Writers have to Write Right Now: An Interview with Alicia Mountain
Lauren R. Korn: Okay, Alicia. First and foremost (and with my apologies), how do you pronounce your first name? Are you an “Alisha,” an “Aleesha,” or an “Alisia”? I want to get this right.
Alicia Mountain: An important starting place! I’m Alicia, which rhymes with uh-dish-uh, or uh-fish-uh. My family calls me Lish. I have friends who just call me Mountain. There’s something nice about being thing-noun, a solid mass of earth.
LRK: Your “thing-noun” name so nicely fits both your poetics and your debut collection of poetry, High Ground Coward, which won the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize—huge congratulations!
AM: Huge thanks! I’ve only really known the book as a Word doc or as printed pages spread out on the floor, so I’m looking forward to meeting it in its printed and bound form soon.
LRK: I’m curious about the life of your manuscript. How many times did you submit High Ground Cowardto contests and open submission calls before it won and was placed with Iowa?
AM: I sent High Ground Cowardout in a few different stages. The first go-round was soon after my MFA; that manuscript was shorter (only 36 poems) and more of a sketch. After the MFA, I got a day job and wrote more poems for a year. I would try to work the new pieces into the manuscript, but it wasn’t until I spent some time in residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts that I really re-sequenced the project into the book it is now. I credit the big corkboard wall in my VCCA studio. Being able to tack all of the work up on the wall let me notice new imagistic arcs and echoes. I started sending out that draft and added just a few more last-minute poems in 2017. My best guess is that the project was passed on 40-ish times over two years, but luckily that gave us (me and the book) time to grow.
LRK: In your collection, I see so clearly the influence landscape has had on your poetics. In a workshop I took with Sherwin Bitsui (you acknowledge Sherwin in your book’s end matter) I was taught the idea of the page as a landscape, as a physical space. Aside from your subject matter, how do you see your poems adhering to this idea, and how might this idea allow your readers to read your poetry more effectively?
AM: I’m interested in the ways in which poetry is a physical act. I read poems with my eyes, lungs, tongue, lips, fingertips, pulse, brain, teeth, etc. When I think of the page as a landscape, I consider how we traverse that space. What does it mean to move across the plane visually, or to breathe through the pauses of white space? Line breaks seem to play a crucial role—they are almost the footholds of a sensorial poetic traverse. Maybe the poems take shape like trails. In High Ground Coward, some of the poems wanted to spread out and some of them wanted to crouch and some wanted a clean left justification or to be a prose block. When I write, I try to encounter each poem on its own terms and to render it in space as such—readers might try the same approach. I also wonder what the white space is telling us. What would it mean to read deeply that void?
LRK: I’ve started looking more closely at white space, too. How a poem justifies the space its given—the relationship between the poem and the page. High Ground Coward seems to be openly experimenting with that page space. Your poems take on many forms, and they take on a range of space. The way you’ve described your own reading of poetry, it would seem that you read poetry in a non-narrative way—that is, you take noticeable breaths when a line is torn in half by white space, or at the end of each line, or at the end of each stanza. Is that a correct assumption? I’ve always found it interesting, the way poets read their work, and how those readings influence the readers’ own approach to the work.
AM: It turns out that my reading style is actually pretty narrative. Someone listening to me read a poem aloud likely wouldn’t get much of a sense of how that same poem looks on the page, just from my reading of it. I try to give a listening audience a cohesive experience because they only get to hear the words once, whereas a reading audience can move at their own pace and re-read passages to spend more time working through fragmented poems. When I listen to readings the words wash over me. Because I’m not reading along, I find it’s the more narrative work that I’m better able to grasp at a reading. In High Ground Coward some pieces might be more or less suited to performance. That being said, it’s my sense that The Poem (versus the poem) is at once the text on the page, the speaking aloud of text, the workings of the reader’s mind—it is what swirls in the gaps between these states. So I’m comfortable with a reading style that doesn’t overtly perform white space. That white space is part of the visual rendering. Hopefully the poem is greater than the sum of these constituent parts.
LRK: So many of the poems in High Ground Coward speak to the landscape of Missoula, Montana, specifically, and, as a former resident of Missoula myself, I found a great love for it in your pages. You even thank “the valley that held [you], blanketed in cloud and smoke and sun.” I know how the town captures a writer’s cool imagination, but I’d like to ask you to describe Missoula, a “reckless hope of a town,” and your relationship to it for Foglifter’s readers. I’d like you to talk about how your experiences—both productive and painful, both emotionally destructive and lovely—shaped the making and the organizing of your manuscript.
AM: High Ground Coward is, in many ways, a love letter to Missoula, Montana. I moved there from Brooklyn the day after my 25th birthday and moved away almost exactly three years later; all but a handful of poems in the manuscript were written during that time. As a place within nature, Missoula is stunning—bleak, entrapping winters / sweaty, breathy summers / the river that churns until it lulls you / hills that form a basin in which we nest. I met some of my closest people there (both in the MFA program and out of it). I became a practicing poet in Missoula: I lived in a big old house full of women-friends and wrote at the dining room table and shuffled around in my slippers and drank a lot of tea. As my friends began to disperse, I realized that to a certain extent the people make the place. But the place makes the place, too. In High Ground Coward, there is perhaps a push and pull between attachment to people and attachment to other things. In the end, Missoula is more white than makes me comfortable, and it isn’t queer enough for me—also it’s hard to make a living, so I’m in Denver for now. High Ground Coward is a record of a voice at home in a new place, and perhaps at home for the first time.
LRK: Do you feel at home in Denver? If not in a similar way, in any way at all? Have you found a small farm to love, as you did in the pages of High Ground Coward?
AM: As a city, Denver doesn’t quite feel like home, but my daily life here feels like home. I have come to know lovely people. There are far more literary events and reading series going on here than I can ever attend. Counterpath Press is based in Denver and they are gracious hosts, making their space available for lots of happenings. I haven’t found a farm here, only a grocery store. But I can see the Rocky Mountains every day. They are huge and comforting, snowy now. Looking at the mountains anchors me. We also get gorgeous sunrises here. Colors in the sky charm me endlessly—sunsets in Missoula, sunrises here.
LRK: Before I move completely away from the ways your collection collides with landscape, I’d like to ask you to speak to the ways in which your poetry creates a malleable relationship between words and the world they seek to both inhabit and mirror.
AM: My words really do want to inhabit the world, and the world that belongs to more than just writers. It’s important to me that my language and my work with image are accessible. I wouldn’t want to write in a world outside of the everyday.
That said, I sometimes use structural scaffolding as a way to start my poems. Even when a piece starts in the world of idea or thought, it doesn’t stay there for long but rather dissolves into lived experience. I trust the real thing (image, spoken language, signage, sensation) to be impactful. I hope for as little interpretation as possible between my experience of the thing, putting words to that experience, and the reader’s experience of my rendering. That may sound controlling, but I mean to say that my work as a poet is to come to the reader rather than asking the reader to come to me. I hope to write words that can be taken with readers into their worlds.
LRK: You say, “I hope for as little interpretation as possible,” and I see that playing itself out in your book. Your readers, I think, will come away from their experiences with your poems having gotten to know you, a full person. That is, at least, how I felt.
There is a both a non-linear and a “blurring” nature to High Ground Coward that, in one and many senses of the word, “queer” the line between the literal and the metaphorical. Are these instincts you find yourself adhering to naturally or intuitively, or are they done with purpose, with intention?
AM: Both. I think much of this work queers certainty, what we’re sure of and what we can’t know. In these poems “literal” and “metaphorical” are two sides of the same coin. These poems try to show that the metaphorical is actual, and that the real thing is enchanted and transcendent.
LRK: That is probably one of the most eloquent ways to describe your poetry: “These poems try to show that the metaphorical is actual, and that the real thing is enchanted and transcendent.” Yes, that’s exactly it, and it’s a great segue into my next question.
In “On Being Told to Do Whatever I Want,” you write, “I want to talk like a preacher in your bathrobe.” In “Spit Valve Hello,” you write, “I imagine holding a handful of teeth / like smooth white pills or beads, / rolling them through my fingers— / some nervous monk with a rosary.” In these and in other poems—which mention “a god,” “a little burning bush,” blood, bread—you use religious or spiritual imagery to define your metaphors. Is that imagery just as much a part of your attempt at the metaphorical-actual or actual-transcendent? Even your use of “magic” in the poem “Some Days,” originally published in Sixth Finch, seems to explore belief in a way that lends itself to that notion. How does spirituality or religion (and let’s throw magic in there for good measure) find itself in your day-to-day?
AM: I think you’re right to throw magic in there. In this work, spiritual iconography might be shorthand for that metaphorical-actual, actual-transcendent notion. Magic is another way of articulating these things. I want to place this iconography in the ordinary—not as a way to uplift what is commonplace, nor to desecrate the profound, but just to hold them together, to say look at this life, at this world, at all it holds.
I realized that I learned a lot about cadence from listening to church sermons as a child. Hearing the same prayers said over and over by a crowd in unison and reading strange anachronistic words informed my relationship with language. The religious beliefs did not stick with me, but sitting uncomfortably in a pew gave me a sonic education.
LRK: How do you define queer or queerness?
AM: My queerness is a way of seeing and thinking. It’s an aversion to binary or dichotomy. My queerness is justice-oriented and works to center non-normativity. My queerness is political and playful.
LRK: So many of the poems in this manuscript seem to question or illuminate the inherited losses of HIV/AIDS—how that pain transcends the epidemic and is in the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) blood of the modern queer community. Your poems both implicitly and explicitly speak to this historic(al) memory. As a collection, I see how that pain has informed your understanding of “the body” and its shifting presence in space, and I’m curious as to how—because you’ve moved away from your former job as a case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS, and now having finished this manuscript that seems to elucidate these ideas so vividly—that this pain plays (or will play) itself out in your current reality and in your current poetics.
AM: These days, instead of working full-time in HIV advocacy, I volunteer as a tester and counselor while balancing teaching, taking classes, and writing. Testing and staffing a syringe exchange were how I first got involved in HIV work years ago, so it feels good to be engaging with folks one-on-one again. Volunteering as a tester gets me out of my writing-world academic bubble, which helps ground me, helps me reset. This winter I’ll be teaching an undergrad literature course on poetry of the American HIV epidemic, and I’m excited to share new work from Danez Smith and sam sax, along with foundational texts from Tory Dent, D.A. Powell, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Rafael Campo, Steven Cordova and others. Even though it’s not explicitly part of my day job, the legacy of this epidemic is alive in my scholarship, teaching, and thinking. As a young queer American, I know I owe a tremendous debt to early activism around the HIV epidemic—those activist communities laid the groundwork for rights we might take for granted today. I’ll never be able to repay that debt, but I think I’ll spend my life trying.
LRK: That class sounds amazing! How are you going to structure it, and what are you hoping your students glean from your teaching this particular course? How much of the course will be a lesson in history?
AM: It’s more or less an intro-level survey class, so one main goal is simply to offer students the opportunity to read and talk about poetry, to enjoy poetry in the company of others. I’m also hoping that my students will learn about the epidemic itself. Even students who self-identify as part of the gay community tell me that they don’t really know about this part of our history. To help cover some basics of that history we’ve been watching pieces of the 2011 documentary We Were Here each class session. Yesterday I checked in with my students about what they were feeling, and someone said they were in a place of anger because queer people who could have been our mentors were taken from us, and those in power did little to prevent this loss. It’s hard to be the one bringing this news, this history, to young people. It’s hard to introduce a new grief and rage to them. Of course, it is necessary. Of course, I want them to know. So we spent some time feeling our way through the poems. We think a lot and we feel.
LRK: I think poets, and writers in general, are always looking for ways to exit that writing bubble, whether it’s academic, or not. Aside from your volunteer work, how else do you get yourself away from your desk?
AM: I like good food, so I cook a lot and go in search of yummy things out in the world. I love great films and sometimes shitty films too. When it’s not too cold, I like to bike, though I am a wimp about the cold. And I travel to visit friends. I like going on drives—that was something I picked up in Montana.
LRK: You mention in a handful of poems “ghosts” or “phantoms.” These and other, less explicit moments, seem to speak to an omnipresent absence in your manuscript. By making absence present in some of your poems, I find myself seeing (and seeking) absence (or desire, or hunger, if we feel like diving into the erotic) in all of them. Your readers will be able to glean from your poems how desire has manifested itself in your romantic and familial relationships; I’m wondering how you plan to use (or decide not to use) desire in your current or future writing practices. Or, perhaps its place in your poetry isn’t so intentional?
AM: “Omnipresent absence” is a great way to put it. Ghosts remind me of trace—evidence of a presence, but one you can’t access completely, something past. Wanting and not-getting seems like part of queer identity for me. In the poem “Drive Thru” there’s a section that reads: “Before I was 18 / my father never asked / and I never told / until someone / in the crepe paper dark / of a dorm room / sighed and said, / all your desires are sacred. // What a way to fall in love with wanting.” I remember the liberation of realizing the power of desire, that just the fact of wanting something makes that thing almost holy. For me, the want itself is nearly always more compelling than the object of desire. Feeling, enacted rather than encapsulated. The speakers in High Ground Coward are kept company by their want. That being said, I think I’m outgrowing some of my interest in experiencing denial. My present work might be a bit more measured in terms of longing. I think absence will always have a place in my work, but it might take on new forms and new scale.
LRK: Can you elaborate on the “wanting and not-getting” and “the want itself is nearly always more compelling than the object of desire” as part of queer identity, yours or broadly?
AM: I think this might speak to the experience of closetedness, but perhaps only my own. Maybe it’s just me for whom the feeling of want is so powerful. I think that having desire that is socially non-dominant or non-normative has created attachments to the feeling of want rather than the person (or life or experience) that is desired, because so often that person or life or experience seemed infinitely unavailable to me, especially when I was a young person.
LRK: A good many of the poems in this collection thematically draw out mothers and motherhood. You write about fathers and other family members, too, but there seems to be an absence associated with fathers and a specific illumination of mothers—and of marriage. Can you speak to these themes directly—how they inform your poetics and how they inform your performance of, or in, family and gender? And further, how have you used desire (and the want for desire) to draw out these themes in the book.
AM: This is such a lucid reading. While writing this book I was figuring out that I didn’t want to be a parent and I didn’t want to be married. I was learning to love the full life I could build outside of these mainstream markers of adulthood and success. I was becoming enamored with the things that fulfill me: my work, my friends and partners, the natural world. I was also reckoning with how this life is valued by others. Being the child of a mother has been a big part of my life and High Ground Coward is navigating how it feels to opt-out of a gendered maternity that has never appealed to me. This book also wrestles with the tensions between love, commitment, sex, (non-)monogamy, marriage, and my place within or without these structures.
LRK: Have you found yourself more or less grounded in those structures since finishing the book? Some of those things seem circumstantial in that they may prove malleable with both time, different partners, or different communities.
AM: I feel more grounded in all ways. Being through with this manuscript has me feeling solid in where I am now and how I got here. I definitely embrace the right to change my mind and change my life down the road. I’m am curious about what will change in my life, but not fearful of it.
LRK: I’m a twin, and so the mentions of twins (of others, and of you or the speakers) throughout your collection made me stop to interpret or determine whether your use of the word “twin” was literal or metaphorical. As you’ve said of your manuscript, I found both to be true. Without a specific question in mind, I’d like you to speak to your attachment to the word or idea, which would include, I think, different presentations of the same: “transparencies” or “doubling.”
AM: Alas, I am not a true twin! The twins in High Ground Cowardcame about because I was close with someone and we looked a lot like each other. Even people who knew us—acquaintances, shopkeepers—often mistook us for each other. When our relationship changed, the twins became a way of envisioning other courses that our pairing could have taken, the life that we would not live. There’s a double doubling: the speaker and the beloved, and then these imagined twins of each of them. It was a way of longing, but at a remove. The twins offer an alternate universe in which versions of us are out there, wading in the river together. I think it was a way to be more joyful about a thing that had come and gone.
LRK: I think you’ve succeeded in making the melancholic idea of loss more joyful by way of something as odd as the twin image. There is a playfulness associated both with that or those image(s) and with the body of your book—in your style and in your imagery.
The title of this collection, High Ground Coward, speaks to the idea that, in warfare and on higher ground—that is, with a perspective of clarity—the speaker in these poems cowers. There is a subtle (or in the case of many of the poems, a not-so-subtle) subject of violence. The violences in your poems are each so different, yet the strength with which you write about them equalizes them. You seem to be creating, in the length of your manuscript, the idea that violence is acted against the body in a multitude of ways, but the emotional, and dare I say poetic, effect that these violences have on you and/or the poems’ speakers seem comparable. Can you speak to that idea, if it bears any weight? What role does violence, small or otherwise, play in both your physical and your writing lives?
AM: This is interesting—I’ve considered the violences in this manuscript, but I haven’t before held the different violences together in comparison. I intend to avoid equalizing these violences in the body of work and also in life. I’m inclined toward the specific and particular rather than the universal. I’m convinced that there is no universal narrative or image. Readers are more than capable of identifying with specificity and perception, even if our exact experiences are different.
My whole life, I have lived in an unendingly violent nation. I am implicated in this violence as an American, even as I work daily to banish the oppressor that lives inside me. Folks have and continue to experience systemic violences that manifest in both obvious and unknowable ways. And in this same world, we encounter profound beauty and joy. I continue to be astounded by this simultaneity, and being able to sit in that astonishment is a privilege.
LRK: I guess what I meant by “comparable” was that your manuscript very deftly, and perhaps unknowingly, reads against the idea of comparable violence or pain. The different violences I came across in the book are rendered in such a way that equalizes them. I realize, though, that different readers will come to your book with a host of different experiences, and will, then, experience or read those violences differently, perhaps especially in relationship to one another.
AM: Maybe rather than “equalizing” I’m trying to recognize without hierarchizing. I don’t want to lump our different violences together. I want to give space to the many ways in which we hurt and are hurt.
LRK: Poet sam sax has been quoted as saying, “The ‘speaker’ of my poem is always me unless
otherwise stated.” Is this how your readers should navigate your book, too, or does the speaker shift from poem to poem?
AM: Great question! The speakers in High Ground Cowardare me, but they are many me’s. These are many possible versions of myself, many are imagined selves. There are some speakers that are less landlocked, some that are believers, some that are so moody, some that just want to play around with sound, some that don’t have to go to work, etc. I think readers will recognize a shared sensibility, even when the vocabulary or subject shift. These speakers all drink the same water and wear the same shirt. To put it simply: it we.
LRK: That’s well-put, and I think it’s a navigation of the lyric “I” a lot of poets and writers will relate to.
Because I perceive and understand literature aesthetically, I’d like to talk about the cover of your book.
AM: The image on the cover of High Ground Coward is a painting by Emma Quaytman commissioned for the book itself. The following is a statement from the artist:
“I associate the chevron shape with a certain type of Americana landscape that I also associate with Mountain’s work. The form suggests upward movement; it’s kind of devout. The color also reminds me of the golden color of dry grass—characteristic of the Missoula hills, which is a place this book began to take shape. Mountain was pretty sure she didn’t want figurative elements on the cover, so we kept it abstract. The font is Foretescue. (Link: https://www.colophon-foundry.org/typefaces/fortescue/) Book design can be very twee now, and we were trying to avoid that. It’s important for this book of poetry to not have an aesthetic that was cute. I went for something both solid and permeable at the same time; it’s watercolor without white, so it’s not at all opaque. The cover also, of course, nods to the shape of a mountain, on which one might find high ground.”
I should also note that my book has its own Twitter account, and it takes selfies of itself (which end up being things like a plate of white and yellow cupcakes, or white and yellow patches of sidewalk).
LRK: How clever! I imagine you might encourage your current and future readers to play that particular selfie game, too? To amass a collection of selfies based on the painting?
AM: Yes! I also have this daydream of readers taking the book on hikes and posting pictures of High Ground Coward on high ground. I wonder what its highest elevation might be.
LRK: I’m sure your readers and Twitter followers will oblige. So, Emma not only painted the cover image, she designed the book’s cover, as well? She chose and placed the text?
AM: Emma helped me conceptualize the cover and painted the image, however the final cover was created by one of the designers at the University of Iowa Press. The press was very receptive to my ideas about how I hoped the book would look. A friend suggested the font and the UIP folks took it from there. I haven’t held a final version yet, so the tactile experience of the cover is still a mystery to me.
LRK: Is Emma related to the late painter, Harvey Quaytman? Is it Harvey that you mention in the poem, “Hawk Like a Steeple”? I’m curious about this and your relationship to Harvey’s work.
AM: Yes, Emma is the daughter of the late Harvey Quaytman. He was an abstract expressionist painter based in New York; though I did not meet him while he was alive, I have spent a lot of time with his paintings.
He painted in these rich, deeply resonant tones like copper and ultramarine and tar-black. His pieces are often a layered geometry and I find myself trying to puzzle out where the center of the painting lies. There is a satisfying depth to those canvases. At the same time, they don’t take themselves too seriously. I love his paintings. Harvey Quaytman’s work is represented by Van Doren Waxter in New York and is the subject of an upcoming 2018 retrospective at the UC Berkeley Art Museum—not to be missed.
About “Hawk Like a Steeple”—I will let the question speak for itself. You are good at connecting dots and there are many dots to be connected in High Ground Coward.
LRK: An excerpt from William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie” opens your collection: “No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.” Why do you feel these lines fitting to the body of this work?
AM: I grew up in northern New Jersey and thought of Williams as kind of a patron saint of poets there. Of course, New Jersey has been home to many wonderful poets, but for me Williams hits close to home. I was also drawn to his work making house calls—moving in and out of domestic spaces, being with people and their bodies. Williams is not without flaws, but he was a starting place for me. Mostly I wanted to begin the book with a nod to my roots in New Jersey before fawning over Montana for 90 pages.
There are a few New Jersey poems in High Ground Coward. The poem “Closing Costs” is about riding the train from my hometown (South Orange, NJ) to Penn Station in NYC. At the NJ Transit waiting area in Penn Station, “Red Wheelbarrow” is etched into the wall.
“To Elsie” is a tough poem. I read some sarcasm into his derision in the poem, but there are many ways to interpret it. The epigraph is the last stanza of the poem, a landing. For me, there’s loneliness in these lines, more so because the rest of the poem is rather populated. “No one,” twice. The verbs in this stanza speak to much of the action in High Ground Coward: witnessing, making adjustments (emotional, relational, spatial, political), and driving cars.
The poet Karen Volkman read some poems from this manuscript very early on and noticed that driving is a ritual act in my work. She’s right. A student asked me for writing advice recently and I told her that, if she has the opportunity to take a road trip, to go for it. Driving puts new images in your field of vision and allows time to stretch in curious ways. There’s a legacy of white American men’s road narratives, but many highways yet to be written by the rest of us. Plus, road trip music!
LRK: What’s your go-to road trip music? What music enveloped you in Missoula, while writing High Ground Coward, and what musicians should your readers turn to while they’re turning your pages?
AM: I’d love to make a playlist for this book. I give a shout out to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album in the poem “Palomino,” which is my canonical road trip sound. When I was writing this book I listened to Beach House, Sharon Van Etten, old Broken Social Scene, the first Alt-J album, Grimes, Atlas Sound, Frank Ocean. Now that it’s been a few years since some of that comfort-zone music, I’d love to know what readers are into and what they pair with this book.
LRK: You are a current PhD candidate at the University of Denver. First, why or how did you decide to pursue a doctorate in poetry? Second, how do you feel your time in Denver has contributed to the evolution of your poetry? And third, aside from page lengths and a presumed pressure to publish, how do you view the differences between your MFA and your PhD experiences?
AM: I am so thrilled to be getting a PhD. It’s an excuse to spend another few years learning, teaching, and connecting with other writer-nerds—some of my favorite activities. I decided to get a PhD in the hopes of being a more knowledgeable teacher. It’s not so much about being in workshops, but rather deepening my scholarship. The PhD at the University of Denver emphasizes literature courses and research much more than my MFA did. When I was in my MFA I wrote almost every morning, but in the PhD program the workload and teaching load are different, so I find that I’m writing in big bursts during breaks and with an occasional couple of poems during each academic quarter. A big difference between the MFA and PhD is that I already have a pretty strong relationship with my writing process. I know what practices usually work for me and what don’t. It’s not much compared to many poets, but having seven years of poetry-writing under my belt at this point feels reassuring. High Ground Coward includes just a couple of poems that were written in Denver. A greater impact on this book was the major encouragement I received from my classmates, who urged me to keep sending out the manuscript and kept me optimistic. The DU Creative Writing PhD allows for a creative dissertation, so I expect that will be my second full-length manuscript.
LRK: Do you see your dissertation-manuscript taking shape, yet, or are you still in the throes of coursework and teaching?
AM: I’m writing new poems! I have two crowns of sonnets that might be the start of a new book. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to do a “project” book or something too tightly bound to form. I love collections that are really collections. In the fall of 2018 I’ll have a bit more breathing room the get this next book started. I’m excited about the new voices that are coming through in my work more recently. The speakers seem like they have new things to say.
LRK: Which contemporary poets are informing your current work most ardently?
AM: I’ve read so much great work recently! Hopefully some will trickle its influence down into my own poems. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary was powerful and vulnerable at the same time— it was also a really great book to teach. I taught Rick Barot’s Chord, too. Renee Gladman’s Calamities is enchanting; Gladman’s sentences do so much good labor. I wrote an essay about Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves for 32 Poems because I needed to share my excitement about it with other readers. This past year Nikki Wallschlaeger came to DU as a visiting poet and shared Crawlspace, which was such a gift. Another Missoula poet Phil Schaeffer put out his debut collection, Bad Summon, in 2017 and that book feels like sitting in a backyard drinking whiskey during fire season.
I always return to work by Natalie Diaz, C.D. Wright, Rusty Morrison, and my mentors, Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink. Joanna Klink advised my MFA thesis and helped sequence the very first draft of High Ground Coward. My brief poem “Beyond Task and Future, Endlessly Worthy” is in conversation with her poem “On Falling (Blue Spruce).” I have been and continue to be so awed by the poetry community. For a long time, I wasn’t sure about my path and my place in the world, but reading poems and writing poems feels right. It feels urgent—this is the way we triage experience. I’m certain that contemporary poets are helping us survive.
LRK: You mentioned having written an essay for 32 Poems. As a published poet, how do you anticipate or imagine your participation in the larger, American literary community? How do you foresee your future engagement? It sounds as though you’re looking forward to a continued teaching career.
AM: Writing criticism gets my mind moving in really pleasurable ways, like a good work-out. Writing non-fiction has also felt compelling lately. In addition to teaching, I am interested in how we might expand the field of poetry, get more Americans reading and writing poetry, and cultivate dynamic relationships between poets and institutions or communities outside of the literary world. I don’t know where that interest will take me—it feels important.
LRK: You were also a finalist for BOAAT Press’ 2017 Chapbook Prize. What can your readers, your sure-to-be fans, expect from the forthcoming chapbook, Thin Fire?
AM: Thin Fire is like the EP and High Ground Cowardis the LP. Thin Fire will introduce you to some voices that come up in High Ground Coward, and then High Ground Cowardwill place those voices in a world. Bonus: Thin Fire will be available as a PDF chapbook. It should be ready to download in mid-March!
LRK: I can’t wait! Thank you so much, Alicia, for allowing me to ask you these long-winded questions, and thank you for High Ground Coward. All of my congratulations to you!
AM: This was such a pleasure. Your questions have created fascinating points of entry into this book. Thank you, Lauren!
Alicia Mountain’s first collection High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press) won the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize. She is also the author of the chapbook Thin Fire (BOAAT Press). Mountain is a queer poet, a PhD candidate at the University of Denver, and an assistant editor of the Denver Quarterly. She earned her MFA in poetry at the University of Montana.
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