November 14, 2018KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

“The need to find beauty”: A Conversation with Allison Benis White

Allison Benis White is the author of Please Bury Me in This, winner of the 2018 Rilke Prize, and Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Levis Prize in Poetry. Her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI: Best of the Small Presses, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your newest book, Please Bury Me in This, takes the form of gorgeously rendered prose epistles.  Yet the recipient of these correspondences is constantly shifting.  The poems address, at various points in the book, the reader, the dead, God, Lucifer, and the self as other.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the epistle, its rich history, and experimentation within that well-established framework.  What unique possibilities does the epistle hold for innovative prose by women?  What did this familiar form open up within your artistic practice?

Allison Benis White: I’ve always appreciated Kafka’s thoughts on letter writing as an extension of the physical body, as well as his belief that the letter has an impossible temporal task: to reach, to touch, the receiver in the moment of writing (because ghosts drink up the kisses before the letter arrives). The tension between these ideas (desire and failure) forms my chief interest in the epistle, as does Dickinson’s famous description of her writing as “my letter to the world that never wrote to me.” I’ve always been feverishly interested in immediacy and intimacy on the page—and the epistle facilitates both. So rather than offering an innovative space for writers, the epistle may offer an opportunity for authenticity (maybe that is an innovation?) and proximity. I will add that my friend Nicole’s suicide letter was a profound influence on my interest in the epistle. I studied/memorized her letter, looking for insight, understanding—so writing back into that void (into her death, my father’s death, my own death) in the same form felt natural and necessary.

KMD:  The discrete episodes contained within in Please Bury Me in This blend lyricism and beauty with a sense of urgency, danger, and sorrow.  In such a way, these hybrid texts are reminiscent of Keats, Shelley, and their contemporaries, particularly their notion of the dark sublime, the idea beauty is inextricably linked with suffering, longing, loss, and impossibility.  While transformative and deeply influential, this notion of the dark sublime seems to have nearly vanished in much of contemporary poetry.  Why was it important for you to excavate these Romantic ideas about beauty and the aesthetics of suffering?

ABW: Please Bury Me in This was a result of exploration and discovery, rather than a conscious excavation. I think the notion of the dark sublime is a core, internal aesthetic, and something I’ve regularly recognized (or sought out) in the work of others, in their poems, prose, visual art, and music (suddenly “Starry, Starry Night” and Sexton’s poem of the same name come to mind). Or maybe the dark sublime is not something intrinsic but acquired (having no conscious memory prior to the disappearance of my mother), something forged from the need to find beauty, or to make beauty/meaning within the dark room—so as to survive and feel wonder. What else is there?

KMD:  Your book begins with a quote from a New York Times article, which presents scientific findings that suicide is contagious.  I’d love to hear more about the role of other voices, and other texts, in your poetics.  When writing, do you envision yourself as responding to, deconstructing, and revising the words of others? Do you think poetry is, at its heart, an act of reading?

ABW: I subscribe to the belief that reading is inhaling and writing is exhaling. Writing cannot be separated from reading for me, as it was reading that created the initial impetus to write as a young person (Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Hurston’s There Eyes Were Watching God, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse )—there is an inherent call and response, an inherent conversation begun by the act of reading; therefore, lines from work I was reading or rereading or living within while writing Please Bury Me in This made their way into the poems naturally. Writing is an act of loneliness for me, of reaching toward someone or something else, and I imagine the speaker in these poems reaching for the reader, as well as the writers (still alive on the page) who reached for me. More accurately, albeit a slight counter pose, I hold this Rebecca Solnit claim close: “Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.”

KMD:  Could you say more about the relationship between autobiography and the archive?  What does archival material open up within your artistic practice, especially when writing from lived experience?

ABW: I think it goes back to loneliness and permission—permission to speak, to exist in time, to have (for lack of better words) a private conversation with someone who has already lived and/or potentially articulated their vision. There is also a sense of being grounded in the actual I find important, as well as a consciousness of one’s place in history (in relation to the archival material being employed).

KMD:  I’ve followed your work for a number of years, and I’m always deeply moved by the work that silence does in your poetry.  What advice do you have for practicing writers who want to carve a space for silence, rupture, and elision within a poem or story?  As a writer, how do you know when something is more powerful left unsaid?

ABW: I think knowing when something is more powerful left unsaid is an act of radical listening, which is how I experience the act of writing. More specifically, I mean listening with all of oneself to the poem as it’s being written, listening for the next line by experiencing the music and thought life of the previous line. I believe if I listen carefully enough, the poem will reveal itself, and the poem has a far greater intelligence than I do (regarding language and silence, which is music). I think Louise Gluck once said that a poem should aspire to silence (which I take to mean the poem aspires to arrive at the edge/end of speech) because, as Mark Rothko said, “Silence is so accurate.”

KMD:  What poems have been most transformative for your thinking about your own work?  What non-literary texts have been especially important for your development as a thinker and a creative practitioner?

ABW: I think Plath’s “Poppies in October” (“Oh my God, what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers” and Gluck’s “The Red Poppy” (“I speak / because I am shattered.”) were transformative for me as a young writer, as they both contain a final moment that feels genuinely startling (to the writer and reader) and revelatory. I always gasp a little when I reread those poems because they have so much heat—they feel so immediate. Both are alive in their astonishment (Plath) and clarity (Gluck). Edgar Degas’ paintings and sculptures were also hugely important to my development as a thinker and writer, as they created a space for me to write about my mother in a way I still don’t have proper language to describe (I suppose the poems in my first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, are the best description of this intersection I could conjure).

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

ABW: My fourth book, The Wendys, is coming out from Four Way Books in spring of 2020. It’s a book with five sections, each devoted to a different Wendy (Wendy Torrance from The Shining; Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the Plasmatics; Wendy Coffield, the first located victim of the Green River Killer; Wendy Darling; and contemporary photographer Wendy Given). The looming, private “Wendy” in this manuscript is my mother, Wendy (who disappeared when I was a baby and returned, suddenly, many years later), originally named Trudy, who renamed herself Wendy as a child after reading Peter Pan. This whole manuscript is an exploration of grief, loss, and violence against women.