Discomfort in Certainty: A Conversation with Alli Warren
Poet Alli Warren talks to Dustin Pearson about her new poetry book, craft, and the meanings behind her poems.
Dustin Pearson: I’m sitting down today with poet Alli Warren to discuss her new collection of poetry, I Love It Though, released from Nightboat Books.
Several times, I felt the poems in I Love It Though kept showing me how desire, when expressed or felt, becomes entangled in so many concrete and abstract realms in nature and society that it’s nearly stripped entirely from any true notion or expression of the self. I especially liked feeling as much in your poem “Mercy,” where your speaker first notes “the sum of my desire / directs me to sit and watch” and then later “but no one’s heroic in humidity.” Do you see your collection’s engagement with desire as expressing something similar to what I’ve described?
Alli Warren: Thanks for taking the time to read the work and propose this conversation, Dustin!
I’m not sure it’s possible for desire to ever be unentangled from the realms you mention. I don’t think there’s any unadulterated, natural, or authentic self where desire is pure. The poems deal with this entanglement, and yet they are not free from a utopian, impossible wish to (re)gain access to some form where feeling and meaning are simple and clear. The poems struggle with and attend to the ways our bodies and thoughts are part and parcel of the material world, of cultural, economic, and political histories and the always unstable present moment. I want the poems to grapple with rather than simplify — they do this by conveying multilayered voices, perspectives, and syntaxes so that the simplicity of the distilled, shining lyrical insight doesn’t just sit there precious and unexamined.
There are also times in your collection where expression or perhaps the self seems to fail altogether, even when there’s a willful entanglement with worldly objects (perhaps toward a more purposeful expression), as in your poem, “Tunics, Trousers, and Cloaks.” I’m thinking specifically of the lines “All the evil things of the world will have full / sway / To get dressed / I need the help of a trained hand.” I felt those lines were especially resonant with lines in “The Tower of Winds,” specifically, when the speaker details “and all of the gifts I sing / intent for intent / with garlands & candelabras / with laurel branches & ox-heads / not even worth my weight in hops.” Several parts of the collection suggest that this kind of anxious or desperate self-navigation is learned societal behavior. Can you comment on any of this?
I think it’s interesting when poems deal formally and thematically with the difficulties of expression itself, when writing troubles the idea of an unwavering “self” who is always sure and super confident in its selfness. Maybe that’s the face you put on for a job interview, but I want poetry to do something different.
I’m not sure I would call my poetic approach to navigating one’s relationship to oneself desperate or anxious — perhaps unsure or unstable? — but the poems don’t aim for closure around a self, and I think it’s important to represent failure in its varied forms. The lines you note in “Tunics, Trousers, and Cloaks” and “The Tower of Winds” point to egregious power imbalances, and how we suffer in relation to each other because of that, because of the ways class, race, gender, etc., are oppressively organized. Those lines try to speak from, about, and against a world of monetized material wealth, distributed unequally, and how that entanglement is always with us, whether we recognize it or not.
I love how your speakers will often ask a question and then immediately answer it. This pattern feels earnest and unburdened — definitely not gimmicky. It’s not a feat I imagine is easy, and the answers don’t feel like they were readily available from the moment of asking the question. I’m thinking specifically of your poem, “The Women Perform Their Ablutions.” Your speaker asks, “What but faith / can breach the void?” and answers, “Friendship, empathetic / yawning, watching two crows / as a group of boys / venture out into the stop & frisk.” Many collections of poetry will let the questions stew and be answered in a kind of spiritual gesturing over a long period of time. Do you imagine that your speakers are as good at handling confrontation as I imagine them to be? Can you talk about the need of your speakers to resolve their questions so swiftly and how that might influence how you’ve come to see or think about the speakers of poems?
My speakers are probably better at handling everything than I am IRL. The swiftness of the resolution of questions you mention is perhaps deceptive. For me, the beginnings of a poem happen materially, in living and reading and thinking and feeling along the everyday — so a poem is a condensed version of this, a kind of honed evidence. Which is not to say that I don’t want the poems to show work, complication, conflict. The poem just has a different relationship to time than we do as living bodies in material, frenetic, alienating space. I hope the poem’s answers don’t necessarily resolve as much as offer an option, a possibility, an availability. I’m often uncomfortable with certainty in the face of questions — I want thinking to offer openings rather than closure. Throughout the book, I tried to incorporate ongoingness and reposed openings so that something more deliberate and intriguing than easy answers might surface. That the answers themselves might become questions.
I love “In the Craving Night” because of how powerful and overt the instruction becomes at the end of the poem: “Defile that smirking code / let loose of labor / we want the order / of clouds the heart’s long-ship / the animated world / of love in her youth / owner of no oval office / A collective wilding / tongues the trunk / the loot’s the problem.” I also think the instruction consolidates a kind of hard resolve where a lot of the poems in the collection display speakers who are so entangled in sensation and observation that there’s no real quiet moment that enables such a similar moment of clarity. Do you recognize the poem in the way I describe? If not, how do you see it?
I think that reading makes a lot of sense. I sometimes find I can express things in poems I’m not able to fully utter in waking life. So, in the instances you note, I’m basically instructing myself and some imagined other, which is also me, part other. That way, in moments of weakness I can look back and see what I’ve commanded myself to do, or what ideally I’d like to live up to, and see where I’ve fallen short. But it would be tiring and unrealistic to beat myself and readers over the head with that tone all of the time, so I try to incorporate a variety which feels true to the sheer overwhelmingness of feeling. This can look like distraction, instability, unsureness, and confusion showing up in the poems. For me it’s only through what you call sensation and observation that clarity can come. It’s a two-pronged approach, a dual weapon that can produce shining fleeting moments of clarity. Without concentrating on listening, really paying attention to my surroundings, and trying to remain open to feeling, no matter how difficult, clarity might feel false or merely ideological.
What’s the relationship of what you’re currently writing to I Love It Though?
I just finished editing a chapbook called Little Hill, which I wrote to get myself writing after I Love It Though, and as a response to a generous invitation from Canadian publisher The Elephants. After so thoroughly being in the headspace of writing, editing, and preparing a book for publication, I find it difficult to psychically return to the beginnings of writing, to being in that feeling of new, uncharted territory. I typically give myself some time and space, and then begin a new piece without expectations, just to run the pen across the paper and be receptive to what’s coming in and what’s going out, to what in a recent poem Julian Brolaski calls that “writing feeling.” So I gave myself that space, along with a loose directive, taking Lisa Robertson, Aisha Sasha John, Elaine Kahn, Ariana Reines, and others as studies. My intention was to challenge myself to write statements or phrases with clarity and directness, to develop my prosaic capacity, and to see what would come if I focused on that formal and prosodic intention while also allowing distraction, dailiness, and chance to emerge. I’m happy with how the chapbook turned out.