Interview: Maureen Alsop

Maureen Alsop is a poet and poetry lover. I know you’ll enjoy this interview.

How did you first discover that you loved poetry?

I’ve always loved poetry, even before I knew the name for it. My parents read to me constantly, and I loved reading. One of my favorite poems growing up was called “The Secret Room.” I no longer remember who wrote that poem, but I suppose poetry could be thought of as a secret room, a completely private space, a place to retreat to. My parents, especially my father, were passionate about literature. My father could recite the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. He was an ardent reader of Steinbeck and Hemingway. He gave me some beautiful editions of Dorothy Parker’s Sunset Gun and Enough Rope. Her voice is so concise and so direct.

Which poets were you first drawn to?

When my father died my senior year of high school, Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father” was a touchstone. I posted the poem inside my locker. I know Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole” by heart, and the poem “The Accident” continues to haunt me… from that opening line (“A train runs over me./I feel sorry for the engineer…”) to the very end of the poem (“The shutters bang. / The end of my life begins“). I believe I ran across his work while shelving books at the local library, and he was my first love.

Throughout my schooling, English teachers were great resources. Mr. Lyle, who taught creative writing and poetry, introduced me to a range of living poets. His friend, Harry Manifesto, came to visit our class. He demonstrated a style of poetry in which stanzas were pulled from the page using a grid or diagram and linked to other stanzas; the raw work of he writing was part of the poem’s focal point. I was amazed by the new ideas, as if a literary event were happening right in front of me. Around this time, my father also took me to poetry readings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Meeting living working poets and hearing them read their own works was a huge influence. Katherine Porter’s short story “Flowering Judas” captivated me with its language and darkness in the story: “Tonight will really be night for you…” and in the end she dreamed of her own death, of eating the petals of the Judas tree. In middle school I chose to recite Langston Hughes “Dreams” for a class project. For one so horribly shy, I couldn’t have picked a more succinct, empowering poem!

There was so much in school that I loved in terms of literature. I also attended the Stratford Festival in Ontario and saw Henry VIII and Macbeth. In college, anything by Tennessee Williams enthralled me, especially Orpheus Descending and Suddenly, Last Summer. His themes of love and death, rather lonesome images, and unique naming of locations, compelled me. There are so many authors and books I loved: Wallace Stevens, Robert Bly, D.H. Lawrence’s short stories; the plays Our Town, Equus, Mrs. Caliban. The list is endless for me.

Do you remember writing your first poem? How old were you? What was it about?

While they weren’t exactly poems, my earliest efforts came with “journals” in 1st and 2nd grade. I remember envisioning single lines per page that I would write in my notebook. I liked the idea of space on the page. I couldn’t wait to write very simple, clean sentences, which at the time were not so much about myself as guided by the desire to project an emotional idea. I still have some of these books. I remember wanting to write these iconic, non-imagistic phrases which as a child this seemed evocative to me. Personal aphorisms in my child mind, I suppose.

How often do you find yourself writing poetry? Are there moments or moods that draw you to poetry more than others?

My aim is to write often, but I do struggle to find the time and space to do it. Much of my work has a collage effect, initially. I start by collecting the small notes or scraps that I’ve produced during the week and then sit down and develop poems from there. I’m generally not guided by moods to write, but I often gain a sense of relief when writing. If I’m fortunate I am taken into a meditative level of concentration, that is, a highly focused state, wherein time itself is both absorbed and limitless.

What is your process for writing poetry? (Laptop, notebook, morning hours, last thing at night..) Is this process different than for other types of writing you may do?

Writers must understand their own particular process and develop ways to keep focused and productive. Setting aside the time is essential. For me, I gather a series of words and images, and then dedicate time to develop work from them. This is generally on weeknights and during the day on weekends. I can’t say that all of my time is highly productive or that I am consistent. I begin with my notes and begin composing, either on a notepad or on my laptop. Once in a while I have a quick outpouring and a poem just emerges, but mostly I find that writing requires a certain kind of “time around the time.” Patience is fundamental, since I’m looking to connect to the ‘less-seen’ aspects of my life, the soul or subconscious.

How would you describe your poetry?

I don’t actually describe my poetry. But the poem you found me through, “Moth, Horse, Accident, Skin” demonstrates the principles of my process fairly explicitly. It has a definite framework, the poem is a dream in itself, but weaves through a collection of mini-compositions. (Ironically, this one was not composed in my usually fragmentary process, but as a one-shot write up.) I can tell you that I am drawn to images when writing, also to wide leaps in the use of image. Sharp sentences, unusual syntax, surprising word pairings, and switchbacks between ideas energize me, and then pulling this wildness into shape to yield a poem that is unequivocal, yet still highly evocative. Of course language is everything, when the language is rich, I will listen fully and allow my intuition to guide me toward understanding. Poetry which lacks intuition reads to me much closer to journalism, memoir or documentary.

Have you published your poems anywhere? If yes, please share the book or publication with us. If no, do you have any plans to publish in the future?

I have published one full collection of poetry, Apparition Wren (Main Street Rag and one collection is pending, The Diction of Moths (Ghost Road Press, and I have published several chapbooks including Luminal Equation in a hand sewn anthology, Narwhal (Cannibal Books ) Nightingale Habit (Finishing Line Press ), the dream and the dream you spoke (Spire Press Yes, I do hope to continue writing.

How would you respond to people who claim they don’t like poetry?

To each his own. But I hope they’ll give poetry another try. I’m not wild about football, but I’ve been to a game or two. People can have bad experiences: maybe they didn’t connect to poems presented to them, or they were told there is “only one way” to interpret a poem. There is enough range in poetry to please everyone’s palate, but you have to have to listen and be open to the experience. Poetry moves beyond the page. It is everywhere — in films, music, art, the environment, even in conversation. Once you’re attuned to the nature of language, to the otherworldly threshold that poetry offers a portal to, it is much easier to find poetry and poetic moments in daily life. The synergy between language and imagination encourages the highest level of stimulated thought, more wonderful than a vibrating beehive hat.

Where can we find out more about you?

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