EMILY KENDAL FREY: If I described your poetry as "hesitatingly brave" would that resonate for you?
ALISA HEINZMAN: I feel like I don't know what brave means. Actually, I feel like I don't know what a lot of words mean lately. Calling the poems brave feels really funny to me. They address events that I found and find painful, so if that means they're brave I would think it's in a way that a lot of peoples' poems are.
EKF: Your poems, especially those from the "Brother in the Field" series handle biography with such quiet command, and I appreciate so much the way your images offer themselves to the space they occupy. For example,
kind in their distance.
The hard-starched collars, the flag-heavy video.
Am I late? It seems I am.
These lines are bald, unflinching, and evenly applied-- the softest opaque. People (grandparents) and things (collars, flags, video) do exist. Your world is an actual world. But the speaker seems to float within this real world, neither judging or participating in it fully. ("Am I late. It seems I am.") There's a resigned bravery there.
AH: I think that's a nice way to put it, sometimes floating within the real world. That seems like a common yet totally weird experience, especially during intense and difficult times, right? Like telling jokes in hospital waiting rooms, or feeling like you have to have a decidedly sad face at funerals. It's just impossible to feel fully and properly at the times you're supposed to. So then when do you freak out? In the bathroom, on the bus, at the grocery store. It's been years since I've read it, but isn't that a part of Camus' The Stranger? The guy's mom dies and he can't seem to act properly like "a grieving son". Most of these poems are written about memories of my brother going to Iraq as a medic, and as I wrote them I realized that in pretty much every situation I felt inappropriate and inadequate. Too aware of myself as a part of this public event with so many other families going through the same thing, but also, of course, feelings of terrible privateness.
EKF: What's it like to write poems like these? How do you approach biography in poetry?
AH: Honestly, I'm really looking forward to not writing poems like these at some point. Or at least not poems that overtly address events I was involved with with my family. It feels really complicated. The poems are about me, about my feelings and responses to events because in many ways that's all I can write about here. I'm not in the military and all I can know about my brother's experiences is what he tells me. So there's some of that, things he talked and wrote about, but I tried to deal mostly with myself because that's all I can really know.
EKF: What do you do with the personal when it intersects the political?
AH: The issue of the political, and the political where it insects biography is an ongoing source of anxiety. I've had so many terrible feelings about it. Like using the words war and soldier and deployment and uniform...these words are just huge. They are so difficult. But the public-ness and the political aspect of these experiences are integral to the experiences, so writing poems that completely ignored this--poems that just addressed an absence or something like that, or abstracted the events--felt all wrong. I had so many fights with myself like, "really, are you really going to use the word war again?" and "why can't I use the word war? It's a war isn't it?" But the big words feel distancing, so I was/am always conflicted.
I think it's hard, too, because political poems (and really, I'm not sure what exactly constitutes a political poem) get a bad rap for a lot of good reasons. There's the risk of being a sort of "speaker outside the event" that looks in and judges without being culpable or present. I don't know. Lately I've really liked looking at Wave Book's State of the Union. There's this great range of poems there that deal with the political, the public, whatever, in really thoughtful ways.
EKF: How do you include someone else in a poem without being exploitative?
AH: I really have no idea. This has also been such a concern for me in these recent poems. If to exploit is just to put to use then I'm trying to think of it as, In these particular poems, I put my memories to use and my memories involve other people. Really, over and over, I keep thinking that the best solution I have right now is to focus on myself, be certain the speaker is always a version of me, which sounds, maybe, selfish. But really, if what's there is what comes in through my own eyeballs and ears and hands, then I can be responsible for that, or at least I can answer for that in some way.
EKF: What's your relationship to reading? I know that my relationship to reading (poetry, and all texts) shifts constantly, and I'm always in conversation with myself as a reader, not just a writer. Any current favorite poets or writers?
AH: Reading is definitely a big part of writing for me. I think this is especially true when I'm trying to work through difficult parts of a poem, or think about how to approach the sometimes vague poem-blob in my head in some way...to think of how someone else did it in a way that felt successful to me. The books of poetry that have affected me most strongly in the last several months would definitely be WS Merwin's The Lice, and more recently, Susan Howe's Souls of the Labadie Tract. I memorized a couple of short Merwin poems last month and have been thinking about how reading impacts my writing most when it really inhabits my brain, my day to day thoughts when I'm waiting in line or something, thinking about how a poem looks or feels or wondering at a really weird, magic moment in it, and then trying to bring something of that love to my own writing. Of course, it doesn't always transfer.
Emily Kendal Frey lives in Portland, Oregon and teaches at Portland Community College. She is the author of Airport (Blue Hour 2009), Frances (Poor Claudia 2010), and The New Planet (Mindmade Books 2010).
Alisa Heinzman lives in Oakland. She co-edits the journal CALAVERAS with Sara Mumolo, and is the poetry editor for MARY Magazine. She will graduate from Saint Mary's College of California's MFA program this month and has several poems forthcoming in the SF Public Press.