May 2009

Colette LaBouff Atkinson

features

An Interview with Allison Benis White

Allison Benis White is the author of Self-Portrait with Crayon, winner of the 2008 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Competition. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Pleiades, among other journals. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Bernice Slote Award from Prairie Schooner, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. For more information, visit www.allisonbeniswhite.com.

This is a beautiful book. One thing I love is the contrast that exists at various levels: The inside and the outside. Touching and not touching. The narrative and what is not narrative-friendly. The first piece, “From Degas’ Sketchbook,” has just such a contrast, which finds the speaker saying “when I was small” but then claiming that “[p]eople lose their minds and leave in the middle of cooking salmon.” The book seems to negotiate these contrasts in the speaker: her experience and proclamations about how the world works. How do you see the experience of the speaker and what she now knows as working together or against one another?

I think the poems themselves are generated by the intersection of these contrasts -- on one level, the speaker in the book is locked in both the child’s state of not knowing where her mother is for years, and the adult state of knowing every superficial detail (dates, times, patterns, addresses). Beyond the speaker’s literal dilemma surrounding her mother’s disappearance, this is, to me, a means to describe the human experience of bewilderment -- followed by the ability to name, and then string those names together, which can bring some relief and order -- and some proximity to other people.

In this process of naming or not being able to, I find some phrasing in the pieces to be both immediate and distancing. I wonder if this too is yet another level of contrasts at work here. We have the fantastic and beautiful imagery and sounds you give us in such as “the embrace was white blond” or “[f]lames might roll across cabinets like a miniature ocean, a lullaby, a hiss inside a hush.” These are small examples of the kind of dense -- in the best way -- images you make here, but these are matched, or almost undone sometimes, early in the book, by fragments that begin “as in…” “such as” or “it is common,” and other statements that cue readers that the speaker is standing back to try, at least to say what she knows: “[m]ore often than not, people say nothing or simply look away when they leave a room.” Can you talk about what you were trying to get at with both this way of defining and then the act of asserting how the speaker sees the world? Sometimes it feels almost clinical, as if the speaker must find a name for what ails her.

To diagnose and say “this is this” is really appealing to me -- as well as the pressure of beauty and music. And I love the interplay between the clinical and the sublime, the way they inform, and as you say, undo one another (how imagery works to convey emotion, while information establishes distance). Also, in terms of naming, I spent a lot of my life not saying anything. I suppose, in the face of certain trauma, the mind has two options: to go blank or insane with possibilities. So the poems try to strike a balance between that emptiness and insanity by rigorously investigating images, while locating the speaker in a world with definitions.

In a book that hinges importantly on a child trying to understand a life after anyone loses her mind in the middle of cooking salmon, but then must grow despite or because of that, can you talk about what you understand the book to be about? I know that’s hard, but we’ve talked about the ways poems -- anyone’s -- might get reduced to biographical material. In other words, it is not a book of prose poems about your mother not having been in your life. But in what way would you talk about it?

Well, on one level, it is “about” being abandoned by my mother, but to stop there would be a reduction in that, I hope, the book expands beyond a particular circumstance to include the dislocation (and terror) of being alive -- as well as our dependence on, and often obsession with, other people and objects with which to measure our existence. But also, in its persistence, the book is an assertion of the basic human desire to appear, to try to make something appear, in the face of disappearance. I remember when I was about twenty-five thinking that either I was going to make something or I was going to destroy myself. So this book is also a chronicle against destroying myself (oneself).

That reminds me of one piece that I find particularly affecting in the collection. Though I had seen a few of these in earlier versions and others, one of my favorites here is “Portrait of Estelle Degas.” This piece brings together, acutely, what feels central to this book: the speaker who was a child but who is adult and responsible and remembers being lost -- distanced from anyone and from herself or reality. The way you bring these things together in this piece is remarkable. 

Thank you. To me, this poem is important in the book because of the sentences, “Somehow to look up is worse. Also to leave yourself, as opposed to someone else.” The speaker acknowledges her own willful dislocation, in this case via several Bloody Marys. So she has the agency to separate from herself, which becomes key, and “worse” than turning away from others. I remember, in trying to develop this kind of annihilation, I wanted to braid drug and alcohol addiction more explicitly into the book, but only a couple of poems would accept this biographical strain. It’s too obvious, I guess, and the poems rejected that gesture.

If agency is something at work here, then I’m curious, too, about the ways and instances in which God shows up in the book. Can you talk about how you find that idea working throughout?

After I finished writing the book, I realized the concept of God works as part of a triangle that includes the speaker and the mother (or other women). God exists, like the mother, as an absent breeder, and a symbol for “home” and the potential to matter. Often, it seems the speaker is fearful of God and also waiting for God, as a way to extend the experience of fearing the mother while waiting for her return. So overall, I think the idea of God works in the book to engage with the disorientation of being separate from, for lack of better words, what made us.

Stepping back to a larger view about images here, there is the play between Degas and the prose poems themselves.  I can think of ways to talk about how the art works for me as a reader, but I’m not sure if it’s just my way of reading. I see the Degas pieces as a kind of structure -- vehicle, but a meaningful one -- for a speaker needing to make structure. It just so happens, too, that the structures -- the figures in Degas’ work -- are beautiful so that the speaker has, built in, if you will, a lovely frame. I’m interested in how you came to the Degas work as central to this book and how you’d like it to be taken or received as a writer.

Several years ago, I brought home a postcard of Degas’s “Combing the Hair” from London and set it on my desk -- I liked the way the long orange hair was used to tether the tension between the women, and as a writing exercise, I responded to it -- and found I could write about the absence of my mother in a way I never could before. So I decided to try the exercise again with “Dancers in Blue,” and it worked again. Somehow looking at his paintings facilitated speech for me. I remember thinking that maybe, if I ever had a book, these “Degas poems” would be a section of the book, but I became sort of fluent, and after a few years, I had a manuscript made up entirely of these poems. I had accidentally found a way into my mind -- so I don’t have a particular agenda in terms of how I want my use of Degas to be taken. I guess, if anything, I would want it to be seen as a conversation, an unexpected intimacy, in which language became particular, and then flooded.

Speaking of frames and shifting back to the pieces themselves, we’ve talked in the past about sentences, paragraphs, and the issue of formatting prose poems, and I notice that your pieces are justified at both the left and the right. Can you talk about how this matters in your work?

The right justification makes it clear that traditional line breaks have been abandoned, and that these are prose poems. I also just love the look of boxes, their orderliness. Again, the desire for order -- especially from far away, the look of the page pleases me, like a made bed. It just seems like someone has taken the time to tuck everything in, even with the knowledge that this kind of order is superficial at best.

What was the process of writing this book like for you? 

I worked on the book for a number of years, meditating on Degas’s paintings, sketches, and sculptures, trying to push further into the act of articulation, formulating questions, and avoiding the same conclusions. I wanted to write a book of poems with an actual narrative arc -- I wanted to make a complete, kaleidoscopic thought, in which a speaker was recognized and altered. I ended up writing one, maybe two poems a month, until I had about forty, and then I went through the mind-bending process of organizing them to create a temporal and emotional, even imagistic, arc. That was the hardest part for me, and I am dreading that process with my second manuscript, which is nearly done.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book-length cycle of poems called “Small Porcelain Head,” which originated from my friend Nicole’s suicide. The book consists of very short prose poems, as they come from a place where there is little time to speak.

Colette LaBouff Atkinson is the author of Mean, a collection of prose poems (University of Chicago Press 2008). New poems have recently been published or are forthcoming at Burnside Review, Passages North and Mid-American Review. Her prose has appeared in Seneca Review, River Teeth, Santa Monica Review, Orange Coast Magazine, Babble, and elsewhere. She is currently Associate Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at UC Irvine and lives in southern California.