Adrian: Congratulations on your beautiful and hurtful book Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, which won the Balcones Prize while also being a finalist for the Rilke Prize and the L.A. TimesBook Award. We in Indiana were already excited about the work, but it has been excellent to see the collection getting the national attention it deserves. Can you share a little bit the act of creating the book? What was the catalyst for the book and what was the process like?
Alessandra: Thank you, Adrian! And hooray for your Poet Laureate-ship. It’s good to know you’re at the helm!
I had two two-month residencies at Yaddo—one in 2005 and the other in 2007. During each residency, I wrote several poems a day. In 2005, I ran every morning past the horses in Sarataoga Springs. During the run, a line or two would surface in my mind. When I returned to my room, I typed the word “Meditation” on the top of each page, then the line, and then the poem “fell out” from there. They were very short lyric poems. In 2007, I also ran every morning, but I rarely carried a line in my head back to the page. I ate blueberries and drank coffee, headed to my room, and typed the word “Agitation” on the top of each page. The poems didn’t fall out, so much as race out or blurt out. Sometimes within a day, I first wrote on my typewriter then moved to my journal then to my laptop. The poems in 2007 felt angry and ugly to me, whereas the poems in 2005 felt beautiful and sad. It might have taken me a year or so to discover that the poems from both times belonged in a book together. It took several years after that to realize that a narrative was hiding in the manuscript. Eventually, I moved the poems around and found the story, the “report” of my sexual assault from more than twenty years ago. In 2015, I was fortunate to have another residency experience at MacDowell for two weeks. Every morning there, I’d walk around my little studio in the woods and speak to the newts and toads. During that time, the central poem in Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment—“P.S. Assault”—floated up, surprising me, as I thought I’d written all the poems I needed for the book. All in all, the process was intuitive, surprising, necessary, painful, and joyful. My dearest wish is that the book helps someone.
Adrian: Many of the poems in Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment include poems in which nature and natural objects figure prominently. Can you talk about your creative relationship with the natural world?
Alessandra: I have had an intimate relationship with the natural world from the time I was a young child. I went into the woods and made up songs as I walked among the beech and birch trees, past wild geranium, fiddlehead ferns, and the like. I felt a kinship with young frogs and their spindly legs and tender bellies. I still do. I have always needed to be among trees in order to breathe well and feel more embodied and connected. Trees and other plants speak and hum; they are dignified, essential companions to us all, our brethren. I go into the woods for consolation, communion; it is there I feel more in tune with my own voice, there where I feel I have a voice at all. For Daylily especially, being in the natural world imaginatively must have availed me of the kind of courage and company needed to address, sing about, grieve the trauma.
Adrian: Is there a poem, collection, or poet who had a profound influence on the poems in the new book? How did that influence manifest?
Alessandra: When I was working on the poems, I was flipping through various books of poetry (O. Mandelstam, T. Hayes, M. Burkard, G. Hopkins, K. Peirce, G. Brooks, R. Rilke, G. Stern, J. Valentine, F. Lorca, among others), but I read Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems and Lewis Hyde’s Lives of a Cell and Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea every day.
Reading great poetry always ushers me into the poetic consciousness where I might be able to find my own poems, my own music. I find vast relief in the voices that value dreams, nature, memory, truth, humanity, vulnerability, compassion, music, that reach and sing, their ambition generous, uncompromising, real.
Adrian: You’ve been a teacher for a long time and have also worked in various editorial capacities over the years. In fact, you helped me with my first book at Alice James! Thank you again for your guidance. What was the best editorial advice you’ve ever been given?
Alessandra: “Fork your lightning.”
Adrian: I’m asking everyone the same last question: what Indiana poet are you reading right now (or recently) that other Indiana poets should be reading?
There are too many fabulous Indiana poets (including you!) to list here! Today I highly recommend these lyrical, beautifully strange, and moving/transformative collections:
Catherine Bowman’s Can I Finish, Please?
Dana Roeser’s All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts (to be released in September 2019)
Book in my hands—thin
outside my window, poised
to snatch it away.
Word floating up
from the white sea of the page—
inky hook from its mouth and tail,
& the undersea blossoms trumpeting,
Whelk of syllable,
silk against my cheek, the book is
ballast. Grace & Bless:
something to do with someone
knowing me without me
having to speak.
Once I loved
my father when he said god was
air and flowers
not heavy above me—
not for the taking…
God as ocean, god as net—god as negotiation
Tabernacle-gulls gone tuneless.
My father and I not looking
at each other, stricken,
at our stations, fish teeming, streaking through us.
What called us to float up,
disoriented bobbers? What pulled us back
to the wreck?
A seahorse for my father, gallant and awkward—
A ghost anemone for me, surviving by wavering—
I was taught to snub dad and god—
but did they force hot pokers
into women’s mouths
to shut them up
or blow through tenderly
in their blue monkshoods
and feathery shoes that skimmed over
fields, bullets falling
hard from their pockets
obliterating animals and flowers….
At times, I waved to them:
did they intend the damage?
I was a weed—
sturdy, stiff, difficult to pick—
thrilling to the inexhaustible
I bowed before its passing,
then rose, opened my blazing mouth
and ate of it—
air and flowers
In every room my father entered I vanished
we vanished in every room
the room enters itself with a dignified air
I vanish when I enter dignity
dignity vanishes when it enters the room
In every shame there is a room
nobody’s standing though it’s standing room only
I enter shame and the room vanishes
my father vanishes
angel angel angel shoo
Once I loved
my father —
not for the taking…
When would he show?
Or would he. Hunched on a bench
under narrow tubes of warming-light
I read until the pages illuminated
the whole station….
In my drawstring sack I kept
a pebble the size of his eye, and a stick I could use
to row myself toward him.
Father, I’m rowing through air
in tightening circles….
without guilt or guardedness
to ask questions
of his own father, drunk on a bench
in a child-park, my father forbidden
to help him,
but a heart could gallop
through widening streets and fields where clouds
& asters & fire hydrants & wheels & snails
meant—in the moment they were
air and flowers
not heavy above me—
and this circus. God glittering, faltering on the trapeze.
God in clownpaint.
No one looking at him, but God center ring, drifting down
Elephants wordlessly circling
at the hook’s behest. God in that hook.
God and his tidy tricks. The red dogs rise in unison, raise their paws, bark.
God, the eye of the bullfrog in a box.. .
The elephant with the fierce squint—nipped by barhook—heaves his body
onto a drum, raises his trunk. God in that trunk.
Hundreds of doves rush out of a black hat, God rushes into it. Fumbling in
velvet curtain-folds, God breathing heavily from a mouth. God rising in faint snores.
God messing with ropes. God hanging a human body from a wire. God in that wire.
God dazzling himself to oblivion.
No matter the sugarlump, no matter the lace, God refusing to look up. No matter the acid-tipped rods at the tiger’s throat. In the bluish green lights, God
sawing himself in half. God as gold dust.
God rearing up in a white blast, a white scream. Rabbit-god,
God in that elephant’s enormous brain.
God in the father and daughter seated in this corner of the arena,
The elephant has been detusked. His face
pitted, caved in. One eye is rageful. One is weeping. He is looking right through us.
The dream-father digs a trench,
with clumps of silt and grass and muddy water—when he stops,
I slip near him,
stooping to peer at a small form
barely visible in the mud-squall,
the size and shape of a squirrel hunched
in prayer, but when we look harder, we see it is a cat—
deep green eyes, stiff body. We fear
she is dead, but she leaps out of the water,
skittering off, agile, bright.
Now the father’s face like the king’s
from the ancient story is wrenched—
half in tears, half in laughter.
And I have no face. I am the dreamer.
Alessandra Lynch is the author of three books, most recently Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (chosen by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of poetry of 2017, winner of the Balcones Prize in Poetry, a finalist for the UNT Rilke Poetry Prize and finalist for the LA Times Book Awards). She has received several fellowships, including residencies at Yaddo and the Macdowell Colony. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Currently she is Poet-in-Residence at Butler University in Indianapolis.