Here's my interview with featured poet, Alison Hicks, talking about her creative process and the significance of poetry in our lives.
LF: Do you remember writing your first poem? What was it about? AH: I don’t’ remember my first poem, but I do remember what I’d call my first significant poem. I wrote it in my senior year of high school. Unlike the other poems I’d written, that tended to be heartfelt but overdetermined (I remember being very proud of a sonnet I wrote about a friend from music camp—that will give you some idea), this was much more naturalistic, I guess you’d say. My parents had come for a week vacation in the Bahamas, and one of my father’s students came to stay with me. I’d known her for a while, she was a family friend but I’d never lived with her. The poem was basically a portrait. It was called “Angry Feathers,” which was the name of a dish she cooked (she was Boston Italian). I wasn’t even sure it was really a poem, but in my first semester of college I submitted it to the literary magazine, under a pseudonym, because I was on the staff. Everybody picked this poem out of the packet I submitted, didn’t much care about the others, but said, “This is a great poem.” It took me a while to understand why, but that was the beginning of a kind of poetic understanding I hadn’t had before.
LF: Who are some of your favorite poetic influences? AH: Jane Hirshfield is a primary influence. I’d also have to say Leonard Gontarek, who Saturday poetry workshop I’ve been in for 10 years now. Others: Alicia Ostriker, W. S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Carolyn Kizer, Marie How, Far Snyder, Carolyn Forche
LF: Could you describe your creative process for writing poetry as opposed to story writing? AH: Libby Mosier asked me that at my book launch. I find that in prose, I may have an idea, but it won’t happen unless I can find the language in which to do it in. Sometimes this is very frustrating, because I have some great ideas that have turned out dead in the water because I just can’t hear them. In poetry, the language always seems to be there. I start with language. When I have an “idea” for a poem, the idea comes with language, or is more attached to it. I get down some language. Sometimes I’m excited and it just seems to happen, Other times I’m dissatisfied for a while, but I keep playing with it. Most of the time I end up with something. This is where being in Leonard’s poetry group is so helpful. I can bring something in there, and get some feedback. Then, I can go back and work it some more. Sometimes I do decide to abandon it along the way, but quite often I persist until I get something I think I can put out there. Sometimes I retire it after it doesn’t get picked up in the first round of submission, sometimes I’ll keep sending it out. Periodically I go back to work I felt didn’t quite gel or isn’t quite there in some way, to see if I can do something new with it, or cannibalize it for something else.
LF: At what point do you decide to stop revising your work? AH: Yeah, that’s the question. As I say, I have a folder of poems that I go back to periodically, to see if there’s anything I can use there. So I almost never completely give up. But I do cull out those that I think are more along the way than others. Some take years to happen. Going back and looking after your work after letting some time go by is a good habit, I think. But basically, I decide to stop when I feel there just sin’t much more to be gained. The work will never be perfect. It is of this imperfect world, so it can’t be perfect. If it stays in the head, then it can be perfect. But as soon as it comes out into the world, it is imperfect. I find this actually quite liberating. At a certain point, you make a decision and try to stick with it. Still, if you’re sending out work and it comes back and you look at it and say, this is what I want to change, I say, go for it! But after a certain point, there are diminishing returns. Every poet, or writer in any form for that matter, has to choose that moment for her or himself.
LF: What are you working on now? AH: Well, in Leonard’s group, we get an assignment every week. This is helpful just to keep one writing. I don’t write a poem a week, but I aspire to. I don’t get to Leonard’s every week, but I try to as often as I can. Sometimes I do the assignment, sometimes I don’t, because another idea has captured me. I lead my workshop on Mondays and Tuesday, and we write in them. So often I use those short writing periods to begin to draft something that I then try to make better later in the week. So I try to keep plowing along. I have a series of poems about a character called “The Daughter,” based on the daughter of a friend, but of the character on the page is fictional, and contains a lot of me. I can’t write these poems on demand, only when I’m inspired. At some point, I might have a book of “Daughter” poems, but I don’t know whether that will happen or not. I have a baggy bunch of prose that I write pieces of from time to time about migraines (I have chronic migraine). I’ve been reading a lot of illness memoirs recently to try to help me think about a form for this, which I title “The Migraine Papers.” I work on that mostly when I go away for a week of writing in the summer to The Porches writing retreat in Norwood, VA. But I’ll admit, I hate working on it. I have some theories about that resistance, but it is a force to struggle with. I’m hoping that reading more of these illness memoirs may suggest more of a structure that will allay my anxiety. I am currently serving as the President of my son’s school’s Band and Orchestra Parents. I would love to write some poems about that, but I think I will need more time to digest before I can do that. I also have this crazy idea of writing poems about the composer Béla Bartók. Well, maybe there’s an idea that I haven’t been able to realize in poetry yet!
LF: Why is poetry important in the world? AH: I think the lyric impulse is part of being human. Sometimes it expresses itself in poetry, sometimes in song. The lyric impulse has something to do with making something beautiful from what we don’t think is beautiful, or of making us see the beauty in something we’ve overlooked. I think that without that, it’s hard to sustain hope. This doesn’t mean that poetry should “pretty up” the world. I think that usually makes us feel less hopeful. It’s about being able to accept the mottled quality of our experience: some of it is ghastly, some of it awful, some of it sublime, and everything in between. After 9/11, people who might have proclaimed poetry dead two weeks before were turning to poetry. I think the lyric is a place we go when we are in crisis, as individuals or as a greater collective. It’s one way we express what it means to be ourselves.
LF: What do you hope readers take away from your poem? AH: That’s hard. Of course one wants everyone to say “Wow.” there’s nothing like getting a “wow.” But that ultimately is a distraction. Yes, one wants to be admired, but what’s really more fundamental is a feeling of connection. One wants one’s work to connect to the reader in some way, to allow a reader larger access to her or his own experience. That’s what the poems that mean most to me do—they widen my experience, in some way. In yoga, we talk about opening the heart. A sense of opening, that’s what I’d like to give my readers.