In Conversation with Vi Khi Nao
Alison Prine lives in Burlington, Vermont where she works as a poet and a psychotherapist. Her debut collection of poems, Steel, won the Cider Press Review Book Award and was released in January 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, FIELD, The Elephants, and Prairie Schooner among others. Visit her at alisonprine.com. In this conversation, she discusses salt, resilience, and the power of conversations.
VI KHI NAO: What is your favorite poem from Steel? And, what do you love about it?
ALISON PRINE: I have a special relationship with the poem, “The Year After His Suicide.” It was among the poems I wrote in the painful aftermath of losing my brother. I sent a group of these poems to Virginia Quarterly Review, a much fancier publication than I would normally submit to, because it was based in Charlottesville, Va, where my brother lived most of his adult life. I did not expect to be considered, and was shocked when that poem was accepted for publication. It made me feel that somehow my brother was helping me put my poems out to the world. The publication of “The Year After His Suicide” helped me to accept that my painful poems needed to exist in the world.
VKN: I love every line from “The Year After His Suicide.” What does it mean “The things we wish we’d said, turn to milkweed seeds?” Why milkweed seeds?
AP: Milkweed seeds come out of a beautiful pod, and are attached to this gorgeous fluff that floats/flies through the air searching for a place to plant itself. So these seeds fly before burrowing and becoming a new plant. There are so many conversations you wish you had with someone you love who decides to end their life, and you imagine the power of these conversations to change the course of things.
VKN: I wonder if your collection had been titled “A Year After His Suicide” instead of “Steel”—both poems addressing your brother’s suicide—do you think it would change the way potential or current readers feel about the book’s existence and its ontological place in this world? Do you think readers would be attracted or be repelled by it?
AP: Steel reflects the broader themes of this collection—the place I grew up, Pittsburgh, The Steel City, as well as the need to steel oneself in the face of adversity, and the echo of “steal,” how life steals things from us that we need. For me the title folds in the loss of our mother when we were children, the place we grew up, and then the impact of it all on my brother whose death also informed these poems. I think calling the collection “ The Year After His Suicide” would have made that event more important than the rest. This book covers much of my life experience, the loss of my mother, the alienation of being a young lesbian, the discovery of long love, and the devastation of suicide all echo through the poems. I did not write this book as a collection. I did not actually believe that a book of my poems would ever exist in the world. But as I put it together I came to see that Steel—a strong, hard word, would hold this collection together and add balance to the quiet, tender nature of the work. I think that the word suicide in the title would overshadow the rest of the book. People would be both repulsed and attracted to that title. That word knocks the wind out of us, it is so explosive.
VKN: I completely agree! I immediately thought of that word as a stillborn hung or dabbled by light. Has Steel experienced any adversity since its birth, Alison? If Steel were a child, how do you wish it to be in the world? What kind of life do you want Steel to lead? Are you happy with how the book is received?
AP: Steel has had a wonderful childhood so far. Unlike her anxious mother, she has wandered off and met so many interesting strangers. She is not afraid to share herself and to connect in unexpected ways. The only adversity that I know of is that she has caused some pain for my sisters. When they hear/read my poems there is pain there for them. I am sorry for that. I think they understand the need I have for writing, but it is different for each of them.
Like any good daughter, Steel grew up quickly and became my teacher. She has reflected me back to myself in strong and important ways. Each time a reader has contacted me, or talked with me after a reading, it has been powerful and beautiful. I didn’t know how much it would mean to me to have readers. The poems were written for me, but the audience is like a new dimension that enhances the work. I can’t easily explain the kind of satisfaction that sharing my work with the world has brought, but it has felt very, very good.
VKN: “My mother died young / teaching me that the soul lives / in costume jewelry
and a broken watch…//Humiliation makes us better lovers,/ makes us better shelters./I learned to build by tossing stones into water.” I am moved by the poem “Rings.” I keep on revisiting it. And, I keep on rereading this line: “Humiliation makes us better lovers.” Why do you think humiliation makes us better lovers?
AP: I think that humiliation is a human experience of going deeply and painfully into the self. If we can survive this we can offer up a resilience and a brave honesty that makes us strong in a sexy, powerful way. The death of my mother as a young child on Christmas Day has always embarrassed me. And then my brother’s suicide—I thought it would destroy me, but in some way being devastated has made me a deeper version of myself. I think this is why I love my work as psychotherapist. I love to see how adversity enriches and empowers our lives. It inspires me.
VKN: I think poetry is a wonderful, therapeutic outlet to cope with grief. Does writing these poems help you deal or engage fully with your mother’s death and your brother’s suicide? If the poetic form isn’t the ideal method to endure loss and sadness, what do you think is the best receptacle to weather this unavoidable cause of existence?
AP: Each poem I write is an attempt to integrate the unbearable and the beautiful. Poems heal me, but weeping in my lover’s arms also heals. I think any form could be used to process loss—cooking or sewing or dancing or building a house. For me, words are the tools most comfortable in my hands. For others it could be knitting needles or miniature train sets, theater lights, stones.
VKN: Why do you want to integrate the unbearable and the beautiful? I find your poem “Stranger” to be an apotheosis of this attempt.
AP: I guess I desperately want to stay connected to the things that cause me grief, and beauty makes that possible for me. Does your writing do this for you? It is difficult to explain.
VKN: Grief in my writing finds companionship in me, but I do not want grief to be a friend. Though my mother, this morning, when I spoke to her about you, my love for your work, and your Steel—she says that Alison’s grief is a gift that makes her existence more palpable and deeper. Abandoning my mother’s perception of your palpability, why do desperately want to stay connected to the things that cause you grief? Most people wish to run away from it or deny that it exists.
AP: Thinking about you and your mother makes me wonder if the loss of a homeland operates in some way like the loss of a mother. You cut yourself off completely from it and you may numb the pain of separation, but you lose elements of who you are. My brother used to think I was morbid because I had such a clear relationship to loss and pain. He used to insist that our mother’s death had no impact on him whatsoever. In the end I believe this was part of what destroyed him. He killed himself on her grave, he so desperately wanted to connect with her in his depression.
VKN: Will you talk more about your brother? What did he like to eat? Does he like to shower in the morning? I was wondering if you would tell me a time in your childhood where you felt closest to him.
AP: It is hard to get a sense of the people I write about in my poems, because I write about my loss, not really about them. I admire how other writers move beyond themselves to create, while my writing goes deep inside, but not very far beyond me.
My brother loved food and was not fussy. He was happy to stand at the refrigerator and eat cold leftovers out of a pan, or hunks of cheese. He was scruffy and unkempt often, but would go through phases as adult where he would clean up, lose weight, get trim and eat fruit all day. He had many passions—music, art history, sports history, and most of all community theater.
When I was little he was often bored with me. I was a serious, sensitive child. He was loud and impatient. But he had tender moments. When I would get big snarls in the back of my long hair, he would set me on his lap and carefully detangle them without pulling. He knew how because as a teenager his hair was long and blonde like mine. He read The Hobbit out loud to me when I was nine years old, at night when he came in late, he read next to my bed.
VKN: How wonderful it is to know these memories you have of him. When I read your work, I experience an abstract, elegiac arc of your brother and mother. When you share these concrete, quotidian memories, I feel like you are like adding salt to a dish I haven’t consumed yet. In contrast, when I read your work, especially poem, “Surgeon”—I felt that “surgeon” or that “man” was an allegorical composition, a dyadic death of your brother and mother. Do you feel the same way that I do about the surgeon in your “Surgeon” poem?
AP: That is an interesting theory, in my conscious mind I was writing literally about the man who carefully mended my wounds after the car accident. But in some way my brother may have also been represented in this male healing figure, I am not sure. My poems tend to emerge from the subconscious before I “know” what I am trying to say. I think I could have been disfigured from the accident if a plastic surgeon had not been available to sew me that Christmas night. If I had been disfigured, or my physical healing was not aided by this stranger, who would I be? My face would be different, it would have changed my life.
VKN: I am glad the surgeon retained your physical face and the car accident like “A jet tears through the clouds giving the sunrise” of your face “a beautiful scar.” In the face of death, from a figurative angle, I wonder if the death of your brother and mother were the needles and stitches that the surgeon of death use for closing you so carefully, leaving you legible. In other words, do you feel that grief made you legible? What is the opposite of your illegibility?
AP: The opposite of my illegibility is my ability to convey myself to another and therefore to connect.
VKN: What is your relationship to salt, Alison? I believe you used that word five times in Steel. Each time, salt carries a particular weight of loss or something with taste and scale.
AP: That is interesting to consider. I love the taste of salt, and I love the sense of something that exists on my tongue and in the sea and in the rocks and air. Maybe it is about the pleasure of elemental emotions.
VKN: I often associate salt with the sea, but each time I experience your use of the word “salt”, the sea feels omitted from the tongue of your poems. Is this intentional or is my experience with your experience with salt an isolated case?
“the sky heavy as a bag of salt” p. 42
“burn of salt in the eye or sting of sand” p. 73
“I walked here with my camera,
my chest full of nails and salt.” p. 87
AP: In those poems I am talking about the salt that is extracted from the sea and carried outside the body. Heavy salt. I think salt represents grief.
VKN: As a child, I learned from my mother that salt can be used as a torture device. In the same vein, do you think that grief can operate like salt, punishing something? Some ontological essence in our humanity?
AP: I think the salt in my poems represents an intense weight of longing. Something difficult to bear, but not really a violence. More of an enormous sadness that must be carried and dragged along through life. Like a bag of road salt that would make your arms ache.