An Interview with Alessandra Lynch
Alessandra Lynch is the author of three previous collections of poems, Sails the Wind Left Behind, It was a terrible cloud at twilight (winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Award), and Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (finalist for the LA Times Poetry Book Prize and winner of the 2017 Balcones Prize in Poetry). She is Poet-in-Residence at Butler University and lives in Indianapolis with her family, four cats, and a burgeoning backyard forest.
“I have become a yard of cruel secrets,” Alessandra Lynch discloses in her latest collection, Pretty Tripwire, newly released with Alice James Books in 2021. Fragmentary, lyric poems serve as tunnels that lead toward cascading, long sequences which tell a narrative of the female body, sexual violence, and paralysis. In the interview that follows, we discuss her journey along “the threshold[s] between longing and need / appetite and hunger” to unearth the “[s]piky venomous split-haired root” of a voice that has been buried deep in the earth’s soft moss.
Natalie Tombasco: Pretty Tripwire initiates with “Supplication—,” a form of prayer, a humble plea for one party to provide something on behalf of another—perhaps, a transaction or gesture of reciprocity between the poet and dear reader. Spoken as an incantation, this opening requests a reentering into a wound, a memory, an event that lingers in “the arctic / room of the skull...its sea / of icy shards.” By returning to the “familiar edges” of experience, how did you find yourself expanding into new terrain from previous collections? As your refrain chants, what were you hoping to be provided “this time”?
Alessandra Lynch: Thank you for this lovely understanding of the first poem in Pretty Tripwire, which, once upon a time, was positioned last in the manuscript till I realized not only did the poet-speaker of the book need to drum up the courage to enter the new terrain of the old wound, but the reader needed an escort into that oft-harsh place.
“Expanding” is a choice word for this collection, as the lines—especially in the long poems—lengthened, abruptly broke, curved, fell short. My son describes them as “shaky.” Some lines leap outward, others huddle together. I also feel more space here, as though they’re cleaved open. I have never before broken lines quite this way and the impulse to do so helped me light out into new strata in the psyche.
I was and am hoping to be provided expansiveness and depth, perspective and steadiness, deeper inhabitation of mystery and imagination, and self-compassion. I am hoping to be heard. Instead of floating above the “familiar edges” or skirting them, I turned to them—as directly and as tenderly as I could—to allow myself to grieve what I hadn’t known before there was to grieve about.
This time, I entered that cold place, that arctic room of the skull to, however unwittingly at first, authenticate my own experience—to break through a disassociated state of being (disassociated even in previous collections of poetry) and to transform a narrative of paralysis.
NT: Your third collection, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, explores the brutal reality and aftermath of sexual violence. It denies the word “rape” because “assault was prettier. Assault was less invasive.” In Pretty Tripwire, there is a comparable yearning to beautify the harm or make it more aesthetically palatable. Can you discuss the presence of the tripwire in the book?
AL: Since I could walk, I would walk into the woods, through the swamp cabbage and wild geranium, and ferns, a safe realm for the heart, for me to feel anything, for me to grieve. It can be a little sad, almost a little strange to consider how many of us don’t feel safe feeling our feelings in certain places, certain contexts—that it can actually be dangerous to feel, to be emotional, even when no one else is around. As a child, where did I cry? Rarely in the house, mostly in the woods.
“Beautifying the harm” always has allowed me to enter the space of the harm in order to be essentially emotionally connected to it. Beauty has always lived with, within, and outside of ugliness. There is always a yellow flower growing in a war zone, a worm beneath the ground making more earth where someone’s been shot.
I also think of Tomaž Šalamun’s short poem “Rain,” where he juxtaposes the wonderment of simple observations of nature with human horror:
It rained during the night. Did the snails sleep or paddle? The pine tree strained itself and grew for a millimeter and there, far away, Lebanon was bombed.
Tripwires live underground and, in being alive, are deadly. At times, especially as a young child, I have believed my own life could be deadly to others. I believed in my psyche, that if I asked or needed too much, my support system would vanish. I had to move gingerly through the world as one might move over a minefield. In this case, I was moving gingerly over my buried, deadly seeming self. I felt more dread about being a tripwire than a sense of power.
Tripwires are also surprising, heart-pounding. In all the poems here, the language that toppled out surprised me by the insights it bred, the feelings it carried. I did not ever expect or even want, for instance, to write about my experience as a young child of my parents’ divorce as I do in “Wolf & Root.” I didn’t know that a poem about Roy—dead for so long—would spring out (and would bear what it bears). Both those poems are personally explosive to me. I should also add that “Wolf & Root” was the poem that initiated all the other long poems here. I furnished it with what I most love—music, flowers, birds—providing myself with consolation as I grieved.
NT: The long poem “Thinning” is a weighty work in this collection that meditates on the speaker’s eating disorder. There is this greed for less: a desire to become more concave, clean, grotesque, genderless. I feel like there hasn’t been much poetry written directly on eating disorders (only Bidart’s “Ellen West” comes to mind). What was your intention in addressing this subject matter and did you turn to any writings as a guide?
AL: I used no other writings consciously as a guide, but after I’d written this poem, I read Bidart’s incredible “Ellen West” and have identified with the detached voice and alternate reality, which is kind of like alternative music—thrilling and empowering and arresting. The writing of Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment opened me to other traumas in my life. Many of the poems in Pretty Tripwire sprang from an urgent question I had after writing Daylily: How and Why did I wind up in a parking lot being raped? To answer this, I had to wade back through time, the time long before the rape—a time when it was a real struggle for me to be alive, in a body that needed and wanted. I swore against that need and want—and in the process felt a skewed sense of agency and power. Much to my despondency and relief, I eventually realized that death held neither agency nor power. There would be no birds or flowers or forests or music for me there.
Writing “Thinning” also ignited a prose project that’d ironically begun as 400 pages. I’m now whittling it down, possibly turning it into a collection of prose poems or who-knows-what!
NT: The speaker lives in an “unfinished house / assigned her” and is provided with quaint “allotment[s]: one square / of light & half-crust & grapeskin.” She swaggers, “I could live on a bead— / shiny or dull— / and not collapse.” There are these Hansel and Gretel-like crumbs left on the forest floor: “Is that enough to leave a trail, to get back?” Or perhaps, they’re Dickinsonian crumbs when you write, “The world was fixed as a crumb / on the tongue.” I read this fine line between self-empowering asceticism and self-destructive starvation with a sense of pride that comes from her needing so little sustenance. Does her ability to survive on a meager diet of emotional and spiritual nourishment provide her with some kind of transcendence?
AL: I feel a pull from both the fairy tales and Emily Dickinson—the earliest literature I read as a child! There is a return of sorts to childhood in the anorexic’s experience; she attempts to stop her body from growing, she is simultaneously “pleading” to be taken care of, nurtured, nourished while also resisting help that is proffered. In starving, she has found an agency and a fullness she hadn’t before experienced.
The poetic articulation of these nuanced considerations is (hopefully) the transcendence; there is no transcendence in starving oneself.
NT: While the subject matter focuses on the physical body shrinking, vanishing, there is this crucial tension with kinetic form. These long poems are sprawling, expanding, “claiming [your] landscape” back from manspreading and heroic poetry much like how Alice Notley instructs in The Descent of Alette. How does the long poem speak to concerns to reconceive or repossess female subjectivity in contemporary American poetry?
AL: That’s a very intelligent and academically astute observation and question to which I have a very simple, personal answer.
The sprawling expansiveness happened organically as I was writing the poem, not by any conscious thought-involving form. This is essentially how I work. I follow what happens naturally on the page that feels intuitively correct. I heed the energy—the surge and pull of words.
NT: I find there to be lovely movement between long and short poems wherein a short, introductory piece will act as a threshold into the longer work. For example, we transition from “Searchlight,” where we begin on a subway that is “waterlogged, flooded with shadows,” then we sink under the “whelk of syllable[s]” of “Hymnal.” Can you discuss the book’s structure and if poems such as “Guarded” and “Harlem-Hudson Line” serve as a kind of ballast for Pretty Tripwire?
AL: Thank you for this. I felt the short, threshold poems as portals, actually—small, meditative points of entry for each longer sequence. The manuscript endured several different incarnations. Once it was only long sequences and portal poems, then it was pure long sequences, then, after so many years had passed, I’d written more poems that became the belly of the book. With these love/friendship poems, I felt love pushing up around the longer sequences and thought it would be a necessary shift for absorption.
NT: Let’s discuss external influences. You often commune with writers such as Theodore Roethke and Samuel Beckett. It begs the question: why include male voices in a book that is dominated by feminist concerns? What is it about their work that resonates with you and were there other writers or artists that informed these poems?
AL: Strangely enough, I haven’t really thought about Roethke and Beckett as men with male voices. I love the textured lyricism and emotionality of the natural world in Roethke; I love the aching loneliness and relentless hunger for true truth and particular singings in Beckett. Perhaps I wasn’t yet brazen enough or ready to allude to Emily Dickinson, Sappho, Alice Notley, Patti Smith overtly, but they’re invisible presences in this book and will be more palpable and named in the next book—all of them! And others, too.
I’m also thinking of the longing for father throughout the book and how maybe Roethke and Beckett feel like my literary fathers, or writers, anyway, who have nurtured and instructed me—with whom I have a kinship.
NT: Two central poems are about motherhood. The first is “This Time Autumn,” a lament addressed to the “Daughter-I-did-not-have” and speaks to the anxiety of having a her: “I was afraid she’d be / mouthless. Afraid she’d not hunger.” Then comes the poem “Small House with a Blue Door,” which is dedicated to your sons Milo and Oliver. The inclusion of the children’s questions, such as, “Does your hair have bones?” brings in a playful, surreal element that reminds me of Bernadette Mayer’s poems. I’ve heard female writers argue to keep writing and motherhood separate, but if we strive to “write what we know,” isn’t there value in writing about a mother’s experience?
AL: There is always value in writing about human experience—motherhood, fatherhood, toad-hood, all. Isn’t that one reason we write and read? I’m curious about which female writers have argued that. I’m having a hard time making sense of this idea, for I feel and know that all poems come out of our bodies—male/female/elk/other—so how could we not write about what else comes out of our bodies—even if not directly?
I feel a bit sorry, a bit sad, that anyone would think it necessary to separate components of their lives from their poems. Or maybe I just don’t have the capacity to do that myself, for if I did, I would be blocking essential material from spilling out onto the page. I would stunt my own poetic growth.
NT: In your essay “Voices,” you write, “In my book, Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment, I couldn’t “find the body that belongs to my voice / or my voice that belongs to the harm.” And in Pretty Tripwire: “What good was all that seeing / when she had no way / to tell it.” The girl of Pretty Tripwire possesses “one / watchful eye / that could keep the village safe. It was her sole purpose.” This reminds me of Carolyn Forché’s writings on poetry of witness and if it can transcend, transmember, or heal a traumatic event. What does a poetry of witness mean to you?
AL: Every poem is a poetry of witness, whether this means language witnessing itself, a letter witnessing a piece of punctuation that follows it, the witness of sound and space, of the natural world thriving and dying, of joy, relationships, harms, loves, grievings; the witness of a star-nosed mole, the witness of disaster, of racism and misogyny, the witness of a leaf curled on cement, a corner growing deeper in shadow….
Every poem is a healing of sorts. Healing comes from the Old English hǣlan, meaning to “restore to sound health.” I’m going to be a little punny here (punning is also a healing and connective activity) and muse over the idea of “sound health”—musical muscle that keeps our poems hale and fully breathing, keeping time with the heart.
NATALIE TOMBASCO serves as the Interviews Editor of the Southeast Review. Her work can be found in Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, Poet Lore, and VIDA Review, among others. She has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology for 2021 and has a chapbook titled Collective Inventions (CutBank 2021).