Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: When reading “Hospitality,” we were struck by the detail of the location. It was as if we could smell the lake, hear the gulls, and taste the salty air. Do you have a personal connection to the poem’s location?

Allisa Cherry: I was mostly raised in rural Arizona but spent several years in Utah and often visited the Great Salt Lake. No doubt, my internal geography was shaped by the spacious and often harsh beauty of the southwest. I’m also a descendent of Mormon pioneers and there’s a legend or folktale that one particularly infested season, the Mormons who first moved into the Utah territory were facing famine due to the devastation of their crops. Of course they prayed and fasted about it and a bunch of gulls came and ate up all the insects and saved the day, which is how the gull became the state bird. There is a very specific olfactory as well as auditory din at this lake. I’m glad to hear the sensation of place carried through here.

RR: I think many of us related to the father’s lesson in giving what you can, even if it is very little. Do you think early lessons like these create a culture of self-sacrifice that goes beyond the hospitable?

AC: Yes! Thank you! I absolutely do and I think that’s at the heart of this poem. I was speaking with another poet in a workshop and he mentioned that the greatest peril of hospitality is that you might give without authenticity. But in my experience as a woman raised in a faith that had very specific gender roles, for me the greatest peril of hospitality is that someone misinterprets it and takes much, much more than is being offered. This poem is informed by the story of Lot and his wife, which some people interpret to be a valuable lesson in hospitality. But just think about Lot’s willingness to throw his daughters to the predators outdoors to protect his guests from being assaulted. Hold that nightmare in your mind a minute. Whatever was intended by this story and whatever Lot apologists might say about it, for a young girl it’s one of many terrifying messages the Bible contains about our expendable bodies. And yet, I’m also governed by this particular value. It’s shaped my career and informs my political views. So it’s a bit of a conundrum for me.

RR: When writing a piece that includes numbered sections, like this poem, do you ever play with the order in drafts? For instance, switching I and III to see if it offers something different.

AC: This question just made me go back to the final copy and read it with I and III inverted to see if I missed an opportunity! I rarely write in sections like this, but when I do it’s because the through-line of the poem isn’t the narrative but an effort to understand an idea. And often the idea is a bit fractured and can only be understood in pieces. I do like the flexibility of this form. It’s a tidy way to manage an overwhelming topic.

RR: We were interested to learn that you teach workshops to help immigrants and refugees transition to life in the United States. Can you tell us a little about your work, and how it influences your writing?

AC: Absolutely. I work in the workforce development side of a community college. I helped create and now co-run a program that assists newcomers in acquiring skills and resources that will help them attach to family-sustaining wages. There’s an English language learning component to the classes as well. The work never slips into my poetry, topically speaking. But it does make me think about language all day. What are the best words here? What is the information someone most needs to be safe in our community and how can I package it so it can be fully received? I think that line of questioning has informed my writing. Language can be quite ornate and completely empty. We see that all the time in academic writing and political speech, I think. But a simple sentence can be overwhelmingly lovely if the freight it carries gets where it needs to go.

RR: What simple, inexpensive pleasures bring you joy in life?

AC: I think I should probably say reading here. But the first thing that really popped up for me is riding in a car. I’m a passenger in the front seat, rolling away from the city. I have full control over the playlist. Nobody says so out loud, but everyone thinks I have exquisite taste in music. And I have a little notebook in my lap and I’m just writing down thoughts every now and again as they surface without any pressure on what happens next.


Read “Hospitality” by Allisa Cherry in Issue 11.1.