Monday, September 19, 2016

Interview with the author: Alexandra van de Kamp

After reading her new poetry collection, Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press, 2016), I was eager to ask Alexandra van de Kamp a few questions about her work and routines. I first met Alexandra two years ago at a simultaneously wonderful and disastrous reading that I put together at San Antonio College (wonderful because of the amazingly talented readers and disastrous because we lost electricity, but I digress). Over sweet potato fries and craft brews at The Cove, we got to know each other. I soon found out that Alexandra is not only a nice person but an extremely talented writer.

Shortly after we met, we had coffee and realized we were both being considered for positions at the same literary nonprofit, Gemini Ink. Since then, I've had the privilege of getting to know Alexandra as a co-worker (who organizes and hosts amazing public events [always with electricity] and classes in the area) as well as a friend, who is smart, funny, and generous beyond words.

Enough backstory about how I know Alexandra. I am eager to introduce both the woman and her work to you...

Hi, Alexandra! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. As you know, I love Kiss/Hierarchy. Many of the poems in this collection begin with a narrative easing-in: either an observation that piques the reader’s interest or a direct appeal in epistolary form. The poems invite a reader to glance over the shoulder as a letter is written, walk alongside the narrator as a landscape is consumed, or hold the magnifying glass as persona is carefully taken apart and put back together. Who or what is the audience you envision as you write? Is audience only considered after a poem is complete?

Wow, what a rich question to contemplate! I guess you could say that I try to write poems that invite the reader in, in different ways, and sometimes that is a more narrative gesture (as you have so astutely pointed out), and sometimes it can be the allure of the sounds of words or just a single image that snags in my mind. For example, the title poem in the book, “Kiss/Hierarchy,” actually was triggered by reading the dairies of Anaïs Nin and coming upon a single statement that immediately made me want to respond to it. Nin states, rather coyly, “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don’t work.” And this statement immediately made me want to challenge/explore the idea of the appeal of kisses and to take on this division that Nin had set up—between the imagination (and its role in our mental lives) and the role of kisses (and the phenomenon that they are in our physical lives).  It also became a sort of game for me to test this dichotomy in our lives between the sensual and the intellectual. So, I guess if I attempted to describe the audience I was writing for (something I do not contemplate very much during the writing of my poems but do wonder about once I’ve written a book and hope it sells!), I would say I’d love to lure in those with an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, who take little for granted about what makes up a daily “reality,” and who are intellectually generous in how they absorb and entertain new ideas. That said, I do not have an over-defined idea of my audience, and I wouldn’t want to over-restrict it in any way. I think my poems tell me what they want and need to say (on a good day!) and the audience for the work comes out of this process.
Available on Amazon
and from Rain Mountain Press

Where were you when you wrote these poems? How long did it take for them to come together?

I wrote all of the poems for this book when I was still living in New York—the North Shore of Long Island, to be exact. I’ve only recently moved to San Antonio, TX in the last year and a half. I take a long time to compile a book of poems (I seem to write chapbooks, collections of 25-30 pages, much more quickly). My husband and I rented a little cottage on the North Shore of Long Island because we were both teaching and working at Stony Brook University at the time, which was nearby. I remember the summer for 2006 being especially fertile writing-wise. I had a span of 1-2 months to write after a really intense semester of teaching, and I just recall hunkering down in that little cottage, letting myself dwell on my first Long Island summer (after having lived in Brooklyn, NY and slogging through some pretty hot and humid urban summers) and reveling in the green around me, the flora and, even the inch worm infestation that summer. All these inch worms were dangling from the trees, little unravelling green bodies. They were a nuisance but I liked them! And this was when I began to write poems more overtly triggered by the sound of words—letting the music of the language become its own logic. This is why you find poems in my newest collection, Kiss/Hierarchy, that are titled things like: “Dear A—“ or “Dear S—“. They were epistle poems, as you’ve pointed out, but epistles addressed to the sounds of letters and to the associations and lyrical leaps that arose for me while allowing words beginning with these sounds to lead the “narrative” in each poem. So it took me 10 years—2006 to 2016—to get the poems I started that summer published and compiled as a full-length book. Of course, I actually wrote most of them by 2014. In that decade I also published two poetry chapbooks as stepping stones to the full-length.

“The Electrician” stood out for me. It seemed the voice in this poem was less exploratory initially, more about asserting a certain power or position in the world. But by the end of the poem, I got the sense that the familiar narrative style is there, behind the scenes, exploring the voice, exploring the assertions. What inspired this particular poem?  

I actually had an electrician visit our Long Island cottage to fix some old light fixtures, and he was a rather contemplative personality—not something I typically related to electricians (my fault for having a somewhat limited view of this profession), and it made me ponder what it must be like to be the one “fixing light” all day long and toying with electrical wiring. I know the role of an electrician can be a tricky one (and dangerous), but this guy had a sort of laconic air about it all and told me some stories about crawling into tiny, intricate spaces to correct extra tricky electrical problems, and suddenly this persona poem came about. I, of course, had fun playing with the very focused point-of-view of this profession and came up with images like: “I finger the wormy wires, un-cup/the fixtures and peer/at their sex. I know what grows, / furtive as thought, in the porous/ walls of houses.” Each profession has its own obsessions. I am contemplating writing a persona poem about a dentist. Can you imagine staring into people’s mouths all day long—what a perspective that would create?

As a fiction writer, one who stumble-writes the occasional prose poem but has no real academic concept of form, all I know is whether/how a poem affects me. I feel oddly lucky that I get to experience poetry in this way, especially poetry like yours that builds and takes unexpected turns.

Considering this, one commonality I noticed in your book is that after the narrative lure, your poems coil in. I begin to feel the pressure build as your increasingly textured words examine the nuance of life, the moments inside moments (“the liquid bird/ inside that night”). The poetic experience is visceral. 

In other words, you are not afraid to write a sexy poem, a poem with body and swagger. Has your poetry always come out with such swagger, or did you have to work up to it?

Thanks for such a beautifully-written, thoughtful question, Jen. “Poems (that) coil in…”  hmmm I like that idea. I have never thought of my poems having “swagger,” but I find it really interesting that you do! I think I did have to work up to creating a certain crescendo or tension in my poems. Once again, a lot of this has to do with me following the sounds of words. I think this freed me up a bit at a point in my writing life when I was looking for new triggers in my work and was moving away from the more straightforward narrative style I had been writing in (a style I still love, but I was just looking for new ways into my writing process). Because I leaned on sounds as the “spine” of my poem rather than a more linear “plot,” I think it helped a certain energy occur that might not have arisen otherwise. It also built surprise into my writing process. I came up with words and images I may have never considered before just because of riffing on a specific sound. I also learned the importance of embracing a sense of play in one’s work. Not play in a frivolous sense, but a sense of deep play, a willingness to let go of my writing process a bit to allow the unexpected to enter into it or to write with a sense of playing with sounds and the feel and texture of words and seeing where that led me. I do believe in the “visceral” knowledge of language. That it has a breathing, physical presence and power, and I’ve enjoyed leaning into that more lately. It’s shown me the words know more than I do if I just trust in them and their own internal logic. Does that make any sense? I hope so.

The cinematic nods and strong location-based curiosities and appreciations of people and their roles – and what is behind those roles – are recurring themes. What inspires you about film, about our various roles in life and art?  And why?

I have written a fair amount of ekphrastic poetry in my life—poems inspired or somehow obliquely influenced by the visual arts—a painting, photograph or sculpture, etc….  I see film as just visual art in motion, moving images literally. I have learned so much from the world of cinema, how the mood, texture, and light of film can create a whole other reality alongside our own. There is a long history of writing about or through film, dating back to the surrealists like Apollinaire and Max Jacob, who were writing in the early 20th century, when film was just coming into being. The speed of the images in film and the new juxtapositions of imagery and scenery it offered deeply impacted poets back then and has continued to do so ever since, from the avant-garde French poets, such as Pierre Reverdy and André Breton at the time of WWI, to American poets like Frank O’Hara, writing in the 50s and 60s, to contemporary poets now. O’Hara was keenly influenced by the world of film and often dropped cinematic references into his work. His well-known poem “Ave Maria” published in 1964 (Lunch Poems) is an example of this. In this poem, O’Hara’s reference to the soul “that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images” captures the otherworldly, dreamlike feel of the cinema, especially when experienced in a theater. I think the world of movies has given me the permission to write more dream-like work, or poems not limited to a linear logic. In this way, watching film has freed me up as an artist, and I return to it again and again for a certain permission to view “reality” from unexpected angles and to let my work be drenched in an atmosphere or mood I find unusual or intriguing.

What is your writing routine?

I wish I could say I have a well-honed routine, but I have learned over the years what works for me and what does not and have come to respect my need for certain parameters to be in place that allow me to write. For example, I write better in the morning than at night (although I’ve learned taking a little afternoon nap can give me a boost that allows me to write in the evening as well).  But I am not one of those writers who finds their groove at 1am! I often let myself read first before worrying about writing something myself. In other words, I know I need to let myself gestate a bit before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When I was living in Madrid in my late 20s and 30’s, I rented this apartment with another apartment mate, and my bedroom literally looked onto the wall of the opposing apartment (what the Spanish would call an “interior” view because my window faced onto the inside courtyard of the building and not out onto the street). However, I learned that all I needed was to brew a good cup of coffee, and let myself stare out that window, meditating on the opposite white stone all. Really do nothing at all for about 15 minutes or so, and trust my mind to go where it needed to go. Then, I was ready to do some work. So I think I need a certain quiet, the feeling that I don’t have five things scheduled for the day I am trying to write within, and a feeling of permission to let my mind play and wander. And, of course, a computer or journal nearby.
I’ve also gotten less fastidious over the years, and have learned I need not have hours free to write but can compose something in less time and that sometime I write fairly decently when stressed or feeling anxious. My idea of the “perfect writing time” has loosened up. Life is short, and you just can’t wait for things to be “perfect” to write! Sometimes you have to just take a stab and see what happens.

What are you working on now? 

I am working on new pieces for a third book of poems. Some of these poems are influenced by having moved to South Texas in the last year and a half. The green, exotic flora of San Antonio intrigues me. I’ve never lived in a place with palm trees, cactus, and grackles. I also continue to be influenced by the world of the movies and by the textures and sounds of words. And I just let reality be its own “movie” and am open to whatever images or experiences I may encounter on a daily basis. I don’t like to over-pin down what I am currently working on because often I don’t know until I am doing it! I am also working on maintaining a blog in which I offer mini-reviews on poets and writers I admire and post occasional musings on movies and the writing process itself. I also love to write prose poems and am toying with writing a collection of prose poems or prose vignettes. But mostly, I am writing poem by poem and building my next manuscript.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Alexandra!

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