Conversations in the Author's Corner: Megan Alpert
About the Book (via Airlie Press): The narrators in The Animal at Your Side scavenge for clues, trying to stitch together a life in the midst of unrootedness. Finding bones, talismans, and half-heard voices that portal back to both personal and collective history, the speakers are haunted by diaspora, family estrangement, intergenerational trauma, and resilience. What are the costs of being far away from a homeplace? What are the costs of returning? And when the costs are too high on both sides, how do you choose? By turns gritty, frank, and devotional, The Animal at Your Side finds things to be treasured in weirdness, queerness, the ecstatic, and the erotic. It is a book for anyone who has ever been lost, who has waited for what seemed like too long "for the voices/to filter back".
About the Author: Megan Alpert grew up in the suburbs of New York City and has since lived in St. Paul, Seattle, Boston, Washington DC, and Quito, Ecuador. She is the recipient of an Orlando Poetry Prize from A Room of her Own Foundation and residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Studios at MASS MoCA, and the Marquette Chamber Residency. As a journalist, she has received fellowships from Foreign Policy and the International Women’s Media Foundation. To read more, visit meganalpert.com.
The Inner Loop's Kiera Wolfe: I’d love to start with talking about “Holly, 1962,” which you credit as a response to/interpretation of Bridget Potter’s essay “Lucky Girl.” I read the essay after the poem, and have a new appreciation for the images you’ve borrowed, focused, and sharpened from Potter’s personal essay about her abortion. How did the ideas for “Holly, 1962” come together? Are you often similarly inspired by work in other genres?
Megan Alpert: Yes, I’d say I’ve been inspired a lot by essays. That poem actually started with a dream - I had a dream about those last two lines, “California, me, California.” I’ll have dreams a lot where I’m writing a poem. I’ll half wake-up and think, I’m totally going to remember that, and then forget all about it. That [poem] was the first time that I thought I’m really going to remember this, and I did. So I had those two lines, and then I had Bridget Potter’s essay which just blew me away. For those who haven’t read it, her essay talks about not only getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade, but the limited options available to women at that time. I can have this baby, give it up for adoption, and be sent to an asylum. I can have this illegal abortion. I can get married right now. I had this very strong emotional response to it. I also have a very strong emotional attachment to California. I went between New York and California a lot as a kid because my parents grew up there. I researched if it would be possible for someone to go from New York to California for an abortion at that time, and I found that people did. They travelled all over, not necessarily because it was better in one place or another, but because it was all word of mouth. It was before the internet -- you just went to the place that you knew of. The place where someone could vouch for you, where you heard through the grapevine. I didn’t want to repeat her essay, but respond to what I felt she was saying about the ability to craft her own life.
KW: I love that it came to you in a dream. The word of mouth aspect is evident in the original text -- this is a girl who is desperate. That desperation manifests not only in all these awful things she’s doing with her boyfriend (I love the image of her in the bathtub and how it translates to the poem) but also in the lengths she’s willing to go. The positions she’s willing to put herself in.
In Shaindel Beers’ review of the collection, she says it “spans worlds - Eastern Europe, China, Ecuador, Folktale, and myth.” How did these poems find their home together in this collection? How does your work pull from the physical and emotional landscape of so many different places? I know you’ve spoken about your family’s connection to California.
MA: I come from a family of people who move around a lot. I didn’t sit down and plan, I’m going to write a book about x. I wrote and wrote for years. Then I sat down and said, Okay, what have I been writing about? I wasn’t sure how to put a collection together but I had this wonderful meeting with Forrest Gander at Vermont Studio Center, he’s master poet-in-residence there. He told me, “you just take the poems that go together and put them together. Like these two…” and so, and so. I printed out all the poems I had that I thought were worthy of being in a book and I put them together. I ended up doing it by landscape. That felt very satisfying to me. I felt that as I grouped them, themes emerged. It seemed like I had associated certain things with certain landscapes as I wrote. I sent this book out for many years, between six and eight years. I did a lot of editing - about a third of the book has been pulled out, put back, changed. But no matter what, all that time, I was able to fit things into these different sections.
In terms of the scatteredness of it geographically, the way you live comes out in your poetry. And I’ve moved around a lot. As I’ve traveled and felt more freedom and happiness in my life I’ve seen that there are different ways of doing things. Different ways of having a life, of forming communities, of having values. I find it life affirming that there are options.
KW: You said you were working with your entire body of work as you put the collection together, did you find that the poems you wrote in different locations had changed focus? Or that what you found important changed?
MA: That’s an interesting question. I would say that in this book, a lot of it is home versus not-home. History versus now. The poems that are majorly different are the Ecuador poems. Part of that is because I wrote them after I finished the first draft of the book, in my 30s. A lot of the other poems were from my 20s. Those poems are not mythologized. They’re not stories, like the other poems are. I think being a reporter changed my inner world a bit, it brought me more into the outer worlds of other people. [The Ecuador poems] have different values. They’re more about me meeting the outside world where the rest of the poems are very interior.
KW: It’s interesting to hear how your work as a journalist is affecting your poetry. Has that manifested in other ways? Do you feel a sense of nonfiction, or a dedication to truth, creeping into your more fictional tendencies?
MA: When I first wrote the Ecuador poems I thought, this is what my poetry is going to be. My current project is very lyric and not factual. That’s the way my brain responds to the world. But reporting has definitely changed the way I see the ethics of writing poems. I was trained in my MFA that the author has the right to write about whatever they want. And if somebody is hurt by your writing, that’s secondary to the art. Art is the highest and most important thing. But when you’re writing nonfiction about other people, that’s just not a good way to live in my opinion. It’s not ethical. Reporting on communities that were so much less privileged than me - there’s no way to say that your article is more important than those people’s lives. They’re fighting for their land, for the right to keep existing on their land. When I reported on a few violent conflicts or people who were murdered, I stop and think, how will this article affect this person’s life? The writing process is separate from this. But the revising, editing, and deciding what to publish process has changed. I don’t want to feel like my art is worth more than someone’s feelings, or their privacy. There are poems I published in the past I would not publish now.
KW: How does that sensibility extend to the relationships in the collection? We have an aunt figure, a grandmother, most prominently a sister. How did those characters come to be and develop? How do you feel about that in relation to those ideas about consent and other people appearing in your writing?
MA: This is a book that might appear to reveal a lot. But there’s a lot of hiding in it. For example, the first poem in the book is complete mythology. The poem “Dawn,” I wrote in the voice of Dawn, the character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I try to mention that at readings because I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I have a sibling that died. You must have a sibling that died.” And I don’t. There’s also a poem where the aunt hides evidence of a murder. That person was inspired by my aunts and uncles who lived in California, but the aunt isn’t exactly a real person. She’s in honor of those people who were terrifying sometimes but very interesting. I give myself a bit of leeway in that. So many of the poems are obviously not true and factual. And some of the ones that appear to be true and factual are not. This is a book of fairytales. They’re ways of explaining things that I have not been ready to explain in a plain, direct way.
KW: For the Author’s Corner project, we’re talking to authors who have published with small indie presses. Can you talk us through your publication process and your experience with Airlie Press?
MA: I’ve had people ask me about Airlie Press as if I had all these options, but that’s just not how it works in poetry. Some people get snapped up right away, which is great. It’s amazing that we’re starting to have poetry rockstars again. But for a lot of us, there’s a real five to ten, to fifteen, to twenty year slog to get your first book published. At that point, you’re weighing your options and figuring out how much money you have for submission. I was totally astounded when Airlie wrote to me and said I had won the prize. When it comes to publishing with an indie press, people should understand that the press is going to do what they can for you, but they can’t do everything. That’s just the nature of being a smaller operation. What I did, and what I recommend to people, is to talk to other poets that have published with small presses about what they did and what helped them. The press will send you a long marketing questionnaire and I was told by friends of mine to take that really seriously. Take the time to do research and think through those questions. Use it as your guide. It will help you prep a list of places where you’re going to be trying to get book reviews. Do events and cast a wide net. Know a lot of people, live a good literary life. If you’re doing that, that’s all going to come back to you when your book is published.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses. Visit theinnerlooplit.org/authorscorner for more.