Night Vision - Interview

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Claire Wahmanholm's poems have appeared in New Poetry from the Midwest 2017, PANK, Bennington Review, DIAGRAM, Best New Poets 2015, Handsome, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Journal, The Kenyon Review Online, BOAAT, 32 Poems, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Night Vision, won the 2017 New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest. Her debut full-length collection, Wilder, won the 2018 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in November 2018. Her second collection is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions in early 2019. She lives and teaches in the Twin Cities. Claire sat down with Tell Tell Poetry to chat about her work.

Tell Tell Poetry: I’m just going to go ahead and get into the nitty gritty. What are the pieces of art, books, or movies that moved you or influenced you the most in your life?

Claire Wahmanholm: James Turrell’s Milk Run had a very profound effect on me when I first saw it in 2011. I was in my mid-20s and can’t remember ever being struck like that by a piece of art. It became an obsession.  I thought about it constantly. We were living in Baltimore at the time and I would drag whoever I could down to D.C. just to see this piece. I must have seen it five or six times that year. For me, the sublime thing about Turrell’s work is that it happens to you in a weird way. It’s all about light and illusion and your brain and you can’t really control the way your eye responds to it. It’s unsettling.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installations are also totally astonishing and eerie. They do awesome, really emotionally affecting, stuff with sound. I saw Storm Room, The Killing Machine, and The Forty Part Motet (a solo piece by Cardiff) at the AGO in 2013. I have a pretty visceral reaction to choral music, so The Forty Part Motet was an intense experience. Kind of overwhelming.

The awkward thing about describing art is that it’s sort of ineffable, and words like “sublime” and “unsettling” and “intense” and “overwhelming” are non-descriptors, in a way. They’re simultaneously powerful and generic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say you’re dreaming that you’re doing one of those free-fall rides at an amusement park, and you’re freefalling and waiting for the machine to catch you and pull you back up, but then you look down and realize there is no ground.

Your prose poems are bizarre and beautiful and terrifying. What is it that terrifies? What is it that terrifies you?

I’m not crazy about the fact that at some point, I’m going to be dead forever. I’m given to understand that there are people who aren’t bothered by this. I’d like to have that kind of equanimity, but I think I’m too much of an animal. And my abject terror of death splits off into a bunch of smaller, more cumbersome, terrors: numbers, outer space, history museums, crossing the street at night, etc. It’s an inconvenient thing to be afraid of, because it’s pretty much the only sure thing. Like, great.

Loving things really hard also produces its own special kind of terror. If life is about playing it cool and minimizing the kill zone, love is the thing that comes around and is like, here, hold this unfathomably sublime object, it’s so beautiful it’s like looking directly into the sun, also it’s a bomb and literally anything could set it off, ok good luck byyyyyyyye. And we’re like, sure, this seems like a reasonable exchange, and furthermore, we’re going to go out and collect more of these objects that could explode at any time. Anyway, since having a child, my existence has been boundlessly euphoric and boundlessly terrifying.

Where does it hurt?

I’m often thinking of Warsan Shire’s poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”: “later that night/ i held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world/ and whispered/ where does it hurt?// it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere.” I feel like that a lot. There’s probably medication for this.

What’s the most confusing image you’ve ever written?

That’s a tricky one! It’s hard for me to tell what is or isn’t confusing, since I know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote the poems, and I’m able to mentally fill in any gaps. I guess I can see how something like the final stanza of “Termination Shock” might be confusing:  

“Cooling. Everything we touch./ Our beds are snow, our legs are river water./ A wind is blowing from somewhere across the meadow,/ carrying a new sound, a slowing, a deepening pitch./ Our blood beats with it until there is no blood left./ The shock entered me like it was coming home.”

Finish this sentence. The biggest problem with poetry today is lack of ____________.

I’d like to reframe this question so that it addresses “something I’d like to see changed about poetry today,” which is readership. I don’t think I am remiss in saying that most poetry books are read by poets, which maybe doesn’t seem that unusual until you imagine a world in which most novels are only read by novelists. I get that humans are inherently attracted to narrative in a way that makes it more rewarding to immerse ourselves in a novel than in a book of poems (or even short stories). We like arc, we like a sense of continuity, we like reading about people and relationships, we like plot. And those are all fine things. I’m not suggesting that everyone drop their novels and only read poems. Poetry is, after all, often more demanding: it makes leaps in a way that fiction often doesn’t, it can be harder to untangle, it doesn’t always offer a sustained, cohesive journey. But I want us to be more ok with those things. I want us to find those things rewarding as well. While narrative is one of our oldest impulses, poetry is even older. Spells and charms and religious incantations were all forms of poetry. It speaks to something very primitive in us that is worth paying attention to. And my sense is that poetry readership has been increasing lately—the NEA survey results that we saw in early June certainly show this. And I think it’s true that in times of political strife, people turn to poetry with increasing urgency.

What do you wish there were more of? In poetry or in general.

I wish I could be more hopeful. Or rather, I wish there were reason to be more hopeful. This is not to say that I’m interested in seeing more hopeful poetry—I’m not. To me at least, that’s not necessarily what poetry (or art more generally) is for.

 On a less grim note, I love sonically lush poems, and I feel like I don’t encounter them enough. I can (and do) open any number of contemporary poetry books and get beautiful/disturbing/emotionally affecting imagery, but I can’t reliably open a book and get an onslaught of rhyme or assonance or consonance or alliteration. So any day when I can get some Hopkins-level sonics is a good day.

Do your poems lack autobiography or are you in there?

I think all poems necessarily speak about their poets to some extent—you can’t get away from it completely. My poems rarely describe literal experiences I’ve had (thank god), but they do describe feelings I’ve had. So the situations of the poems are generally invented, but the emotion is (I hope) “accurate.”

If you had to describe yourself using a line from your own poem, which line would you use?

I’m cheating and using a small chunk of lines from my poem “Aftersky”: “We wrap our windows in tarp so we are not tempted/ to smash the glass and let the aftersky suck us outward/ like marrow from the bones of our houses.” I’ve noticed that I have a suspicious number of images where a speaker is deliberately avoiding eye contact with self-destruction. It’s clearly a “l’appel du vide” thing (which I’ve always experienced, but which I didn’t know there was a term for until a couple of years ago. Bonus!).

What are you working on now?

This summer I’ll be working on my third collection, which (I think) will be centered around a set of erasures of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The original poem is itself about visibility and erasure—while Icarus is literally visible, he is functionally erased in that his death provokes absolutely no response from anyone in the painting, even though it must have been “amazing” to witness. I’ve found myself thinking about that poem a lot in the last several years. With the rise of social media, it seems that suffering is so much more visible than it used to be. But how much does that enhanced visibility accomplish? We get reports that awful things are happening, we tell others that awful things are happening, the whole world knows that awful things are happening, and none of this prevents those awful things from happening. And then there are the questions of who gets to be visible? Who gets our sympathy? And who doesn’t?

So the erasures will be the core of the MS, and we’ll see how the rest of the poems happen. I’ve been thinking about children a lot lately, and children appear in a couple different contexts in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” so they’ll probably be one of the vanishing points as well.


We Can Speak!

In case you were wondering what our founder's voice sounds like with a cold during an interview with Emily Stroia's Woman Rising Podcast, we got you covered. 

We worked on Emily's first collection of poetry, Into the Light, which is a memoir-inspired story about trauma, and it was a honor to chat with her a bit about our feelings, our past, and, of course, why we like to work with trauma survivors. 



How to Believe in Magic: A Conversation with Jenny Sadre-Orafai


Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak, Paper, Cotton, Leather, and five chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, and other journals. Her prose has appeared in Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Fourteen Hills, The Collagist, and other journals. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with poet Jenny Sadre-Orafai about her second full-length collection, Malak (Platypus Press, 2017), and what it means to document the supernatural and the suppressed as they manifest in language and less articulable ways.


Tim Lynch: I’m really excited to talk with you. I fucking love this book.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: You’re so nice. Thank you.

TL: It’s very good. So how did the book project start for you?

JS: I think that it was just this idea of documenting all the supernatural that was going on in my life around my grandmother, strange things that I didn’t really piece together until they started happening to me, like poltergeist activity. Just looking at my grandmother and her gift for reading people’s futures from a different viewpoint, because it was so normal to me. It was something that I always knew she did. So it’s just a documenting, and it’s almost a case, proof that the supernatural exists—that people can hallucinate animals, that crystals can help people—and it kind of grew out of that.

TL: Yeah there’s definitely evidence we hear on the supernatural. The book seems very concerned with ghosts in one way or another. This book, in that way, feels like you’re sort of cultivating a space for this absent person. I’m wondering if that is something you’ve been trying to do with your poems as well.

JS: Yeah, I like that idea. I also think there’s something there, for an absent person, but also for a person who didn’t have the English language. You know, she and I didn’t really talk all that much. Her English was really limited, so our bond was even more based on this psychic connection, this spiritual connection. So I think it’s also for someone who I didn’t really know. I was trying to understand her maybe through writing the poems. I also think that the poems, honestly, are a political act. I mean, I’m Iranian and Mexican, and a woman, and so I think that part of it was a form of protest in a way, saying that this history, my history, matters.

TL: Yeah, the book opens and closes with direct speech, and each instance feels like a way of speaking so much of that into the world.

And part of what affected me with this book too is, well, I just lost my grandfather in December, so I’m still learning how to cultivate that space. There’s that next-to-last section in “Origin,” this line: “She’ll come back for the nest.” The raw quartz. There’s this sense of desperation in trying to get the dead back, which you’re pointing to in that relationship, something deeply connective here beyond language. I know that’s not exactly a question. I’m just trying to show my appreciation.

JS: Oh, well, thank you, and I’m sorry for your loss.

TL: Thank you.

But like I said, this book begins and ends with direct speech, and I won’t spoil the ending but I can’t imagine it ending any other way. So what, can I ask, is your personal relationship to languages, either in the practical daily way of speaking them or in relation to poetry, as far as the strange avoidance of sense poetry has?

JS: Well, I know bad words in Farsi, and I know numbers, and I know parts of my face. But that’s all. So then there’s that breakdown. I think the irony is in that section that you point out about me trying to lure my grandmother back, with shiny objects, with jewels or with crystal or whatever, because she really liked jewelry. This is maybe off topic, but I was told I was a healer, and the one message I get across the board is, “You don’t own it, you don’t believe that you are, and you have to just embody it and own it.” And so I think that anxiety of, “Did I really inherit her gift? Are all these things flickering around me and all these weird things happening because I’m like her?”—I’m trying to use language to communicate with her, and, ironically, we don’t speak the same language. So, I’m looking for this reassurance, even just in daily life, that I’m doing what I should be doing.

But the way I work mostly when I’m writing a poem, it’s very much like I’m taking notes. I don’t write every day or anything, and then it all just comes out. I think it’s maybe a spoiled way of writing, but I’ve just accepted that that’s how I work. So a lot of times the language is just dictated by whatever comes out as I’m listening.

TL: It sounds like you’re just taking what you’re given, which sort of relates too to that sense of, when you can see what’s coming what do you do with that. There’s that one moment, the last section of “Origin” about the tire, just listening to what you’re given too. So, how do you relate to being able to see. . . farther? It seems like that’s sort of conflated with seeing the truth, and it seems to exist between things.

JS: Well, that tire thing was one of the only times it really happened to me. That was really freaky; I mostly set electronics off. I’ve had my rear view mirrors on both sides combust and blow off my car; both times I was upset. It’s like telekinesis-type stuff, like Carrie. And that middle part, “Origin,” was actually an essay that was published in Los Angeles Review, and I parsed it out. I was so tired of people not believing, I was like, “I’m just going to write down everything that’s ever happened to me and that I’ve witnessed, and this will be how to believe in magic.” So those things, they don’t scare me.

The other day, I was in the living room with my husband and we were watching TV, and I was writing a poem and wanted to put an angel in it, so I was like, “Raphael’s an angel, right,” and he said, “What? No! That’s like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.” So I Googled it and was like, “No, here he is, he’s an angel.” So we had the TV on the news, the channel we always watch, and I’ve never seen this weather person before, and they go, “Alright, thank you, Raphael,” and I was like, “Mmmhmm.” I feel like things like that happen and it’s always the universe or the angels or whoever—it doesn’t scare me; it just makes me feel like that happened to give me reassurance.

TL: People will talk about the power of language and whatever, but it sounds like your relationship with the power of language is quite literal.

JS: Yeah. This woman came, she reads people’s auras, and she had these silver plates. You put your hands on them—they have little handprints on them—and then she takes a Polaroid, and around you are all these colors, and she’s able to kind of discern what’s going on. She looked at me and said, “Wow, you talk to your angels, don’t you?” And I was like, “What, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And she says, “Well you always read the ticker across the screen, and you look for words. And you look at license tags and you look for words there,” and I didn’t realize that I do that, but I do. So I think I’m constantly communicating with something bigger than me in these strange ways.

TL: I’m thinking too about—there’s so much in this book about the possibilities of language, either in terms of the supernatural, or there’s the one poem, “Lucy Let People See,” where you and the taxi driver are talking about people who were strangers to either of you, but the way in which you related to them, respectively, brings you two closer. What do you think are the possibilities of speech in terms of grief? In terms of processing it, or how you relate to the world, or to that missing person now?

JS: To be honest, Tim, something that’s on my mind, with Weinstein—this last section of the last poem, and there’s another poem about the guy and the plaster, “Lifecasting”—there’s this way of working through assault and abuse, which is partly grief for me, and working through silence. It’s strange. I hadn’t really sat down to read the book completely since it came out, but those parts were super-raw when I was re-reading it before you called. So I feel like there are certain things that one can do, that I certainly do, in poetry that I can’t be public about, that I can’t quite articulate yet.

I saw that you’re in recovery, and congratulations for that. I’m in recovery for disordered eating. When I think about all the forgiveness that you have to do in recovery, and I think about all the things that you have to confront in order to get well, or recover, it’s the things that I thought I had forgiven, things that I thought I had released or was able to let go of that are the very things that are why I’m kind of in relapse right now. I guess I just wanted to say that because I’m feeling a lot of grief in that way, grief for those who have been assaulted and abused.

In the book, there’s grief for my grandmother and the conversations we couldn’t have because of language. It’s more of that than a grieving of her. I have this really strange thing with death; I don’t really process it; I don’t really feel much. It’s a different kind of sadness. I think a sadness of also not really knowing her.

TL: A lot of this book too is reclaiming, or plainly claiming, the self. That idea of thinking you’ve processed, and thinking you’ve gotten through all of this, then realizing that it’s still there. That’s a really big thing for recovery that I’m still finding out too. And I’ve been in my own situations where my body too has been made to feel estranged from myself, and in that way, yeah, you think you process everything, and then somebody says or does something or you uncover something in your own language that tips you off to realize that it’s still there. Not to say that it’s something abysmal or hopeless or anything, just that all of this is true and real, which like you said, is part of the book too, saying what no one would normally believe is real.

JS: Absolutely. It always surprises me—I think it’s a lot of ego involved—when something rattles me, even though I feel like I’m really self-aware. Like writers, especially poets maybe, are super-self-aware. I mean, that’s our job. So, for something to unearth, for me to be so floored by something—I don’t know. “Markers,” ends with “First no.” It’s my way of writing around abuse and assault because I can’t hit it head-on yet. So much of it for me was suppressed and it was just all there suddenly. Like, “What? Where did this come from?” And you see how all these aggressions against your body accumulate over the years and the effect they have on you.

TL: Exactly, it’s just suppressed. You don’t know what’s there. And in that way I guess it’s sort of reading your own past too.

JS: Yeah.

TL: Yeah.

Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t get to talk about?

JS: No, I’m just very honored that you asked, and I’m grateful that you read the book and did such a close reading.

TL: Oh, well, thank you for writing it. And thank you for being so open. This has been really enjoyable and insightful just as a plain conversation too.

JS: Likewise.


Tim Lynch has poems forthcoming or published with Yes, Poetry, Occulum, tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, and more. He has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ & conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry. He would be delighted to meet you on Twitter & Instagram @timlynchthatsit.



How Shall I Live Now: Interview with Kaveh Akbar


Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, APR, Tin House, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. He is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017) and the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry). The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille MEdwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Kaveh Akbar about his debut collection of poems, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” focusing on the life and daily work of a writer in recovery, and the different gratitudes of inhabiting that particular life.

Tim Lynch: Ok, so the way I come into this book—well, I myself am in recovery.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, thank you for your sobriety!

T: Thank you so much for that! And in terms of that recovery aspect, the book helped to clarify my own experiences. I mean, as I was walking around reading it, I found myself writing my own little fragments at the bottom of the pages. And you’ve talked before about bringing all of yourself to a poem, so I’m wondering what the process of writing these was like? In what ways did they show you to yourself?

K: Oh, that’s fantastic! I love that, the idea of poems generating more poems!

So much of writing these poems was a kind of self-love, or even a gesture towards the possibility of self-love, learning to love and live with my new self, who I didn’t really know at all when I started writing these poems. You know, I started writing the earliest poems in the book just in the very, very early stages of recovery, and the book kind of moves chronologically from the late stages of addiction into early recovery into sort of middle recovery. So the poem was really a place where I could go and try to make sense of anything, you know—make sense of the fact that I was given this second shot at life. There’s that line in the poem “Against Dying,” “how shall I live now / in the unexpected present,” and I think that’s the fundamental question of the book. You know, my disease was such that at the late stages, it’s not hyperbolic to say that I was dying. My body was giving up. And so for that to have been halted in its tracks, when for millions of people, it doesn’t get halted, it just keeps going and leads to the one inevitable end that it can lead to—trying to make sense of that. It’s almost a kind of survivor’s guilt.

T: You mention that passage from “Against Dying,” and it reminds me of that point at which we become aware of how entirely different we are from who we were. We become driven; we begin to love what we do. In what ways have you experienced this specific notion of happy strangeness, either in writing this book or with any successes you’ve had with poetry, with Divedapper or otherwise?

K: Yeah I don’t have to tell you, the process of going from addiction to even relatively mundane recovery is total whiplash, total astonishing bewilderment. Like people are looking you in the eye and not clutching their purses when we cross them on the street. Even that alone is a total shock. So to go from a bottom as is described in the early parts of the book into a life now, four and half years later, where I’m teaching at a university and have many people who depend on me every day in various ways, and people ask me questions as though I’m a real human being who’s capable of answering things—there are no words to describe how strange it is. Because the person I was still lives in my brain, and the fundamental condition that had me that way still lives in my brain. You know, my self-will directed life, if I let it, would take me right back to that place.

T: Right. And to sort of bridge that notion into writing, most writers, I think, struggle with trusting their own judgement, whether understanding when a poem is done or just understanding oneself as a writer in general. Was there a point in your writing life where you understood that this was worthwhile, that you could make a life of this as you have?

K: I live a fairly monastic life that doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. I have a cat to support, but in terms of what I require on a daily basis, if I have money for books and simple food, I’m more or less taken care of. That is to say, the prospect of making a life in poetry never seemed that daunting to me because it doesn’t take a lot to maintain the life that I have now. I guess I was never all that anxious about the practical side of things. I’ve had, since I was a teenager, a real clarity about poetry being the thing that I want to do, and I’ve never really doubted that. I’ve certainly gotten distracted, but I never really doubted that one way or another I would end up writing poems as the meat of my days. There was a time I was driving forklifts at a Subaru factory, and I’ve worked in a million kitchens, but even through all those times, if you asked me what I did I’d tell you I was a poet.

T: So that’s pretty much been your defining backbone throughout everything?

K: Yeah, even when I was in the throes of addiction, people would ask me what I was into and I’d say that I was a poet. Even when I wasn’t really writing I would tell people, with an absolutely chilling lack of irony, that I was living the poems I wasn’t writing, and I would really believe that.

T: Even so, I think it’s something to admire, from anyone struggling with something daily, to have that foundational strength, and that you’re making that strength out of the poems.

K: Right.

T: Ok, so—someone asked you before what your favorite poem was, and you said it was your acknowledgements.

K: (laughs)

T: I thought that was beautiful! And in some ways, you’re at the forefront of this poetry community: People go to your Twitter page as sort of an anthology, and you’re always so gracious to everyone, always boosting work. So how does it feel to be so largely a part of this community that is so large?

K: Yeah, I’m still kind of learning. I would say that anyone who writes poetry is part of something enormous and large, and anyone who writes poetry is a hero to me for that. We’re participating in a conversation that precedes us by millennia, and assuming that the men who run the world are able to keep their thumbs off the nuclear button, it’s also something that will outlive the last person who forgets our name by millennia. So, to participate in that conversation is the highest honor in the world to me, and it’s the hugest thing in the world too; it’s an enormous conversation that is infinitely larger than any one of us or any one poem. So it is my great foundational gratitude that I get to be some tiny little blip in that story.

T: Right. And there’s something I’ve found with gratitude for myself too—sometimes I have to allow it, and sometimes I have to really cultivate and pursue it. Is that something that you find yourself?

K: Oh absolutely, I think that’s a really beautifully phrased question. I think, especially right now, where we find ourselves as citizens of a country that is regressing at such a rapid rate, it’s very easy to feel downtrodden or low when you look at the news or even the weather report and you see how the earth is trying to defend itself against us. It’s really easy to lose hope. It is more work now than it was two years ago for me to stay oriented toward gratitude, and it is work; it’s always been work. But that is the orientation upon which my continued existence is contingent. There is no meaningful, substantive life for me that is unmoored from gratitude.

T: That’s sort of echoed for me in the last line of “Despite their size children are easy to remember they watch you”: “just say yes and step into the consequence.” The simplicity of that yes. Understanding gratitude and then understanding the work that comes from it, I think, is essential to this book.

K: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that’s a really insightful connection.

T: So to take it down to the poems, you’ve talked about “tonal cohesion” before, this idea that the poems are all orbiting around the same thing, and having read the book, that makes total sense. There are images that echo, and poems that foil and clarify growth—I’m thinking specifically right now of “No is a complete sentence” and “God.” Could you talk about your construction of the book, how you saw it as these varied perspectives?

K: Well, hopefully, there is a kind of narrative arc to the book that goes from, like we talked about, late addiction into early recovery into middle recovery. That was my ambition for the arrangement of the poems, but I also do think that there are certain obsessions of the poems that reverberate productively. You try to think about how you can create harmonious reverberations as opposed to dissonant reverberations, which is to say, you’re trying to sing an octave above the song or an octave below the song, not a third of an octave—you want to hit that exact right frequency. And I’m thinking a lot about the various and sundry forms that are in the book, the ways that they return and don’t return, and the kinds of cadences that that builds.

A really perceptive review that I read of the book said something like, reading the poems in order isn’t even necessarily the best way to read them, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I do hope that if you sit down and read the poems in order that there’s something fruitful there that elevates them above the experience of just reading them hodgepodge.

T: There is definitely that narrative, and one of the things that goes through the poems too is this idea of naming. What does the naming mean to you in the poems or otherwise?

K: Obviously naming is really, really important to the book; it’s evoked in the title of the book. I’m very, very interested in the ways that naming something does and does not give it power. The kinds of force that naming something accrues, and the kinds of potential it unlocks. But then also the impetus of naming: language is a big concern of the book. I more or less lost my first language, and so the countless poems in the book that orbit around naming, and calling things things, and taxonomy, they’re interested in those ideas.

T: Right, and then what do you do with the names once you have them? And related to that in my mind, I really want to go back to that notion of “how shall I live now,” and this sense of gratitude. So—what do you do with gratitude besides feel grateful?

K: Oh, that’s interesting. I love the succinctness of that. I would say that ideally, if you are able to orient yourself toward gratitude, the logical next step is to push it outward, to share the gratitude with other people. That can mean bringing gratitude into other people’s lives which typically happens through some kind of service. If you hoard all your gratitude to yourself, it’s like holding a candy bar in your mouth for a week—you’re gonna get cavities. Or maybe a better metaphor is, if you keep a candle burning in your house, it’ll eventually just melt itself, but you can light a million other candles from that single candle.

T: That’s beautiful. Perfect. Ok, last thing — I have a Philly workshop group and they all say hello, so I have to shoutout Shevaun Brannigan, Alan Beyersdorf, Dave Muir, Nomi Stone, Daniel Brian Jones, Irène Mathieu, and Raena Shirali!

K: Oh, yeah, beautiful, beautiful, hello to all of them! Give them all my e-hugs! I love so many of the people you just mentioned so much.

T: Beautiful. This one actually comes from Irène, and also because we all want to know: What was baby Kaveh like? Like on a particular Saturday in 1999, what would baby Kaveh be doing?

K: Hahaha! A particular Saturday in 1999. That’s a good question. Well, Simpsons reruns only came on during the weekdays, so it wouldn’t have been on a Saturday night. I would likely have a plate of cookies in my room and a stack of library books. My mom used to do this thing where she would go to the library every week and just get a random stack of books. It would be like, a biography of Louis Pasteur, and a novel about dog sledding, and a book on the velociraptor. Just this completely disparate array of books, and she would just bring home a stack of fifteen or twenty every week and just leave it in my room, and I would just read whichever ones I wanted and put those on the stack and she would take those ones back the next week, leave the ones that I still wanted, and come home with a new stack. She did this every single week, and so for the longest time growing up, what I did for the meat of my time was just lie in bed in my room with a plate of snacks and some soda and just read all day. I had a Super Nintendo I was pretty into, but my parents were pretty strict about only letting me play for an hour a day on the weekends and not at all during the week, so the thing that I could consistently do to entertain myself was to just read through these giant-ass stacks of books that she would always have around the house.

If you wanna know what baby baby Kaveh was like, apparently I was a complete terror. My brother was this perfect child who slept eight hours a night and never cried, and apparently I just would dart out of the house any time the door opened and head straight for oncoming traffic. There’s this famous anecdote in my family of me trying to jump off this huge rickety bridge in Iran, and my dad catching me at the last second.

T: Yup. That one’s a poet.

K: Hahahaha. Yeah, I should’ve known.

T: And that actually kind of connects back, these stacks of disparate books. I mean, there’s so much of the world in your book. It makes perfect sense that you spent so much time consuming the world in that way.

K: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very hungry book that just wants to put everything in its mouth, from language to people to food to narcotics to places. I think it just wants every part of the world in its mouth.

T: And I think it does it beautifully. I think it really shows—particularly for anyone in some kind of recovery—it shows that the world is still there.

K: Yeah! Yeah, that’s beautiful. And this was really, really wonderful. I’m always grateful to talk about poems and I’m always grateful to talk about recovery, and this was the nice middle of that venn diagram, so my gratitude is orders of magnitude greater than what I had even anticipated.

T: Grateful to be a part of that.


Tim Lynch has poems published or forthcoming with tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, Mead, and more. He was awarded a 2015 Piper Global Writing Residency in Southeast Asia and has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where he is an MFA candidate. He conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry.

Interview with Alison Prine - On Steel, Advice, and Psychotherapy

Alison Prine’s debut collection of poems, Steel, was chosen by Jeffrey Harrison for the Cider Press Review Book Award and was released in January 2016. Her poems have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Harvard Review,  Michigan Quarterly Review, and Prairie Schooner among others. She lives in Burlington, Vermont where she works as a psychotherapist. Read more to see how Alison spends her days.

Tell Tell Poetry: How many hours did you spend on your collection?
Alison Prine: Impossible to say. Many, many hours over years.

What was the most difficult moment, line, poem, or section of your collection? What made it so difficult?
The most challenging part for me was choosing and ordering the poems.  The poems that were most important to the collection were painful ones.  Initially I buried them in the manuscript, and it took many revisions to accept the book's intention.  

How many unpaid hours do you spend on supporting poetry?
I spend maybe ten hours a month supporting other poets through coffee/ poetry dates, workshop meetings, correspondence around one another's work, reading poet colleagues' manuscripts, etc. I am a part of two long standing poet workshops.

What does a normal day look like for you? How do you spend most of your waking hours?
I write most mornings. I have set up my day job (psychotherapist) hours around my preferred writing hours. Fridays all day are for poetry.  I use Fridays for revisions, submissions, reading poetry and writing about craft, setting up readings, etc.   

What allows you to keep writing, even when you don’t want to?
I always want to write.  I accept that a significant amount of the writing isn't good.  I like to imagine I need to write through the bad stuff to get to the good.  I find even my bad writing helpful.  

How do you define literary success?
When I write a very good line.  When I write a good poem. Reading and writing poetry that satisfies me is one of the times I feel most alive.  Of course I love the validation of publication, too. Having a book of my poems in the world for these last few months has been wonderful.  I think of it like this: The writing itself is sustaining, like a meal, I find it nourishing. The fellowship of other poets and writers is quenching, like the drink. Publication is the dessert; sweet and decadent and sometimes, if you are not careful, a little sickening.

What would you do if you didn’t write?
I have another career that I love, but without poetry I don't think I would do anything as well.  

What is the most memorable writing advice you’ve ever heard?
That it was not necessary to get an MFA or have connections to academia to be taken seriously as a poet.

What are you currently working on and where do you see yourself and your work in the next 5 months? 5 years?
I just keep writing my poems and trying very hard to make them the best that they can be.  I would love to see the work I am doing now form itself eventually into another book and for that book to also find its way into the world.  I hope my best poems haven't been written yet.