Lauren K. Alleyne Interview
ML: How does poetry inform your identity and, specifically, your identity as a poet juxtaposed with your concept of yourself in the larger community of joy and suffering?
LKA: My poems are lyric and narrative movements towards clarity of vision. In my work, I look. I look at myself, at nature, at the cultures I live in, at the stories I’m told, at the things I believe, etc., etc. This looking, I believe, is critical because it is revelatory. If I look long and hard enough, the gaps in my vision also become visible, and I discover my blank spaces—what I’m asked not to see, what I don’t let myself see, what I’ve suppressed or rejected— my walls, so to speak. So truly, writing poetry is essential to me because it continuously shapes my identity-- In the looking of my poems at the world around me, I come to know something more of myself, am clearer in my vision of who I am and how I choose to move in the world.
ML: Tell us about your writing practice, perhaps taking us from idea to the finished poem.
LKA: I don’t have a regular writing practice. I often, in fact, envy writers who talk about writing every day or who make unbreakable appointments with the pen or keyboard. I can’t think of a single thing I do every day! I do moderate a writing group, the Dubuque Area Writers Guild, and we meet twice a month, and that’s been wonderful in keeping me on some sort of a regular schedule. But mostly, I write when I want to write. And I may often have no idea what I want to write, but the urge to clear my head takes over at some point, and I have to get to the page. I’ve also realized that sometimes being busy with other things often helps my writing, in that my head gets clogged that much faster, and the urgency of finding time to write comes that much more.
I do also have spurts where I’ll make a conscious commitment to writing every day or every week. These never last very long, but at residencies, for example, I will set up a schedule, and I think because it’s not my norm to do so, I am usually pretty productive!
I will say that what often makes me write are prompts. I love them. Prompts are like the spell in Harry Potter that summons the Room of Requirement—your subconscious answers a prompt in ways that surprise you, and that you probably really need. They’re wonderful keys and I enjoy being opened by them!
Anyway, regardless of the inspiration, I usually get the first draft of a poem down fairly quickly, then I leave it alone for a while. I’ve clocked my revision time to about 5 months. It takes me about that long to get some critical distance and see the poem more objectively. That’s an average. Sometimes I get a poem right away and obsess over it until it’s ‘perfect’ (by which I mean I like it enough that I can think about other things!). Even then, a few months later, I can go back and see what it needs. Oh. And I also have the best reader in the world! My best friend, writer Catherine Chung, is the first person I send any poem to. She’s a sharp editor, and I’ve found that once I decide I want to send a poem to her, I start thinking about it differently—basically I try to anticipate what she might say, and fix it in advance. It’s just another way of gaining distance!
ML: Introduce our readers to Split This Rock & how having this community has influenced your work.
LKA: Split This Rock is an activist poetry and social justice organization. Its foundational belief is that poetry has a critical work in shaping the movement of our society—that as poets we can use our voices for positive and essential change. This is a stance I that really resonated with me. The work of poetry demands our voices and imaginations, our experience and richest language; these are also the tools of social change. It makes sense to me that poets are thus particularly equipped to engage the work of moving our society towards greater consciousness, compassion, and change. In terms of my writing, it has continued to be a great inspiration to me to hear the poets and the dialogues at the festival and in all the other venues that have sprung from the great work of STR organizers.
ML: What prompted you as a poet early on or later in your life?
LKA: I don’t know the answer to that. I was always a strong writer. In my very early teens, I began writing calypsos for my younger sister, who was a singer. I did that right up until I left home for New York. I wouldn’t say that made me want to write poetry, it’s more that I kept writing rhymed verse even after there was no one to sing it!
I actually came to the states to study Radiologic Science and Nuclear Medical Technology. I wrote all the time, loved books, had even scored the highest in the Island in my high school literature exams, but it never occurred to me that it was more than anything I was good at. I’d no ideas about a career or what that might even look like. It wasn’t until my junior year that I became an English Major with the encouragement of some truly wonderful professors. Later that year, I took my first creative writing class, and then my second and didn’t fall in love, exactly, since I already loved reading and writing, but I decided that I was going to pursue what I loved and learn all I could about it. It felt like the biggest risk ever, but, by that point, I couldn’t imagine another way forward. I took that leap.
ML: Were your interests a continuance of your upbringing or a way to escape into a world of your own?
LKA: A bit of both. My mother was a schoolteacher, and she valued books and learning. I was an avid reader, when I was younger, and was encouraged. At the same time, I absolutely escaped into my books. I read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobsey Twins, all of Enid Blyton’s adventure books. I had a collection of illustrated children’s classics and had read pretty much the entire children’s encyclopedia set my parents had bought us! My younger sister HATED my reading because she’d claim that she’d call my name over and over while standing right in front of me, and I wouldn’t hear her until she screamed. She never understood where I’d gone, and, I think, really disliked that she couldn’t follow me there!
ML: Have you ever felt your work may be classified as part of a genre, movement or specific group?
LKA: I don’t. I’m an immigrant from the post-colonial Caribbean, which means my literary upbringing, which necessarily heavily influences my writing, has America, England, and Trinidad in it, and yet, is not truly any single one of these. My poetic tribe, if I had to claim one, would be aligned in terms of gender. I think my concerns are rooted in my body and that body interacts with the world first of all in the context of gender. I think of myself as a female poet, more than any other kind of poet.
ML: Do you consider your work to have a recognizable thread that stamps it as your own or brings you the sense that it can be categorized, if only by you in the way that you think about the poems as a whole?
LKA: Ack. That’s a hard question. I was thinking about it recently because I came across a poem in a notebook that I recognized as mine (handwriting aside), but the word ‘trampoline’ was in it, and I thought to myself, 'huh.' That’s not my word! I figured out, shortly thereafter, that the poem was a result of a “poetry game” I did with my class and visiting writer Aliki Barnestone, where you get a pot of words contributed by the group, and write with them. That was how ‘trampoline’ snuck in there. I was struck by the immediacy and the visceral response—I both knew it was mine, and that it had been tampered with by another consciousness. I don’t know, to get back to your question, how I recognized myself on the page. I don’t know, I just do.
ML: As a writer, how do you divide your time with real world demands?
LKA: It’s a challenge. Being a faculty member is demanding both in terms of time and energy. I write when I can and when I must. I have always, though, tried to dedicate my summers to writing —whether at residencies, workshops or just making a point to carve out that time. I try to recruit friends to write with me, I try to participate in things that will make me write. I write, for example, with my students in class and often outside of class as well. I write with the Guild. I just try to incorporate reading and writing as much as possible
ML: What have been the high points of your career? And the low points?
LKA: I just feel so blessed to be living the life I have, I can’t think of low points, really. I was a bit bummed after my book had made it as a contest finalist for the 7th or 8th time-- I felt I had nothing left to give it, and I was failing it somehow. But that lasted maybe a month, and then it was back in the mail… And I really tried to have faith that the right opportunity would present itself. As it did. My book, Difficult Fruit is coming out with Peepal Tree Press in Jan/Feb of 2014, and getting my contract—the ‘realness’ it represented—was a pretty incredible feeling. I’d call that a high point!
But truly. I feel that I have a wonderful life—personally and professionally, and it is poetry that made and continues to make it possible. I’m so grateful to have been able to craft a life from my craft.
ML: What advice do you offer aspiring poets?
LKA: Persevere. Be relentless in the pursuit of your vision. Use doubt as a tool to revise and refine, expand and challenge your vision, but not an excuse to abandon it!