Anna Morrison Interview on “Water in Three Acts”

by Feb 23, 2021Interviews

Anna Morrison’s poems appear in journals such as BOMB, Fence, Lana Turner, Interim, Puerto del Sol, and Baest: a journal of queer forms & affects, and she was selected as a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Water in Three Acts was published by Newfound in 2020 as part of their Emerging Poets Chapbook Series. She served as an editor for Kelsey Street Press for five years and received an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Saint Mary’s College of CA in 2019. You can find her journal on poetry, art, and poetic practice at Water in Three Acts available for purchase here.

Charlie Neer:  

All right, this is exciting. Let’s start! Thank you Anna for doing this interview!


Anna Morrison:

Thank you so much for being interested in my chapbook and wanting to support it.



Yeah, I read it, actually, like three times. I loved it so much. I missed reading your poetry. 



Well, thank you so much. I miss reading your poetry and everyone from our program. Actually, I think about that a lot.



Yeah, I always miss that nice connection with people in their work. Well, thank you so much for, you know, taking some time to sit down and talk to me about this. I just kind of wanted to start off with a simple question, what was the inspiration behind “Water in Three Acts?” 



Well, if Water in Three Acts were a pool that I jumped into, there would be many diving boards. There was a specific experience that prompted me: being an anxious, rushing person and knocking over a glass of water as I was trying to leave my apartment. I had something like a panic attack in response. And I thought about how ridiculous it was to feel like it’s the end of the world when you knock over a glass of water. But it also felt intuitively correct, especially considering what water means for our planet, and for us in terms of life and resources. 

There were many poetic inspirations too, and I’ve always been very interested in poetic form. I still think of Water in Three Acts as a long poem or a poetic sequence. The formal idea that prompted me and has stayed with me is that poetic text can behave like water and—as water does—take the shape of its container. I was thinking about what that means for poetic form and how, if you’re writing a concrete poem, you can see the text as taking the shape of its container, but this also describes a sonnet or a prose poem. There are just so many different ways that it feels accurate to me to think of poetic text behaving like water. So that idea was a significant catalyst.



Yeah, I personally loved how this chapbook was a couple of poems, but also one long poem, and I love dissecting it that way being like, Okay, how does it all mesh together? It’s got those kind of waves going on, and I really enjoyed that.You were talking about form, and there’s a lot of play with form with each of your sections, kind of utilizing a different poetic form, to just tell the story of water being, you know, knocked over or contained. Each of the three sections act as a container, one that holds but also one that disperses and the text in the poem “contain,” embodies the concept of a container in its prose block form, which I loved. So nice and concrete, while “spill,” embodies a container being knocked over. Can you talk about the relationship between containers and form a little bit more?



I guess that like many poets or artists, I think of form as what gives shape to my work, and that is also why I use the word “container.” There are lots of other words I could use. The form is the vessel, it’s the body. It houses. I’ve always questioned—what holds and contains me? And that applies to my experience of my body, my experience of sexuality and gender, and being a person in our society, in our country. There are many levels. So I think that before I arrived at that word “container,” it was present in my thinking about the text as water. 

But that question about what gives structure has always been of great interest to me and, probably, is why I’ve been so curious about poetic form. It’s part of the ongoing inquiry of my poetics to think about what holds the poem together and how the choices that I make with form allow for different kinds of content to emerge in my writing, for different kinds of experiences for the reader. It was great hearing how you experienced the three sections of the book because that’s the point: they are supposed to be different kinds of experiences. And the formal choices in each section hopefully contribute to those experiences!



Yeah, and I really liked when you were doing the q&a, during your chapbook launch, you were talking about structure as support, or of oppression, kind of the invisible containers that, you know, the poet has, with the structures of poems, but also of the self. And I was really curious about that, because it’s just such an interesting thing to think about.



Yeah. It would probably be a mistake to assume that everybody thinks in these terms, but I have this strong feeling of excessive pressure or tightening around me in particular environments and situations or, alternatively, a sense that I am being held and contained in a way that enables me to breathe and flourish. And so that contrast is part of what motivates my interest. 



I kind of wanted to go to “pour” real quick, because I talked about, you know, contain and then spill, but pour was the one that really interested me. It almost reads like a play and its use of characters such as compass, soprano, and foam, and I was wondering, what role do each of these voices play in the piece? And can you talk a little bit about writing this conversation? Or what led to this conversation?



Yes, this was the hardest section to write, in part because I’ve never written dramatic verse before, and it took me a while to accept that’s what I was doing! I kept thinking, you know, how does anybody write something when there are multiple voices? Like, how does that even work? I don’t understand how to do that. And I read Mallarmé’s plays, and I thought, Okay, this could be how this poem works. 

I really wanted this figure of the soprano who is drowning. That’s the entire context for that section. This soprano voice is vulnerable but also very ignorant. She is being educated by these other voices that emerge from objects and creatures in the sea. We hear from urchins. The oars that were once part of the ship are speaking to her. The foam is speaking to her. (In a sense, her own body is speaking to her.) In this heightened experience, there’s a return and connection to something elemental and material. Much of the work in writing that section was finding those different voices and trying to ask real questions about what it means to be a human on our planet, putting human life in context with the life of the planet. There are powerful spiritual themes throughout the poem. There is a union that I feel being reached for between that voice of the soprano and the other voices in the poem, the other voices in the universe, you know? 



Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I was really interested in the soprano as a character because it was just such an interesting idea as a voice, but also as a certain kind of voice. It’s a higher voice, and it’s a very specific part of, you know, a choir of voices. And I really enjoyed the personality of the soprano, and how that kind of developed as the conversation went on. I remember you talking about sonic play in your chapbook launch, and how that drew you to poetry and writing poetry. You also discussed how water is extraterrestrial, and it’s also nature. It was brought to Earth by comets and asteroids and the fact that this essential part of our planet is not even of our world and water is something both alien and natural to us. I think in this chapbook you use form and sonic play to have the reader experience this fluctuation between the familiar and unfamiliar. What do you think is important about distorting the familiar and how do poets accomplish that?



Wow, that’s a really phenomenal reading. Thank you, Charlie. I was reading so many books as I worked on this sequence of poems over a long period of time. And then I stumbled across that information about how water came to Earth, and it was just so astonishing. For me, that is the sense of awe that belongs to poetry. The feeling that you are encountering the world as a stranger is so important because it also means that you’re actually witnessing, that you’re really present and not taking anything for granted. From my experience of reading and writing poetry, that uncanny sense is so important. It allows for meeting the world and for meeting others as they are, and I think it’s a real opportunity. 

I think that’s one of the amazing things that literature and art can do: they can wake us up from this foggy sleep of daily life where we may lose that focus and excitement. In a way, it makes me feel like a child again who has to touch objects in order to understand what they are and what they do. I think it’s especially crucial now because our culture privileges messages and experiences that can be quickly and easily digested, and the kinds of experiences that we’re talking about that are strange and nuanced are the opposite. It’s an opportunity and a challenge for poetry, I think, to show that kind of experience, to enact it.



Yeah, definitely, and I think right now, I’ve really had to stop and experience things again, because everything is just so much. Just being able to, like, look at something and experience it as it is, is really important. I think that this book really helped me remind myself that, Oh, hey, I have to realize how strange everything is how everything is completely different, and how to just experience, which was nice. 



Thank you, it’s great to hear that.



It’s always nice when a book just kind of refreshes that in you. It’s like, Oh, yeah, that’s right. So when we write we kind of follow in the tradition of all those who have written before us and inspired us, and I remember you talking once in one of our MFA classes about your investment as a female poet establishing lineage through your poetry. This is going to be a very big question, but who do you connect with? And what is in your poetic family?



That is a big question. So many poets! I would say that growing up, one of my earliest influences was Emily Dickinson, and that’s partly because I came to writing poetry through writing hymns. My father is a Methodist minister. I heard hymns all the time, and something about that form just landed in my mind, and I wanted to write it. And so, to read Dickinson, who wrote these amazing hymnal stanzas—they’re so complex and subversive—it was stunning. I remember being shocked, and it was actually after I started reading Emily Dickinson that I stopped writing in hymnal stanzas! I couldn’t have the same experience of the form again. But she remains such a huge influence for me and for so many poets. 

I was very fortunate when I moved to California because I ended up almost by chance working with Kelsey Street Press, a small press based out of Berkeley that has now been publishing books for over 45 years. They publish experimental poetry by women and non-binary authors. I found so many poets through Kelsey Street that I’m grateful to have read and other writers that I met through Kelsey Street that I just admire so much. 

C.D. Wright, a poet that I talked about often in our program, has also been a guiding light. I was fortunate enough to be in a workshop with her once at a writing conference. I already admired her writing, and I feel like she’s burned into my brain as this phenomenal presence. So she’s very important to me, as is Brenda Hillman, our teacher, from St. Mary’s. Brenda is an inspiring example of a poet who summons creativity and strength to engage with the world in all its difficulties. And, you know, at my chapbook launch, one of the poets who read with me was Ching-In Chen, who I met through Kelsey Street. Kelsey Street published their book Recombinant, and I was lucky enough to coedit that book. Ching-In is a talented and brilliant poet and part of the Kelsey Street lineage that includes poets like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Bhanu Kapil. They are only a few of the many poets I admire!



That was great, yeah. Poetic family can be so large and yet so intimate because it’s both looking up to poets that you will never meet that wrote in the past, but also the family of poets you interact with and Ching-In Chen is an excellent example. They’re a great inspiration to me, and we’ve published them a couple times in Foglifter. My final question is what is important about women-identified writers, but also queer and LGBT writers establishing a lineage for future generations of poets? How do we establish ourselves as part of a canon that has been focused mainly on white cishet men? 



It’s so interesting because I’ve certainly been aware of the traditional literary canon. How can one be unaware of it? It’s what is taught, it’s what you see, usually in prominent anthologies, but there is absolutely an alternative canon. Of course, I don’t mean that anyone who’s working in the lineages that you mentioned wants to establish a canon—those poets aren’t saying, “we’re not going to have these pillars, we’re going to have other pillars instead”—but there’s definitely an alternative set of mentor-poets. That tradition is established because poets and those who, even if they’re not poets, feel passionately about poetry do exactly what Kelsey Street did and what you’re doing with Foglifter: they decide that they’re going to publish the work that’s important to them, and they circulate it, and it finds readers. C.D. Wright has been one of my favorite poets for a long time, and I encountered a book of hers that was published through Kelsey Street long before I thought about Kelsey Street or moved to California. It was this beautiful poetry and art book called Just Whistle that she worked on in collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster. I was lucky that the library had that book, and they could just as easily not. But when those texts make it out into the world, they do find readers. I guess the short answer is that we read, and we publish, and we talk about what is important to us.



Yeah, kind of rephrasing like, I don’t think we want to be part of the canon at all. I think the canon needs to be destroyed a little bit. But yeah, I think that’s really important, just having things out there, because I mean, I go to my local rural library, and there are no LGBT books at all. I think it’s just having that presence there that’s really important, like you were saying. I really appreciate that answer. That’s all my questions but did you want to talk about anything else a little bit?



It’s been really wonderful to have the opportunity to talk about this chapbook with you and share it with others. Of course, you’re familiar with my poetry, but there are many aspects of the chapbook that are still mysterious to me, and I love hearing your insights. Some elements in this work can be found in my other poems, but it’s also its own perplexing entity. I’m really grateful for the chance to hear your interpretations. So thank you.



Yeah, this was a very unique book and when I read I was like, “Wow, this is so different from what I’ve seen before”, and I really appreciated that and that kind of growth into something different, because I did recognize some little bits that was just like, “oh, I remember that {from the MFA program}.That was really potent in there, and, I really enjoyed seeing you challenging yourself with this different forms. 



Thank you. I mean, I did work on it a great deal. I actually started it in our first semester in our program and continued to work on it. But I also had a great relationship with my publisher Newfound, and I take any opportunity to thank them. If there are any poets out there looking for places to submit their work, it’s a terrific publisher. My editor, Levis, was just an incredible collaborator. Even though I had done so much work on this manuscript, and it was very nearly finished, Levis challenged me in ways that were really significant. I can see how that strengthened it, especially now that it’s a complete book, not just a long poem that I wrote. I’m really grateful for their guidance, challenges, and support.



That’s great. Thank you so much for doing this interview. I really appreciate it.



Of course, really happy to.




Water in Three Acts is published by Newfound, a nonprofit publisher based in Austin, Texas.

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