Interview with Allison Blevins, author of Cataloguing Pain

by Jul 17, 2023Interviews

Your work is classified as a lyric memoir. Can you speak to this definition and what genre means to you (and as a queer person, potentially)? 


     I wanted to tell our story—my story, my husband’s story, our life together with our children.  At first, I thought the book would be entirely lyric essays, but as I was writing, I realized something was missing.  The work wanted to breathe.  The pieces needed spaces of respite interspersed.  I decided to add more pieces that were recognizably poems.  


     Lyric memoir, for me, relies on hybridity.  The collection mixes genres, but it is also classically hybrid in that the prose pieces push into poetic territory.  I don’t think it matters if something is labeled flash nonfiction or a prose poem.  The label is irrelevant, but the work of pushing and pulling a reader with narrative, with sound, with metaphor is the essence of hybrid.  I think writing on that line is challenging and fun.


     I’m certain lyric memoir speaks to my queer identity.  I research before writing, and I had trouble finding literary collections by lesbians with trans identifying partners.  I like filling the landscape with an untold story, but I couldn’t tell our story straight.  The collection had rely on lyric elements—to exist in an in-between space.


As a follow-up question, what is your background in writing, be it poetry, fiction, or something entirely different, and how did you find your way to this form? 


     My background is in poetry.  I briefly studied nonfiction, but I’ve never seen myself as a nonfiction writer.  I studied with Claudia Rankine at Queens, and I’ve been very influenced by Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.  I’ve become very interested in collections doing the work of memoir in unique ways like Milo R. Muise’s Tl;DR and anything by Sarah Manguso.  I love anything that breaks a mold.  I think that is how I found my way to this form.


What was the process of writing this book? Your book is split into two distinct parts. What was the process of writing the two parts like for you, and how was it different—or similar? 


     Once I have an idea for a book, I map out the trajectory in my head.  I wrote most of the titles first, and then much of the book was written as documentation in real time.   It is an authentic depiction of our journey together.  


     I knew from the beginning that the book would be structured as before and after my husband’s transition.  There was a before and after in our lives.  I knew I wanted to write the fulcrum elegy poem.  It was accurate to my experience.  I received some really difficult feedback about that piece from a journal early on, and it led to major revisions.  KMA, my YesYes Publisher, and I had several discussions about changing the title, but we decided against it.  The book also went out to several sensitivity readers before I started sending it out.  That poem is essential to making the structure of the two sections work.


     Ultimately, I hope the structure of the book adds depth to the narrative.  The elegy is the only piece that really directly addresses my husband’s transition.  I only wanted to linger briefly.  When you turn the page and move into the second section, he is just my husband.  


How do chronic illness and lyric memoir interact, for you, if at all? 


     Lyric memoir is a way to tell the truth slant.  It allows for circuity, for meandering.  My illness does not allow for sustained writing.  That means I’m constantly coming back to my own story, starting over, picking up in the middle.  In many ways, my illness created the form of this book.  My MS will never end.  My illness is defined by ongoingness.  I hoped to create a sense of that with the separation of the paragraphs of most of the essays.  


Alternately, how does the process of transition lend itself to writing? 


     This isn’t possible to answer!  I can speak to my experience as a partner to my husband, and I hope the collection successfully juxtaposes our experiences.  In many ways, I think my diagnosis was a transition—I moved into a different body.  While I wanted to put our experiences together on the page, I don’t think they were the same.


Who are some of your writing influences? Who is in your queer canon? 


     Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Dawn Lundy Martin, Carmen Maria Machado, Gertrude Stein, Kazim Ali, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Ocean Vuong, torrin a. greathouse, Elizabeth Bradfield, Alyse Knorr, Jericho Brown, Sally Keith, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Carl Phillips.  


     It is nearly impossible to stop writing names!


What is the most important thing that you would want a reader to know about your book before they read it? 


     I want folks to know the collection is true for me, for us.  I can’t speak for all queer folks, for all folks with a trans identifying partners, for all folks living with a chronic illness or disability.  But I hope something in the collection resonates.


What’s next for you? 


     The most exciting news is that my next collection just won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books.  Where Will We Live if the House Burns Down? will be published in fall 2024.  I have a chapbook coming out with my writing partner, the poet Josh Davis.  fiery poppies bruising their own throats will release from Glass Lyre Press later this year.  I always think I will take a break from writing, but that never seems to happen!




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