20:2:49-63, spring 2005.
Reproduced by permission of Folio and Lauren Fanelli.
“Triptych For Topological Heart,”
Lauren Fanelli, "Stranger Inclusions: An Interview with Alice Fulton," Folio 20:2:49-63, spring 2005.
Works discussed: Sensual Math, Felt, "Close," "The Permeable Past Tense Of Feel," Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, "In The Beginning," "Slate," Palladium, Powers Of Congress, "Silencer," "Failure," "==," "Immersion," "Warmth Sculpture," "Duty Free Spirits," Feeling As a Foreign Language, "Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic," "Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions," Cascade Experiment, "Shy One."
Topics discussed: Motivation for writing, Emily Dickinson, creative influences, feminism, formative education, early workshops, teachers, politics and ethics in poetry, content, process of writing, personal prosody, A.R. Ammons, enjambment, the shape of the poem, keeping and using notebooks, Fine Arts Work Center, philosophy, inclusions, right-justified lines, Robert Kelly's The Cruise of the Pnyx, suicide, Joan Mitchell's White Territory, the line and line breaks, italics, the poem plane, impulsion, syntactic doubling, revision, obsessiveness, closure, embodiment, eating, carnivorism, compassion, the bride sign (==, double equal), torquing repitition, non-recoverable deletion, metaphors and concepts of science, fractal poetry, form wars, John H. Holland, book titles, title poems, reading other writers, Cornell.
Alice Fulton is the author of six books of poetry—including the 2004 publication of Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems—as well as a collection of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language, and numerous short stories. Her many awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Michigan Society of Fellows, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also the recipient of the 2002 Rebekah Johnson Bobitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress. Currently, she is the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I first met Alice Fulton at Cornell University in an undergraduate poetry workshop. I came into the class writing awkward prose poems and left with the feeling that I had found my voice. She taught me the risk of the line break, the value of revision, and the dual rebellion and elegance of poetry. With her ethereal presence in the classroom and quiet steering, she validated this rather tumultuous craft. Yes, I thought, this is a poet. In thinking of someone to interview for this 20th anniversary of Folio, I could think of no one's work I felt closer to, or anyone's brain I'd rather pick. After a few months of correspondence via email, the pay-off proved invaluable.
Folio: Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember writing your first poem? What was it about?
Alice Fulton: I think I wrote my first poem when I was nine or ten. I don't remember writing it, but I remember what the poem looked like; I can see my large, loopy, wannabe Palmer Method handwriting on the page. It was more of a verse than a poem. There was a horse in it, and it rhymed.
Folio: Why did you start writing?
AF: I probably started writing because I loved to read. I liked A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, and Robert Lewis Stephenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. My first poetry reading, in the third grade, actually a recitation by heart, was of a verse by Milne that begins "Christopher Robin had sneezles and wheezles / they bundled him into his bed." I also enjoyed Dr. Seuss for all his fun rhymes and word play. As a child, I liked to write compositions; they came easily to me, and I regarded them as a chance to be amusing or express my views. Speech is such an inexact means of expression, fraught with dangers of miscommunication. I thought writing provided a better chance of saying what I meant in the best possible words.
And I felt if I wrote I might be understood by someone, somewhere, sometime. Writing is a way to counter loneliness or "onliness:" the feeling that no one is listening, that you live entirely alone. I sensed it was a means of conveying the deepest aspects of the self: experiences, feelings, ideas, that otherwise wouldn't be understood. Maybe, too, I valued the chance to say something without being interrupted. I think I imagined a reader attending to what I'd written, someone who wouldn't dismiss my thoughts. It was as if the best part of my mind stepped forward and spoke when I wrote. My stumbling, gauche, shy self was replaced by this more articulate, sometimes funny being. I felt mute until I wrote, mute or communicating only in vague and clumsy ways. Writing somehow made me discernible. To this day, I find it hard to express myself when I'm not writing.
But more than all this, I was thrilled by the notion that writing saves us from time. By writing, I thought I could save little bits of my life from nothingness. Of course, I wouldn't have said it in these words! But I think this is what I felt. Writing was a saving grace, in both senses of the phrase.
Folio: It's clear that Emily Dickinson has played an important role in the trajectory of your own work; you pay homage to her person and her work in epigraphs, titles ("Split the Lark"), or by including her in the body of your poems. Can you speak to the effect she has had on you?
AF: I still have the first little gift shop-type book that introduced me to her poems. I must have been around 12 or 13 years old. The punctuation had been normalized, and her poems had been given generic names; it was a completely unscholarly book. But the words were there, and the feeling in her poems so eloquently spoke to my own feelings. I was despondent in high school: a strange, inward, solitary creature. It was one of the more dreadful periods of my life, and Dickinson's poems perfectly described my feelings. Favorite poets come and go throughout one's life, but she is one whose work deepened for me as years went by.
Folio: Who else, in any creative genre, have you drawn influence or inspiration from?
AF: As a teenager, I was obsessed with popular music: The Beatles, but also lesser known bands such as Love, Earth Opera, Argent. The solo albums of Jack Bruce. Bonnie Raitt's early records. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Mose Allison, and countless others. A musician friend, Jon Randel, greatly affected my life, expanding every horizon. I'm not musically gifted, though. If I weren't a writer, I might have become some kind of visual artist. My husband, Hank De Leo, is a painter, and conversations with him have affected everything I've thought and done for the past thirty years. Hank is such a part of my life that I can't really separate his influence from my own aesthetics.
I began my undergraduate studies at Empire State College in 1974, during the heyday of feminism's second wave. In retrospect, this seems the most creative period of my life. Without the feminist movement, I doubt that I could have been a writer. The first course I took at Empire State was "Woman Poets," taught by Carolyn Broadaway. Callie assigned every book published to date by Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, along with an anthology called No More Masks! She also brought the seminar to the Women's Poetry Conference at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where we heard Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, and others give readings. There was a Q & A with these writers, but I was too shy to say a word. To me, poets were like rock stars, unapproachable.
Once I started writing poetry seriously, my work was influenced by every poet I studied with. Empire State arranged a poetry tutorial for me with the poet Lyn Lifshin, and it was through Lyn that I learned about the small magazine publishing scene. I began attending a workshop of local poets affiliated with a journal called Washout Review. The poets in this group were just far enough ahead of me to teach me something. After college, in 1979, I moved to New York City and studied with Thomas Lux at The Writers Community. Tom was an excellent close reader who helped everyone value freshness of language. Then in the early eighties, I went to Cornell for graduate school, and studied with A.R. Ammons, Phyllis Janowitz, Kenneth McClane, and Robert Morgan, all amazing teachers.
Many poems in Sensual Math and Felt were commissioned, and the assignments were certainly an influence. Commissioned poems are hard because it can take so long to write something that arises from your deepest engagements while fulfilling the requirements. But that sort of imposition can be a source of growth. You're forced to think about things you wouldn't have thought about otherwise. There's a serendipitous element. "Close," the first poem in Felt, is the result of being asked to write about any work in the University of Michigan Museum collection. My husband's painterly eye, vocabulary, and knowledge certainly influenced that poem. A few years later, my friend Keith Taylor invited me to contribute to an anthology of poems about the Huron River in Michigan. That was a tough assignment because I didn't have much of an affinity with that river. I learned that some people were worried about a slaughterhouse near the river because it would pollute the water. Since I deeply care for animals, this was an entry to the poem that became "The Permeable Past Tense of Feel." The disgust and impatience I felt had to become a self-critique. I wanted this process—the shift from judgment of others to critique of the self—to be in the poem: "How have I left the earth / uncluttered with more me?"
Folio: How much of your work serves as a political/ethical soundstage for you? Do you feel it's important for poets to publicize their views through their chosen medium?
AF: I don't think of it as a soundstage. That's too close to a grandstand or soapbox, somehow! I try to look at a subject — whatever it might be — from as many angles as possible. I make a conscious effort to engage with the inconvenient aspects of content, things that might not be easy to write about and for that reason aren't written about. It's an ethical stand, yes, but all poetry has ethics — whether acknowledged by the poet or not, whether intentional or not. All poetry is political. "The personal is political." The old slogan holds true. If I'd written a poem about the Huron River but chosen to ignore the slaughterhouse, that omission would have been a political choice, though people might not have regarded it as such.
Even purely autobiographical poems rest upon assumptions suffused with ideology. Either wittingly or unwittingly. If we write about what means the most to us, it follows that our passions will permeate our work. Every choice we make is political. It's important to write mindfully, pressing assumptions, rather than write the sort of poem that seems popular.
Folio: Your poetry runs the gamut — from Dance Script With Electric Ballerina through Felt — of structures and forms, some sprawling, some tightly concise. Do you usually write a poem "raw" with rudimentary structure and then keep revising it down to a shape that the poem feels comfortable in, or is the "final" shape more or less in the buds of your original conception?
AF: My ways of composing have changed over the years. But the shape of the poem is present early in the writing process. For instance, in Dance Script, a prefatory poem called "In The Beginning," was written much as it appears in the book. As I remember, it was an easy poem to write, there was no struggle, and revision was probably limited to deletions and work on the music of the line. There were no major overhauls.
Felt also is prefaced with a poem, "Slate." This is the earliest poem in the book, and its form was an inextricable part of its composition. "Slate" is about the thrill of possibility inherent in beginnings. The prosody, with accents on the first syllable of each line, stresses incipience. If you look at the left hand margin of most poems, you'll see lots of prepositions, articles, conjunctions — unstressed words that carry little weight of meaning. The lines in "Slate," on the other hand, begin with adjectives, nouns, and verbs. The formal intent was to frontload the line. This prosody was influenced by A.R. Ammons, whose lines often begin with a stressed first syllable.
The most conventional lineation ends each line with a strong word, such as a noun, and begins the next line with a preposition. Each line follows grammatical, syntactical pauses. I've heard it said that such pauses are "natural," in keeping with the speaking voice, but if you listen, people pause at all sorts of awkward places, not at syntactically graceful places. Anyway, "naturalness" is not part of my poetics; it's not something I care about. Rather than creating each line as a complete syntactical unit, I wanted a ragged right effect, a jagged sense of enjambment, a gesture that would leave the reader hanging for a moment. And so many lines in "Slate" end with "function words," prepositions, articles, conjunctions, or prefixes that create a more hesitant, uncertain sort of music:
dense blank screen, un-
reckoned rock complexion, the tablet un-
chalked with take and scene, opposite of
Has-been, antonym to fixed, the
breadth of before, before
-lessness links with hope or mind or
flesh, when all is
ful-, able, and -or, as
color, as galore, as before…
That's just an excerpt, the poem goes on. But to get back to your question, the poem's "shape" or appearance on the page was written into it from the start rather than imposed later. And this is how I've usually worked.
Folio: Recently, Kyle Dargon, the Poetry Editor for the Indiana Review and the author of the newly published The Listening, spoke to the MFA community at American about his writing process. Interestingly, he told us he writes and revises poems in his head, and then commits the final draft to paper. How do poems present themselves to you?
AF: The process has changed over the years, but I've never composed poems in my head. For me, poetry is bound up with writing: with the pen, the keyboard, my notebooks and what I've collected there. And it's bound up with reading. I need to read the words on the page in order to really see and hear them. I don't read them aloud. I can hear them without doing that. I usually look through my latest poetry notebook before I begin a new poem, and that also is a process of reading. The notebooks are where I collect words, phrases, language, passages, ideas, or titles. The process of collecting or researching (by "research" I mean reading of a certain indolent, haphazard kind) also is crucial.
So poems don't really "present themselves to me." I write toward them; I sketch. Or labor. Or play. Most of the poems in my first book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, were written quickly, in one sitting. As my work evolved, the process became slower and more thoughtful. When working on my second book, Palladium, I tried to write a poem a week. This was my goal at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, where some of that book was written. Powers of Congress, my third book, was affected by my reading of philosophy. I spent a year or two reading essays on the classic philosophical problems — the nature of belief, of being, the one/many problem, mind/body dualism, the limits of altruism, causality, etc. This reading affected the content of that book.
In Palladium and Powers of Congress, my inclination was to get each line, gesture, stanza, or sentence as I wanted it to be before moving on to the next. But some of the poems in my next books, Sensual Math and Felt, were written in a different, looser way. I began with whatever was going on in my life or whatever I felt at the moment. If I had a dentist appointment, I thought about that; if I was angry with someone, I let those feelings into the poem rather than waiting for a more tranquil mood. I wanted to lose some control so that the poems might become weirder, wilder, stranger in their inclusions.
Folio: When did you begin writing in right-justified stanzas? What led you to use this form?
AF: I first used a right-justified stanza in "Silencer," a poem I wrote in the late 1980s. I'd never seen right-justified stanzas before, and neither had most people. Now it's fairly common, but at the time, my right-justified stanzas were unconventional and frowned upon as "gimmicky." In the late eighties, I applied for an NEA grant and sent "Silencer" as part of the application. I didn't get the grant, and back then you could request the panelists' comments. I did this and was sent a few anonymous sentences from the comment cards. I wish I had those comments now, so I could quote what was said about my right-justified stanzas. Today's mileau is much more tolerant, but in the 80s and 90s, the smallest innovations, any departure from a conventional norm, made poetry culture nervous.
I've since learned that Robert Kelly used right-justified stanzas in his 1979 book, The Cruise of the Pnyx. But I wasn't aware of his work when I wrote "Silencer." As far as I know, Kelly is the only poet who used the shape before I happened upon it. (There may well have been others. So many interesting poets are lost and forgotten; nobody seems to be keeping track of what's been written, when, by whom). Kelly calls his right-justified stanzas a "third measure," a "between-rider, or transitional grade between poetry and prose." He calls them "logaoedic" and dedicates this "mode of measure" to "the Queen of Between." To him, the flush right stanzas make a sort of mirror-image of verse. I find all of this very interesting and rich. But my notions about flush-right stanzas were different.
I arrived at that form for "Silencer" because the poem is about suicide, and the sudden clipped finish of the line — it's abrupt termination by white space — seemed right. The right-justified lines evoked interruption; they seemed to end violently, in a violence of white. It was as if someone had taken a razor or exacto knife and run it down that side of the page (though the lines were carefully made, there was nothing random about their composition). We're so used to the gentle, fringed appearance of the right margin in poems that a right-justified margin seems hard-edged, obdurate. The silence of the margin is formalized; the white space seems to solidify.
I used right-justified stanzas again in "Close," the first poem in Felt. That poem focused on proximity: the experience of being too close (literally) to one of Joan Mitchell's paintings, "White Territory." The right-justified stanzas enact the in-your-face proximity of the painting (and the airbag that opens later in the poem) by pushing the eye up against a wall of white. My poem "Failure" also uses right-justified stanzas to suggest a sense of being up against It. But other poems in Felt incorporate both right-justified and left-justified stanzas as a means of destabilizing the poem plane and shifting the poem's voicing or focus.
Folio: Poets sometimes note the thrill of the line-break, the pleasures and the tensions that exist at that edge. How do you locate the line-break in your work? How does it contribute to the visual, sonic, syntactic structures of your poetry?
AF: Poets are so lucky to have the line as a way of making meaning. I think it's why I've never been interested in writing "prose poetry." I don't want to give up the possibilities of the line.
In Felt, I indented stanzas to signal a shift in tone, content, voicing, rhetoric, focus. The indented stanzas require the eye to move a little, to jump a bit, when the focus shifts. This visual cue seemed more subtle than italics, which have been so overused in contemporary poetry. Italics raise the poem plane or typographical surface: they place language in a kind of bas relief. They can seem heavy-handed, portentous. Visually, their effect is somewhat decorative. And so I chose to stay with roman type, which levels the poem plane, and to imply shifts or fractures by means of indentation.
Since the line can be read as a single gesture as well as a part of a whole, each line has its own musical possibilities. Unlike the streaming structure of prose, the line allows structure in small. Each line is a linguistic miniature. Poets can use lineation to counter or encourage impulsion, the poem's momentum. The line adds a strong horizontal dimension to the experience of reading by impeding the eye's vertical rush down the page. The line also offers the chance of syntactic doubling: the creation of one meaning when the line is read alone, de-contextualized, and another meaning when the line is enjambed. There's also the possibility of changing a word's part of speech by placing it at the end of a line. For instance, in the line "Before the blank — full of fresh" ("Prequel," Felt), the word "fresh" takes on the solidity of a noun because of its syntactical placement. But when that line is enjambed, "fresh" is seen to be an adjective: "full of fresh / grain scent and flecked"
Folio: What does your revision process look like, and how do you know, if one can ever know, when a work is truly "finished?"
AF: I seldom, if ever, have revised in the sense of a major overhaul. If a poem needs that much work, I'd rather start a new poem. Now, though, I'm inclined to work the language in a more collage-like way, moving things around a bit rather than composing in linear fashion from beginning to end.
Maybe I'm lucky in that it seems clear to me when poems are finished. It isn't ambiguous. A poem seems finished when I've accomplished what I set out to do or when I simply like it, feel satisfied with it.
I work on one poem at a time, so each is finished before the next is begun. I usually don't mess around with one, then put it aside while I work on another. I am so focused on the poem while I'm writing it that I can't drift in and out of it without losing intensity, losing sight of the whole panoply of complex and singular opportunities each poem presents. Like most writers, I'm somewhat obsessive, and so it's natural for me to focus on one thing for an extended period.
Occasionally, I have gone back months later to rethink the closure of a poem, but that's about it. While writing Felt, I concentrated especially on the poems' endings and tonal affects. I wanted a sense of closure that was oblique without being opaque. I was after a quality of surprise: an unforeseen move that still had an element of the ineluctable. I didn't want the poems to resolve too firmly or resolutely. I wanted the closures to be more transgressive or weirdly slant. I sometimes set poems aside for months and went back only to work on the endings. This was the case in "The Permeable Past Tense of Feel." Early drafts ended with the lines "Lovers, givers, what minds have we made/ that make us hate/ a slaughterhouse for torturing a river?" I knew those lines were too didactic to be the poem's last move, but I couldn't come up with anything else. I put the poem aside, and months later, approached it with fresh energy. It was then I happened on a more oblique ending that still spoke to the poem's largest concerns of embodiment, eating, carnivorism, and compassion: "I like to prepare the heart / by stuffing it with the brain."
Folio: What about the sign you call "a bride" in the poem titled "==." The "bride" sign seems to occupy a double silence, a silence after one word, a silence before the next word. Or in the case of the line "mystery==hinging," the sign occupies a kind of threshold. This makes me think of how the sculptor, Bernini, observed that just before or just after an utterance, a person's face was at its most characteristic. When in the poem is the "bride" at her most characteristic? Is this a way again to tribute Dickinson and her use of the dash, or perhaps to separate yourself from her?
AF: Thank you for your perceptive and fresh reading of that sign. It first appears in Sensual Math, in the poem you mention, the one that uses it as title. That poem and one called "Immersion" are attempts to define the sign while considering perception and creativity. In Sensual Math, I was trying the possibilities of the bride sign, testing it out. I struggled to use it sparingly: only when it could illustrate its own propensities and imply something about content. While writing Felt, I continued to develop the moves that seemed most promising in Sensual Math. Somebody said the sign worked better in Felt than in Sensual Math, and I tend to agree. But readers of Felt might have been a little more prepared for it.
In Felt, the sign sometimes works as level, planing the line, making therelation of one word to another more stark and visually linear. These examples are from "Warmth Sculpture:"
Just the fluid ongoing
no stain == tape == restraints ==
equal to the moment bleeding through.
in the delible
unlingering, precisely this
goldening == dawn == silo == bird
The sign also torques repetition. It appears between phrases that are the same or almost the same. This has paradoxical effects: it stabilizes the line with a redundancy. But it also gives the line a stuttering, uncertain quality:
an immersant, reveler, welcomer
of everything that is == that is
whale fossils with feet, the benefits of
making robots look less like people…
Then, too, the repeated phrase sometimes changes its meaning upon enjambment, and the ground shifts, as in these lines from "==":
… the sentence cannot tell
whether it will end or melt or give
way to the fabulous == the snow that is
the mortar between winter's bricks == the wick that is
the white between the ink
When == is followed by a gap or non-recoverable deletion (a piece of missing syntax that can't be reinscribed with surety) the sign is meant to signal a feral, indecipherable, or excessive state: "…It works. It wilds == // The unknown on both sides of the don't…" ("Warmth Sculpture"). Or these lines from "Duty-Free Spirits:"
… I find the calendar's white cutlets
far too neat. Far too ==
call when you're an impervious surface.
Call when you're in heat.
In "The Permeable Past Tense of Feel," the == sign appears as a framing device around lines whose metaphor derived from the manufacture of felt fabric: "== As hooks pass through, the fibers entangle / till our presence is a double-dwelling =="
I think most of these linguistic possibilities began in Sensual Math, but I maybe worked them out more fully and used them with more restraint in Felt.
Folio: I am intrigued by your interest in the mathematical elements of poetry — of logic, calibration, and fractals — which you speak to in your book of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language. Can you speak to what initially drew you to examine the mathematics of poetry in such a pointed way?
AF: I'm really not interested in math, logic, or calibration! But I am attracted to the metaphors and concepts of science. And I can see why you'd think I was interested in math. As you say, there are two essays about fractal poetry in my book, Feeling as a Foreign Language, and fractals are mathematical in origin. The first essay, "Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic," was written in the mid-eighties. I was invited to contribute an essay to Poetry East's special issue on form. At that time, the "form wars" were raging; some poets were questioning the validity of free verse and calling for a return to traditional meter and rhyme. Before I wrote the essay, I happened upon an article on fractals. It explained that fractals allowed us to perceive form in shapes previously regarded as amorphous. And it occurred to me that fractal form would be a good analogue for free verse, with its irregular metrics and eccentric characteristics. So my first essay suggests fractals as a way to think about the hidden structures of free verse.
The second essay, "Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions," was written more than ten years later. Like the first one, it was instigated by an invitation. Poet and scholar Kathrine Varnes was co-editing an anthology on form, and she suggested that I write something more about fractal poetry. This essay draws upon complexity theory, especially the work of John H. Holland, as a means of extending fractal aesthetics. John is a dear friend, and his interests greatly affected my poetics in the nineties. The essay specifically takes up the subject of postmodern poetry.
Folio: You have some wonderfully loaded titles — Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, Palladium, Powers of Congress, Sensual Math, Felt, and now Cascade Experiment, and each does such a superb job of really locating the book. How do you decide upon a theme, and then a title for your books? Do you find yourself writing certain kinds of poems that share a related link, or do you begin with the conception of the book?
AF: My first book, Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, developed organically over a period of years. I never decided on a theme. If I'm remembering right, I just organized my strongest poems into sections. I think as you write, threads or obsessions begin to present themselves. You don't really need to work at it. It will happen. Then too, you can notice something interesting as you're organizing an early, shorter draft of the book, notice something you'd like to develop. Your poems aren't as unrelated to one another as you might think. I've found book titles to be grounding: once I have the title (and this usually happens fairly late in the process of compiling a book), I often write poems that work from or toward it.
Titles are hard, and most poetry books go through several before one sticks. Dance Script With Electric Ballerina was called Life Above the Permafrost at one point. But when I tried it out on a poet friend, she thought the permafrost was a refrigerator!
The title and structure of my second book came about when I fell for the word "palladium." I'd probably written more than half the poems in the book when I discovered that word and decided to use definitions of "palladium" as epigraphs to the sections.
Powers of Congress was almost called Cascade Experiment. I remember Lucie Brock Broido preferred the title Art Thou the Thing I Wanted, and Diane Wakowski thought it should be called The Orthodox Waltz. As years went by, I wished I'd called it Cascade Experiment, and I finally used that name for my Selected Poems. Nothing is wasted!
Before deciding on Sensual Math, my husband and I looked at a list of every poetry book published recently and played "which title do you like best?" There are styles and trends in titles, as in everything else. At the time, I found I liked an oblique, mysterious, slightly paradoxical, somewhat puzzling, almost oxymoronic coupling of words. Thus, Sensual Math. That title also worked with the == sign, introduced in the book.
I've always liked long titles like Thylias Moss's Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky or Galway Kinnell's The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World. But a terrific long title is hard to come by.
For the past few years, there have been too many one-word titles. That was a concern with Felt. It was such a simple word I could hardly believe no one had used it before. It must have been hidden in plain sight. I was well into the book when I thought of it, and then I began consciously to write toward it. It led me to write poems I wouldn't have otherwise. My editor and friend, Jill Bialosky, helped with the titles of all my Norton books. She always advises, and I heed her opinions.
There are no rules, of course, but I think it's usually better not to have a title poem because that particular piece will be weighed too heavily. If the title of any poem seems the ideal book title, it's worth re-titling poem. I changed the name of my poem "Cascade Experiment" to "Shy One" for that reason. Sometimes, a phrase in one of the poems makes a good title. That was how I found Sensual Math. It's taken from my poem "Immersion."
Wouldn't it be fun to give a yearly prize for the poetry book with the best title? The judges wouldn't read the books; they'd just read a list of titles. Most poetry prizes are serious, as they should be, but this would be more lighthearted. More fun. And we need more fun. Believe me, we do.
Folio: Your newest publication, Cascade Experiment, juxtaposes a sampling of your work from each of your five books of poetry. What is it like seeing the best representative of your career's work contained under one cover? Were there any poems that did not make the cut that you wish did?
AF: I don't really have a sense of what it's like yet, I guess. I suppose I'll inevitably wonder whether I made the right choices. At the moment, I wish I'd included a poem called "Duty Free Spirits" from Felt. But that's minor. Yesterday I was looking at John Kinsella's Selected Poems, and I noticed he'd included an index of titles and first lines. It was the first time I'd seen this in a Selected; I thought only Collected Poems contained those indices. I love indexes of first lines; it's fascinating to see how poems begin. If I'd thought of it, I might have included such an index in Cascade Experiment.
Folio: You have been an incredibly prolific writer-of poetry and prose. Have you ever experienced a dry spell? If so, what brought you out of it?
AF: Prolific. That's encouraging, though to my mind, Joyce Carol Oates or John Ashbery are prolific — not me.
I've had a lot of enforced dry spells because I've taught most of my life, and I can't write when I'm teaching. But whenever I've had free time I've been very eager to write. The only dry spells I've known have been caused by lack of time or by discouragement. I've never found a way around constraints of time. For me, writing requires a lot of uninterrupted dreaming. But I have been able to keep going despite discouragement. The way out is within. Talk to your self about it; encourage yourself. Remember how important writing is. It's inherently important. Just do it. Just write. It also also can help to immerse yourself in writing by others. For me, reading is a great incentive. I also think it helps to work in more than one genre. If I don't feel like writing poetry, I can turn to fiction.
Folio: How does it feel to be back teaching at Cornell, and no less in the office of the school's dearly beloved (and one of my personal favorites) A.R. Ammons?
AF: I'm so glad to be back at Cornell. It's a rebirth of sorts. I value the kindness, fairness, and unpretentiousness of the culture in the English department. There's real intellectual weight here without the preening and backbiting that sometimes arises in academic settings. Coming back was bittersweet. Of course, I wish that Archie were still here; I miss him-as does everyone who knew him. He was an irreplaceable presence; there's no one remotely like him. Every few months, I select a different Ammons poem for my office door, and my husband creates a broadside. As long as I'm in that office, I'd like Archie's poetry to be on the door. He spent so very much time there; it was his home away from home.
Folio: Last question, one I am sometimes stumped to answer for myself when I am asked: Why write poetry? What keeps you writing?
AF: Well, I think we've come full circle! I keep writing for the same reasons I began writing. I'm grateful for the chance to say something about my experience, the chance to express my mind and my life. Also, I love working with language. Poetry is the most inclusive and open genre. It can be about anything, include anything. It requires no conflict or characters, no argument or point. It's inherently oblique, but its reticence is mysterious and beautiful rather than leaden or boring. Poetry makes the most complex and musical use of language. It's hard to give it up once you've discovered its amplitude.
Lauren Fanelli, "Stranger Inclusions: An Interview with Alice Fulton," Folio,Vol. 20, No. 2 (spring 2005), pp. 49-63. Reproduced by permission of Folio and Lauren Fanelli. Copyright © 2005 by Lauren Fanelli and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.