An Interview with Alli Warren - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Alli Warren

[Poet]
by Ted Dodson
April 14th, 2020

“I’m grateful to be alive despite how fucked up everything is and I try to be conscious of the positive and beautiful things around me. Access to and enjoyment of that beauty is part of what we’re fighting for. Including those moments in the poem is a way of saying these feelings are possible, and we’ve got to have more.”

Three Options Alli Warren Has Considered When Out of Milk:
Going to the store
Getting pregnant
Milking a bottle brush tree

Out back where Alli Warren lives in El Cerrito, CA, there is a lemon tree. The summers I’ve visited her and her partner, Brandon, I’ve made a point to go to their small back patio and take a picture with it. At that time of the year, the lemons are so fragrant and bright I feel sharpened to their nature just standing near, reset to the environment outside of whatever shifting landscape of work-travel I am always in the middle of outside of NYC, where I live.

The poems of Alli’s newest book, Little Hill, are wild, abundant with the natural beauty of a language that attends to her images with fierce imperative and effecting a nurturing cool, poems “bathing in the backwash of our cities” that later assure “[if] I love you I will always love you…” There is a naturalism to the poems of Little Hill, a departure from the hyper-mobile, shorter poems of her previous books, unfolding an ecology of ideas yielded from Alli’s wry observations and expansive thinking. Speaking with her over the phone in January, Alli described to me how some of the poems in Little Hill are pauses or fields and how from here the poem lengthens in line and in form. These poems, especially now, return me to that environment beyond the confines of my immediate everyday, mindful of my connection to the language and life greater than my own but no less fragile.

—Ted Dodson

ALLI WARREN: I was late to our call because I have this new job. For the first time in ten years, I’m having that new job experience of not knowing how to do anything and the simplest thing taking forever. It’s been busy, and I haven’t had any time to do life maintenance shit on the job. That’s one of the perks of office life I’ve always had, and now I’m worried that’s in the past. It’s like, “You mean I have to read the news and pay my bills on my ‘off’ hours?”

BLVR: Absolutely. And making time on the job to write poems is a classic.

AW: I can edit sometimes, but you can write?

BLVR: If I have time, like, if I’m really just feeling it and have something that I want to write then I just will. Uh… let’s say, unofficially, that’s what I do, but officially, I’m working all the time.

AW: Right. [Laughs]

BLVR: This actually relates to something I wanted to ask you about your new book, Little Hill. I had this impression that these poems in this book take place at a certain time, and they seem to be coming sort of, what I’ll call, “before work.” Like, there’s not a lot of relaxing into the afternoon, but there’s this existential-Marxist stance where everything is implicitly done “before work.” What is your relationship between your poetry and your waged work?

AW: It’s funny that you noticed that about time. It hadn’t occurred to me. There was a period a while ago in my working life where the jobs I had allowed me more free time—like I was saying—and since the poems I was writing then were shorter, I felt I could occasionally write some quick lines on the job. And those lines felt like gifts. It’s great to steal time back from bosses.

BLVR: For sure.

AW: But, yeah, these longer poems in Little Hill were either written before work or, in one case in particular with the title poem, “Little Hill,” entirely at home on days I didn’t have to commute to work. That poem was written one summer I was working from home once a week, and I had an invitation from The Elephants to send them a chapbook, but I didn’t have any unpublished work, nothing, so I was like, “OK, Monday mornings, before I clock in from home, in the time I’d usually spend getting ready, I’m just going to try to force myself to write.” That’s not something I’m typically good at, being disciplined about having a writing routine at a certain time of day. I’m someone who waits around for “inspiration” [laughs], but in this case I needed to produce something and quickly because I stupidly said yes to their generous invitation. So, “Little Hill” was written almost immediately upon waking, at the kitchen table with coffee, in the quiet hours before work-brain set in. The other poems in the book weren’t composed sequentially like that but happened with a more notational practice, lines here and there, in different notebooks, on scraps of paper, then working them into a poem later. Does that make sense?

BLVR: Yeah, absolutely. There are a couple of different modes that your line takes in this book from poem to poem. It’s either that a poem’s lines are enjambed, or they’re not and are complete sentences or thought as a line. I think you’re kind of getting at this already, but was there a procedural difference in how these different sorts of lines were composed?

AW: There are two poems that are enjambed, “Little Hill” and “Sebastopol.” “Little Hill,” was written that summer. “Sebastopol” was written up north in this cabin where I gave myself the gift of a two-day writing retreat, which I’d never done before. It felt luxurious! I had all this expansive time to myself with no responsibilities other than to read and write. I hadn’t written a poem in a long time at that point, so I was pretty desperate. I wasn’t intentionally trying to write a particular kind of poem, though. Now when I look at those poems, I hear quieter pacing. They are meditative pauses in the book, like fields to rest in. The other poems are faster and more propulsive. Maybe with “Little Hill” and “Sebastopol,” it’s just that there was space and time to elongate thought, to carry it over to the next line, to twist and turn it around and let it breathe.

BLVR: But also thought is elongated across this book, thematically almost. Every poem in this book is long. In your previous books, Here Come the Warm Jets and I Love It Though, the poems were much shorter. You’ve described these earlier poems to me as comparatively flippant. I mean, I love those shorter poems, and I don’t necessarily read them as flippant, but there’s a certain quality to length that’s difficult to replicate otherwise. Does a longer poem give you a different sort of access, or was the compulsion just to write long?

AW: I wanted to do something different. I worried I would write the same kind of poem over and over if I didn’t intentionally try to switch it up. I actually just got a larger notebook to see what would happen. That seems to have made a difference, simple as it sounds. The first long poem I wrote was “Moveable C,” and I remember sitting down and being like, “just put down a thought that’s true to you in this moment.” I’d never started with that impulse before. And you know, the world has always been horrible and unjust, but it felt important to me at that point to make myself clearer, where I stand. Like, I worried some of the lines in my previous books could be misinterpreted. It was important to me to set down in writing my feelings about all the terrible, endless injustices of this world, in case anyone might get the wrong idea. I guess it turns out I have a lot of feelings around that because the lines got longer and so did the poems.

BLVR: In that vein, I picked up on this line of yours from “Moveable C”: “I want to say the glass does not shatter it unfurls…” There is such strong political affect in your poems. There are clear stances. You often firmly outline yourself and your ideals as a poet. While these lines in context inscribe a sort of revolutionary action, it’s kind of like that over time equals the poem. And I don’t mean to be mathematical about it, but I want to bridge into this other idea about your poems as adjacent to political action. I mean, a poem can’t necessarily be direct action, but it is some sort of indirect action in a way. How would you situate your writing of poems within your political life?

AW: My poems are where I do a lot of my thinking. I don’t have an essay practice, and I don’t teach, and I’m not so good at taking notes while reading. So, aside from conversation with friends, the poems are where my thinking winds up. I don’t want to substitute writing for action, but the realms can talk to each other. Praxis and prosody has a nice ring to it. For me, being a poet in community has affected my life in terms of what I believe in and how I act, which is pretty fundamental, right? It’s been a source of education, both in terms of what I’m learning and attending to, and through the relationships I’ve formed. I want to contribute my voice to that fold, small as it is. It’s a way of thinking and feeling that I find powerful, and it can do things that a speech or a polemic or a tweet don’t.

BLVR: I like that you’re locating the use of a poem, which is a troubled idea, attaching some sort of idea of use value to poetry where it clearly has no place in a capital economy, so it’s interesting that you look at this idea of use within community. Is having a poetry-centric community important to your practice as a poet?

AW: I mean, yeah, I don’t think I would be writing now if I hadn’t found part of the Bay Area writing community very early on, before I knew there were living poets [laughs]. The scene definitely shaped me and my practice—I’ve been going to readings since I was twenty! And since then, my sense of the scene has shifted many times, of course, just based on who has the time and desire to engage and participate and who’s organizing things and where the energy is, and outside factors. And there are of course many other poetry communities in the Bay Area, so my personal sense of it is just that—personal. I’m not sure community is some placeable thing. It’s amorphous and relational.

BLVR: Poetry is—I’m thinking from a popular perspective—can be seen as requiring access, and a community, when we speak about it in a poetry sense, can be a stand-in for an audience or just “people who care.” Accessibility in terms of ideas or being understood is spoken about negatively insofar as being synonymous with, like, cliché, epiphanic, or coming about easily. Do you think about how your work is read outside of your immediate community?

AW: Well, when I’m writing I try not to focus on how the work might be read because that would be stifling. In editing, there is a bit more of that rational mind that tries to make the poem a readable thing while also being true to my experience. And after publication, I assume the work is reaching people I don’t know personally, but because those people are so unknown, I try not to project. I don’t really think about how it’s read, I just hope that it is read. But it is important to me that if someone were open to reading a book of poems in the first place, which is not that many people [laughs], then I wouldn’t want them to feel totally shut out or alienated by my work through the syntax or the language. I don’t want to put up a wall to readers, but I don’t know whether I succeed or not. I’m not gonna radically change what I write because of some imagined idea I have of how it might be read—I just try to make the best work I can that’s true to what needs to come through.

BLVR: I think that your work is challenging, by which I mean rewarding. You have a knack for communicating complicated ideas and not holding the reader at a distance when you do so. There’s not really a sense of alienation between you and the world of the reader. They feel very close together, in fact. Alli, I really love these poems.

AW: Thanks, Ted.

BLVR: I wanted to spend some time with “Little Hill” especially because it’s the title poem. Your work is very serious insofar as you have very serious ideas about serious things. It’s about the work before revolution. It’s about the work that if it’s not done the world ends, right? But there are also these moments of levity. Maybe I think this because we share a sort of cynicism, but it’s lines like, “We are out of milk for coffee / Our options are / Go to the store, get pregnant, milk the bottle brush tree / We do neither we do none…” And I just understand what you’re saying, “We’re pretty hemmed in by normative possibilities of what we have in front of us, but at least we can have some fun with it.”

AW: That line about milk is true though! Those are the options. I don’t know, I don’t always feel just one way. I’m not always angry or cynical or overwhelmed or sad about the state of the world. I feel those things, but also I feel other ways, and I want these poems to reflect that. I’m grateful to be alive despite how fucked up everything is and I try to be conscious of the positive and beautiful things around me. Access to and enjoyment of that beauty is part of what we’re fighting for. Including those moments in the poem is a way of saying these feelings are possible, and we’ve got to have more.

BLVR: Definitely. And to bring it back to the title poem. A lot of it is about perspective, about finding a place where you have perspective, even if there are some reservations about this like how you write, “I stick the branch in the ground like you told me / I did it I did it…” This idea of reluctantly taking root in a place because that would potentially equal a life of acquisition. But then there are so many beautiful moments in this poem, like you say right after, “Never let it be said that sitting in the sun is not a pastime / Star soaked and breezing under the hill / Yellow pistil blazing but can we eat it / The bay goes on…” You said a little bit about this just now. The world is complicated, but we want to have these moments of beauty and to celebrate them. As long as we’re fucking stuck here, might as well see the nice sights. But I want to ask you about your engagement with poetic, “beautiful” poetry. They’re also emotional positions. Do you feel like there needs to be a balance in your work? Or how genuine do you feel like these beautiful moments come about?

AW: Unless it’s a very sarcastic line, it’s genuine. I often want to remind myself of things in poems. I’m not taking the perspective that I’m teaching someone or the reader something. I’m reminding myself. I’m prodding myself. The natural beauty of the Bay Area is so intense and in-your-face I’d have to willfully and intentionally try to ignore it if I didn’t want it in the poem. I’m trying not to be embarrassed or ashamed of putting those moments in, even if they’re not fashionable or they seem naïve or apolitical because they’re not—that ecological perspective is important, and it’s a counter to the parts that are so much about the human world. I want the poems to include all of my experience, including the plants and animals and immaterial things.

BLVR: It’s interesting that you mention nature and the world of animals beyond humans because there’s a lot in the book where you are kind of taking on animal qualities. There’s a lot of describing yourself as feral or your ears becoming like a deer’s ears. You got through these small, animal transformations, or you liken yourself to animals in certain ways.

AW: I didn’t realize.

BLVR: That might make this a very psychoanalytic moment… but what do the animal transformations mean to you? [Laughs]

AW: But then I would have to pay you a ton per hour, right? [Laughs] I hadn’t intended that actually.

BLVR: I just assume you love animals.

AW: I mean, I don’t have any of them. I almost said “own” but that word is so gross, isn’t it? “Have” is kinda gross too. I don’t share space with any of them currently. I mean, who doesn’t love animals? Humans are awful. It’d be great if other animals got the whole planet to themselves. I mean, I don’t want all of us to die, but we’ve really fucked this place up. But, yeah, to answer your question, I don’t have a practice of imagining myself in an animal’s shoes.

BLVR: It’s more like you talk about your snout, your jowls. There’s also a moment in one of the poems where you’re taking care of a cat.

AW: Yeah, the cat was a loan. Our dear friends’ house burned down, and they needed Brandon and I to take care of their cat Elliot for a while, so I got to know this cat pretty well and fell in love. I didn’t want to give him back. We’re not really supposed to have one, landlord-wise.

BLVR: Was the cat you were taking care of another poet’s?

AW: Yeah, he was Stephanie Young and Clive Worsley’s cat, and their apartment burned down, and all kinds of people including poets rallied support to help. And I’ve seen that kinda thing happen so many times. Poets coming through with material help for people in need. And I feel held by it in that way. I feel that if I was in trouble, folks I know through poetry would be there for me.

BLVR: Do you think that there’s something that defines a poet besides having to write poetry?

AW: We’re typically pretty fucking weird. Aren’t we? Like, if you’re so attentive to language, a tool we use on a practical level in every aspect of our lives just to get shit done, to function, if you’re too attentive to that, you can get a little sidetracked and the next thing you know you’ve crashed the car or whatever. Do you think there’s something that’s sort of common about poets?

BLVR: Maybe, yeah. I agree with you about our attentiveness to language. But also I think poets are readers and think that a poet doesn’t necessarily have to write poetry in order to be a poet. I think of that identity in a very broad sense. It’s more just like engaging with the ideas of language in a critical way, the elements of our everyday, approaches what it is to be a poet. I also know that the identity of a poet can be really fraught or really fragile. Even though I wrote poetry for a long time, I didn’t consider myself a poet, and it wasn’t until I started hanging out at the Poetry Project that I started calling myself a poet. It was the social function that made the identity genuine.

AW: And I’m sure there are tons of people out there who write poetry and don’t consider themselves poets. Maybe the majority? Like you, I didn’t think of myself as a poet until I met a community of self-identified poets, but I think there’s these aspects of poets: a) being readers and auto-didacts—in an American culture that doesn’t value reading—and b) being attentive to language and the ideological aspects of the words we use and how language affects us and influences how we see and experience the world. But if that were true, all poets would be radicals on the left, and that’s not the case.

BLVR: It surprises me a little bit when I meet a moderate poet. Or even conservative. Like… where did you come from, writing your verse poetry? This might be unfair of me, but sometimes I think formalism kinda goes hand in hand with political moderation. And these poems of yours in Little Hill are not moderated in certain ways, letting them go long. That, in and of itself, is a sort of idealist, reaching idea, and oftentimes for the left, and us on the far left especially, we are working on what is possible or what could be possible, not necessarily what is immediately actionable.

AW: Yeah, I wanted the poems to encompass a lot, more and more, history and the contemporary, aspects of my research and reading that help remind me the political situation we’re in has a history and a future and not just the right-now, social media minute. And also expanding the line and the language shows my own confusion, I hope. I don’t know the answers, and I get frustrated by writing that professes to have those answers and know the future. So, I think I wanted the poems to express that confusion or unknowing, which is also a kind of hope or possibility, like you say. If I don’t know what the future is going to hold or this moment or what the past necessarily means, I’m not bogged down by my cynical perspective that says everything was always fucked and continues to be fucked and will be fucked forever in this same way. Maybe it’ll all be fucked up in different ways!

BLVR: Maybe it’s the poet’s job to imagine how the future could be fucked.

AW: That’s our noble role, Ted.

 

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