This interview appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, May/Summer 1998, and is reproduced in full by permission of The Associated Writing Programs and Barbara J. Petoskey.
Fulton was Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at the time of this interview.
Barbara J. Petoskey is a writer of poetry, fiction, humor, and creative nonfiction. She is also a contributing editor to ByLine.
Copyright © 1998 by Barbara J. Petoskey and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.
“Triptych For Topological Heart,”
Barbara J. Petoskey, "An Interview with Alice Fulton," Associated Writing Programs Chronicle 30:6:24-29, May/summer 1998.
Poems discussed: "About Face,""Dance Script With Electric Ballerina," "Echo Location," "Elvis From The Waist Up," "Fuzzy Feelings," "Give," "My Last TV Campaign," "Some Cool," "The Priming Is A Negligee," "Vanishing Cream."
Alice Fulton's first volume of poetry, Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, won The Associated Writing Program Award in 1982 and was recently reissued by University of Illinois. This collection has been followed by Palladium (1986, University of Illinois Press), winner of the National Poetry Series; Powers Of Congress (1990, Godine); and Sensual Math (1995, W.W. Norton). In 1991 she received a MacArthur Fellowship for her poetry and literary criticism. She has also been a fellow of the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry series. Her short story, "Queen Wintergreen," was selected by Louise Erdrich for The Best American Short Stories 1993, and she recently received The Editor's Prize in Fiction from The Missouri Review. Her essay collection, Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, was recently published by Graywolf Press.
Barbara Petoskey: The poem "Some Cool," which appears in your most recent book, Sensual Math, includes the line, "Now when people ask what kind of poetry I write, / I say the poetry of cultural incorrectness." Is that truly the poet speaking? And if so, what do you mean by that?
Alice Fulton: It's not always, of course, the poet speaking. Sometimes I'm creating a persona, but this poem is pretty autobiographical. I was trying to suggest that while lately you hear complaints about the pressure to be politically correct, there's an enormous pressure to be culturally correct, which is never spoken of. The term "politically correct" labels and makes visible a certain stance in the world, so people can resist it and make fun of it. But those who disapprove of PC views also have a stand and a world view. It seems to me that their unspoken, unlabeled stance is culturally correct. It, too, deserves to be made visible and categorized. So when the speaker in "Some Cool" talks about being "culturally incorrect," she's saying she's a cultural outsider.
BP: Do you encourage your writing students to question the dominant culture?
AF: I raise the issue occasionally because a writing teacher has to speak from her own aesthetic. A teacher's singular relation to language and thought is the best gift she has to offer. The truest teaching comes from such a transmission of belief. But I recognize that my interests might not be helpful to all students. So I introduce my own interests tentatively often in the form of questions or assignments. A teacher can present ideas, but students have to take the initiative, pursue the invitation.
BP: Reading this, someone who wasn't familiar with your poems might think that you were totally isolated from the culture. Yet, images from American culture permeate your work.
AF: Yes. Everyone is formed by culture, and I'm no exception. But I often find myself in disagreement with mainstream values. For women, there's cultural pressure to be agreeable, not too uppity. If you're a man, there's pressure to be a regular guy, to like sports, to be able to say: "How about those Tigers?" Well, those are some of the ways in which gender is defined in our culture. My poems aren't invested in those definitions, but they are aware of them. I sometimes think about cultural iconsElvis, for instancein order to understand the impact, attraction, meaning of such phenomena. The intention is to understand-rather than to judge or hold forth. When I write about popular culture, I hope I have a different approach than that found in the media. I'd like to get at the hidden meanings and assumptions of popular culture and see it from a different slant.
BP: I'd like to focus on the first poem in Sensual Math, "The Priming Is A Negligee." It serves almost as an overture to the book by introducing a number of thematic and stylistic elements that reappear later in the collection. How did that poem develop?
AF: For that poem, I actually interviewed my husband, who's a painter. I was thinking about surfaces, and my husband does all kinds of wonderful things in his paintings with the surface. "The Priming Is A Negligee" developed in part from what he told me about the process of physically putting the painting together: building the stretcher, stretching the canvas, priming the canvas.
In the poem, that process becomes a metaphor. It's a poem about betweenness, about things not touching, a concept that comes up a lot in the book. What comes between two things is the quality of thirdness. It can be an interruption, it can be a cushion. But I see it as a rebellious force, something that breaks up binary thinking, positions such as Self and Other, the mind/body separation, all the classic dualisms. If you mix a third into it, then you have a more pluralistic and less stable structure, with less equilibrium. I'm interested in what comes between two things and pushes them a little bit off balance, perhaps.
The priming comes between the canvas and the paint as a shield and a cover. Without the priming, the paint would actually eat away and rot the canvas over a long period of time. One of my interests has always been covers, shields, facade. I've always had the desire, on the one hand, to unveil, to be very truthful and naked, in a sense, in the poems. And then there's also the desire for self-preservation that's very deep in humans, to pull back, to be more guarded. The battle between estrangement and engagement has been there since my first book.
In this poem I give examples of covers, like sunshade, because as I say, "The nihilist is light." Usually we think of light as being the great positive with its religious connotationsGod is the light, Jesus is the Light of the world. But, in fact, light is also the great corrosive force.
Then the poem uses the example of typesetting. Without the leading that printers put between the words to hold them apart, you'd have this black moosh of letters that made no sense. So again we have the white space as a kind of priming, a cushion.
Finally, the poem builds into a scene of sexuality. The last line is, "The lovers / touch in linen walls." Not the most positive ending, actually. But it's ambiguous, and I prefer that in poems.
BP: Certainly "negligee" is a very loaded, very sexual word. That contrasts with one of the poem's lines, "The canvas / needs more veil," and the echo there of Emily Dickinson, who's had a strong influence throughout your work.
AF: Yes, Dickinson has a quote in her letters, I believe, where she said to her brother Austin, "I find I need more veil." By that I think she meant she wanted to reveal less personally. I've always been moved by that quote. I was thinking about Dickinson when I wrote this poem. I see some influences syntactically. "There is a gownthat breathes / / and a gown-that heats. One to hold, / one to release." Even the word "gown" is a 19th-century word.
BP: Certainly the negligee covers but in a provocative fashion. It invites removal.
AF: Yes. And a veil is a resonant image for poetry because if I get everything from a poem on the first reading, I am completely uninterested.
BP: A prominent feature throughout your poetry is the way you use various levels of discourse and often incorporate language or description from a broad range of subjects. For example, in this book you use details of everything from pig slaughter to film direction. What is your strategy in doing that?
AF: Some of the work uses a splicing, collage effect of intertextual quotation but more often I rewrite what I find and merge it into the poem more cohesively. It's a way of using the full range of the language. There's so much in American English that's wide-ranging and lively and funny. I don't want to exclude any of it.
Poets always seek metaphors. I guess I draw metaphors from less usual places. Also, I write about what I'm interested in. You mentioned the poem "Some Cool," which includes some details of pig slaughter. I'm moved by animals' inability to defend themselves. It follows that the details of how farm animals are raised and slaughteredand the language that's used to describe those animalsare moving to me.
A poem hits the high lyric notes by means of ravishing language. However, certain once-beautiful words have been cheapened, made trite by overuse and misuse. "Angels," "desire," "light," "wild"these words have become an easy means of decorating a poem with a lyrical patina. Poets have to re-invent a language commensurate to their contentand discontent.
A poem that thinks about pig slaughter engages aspects of human experience that are not lyricalto say the least. Such actualities are hard to confront, but they have their own necessity. One of my aims has been to write a poem that embraces as much of the world as possible. I'd like to make all levels of diction available to the poem, so that the high lyric mode might lie down with the debased, vulgar, and ugly, if necessary.
BP: Examples of these various levels of diction occur throughout Sensual Math, often in a lighter vein. For instance, in the sequence "My Last TV Campaign" you use terms like "SWISH-PAN" or "ZIP-PAN," borrowing the language of Hollywood script writing.
AF: I also use the language of advertising, TV production, copy editing, botany, and real estate. It isn't really jargon, because it's readily understood, but you can hear that it's not the language of lyric poetry. And when you bring in the language of advertising, you immediately begin to think about questions of manipulation and consumerism. In part, that poem is about manipulation and artifice and how the world is mediated. One of the ways it's mediated for us is by advertising. But I was also thinking about ways that nature manipulates itself.
BP: Such as the flower described in the poem.
AF: Yes. The bee orchid manipulated its own bee-orchid self to look more like the bee in order to sell itself more effectively. To say to the bee: I'm desirable. Come pollinate me. And that was a successful strategy. There's a division made between the natural or "real" and the imitation or "false." In fact, nature is a great imitator. Evolution in nature is founded upon manipulation, strategizing, and imitation.
BP: The variety of language in the poems seems to indicate that you have a fascination with how things work. Do you just stumble onto topics or do you become interested in something and research it?
AF: The poems are derived very much from my own interests and sometimes from things suggested by other people, such as when my friend and colleague John Holland suggested we both work from the same article about the bee orchid. I never would have written about that if he hadn't suggested it. The same thing for Daphne and Apollo. That topic was suggested by the poet Michael Hofmann. He was putting together an anthology in which each poet was to take a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses and rewrite it, revise it, go wild with it as he bravely told me. Then the critical question became how to connect that suggestion to something that had meaning to me.
BP: So you and the other contributors to After Ovid were writing from a commission or "assignment." Do you ever give your writing students assignments?
AF: Yes. The assignments are often specific to the student's needs, as I see them. But sometimes I like to give random assignments. Part of the fun of any commission lies in the imposition of questions one wouldn't have raised oneself. The limitations and assumptions of the assignment have a value of their own. This past semester I made a list of twelve writing assignmentsideas taken from my own notebook. I numbered them and asked each of my twelve students to choose a number, which became their assignment. I like to give fortuitousness a chance to make itself felt.
BP: You mentioned earlier that there's much in American English that's funny. Your use of humor, double entendreeven puns-throughout your poems is very effective. For instance, the serious poem about pig slaughter begins by talking about pig lights on a Christmas tree, saying that "Each hog is rendered into darlingness." Or in "My Last TV Campaign," you write that TV must be "visual velcro" that grabs channel-surfers very quickly. What are you trying to do through this use of humor?
AF: Humor is one of the ways in which firm positions can be undermined. All sorts of authoritative, entrenched cultural positions can be tweaked by humor. Humor is a great disruptive force a way to question what is — and I think it's a force considered suspect in poetry.
There seems to be a notion that as soon as something is comic, it's not serious. But I think the greatest pain also gives rise to the greatest need for humor. What can you do with suffering that deep? We try to go on by seeing the dark humor in it. So humor is one of the strongest survival strategies. That's how I've tried to use it.
I want the poems to have the full range of emotion, including some of the more unwieldy emotions that poetry has not seemed to address. Desire — that's the great lyric subject. I won't even use the word if I can avoid it, it's so overused in contemporary poetry. Poetry talks a lot about wanting and desiring and losing. Sometimes it sneaks into my poems too, but I feel that ground has been amply covered by other poets. I've become more interested in emotions that can be quite strong that are often not written about in poetry. I think Dickinson was a great one for the nuances of feeling, and she directed me toward this too.
One untouched emotion I've written about in this book is embarrassment-for example, in the poem "About Face." This gets back to the idea of surfaces and the need for cover and veiling. Embarrassment is an experience where one's veil is torn away. Suddenly one is exposed, naked. I'm fascinated with the feeling of embarrassment — why it happens, what it means to the self—because it's so connected to the creation of the self in terms of facade and culture.
I've also written about guilt. Guilt is often construed as entirely negative, but I think it can be a catalyst for atonement.
BP: When you say in "About Face." that "At least embarrassment is not an imitation./ It's intimacy for beginners," it sounds at first like a flip, funny comment. The humor ushers you in, and then you recognize the kernel of truth.
AF: I think being embarrassed in front of someone is one of the most intimate things you can do. And one of the most intimate things you can witness. People might pretend to laugh or pretend to cry or to feel something they don't feel, but no one fakes embarrassment. So when you're privy to it, when you have that opportunity to see someone be embarrassed, or when you are the one being embarrassed, there's a moment of great intimacy and discomfort. "I like a look of Agony / Because I know it's true — ." From Dickinson.
"About Face." talks about Elvis, and how later audiences felt, perhaps, a little embarrassed by Elvis because he was fat and a bit grotesque at the end. There was that moment of intimacy between audience and performer when the audience is wondering: Am I implicated by being here? Am I part of his embarrassment? Am I tainted?
BP: The other person responds with mutual embarrassment.
AF: Yes, so there's reciprocity. As the line you quoted concludes, "It's "intimacy for beginners, / the orgasm no one cares to fake." We think of sex as being the ultimate moment of intimacy. But, in fact, there are others in the continuum, and they are as involuntary as orgasm can be.
Earlier, I mentioned my interest in the concepts of the natural or "real' and the imitation or "artificial." Why do we value what is "real" in this culture? And what do we mean by "real?" To call something an imitation is to insult it. I'm ambivalent about that. In some places in Sensual Math, my stance toward things is: at least this is real, at least this is authentic. And I value that authenticity — as with embarrassment. In other places I say: Well, sometimes an imitation is better. The poem "Fuzzy Feelings" has the line "I'd rather wear vinyl than hide." Real leather, hide, entails suffering. Vinyl is more beautiful, ultimately. Also, I'd rather have a facade—an imitation face, vinyl — than hide from the world. I'm talking about our notions of what beauty is. And more particularly the notion of what is natural, what's unnatural, what's real, what's imitative.
BP: You play around a lot with those ideas in "Vanishing Cream," when you talk about a black vaudevillian who performed in blackface. Then you carry that one step further to "femmes in femmeface." That word "femme" intrigued me. What do you mean by "femme" in this context?
AF: While I was reading about the history of musical theater, I learned of a vaudevillian, Bert Williams, who worked in blackface even though he was black. To me this meant he was putting on the cultural idea of what the white audience wanted the black man to be. This was around the turn of the century, and he knew that in order to be on Broadway in this sort of Step 'n' Fetch It show, he couldn't just be a black man, because that was too real. He had to put on black makeup in order to fulfill the cultural notion of what "blackness" was.
I extend this concept to women and show a woman putting on her makeup. She's putting on "femmeface," or the cultural notion of what femininity is. She's putting on a feminine mask.
BP: You mentioned Elvis a little while ago. Sensual Math is full of what I started thinking of as "Elvis sightings." You use him in so many ways: the young sexy Elvis, the old fat Elvis, references to his music. What is Elvis doing for you metaphorically throughout these poems?
AF: A number of things. I was never an Elvis fan, so this doesn't come from my own life. But it doesn't have to, because Elvis has become a cultural icon. I was trying to understand what he means to people.
He appears in "Some Cool" when I'm quoting an Elvis cookbook, Are You Hungry Tonight?, and there he becomes what people have instead of Christ these days. I'm not a Christian either; it's not that I think they should have Christ necessarily. But I think there's a religious aspect to Elvis—he's called the King, people refuse to believe he's dead, he's resurrected daily. In many ways he's become a godlike, Christ-like figure.
Also, in "My Last TV Campaign," there's a section called "Elvis From The Waist Up." Elvis was a construct in his own life. He dyed his hair black, he combed it in a certain exaggerated way. He created a facade for himself. Ed Sullivan would only show him from the waist up. We think of the lower body as being more sexual and natural. So it was the constructed, artificial part of Elvis that was allowed to be shown.
For most of America, Elvis was completely mediated by screens, either a TV or movie screen. How many people who like Elvis or listen to his music ever really met him? He was always in a box, he was always mediated. And the poem "My Last TV Campaign" is about construction: how the bee orchid constructs itself to resemble the bee and how an advertising campaign is constructed to sell the blurring of boundaries. The poem is about the ways in which people construct their own self-images, and how those constructions are formed and interpreted by the screens of culture.
Elvis also appears in the last sequence called "Give," the reimagining of the Daphne and Apollo story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. I wanted to revise the story radically and make it contemporary and American. When Ovid wrote, that myth was alive within the context of Roman culture.
In the original myth, Cupid and Apollo have a feud. Cupid hits Apollo with an arrow that makes him fall in love or lust with Daphne. Cupid also hits Daphne with an arrow that makes her despise Apollo. In my retelling, Cupid sends Apollo and Daphne two "hit" records, which take the place of arrows. By listening, Apollo and Daphne are permeated with Cupid's wishes.
I turned Cupid into a type of Elvis, and Apollo into a version of Frank Sinatra. To be more accurate, they're composites. They metamorphosize. Cupid is part carnivorous plant and Teenage Ninja Turtle. And the two — Cupid and Apollo — share each other's characteristics. Their boundaries merge. Apollo loses his lyric powers of god-like speech and is infused with Cupid's banalities. He begins spouting imitation Elvis lyrics — which I wrote myself.
I chose Cupid to be mainly Elvis, because Cupid is traditionally this cute, fat, cuddly little god who's impish and bad. A rebel. But he's also sometimes construed as a beautiful young man. He wasn't suave and sophisticated like Apollo; he was closer to a rock-and-roller.
I had fun with the characterization. I learned that Sinatra once called rock-and-roll a "rancid aphrodisiac." Of course, both Elvis and Sinatra recorded "My Way." I don't know if there was any rivalry over that. But I think Elvis probably had some negative feelings toward Sinatra. I used those biographical things, tying them into the feud between Apollo and Cupid.
BP: And you get extra duty out of these biographical facts, as when you have Cupid send Apollo a record on the SUN label.
AF: Yes. Elvis started out with the SUN label and Apollo had a Sun cult.
There's a lot of twinning in the poem. Cupid and Apollo are twinning; they're like each other more than not. And Apollo had a twin sister named Artemis who was also called Phoebe. Daphne falls in love with Phoebe; she becomes a kind of Phoebe imitator and runs through the forest with a band of women. In certain versions they have no associations with men, and there are lesbian connotations.
It took me about eight months to write the sequence. I didn't want to turn Daphne into a tree. But I had to admit that, at the deepest level, that aspect of the myth seems culturally true. In a certain sense, being turned into trees is still what happens to women. And I wanted the myth to be culturally true rather than revisionary or utopian.
But before Daphne turned into a tree, I wanted her to have some other outlets and options. In parts of the sequence she has the traits of an electron, dark matter, light, a dolphin. She speaks lines from Dickinson and Marianne Moore. I also based some of her characterization on Amelia Earhart and Annie Oakley. Annie Oakley liked guns, and Daphne was a hunter. And the fact that Annie Oakley's real name was Phoebe—the goddess imitated by Daphne-seemed an uncanny coincidence.
BP: Though your Cupid's weapon of choice is a record rather than a bow, arrow imagery does appear in "Give" and elsewhere in the book. For instance, in "Echo Location," the last poem in the first section, you say "The Norman name for quiver-grass / was langue de femme." Later the poem will "remember a quiver is a fist / of arrows and the arrows' case," and conclude with "the arrow / resembles the bird it will fly into." What uses are you making of the arrow imagery?
AF: In "Echo Location," I wanted to think more about themes that recur throughout the book: interpenetration, breaking down of boundary, ripping. The first section contains images of ripping open. That can be good and bad. Penetration is sexual, but it's more than that. It's deep in nature, it's in the genetic code where chromosomes intermingle from both parents.
I almost called the book "Quiver," because "quiver" connotes both the power and agency of the arrow and the suffering it causes. Also, it can refer to good feelings. You can quiver from pleasure, from joy, from anticipation. In "Echo Location," the first lines are "Stop quivering / while I insert straws in your nostrils / and wrap your head in cloth / I have immersed in plaster." It's an image of penetration, and to me it sounds sadistic, cruel.
The speaker is describing the making of a life mask. The face is coated with plaster, and the maker has to put the straws in the subject's nostrils to keep them open. The poem is involved with issues of facade: making the image of the Other with the life mask, copying and imitating. And the notion of permeation, forced entry, and a forced unveiling. The speaker says "I've learned the paramedic's rip." Meaning: I know how to rip open the life mask once it's set.
Earlier in the book, "Industrial Lace" ends with a motion of ripping, but it's very positive in that poem. It's a ripping open that allows you to feel things more deeply, that allows you to touch the surface of the past.
In "Echo Location," the paramedic's rip is much more painful. The next line, "Don't squirm" is, to me, very authoritarian. It's telling someone: keep still, keep perfect while I do this thing to you. Then the poem says, "(But I ran my finger down its spine/ when its back was turned.)" The image I had there was of telling someone: stay still, be the perfect object, be the artifact. An artist creates an object, and there is a certain stasis in the completed form. Don't squirm. But then, as the creator, I want to do something to make it squirm. In a sense, the writer is saying to the world: stop quivering. Hold still while I make you into this thing that has a beginning, middle, and end. That has lines, that has stanzas, that's perfected. But then I want to run my finger down the spine of the artifact and get it going again.
I really love the rough edge, the part that's alive, that's imperfect, that isn't the well-wrought urn. So there is both the wish to have something perfectly contained and the longing to mess it up and see it breathe, see it move.
The poem goes on, "A perfect containment invites trespass." Whenever you see anything too perfectly made-at least for me aesthetically-part of you admires it very much and another part wants to rip it open, if only to see how it works, or disrupt it and see what happens then. To disturb the stasis. Equilibrium can be a very dead thing.
I think that notion is there emotionally in people too. Very often if our lives are too content, too perfect, we confuse it with boredom. We have to make something happen, and very often we get hurt. People take up hobbies like mountain climbing or auto racing, or do something self-destructive like eat a whole box of cookies because they are so bored. There are all sorts of ways to self-destruct in order to feel.
The poem is very much about containment and lack of feeling and the wish to feel anything just to break what seems to be numbness, because only by feeling do we know we're here at all.
Then the poem takes this leap: "I can testify / the tic of prayer persists in nonbelievers." I'm an agnostic, but I've noticed in moments of trial I start saying a "Hail Mary." I fall back on this tic that I was taught in childhood. An empty gesture, I suppose, if I really thought about it. But in another sense I do believe in a great energy or something bigger than we are. I don't know what it is but I'm speaking to it. "Under my distressed surface, under duct tape, / the Hail Mary has a will of its own. / The spirit uses me." The speaker then becomes the one who is being acted upon. The speaker started with agency, saying: don't squirm, sit there and be good. By the third stanza, the speaker is saying, "The spirit uses me. It holds me up / to the light like a slide." The speaker is the one who's being acted upon, who's being ripped open.
That's how the poem gradually arrives at the ending, which you quoted. "You must think a little give / leads to affinities: the arrow/ resembles the bird it will fly into." The speaker starts out as an arrow, the thing that penetrates, and ends as the bird, the one who is penetrated. I think there's always reciprocity, aesthetically, with the artist and the world—art permeates the world but the world permeates the artist and both are changed by it. Also in personal relationships— power, agency goes back and forth between the two people involved. There's no pain done to another without reciprocity.
BP: You say you almost called the book "Quiver." Why didn't you?
AF: Sensual Math was the title I originally had on the book when I sent it to Norton, and I wasn't sure it was a good title. I liked it, but other people didn't always pick it when I showed them a list of titles. So I tried to think of a better one.
"Give," the title of the Daphne sequence, was also a possibility. But I wanted to avoid having a "title poem" in the book. Although "Quiver" seemed to work in the ways we've discussed, I decided to go back to Sensual Math because I liked the idea of people hearing it and not knowing quite what it means. It's not just an oxymoron, because "sensual" is not really the opposite of "math." It's something that readers will have to think about as they read the poems. It involves breaking down binaries. It merges the cerebral, mathematical realm of the abstract, of science, of technology with emotion and sensuality. Usually they're seen as two things apart—although they're not direct opposites, they are different things. I wanted to suggest that emotion is part of precision, it's part of logic. Emotion is a form of reasoning. It begins in the brain and extends to the body. And there is no life of any kind without sensuality. This title raises, obliquely, some of the deep questions that come up in the book. And I just liked the way it sounded.
BP: Each of your four books has a highly coherent structure where the poems are best appreciated by beginning on page one and reading in order to the end. While no one would think of "dipping into" a work of fiction at random, many readers of poetry do exactly that. Is the issue of how to read a book of poems discussed in your workshops or classes?
AF: I agree with you about the amazingly silly ways in which people—even some poets-approach books of poetry. I've heard poets complain because they couldn't finish a book of poems on an airplane. There seems to be an expectation that the book can be read in one sitting—which I find absurd.
The reading of poetry takes patience. It has a Zen aspect. And it has a luxurious aspect. I advise students to read as if they had all the time in the world: luxuriate in the language, the leisurely pace. And read from the first poem to the last, just as you'd read a novel from beginning to end. There's a kind of disrespect in glancing at a poem here, a poem there, and then saying you've "read" that poet's work. And don't like it! Most poets are trying to build a complex structure and orchestrate an experience for the reader through time.
BP: In the contemporary poetry classes you've taught at Michigan, you require students to buy a lot of poetry books. Do students need to be directed to less-visible books?
AF: Students need to be encouraged to buy more poetry books, period. In the literature classes, I usually assign six individual volumes, and we spend two weeks on each poet. Anthologies have their place, but I want students to have a deeper engagement with a poet's work. And yes, student do need to be directed to wonderful books that aren't being touted. Since I don't think quality is connected to popularity or visibility, I often introduce them to books that might not be making a splash but are nonetheless excellent.
BP: In Sensual Math you carry through a number of themes introduced in your earlier books. For instance, you use the word "cascade" several times here, and the opening poem of Powers Of Congress, "Cascade Experiment," established a major theme of that book. How do you find these ideas are developing over time?
AF: I do have an interest in retaining a vocabulary from book to book. In Powers of Congress I noticed I was using a recurring vocabulary, and then I decided to make it a little bit more conscious. I've become attached to certain words because I think they're beautiful. This also comes from Dickinson. In her work she has a recurring vocabulary that I've always found one of the deep pleasures of reading her. "Experiment" is one of her words, "circumference" is another. Some few words she had in common with Emerson or other 19th-century writers. But she made them her own.
You won't find recurring words in my first book. My tendency then was to use a wide, diverse vocabulary. If I noticed myself using the same word twice, I changed the word. Now, if I think it's an enthralling word, I'll use it again. My aesthetic went through a sea-change when this happened in Powers Of Congress. Instead of trying to always find a synonym, I began allowing the deep, resonant words to resurface.
I keep all sorts of lists of language, a life-list, so the words naturally turn up from book to book. Some words drop by the wayside. There's an ongoing dialogue, as if I'm writing one long poem from book to book.
BP: The ideas of risk and the sense of equilibrium or disequilibrium also are carried forward from earlier work.
AF: Yes. I think that started with my first book. I studied with A.R. Ammons, and he made me think about loss of equilibrium as a gain. He first suggested the idea that the rough edge, the loss of polish can be a very moving moment, and that anything that is too static tends to be dead. In my first book there are some poems directly influenced by Archie, such as the title poem, "Dance Script With Electric Ballerina," where the dancer speaks of the loss of balance as being an interesting moment in dance.
BP: How does this interest in the loss of equilibrium influence your work?
AF: I have two tendencies that are at war with one another. One is admiration for the beautifully created line in poetry, which is analogous to the beautiful line in dance. I like a line to be sculpted so that you can isolate it and see it as a thing that's good on its own as well as within the overall structure of the poem.
I like to create areas within the poem that are polished and highly wrought and juxtapose them with something that is much rougher. It's a means of creating a varying texture. You get a sheen on the beautiful lines and then suddenly you're confronted with some nubby , woolly, deckle-edge lines — perhaps colloquial, from the demotic, or from another area of discourse like technology-that breaks the sheen. It's like putting red next to green. The red makes the green vibrate. Mixing levels of diction makes each level more powerful.
If the lines were all rough I wouldn't like it. But I do like a certain amount of roughness because it has its own power. A quality of authenticity and of accident.
BP: Which isn't to say that it doesn't require as much skill to create the roughness as the polish.
AF: Exactly. Sometimes you'll be given something from reading or from someone speaking, but still you have to sew it in. You still have to create a context for it. Usually I rewrite the lines. The rough-sounding ones probably have as much mediation from my hand as the more polished ones.
When I write a poem, I have a sense of it as physical. I feel the poem's body as if it were a physical solid with more permeable areas, windows, gaps. I have a sense of how much abstraction I'd like to see in the poem and how much concrete language. The more abstract registers I feel as areas or arenas. They're the light of the mind, the cerebral. And the concrete language feels brick-like, grounded, earthbound, sinewy, sometimes chewy. Both realms give pleasure.
BP: You don't ever appear to be afraid to let the structure of the poem show. It is a construct. A made thing.
AF: Yes. I don't expect the structure to disappear when people read the poem. The expectation readers have from reading fiction is that you become immersed in the story, and the page disappears, the language disappears. You only get the feeling or the narrative.
But poetry always, to a greater degree, calls attention to the language itself. To me, that's one of the great things that poetry can do. Readers who are very used to reading mostly prose tend to value a style or surface that is plain. The wish for transparency is a wish to forget language. To forget that you're reading something that has lines, has stanzas, that's an artifact. Transparency rejects the pleasure that comes from the physical quality of the language itself. And I want that pleasure. It's what drew me to poetry.
I think that one of the changes evident in postmodern poetics is the alternation of transparent and dense surfaces within the same poem. There is less emphasis on unity and smoothness. The process of peering through transparent language—reading with the ease of prose—and then being thrown back to the surface of the words as things in themselves—that shift of focus, that changing depth of field is new to readers, I think. A poem that is built to take the reader through shifts of focal length can be thrilling. It's as if the poem takes over and controls the spatial relationship of the reader to the text. You glide through the transparencies, into the poem's meanings; then, with no warning, you're thrown back to the surface of language, where you cling to beautiful densities, physicalities.
BP: There's also a current of feminism running through your poems. You've written elsewhere that you want this to be "sub-versive" — I love the pun there. How does feminism influence your work and how is it manifested?
AF: I think one of the ways that feminism has been most obvious in American poetry has been the autobiographical poem, where the poet tells a story about her own experience and it has a feminist aspect. That's not how feminism has appeared in my work. It's much more embedded in syntax and ideas. Feminism is there, for instance, in my characterization of Daphne as dark matter, which is the background we don't see. I then bring her to the fore. Give her a voice.
BP: Does practical feminism or feminist critical theory have a place in the poetry workshop?
AF: Of course. The workshop should be open to all ideas and issues. I think most poets would agree with that notion, and yet I've had workshops where the students wanted to censor all discussion of gender. I think they found the issue too threatening. But for myself, I believe that poetry should embrace unsettling questions rather than turn away in fear and imposed silence.
BP: Yet your own discussion of feminism is subtle.
AF: Feminism appears subtly in my work because I like everything to appear subtly. I don't like poetry without mystery or veil, there's nothing to uncover. I like things to be more subtle, no matter what they are, and that's how my feminism has been. It's been insidious, it's been hidden, it's been under the surface-subversive. But I think everything in my work is under the surface. The surface can be read as a construct in itself, but to get to the meaning requires more digging, more thought. You have to stay with the poem.
BP: So reader participation really is critical. The reader has to dig.
AF: Only by the reader participating in the poem does it become a poem. That's one of the problems I have with a very simple, plain surface in poetry. I read it and it doesn't draw me back to wonder, it doesn't draw me back to linger because I understood it too readily. I think one of the functions of density, of omission, of deletion in poetry is to involve the reader in making the meaning. Density forces the reader to slow, to read again, to think more because without that thinking nothing will be apparent. But density also has to have other qualities — such as music, freshness, beauty. There is such a thing as too much density. Then the work becomes unreadable. On the whole, though, I like poetry that has more linguistic veil. The purpose of a veil is both to reveal and conceal. The veil makes one wish to see more.
Barbara J. Petoskey, "An Interview with Alice Fulton, "The Writer's Chronicle, pp. 24-29, May/Summer 1998. Reproduced by permission of The Associated Writing Programs and Barbara J. Petoskey.
Copyright © 1998 by Barbara J. Petoskey and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.