of Pretty Tripwire is its use of the long poem. In your previous book, you had one very important long poem that was central to the book, “P. S. Assault.” In your new book, you have 8 long poems, which range from around 10–almost 20 pages each. I think it can be so challenging to write long poems–to keep up the pace, the interest, and to keep an element of surprise while still carrying a thread throughout the poem. You do all of these things so well! Can you talk about your process in writing this book and how the long poem became central to the shape of this book?
AL: The first long poem I wrote in Pretty Tripwire, “Wolf & Root” was written the summer of 2013, after I’d taught my first MFA Long Poem Workshop (at the behest of the brilliant poet, author of Testify and the forthcoming Trouble Funk,, once-student Doug Manuel).
Knee-deep in my garden, I was trying to weed out a singularly obdurate insidious root that was fanged with littler roots. I was furious and frustrated but I kept pulling. It seemed as though this root had invaded every inch of the garden. As I was toiling away, some lines of poetry floated up in that space of the head that’s part mind, part ear, part mouth and I dropped the root, headed into the house, and wrote them. I returned to the root, transformed, as I knew something potent, something poetry was in the making. That whole summer I returned to that poem; it became my childhood’s loss and longing, my motherhood’s wonder and wariness. I hadn’t intended to write a long poem, but those first lines bred many pages’ worth of poem.
By summer’s end, “Wolf & Root” had found its shape, and afterwards, I craved being in that ever-widening and deepening space and the possibilities of a new kind of singing; writing shorter lyrics didn’t feel as satisfying. The first incarnation of Pretty Tripwire was comprised of six long poems with an invocation poem. Then I paired a short poem—serving as portals or gateways—with each long poem. By the time my book had been accepted by Alice James, I’d written a slew of new poems which became the midsection of the book. I also wrote two new long poems. I think of these shorter lyric poems as inhalations—taking in the essential oxygen of friendship and care, while the longer poems serve as exhalations of once pent-up, partially-processed emotional experience.
The movement of the book from first to last poem–“Guarded” to “Coda: Late March beneath the earth”– is one from wariness, despair, and passivity to an active claiming of life, renewal, and possibility.
***(I actually wrote “P.S. Assault” some ten years after most of the other poems in Daylily had been written, and two years after I’d written “Wolf & Root.” I do very little in a linear, chronological manner. I write quickly but the process of actually creating a poem is quite slow for me, if that makes any sense.)
NS: Another thing I noticed regarding form in Pretty Tripwire is that your poems have exploded, so to speak! They have wild margins and indents, ragged edges. I admire the way you make your words leap across the page and do so in a way that reads as completely organic. What is your process like in editing the forms and shapes of your poems? Is it a completely different process from the initial draft, or does it work simultaneously?
AL: Wonderful question; I really love the phrase “They have wild margins and indents, ragged edges.” I would say it works simultaneously—the poems mainly tumbled out as they appear in Pretty Tripwire with some alterations along the way. Mine is a mainly intuitive process, even during revision. Over the years, space has become increasingly important to me as a highly expressive unit. I was quite hunched and quiet as a child, fearful of taking up space or making sounds. I think this has something to do with it.
The space happened naturally, organically, reflecting the movement of my mind perhaps or maybe it bespeaks a breaking through or a new expansiveness in my perception through the language that was falling on the page. Perhaps I had to widen the margins to go deeper, I had to listen more intently so I needed more space; I had to absorb my own words through the new uses of space. The shape of the psyche of these poems is different than those in my other books—hence, different navigation of space. It was not a conscious choice so much as a thrilling stumbling-upon a new way of being on the page.
My editing process always involves reading the words aloud over and over again, so I can hear where they need to be, or if they need to be at all.
Writing is generative and organic. Sometimes we forget that it comes from within our bodies as much as our psyches; and as our own physical and psychic structures shift and change over time, so does our work. As we have very little say in how our bodies evolve, same with poems. I run on intuition. The consciousness appears later in the process—sometimes much later! In fact as the galleys were being sent to the printers, I finally saw how much symmetry is in Pretty Tripwire—symmetries I hadn’t consciously wrought.
NS: Another aspect of craft that stuck out to me was your use of italics. One poem, “Supplication,” is made up entirely of italics. Acting as a frontispiece of the book and reading as a sort-of prayer (“small indispensable mouth of fate“), reading this poem in all italics makes it seem to me as if it should be chanted or sung. Other poems, mainly the long poems, contain a mix of italics and regular type. The italics are not only used to mark dialogue, as they do; they also seem to mark actions and passages of importance. Here is an excerpt from the stunning poem, “Wolf & Root,” “Gleaming dark as a bomb in the yard beyond, / the machinery that makes the house tick / is exquisite. A kind of generator. My habit is to stiffly circle / its pretty tripwires. My habit: avoid talking about it.” Can you give us some insights into this use of italics throughout the book?
AL: Yes! “Supplication” should be intoned! It is inward, yes, a “sort-of prayer” (I love that!), and it is followed by a poem all in quotation marks—a spoken utterance—that then leads into the first part of “Thinning” which is written in the third person—so there is a gradual moving into the voice and stories of this book.
As Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World states: “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation.”
I love how italics can add texture and tone and other voices to the voice in a poem. They were an important tool for me to keep the longer poems energetic, alive. I hope they help with orientation, navigation, nuance, and tone.
NS: Pretty Tripwire was just released in January 2021. We are obviously still dealing with a global pandemic, though there are signs of improvement and potential normalcy (what is ‘normal’ anymore?). I was wondering how you feel about releasing a book during this time? What plans do you have for its release? Are you going to be doing Zoom readings, etc.? What are your hopes for this book and its journey?
AL: Strange, strange time to have a new book in the world, or anything new in a world that feels so fraught with danger. It has been a terribly heavy year—the pandemic of Covid, the ongoing pandemic of racism, of violence. Or maybe this is precisely the right time for new creations to abound in our world?
In any case, I am always thrilled to gather my poems together and find the book in them; and I am tremendously grateful that I can release them into the world where they might reach someone, move someone, ignite more art. That is my hope anyway.
At first I thought I’d wait and do readings in person when it was safe to do so. Lately I’ve been feeling a sense of incompletion: the poems need to be read aloud for them to be fully given. I love reading aloud and with each reading, I experience and understand each poem in a new way—a bit like a jazz musician might feel.
Reading my own poetry aloud to an audience is an essential part of the making of a poem, so right now the book feels not fully born, not fully released. I’m tentatively scheduled to do a Zoom Reading/Conversation/Shebang on June 11th from 7-8 through the Indiana Writers’ Center, and I’m also planning to read a Prairie Lights Bookstore in the Fall, and hopefully many Elsewheres after that!
NS: You are a New Yorker who has been transplanted to Indiana, and you have been here for some time now. Do you feel connected to Indiana? Do you feel part-Hoosier yet? I was thinking about this when looking at the role of place in your work. We get glimpses of a possible New York setting, specifically in the poems about the father figure: the city, the train, the subway. However, most of the poems are set in a lush suburbia: the garden with tomato and basil, the forest with creek and possum and sycamore. And fox! Your lyrical descriptions are so full of delight, like this one of the fox: “glimmer / fur piece on little feet / at dusk” I suppose I’m reading those as Indiana-specific because I know you, but I was wondering what your thoughts are in regard to place in your poems?
AL: First and foremost, my two sons were born here—Milo and Oliver, now twelve and ten. One is a budding novelist and filmmaker, the other is a musician and visual artist. I don’t think I can be more rooted in Indiana than having given birth to my children here!
I appreciate the term “transplanted.” I’ve planted hundreds of bulbs and I keep planting (just put in Sweet Woodruff and Lily of the Valley and Solomon Seal) I’ve created a shade garden of ferns, Hostas, moss, a part-shade garden of Hellebore, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost,’ Creeping Jenny, Hydrangea, Black-Eyed Susan, two full sun gardens of daylilies, tiger lilies, irises, cone flowers, yarrow, creeping phlox, Firewitch dianthus, tulips, allium, et al, et al….
I’ve insulated my goldenrod yellow-with-a-gentian-door poetry shed with sheep’s wool and plywood, I’ve befriended my postman Milton, and a neighborhood Golden Doodle named Winston, I’ve canoed in Eagle Creek, I’ve sipped my first bubble tea in Broad Ripple, I’ve discovered Badger Balm in the Good Earth Natural food store and have smeared it over my face in nightly ritual for years, I’ve collaborated with Butler dance students and Butler musicians, I’ve browsed the books in Half-Price books hundreds of times, I’ve camped and befriended a racoon family in Shades State Park with my children, I’ve lugged large river rocks from the banks of the White River for my gardens, I’ve witnessed a Luna Moth wriggle and hop and stutter for hours en route to flying off, I’ve eaten my first Pho here, I’ve communed with hummingbirds, I’ve communed with you, I’ve spotted a Cooper’s Hawk bathing and preening in the creek next to my house, I’ve floated down the JCC’s Lazy River.
In sum, I’m attempting to turn my backyard into a forest, so I think I’m at least the Hoo part of Hoosier at this point, and yes, I am perpetually connecting to Indiana– from sunrise to sundown, through tornado warnings, under the light of the Super Pink Moon, in April snows (hi, Prince!).
The topography, the flora and fauna, the quality of air and light, the atmosphere, the seasons, not to mention where and how you see the moon can’t help but seep into a poet’s work as the poet is constantly absorbing and responding to, however unconsciously, these external energies, especially when they resonate with what’s pulsing internally.
About that fox: A fox lived in the woods surrounding my mother’s house, but I have also seen a fox in the creek by my house in Indiana! Maybe “fox” is a fine thread or a trail from one place to the next….Maybe “fox” is a portal into every poem I write.
NS: Speaking of place, for my last question, I always ask our featured poets to tell me what places in Indiana they find to be generative or important to their writing–are there natural spaces? city spaces? destinations? landmarks? community organizations? hang out spots? that you recommend to other Indiana creatives and/or visitors from elsewhere?
Here’s an Incomplete List of Some of My Favorites—All Inspirational:
- Shades State Park—oldest nature preserve in Indiana—home of two enormous Kingsnakes coiled atop Devil’s Backbone, an amber creek that runs over stones in a ravine, crinoid-encrusted rocks and shells
- Holliday Park—winding hilly trails wending riverward, highly expressive sycamores, “Ruins” imported from New York City, live music in the summer, a Nature Center within this nature center, playgrounds
- Eagle Creek Park—Hills! Fields and Forest! Trails through woods, over fields, trails that encircle the bird sanctuary, eagles, osprey, herons, et al
- 100 Acres—Home of the Great Blue Heron and a gentle path that winds round a lake and large and small outdoor sculptures, part of Newfield’s museum
- Newfield’s/IMA—intimate spaces, relatively small collection of art so there’s more time to spend with each piece. I visited a Hieronymus Bosch painting there at least 22 times.
- Monon Coffee Company—their Stay Gold concoction is indeed gold! A salve for the hurts in the world.
- Rene’s bakery—almond croissants, Challah, fruit tarts!
- All the River Banks You Can Find in Indianapolis—slim river snakes winnowing their way to the bank, setting their dark eyes upon you, sycamore, redbuds, buckeyes. Each bank is enchanted; each casts a different spell
- The Library on St Clair Street—magical light, books! An escalator, books! Windows, books! Bree-tours!
- Irwin Library—Butler University’s campus library with a fountain and more magical light!
- The Holcomb Observatory & Planetarium—incredible acoustics, a place I invite my students to sing for the wonderful echoes— . From “Wikipedia”—“the lobby has a terrazzo floor with inset zodiac symbols, a star burst chandelier, and tall frosted windows.” Sometimes you can see the stars….
- Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore— a lovely assortment of books AND a wooden train on a track inside
- Irvington Vinyl & Books—warm, colorful space, excellent for browsing, musing, communing with BOOKS
- The Holcomb Gardens—you can sit in the gazebo and smell the flowers or walk on the towpath across the canal heading towards Newfield’s while conversing with turtles, egrets, marsh marigolds, etc.
- Tarkington Park–has bells you can play and a Brics ice cream station (homemade ice cream! I recommend Blackberry) and sprinklers to run through in summer and basketball hoops and things to swing and climb and crawl through….
- Ezra’s Enlightened Café—I recommend the Buddha Bowl (honey spice kale and more!)
- Super Tacos nee El Rey del Taco— guacamole that will make you burst out into song–.
- Axum— savory Ethiopian food! The Vegan Combo! Honey Wine!
- Rhythm! Discovery Center—enter this space and begin to DRUM!