The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How did you come up with the little girl in your piece? Did you set out to create this character, or did her voice naturally develop as you worked on the piece?
Liz Ahl: Well, actually, a version of this girl sat in a row behind me on a New Year’s Eve 1999 flight — so this is a poem based in my own lived experience. I remember being a little annoyed at first at the chatterbox who could not let it rest, but soon enough I was charmed by her curiosity and by her mom’s incredible, loving patience in answering every single one of her questions. I got caught up in the girl’s sense of wonder, which came across as a kind of hunger for the world and everything in it, all the names of everything, and so on. It’s hard to witness that kind of bubbly, innocent enthusiasm for the world without feeling a little bittersweet, without wondering: what happened to my sense of amazement?
RR: In your piece “Everything She Can’t See,” the concept of missing out on your own great accomplishment is exemplified in the contrast between Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s point of view and the little girl’s point of view within the poem. What inspired this juxtaposition?
LA: At the time of the writing of this poem, I was also working on poems inspired by the U.S. space program during the era of the moon shot. I do remember that when the girl started excitedly exclaiming how she couldn’t see the airplane anymore, and the mom explained how she was actually inside the airplane, I felt immediately struck by (and empathetic with) the girl’s plight. How can you see the thing when you are inside the thing? How can we achieve perspective? How do we know whether we’re inside or outside? What a question she was asking! I don’t believe the juxtaposition with the Buzz Aldrin anecdote happened until I was well into the writing process. I remember, though, getting a little excited when I made the connection. I love the idea of Aldrin possessing — at least for a moment — a kind of stunned wonder that was similar to what the girl was experiencing; and I love the idea of the girl tapping briefly into this much more wise and mature sense of distance, of perspective.
RR: Including multiple voices in a piece is often challenging. How did you manage to incorporate so many voices in your own piece “Everything She Can’t See”?
LA: It is challenging! It’s challenging to me primarily because I already nurture so many insecurities about the poetic line, about the balance between what I think of as “song” and what I think of as “authentic speech.” I mean, colloquial conversation isn’t poetry. I do have a memory of taking notes, though, of writing down some of the girl’s questions and her mom’s responses as I sat there on the plane listening to them. I am sure I also invented some of her questions and deleted others to suit my needs with respect to pacing. So it’s not merely transcript, but rather a tonally and emotionally accurate rendering of the dialogue. At the time, I think I was first getting to know the work of Albert Goldbarth, and spending some time trying my hand at longer (to me) poems, and I think his work might have been instructive or inspiring to me here as well. (I’m not sure I’m actually answering your question here!)
RR: How does being a poet affect the way you teach poetry, or vice versa?
LA: Being a poet means two things with respect to teaching which might seem contrary or paradoxical. It means I have enough practice and experience to be of use as a guide to a beginner with questions. But it also means I know, more and more as my “experience” grows, how much I don’t know. The mystery of poetry, weirdly, increases as I read and write more and more of it. All that reading and (re)writing, all that practice — it is somehow both accumulative and perpetually transformative. Like, the more I pile it up, the more it blows away. And so as a teacher I think I can be a helpful guide and a fellow traveler. I easily empathize with the struggles of the less-experienced writer, because I am having them all the time. What I am able to do in the face of my struggle is probably a little different because of my experience, but my struggle is not different or special. Most of my questions are the same as most of theirs: What do I need to say? What am I afraid to say? Who cares what I say? How can I make a song? What is the sound of my voice? What is art for? How will I find the right words? What makes a poem? And so on. I remember being a younger, less experienced writer and reader, and imagining that it would all get easier the more I read and wrote. Maybe in some ways it does. But in huge, central ways, writing poems is just as hard, or harder. I hope that empathy — my role as fellow struggler with (and lover of) language — is a cornerstone of my teaching.
RR: According to your faculty biography on Plymouth State University’s website, your “interests as a poet include performance, collaboration, and cross-disciplinary work.” How do you approach combining your poetry with other artistic forms? Are there any forms of artistic collaboration you haven’t yet tried that you would like to experiment with in the future?
LA: I have loved and learned much from collaborating with musicians who improvised or composed in response to my words, with visual artists whose work I responded to in words (or who responded to my work with their own work), and with other writers whose work I gathered into chapbooks when I was publishing them years ago. Writing in response to visual art, especially, has tended to push me to try new things, poetically. What I haven’t really done much of at all and would like to do is to move past “responding to,” which doesn’t feel fully collaborative, to “creating together.” What would it look like for the musician and the writer to start with the same idea or theme or spark or inciting incident, and move on from there? Or to pass a project-in-process back and forth multiple times, not just once or twice? I hope to find out some day.
Liz Ahl’s work in Issue 2.3: