November 28, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“Beauty is embedded in the impulse”: A Conversation with Allison Titus

Allison Titus is the author most recently of SOB STORY (Barrelhouse) and The True Book of Animal Homes (Saturnalia). She embroiders erasures from discarded library books and with the poet Ashley Capps is at work on The New Sent(i)ence project. She teaches in the low-res MFA program at New England College.

Kristina Marie Darling: Your poems often read as experiments with scale.  In The True Book of Animal Homes, we are offered essays that are marked by their incredible compression, as well as poems that sprawl, claiming the space of many pages.  I’m intrigued by these efforts to challenge readerly assumptions about genre, to interrogate our beliefs about how certain types of writing should behave.  For you as a creative practitioner, what’s at stake as you question preconceived ideas about form and genre?

Allison Titus:  I think I feel most comfortable in grey areas, in limbos, and I think my work feels most comfortable existing in that blurry place, too, in between, where a thing can enact what it needs most urgently or essentially to enact, with some leeway. Also I think it’s a lot about potential: like by aiming for a certain expression, who knows what actually manifests: but the potential is inherent in the attempt or the intention. And that grey area can hold all the unrealized potential, too. So like, I wanted such and such poems to be essays, but the essays took the form of poems. But all that I hoped for the piece to contain is still there, the traces archived somewhere, like the negative image of a photograph. It’s a poem here on this page, but with the title naming it an essay, it gets to encompass (for me) also everything else that it might have been, or might still become.

KMD: What was the first work you encountered – in poetry or beyond its boundaries – that showed you it’s possible to undermine and manipulate your audience’s expectations, rather than conforming to them?

AT:  As far as I can remember, the earliest work I encountered that did this would’ve been e.e. cummings’s poems…I was wild for him when I discovered him in high school. He made because a noun! Et cetera. Later on: Robert Creeley, Anne Carson, Clarice Lispector, Alejandra Pizarnik. Mary Ruefle. And what I keep coming back to most recently that did this, a piece I can’t get enough of or stop talking about, is this essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan in GQ about Lil Peep.

KMD:  Many of the poems in The True Book of Animal Homes consider the violence implicit in our attempts to contain the natural world.  Your definition of nature is expansive, encompassing the human voice and spirit as well as wildlife.  What’s striking to me is the work’s ethical sensibility, as all living creatures we encounter here are portrayed as imperfect, dignified, and vulnerable.  What is the relationship between writing and compassion for you as a creative practitioner?  How would an ideal reader respond?   

AT:  No matter what, I want the work I make to be generous when it can be, even if it’s about something as explicitly terrible as factory farming … that maybe sounds strange… but I want there to be some tender way into that reckoning, if possible; I don’t want pure foreclosures, but to make “something beautiful, but annihilating” (Sylvia Plath). I don’t think that’s always possible, actually, but if that desire to open outward and embrace the world with all its terror/sorrow/beauty is embedded in the impulse, maybe sometimes that’s almost enough? I don’t know. I think an ideal reader is just anyone who’s willing to pay attention — “the rarest and purest form of generosity” (Simone Weil).

KMD:  The poems in The True Book of Animal Homes often perform and enact their own containment, as well as resisting it, through provocative formal shifts.  How does the book’s activism and advocacy on behalf of animals inform your approach to genre, hybridity, and experimentation?

AT:  I’ve never really isolated the scope of my personal ethics in terms of specific approach, but now that you mention it, it’s true that I’m hyper-aware of how alienating some of my subject matter might be if it’s not approached on a slant or at an angle: it’s like instead of being seen straight on, maybe we need there to be a buffer in order to receive some of the uglier or more painful moments, and that leads to more experimental gestures? I definitely want my poems to matter more as poems than polemics; it’s also true that I’m vegan and I care about animal rights issues, and those convictions can influence my language and what I create, so I try to sort out what kind of space or shape is necessary to hold the poem and its truth and its body—but also to make sure there’s room for it all to unfold and still maintain an aesthetic essence, even if those truths/bodies are messy or unwieldy or ugly.

KMD: Your notes cite the work of poet Idra Novey, as well as installation artists like Dario Robleto, as influential for some of the pieces in this collection. Could you say more about how The True Book of Animal Homes responds to and appropriates from the visual arts?  How is this kind of response different from engaging with other works of poetry?

AT:  Well, I kind of think of myself as a failed visual artist, and so often what will happen is I’ll encounter art that rearranges me/my brain/my heart and I’ll want to translate the feeling or texture of my experience with that work of art into language. That’s the impossible desire: to translate mood/texture/essence directly into words. Or: to manifest a particular visceral response into a way to speak it. I don’t think it’s really so different for me from engaging with a poetry text, just that it has a different baseline.

KMD:  What other non-literary texts were important for the creation of this collection? For your development as a thinker and creative practitioner?

AT:  Definitely Roni Horn and especially her Library of Water, which I learned about from my friend Barbara Yien; and other brilliants that are always just below the surface: Sophie Calle; Dario Robleto; Julie Mehretu; Damien Jurado; the party scene from Lars and the Real Girl when Lars dances to “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads; the Saguaro National Park in January at dusk when it starts to look like you’re on another planet; Iceland; this performance of this song.

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can we look forward to?

AT:  To be honest, I’m trying to learn how to write poems again, but in a way that I haven’t been able to do yet, and in a way that I can’t quite explain. I’m just living inside the question of it and feeling around in the dark to see where the edges of things are. I call whatever these might turn into quarry hymns. And also, the poet Ashley Capps and I are building an anthology of experimental/experiential 21st-century poems that engage animals as authentic creative agents in the world, called The New Sent(i)ence.