Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West and editor-in-chief Rebecca Starks recently had this exchange with Bruce Alford, our Issue #22 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about the personal nature of the manuscript he has been working on, his ambivalence toward Romanticism, and the way he uses form.
You stated in your letter to us that you turned to Nietzsche in your poetry, and specifically his philosophy of anti-pity, as a way of working through your parents’ deaths. Could you talk a bit about what Nietzsche’s philosophy means to you?
His philosophy is extreme. His proposition that pity equals weakness in all circumstances should lead to selfishness and brutality. (In fact, he praises these qualities in us.) Yet, I saw heroism in his position, which is one of self-reliance. It is similar to Hemingway’s ‘grace under pressure.’ I use Nietzsche as one would use scripture. If things are going bad, and I feel like crying, I read Nietzsche. He makes me feel like a weakling, and then I straighten up. Furthermore, his philosophy is unstructured and non-systematic, which makes it poetic. It is not reductive or analytical. I like that it appeals to the gut as much as the intellect.
Many of your poems bring together philosophy, writing instruction, and autobiography. What were the challenges in combining these subjects? What do you think it made possible for these poems?
I wanted to do something new and challenging. My intention was to create a different kind of “self-help” book. The idea isn’t exactly new. Many books use poetry to lead to some kind of healing, but I think that this devotional does that in a way not done before. Bringing together philosophy, self-consciousness about writing, and autobiography resulted in a sustained meditative piece on suffering and how to handle that suffering. The most difficult task was finding the right tone. Using biblical language and structure helped cohere the various parts. Also, those three things: philosophy, writing and autobiography (specifically suffering, poverty and loss) happened to be where my interests lay.
These poems are in response to the loss of your parents, but don’t speak directly of them, other than of your mother’s house. Do you show more of them in other poems?
This book, which is 240 pages, is essentially one long poem that deals with suffering and loss. I write about my mother’s death from lung cancer and my father’s death from West Nile Virus in several places. I write more about my mother, however, because I use “mother” as a symbol for comfort. I used the mother-symbol as a foil to Nietzsche’s anti-pity.
You mention that these are part of a manuscript titled Alford’s Devotional. Do you think of these poems as akin to prayer?
The entire manuscript is a prayer, a meditation. That was the intention. The language works that way.
In “Mating Season,” “you” are finally able to sleep when “you put aside desire and belief.” That was fascinating to us, both the idea of being able to do it, and the necessity of doing so in order to be able to sleep. Could you talk about that idea?
O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Natures soft nurse, how have I frightened thee
that thou no more wilt my eyelids down…
These lines from King Henry IV demonstrate that Shakespeare was acquainted with troubled sleep. Restlessness, here, comes from wrestling with spiritual belief. Belief, desire, and suffering are often entangled. The desire to sleep or rest, at times, becomes so strong that it, indeed, becomes a necessity. We need sleep.
In “Romantic Sensibility,” the line “So many of us are falling from our horses” also caught our attention. Are there areas, creatively, where you feel like you sometimes “fall from your horses,” or fear that you might?
This excerpt concerns the persistence of Romanticism in our culture. I am ambivalent about this Romanticism. The knight or the cowboy riding a white horse is an iconic, romantic image. Sometimes I cultivate this imagery, and other times, I resist it. Either way, I don’t get it right, so I fall and then I get back up and try again, and that’s romantic as well—that heroism, that never giving up.
These poems seem to meditate on notions of romance—on people romanticizing everything from prison to their childhood homes to kittens to a pony at pecan fair. You undercut that romance, but carve out a place for it, too. Is this what you understand to be the role of poetry?
So many things are over-romanticized. Nevertheless, I hold to the core values of Romanticism. I do love nature. I do honor the individual, and I do believe in dreams.
“Using the F-Word” in a poem turns out not to be about profanity per se, but more about the shocks and vitality of corporeality. It made us curious, though, what are your thoughts about using profanity in writing?
If you have been to a slam-poetry reading, then you know that profanity is sometimes used simply to shock or is used as a gimmick. However, I am always moved when the perfect word falls perfectly in place. Using a profane word, that way, is no different from using a conjunction in the right place at the right time.
There is a recurring motif of “O” and circles, in these poems, especially in “The Retourné.” How did this find its way into your poetry and psyche?
Hear O Israel. I had heard this phrase or similar ones from the King James Bible before I could even read. The interjection was frequently associated with a passage that dealt with suffering; consequently, using “O” as a symbol seemed fitting. Also, the letter itself formed an actual circle! How fitting is that. Nevertheless, bringing to life an outdated expression associated with romantic poetry was a challenge.
In an email exchange, you made mention of “scanning” your poems, and in “The Retourné” switching between iambic and anapestic meter, sticking to the “galloping” rhythm whenever the pony appeared. You also noted that the lack of punctuation took biblical poetry as its model. We also note that you frontload lines, putting the weightiest words and syllables at the start, rather than the end. All this to say—you take an extraordinary care with form and sound, but we don’t sense that you find it restrictive. Does the form ever drive the content of your poems, or does it always work in the other direction?
I use form as a way to move into new territory. Can’t be lazy when you have to find that word that can only be five letters long. It’s like playing a game.
You seem comfortable with writing short poems as well as longer ones. Which do you find more satisfying?
I don’t have a preference. Density is the primary measure, that is, how much is happening in the poem. A shorter poem has to say something quickly. The longer poem must employ pacing in the same way that fiction does.
You were a Professor of Poetry at the University of South Alabama for almost a decade, and taught creative writing. Did studying poetry academically and teaching writing have a noticeable effect on how you write (or what you write about)?
When I first began studying poetry in graduate school, I was influenced by the Romantics and Modernists. However, by the time I was teaching creative writing, I had read so much—not only poetry, but medical and physics journals. This wide range of reading has led to my own style.
What is your writing process? Are you part of a writing community?
I’ve been part of several writing groups over many years. I am currently not part of a group. My method is to write a poem and then let it sit for a year or two before revising it and sending it off. Something strange happens when I submit a poem and it comes back. It’s as if the poem is not mine. Submitting is an integral part of my writing process. I especially appreciate editors who comment on the poems. Even a one-word comment is immensely helpful.
Do you think of yourself as a Southern poet, and if so, what does that mean to you? What poets have influenced you or given you inspiration?
I consider myself a Southern poet, mainly because much of the imagery in my poetry is rooted in the Southeast. Canals, ditches, rivers and swamps appear frequently in my poems, as well as egrets, opossums, raccoons, beavers, snakes and snapping turtles.
What are you working on currently, personally and/or professionally?
I’m not currently working on anything major at the moment. I spent six years occupied with my as-yet unpublished collection, Alford’s Devotional and Guide to Poetry. I will polish this manuscript and then I will revisit a novel that I wrote several years ago. The novel is a re-visioning of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. In this version “Hamlet” is a gifted young African-American Creole girl.