On Longing, Listening, and Levity: Lauren Levin Interviews Alli Warren
By Lauren LevinMay 25, 2017
I FIRST MET Alli Warren through her work, specifically the chapbook Cousins, published by Gina Myers’s Lame House Press series. I remember (this is off the top of my head, so might be wrong, but feels right) a striking blue-and-orange cover. And the way the title so perfectly reflected the work within: deeply striving for connection, but also witty, a little sly, off-kilter. Not brothers or sisters, but cousins. Warren writes the best titles of anyone I know, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After admiring her work from afar, I asked her for poems for a little magazine I co-edited. We got to be friends in some way that neither of us can quite remember, but throughout which I learned that Warren is exactly as generous, funny, and whip-smart as are her poems. When I think of being in conversation with Alli Warren, I think of her questions. She always has a question, even when (usually the case) she knows more than the rest of us. What kind of tree is that, do you think? What’s the history of resistance in the South? How do you walk in high heels?
Warren never assumes she knows, never stops building her mental picture. And that curiosity — a permeable mind and body meeting the world — makes for work that’s exemplary in its combination of lush, sensuous embodiment with sharp critique of material conditions. Her work is wise. It creates worlds that are telling, funny, three-dimensional, and sad. It evolves in the reading. And so these poems don’t just have an ethics and a politics: they are an ethics and a politics, deeply felt, but always changing.
When I first moved to the Bay in 2008, Warren and her work stood in for that exciting and mysterious concept, the Bay Area. After almost 10 years of milling around at readings, curating, organizing, marching, despairing, swapping clothes, and listening to records, her poems and presence still represent the best of the Bay to me: joie de vivre and swagger; vulnerability and self-doubt; color and texture and scent, sensuous life; sense of humor; sense of ethics; a little bit of Scorpionic bite.
Her second collection is I Love It Though. Another perfectly pitched title, in which the “Though” functions as a hinge between Warren’s abiding love of nature, language, and culture, and her despair at the multiplying cruelties and destructiveness of capital, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. If, like me, you’re struggling with how to live and love in the dystopian right-now (while still seeing it, fighting it) you need this book. Refusing to settle, written on the knife-edge.
LAUREN LEVIN: I came across the line “as desire can never perish” and thought about the role of desire in your work. (Like that classic line, “lust before dishonor” in Here Come the Warm Jets.) I imagine you’re relating desire to collective world-flourishing: “I move among loves / as aims that animate.” What links desire to the revolutionary in your imagination? How does this desire relate to consumerist desire (I think of your poem “Protect Me From What I Want,” which takes its name from the Jenny Holzer piece)? Does desire cut both ways? Or is there a difference between “desire” and “what I want”?
ALLI WARREN: I often write in order to figure out what I think and feel, rather than to deliver some didactic or ideological message deliberated upon in advance, so I’m not sure I could name what desire is other than how it emerges in my poems and lived life. Desire for me is a formless, ceaseless, instinctual urge. I think of desire as counter to law and institutions, and for this reason it is a beacon. In that propulsive excess I find a wellspring of energy I can look to for sustenance and inspiration. It courses, sumptuous. And it’s not exclusively sexual or other-directed. It’s also, for example, that sensual feeling of warming a wet body in the sun.
In writing the discrete poems that became I Love It Though, I repeatedly poked at the question of what desiring and longing in romantic and platonic love can tell us about political longing, the thirst for a better, more just world, which for me animates the everyday. The poems kept insisting on thinking romantic love and comradely love together. At the same time, it’s important to me that the writing not flatten the complexities and possible pitfalls of romantic love, such as gender oppression, unpaid labor, and intimate partner violence.
Say I’m talking with a friend, feeling circular and cynical, unable to see how the kind of real, radical change we hope for will practically happen. In those kinds of conversations, which happen far too often, I’m also connecting intimately with my friend over our insistent and incessant longing for another world. In the darkness, this can be a source of sustenance and strength, as we draw attachments to those who have come before us and those who will come after. This connection with the dead, the living, and the future is an animating force in my life. In their various ways, the poems that make up this book say: in order to overcome the systems that dominate us, in addition to organized and diverse material action, we have to be attentive to our desire. I see no life for myself as a poet or political actor outside the transformative power of desire.
In my annals of unwritten projects, one is an essay about science fiction in your and Oki Sogumi’s work. From our friendship, I know that you don’t read sci-fi or fantasy, but I suppose I mean a world-building quality in your writing. There’s a very concrete, sensual quality about the poems, but they’re fantastic, too. It’s the Frank O’Hara “I do this, I do that” poem but the speaker is “toeing the light” or “jabbing my finger in the peephole.” And the emotional tenor of certain images makes me sometimes feel that I’m in a utopia or a dystopia, those sci-fi realms. Does this idea of world-building resonate for you at all? What does it mean to you to create these realms and have your speaker act in, on, or around them?
Lauren, would you let me peer into your earholes for a look at this unwritten essay? I’d love to see what you have to say about Oki’s imaginative and provocative world constructions.
Even though I don’t typically read sci-fi or fantasy, I do read my fair share of history, and when it’s well written, the past comes alive in a way that feels like an inhabitable world. In my writing, I’m not sure I’m world-building so much as world-studying. Histories don’t just reside in books; they are palpable in the everyday materials and circumstances of our lives. Like most people, my daily routine consists of selling myself for a wage so that I can feed, clothe, and house myself so that I can continue selling myself for a wage. And I’m one of the lucky ones. So even while I’m at work sorting some spreadsheet or affecting a smile, I’m conscious of what it means to be doing this, materially, historically. Every commodity, object, affect tells a story — as a poet I want to keep my sensory system open to the richness and complexities of these everyday worlds.
At the same time, I don’t want my writing to be bogged down by facts. I’m not running for office or giving a job talk. I want to create a space in the poems where the reader can enter what feels both familiar (“I do this, I do that”) and unplaceable as past, present, or future. Maybe I have some mystical dumb faith that if we paint an alternative, we can access it. That’s the rosy lens. On the other hand, the dystopian (or what I would call realistic) spaces in my poems are there because they feel authentically true to life. I want pleasure, but life in capitalism means that pleasures are tainted by extraction and domination. I don’t want my poems to shy away from this.
Can we talk about your sense of humor? “[O]n the way to the bar / I pass three other bars.” Is your wit bitter, about the pleasure of language, between you and the reader, something you do to make yourself laugh, all or none of the above? It feels like such an important mode for your writing even as you work with many other affects from anger to melancholy to joy.
Well, thanks for noticing that I have one, Lauren! I often feel like my sense of humor doesn’t come off quite right. Sometimes I get myself into trouble or fall completely flat on my face.
From an early age (do all kids do this?) I took great pleasure in wordplay, and that continues to be where my attention naturally falls. It’s self-satisfying and dynamic, like masturbation perhaps? But being a good partner means knowing how to give as well as receive. As a reader I appreciate when it’s clear a writer has been attentive to what it might be like to be reading this piece of writing. I try to avoid giving a reader or listener that all-too-common experience of slogging through. An ear-catching or humorous line is an engaging way to show care for a reader and to try to forge a connection. There’s got to be some light, some lift, some air, some levity. When someone comes to my house for a visit, I offer them something to eat or drink; that’s just good hosting behavior — I want my poems to do the same.
I read the lines “At the center of the mass / in the scar of my ear / is metal more than / you’ve ever seen / once it touches air / every cop goes poof” and thought about “metal” as a homophone for “mettle.” That you’re describing a scar that becomes a combination of woundedness and valor. It feels as though there’s something waiting to be exposed by pain, that loss opens up a possibility for resistance. What does damage make possible? Is it related to “those who persist in entering breach”?
A scar indicates a wound, its healing, and the time necessary for this transformation. Once the immediate pain is gone, the injury can become an opportunity for strength, resolve, growth. It can also be a site of repeated injury or trauma.
The lines you quote emerged from a conversation in the kitchen at a loud house reading where a friend mentioned a particular element or metal that explodes when exposed to air. That’s about as much as I retained in the swampy green South Berkeley air, plus I’m a D student when it comes to chemistry.
In the poem, I’m playing with the idea of this explosive element as a revolutionary tool one could wield against abusers. The air being, in this case, I suppose, justice. More generally, the poem is conscious of a volatility inherent in intimacy; intimacy could (cynically) be considered a kind of scar-to-be. Yet we must pursue connection to arrive at possibility and renewal. As human animals, we are woundable (though not equally), and this shared condition opens up a space for solidarity. Scars are reminders of our vulnerability and our resilience, and I hope they make us more understanding of the variety of ways people are wounded, woundable, and unevenly exposed to suffering.
The poem dreams that in exposing this commonality to the air, we’ll explosively bring about a world free from the cops of the State, and the cops of our hearts and minds (“once it touches air / every cop goes poof”). The presence of “poof,” a magical act by which blood seems to have disappeared, is what makes this poem utopian, and different from the newspaper.
Could you speak about the importance of the ear in your work (“consult the ear / consult the air”)? The ear and throat often come up as figures in your poems. I also think of you as a poet with an extraordinary sense of language, someone who “goes by ear.” Your poems are so amply voiced, and yet I find an ethics of listening in them, too.
While I don’t have a consistent writing practice — in terms of a set time of day or hours per week — I am, like all poets, always listening. I try to stay receptive to whatever strikes me — whether that’s because it’s strange or disagreeable or delightful or entirely common. Maybe when a real, physical ear appears in a poem, it points to the embodiment of sound in the material world. Also, the ear is a hole in the body, one of the spots where the inner and outer meet, a site of transformation.
I recognize myself in your phrase “an ethics of listening,” both poetically and in lived life where I’m often a listener more than a talker. I really enjoy listening — so much can be gained from asking questions and giving others space to express themselves. And as a white woman, it is important to me to listen and learn from others who don’t have my subject position.
At the same time, I’m conscious of (the terror of) the construction of gender norms, and how from a young age girls are taught to take up less space than boys. So I try to be attentive to why in a particular circumstance I am choosing to listen. But I do think, as a poet, if I am a practiced, receptive listener, I let more of the world in, and my writing can only benefit from that. In the air of the street, the radio, the wind, the subway, the bar, the chatter, the ghosts, I listen for the melody. Music is one of my deepest pleasures, and yet I have no talent for singing or playing an instrument. Instead of composing a melody, I write a poem.
Tell me about the word inflatable (“an inflatable estate / along the lobate plains”; “If you can’t win / with the one you love / love the inflated object”). Is the idea of inflatable related to “the best dreams are those / that fail most comprehensively”?
I love the dynamism of inflatability, of something so changeable, so fluid, it can be filled with empty space, it can swell with air itself. The inflatable embodies versatility, possibility, impermanence. The inflatable thing maintains both a solid perimeter, an obvious boundary, and a skin that is tender, puncturable, vulnerable to deflation. I think of a pink balloon, a womb, a cock, a financial bubble. This possibility of growth, of change, is contained within the thing as potentiality. A flimsy little rubber sack swells and, weightless, wafts up into the sky and flies away. After deflating, our little balloon retains an embodied memory of what it once did, what it once was, and that potential remains, no matter its current state. Possibility is what I’m after; it gives me hope and strength to go on.
I’m interested in the gender or sexual imaginary of these poems. There’s probing and entering and mounting, which often vibe as sexual, though not necessarily phallic. There’s folds and moss and softness. These poems feel wonderfully gender-ambiguous and polymorphously perverse (“to become pliant / in self-enjoyment”; “The Most Oral of Animals”). Part of what I love about this work is its embodiment, and how it makes me feel that the whole world has a body. Anything striking a chord for you around gender, sexuality, and embodiment in these poems?
Thank you for not assuming the phallic, Lauren! I hope no one reads these poems with hetero-tinted glasses, as that’s not their source.
You know, the older I get, the more I realize poetry has always been a realm where I feel a kind of confidence or permission with regards to my body, my desire, my thought. Through prosody I can create a space that feels more authentically accurate to my embodied experience of the world, its complications, constraints, and excesses. Art for me is powerful because it can access prelinguistic knowledge, and this realm feels to me more sexual, sensual, and not as constrained by gender construction and patriarchal policing. And yet, because poems are made from real human language (joke’s on me!), they can’t escape cultural and political referentiality. So any reference to “mounting” or whatever the case may be is necessarily complicated by the specifics of subjectivity, power, patriarchy, et cetera. I can’t think of a post-capitalist world without considering the relationship of violence and domination to eros and eroticism, to coupling and ownership. I want my poems to hold that complication, to express embodiment, sensuality, and physical desire without simplifying my relationship to sexuality, which feels social, cultural. I want my poems to bring multiple subjects, bodies, and expressions into the room at once. I hope that exploring these complications in writing allows me to bring to my lived life — in my interactions with others, in the bed and in the street — an understanding of myself as an embodied being whose gender and desire is larger than its worldly bounds.
Are you a nature poet? (“Carry me away, eelpout / egret without regret / Call me polyp.”)
I was recently invited to submit poems to a nature magazine, so I guess the answer is resoundingly yes?
You know, Lauren, spoiler alert: I don’t understand science, and I don’t really try to. I prefer to ponder. I like to float in the clouds of the natural world. I enjoy my David Attenborough Planet Earth and my Jodie Foster Contact. I find it completely ridiculous to share this planet with such imponderable, innumerable, and wild plant and animal species. How is it that I spend most of my waking hours in a fluorescent-lit office staring at a computer screen on the same earth where a million pairs of penguins live out their own urban civilization on Zavodovski Island?
I think I missed the lesson where past a certain age you’re supposed to be chill about the stars, to say tl;dr about the Milky Way. Or the one about how it’s naïve to look to the ocean for guidance, or how you’re just supposed to accept that giraffes exist, and volcanoes exist, and jellyfish exist, and bioluminescence exists. Whereas the news cycle is a deep dark hopeless pit, the earth is old, it existed before capitalism, and it will continue to exist (though much scarred) after the plague is over. Geologic time is reassuring. An egret is not a venture capitalist. Sure, I may be anthropomorphizing, but it helps, and I also happen to think it’s true. That blooming succulent is not a white nationalist. The black ants racing around my windowsill say “Fuck you” to NIMBYs.
Lauren Levin is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, The Braid (Krupskaya, 2016) and the forthcoming Two Essays (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018). From 2011 to 2014, she co-edited the Poetic Labor Project. She grew up in New Orleans and lives in Richmond, California, with her family.
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