Alec Hershman lives in St. Louis where he teaches literature and writing at The Stevens Institute of Business and Arts. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts and The Jentel Foundation and in 2013 he will be a visiting poet-in-residence at Ananda College. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines including Denver Quarterly, The Journal, The Colorado Review, The Burnside Review, Sycamore Review, DIAGRAM, CutBank, The Fiddlehead and Washington Square.
Alec Hershman Interview, with Nicelle Davis
You write long poems that maintain a lovely sense of compression. How do you craft such poems?
Poems come to me episodically. There's a kind of photographic flash-and-slow-development process that usually lasts an hour or two during which I do a lot of talking to myself to sound things out. I write as much as I can on paper and then I go to the computer and begin shaping and reshaping the lines, weeding out extraneous moments. The whole experience feels a bit like being suddenly intoxicated and then sobering up through a rapid cycle of revisions. I start with a feeling or an image that has suddenly excited me and a couple hours later I have something that's mostly found its form. I have tried to go back and add to poems or expand them but I usually find that if they don't get their legs underneath them in the inception phase then they never really reach full development. Something about the fidelity of one continuous composing experience feels essentially important to me. It's the only way I can feel certain of the poem's cohesion when I return to it months or years later; if I tinker with it too much, there's a self-doubting part of me that will always remain irritated by the artifice of the seams.
Of course, sometimes section breaks can help maintain this kind of compression too. That's what happened with "The Nurse." The sections really correspond to seven distinct writing episodes that all happened successively over the course of a day last winter. I thought initially the poem was just going to be that first section, but then each time I came back to it to reread it, I caught a glimpse of another scene and so I continued exploring until by the last two sections I felt that the poem was growing too self-conscious. Then it was evening and I decided to stop.
Your poem “Infidelity” alludes to many fairy tales? What is it like to rewrite a known tale? How do fairytales rewrite us?
I didn't really set out to rewrite a fairy-tale but I think, like you say, fairy-tales sometimes rewrite us, or at least shape the way we understand ourselves through moments of identification or recognition. I had been dating someone for two years and then suddenly one day found myself receiving flirtatious advances from someone else. The poem is really just a kind of therapeutic investigation of my qualms. The situation was simultaneously exciting and saddening—I was searching for a way to give concrete form to the mixture of guilt and elation that arises in situations like this when I feel like I'm getting more than I deserve. Some composite notion I had of fairy-tale heroines seemed to do some of this work. I thought of all those Disney-glossed stories in which a princess laments being torn between two suitors, often a princess made especially small by the enormity of the castle in which she mopes. And for a moment at least, this seemed to attach metaphorically to my feeling of bewilderment—of having too much.
(And for the record, I didn't cheat. I wrote this poem instead.)
How do “fear and pleasantry” occupy the same poem? What beauty is created by their friction?
“The Shark” is my oldest surviving poem, written nine years ago now, and it feels in many ways like my first real one. Unlike my recent work, it really did emerge from a specific narrative incident in which it seemed to me that the management of fear and pleasantry was a matter of dire consequence.
I was driving through Martinsville, Indiana at 4:00 in the morning with my boyfriend at the time, being idle, being angsty. I was nineteen. We were looking for a diner we'd heard of named Forky's that was supposed to have a giant cartoon fork wearing a cape on the sign. It was desolate from the moment we turned off the highway—a small, depressed looking place that was once a KKK hub in the north. Even the gas stations were closed. Then, coming through downtown, a cop began to tail me. I had out of state plates with expired tags. We'd both been drinking beer hours earlier and my boyfriend had weed in his pocket. I was wearing a T-shirt I'd found at a Goodwill that said “Malcom X Fan Club” in bold red print across the front. The enormity of the foolishness of all of these factors combined made me suddenly cold. My life at that moment seemed like such a clusterfuck of ornery expressiveness and privilege.
The encounter was inevitable. We were stopped, ostensibly for rolling a stop sign at which we'd in fact taken too long deciding which direction to turn. So there was fear and pleasantry. And questions. And breathalizers (I was just near the legal limit, but under the legal age). The terrible, remarkable thing was that after the whole strobing ordeal came an awkward pause and I asked the two officers, both young, both white, probably about the age I am now, definitely straight, “what do you want me to do?” And the one of them looked at his partner and smiled and then told us to get back in the car and go home.
The experience still feels bright with adrenaline when I think about how differently things might have gone had the one officer not imagined that he recognized something of himself in me. So much of what transpired was unstated but I could tell that it was sympathy that saved us and I have spent the last nine years wondering how much of what he thought he saw was his own projection and how much of it was true.
As for beauty? I suppose there's some inasmuch as beauty is one of those lenses on the ineffable the way bewilderment also can be. Perhaps Norman Dubie said it best when he wrote “Terror is//The vigil of astonishment.”
What new poetry projects are you working on?
I have some ambivalence about the idea of a project as it relates to my writing. I suspect that most poets in that awkward post-MFA limbo of affiliation and disavowal do. Sometimes I believe that in a protracted flash of insight I will find a compelling and essential way to organize my poems and that it will fortuitously be a 50-70 page arrangement with carefully executed themes and an arc. Alas, far more often I set aside the question of how to make my poems share space with one another. I have hundreds of them now and each year the idea of choosing the right ones for a book seems more and more ridiculous. I write in the vexed state of not caring to make one just for the sake of making one even as I suspect that someday I probably will. I can't really say anything more than that. I love making poems but for me the question each day is simply how to make a new one. One morning this summer I woke up and said aloud to myself, “There is only one book and it is not yet written!” and felt very comforted. Now this is what I tell myself every time I start to think about projects.
Unfinished, as a book with a finger in it,
so stepping lightly room to room she bore
a little detail in the ear,
a little pearl of flesh,
and the larger room a lobby
and the smaller one a phone-booth.
Her eyes were dappled
with morning transport—dreams
from which she only sensed her exposure
like heat from a stone: she’d seen
the one un-aging man in the cafeteria line,
where the roast beef drifted,
and the old women loosened like pears.
It was wrong to think of falling in love
while the rest lay grafted to furniture,
the soft clicking of their jaws on repetitious thoughts;
but there he was, lifting a shallow spoon of peas
beneath the warming lamp, the tray hovering
at the end of his arm, weighing nothing,
because you can’t feed the dead,
not even in dreams, not even
if the others died first.
Days there a helicopter triumphed over pines,
cartoonish in its rescue, its alien sequester of such
an unremarkable acre. She led the ready ones
to a landing pad, many a wrist
and many a hip to take up the portable staircase.
The strobing blades poured their hush upon
the trees, and the owls within them
became merely notional, simultaneous
in their blink—
Goodbye, dark manor.
Goodbye, needle-toed trees.
We have been shorn for the occasion
and will surely rise now.
And what of the middle daughter? The inexhaustible
assistant, who gave herself blindly to hallways, whose hands
grew curled upon the gurneys, and who wiped her own brown brow
with the same cloth used to siphon drool from the catatonics?
In the waiting-ward the claw-footed basin
glowed ageless against the tiles and the heavy window casements,
a smell of yellow, having long put its grain across the scene,
coarsened everything but the tub
which had been scrubbed to pearl and radiated
with the idea of a girl, not unlike the middle daughter,
whose own skin was radiant, whose leg was perfectly bent,
coincident with the razor, and whose breasts seemed silver
apparitions, just rising from the water, where the rest of her
may or may not have existed.
Everything in a drop of solution, reducible to squares:
the index fingernail reflected in linoleum, the arm spilled
almost perpendicular from the table is the arm of the gambler,
puckered with a bullet, scrubbed and ring-less beneath a sheet.
It is hard work to remove traces of the previous from skin.
The body must be carried lightly or it becomes a dim amalgam
from which no ore is strikable, a face against the glass you only think
you recognize, and hesitate
with the hammer. Care must be taken.
This is the body—the known fact of it laid out
before your hands like contact-paper.
In the oblique light of evening,
in her quarters, she was no daughter
and there was no man—but who can blame her
for looking?— her eyes prohibited
by chips of slate, her body
by chills of gown, the cone of bedlight
circumscribing one of two available pillows,
upon which she was no princess
and could hear clearly
the fossils roaring on their subterranean beach.
There was a book
and a glass of water that shook,
and raised a nipple.
From the shore where the world is made
only of matter and of water, a voice
saying anything else?
And she turned over into sleep then,
thinking to make a phone call.
Who cleared upon the windows, gardenless,
a hand-wiped hole in frost. In winter, in a mathematics
of death, the hive of body-management was pressed
to the glass with breathing. The linens were steamed,
distributed. In the sick bay, any day untouched by weather
passed in the low snore of the security guard.
What was meant by a gentle man, never announced.
He was soft, and desperate, and his holster hung
at an unlikely angle behind him. His uniform was feeble,
tan in its stalled idea of law. But if Wild Mike
brandished an epee-pen and fled naked to the parking lot,
he’d escort the nurses to their cars. He remembered
the names of their kids and wished them well. He had a hare-lip
which made the unlikely kiss
And then the parenthetical stooping undone
of a man left of himself, laid finally and uncertain
in the bed, his hand a shrunken calyx
she held in hers, like a seedpod.
She weighed its hollowing against his eyes,
bright as trout.
In the ventilator he guessed
the liquid stuttering of quails
signing air in the thickets repeatedly—
a whole boyhood of flushed wings
pumping in the wires, in the fusion
of flesh and motor, in the busy drip
to reconcile breath.
And having borne for many years
a human stillness she could not say
the moment it happened. The body
forgotten. The body like a word
said aloud too many times in a row.
Stranger, I found a new room
in the house. I don't know how
to tell you. My family is all calls
and sobs here. Palms flat
to the walls—they have no knowing
where I've went—my sill hand
still new, recalcitrant,
and grips no window.
There's a little trepidation
in the pulse of a frog. I'm no
Rapunzel, no filial needle,
the hour laced with bagpipes,
the compass itself, lost.
So hurt turns over like a glove.
It tempers elation. So happy
for the architecture that betrays
its spaces, for the prince
who is not a prince,
and not the wall
I practiced kissing. I can tell
it is a dirge they are playing—
a bee's din, a whining
in the reeds, every fed mouth
needing again to feed.
Comb upon comb
of that terrible paper—
that empty chewing, sole chord
of the work song. I cannot
hear them, shut them out.
And joy is an imperative; windows
the slides for the eye of a giant,
and I the sample. I, the technique.
So the once-lover's pounding
subsides to forgot—and when I look
to the sky a gray vault
leans heavily on the hills
and heavily on the town.
It is opening, the wheel of its lock
turning into place. It may be
for me alone. For me
altogether. They may bring shovels
only to find I am not here—
an axe only to be too late.
Eventually, every harbor fills
with the harsh colors of iron
and nickel. No money
is enough. No one deserving
who has not in turn deserved.
I know that inside I'm all
bones and a monicker. A house
can have only so many
hands, I know—
in time there is a time
that they give up.
Recalling here the near-miss
The night we met that shark seems a likely turn,
But ours is a story that was ending long
Before the break lights of bitten tongues,
Of impulses left wordless, left alone
In the rooms where desire resides.
I asked you not to look at me, that way
We might pass through those jaws,
Salty particles seeking to desiccate,
Grow hungry in tried and tired shades.
But as a matter of course, we stopped,
Held in the flashing relief of lights against our pale faces-
Each appearing in his own respective glass, then the roadside again-
Rearview, passing lane, blue suit, the night’s crude meat.
We considered the gleam of teeth, in stupid, tidy rows.
I tried to smile as the beam scanned you, then turned to me.
There was fear and pleasantry, and too
No sooner had the door been shut between us
Than swelled, ached for this stranger at the window.
I wanted to concede, but the shark smiled back-
Thought he recognized me- and I nodded,
Pretended not to notice your face
Melt in the windshield.
Pride is a flame.
Returning home we were lost
To mysterious automation. He followed us
A block or two, as sharks after such encounters do,
Then peeled away.
What wasn’t was because
I would not let it be, and I think of it still
Unsaid of celibate lips
Are the arguments strung on tenuous threads,
The longings too long in wary formulation:
Given the abundance of words that do not say,
Given the purple perseverance of women
Who “fall down stairs”
And the buoyancy of men
In spite of the manacles of muscle
They sometimes wear,
Given the Spartan furnishings
Of our timid chamber,
Who is a shark to deny
Those evenings we spent riding
around strange and needing territory,
So quaintly queer?
And on nights like these, no,
Getting away does not make it leave;
And no, wanting alone does not make it love,
It only makes it quiet.