In our July issue, six scintillating poems by Ali Shapiro. Read on, for bursts.
1. When I read â€œIf I Leave You Then Maybe I Wonâ€™t Have To Miss You So Much,â€ I think of it being read to an audience who cheers at every burn. Whatâ€™s your process like? How did you put all of these pieces together?
I wrote that poem start to finish during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I’d spent most of the residency writing quiet, cozy nature poems in my quiet, cozy writing studio, which felt good, at first; it was certainly a welcome respite from what I’d been doing beforeÂ the residency, which was boomeranging around New England in my station wagon, blasting country radio and burning bridges with various exes and accumulating speeding tickets.
But after a few weeks of quiet coziness, I started to get restless, impatient. I wanted to blast country radio, but that would’ve disturbed the other residents. I wanted to leave, but that would’ve been a waste of a residency. So being stuck in that quiet, cozy studio forced me to focus that restless, impatient energy into a poem instead of another angsty road trip. And I allowed myself to just jam those pieces together more recklessly than I usually do, because what I wanted to capture wasn’t a crafted, calculated feelingâ€”it was that restless stuck-ness, the engine revving in neutral, the exhilarated-exhausted assertive-uncertain top-volume feeling of wanting very badly to simultaneously leave and stay.
2. Those bottles you emptiedâ€”had one contained a genie, what would you have wished for?
To remember nothing. Then to have everything back. Duh. And/or to have a very large sea creature as a pet.
3. If your body was a road, which road would you be?
I-90 West. But without all those Wall Drug billboards in South Dakota.
4. Your first three poems are all pulling away, while the second three are close as they come. How do these two relate?
In terms of content, you’re absolutely rightâ€”the porn sonnets are very intimate, whileÂ the “leaving” poems are about, well,Â leaving.Â For me, though, the “leaving” poems are actually much more up-close and vulnerable, because they’re so unfiltered, both formally and emotionally speaking. The porn sonnets, on the other hand, are filtered through the demands of the sonnet form and the varied voices of their speakers.
Speaking of speakers, I think weâ€™re overly concerned with maintaining the alleged separation between “speaker” and “poet” when we talk about poetry. Itâ€™s like this huge insult to assume or suggest that the â€œIâ€ in a first-person poemâ€”especially a first-personÂ lovepoemâ€”might have anything to do with the actual person who wrote it. And while I understand the urge to discourage artless, embarrassing hyperconfessionalism, my favorite love poems are honest and wry and dirty and brave, andÂ feelÂ as though theyâ€™ve come from an â€œIâ€ who is not just a sterile â€œspeakerâ€ but an actual person with a real, raw heart. For me as a reader, conflating the poet with the â€œIâ€ is a great compliment. It means IÂ believeÂ the poem.
I hope my â€œleavingâ€ poems are believable in this wayâ€”real, raw, etc, without being embarrassing.** And I hope the porn sonnets areÂ unbelievable, too intellectualized and distant and formally contrived to approximate the supposed â€œclosenessâ€ of their sexy subject matter. Because thatâ€™s what porn is, in a wayâ€”closeness filtered through technology and anonymity, experience controlled by camera angles, desire broken down into super-specific categories and fetishes.
Not that Iâ€™m anti-porn. Porn is awesome! But itâ€™s also weird and intense and fascinating enough to merit questioning, rather than blind acceptance and consumption.
**Though Iâ€™ll admit Iâ€™m also interested in toeing that line, in writing a poem that highlights the helpless universality of human emotion by asymptotically approaching clichÃ©â€”i.e., a poem that works like a good country songâ€¦
5. When do you miss mystery the most?
When Iâ€™m watching porn. I totally overthink it now. And I canâ€™t stop hearing iambic pentameter in all that thrusting and moaning.
6. What was the last camera you looked in the eye?
That little beady camera-eye at the top of my laptop screen. But my dog kept looking away. So our PhotoBooth self-portraits came out kinda uneven.