Alicia Wright’s poem, “We Are Always Both in the Field,” was selected by Roger Reeves as the winner of New South’s 2015 Writing Contest. Here, Alicia answers a few questions from our editors.
How did this poem begin? How long—and how many drafts—did it take to complete?
This poem is actually a part of a series I’m working on, which is based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a medieval mystical text written by an anonymous monk to a younger monk to guide him through the process and problem of how to truly know God by unknowing every possible conception of what that God could be. I take “God” to mean a highest possible truth—that ultimately, this meditative height is beyond language. But the problem is that the only communicative means for this idea that we have is language. Though I’m not a religious person, to me, the text provides a fascinating backbone when thinking about history, and in particular for me, southern history, and how I can responsibly engage with my regional narratives. I’m working through the text by chapter and responding to each section’s very mantra-like summary. The one on which I based this poem is: “While this work is being performed, thoughts of the holiest of all God’s creations hinder more than they help.” This poem is the result of a very personal moment collapsing into the broader project, and it all came out in one rush.
“We Are Always Both in the Field” has interesting sonic qualities. Does reading work aloud play a part in your process?
I think the idea of what’s sonic in poetry is fascinating—it’s at once both the literal sound and an idea of that sound. The thoughts themselves are as loud as can be as I’m writing them—there’s no other sound apart from the internal composition of it. Occasionally I’m aware of the emphasis that a sonic recurrence can give, like with the heavy alliteration of the “aching acreage accruing age” being absorbed into “chasing.” I’m interested in sonic connection as a device, especially when ideas start to slip into each other.
This poem makes unconventional use of line breaks. How do punctuation, lineation, and pacing work together and against each other in creating the poem’s stream of consciousness effect?
I’m a disciple of Levertov’s idea of organic form, which might be old hat for me to say! For this poem especially, what was urgent about it for me was not just the idea but also the process and panic that that idea incurred. I adore the moment of line breaking—each snap will have a completely different texture. You can moderate instability this way. Sometimes I’ll want a line to linger on an idea, like “blackberry,” others I’ll want to gain the semantic doubling that “picked” presents, or the weight of uncertainty in the final “promise.” I’ll elide moments which would technically require punctuation to destabilize syntactic units, like the wash of a watercolor, if I suspect that the emotional tenor or a greater experiential truth could be pointed towards more clearly by that choice. All these generate a poem’s own pace, which felt for me in this case like floods of memory disrupted by inaccessibility.
“We Are Always Both in the Field” centers on a vivid landscape. Does setting figure prominently in your work? What’s the connection between place and memory?
The landscape of this poem is the one that is most precious to me, though it’s a place that I’m currently unable to go back to. This is a fairly common, notoriously discussed experience for southerners—sometimes, their connection to place is interrupted by financial displacement, or irrecoverable history, or history that’s been subsumed into a more digestible narrative. It’s never what we thought it was—so too is true of memory. This field, or the memory of it, became an occasion to recreate the experience of the phenomenon of division. To me, this place is now entirely a memory—what can be revisited is only that. When you mentally arrive at a memory, you’re replacing that location with your immediate experience of locating it, which can be itself a trauma, a silent flutter.
Setting is definitely a prominent element of my work—I’m trying to provide what I’d consider to be a more realistic depiction of the world I’m familiar with. I’m trying to develop a way to accurately love, in a sense, where I come from, which is parallel to the major question of the Cloud of Unknowing—how those who desire God could truly love God. Because of this, setting less often the subject, but almost always the framework for my recent poems.
Which poets are you reading at the moment? Is there a contemporary poet you think is underrated?
Right now I’m just getting into Laura Riding Jackson, who was someone I’d never heard of until very recently. As for contemporary poets, I’ve been spending time with the work of Fady Joudah, Corey Van Landingham, and Dawn Lundy Martin. One poet who I think everyone should and will be reading is Joey Radu—I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot from him in the future.
You can read Alicia Wright’s prize-winning poem in
Issue 8.2, available now.
Originally from Rome, Georgia, Alicia Wright has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is pursuing her MFA. Her work has been published in New Delta Review and Prelude.