Interview with Alison Palmer

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Alison Palmer is the author of the poetry chapbook, The Need for Hiding (Dancing Girl Press, 2018). She earned an MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis and a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College, where she was the recipient of the Emma Howell Memorial Poetry Prize. The Poet’s Billow chose Alison for their 2015 Atlantis Poetry Prize, and in 2017 she was a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets nominee. Her poems have appeared in FIELD, The Los Angeles Review, River Styx, Bear Review, Glass, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. Alison currently lives and writes just outside Washington, D.C.

Robert Evory: Given that many of the poems in your chapbook, The Need for Hiding published by Dancing Girl Press, seem to address the same subject, I want to start with your opening lines where the person being addressed in the poem is transformed into an animal. From here I see that any animal in the book could potentially be the subject.

You are not what is new. You are nothing
like fresh snow. You have come and gone
so many times I don’t bother to count
my sightings. You’ve become an animal
people hunt.

Did these lines arrive all at once or were they constructed through editing? Is there a reason you started with these lines in particular?

Alison Palmer: These lines arrived all at once. Their goal was and remains to express that in relationships we often acquire specific roles: the hunter versus the hunted. Doesn’t one often chase after ‘the other’ more, and can’t love, desire and the process of maintaining a successful relationship become monotonous? “You have come and gone/so many times,” the speaker says, “I don’t bother to count/my sightings.”

I begin with these lines because they exemplify overarching themes that weave themselves together throughout the chapbook. In the poem, the speaker is tired, fatigued from attempting to make a relationship work, and ‘the other’ (Remember, Sartre believes hell is other people!) becomes “someone to seek out of hiding.” I want the reader to feel empathy towards the hunter and the hunted. I am an extremely hopeless and a very curious romantic, and I enjoy learning the psychology behind why we put ourselves through the rigors of dating, desire, marriage, monogamy, divorce. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are both utterly defenseless and relentlessly ruthless toward one another (and nature), ideas that drive the collection as a whole.

RE: I am also really struck with how the indifference toward the subject in these first lines is repeated in the last poem in: “I like your face / staring back at me like a stranger” and by the end of the poem the face may be that of someone the speaker has never met. Did you have an arch for the relationship between the speaker and who is being addressed? Also, what elements did you consider when arranging the manuscript?

AP: Rather than, “indifference,” which indicates a lack of interest, a lack of concern, someone who is unimportant, I would perhaps use the idea of “cognitive dissonance.” This suggests the speaker’s inconsistency of thought, warring sides, if you will.

In the final poem, “For Finding,” the speaker asks, “Who says we must learn/from a window?” Instead of constantly examining the world and ourselves by looking outside, why not focus on what is inside, thinking perhaps of the subject’s face “…staring back…like a stranger.” The speaker wants to always discover something new, an obsession of sorts toward the subject, rather than indifference. If we answered all our questions, figured each other out, there would be no reason to write! Therefore, the final line of the chapbook, “Or someone we haven’t met,” fails to actually close the work as a whole. Instead, it allows the reader to look forward, remain open, hope for more. Conversely, such open-endedness may prove to be uncomfortable. Thus, the speaker experiences continuing cognitive dissonance toward the subject.

When arranging the manuscript, I connected and transitioned from the end of one poem to the beginning of the next in a way that made sense to me… For example, the final lines of, “Morning Snow,” “an element of crescendo that mimics/I need you I need you,” flows into the next poem, “Like Someone Falling,” as it opens, “I want the sky before brightness/cracks it open.” The ideas of needing and wanting stood out to me. The poems form a narrative of sorts in my mind, but whether or not this is understood is ultimately up to the reader.

RE: I have noticed that a few of your poems take place in the morning. How open to influence is your poetic mind in the morning? Is this the time of day when you write the most? And how do you think the time of day in which you write influences the type of poems you write?

AP: [Chuckle] This is a very keen observation as I am an early riser (always up by 4 a.m.). I do all of my writing in the morning hours when my poetic mind is most available to inspiration. I actually love the idea of being awake while everyone else is dreaming or dealing with nightmares. Often, when I drive to Dunkin Donuts for coffee, they’re the only ones open at 4 a.m., I get to watch the stop lights flash yellow and red. It’s even too early for the traffic lights to be doing their jobs. Not many people venture out at these hours; it’s quiet and dark, but the shadows begin to disappear. The transition from darkness means a lot to me. Not only is it a fascinating natural observation, but it’s also a metaphor for emerging from a battle with mental illness. Darkness and light are very much alive; they beat like hearts, challenge my perceptions, expose my deepest thoughts. Morning is the time of day when I begin again and examine how I fit into this strange world.

RE: Along with the reoccurrence of morning, animals—foxes and birds—natural landscapes, and light seem to all play a large role in your chapbook. I also see them in your poem that won the Atlantis Award in the line “We speak of the birds, as if their future / is our future”. Right now, I wonder about these lines and whether they are cynical towards humanities perception of being one with nature or if the speaker feels the futures are in fact intertwined. What importance do you see poetry placing on the nonhuman world as subjects in your poems move in and out of the woods and snow? And how do these places hold a personal significance to you?

AP: Through a hopeful yet healthy, cynical lens, I examine our similarities with the natural world—animals, landscapes and, of course, light. First, desperate for connection and understanding, we seek out ‘the other’ like animals. Not unlike landscapes of trees and flowers, we stretch for sunlight, mighty and weak at the same time, left to unpredictable weather. Lastly, light intertwines with hope—the bird’s future is “flight,” not a bad future to call our own.

This non-human world deserves a lot more attention, and I focus on it with vigorous interest because I believe in our twinness. We reflect nature, and nature reflects us. Therefore, these places must be personally significant to me. The woods represent shelter, a place to hide, but they are also treacherous, a place to get lost, to lose yourself. Similarly, as illustrated in the poem, “Our Winter,” when snow blankets the ground, settles on tree limbs and roofs, it hides imperfections, quiets the world, and “…the whole of worry/ceases…” However, snow is also disorienting, miles and miles of nothing but silence and white.

What could be more fascinating to write about than such dichotomous, anthropoidal elements of our humanized world?

RE: What are your favorite or most influential books of poetry? Do you think of any particular writer influencing the poems in The Need for Hiding?

AP: My favorite/most influential contemporary books of poetry are: The Rest of Love, Carl Phillips. Rising, Falling, Hovering, C.D. Wright. Apology for Want, Mary Jo Bang. A Short History of the Shadow, Charles Wright. To name a few.

I also frequently access poets Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, James Dickey and philosophical/psychological writers such as Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus and Beckett (Waiting for Godot has been my favorite play, forever).

All of these writers influence my writing in different ways. I admire Phillips’ attention to the phenomenon of “love” and relationships; C.D. Wright’s constructive narrative quality; Bang’s coveted strangeness and Charles Wright’s vast use of nature metaphors. These are the collections I keep on my desk—they are postured as little gifts of inspiration.

RE: What are you reading and enjoying right now? Do you subscribe to any publications? If so, what are they (poetry and other)? How do you use them?

AP: Right now, I am finishing Nils Michals’ collection, Lure (which inspired my second chapbook, Fall through This Place, dedicated to my father who was recently paralyzed in a tragic accident) and Alessandra Lynch’s collection, It was a terrible cloud at twilight. Both of these collections were Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series winners from Pleiades, one of my favorite presses. I’m also loving Carl Phillips new work, Wild Is the Wind.

I receive several publications, such as Pleiades, River Styx, Rattle, Sycamore Review and The Journal. I treat myself to POETRY every now and then, and I also like Salamander.

Actually, my primary motivation behind purchasing different journals is to “research” the contributor’s notes indicating where other poets have been publishing. I make a list of journals where I have yet to submit, and I get to work.

RE: Lastly, do you think your writing has changed over time: through your MFA or after. Whether it be voice, style, or subject matter. And given that, what projects are you working on now or plan for the future?

AP: My writing has definitely gone through a critical evolution as it has become more accessible to the reader. There were plenty of very early, teenage years when my poetry was entirely introspective, dealing with my own psychological underpinnings. This style of writing proved fairly inaccessible. “I don’t get it,” and “What does this mean?” were common reactions after reading my poems. This was slightly satisfying because I was under the impression at the time that poetry had to be difficult, completely mysterious, and confusing, even. However, this lack of understanding was also supremely frustrating. Then, through continuing studies with various talented poets (after I majored in creative writing at an arts school from 7th – 12th grades) at Oberlin College, and then in Washington University in St. Louis’ MFA Program, my approach to writing continued to transform for the better. In terms of my voice (questioning our relationships with each other and with nature), it has been the same for as long as I can remember—what’s changed is my ability to express it successfully. My subject matter began to reach beyond me to the vast, natural world. My goal became to strike a balance between personal introspection and universal accessibility. This is still my goal today.

Right now, I am searching for a good home for my second chapbook entitled, Fall through This Place, and I am in the process of completing my second, full-length manuscript currently entitled, Who Says We Are Here. I continue my search for a fitting home for my first full-length collection, To Stay Until Almost Nothing Is Left.

Ultimately, this chapbook, The Need for Hiding, which I’ve dedicated to my parents, touts hope in one another and in nature, for: “We speak/most humanly; [and] the earth is getting brighter.”