I first met Alison Stine in Austin, Texas, six years ago, having just missed being introduced to her two years before that in Chicago. Her poems are unlike any I'd known before then -- as her teacher Brigit Pegeen Kelly once remarked, she has a perfect ear. She is the author of two collections of poetry, the Vassar Miller Prize-winning Ohio Violence (UNT Press), and the Brittingham Award-winning Wait (Wisconsin). We spoke at our home in southeastern Ohio at ten p.m. last night.
A When I was a kid, my dad brought home Splash. He said, “You’re really going to like this one, it’s about a man who falls in love with a mermaid. And do you know what happens at the end?” And I said, “He becomes a mermaid?” And my dad said, “Pretty much, yes.” And then I realized I didn’t enjoy some movies as much as my friends did, and some books as much as my friends did, because I could tell what was coming. It’s not as much fun if you always know what’s coming, only if you know what’s coming sometimes.
Q But one of the things I remember best about first reading your blog, was that --
A Wait, when did you read my blog?
Q Well, I think we were already married.
A I remember reading your blog, and was mad that you didn’t mention my poems.
Q Funny thing about that.
A I thought, “This guy’s not worth my time!” This was three years before I met you.
Q Yeah. So, about your blog.
A You can edit that.
Q Actually, I intend to use it.
A No, I started as a poet. It’s my mom’s fault. I would tell her stories and she wrote them down as poems. She’s an elementary school teacher so, I guess that was the form she was familiar with in working with children. I don’t know how she made the line breaks – you can take that up with her.
Q When did you start writing plays?
A Not until high school.
Q How long had you been acting in plays by then?
A I started when I was nine. I was very shy and someone suggested to my parents that making me get up in front of people and sing and dance would cure of that.
Q What did you like about acting?
A I liked making people feel things, and I liked feeling things as well. I liked showing emotion on my face in a way that was --- you know, we’re discouraged from showing emotion during the day in school and in our lives, but in the context of the play, in the context of the character and the situation, the reaction was allowed. I enjoyed going through the different feelings that the characters were feeling, trying to show that on my face, and I enjoyed being able to gauge immediately from the reactions of my fellow actors and the people in the first few rows whether it was working or not.
Q Immediate reaction.
A When I started writing plays that was what I liked too. I liked hearing people laugh at my jokes. I liked a response. I remember being told really early when I was an actor that in musicals, the audience claps after songs, they’re supposed to, but if they didn’t clap one night, that was actually good. That meant they were really affected by it. They didn’t want to break the spell; they wanted to sit there in silence. I only remember that happening once in all the musicals I worked on, but I was down in the green room, just listening--there was a mic rigged up so we could hear our cues in the green room through this tinny speaker--and this little girl sang a song that I wrote, and there was just silence afterwards. And that was one of the best feelings in the world.
Q So when you first started writing poems again, had you already been reading James Wright?
A No. The first poets I read were Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and we didn’t have a Barnes and Noble for a long time. There was nothing, no internet. I didn’t know that poets were alive, to tell the truth. I really thought you had to be dead to be a poet. Until I was fifteen or sixteen and met a poet, I thought that was something they called you after you were dead. A teacher recommended Edna St. Vincent Millay to me, and I read her. But I didn’t read James Wright until I was a freshman in college.
Q What was that like?
A I was reading his Above the River: The Complete Poems, and when I got to the poem where he mentions Mansfield, which is where I grew up, I remember thinking “What!” Looking around. It felt like he was looking in my dorm room window, that he was right there. That he’d been to the town I’d grown up in was really startling. And I realized not only could poets be alive, they could come from towns like mine.
Q You’re in a Ph.D. program for nonfiction. Had you written much nonfiction before you blogged?
Q You’d written a little for the newspaper.
A I had a column in the newspaper when I was fourteen, an advice column.
Q So you were giving advice to people when you were fourteen.
A I’m sure I was giving advice to no one. But I was writing it.
Q What do you think about blogging. Do you miss it?
A I didn’t understand what a blog was, so I didn’t do that.
Q Do what?
A It wasn’t funny, my blog. I didn’t have any links, I didn’t have a blogroll, I didn’t link to anyone. Every day I wrote a longish lyric essay. I gave it everything I had, and I don’t think you were supposed to do that with blogs. I gave it away. Nobody told me you’re not supposed to write this way on the internet. So instead of telling me, they just read it.
Q So what’s your sense of what a poem has to have before you’re satisfied with having written it?
A It’s got to have a story, first of all, some kind of narrative. It’s got to have interesting lyrical language that surprises. It’s got to be weird. Weirdness is very important to me. I like surprising even myself.
Q But it’s not like the kind of surprise where, “and then a trap door opened”
A “And then I woke up.”
A No, a surprise on the level of feeling. A pattern I used to use fairly often was to use two narratives. One would be a personal narrative. And the other narrative thread would be something from history, from nature, something observed. Something more calm. And the power was in intertwining them, and always ending with the plea, the appeal. My three best friends in grad school, Shara [Lessley], Katy [Didden] and Brian [Moylan], used to tell me I should get two little dogs and name one of the dogs Narrative and one of the dogs Figurative, and just call on my little dogs. But once you notice yourself doing something you should stop doing it…
I’m a somewhat more cynical reader now. I’ve met too many poets to be that in love with poetry anymore. So when I open a book of poems—when I lived in DC I used to go to a lot of shows, I had a lot of friends in music. I remember going to see PJ Harvey at the Black Cat. Some guy was opening for her, I’d never heard of him, and he walks out on the stage and it’s this puny guy with a guitar, and I thought, whatever, I’m going to the bar to get a drink. And his first song was so good I slowly turned away from the bar. And by the end of the first song I was right there in the front row listening to this guy’s song. David Garza. Never heard of him since, but I did get his CD. I want a book of poems to do that, I want it to draw me away, turn my head around. Because I’m not looking at it anymore, my head is already turning away. So many poems now are about nothing.
Q Did you read my post about complaints about poetry? One of the complaints is the Airburger, the Nothing, the Silence, White Noise. I hear this from many many people: So much of poetry has nothing in it.
A One of the books I enjoyed in recent years that I know you did as well is Paula Bohince’s Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods. The narrative: a farmhand kills the narrator’s father. It’s a murder mystery/American gothic, but it’s also lovely and sad. Maybe the story is the hook that reels you in, but you stay because the language is incredible and surprising. It’s hard to maintain that over a book. Anyone can write an amazing poem, but to do that thirty times is very hard. And to figure out the right way to order them so it doesn’t feel stale or confusing is just about impossible. It’s easy to fall back upon air to cushion yourself. It’s easier to say nothing than it is to say something.
Q Let’s talk about writing in multiple genres.
A It’s becoming not only acceptable but expected on some level, which I appreciate. I remember when I was in grad school first one of the questions I asked was, I was accepted as a poet but can I take a fiction workshop? I wanted to study fiction and I was told that I could not take a writing workshop in another genre because all the writing workshops met at the exact same time. I was told this was to foster community within your genre. But it seemed to me like they were scared of something… You just have to think about what aspect of your writing is not being expressed in the genre you’ve been working in. For example, my poems aren’t very funny.
Q Could you see yourself writing a funny poem?
A No. Sometimes people laugh at my “Letter After Dismemberment” poem.
Q It’s nervous laughter, honey.
A I had a few puns in there, I took them out because they laughed. I also think it’s like different levels of your psychology must live in different genres. Fiction is the least close to my life, poetry’s a little closer, and nonfiction is of course the life, though it’s the life through a lens, a persona. It’s still filtered but it’s awfully close. Therein lies a dilemma. The older I get the less I want to write about my own life.
Q Why’s that. Protect the innocent?
A And the not so innocent!
Q Thanks, honey.
A I do want to protect the people I love. But I also don’t want it to be about me. I don’t want my writing to be about me. I want it to be about a narrative or image that someone got lost in. I want it to be a new world.