Today, please enjoy three poems by writer Ali Shapiro. A recent graduate of the MFA program in poetry at the University of Michigan, Ali's poems, reviews and comics can be found in RATTLE, Redivider, Linebreak, PANK, Cutbank, and The Rumpus, and her posts are regularly featured on the Ploughshares blog. Needless to say, we were very excited to have the opportunity to ask this talented writer a few questions! Our questions stemmed from the poems below. Enjoy!
If anything’s hidden, it must
be out here, tucked
between identical rows of identical corn or trucked
in the beds of rusty Chevys along
these roads that I keep turning
left on and then
never seeing again. The map shows everything
leading to something but that’s
if you know where you’re going, and that’s
when you don’t need a map. And that’s
what winter does, splits the roads like chapped
lips, or it’s
what summer does, or it’s
what they do to each other—and it all
happens out here, the sky pink
as a skinned knee, the clouds pulled over the sun
like gauze, the crows
hysterical. And I’m trying,
I am, I’m using both hands
to hold myself still but I can’t, and that’s
what you do to me, or
what I do to myself, alone
and wishing I missed you.
Out here the houses
are just boxes delivered
inside larger boxes, on the beds
of larger trucks, and maybe they even
come with us in them, eating,
or reading, or lying there, trying
to sleep, or sitting outside
in the driveway, in the car,
in the starlight, in the silence,
on the road as it thaws
and swells and freezes like
breathing under all of this weight.
It’s hot in the hallways, the breeze
a bedroom recluse, captive
and shuddering. Each night
we soak the sheets, sleeping
like strangers, our skin
frictionless. I’m leaving
soon, like always
in August, but if nobody moves
then there is no soon. The bottles
sweat. The fans say
no. We kiss
with our mouths full of ice.
There is no escaping
your body, or anyone
else’s, or whatever you’ve done
in any hotel room, in the bellies
of bathtubs, on ash-scabbed
carpets, in the morning’s
yawning mouth of broken
light. All you wanted
was the wanting, someone
else’s, to bask in. A mold
for your body’s soft clay. But what’s
empty’s what rises, the hollow
bones of birds, the halves
of the hull cupped like hands.
Even the fish are all
floating and blissful,
belly-up, wide-eyed, hanging
like clouds over various castles
and towers and divers and chests
overflowing with gold, like our chests
are, when morning finds
the sheets wrinkled like skin
and no body between them.
Desire’s a hand closing
and coming up empty. Love
is the fist you keep clenched in your gut.
is just the shucked husk,
exoskeletal. What you want
is the light in your palm.
Q&A with Ali Shapiro
Q: Ali, how long have you been writing poetry?
A: I started writing poems as a very little kid; I got my first rejection — from Stone Soup magazine — when I was about 6 years old.
Q: When you first started writing, did you feel a natural inclination toward poetry? What do you like about it compared to other genres?
A: I’m not sure why I was initially drawn to poetry, but my best guess is that I got there via songs. My dad put Shel Silverstein’s poems to music. He played the piano and I sang. So poems were always around, and usually stuck in my head.
I wrote — and write — in other genres, too. Essays, comics, the occasional story. But I like writing poems because they’re short, which means I can finish them. I realize that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I mean, there are lots of other things I love about poetry, but I don’t think they’re exclusive to poetry; they’re really things I love about art. Poems just happen to be the kind of art that I can sit still long enough to make.
Q: Who are some of your favorite poets and/or writers?
A. I semi-recently wrote a blog post for Ploughshares about my penchant for gay male poets; they continue to occupy a large swath of my personal canon. I also love poets who aren’t gay men; right now, I’m hooked on Dean Young, Bob Hicok, and Monica Youn. And I also love poets who aren’t only poets, like Denis Johnson and Nick Flynn.
Q: “Frost Law,” “August,” and “Travel Song” seem to be interrelated. They seem connected by themes of movement and stillness, love and desire. In “Frost Law” the speaker is trying to “hold myself still” though he/she is traveling, seeing rows of Chevys on “these roads that I keep turning left on . . .” Whereas “August” seems to represent complete stillness. And then in “Travel Song,” the title itself represents movement. Did you intend them to be interrelated or read in sequence?
A. “August” is the last poem I wrote before moving to Michigan. I drove there from Seattle via New York City. It’s much sparser than my usual poems. I think I was too hot to write longer lines. Also, the pieces of the poem presented themselves to me very neatly, one after another, like a series of facts. And I guess they were facts; it’s a “true” poem, in that it really was August, and I really was leaving, and my parents’ apartment really was full of those disapproving fans.
“Frost Law” is the first poem I wrote after moving to Michigan — which was in early fall, actually, not winter. But winter is definitely in the poem — its before- and after-effects; the way it kind of pressurizes October. You can feel it coming. I could, anyway. I was going on all these very long bike rides, getting totally lost, but it didn't matter, because everything was — is — just so flat. It made me kind of restless and panicky. I wanted to exhaust myself, but I felt like I could pedal forever. Some of that comes out in the poem, I think — the long run of gerunds at the end, for example. (Bonus fact: frost laws are “seasonal restriction on traffic weight limits and speeds on roadways subject to thaw weakening.” I meant to write a follow-up poem called “Thaw Weakening,” but I never got around to it.)
“Travel Song” came later. I had gotten — adopted? rescued? — this Betta fish, Wendell, and we weren't getting along very well. I mean, I took good care of him anyway, of course, but really I had wanted a dog, and he was a sorry substitute. Most of his time he spent lurking in the spires of his ceramic castle. Anyway, he would do this weird thing where he kind of played dead — like, I’d see him floating upside down by the filter, but as soon as I approached the tank to say my mournful but expedient goodbyes, he’d flip right side up and swim back to his castle in a huff. So the poem started with that image of him, floating over the castle, belly up but not really dead. And went from there.
All of which is to say that yes, you’re absolutely right, these three poems share the same theme. And it’s not just these three poems. Those are my themes. On good days, I think those themes are big enough to sustain an infinite number of poems. On bad days, I think I need to get some new interests. But for better or worse, my default view of the world is through the lens of — as you said — “movement and stillness, love and desire.” Whether I’m looking at a sunset or a water bottle or a possibly-dead fish, I see those themes.
Q: Any other particular themes or subjects that your poems seem to repeatedly lead you back to?
A. Also, sex. Which I guess could be expressed as movement + stillness + love + desire. In some cases, at least.
Q: What do you hope readers find in your writing? Or, more generally: what can we get out of the experience of reading poetry, as opposed to reading fiction or prose?
A. I hope there is a line or an image or an idea that skews the world just so—that makes the familiar seem suddenly strange. Like…ok, there’s this Franz Wright poem that ends:
How does one go
Who on earth
is going to teach me–
is filled with people
who have never died
And that idea — those last three lines — the instant I read them, I was like, Oh. That’s right. Of course. Not because I thought the world was full of dead people, but because I hadn’t thought of it in those words, in that context. A familiar concept — death — became strange, became new again.
Or this line from Bob Hicok’s poem, A Primer:
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat.
I mean, obviously. And yet, I would never have looked at it that way without Hicok’s help.
Poems are really good at this kind of helping. It’s one of my favorite things about them. And that’s what I hope readers get from my poems, too: some help seeing the world in all its weirdness.
Q: It seems that people are often intimidated by poetry because they feel they can’t “understand it.” For us non-poets, can you offer advice on how to read a poem?
A: By “non-poets,” I’m going to assume you mean people who do read something for pleasure, and/or who are on some level interested in relating to art. In which case, I have good news: you “non-poets” need not be intimidated! You just have to figure out whether or not you like reading poems. If you don’t, you probably don’t have to. If you do, great! Read more. Probably eventually you’ll start noticing why you like certain poems, which I find to be among the most useful forms of “understanding,” because it will help you to find other poems that you will also like. If you like reading poems so much that you end up becoming some kind of expert poem-scholar, then it may become necessary to cultivate a more esoteric “understanding” of poetry with which to intimidate others…but until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy reading poems.
I may sound glib here, but I’m really quite serious. People often talk about “inaccessible” poetry, but what kind of access are they expecting or imagining? I think many people see words on a page and immediately expect clarity, or at least a clear attempt to communicate some sort of information or idea. That is, after all, the purpose of most of our writings — from emails to news articles to street signs, most text does in fact aim to align signifier and signified in such a way that the reader immediately understands that “the lunch meeting is cancelled” or the street is “one way.”
But the text of a poem, I think, is somewhere between a street sign and a painting, or maybe a dance. A poem isn’t purely aesthetic; it’s not just a shape that happens to be made out of letters and spaces — but it’s also not purely communicative. It’s evocative. In a poem, words do more than just mean.
If this sounds heady, well, it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, there is great value in analyzing poetry. And it is possible to “understand” the “meaning” of a poem — or at least, it is possible to misunderstand it; if you tell me “The Road Not Taken” is about robots, I’m going to tell you you’re wrong.
But on the other hand, it can be equally valuable to just…take a poem in. Let it wash over you. Read it. Sit with it. Move on. See if it pulls you back. This is actually much harder than it sounds, because it means shutting off the voice in your head that keeps going, “BUT I DON’T GET IT!” or, worse: “I'M NO GOOD AT READING POEMS!” To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good [at reading poems].” You just have to read poems.
Oh, right. You don’t have to. But if you want to, you totally can.
Thank you, Ali!