Alice Friman Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Alice Friman Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
First, congratulations on the very recent publication of your latest collection, Vinculum. I’ll admit that I’ve not yet had the chance to read much of it, but the book’s title is very suggestive and rich in metaphorical possibilities. The title poem explores the bond between mother and child and its complications over a long period of time: “that cord / we knew, that ghost of an eye-beam floating between us, // arcs in space, lit up like the George Washington Bridge / pulsing with traffic, even after both stanchions are gone.” Yet, the poem, and the title’s implications, seem more far-reaching and perhaps bring us to other, more obscure, meanings of the word: the mathematical, the scientific. Can you tell us a bit about how the title serves to inform the poems, what things readers might wish to consider or look for as they approach them?
The word “vinculum” means connection. This book, written from the high hill of my age, is a life, and as a life, stresses what binds us not only to each other, but to nature, history, myth, family, the inevitable biology of the body, as well as to love—that connection of two into one that frees as it restricts. Between the first and last poems—prologue and postlude—which serve as bookends arcing the whole, the poems in Vinculum flare out from “The Mythological Cod,” the central poem that serves as the book’s spine: a grab bag of religion, sex, humor, science, and history—rich with the generative mystery that feeds and informs the rest. The careful reader will see connections all over the place, in each section’s introductory poem as well as in the use of certain repeated metaphors … all of them connections.
I’m struck by a statement written on your web site, “Art begins where science leaves off.” The interstices between science and poetry—if indeed there are any—have long fascinated me. Miroslav Holub, in an essay titled “Poetry and Science,” writes, “The artist’s primal and direct communication with the nature of Man and Things is still seen as an alternative and more genuine path of human creativity, opposing the analytical, cold and cynical scientific approach.” It seems to me that Holub downplays the possible complexities of both the artist’s and scientist’s negotiations with the world. I’ve taken to insisting—perhaps only for the sake of being argumentative to university scientists—that poetry, too, is a science, as each poem can easily be seen as an experiment. That is, a poem tests experience in an attempt to get to the bottom of it. Like scientists, we’re trying to better understand the world in which we exist. How does science and its facts affect your artist’s engagement with the experiential? As a poet gets older, does science perhaps become less important than the spiritual?
I don’t remember where I got that quote. Surely I didn’t make it up: it’s too good. But I believe it. For doesn’t science deal with finding factual truth? What the universe is composed of? How the brain works? The chemical properties of matter? DNA, black holes, bacteria, viruses, why Saturn gives out more light than it takes in from the sun, and on and on. And to that extent doesn’t art go along with it, hand in hand like Jack and Jill, this searching for truth? But science stops when it gets an answer and moves to other things, there being so many other things. But art? Ah no. Art keeps digging that hole, finding more and more treasure. How the quartz rock, labeled and categorized by the geologist, turns in the artist’s hand, reflecting myriads of light and memory. Maybe art surpasses science because art is fed on truth plus imagination and the human capacity for sorrow.
About the “spiritual, ” I can’t say I know what that means. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of those words that floats out there on a bubble, while imagination, to me, that’s solid as the geologist’s rock.
Your poems seem set all over the place. New York often crops up, but to read through a random selection of your poems takes one to Tanzania, Hawaii, Canada, Bernheim Forest in Kentucky, etc. What is your poetry’s relationship to landscape?
I was a New York City child, but spent much time in the country, and between the ages of seven and eleven, summers at the beach, which in those days was empty and wild—a child’s paradise. In other words, I feel as much at home in a big city as I do in a field or forest or at the shore. Too, I’ve traveled a lot. I once said I wanted to see the sun set over every river in the world. I guess I won’t make that goal, but at least I’ve tried. And poems? They’re just hanging from the trees, all one has to do is reach up. Well, now, that sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? Especially for me who if I write one poem a month—and I write pretty steadily—that’s good. In other words, I’m slow. But I have a good memory, and whatever happens to me or happened and where is indelibly written in the brain with its attendant “setting.” And thus everywhere I’ve been and whatever I’ve seen and experienced is one, all part of the poet’s grab bag. All part of the now, the perennial present, and what’s “home.” That is to say, everything is connected (ergo Vinculum), and there is no “setting” completely separate from the self: the membrane between the outer world and the inner thin indeed.
You are Professor Emerita of English and Creative Writing at University of Indianapolis, where you taught from 1971-1993, and you are currently Poet in Residence at Georgia College & State University, a program that offers the MFA degree in Creative Writing. Your career as a teacher has spanned the dramatic rise in the institutionalization of the teaching of creative writing in the U.S. Reflecting on all that has happened with creative writing over these years, what things have struck you? Have you seen a positive or negative progression in the work of our country’s young writers? Would we have been better off without the institutionalization, or is writing better for it?
Now that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? In the twenty plus years that I was at the University of Indianapolis, I taught one course of creative writing a year, and that was only after many years at the school. I taught Freshman Lit, the first half of American Lit, Modern Poetry, Contemporary Poetry, Mythology, Greek Drama, Honors, and, of course, Comp and Basic Writing. Too, I don’t have an MFA; as a matter of fact I didn’t know what exactly that was, or indeed, except for the program at Iowa, where one could go to get one. I began writing poetry seriously in my late thirties because I loved it, and it loved me. I wrote alone, teaching myself every mistake I know. It seemed to be a way, the only way, I could come close to what Kelly Cherry in Girl in a Library calls the reality of “things, their thingness, their being there.” Thus I am in no position to answer your question about whether or not we would have been better off without the institutionalization of writing programs. What counts is the writing, and for that, only time will tell. I do wish, however, that students had read more, that Alexander Pope and John Keats weren’t perceived as foreign entities, and that Moby-Dick and Walden Pond were at least as familiar as Lady Gaga.
At the Threshold
Of those already gone,
limped or carried across that
bump in the floor & vanished,
woven in the crowd the way
at Grand Central a certain set
of shoulders you’d know anywhere
disappears into the push & blurry
funnel of departure, I’ll not speak.
I’m grave enough. But now
that the world tips for me
toward that end in earnest,
& if in a line we must, I opt
for the ticket line in New York’s
Times Square, where each day
a quarter million pair of feet
cross the X that marks that spot:
the angry, the calm, the silver-
haired, the striped, the polka-
dotted, the prodigal, the priest—
washed clean in that ocean of
shoe leather. Quirks & cruelties
aside, conventions of dress—
what do they matter? Only
the walking soles, the myriad
right foot, left, of soles, & me
in their midst standing in line
for the angels in golden cages
dispensing tickets. Oh to be
inside the heart of New York
again, now & as it was that day
under the billboard of blowing
smoke rings no one’s left
to remember, down the street
from Toffenetti’s restaurant
where Sylvia, laughing, bumped
her bottom down the long curved
stairway as if sliding the chute
at Coney Island, that day when all
the world was fourteen & lampposts
bent their necks to watch over us
being it was spring & every pair
of shoes bore an immortal child.
Case # 87 on the Calendar
Today Judge Judy is sad.
Not angry, satiric, outraged,
or beside herself. But sad.
The case before her: a couple
married nine years, followed
by an eleven-year separation.
No divorce. Too busy
spying, vandalizing, dragging
each other to court to sue
or countersue. The law’s
delight: they cannot stay away
from each other.
totals the years. Twenty, half
of your adulthood. Live to be
a hundred, and this bitterness
will poison a fifth of your entire
life. Judge Judy is teaching
addition. The Mister coughs.
The wife presses her mouth
into an iron line.
fingers her gavel. She wants
this case over. These two can
add as well as she, and logic
is a flimsy rope to burden
the drowned. She persists.
She needs this couple to know
she understands. She needs us
to know she understands, for
by virtue of her little lace collar,
she is still a woman and privy
to the pickle flesh is heir to.
She taps into a well of patience
she has little of, planes the edge
of her voice to a kind of kindness:
Cut the knot, get on with your lives,
as if to say, pick up the thread
of who you were prior to this
Gordian snarl, for surely, before
the gavel bangs and the hammering
commercials start, she could cast
on the screen of their imagination
the emerald city of marital order
and good sense. But how much
can one do?
Judge Judy, don’t
be sad. No one could slip a piece
of paper between these two.
They will leave your courtroom
and go on with their lives, just as
you advised, for bitterness is
their life—the sock they chew,
the sour they suck, the agent
pooling at the mouth’s bottom
enough saliva to swallow down
one more insult big as a sofa.
It is the pit of the fruit worked
in the mouth after the sweetness
goes: their life’s sialogogue,
round stone of the apricot, hard
as a heart. Suck on that
long enough and the stone
strips to its seed: prussic acid:
amygdalin, otherwise known
Arithmetic lesson #2:
if ten apricot seeds can kill a child,
how many will it take to kill love?
Too many to count. I learned that
at my mother’s knee—she
who dished it out as well as took it.
How do you know that’s not how
your father and I made love? So much
for my limp logic. At her knee
I learned it, Judge Judy, her arthritic
knee, trembling to manipulate the
walker. Her ninety-five-year-old knee.
An airplane’s black box
is really orange. Orange—
and that’s not the only fib
we’ve been fed. Venus,
that bauble, that wishing star
and proxy for the blue fairy,
rages hot enough to melt lead.
Today, I am full of facts.
I collect them. Once I knew
a man who collected nails,
railroad nails, and nailed them
to a board and bored you
with their makes and dates.
His wife cooked. She was
Italian and rolled her eyes.
He must have had hundreds.
Maybe they’re called bolts.
He could recognize a bolt
from forty paces. That’s
how many steps apart two
hotheads take in a duel.
Forty paces. Each counts
twenty, turns, and boom. I
don’t know if she kept a gun
in the pantry behind the pasta.
Her specialty? Artichokes,
speared swordfish on a plank
with stuffed zucchini, fried.
She’d bang her pots and wear
orange, bam, hot enough to
melt lead. Orange, the color
of the jump suits worn in
San Quentin. A good cook.
Lucky you, invited over for
Sunday dinner. Bring a gift,
a bauble in a black box, some-
thing she’d wish for, get a real
bang out of each time he starts
hammering about the nails.