Alan Michael Parker
Interviewed by Olga Rukovets and Tara Tatum
In A Poem for Sally, the speaker “swallow[s] whole / his youngest daughter” in an effort to protect her from the external world and her own inner turmoil. Although you describe the speaker’s act as one of consumption, it brings to mind the image of returning the daughter to a fetal stage. What was your intention behind the speaker’s action in this poem?
That’s a great catch: I’m hoping to invoke the parent’s primal impulse, and the poignant futility he feels at being unable to protect his daughter. I was also thinking of Cronus—the god who tries to prevent his ouster by swallowing his children (and is fed the Omphalos)—and I was actively working to treat in revisionist fashion his actions. It’s possible, too, as you smartly note, that protecting a child can be an act of consumption.
Is there a reason you chose a male narrator for a poem that appears to evoke the archetypal maternal experience of carrying a child? Did you consider choosing a female narrator?
While the poem has an autobiographical motive, insofar as I wrote it for a friend of mine, I believe that reality offers a poor excuse for art: he’s not male because my friend’s male. Nonetheless, once the poem’s protagonist arrived male in early drafts, I became intrigued; upending the archetype seemed an emotionally rich experience for the poem.
What poet(s) do you find yourself returning to?
Wow, that’s too long a list to note. These days, among those no longer alive: Amichai, Bishop, Clifton, Dugan, Elytis, Levis, Li Po, Moore, Milosz, Neruda, Parra, Szymborska. Among writers my generation or older: Graham, Hass, Hayes, Hogue, Powell, Prufer, Zagajewski. And then a number of younger writers, too: Beasley, Bolden, Hazelton, Hong, Knox, Nezhukumatathil, Stonecipher, Young.
You also write fiction. Do you find yourself more inspired by reading one genre over the other?
Not really. I read much more trashy fiction than bad poetry—is there such a thing as “trashy poetry”?—but inspiration and reading are mostly correlative, for me.
Given the difficult landscape of poetry publishing, what’s the most important advice you give to your writing students? Is there a piece of advice from a writing mentor that has stayed with you over the years?
Joseph Brodsky once told me, “Don’t embarrass yourself.” I think he had just read one of my first published poems—oh dear! My own advice is to remember that writing isn’t a contact sport, although publishing may feel like one. I also recommend a “24-hour Rule”: if a group of poems is returned, unaccepted, I try to send that group out again within twenty-four hours; I aim to preserve my own skepticism about my work, and not let editorial whim dictate my anxieties.
In a self-conducted interview you wrote for The Nervous Breakdown, you say that the three individuals you’d like to have dinner with are your late dog, Issa, Ghandi’s father, and “whoever invented the wheel.” How do you envision the conversation going at the table? What topics would be discussed?
So, Issa will of course offer news of the next life, but it’s likely that I won’t understand her—even as I tried so hard to understand her when she was alive—due to my inability to speak Dog. But I’m sure she’ll have a lot to say, or at least be expressive in moon-eyed ways. As a father, I would want to know Ghandi’s father’s take on parenting. Then, the inventor of the wheel… my word, that would be a marvelous discovery to hear about, and to consider with him or her the scope of human creation in the context of individual brilliance. Would there be a conversation? I think it would be more like a series of stories on “Sixty Minutes,” and at the end, I’d offer some weak homiletic couched as comedy. Then we would drink fine grappa, and Issa would chew a yummy post-prandial bone.