An INTERVIEW WITH CAROL ALEXANDER
What was the first poem you wrote that you were really proud of, that made you happy and so fully satisfied to have written it? Why?
It was a poem called "The Bannock," the first poem of mine that appeared in an anthology. Writing it connected me to my childhood reading of fairytales. The thing that helped most was that I'd forgotten what happened in the fairytale that inspired it. I just remembered that it began with a mother sending her sons off to seek their fortunes. So I was free to riff on the plot in some absurd and also heartfelt ways. It was really written for my mother, who'd fallen ill.
Do you find writing adaptations freeing, that the source material gives you a nice starting point (or prompt) from which you can then mold another lyric or narrative?
Yes, occasionally I have written from this kind of inspiration, and also from artworks—ekphrastic poems. Both of my parents were painters, so it feels very natural when a picture evokes impressions and ideas specific to the artist and the work, and also to the personal.
What is the most difficult part about putting a poetry collection together (or the most challenging aspect at any stage in creating a collection, making it whole, and seeing it through to publication)?
There is always the daunting task of sifting through your poems with a cold eye as to the quality of the work. And it can be helpful and part of the critical process to trace a thematic link although not all collections have an immediately recognizable theme; some books display stylistic coherence while others have different ways of achieving unity. If you have some poems that seem to detract when they are juxtaposed with the others, you may have to set them aside. If certain poems are off in a corner chattering in another language, I might leave them there or invite them to enter a future collection.
I have two collections now, as well as a chapbook. Habitat Lost (Cave Moon Press) takes its title from a poem that first appeared in Split Rock Review, an important piece in my mind at least because it establishes the theme of displacement in nature, including human consciousness and societies. I feel that the other poems are enriched by that particular work. The book coming out this spring is Environments (Dos Madres Press), and with that one, I embarked on a similar process of selecting poems for inclusion based on how they "spoke" to each other, sometimes quietly, sometimes with a sense of urgency.
Do you feel, when putting individual poems in order, that the tone needs to shift throughout a collection? What I mean is, one poem that might echo a sense of displacement or loss then needs to be followed by a poem with a more joyful or even whimsical tone?
That's a good question—readers appreciate some shift in tone because we all want to be surprised, jolted even, rather than lulled by monotony of perspective or voice. It can also be good, I think, to intersperse very dense, detailed poems with those that are lighter, sparser, to avoid an absolute deluge of imagery and verbiage.
Is there a single image that lingers in your poetry, or in your mind as you create your poems, one that perhaps you keep returning to in however many variations?
I often find myself drawn to birds—birds themselves, their symbolic potential, the idea of the birds' eye view of earth. And animals and nature in general. Sometimes the poems focus intently on nature, sometimes on the role of people in the natural world, both creative and destructive. And water is always seeping into my writing: oceans, rivers, lakes. At times, the boundaries between self and world blur. Increasingly, as I grow older and more thoughtful of the fate of the earth, I find myself writing poems in which the human and nonhuman are inextricable from one another. The threads are so tightly bound. Many of us have this sense of interconnection, and of fragility.
Absolutely. This is a lovely thing but also maybe a reminder of our own roles in this interconnection, this ecosystem, perhaps. I often read poems, most often submissions, that try to capture this fragility, but find some falling into didacticism. Do you find that happens with some of your early drafts? Or rather, how does one avoid falling into didacticism? Do you think writing about this interconnection and fragility is a form of activism?
Yes, sometimes a first draft is telling a bit too much, and then I strip it, or try to make it a bit more allusive. Preachy poems are strong in content and force but may not hold up so well over time, don't you think? And in fact, writing about what's happening on this planet to living things, to biomes, is a plea just as much as marching in the street with a sign—although we shouldn't stop marching.
The publisher of Habitat Lost, by the way, assisted me in making donations to Waterkeeper Alliance, a key organization in the conservation movement. All the proceeds from the book have gone to this group.
Tell us about your favorite body of water and place.
The Atlantic Ocean, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Especially Truro and Wellfleet.
I've always loved the sand dunes on Cape Cod. When my family lived in Michigan, it was Rose Lake Observatory, which my father took me to quite a few times to study plants and animals. Now, as a city dweller, it's the park by default. It was the genius of the nineteenth century to recognize how badly green spaces were needed in the burgeoning urban areas. I think without parks, it would be almost unbearable to be a city dweller, despite all the wonderful things cities offer us. We take the dog on a long ramble most days, let her nose lead us around.
What small wonder makes your heart leap with joy?
Seeing deer when you least expect them. Finding a nest of hatchlings in an air conditioner. The sparrows making a racket in the trees before a rainstorm. A raccoon's head popping out of a dumpster. The city workers finally planting two trees outside our window.
Carol Alexander’s books include Environments (Dos Madres Press, 2018), Habitat Lost (Cave Moon Press), and Bridal Veil Falls (Flutter Press). Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Alexander is also the author of books for young readers. She works in the field of educational publishing.