Light On the Page: An Interview with Allison Benis White by Emilia Phillips

Allison Benis WhiteAllison Benis White is the author of Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for The Levis Prize in Poetry and named a finalist for the California Book Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

Emilia Phillips: When I first read your second collection, Small Porcelain Head, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the object meditated on, often the dolls, and the objects made of meditation, the prose poem. Could you talk a little bit about how the subject matter influenced your formal choices in the book? Are these small contained poem objects related to the small contained objects of which they are concerned?

Allison Benis White: Yes, absolutely, the objects the poems meditate on are hinged to the product of those meditations. Both the dolls and the formal choice of small “box” prose poems are a response to my friend Nicole’s suicide, which is the occasion of the book.

Initially I chose dolls as meditative objects because to me they represented both the newly dead body, and the act of caring for, talking to, holding a body one pretends is (still) alive. Specifically, the dolls were a way to act out and explore my grief and love, and to still be with my friend—and although she was an adult at the time of her death, the smallness of dolls helped me enter the maternal and childlike qualities grieving elicited.

The smallness of the objects was also a response to the need for control in the midst of enormous and heartbreaking chaos, and the formal choice of brief prose poems reinforced this need for order, for smallness. Overall the poems were written from a place where there was little time to speak, with the conscious pressure of the limited time we have with each other, as my friend had committed suicide without warning.

EP: Interesting that you describe the object in the poem as being hinged to the form, especially the prose poem acts as a kind of “box.” I start throwing out associations like solar flares when I think about it. The turn as a “hinge” (was that Matthews?) and Yeats: “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” Why do you think that, as poets, we’re quick to make connections between containers and their opening/closing mechanisms? Are we really in the business of containing?

ABW: I think poets are in the business of many things—and to contain is one of them (for me anyway), especially the act of opening/closing. The desire to see (open) and look away (close), to locate, to keep, to save, etc. are all impulses of containment. When I was a kid, I was devoted to making homes for my toys—I had this raccoon made out of brown pipe cleaners that I made a home for in a tin box. I have a visceral memory of the pleasure of opening the box, seeing the raccoon, taking the raccoon out, putting him back in to rest, and so on. I’m not exactly sure what this has to do with making poems beyond the desire to care for and watch over—and control—a love object. I have a similar feeling about my books, I guess—that the animal or whatever lives inside them is contained between the covers, and that it’s always there, “breathing,” waiting.

EP: When I reviewed your book—and forgive me here self-plagiarizing here by pulling a quote from that review—I wrote: “The prose form here provides as much texture as lineation. Wide margins and short, sometimes one-sentence, paragraphs affect the appearance of pentameter and stanzas. The end words, as they fall in the full-justification, feel deliberate—nothing out of place, nothing accidental.” I’m curious how much you controlled the form of the prose poem, if you intended a gesture of thematically relevant line breaks, or if this was a great overreading on my part? How much control do we have as poets over prose poems? Is it more than we think?

ABW: Sometimes the fact that a poem would end with a one word line was purposeful, meaning I revised the syntax/word count it until it landed that way, and sometimes it was a lovely (to me) accident. I can’t speak for other prose poets, but in this and other ways in Small Porcelain Head, I feel like I was trying to have it both ways: abandoning line breaks (using the sentence as music vs. the line) and still working to create the visual and physical experience of the lineated poem via compression and focus (with the wide margins). This all speaks to the previous question’s answer about control and concision in the face of chaos/violent death—in particular, to have the poems often culminate with a single word (“imagine” “bang” “quiet” “you”), to carve out a space for and put pressure on one word, suited the counter-pose I was after.

EP: You brought up chaos, and I think it’s something we don’t always think about as poets, as we’re often in the position of thinking about form rather than formlessness. Is chaos something we’re always working against, or is there a place in poetry to embrace it? Are there poets of chaos?

ABW: Chaos—confusion, bewilderment—these are things I’m always working against and within as a writer. Frost famously argued that a poem is a “temporary stay against confusion”—and by “stay,” within the context of “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he means clarification—a temporary clarification of life. This resonates with me, although I don’t know if I agree with the certainty of his claim—I think poems are definitely an attempt at a stay, a reach toward clarity or revelation. My experience is that these brief moments of (almost) order and light on the page dissolve fairly quickly into bewilderment again, which brings me back to the page to try (and fail) again. I like the idea, as you put it, of “poets of chaos”—I’m certainly a child of chaos, since my mother disappeared when I was so young, so I can’t imagine being any other kind of poet. There is a line in Small Porcelain Head that reads “…until the opposite is the same—she is empty enough.” This line is referring to death, but for me it also suggests the need for order is an act of emptying that is very satisfying—but human bewilderment naturally rushes in to fill its absence again.

EP: Whenever I encounter the idea of “bewilderment,” I think of Fanny Howe who, in an essay on the subject, references the Muslim prayer “Lord, increase my bewilderment” and then insists, “this prayer is also mine and the strange whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems.” Roethke, in an invocation of the muse, writes: “O keep me perpetual muse, ears roaring with many things.” These two things seem related, do they not? And, if so, doesn’t that mean bewilderment makes of us a kind of vessel—dare I modify it as an oracular one?—that takes in so much and, dizzy, conveys it? What do you think, is the writing process ever this mythic?

ABW: Yes, I hope so. I’m so glad we’ve ended up discussing two key impulses in making: the desire for order—for a stay, for clarity—and the desire for bewilderment—for being lost, uncertain—in order to transcend the limits of self and enter, or be made to receive, some kind of larger, stranger act of speech. I’ve always liked Gertrude Stein’s take on this: “If you remember yourself while you are you you are not for the purposes of creating you.” What I think she’s saying is that while writing you have to surrender your singular identity—your awareness of self, your sense of recognition, the you “your little dog knows”—in order to make what she calls a “masterpiece,” something beyond an expression of the relational self.

When I’ve answered the phone toward the end of a writing session, the first question someone usually asks me is, “Are you OK?” or “Did you just wake up?” Apparently, my voice is pretty weird—I don’t know exactly what it sounds like—but this suggests I’m in some sort of altered state when I’m writing—if I’m doing it right, according to Stein anyway.

EP: Writing perhaps submerges us like dreams do, like fevers do. I have only written about dreams once or twice, as I think a poem about dreaming often seems too strict to “what happened” in the dream or seems too convenient in its pairing with “real” events, but I have written a lot when I’ve been sick, fevered. The cliché idea that writers must seek new and ever more strange experiences tumbleweeds into my conversations with students some time. But they aren’t alone. As an undergrad, I believed that to be a writer I had to drink a lot, but in my experience, I’m as sloppy on the page as I am in walking a straight line. Others seek out drugs. (At lunch today my husband and I were talking about his Burroughs and his quest for experiential alienation.) If a young writer asked you about your thoughts on this brand of strange-making—whether getting drunk or high to write, or getting a pen and paper ready when you have the sniffles—what advice would you give them? Is it naïve to hold this up as an ideal? How does lifestyle actually influence one’s writing? Can one totally segregate the writing life from one’s real life?

ABW: If a student asked me about writing drunk or high, or writing while physically ill, I would tell them first that I have no experience with this, so I can’t recommend it or speak to whether or not this would enhance or impede their writing. As far as seeking out strange experiences in order to make more interesting poems, I also don’t have much experience with that. My life has been so bizarre and unpredictable and kind of sad, with little effort on my part, so I’ve tended as an adult to hold still and seek normalcy, even blandness. My head is really loud and outrageous in its anxiety and imagination, so I find I do best, as a person and a writer, in a stable, ritualized environment. I remember when I was an undergraduate, and my life had begun to normalize, saying to my poetry writing professor that I was worried a calm life wouldn’t produce the kind of conflict necessary for good poetry—he responded very quickly that I shouldn’t worry, that life would naturally provide plenty of strangeness and horror and loss to write from. So I was appeased, and terrified—and of course he was right.

EP: You spoke of a stable, ritualized environment, and so I’m curious if there are certain things that you do before or while you write. I read other’s poems when I write and I have Safari open on some poems I really love. I don’t even have to look at the poems, but somehow I’m drawing something from them, like they’re irradiated or something. I’ve known other poets who have to go walk their dog before they write. Are these things superstitions? Or is it more in line with an invocation of the muse through the body?

ABW: I love hearing about other writer’s rituals—and I love how you describe the poems you have open while you write as “irradiated.” I also like to have poems in reach when I write—when I wrote my first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, I had four books of poetry open on my desk at all times (what I call my “good voices”), and I had four different books open (The World at Large by James McMichael, Catch Light by Sarah O’Brien, Simic’s The World Does Not End, Nick Flynn’s Blind Huber) while writing Small Porcelain Head. My other ritual is that I write in a spiral notebook every night in bed, before I go to sleep—I just freewrite in prose and doodle, and these pages usually provide the music, fragments, or image patterns that begin a poem.

I don’t think these rituals are superstitions, but rather practical habits that facilitate work. However, I did have a superstition about the first computer I wrote poems on in my early twenties—I didn’t want to get rid of it and get a new computer; I sort of thought/feared the poems were coming from the computer and not me. I was so relieved when I realized I could actually write on a different computer. This sounds totally ridiculous, I know, but I’ve always had this idea that my ability to write is very tenuous, and that I could lose it or break it easily. This feeling has faded over the last few years, but I still worry.

EP: I’ve had conversations with an old printer, so I absolutely understand, and I don’t think it’s that far out either. A couple weeks ago I listened to that On Being interview with Marie Howe in which she says—and I’m paraphrasing—that poems act, even today, as a kind of spell. Beginning sudents often have a hard time with poetry because they think of poems as codes that have to be broken, and, in pendulum-like reaction, many have pushed toward making poems “easier.” Often this argument implies straight narrative, unadorned exposition or statement, a conversational tone with ultra-contemporary references to K-Mart and iPhones. Generally I find this work mundane. The other extreme is that one rejects all the trappings of the contemporary world because it’s not “poetic.” By rejecting the contemporary, poetry seems almost more mysterious, like it’s been passed down through time. You write about Degas in your first collection, and you have the dolls in the second. Are you ever conscious of selecting subject matter based its ability to exist in or outside the contemporary moment? Do you think that by maintaining impermeability of one’s poetry to the trends of the moment keeps it more spell-like, mysterious, like an arcane art?

ABW: In some ways I was conscious that the objects of meditation in both of my books existed outside the contemporary moment—I think that’s part of what attracted me, as I’m interested in poetry that isn’t limited by the obvious constraints or fashions of the contemporary, if that’s even possible. But that doesn’t mean I’m interested in poetry that seems antiquated (in its use of form or diction or syntax or references) or avoidant of the details of the world the speaker lives in either. The best way I can describe it is that I’m after what lasts, what is archetypal and maybe just simply human, which is often found below the surface of trends and individual personality or biography. On the other hand, I often find myself compelled, as reader, by poems that reference the contemporary and are conversational, as they can create a spell too, but as a writer, I’m not very good at that kind of magic.

EP: Why the prose poem? What attracts you to it? You’ve probably been asked this before. Regardless of your original impulse, however, I’m sure that in discussing it, you realize something new about the form, its capabilities, its flexibility.

ABW: My initial impulse toward the prose poem was two-fold: one was that I fell in love with Killarney Clary’s book of prose poems, Who Whispered Near Me, and the other was that I was frustrated with the lineated poems I was making at the time. I tried the prose form as a way to trick myself, or possibly free myself from the poetic tics I’d acquired over the past few years—there is that Louise Gluck line that goes something like “you change your form, you change your nature.” In other words, my voice changed in the prose form—I found that working with the sentence vs. the line shifted me (my pace, my ear, my patience, my sense of space) in a way that was revelatory. The compression of the smaller prose poem worked in my second book (in ways that I discussed earlier in the interview), and in my new manuscript, Please Bury Me in This (forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2017) I continue to use the sentence as a unit of music—although in this book, the sentences form individual paragraphs/stanzas that do not touch. I find form very emotional, very intuitive and bodily—and lately, in the new poems I’m working on, I’ve gone back to the line in these “shattered” poems. It’s amazing to experiment with line breaks after so long, and I’m a little in shock about how much I can do with them. I had forgotten the gymnastic quality of lineation, so I’m really excited to be working with lines again.

EP: Are you at work on some new poems? Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re at in the process?

ABW: I’m in the very first stages of new work (just in the last month)—I’m experimenting with some epistolary Wendy (Darling) poems in which she seems to become a kind of Jesus figure. There are other Wendys in line to explore, but who knows where this is going, if anywhere. I’m just glad to be inside something, following a line of crumbs, even if it’s off a cliff— especially if it’s off a cliff.

Robin Ekiss*: Let’s say tomorrow you were given an unusual—but wholly serious—ultimatum: you can either read poems or write them, but not both. Which would you choose, and why?

ABW: Damn, Robin, that’s an intense question. That’s like asking to choose only to love or be loved, or only to speak or listen. I can’t quite imagine one without the other, as one works so deeply in relation to the other. It’s a little version of hell to choose. But if I had to (I thought about this for a long time last night), I would choose reading poems over writing them—because of the loneliness that would come without other people’s poems. This would be a greater loneliness, I think, than the kind that would come with the absence of writing.

EP: Now, Allison, please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

ABW: Last year at AWP, I went to a panel with Dana Levin, Carmen Giménez Smith, Cate Marvin, and Richard Siken on the life of the poet, the long haul—or the long con—how one keeps going, emotionally and psychologically and production-wise. If you were on this panel, what experience would you discuss, or what advice would you offer other poets, concerning endurance, sanity, and perseverance in the life of a writer?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016) from the University of Akron Press. For more information, visit her website: