NA: What is the first thing you would tell people about Alice James Books if they’d never heard of the press and wanted to know about it?
CS: Alice James is one of the oldest poetry presses in the country. We’ve published over one hundred and fifty authors and produce six books of poetry a year. We are located in Farmington, Maine and have been affiliated with the University of Maine at Farmington for over twenty years. The press publishes a broad range of poetic voices and aesthetics, and though we strive to support women writers in particular, we publish, and always have published, men as well.
NA: One of Alice James’ initial objectives was to give women more access to publishing. Is this still your mission? What is the ratio of men to women authors you publish?
CS: Absolutely, and the “initial objective” of giving access to women is still highly relevant today. One needs only to review VIDA reports, to scan TOCs of poetry journals, or to review the lists of individuals winning major awards to see there is still an imbalance. For every five women we publish, we publish two men.
NA: Alice James is a community press, right? How do you involve authors in the publishing process?
CS: Alice James was founded as a cooperative press, yes, and initially that meant that authors did everything from typesetting to marketing on theirs and other fellow Alices’ books. Currently, our authors are still very involved in the design and production of their individual collections. They collaborate with us on things like typeface, layout, and cover art. Authors with books coming out also, many times, work with another published AJB author to edit the book. Pairing authors up reinforces their bond as AJB poets and invests them in each others work. This mentorship-like partnership is also incredibly helpful for new poets, and in particular first book poets, as they find their footing at the press and within the world of publishing.
NA: How many books of poetry do you publish each year? What distinguishes an Alice James poet?
CS: We put forth six books of poetry a year. Some years we publish poetry-in-translation and some we publish special collections like our 40th anniversary anthology or the forthcoming June Jordan Reader (2017). More and more, I think we may take on special projects related to poetry. An AJB poet is one that challenges common constructs, pushes boundaries, takes risks and writes from the gut. We gravitate toward poetry that reveals and stems from someplace deeper than the self. Often our books appeal to audiences beyond the poetry community because of this. Our press is known for its broad range of aesthetics, but within this range the common denominator is our poet’s engaged presence and sense of urgency in storytelling.
NA: Do your poetry books come primarily from your competition?
CS: They used to until quite recently, yes. As of 2014, however, we’ve improved our acquisitions process, and in doing so, solidified a way to offer a home to some of the poets who have already published with us, while also inviting in new voices from the community. We’ve paired down to one flagship manuscript competition a year (instead of the three we were doing), the Alice James Award, and we are looking forward to devoting, more exclusively, our resources to the work of reading manuscripts and cultivating the publications from that series.
NA: You also publish translations.
CS: Yes, we do. We began taking translation queries in 2011 and are working hard to continue development of this program at the press. Our latest translation is a collection translated from Spanish to English by Curtis Bauer, titled Eros Is More by Juan Antonio González Iglesias (September 2014). It is a beautifully rendered book by a living Spanish poet.
NA: I recently read an excerpt from one of Philip Metres’s poems here, and was quite taken with it. I see he has a new book, Sand Opera, coming out with Alice James Books. Could you say a few words about it? I would also like to ask Phil Metres a few words about his poetry collection.
CS: Erasure. Catastrophe. Denial. Culpability. Exposure. Obstruction. Fury. Despondency. To expound, Metres’ poems are composed via their amalgamation. He writes from the chaotic place within this comingling with clarity and profound insight. The lyric produced is haunting, horribly relevant, and necessary. It is song and prose and tame and wild. It is formal. It exists in its nonexistence. Bearing witness is not for the meek, and if the disintegration of identity, spirit, and mind doesn’t bring you to tears or madness when reading this book, I couldn’t fathom what would move you.
NA: I am so impressed by the sheer beauty of Sand Opera. I love the transparent pages, the gray and black lettering, the redacted title page, the cover, how it all works together. Such care went in to the design of the book.
CS: Book design is something the press is deeply devoted to, so thank you. The planning work for the design of Sand Opera started right as it was accepted for publication. I knew that there needed to be something more dimensional about the design than is typical and was so thrilled when Phil echoed these sentiments in our earliest talks. He was so open to the possibilities for the book’s design, and that was instrumental in our effort. When we relayed our ideas for the transparencies to the designer, Mary Austin Speaker, things just seemed to click into place. She’s incredibly, wildly talented. The transparencies open up the interpretations of the words, poems, and depictions in the book, allowing for meaning to deepen and resonate even further. The more that is stripped away in this book, the more we find revealed.
NA: Philip, tell me about the writing of Sand Opera. You felt compelled to write it?
PM: The immediate spark was my initial confoundedness—my absolute inability to write anything in the face of the 9/11 attacks, and then the Iraq War, and the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. The photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal—seeing people who looked like my cousins—brutalized by my fellow citizens, absolutely shook me. I was absolutely struck dumb, and everything I wrote felt partial, incomplete, stuttered, fractured.
This captures one of those moments, from the “Homefront/Removes” sequence:
On the flight overseas, the rows dotted with isolatos,
Each an island of eyes. I was looking (for), looking (like).
Ivan Zhdanov: what outside is a cross, inside is a window.
A white woman across the aisle eyed me the entire
flight. Her gaze widened and neck craned as I (her eyes)
slowly removed (her eyes) my shoes. What could I say?
Sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb. That I’m a
sleeper and don’t know when I’ll awaken. I should have
said: Identity isn’t an end—it’s a portal, a deportation
from the country of mirrors, an inflection within a
question, punctuation in the sentence of birth. I said
nothing. Later, visiting a Quaker meeting, I sat among
scattered chairs. On the shores of breathing, all eyes
shut, I waded. Silence our rudder, silence our harbor.
To read the commentaries about the scandal—repeated recently over the Senate’s 2014 Torture Report—was to enter into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where skin doesn’t bleed and nerves don’t cry out and people have no mouths to speak. That might explain why I was drawn to the cover by Iraqi artist Ayad Alkadhi, called “Baghdad II.” As I noted elsewhere, even the noted documentarian Errol Morris chose to interview only Americans for his film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” which explores the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It seems almost absurd that in our global and digital age, Morris did not interview or even meet with detainees.
It wasn’t until I found the testimonies of the abused prisoners that I began to work my way through that silence; their words were a testament not simply of the brutality, but also of surviving it, naming it, and saying that it would not silence them.
NA: And you brought the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Torture Report back to us, almost as a performance piece.
PM: It’s weird that Abu Ghraib (and Guantanamo) are now both “historical” and still very much present tense (the past is never dead, at least when it comes to dynamics that are very much alive). I’ve been interested in the principle and practice of the dialogical, which has meant that I’ve been trying to figure out ways to break open the monology of the lyric and return to poetry’s performative and dramatic roots. Although the “abu ghraib arias” is certainly a poem meant to be read on the page, it is also dramatistic in its possibility, and I’ve performed it with others (and the musician Philip Fournier) as a choral poem. Listen here. Though I began with the testimonies of Iraqis, it was really only when I incorporated both Iraqi and American voices that the arias started to become something like an opera or a play, a net of monologues in which each voice tries to make sense of what happened.
When people teach the book, I always recommend that instead of asking students what it means, ask them to perform it. Then all the symbol-hunting of the normative literature classroom becomes an attempt to figure out how to voice the unspeakable. Because you have to contend with regular text, grayscale, bold text, italics, erasures, redaction lines, vellum transparencies, and diagrams, any oral reading requires some sort of accounting of these material registers.
NA: You’ve been a poet for peace, a poet of witness, since I’ve met you. Yet this, I think, is your most powerful book yet. I can’t imagine what it was like to write.
PM: Thanks, Nin! I hope that Sand Opera might be part of a conversation about post-9/11 American attitudes and actions toward the Middle East in a way that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has done so about race. I didn’t have that intention when I began it; I was just trying to make sense of what was happening. In The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes: “A few years ago Robert Hass said to me, I still don’t know what I’m doing, at which point it occurred to me that not knowing what we’re doing is obviously the thing to do. So how does one get better at not knowing what one is doing?” As a superfan of Robert Hass, I find this revelation incredibly consoling.
For Sand Opera, some of the poems began as ways of reading and listening; the abu ghraib arias were essentially poems that enabled me to read the prison scandal. Other poems came about other ways. A voice would arrive in between waking and sleeping. Someone would say something. I’d hear a news story. By any means necessary poems come. I would start poems not knowing where they were going. A number of excellent poets helped me revise along the way. I threw out at least three times the amount that ended up in the book, and revised incessantly. I’m not proud that it took me so long, but every time I revised I could see the language become more obdurate, almost inevitable.
NA: Is it a challenge—mixing poetry and politics? A challenge you sometimes want to give up?
PM: Your question immediately made me think of how Billy Bragg responded, in “The Great Leap Forwards”: “Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses/While looking down the corridor/Out to where the van is waiting/I'm looking for the great leap forwards.”
Trying to write anything that deals with something other than our own individual truth is difficult; it’s hard enough trying to figure out what our own truths are, much less those we might hold in common. Neruda asserted that political poetry was the hardest poetry to write, even harder than love poetry; he wrote some beautiful political poems, and also some duds (the ode to Stalin seems particularly cringeworthy). I spent ten years in graduate school producing a dissertation that became Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, and that helped me see some of the possible paths. Between studying how poets struggled to write about war and resistance to war, translating Russian poetry, and trying to write my own poems, I had lots of poetic models to work with or work against.
Sand Opera attempts to have a conversation with the world. I recently came across this from Nadezhda Mandelstam, who proposes that (Russian) poets carry an ethical burden: “The work of the poet, as a vehicle of world harmony, has a social character—that is, it is concerned with the doings of the poet’s fellow men, among whom he lives and whose fate he shares. He does not speak ‘for them,’ but with them, nor does he set himself apart from them: otherwise he would not be a source of truth.”
While I embrace W.B. Yeats’ notion that poetry comes out of a quarrel with oneself, I don’t believe that means that one is writing only for oneself. It means that one is engaged in a process of inner and outer struggle simultaneously. “Easter 1916” is a beautiful political poem because we see Yeats’ vexatious feelings about the Easter Rising so vividly rendered; yet I can think of no greater poem that articulates the attractiveness and dangers of revolutionary violence. It is his ongoing conversation with revolution.
NA: How long did it take you to write Sand Opera?
PM: Sand Opera has been about a decade in the making (the earliest poems came probably around 2004 or so, and they kept coming. I probably went through hundreds of visions and revisions, I’m sorry to say. In another sense I’ve been writing it my whole life. My father was a Vietnam War veteran, who worked with families of P.O.W./M.I.A.s and became a psychologist. My mother, a lifelong pacifist, left the convent to study literature and later met and married my father. In the mid-1970s, with two young children, they “sponsored” a Vietnamese refugee family—which meant helping them find an apartment, work, and start a new life in San Diego. For a short time, I shared my bedroom with two of the sons, Lam and Dủng. I asked my parents, “where is their home?”
The book also propels forward through my work with the peace movement since the 1990s. The most memorable of my late 1990s activist pieces was a “post office action,” in which fellow activists and I attempted to send basic medical supplies through the U.S. postal service to Iraq, which was suffering under nearly a decade of U.S.-led economic sanctions; we invited journalists to cover the fact that the post office would not allow it. It was illegal to send band aids and aspirin to Iraq because of the brutality of the sanctions regime. According to U.N. sources, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died during the ten years of sanctions due to preventable disease. That longer view of the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq made everything that happened feel like it had happened before.
NA: Back to Carey—Do you publish any other political poets?
CS: Yes, absolutely. Two poets immediately come to mind: Brian Turner (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) and Reginald Dwayne Betts (Shahid Reads His Own Palm). Turner is a war vet and Betts an advocate in criminal justice. Betts has consulted on Supreme Court cases about juvenile conviction laws. Turner has endlessly advocated for vets and continues to keep us mindful that we are engaged in the longest war American history has ever known. The work of Shara McCallum and Monica A. Hand is also particularly shaped by the politics of identity. McCallum writes in her latest book, This Strange Land, about dislocation, cultural belonging and acceptance, and motherhood (always political), and Hand’s latest work, me and Nina, entwines present and past via the poet’s fascination with the life and work of Nina Simone.
NA: How about anthologies?
CS: We published an anthology in honor of AJB’s 40th anniversary in 2013. It is titled Lit From Inside (after a line Jean Valentine’s title poem from one of her earliest collections The River at Wolf, which appears in the book). The anthology includes poems by every poet published by AJB over our forty years of work and also a healthy dose of archival materials, including letters from Jane Kenyon, a handwritten blurb for Valentine by Seamus Heaney, and photographs of press founders working in the dead of night to typset AJB books at MIT press.
NA: What are some of the happiest moments and highlights of Alice James Books?
CS: Wow, well any time a new book comes in the door it’s a celebration. There’s a sense of fulfillment, tons of potential energy, and incredible excitement for our author. We pour a lot of heart into each one of our books, as do our incredible team of talented designers, and when we hold it in our hands for the first time and crack that spine, oh baby it is magical. Highlights for us would also be seeing our authors go on to do great things after publishing with us whether it be winning a major award or landing a tenure track job. We also are very dedicated to the work we do with the students at the University of Maine at Farmington, and we get incredibly giddy when alums land their first job or book publication or even just complete a massive semester-long project. It feels good when the work we do makes a difference in someone else’s life.
NA: Will you be at AWP?
CS: Absolutely, booth 1009
NA: I’d like close with another short poem of your choice from one of your poets.
CS: The amazing, seasonally appropriate meditation “Ridiculous winter flower” by Donald Revell (forthcoming in Drought-Adapted Vine, fall 2015)
“Ridiculous winter flower”
Ridiculous winter flower
More perfect butter
On the ground the disused
Must survive must live to tell
Something raised us
Out of the dust
Something gave us color
A gold also tender
I shall not tell its name
Laughter and piano teacher
Ridiculous winter flower
The gate’s wide open now
Carey Salerno is the executive editor of Alice James Books. She has an MFA in poetry from New England College. Her first book, Shelter, was published by Alice James Books in 2009. You may find her poems in various journals in print and online. She is the editor, along with Anne Marie Macari, of the anthology Lit from Inside: 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James Books.
Philip Metres is the author of a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves(2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.