On “river, star, stone” and “the urgent concerns language carries”: A Conversation with Alessandra Lynch by Michelle Antoinette Nicholson

Alessandra Lynch is the author of four books of poetry: Pretty Tripwire (Alice James Books, 2021), Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (Alice James Books, 2017), finalist for the LA Times Book Award, winner of the Balcones Prize; It was a terrible cloud at twilight (LSU Press, 2008), winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize; and Sails the Wind Left Behind (Alice James Books, 2002). She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony. She serves as poet-in-residence at Butler University and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.

In March and April of 2021, Michelle Nicholson interviewed Alessandra Lynch, via email, about Lynch’s newest book.

Michelle Nicholson: Thank you for taking some time to share your thoughts about writing, poetry, and your most recently released book, Pretty Tripwire. You dedicated the book to your two sons. As a professor at Butler University and a mother, how do you find time and space to write? What was your process for writing the poems in this book?

Alessandra Lynch: And thank you for reading my books and sharing these questions! Yes, I am constantly busy, but writing poetry is not necessarily about finding the time and space so much as being attentive to my interiority and willing to enter that space where the poems have already been fomenting, their curious eyes alert, their hearts beating fast. Writing is about being receptive to my (and language’s) readiness. Ideally, arm in arm, we venture onto the page. Too much coaxing causes the words to sprint back into hiding. If the words come out first, I try not to lose sight of them, but I am also cautious about catching up to them too quickly.

I keep journals and books everywhere—at bedside, in my poetry shed, in my car, on the dining room table, on the sunporch rocking chair, by the computer—this is one way to keep poetry interwoven with the hours of the day, as part of the quotidian. So, I might grade a few papers, then jot down a few lines, make breakfast for my sons, head out on the sunporch to free write, say goodnight to the house and hello to the stars, then enter my poetry shed and read a book of poems or type, read from a novel or collection of essays in bed, then jot down a few quotes or mark a passage. When I awaken, I drink coffee with vanilla almond milk, eat a handful of blueberries, write down my dreams, read a few lines of poetry, write a few words, do yoga, ramble around the garden, move some brush, then when and if a line or observation catches me, I pick up a pen to write.

The earliest poem in the book “Wolf & Root” was written in 2013. The latest poem in the book was written last year. Since each creative act is distinctive, I’ll just tell you about “Wolf & Root.” Knee-deep in my garden, I was trying to weed out one obdurate insidious root that was fanged with littler roots. I was furious and frustrated but I kept pulling. As I was toiling away, some lines of poetry floated up in that space of the head that’s part mind, part ear, part mouth, and I dropped the root, headed into the house, and wrote them. I returned to the root, transformed, as I knew something potent, something poetry was in the making. That whole summer I returned to that poem; it became my childhood’s loss and longing, my motherhood’s wonder and wariness.

MN: I am excited by how your writing evolves. I noticed that the structure of the book, as a whole, differs from the structure of your prior books. Pretty Tripwire is composed of sections, but these sections are not enumerated. All but one of the sections is composed of a pair of poems—and the penultimate poem is titled “Couplets.” Also, these are often long poems, including sections themselves—a style that we see emerge in your third book, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment. What led you to organize your new book in this way?

AL: Writing is generative and organic. Sometimes we forget that it comes from within our bodies as much as our psyches, and as our own physical and psychic structures shift and change over time, so does our work. As we have very little say in how our bodies evolve, same with poems. I run on intuition and regular exercise (reading others’ poems aloud, writing often). The consciousness appears later in the process—sometimes much later! In fact, as the galleys were being sent to the printers, I finally saw how much symmetry is in Pretty Tripwire—symmetries I hadn’t consciously wrought.

I envision each smaller poem that precedes a longer sequence as a portal into the longer sequence through tone, meditation on subject matter, imagery. I've included "section" breaks in order to give readers time to reflect on and absorb and feel the reverberations of the long sequence they just experienced. The middle section of shorter lyric poems breaks up the portal/long sequence pattern tonally, structurally, and thematically to afford the reader another kind of mood. I hope this group of poems adds to the texture of the book.

I end with an epilogue of sorts that echoes back to "Wolf & Root" and underscores the importance of connection with others and with the earth—first, the speaker of the poems digs to get at the root of her lamentations; then, by the book's end, she's ready to plant.

MN: The doll and wolf are recurring figures in your poetry—although their signification seems to morph. “Hanged Doll,” in It was a terrible cloud at twilight, with her “yellow stitch of mouth propped / in a smile” that “You yourself hung” becomes “That gift from my mother, / a life-sized doll of me, I hanged” in the poem “Roy” in Pretty Tripwire. Is this the same voice, evolving? What do you think is the relationship between Pretty Tripwire and your other books?

AL: In Mary Ruefle’s indelible Madness, Rack, and Honey, she writes: “What do I mean by fear? Why I mean that thing that drive you to write.” While I don’t believe fear is what drives me to write, I do feel I am driven to write in part to safeguard myself while opening to language and the urgent concerns language carries, and I feel there is a different kind of opening or awakening in Pretty Tripwire than in It was a terrible cloud at twilight, or the awakening took on a different form. But without the latter, the former would not have been born, and without Pretty Tripwire, the new poems I’m writing would not be—there’s a chain reaction of sorts that happens from book to book. Or maybe it’s a conversation.

It takes many lifetimes sometimes to awaken or to be aware of these connections. (If we’re receptive to ourselves, to the world, do we ever cease awakening?) The psychic landscape of an artist is fertile ground. “Doll” and “Wolf” are part of my psychic landscape—they recur unbidden, and each time they arise, they carry with them a new electrical impulse. Other words, too, hold this kind of charge: lantern, sea, river, star, stone, snow…. And yes, I believe it is the same voice evolving (nicely put, Michelle!).

MN: Speaking of Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, I have been thinking about her chapter “On Sentimentality,” which refutes an argument that “the vague you is precisely one of the ills that haunts our verse.” In these lines from “Roy” and “Hanged Doll,” we see examples of what I consider an effective use of you, and much of your poetry seems to convey a dialogue between You and I. In fact, Pretty Tripwire even includes poems titled “Reader” and “Dear Reader.” What do you believe is the role of you in your poems?

AL: Pronouns have a seismic power—they can shift psychic concern, tone, volume, shape, mood. Depending on all the elements in a poem, “you” can be both intimate and distant, as can “I.”

The Reader in both the poems you mention can be understood as both general and intimate. Sometimes, those who have experienced a painful cleaving in their lives are able to deeply understand and mother or soothe another person who has experienced a similar pain. I liked placing these poems close—as one feels more self-contained and the other flings out and is more agitated, but both sing of connectiveness, the burning existence of love, despite our “disqualified light” in a “world that has failed us.”

I hope that the invocation poem ("Supplication") in Pretty Tripwire invites the reader to enter the emotional realm of the book. It is a summoning of some kind of courage and heart necessary to embark on the personal journeys in the book.

MN: In an interview with Critical Mass, you stated that you “started writing poetry as a way to create another world, a refuge from the chaos and terror that was not of my own making. Maybe my re-making or redefining this terror through metaphor (making it my own) is necessary for me—maybe it’s the fuel for these poems. Maybe this is the way I can inhabit and understand or make something of it, as opposed to allowing it to consume me.” In a 2018 interview with Dan Grossman, you described “all creative acts as antidotes to destructiveness.” What are you attempting to re-make or redefine, what destructiveness, what poison, are you detoxing in Pretty Tripwire? Or does writing now serve some different purpose for you?

AL: Not poison and not detoxing but embodying the grief and the wonder of human life and experience…Giving shape and song to destructiveness can be a catharsis, but I like thinking about it as a re-making of the destruction into something that can be felt, emotionally understood. This reenvisioning of the world can offer a healing perspective to both the writer and reader.

Now I’m thinking about the famous Ray Bradbury quote: “You must write every single day of your life…You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads…may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

From the time I was six years old, writing has always enabled me to be connected to Self and World; it has allowed me to feel, to feel more present and real, to feel more grounded, more of a Self. Poetry was a place where I could discover and hear my own voice, where I could console myself, where I could sing in a way I felt as powerful, as self-empowering.

MN: You express a desire to be silent, or a struggling with expression in “Violence, the Words” in It was a terrible cloud at twilight and, in your recently released book Pretty Tripwire, the poem “Magnolia.” What are the obstacles you face when writing about challenging subject matters? How do you overcome these?

AL: If the subject matter is not challenging in some way, I am not writing the poem I need to write, but the challenge I always face when creating art is being in a space of receptivity. I need to be receptive enough to create something authentic. I need to be in a non-distracted headspace, a space of alertness, a space where my dreams are awake to me, and I am alive to the world. This is a mighty challenge and one that is not only about poetry writing, but also about being. If I am not working on writing every day (jotting down notes, making little observations in ink, freewheeling it on the page, crafting a draft, drafting a draft), I pace. I float off. I feel ill or uneasy, purposeless, disconnected.

MN: It seems like your sensibility as a visual artist influences your poetry—its attention to detail as we as how its function as a tool of emotional appeal, expression, and perhaps even healing. Your first two books, Sails the Wind Left Behind and It was a terrible cloud at twilight, are dominated by the color “blue,” while Pretty Tripwire is dominated by “yellow.” In what ways do you believe your work and sensibility as a visual artist influence your understanding of poetry?

AL: Nice observation. Again, it is intuitive. I started painting in 2016, at the behest of a friend who seemed quite certain I should be painting with oil paints, specifically. I remember how careful I was in the first painting—choosing a few colors I loved, following the brush without intention—and how much magic happened on the canvas. I felt the connectivity and mystery I get when I’m writing well. Retrospectively, the anguish of living in a country with a newly elected hateful sexual predator of a president who mangled words and phrases bred hundreds of paintings; my voice in verbal language felt insufficient to release my feelings.

MN: You have said that you wrote your first poem when you were six years old, in response to Beethoven, and in your 2014 interview with Diana Lockwood, you said that you “read every draft obsessively to heed the music,” including “decisions about spacing and line breaks.” Possibly one of the more striking and exciting changes in your poetry that we see in Pretty Tripwire is your use of more unconventional field composition. What instigated or influenced this change in how you capture music in your work? What poems in Pretty Tripwire do you think are particularly influenced by music?

AL: The poems in the middle section might be particularly influenced by music as during that time, I was obsessively listening to particular albums—Nick Cave, whose last three albums are haunted from within and brilliant; Benjamin Clementine, a younger musician who was recognized with a Mercury; Miles Davis; Rachmaninov; Thelonious Monk; Patti Smith; Joni Mitchell; Gillian Welsh; Prince (especially his guitar work); Chopin; and John Cale (listen to his song “What is the Legal Status of Ice?”).

The space happened naturally, organically, reflecting the movement of my mind, perhaps, or maybe it bespeaks a breaking through, or a new expansiveness in my perception through the language that was falling on the page. Perhaps I had to widen the margins to go deeper; I had to listen more intently, so I needed more space; I had to absorb my own words through the new uses of space. The shape of the psyche of these poems is different than those in my other books—hence, different navigation of space. It was not a conscious choice so much as a thrill, stumbling-upon a new way of being on the page.

MN: Gerald Stern likened your first book of poetry to the works of Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane, but I feel like your poetry leans toward Romantic, especially poets like William Blake, who were concerned with beauty, love, the natural world, and the marriage of the Sister Arts. In Pretty Tripwire, you mention the figures of Dante and Beckett. Where would you locate your poetry, in terms of our literary tradition?

AL: My poems are floating peripherally to all the traditions I’ve been exposed to, as well as all the flora and fauna of this world, I suppose. Here is an incomplete smorgasbord of some of my favorite artists, to help us both think about my aesthetic orientation: Hieronymus Bosch, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rothko, Joan Miro, Gerald Stern, Lorca, Michael Burkard, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Louise Gluck, William Faulkner, Mary Gaitkskill, Virginia Woolf, Marilyn Chin, Frank Bidart, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Notley, Kathleen Peirce, Carl Phillips, Samuel Beckett, Marilynne Robinson, Tomaz Salamun, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Harte Crane, Haruki Murakami, Emily Bronte, Sappho, et al.

MN: I appreciate how your books always end on a positive note with content and sentiments that hint toward your future work, or next book. For example, “a child waving a stick / that looks like a wolf” appears on the penultimate page of Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment. Then, your next book is dedicated to that child, who reappears in the final section of the poem “Wolf and Root,” where he asks “What shall we do with this / poor old wolf.” There are ends and there are beginnings in your books and poems. Pretty Tripwire ends with an image of one “who is kind / regards the roots and starts / to dig.” How do you know when one book has begun, the other has found its end? Does the end of Pretty Tripwire give us a hint about what is to come next?

AL: Thank you! I create in terms of poems, not books per se. I don’t really think in terms of projects. If a bulk of poems starts steering in a particular structural, thematic, or tonal direction, I’ll shepherd them. Once I feel the poems I’ve been writing over the years have gathered heft and depth and feel alive and interconnected, then I might consider them as a book in the making. There was some overlap in the timing of the writing and revising of Daylily and Pretty Tripwire—in part, because of this, there is some overlap or echoes within the books.

In addition to the “kind” final figure in Pretty Tripwire, some of the friends and loved ones in the middle section of the book might have subconsciously spawned more human figures in the poems I’m writing now—a neighborhood woman now vanished, a teacher who lives by the sea, a poet who has passed from one room into the next. When I was in my twenties, a friend asked offhandedly, “Why are there no people in your poems, only animals?” I think it’s interesting that it has taken me this long for more people to appear—another sign of some kind of transformation, I believe.

MN: Before we wrap up, would you share what you are reading and writing now?

AL: I have just finished reading Beholding by the marvelous Ross Gay. I am teaching Citizen by Claudia Rankine, as I do every year, so I am re-reading this essential book. I have also returned to Shirt in Heaven by Jean Valentine, accompanied by Heaven Beneath by Anne Marie Macari and Blessed as We Are by Gerald Stern, so Jean can be with friends. I’ve been dipping into Rowan Ricardo Williams’ Living Weapon, and I’m nearly finished reading Jorie Graham’s latest, Runaway. I am frequently checking in with Emily Dickinson, Tomaz Salamun, Samuel Beckett, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Burkard, Carl Phillips, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alice Notley, and so many others. Books abound in every room of my house. Prose-wise, I am reading Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days, a terrific new collection of essays, Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, and the novel Jack by Marilynne Robinson, which I am reading it very very slowly because I want to stay with those voices forever. The opening pages are set in a graveyard, and we’re eavesdropping on an intimate exchange…As I wrote recently as a featured blogger for the Poetry Foundation: “Maybe poetry is just that: an intimate exchange while the tombs breathe around us.”



Alessandra Lynch is the author of four books of poetry: Pretty Tripwire (Alice James Books, 2021), Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (Alice James Books, 2017); It was a terrible cloud at twilight (LSU Press, 2008), winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize; and Sails the Wind Left Behind (Alice James Books, 2002). She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony. She serves as poet-in-residence at Butler University and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Michelle Antoinette Nicholson is a NOLA native and poet pursuing her MFA degree at the University of New Orleans. She is a Master of Education and English Literature, editor, teacher, reviewer, and journalist. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Orleans Review, Talking River Review, Tilted House, and elsewhere.