Lauren K. Alleyne Interview, with Nicelle Davis
I would call your poem “The place of no dreams” a masterpiece. Ah, I love how imagination doesn’t just unlock doors, but is the key to creating doors. If you could physically hand this “key” to a child, what would it look like? How would you instruct them to use it?
I’m blushing. Thank you for the compliment. I should say that I wrote this poem after reading Jamaica Kincaid’s collection of stories entitled At the Bottom of the River, which was such a strange and exhilarating journey, it totally shook my imagination loose and got me thinking on the nature of the strange, and how strangeness summons our imaginative power, right? Which is to say that in order to reconcile ourselves to our world and our constantly evolving place in it, we must imagine ourselves in—we make the entrances we walk through into our realities. Therein lies the power and of imagination and also the tragedy of a failure to imagine—we wind up stuck somewhere we don’t want to be.
What would the key be? It would be a word, because for me language is the most familiar shape of imagination. Since you asked for a physical manifestation, the word would be inked in old English lettering onto a scrap of worn parchment that I would press into the child’s hand like a legacy. When s/he unfolded it, there would be three letters; they would spell the word ‘SEE’.
Weird? Maybe, but I believe that of all imagination’s powers, the most powerful is its possibility for vision: to see what is before us, what is beyond what we see; to see the wall, and then the possibility of the door in the wall; to see what no longer fits, how it is doing damage, how it might be mended; to see ourselves, and beyond our selves; to see others. The key is a verb. The key cannot exist without you—it needs a subject; the key cannot exist alone—it needs an object. The key is active, imperative, literal, figurative, transfigurative. It holds hindsight and foresight, but is root in the present. For all its power, the key is accessible— anyone can use it, everyone should.
“To My Lover’s Partner, Upon Their Separation” is written after (I’m assuming) Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning To His Wife.” I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on how overlaying the narrative of your poem with hers creates another layer to the narrative of both poems. How do you think poems speak to each other? What do we all gain from this conversation?
Nicelle, you’re absolutely right, of course; I love Sexton’s poem for its many, many layers of complication. The voice is both righteous and embittered, self-loathing (“I wash off”) and empowering—she gives “permission.” The mistress has both scorn and empathy for the wife who is constantly burying “her small red wound alive.” I love how Sexton is able to chastise the husband, honor the work and sacrifice of the woman he’s married to, and claim a position of agency for herself. She is not cast off, but allows him to return to his wife “I give you back your heart”. It is a devastating and freeing poem.
But it is also a poem that deflects. Sexton’s scathing voice is underscored by a pain that isn’t really spoken. She also hints at the physical service that a mistress provides that allows the wife to remain “all harmony,” but she never really claims that physicality. And finally, it seems clear to me that a part of this act of returning the lover comes from a guilt that she presents as an act of generosity.
In my poem, I wanted to consider a couple of things. In the first section, I want to give the mistress the benefit of the doubt; I wanted to consider that this relationship might have been love—a spiritual connection that is being severed by the lover’s leaving. But that was one only of several possibilities. I wanted to think about desire: sometimes the body wants what the body wants. I wanted that physicality in there. I wanted to present those possibilities without judgment, without saying that one was sordid, the other sacred, or that either is less a sacrament than the other. But then I realized that both of those eschew agency, which is what the third part considers—the relationship as a decision, and a place of power (that Sexton only hints at in her poem). Finally, Sexton is also able to cleverly slip out of any notion of culpability by her dazzling use of images and metaphors, which assign everyone in the situation an inevitable place—she is a “bright red sloop”, “smoke”; the wife is “a cast iron pot,” “a monument”— as if the roles they inhabit are somehow to do with their nature and not their choices. Clever, but easy. The mistress is wronged, and wrathful, sympathetic, but never sorry, and I thought that was a lack in the poem. Regardless of intent and motivation, it is clear that the consequence for all involved, herself included, is pain, even in this version which seems to favor her in the end (the lover’s partnership is dissolved) and I wanted to acknowledge that in my poem. It’s her (and my) I’m sorry poem.
I love your use of space and line breaks in “Love in B Minor.” Could you say a few words on how you know when to break a line and / or stanza?
One of my dearest wishes is that I was a visual artist. I covet that talent, and it’s probably related to that desire I discussed earlier to see, and then to be able to render that vision. Anyways, the closest I get to that, is how my poems look on the page. One tension/potential of the arrangement of a poem is the relationship between print and white space; that ratio functions as a visual cue, and so I try to present the poem on the page in a way that not just mimics, but somehow feels true to its central concerns. Which is to say I move stuff around until it feels right.
The other tension, of course, is between the sentence and the line, and I try to break where I can get the most sense/sensation/action from that tension. Oftentimes in the writing of the poem, the line precedes the sentence, because once I get to a stopping point with one sense and am ready to break, I try to think how I can expand or unravel it with the next, which then determines the sentence I wind up writing.
Love in B Minor is about slow realizations and how they build, constructing a room the speaker wants to leave, but can’t, or isn’t ready to. It’s not a sharp moment of epiphany, but instead an incremental dawning. If this were death, it would be the gas chamber, not a gunshot. The spacing helped me to build that slow reveal into the poem, while the uniformity of the lines locks the emotion in, and adds inevitability/inescapability. There’s nowhere to take the accumulating realizations. Our speaker can’t stop them, nor can she escape them. For this poem, white space and some evenness, well they just felt right.
What new artistic project do you currently have in the works?
I’m polishing and sending out the manuscript in which these poems appear; it’s called Without the World. I have a couple ideas for where I want to go next, but we’ll see what happens with them. I’ve found that sometimes over-determining a project is the surest way to kill it! I’ll be happy just to get some poems that I like written…
If poetry were a flavor (food?), what would it taste like (be)?
Poetry is like ice-cream. It completes joy, but is also a natural remedy for heartache. You can enjoy it in all its flavors, and yet its essential nature doesn’t change. It’s good for your bones, will delight your tongue, and I don’t know about you, but it makes me a happier human being ;-)
The place of no dreams
Is a cave so dark that every ghost shines
with the luminescence of super novas;
wish upon every one, and you would
want for nothing.
The cave is a house with seven windows
and no doors.
The house of no doors is not lacking
an entryway, you have only to open
your imagination. Sometimes
a wall is a fear so old it has become brick.
Sometimes a wall is a wish so fragile
it would crumble if you uttered its name.
The name is a ghost offering
every possibility to the dark: A shining thing.
The name is an echo, is a mirror,
a corridor of clocks between now
and no time.
Now is a single drop of rain
hurtling towards a river.
The river runs, like all rivers – on.
At the mouth of the cave,
in the belly of the house,
at the edge of every hunger, the river
Ghosts drink from it.
Love in B Minor
Your sandbag body. Your blank moon eyes.
Your glasses a train derailed across your nose.
Your legs folding like bendable straws.
The empty bottle of bourbon rolling beneath
the bed. Our bed behind us, a wreck of linen
and loving. I want to walk out the kitchen door
into the morning and scream at the stupid birds
to stop trilling their meaningless arias. I want
to fly into the trees and find a nest to fall out of
singing. Your ghost voice crumbling into static.
Your bird hands like plucked strings, aquiver:
Do not sing to me. I want to push you out of my heart,
and watch your long fall through its chambers
and valves until you are momentary— a blip,
an irregular beat. Your siren, please.
Your face an arrangement of pain. Your face.
To My Lover’s Partner, Upon Their Separation
After Anne Sexton
We were travelers
who met on a bridge
beneath which a river flowed
The light was such
that our bodies disappeared
briefly; our souls unguarded,
They wished to greet
each other in the old ways of soul
of which we know nothing:
When they fell back
into the dark hull of the body –
that dumb machine, that thick,
– our souls popped
their eyelid peepholes, saw each
other: limbed, torsoed, with breath,
and beating hearts.
on the bridge, touch.
Here is another story:
Hunger is a beast.
We were fodder, ginger-
bread houses before a bear
with a sweet tooth
How we were devoured.
How we never stood
Or, perhaps we are the beasts—
roaring and fucking:
our eager, ferocious mouths
tearing at every delectable
arch and pit,
O, beautiful claws.
I wanted nothing
but to sip at your river
and slip away.
Instead, I swallowed the beast.
Sometimes it howls in your voice.