Interview with Alicia Case, Spring 2010
In Capital Letters: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
Alicia Case: I find myself returning to the poets who first stirred me, who helped me find my own voice, and who continue to be my teachers: Emily Dickinson, Jane Kenyon, Marie Howe, Phil Levine, Bruce Weigl, Carolyn Forche, Seamus Heaney, William Stafford, and of course, Rilke.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has inspired you?
AC: Stupid Hope by Jason Shinder. Terrifyingly beautiful poetry—the best kind.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
AC: My favorite part is the emotional and spiritual release I feel after completing a poem—especially one that I feel breaks through a barrier I've been striving to come through. I suppose this is also the most surprising part. Sometimes I feel like there isn't another poem left in me, or I will never reach the form, subject or voice a particular poem is calling for. Again and again I am surprised and delighted to find that there is always more where that came from. The most challenging part is trusting that the poems are always there inside of me, and finding the time sit down and mine them out of me. Though I've tried to be a "daily writer," I'm coming to find out that I need days or even weeks in between pieces to mull over an idea and build up the urgency I need to write. But with that in-between time, I find that the trust issue I've just described can become a hindrance. I think that as I continue to write—and move away from the MFA program and into a more routine life—my writing and I will fall into the routine that's best for us.
ICL: Home and family seem to be a subject you return to in your work. What do the ideas of home and family mean to you? How do you see them influencing your work?
AC: It's been a running joke for some time in poetry workshop that most of my poems somehow always contain my mother, my sister, and a father figure driving a truck through the Pacific Northwest wilderness. But really so much of my poetry is about making connections between disparate—and often painful—feelings, ideas and images, and how in noticing and making those connections through poems, an affirmation for life, despite the pain, arises. I've always seen the notion of family as an endless continuum of love and pain, despite the ups and downs. So, before I even knew the above elements were present in my work, family has been the logical place to start. I've found that several of my other close relationships, mostly those that contain loss and affirmation, have crept their way into my work as I've continued to write. Examining my family and "home" from a physical distance has really helped open me up to explore other human connections through poetry
ICL: How did the time in Scotland influence your work?
AC: I spent almost a year living in and studying at the university in Edinburgh while I was an undergraduate, starting in January of 2004. It was the first time I had ever lived far away from my family, and I happened to pick the darkest, coldest, grayest and windiest place on Earth. I would wake up at 8 a.m. every day and it would still be dark. By 3 p.m. when I would walk home through "The Meadows," a winter-soggy local park, it would be getting dark again, and always, even in springtime when the light started to return, there was this bone-chilling cold in the air. I found myself stocking up on hand-knit sweaters and scarves, a ubiquitous necessity in that wet environment. Walking everywhere in that cold—and missing my family—I found myself becoming so connected to the cold landscape; the hand-knit wool I wrapped myself in became a source of great comfort. My mother, who has always sewn things for our family, began crocheting and knitting and sending me warm things. When I started writing poetry several years later, I naturally returned to this time. Poetry itself is such a warm comfort in the "cold" for me, just as that wool was. The manuscript I've worked on since starting at AU has been very much about the act of sewing and knitting as a metaphor for familial ties.
ICL: You won 2nd Place in the Nimrod International Journal's Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry in 2009 and met judge Marie Howe during the award's ceremony. What did winning an award and meeting an incredible poet mean to you as a writer?
AC: First of all, it was a total surprise. I had spent a full year and half before sending out submission after submission, and subsequently receiving rejection after rejection. I was seriously feeling like I would never get a poem published, despite the wonderful encouragement and affirmation I was receiving from fellow students and professors. Finally, when I thought I could wallpaper my entire apartment with rejection slips, I opened my email one day at work and found out that I was receiving the Neruda award. I cried. Even better than winning was the chance to meet Marie, a poet who I had long admired, and who was just starting to really influence my writing, at the journal's award's ceremony in Tulsa, OK. The affirmation that I could do this—be a poet—had always been there in the support and care of fellow poets at AU, but the knowledge that someone so respected on the outside had connected to something I had written was such a powerful and inspiring feeling for me. I'll never forget it as long as I live.
ICL: What have you learned while being part of this MFA program? How has it influenced your writing?
AC: I have learned everything while being a part of this MFA program! I came in to it part-time, not knowing if I even wanted to be a writer—let alone what genre I wanted to focus on—and everything has snowballed from there. I met David Keplinger in the fall of 2007, and he has spent countless hours working with me, supporting me, and putting up with me ever since. I have been lucky enough to meet several other student poets in the program too, who I continue to share work with, and who have challenged me and taught me so much about myself and my writing. Certainly, the collaboration with other poets and the invaluable professor mentorship this program provided me has influenced how I've learned to write, but I feel confident now that I am writing the poetry at this moment in time that I am supposed to be writing—in a voice that is distinctly mine—surely, a testament to the quality of program this is.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
"Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
I took tap dancing lessons for ten years and was classically trained on the piano for fifteen.
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
AC: The only "project" I seem to be able to focus on lately is writing poems, working on my book, and keeping up with classes and my full-time job. I am hoping to teach poetry some day, so I do spend a lot of time formulating my own pedagogies in my head and on paper.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
Playing the piano seriously again. Travelling the world. Getting a PhD in art or music history.
Poems by Alicia Case
RETURN TO ELK CITY
I saw a mountain lion dead in a pick-up bed.
At the gas station diner, they served mugs of chili
to men in camouflage parkas and pants, their boots caked with mud.
One left his Jack Russell out in the cold.
My sister bent down to the concrete, wrapping it in her arms.
The wind was icy and smelled like snow.
We waited for our father to fill up the tank.
We had come to see the tamaracks stacked up the mountains,
bursts of yellow in pine and the Clearwater at South Fork—two skies
mirrored. I see now, at home,
there are always mirrors—I must come back
to see myself:
A red truck pulled in beside us.
A man got out with his boy not older than I was.
They pulled the tailgate down, their boots caked, and we saw the tongue
roll out of the mountain lion’s mouth.
His paw as big as the Jack Russell who leered and paced
in my sister’s arms—the smell of blood fresh on tarps.
The boy lifted up its head for the camera and smiled.
A Polaroid fell to the ground.
Our father pulled us into our truck, our faces gray as the sky
that looked like snow. We drove on.
Elk huddled in packs inside the fences. No one can hunt
on private land, our father said.
Rain began to beat at the windshield,
soon it was snow.
The day after she died, the pack of blackbirds came for me.
They swarmed the yard outside my window,
hundreds. They picked at the grass and pulled berries
from the trees. I followed them
to the next window
and next as they made a circle around the house: one lifted off,
more followed until they became a black scatter
coloring the sky, not one was left behind.
She was never afraid of what was dark. Death—
black things like crows or ravens or a grave—omens we fear—fear
itself. She drove by Rock Creek at dusk, the lush of trees
enveloping the road
beneath the arced bridges. On one, a man was leaning over the rail.
Her car passed under, she watched as he plunged
in the mirror, his shirt floating up—as if this were something
beautiful—wings beating for the first time.
She would sit under the Statue of Grief,
a woman cloaked in stone, and her people would speak to her.
Me, I have to take pills
for my grief, for my fear
of being left behind. When the blackbirds come,
I am learning listen.