Alexandra Teague Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

June 22, 2009

Editor’s Note: You might recall I wrote a post entitled “Alexandra Teague: A Poet You Should Know” and shared some of her poems. I’m especially delighted she allowed us to interview her for the blog.

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1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room of listeners hanging on your every word? What would you tell them and what wouldn’t you tell them and why?

My standard self-trivia is that I’ve visited all 50 states; I’ve also lived in 8 of them. I’ve always had a strong sense of impermanence and a wariness about getting too comfortable in one version of reality. For years, I’ve had a hard time explaining where I’m from. Oakland is pretty homey right now, although I’ve been claiming since I moved to the Bay Area 8 years ago that I’m on my way somewhere else. I definitely love traveling: Oaxaca, Guatemala, the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Japan. . . . A couple of summers ago, my boyfriend and I hiked all 220 miles of the John Muir Trail through the High Sierras. We love hiking, but we didn’t really know what we were getting into and spent a lot of our time trying to figure out how to quit. In the end, 19 days of hiking and camping was one of the most powerful, transformative things I’ve ever done. I might admit that some of my friends roll their eyes now when I say that I’m going on a trip. I’m always complaining about not having enough writing time, but the minute I get a break from teaching, I climb on a plane or pack my hiking gear. I know I might be more productive if I stayed put occasionally, but there’s too much of the world left to see.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I see spoken word and written poetry as differently powerful; many of the community college students I teach are interested in poetry because of hip hop and spoken word, and these students bring some wonderful understandings of rhyme and meter and wordplay from those genres. I love being able to return to a poem on the page and have it continue to compel me, but I think the connection to sound and the more directly participatory experience of spoken word can also be really powerful.

I do think writing is a powerful means of self expression, and of figuring out what we really believe, and what others might believe, and what we might want to imagine individually or societally. I don’t think of writing as equalizing exactly, but certainly allowing us to hear from one another, across time and space and experience, in ways we might not otherwise be able to.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Besides maybe traveling, I don’t think of myself as having obsessions, but I can actually get pretty obsessive once I immerse myself in a project: whether it’s cleaning the house, or grading a papers, or writing a poem. Poems are definitely the worst. I always think, “I’ll just work a little more on this line, and then I’ll take a break. . . Oh, except I’ve almost got this next part, so I’ll just work on that and then I’ll stop for lunch. Oh, I’m so close to being finished, and I’ll really, really stop by dinner time. . . “ And then suddenly it’s dark, and I haven’t eaten, and I’m still changing words and line breaks in the zillionth penultimate draft.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)

I don’t usually read “writing” books, though I teach articles about writing process and theory, and I certainly learn from those, my students, and the advice that I give them (I really believe that teachers are always giving the advice that they themselves need to hear). I began the Stegner Fellowship almost ten years after I finished grad school, and during those intervening years, I hadn’t been part of a writing group. I definitely found the Stegner workshops extremely motivating: to have readers who were expecting to see new work every couple of weeks and who weren’t going to let me get away with sloppiness. I’m continuing to meet with both a poetry and a fiction group for that reason, and having careful, thoughtful readers, and being able to regularly discuss our projects and process, feels invaluable at this point.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

As a teacher of composition, poetry, reading, and literature, I see a lot of very bright students who are deeply intimidated by poetry and believe that only certain people know how to decode it. I think this is a shame because once they’re forced to (or able to) overcome their fears, they often really enjoy poetry and find it relevant and fulfilling to read. I don’t think that poets should feel obliged to write “accessible” poetry, but I do think that some of us, particularly if we’re teachers, can help expose people to a wide range of poetry, dispel the myth that poetry is one thing, and let them know that even poets don’t understand all poems.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I don’t usually listen to music when I write, though my boyfriend, Dylan Champagne, is a musician, and his studio is under my writing room, so sometimes music is coming through the floorboards anyway. I go on occasional music-listening kicks, however. Recent albums on replay have been Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and The National’s Boxer. The main thing that I need to write is a lot of time and headspace—i.e. I can’t be thinking about all the other things I need to do, and ideally I have a minimum of 4 hours free. Quiet is important to me when I’m first getting into a project; once I’m into it, I’m pretty oblivious, and have been known to write in moving cars, while walking, and other strange places.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

I’ve always had a lot of friends who weren’t writers, which I think has helped keep me grounded and keep writing in perspective as an incredible way to communicate and live, not the way. These friends don’t talk about writing; they talk about life and books and other things that are way more interesting to write about than writing. That said, I’ve been really nurtured over the past few years by becoming better friends with more writers, through the Stegner and elsewhere, and it’s wonderful to be able to compare our challenges and talk about process and our work.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I became certified as a yoga instructor in December, and I practice yoga, at least briefly, every day. I also walk a lot. I haven’t owned a car in almost a decade, so I take public transportation and get great exercise walking up and down stairs in the Bart station, in my classroom buildings, etc. I feel fortunate to live in an area where I can get exercise while walking through a city full of interesting conversations and buildings and shifting sunlight—or hiking out in nature—rather than in a gym.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I eat fruit sometimes when I’m writing. And I drink coffee if it’s morning, and sometimes herb tea. As I said above, when I’m in the midst of writing, I’m bad about skipping meals, or eating whatever I can grab at the kitchen counter. Cheese and gulten-free crackers are a staple. I’ve never thought of foods keeping me inspired, however; maybe I need to look into that.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

My writing space has been pretty ideal for the past couple of years; I have an entire writing room for the first time in my life, with nice sunlight through the bay windows, a desk, and a red velvet chaise longue (really a fouton, but chaise longues are better for writing). I write on a laptop, so I also move around the house, and occasionally go out in the garden, or to coffee shops (though my laptop battery has been posing some limitations lately). My ideal space wouldn’t be half a block from a busy freeway, however, and would have amazing hiking trails and/or the ocean right outside.

11.What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m starting to draft some poems for whatever comes after Mortal Geography. I definitely didn’t know I was writing that manuscript until many years into the process, so it’s strange to be starting a little more self-consciously. I have several ideas for themes, but am also not really sure I’m the kind of writer who can, or will, delve into a single theme. I guess we’ll see. I’ve also been working on a novel for a couple of years; my mental deadlines keep getting extended, but I’m hoping to finish a draft of it this year. It’s a magical-realist story set in Arkansas—nothing that I thought I’d ever write, and I’m having an amazingly fun time with it.

Read some of Alexandra Teague’s poems.

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