A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Alison Pelegrin

Alison Pelegrin’s poem “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review; her essay “Waterlines” was published in The Southern Review’s summer 2015 issue on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Waterlines is also the title of her new collection, published by LSU Press this month. This interview was conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer. Conducted prior to the August 2016 flooding in Baton Rouge, the interview speaks volumes about the power of poetry in times of crises.

 

1). In your nonfiction piece “Waterlines,” you describe “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” as a prayer. Can you speak more on this?

 

I had been writing poems nonstop for a while, and then one morning I sat down with my notebook and nothing happened. Even though the creative cycle of flood and drought is a familiar concept, the actual shift from inspired to shriveled up is always a surprise. I wanted to write, was ready to write—and I had nothing but a blank page and a question. Oh my God—what comes next? Then the title came to me. I stared at it for a while and tried to remember how to make a paper boat. Then the words came in a flash and I wrote them down.

After church we did offer my poem to the Bogue Falaya. For the rest of the summer I was flooded with ideas for these origami poems that the kids would help me hide in secret places. It was kind of like vandalism, only biodegradable, and also invisible, because no matter where we put the poems, no one ever noticed. There are stories of the ancient Chinese poet Li Po writing poems and then floating them down the river, and I like feeling like a member of his tribe. Unlike Li Po, I kept copies of my poems, and many of them appear in Waterlines.

But to get back to your question, all poetry is prayer, isn’t it? You put the words out there—whether praise, or curse, or lament—and you are changed by the act of having uttered them. Communion with the world, the art of attention is a type of prayer, and I mean this in the biggest sense possible, across nationalities, languages, and faiths. Isn’t this what Dickinson meant when she wrote, “The Sailor cannot see the North—but knows the Needle can”? Isn’t this why she kept on writing, with no readers, no books, no witness to her genius?

 

2). There appears to be a relationship between the flow of words and the momentum of water in the poem. Is there a sort of communion happening between the voice of the poem and the river?

 

There is probably a communion happening between the poem and the river, but not just the Bogue Falaya. In South Louisiana, water, rivers, lakes, creeks, muddy ditches not to mention the excitement and destruction of hurricanes and floods surround me. Water is a natural marker in my life, so I guess it makes sense that it saturates so many poems.

The title of my current collection with LSU Press is Waterlines, and this is also the title of an essay I recently published with The Southern Review. It operates on so many levels. I am thinking of the inscription on John Keats’s tombstone: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” I also think of the flood lines I have seen in my life—sometimes a flood line is a tangle of debris caught in a chain link fence, or marooned fish drying out on the sidewalk, or a coating of mud on the azalea bushes. After Katrina, many of the houses in New Orleans, my brother’s included, had multiple waterlines. His house wore waterlines like tea stains from eight feet high all the way down to the stoop.

The event of the hurricane or flood is itself a type of marker—you are always measuring yourself against it, the same way your mom might chart your growth on the back of a door. After Katrina, the door at my mother’s house with notches for me, my brother, and my children was thrown out. So now it feels like waterlines are the only thing left to demarcate my life.

 

3). In “Waterlines,” you discussed your inability to write poetry immediately following Katrina. Since then, you have published two collections. What did this lapse in writing teach you about the creative process?

 

Writing was impossible after Katrina because my life became more about survival than anything else. I will never be able to explain the extent to which my life descended into chaos, or how Katrina tore me up, tore up my beloveds. Even after we got back into our house, I felt lost because so many trees were gone that the light changed, and even familiar places were strange.

Though so many people shared my experience, and though so many were far more devastated, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed to stand in line for food and water, embarrassed to pay with an EBT card (food stamps), embarrassed to have my house smashed open to the street and my possessions in a molded mound on the curb. People would slow down in their cars and stare. Most of all I was embarrassed by how I simply fell apart. I failed miserably at holding things together. So no, I didn’t see any poetry in my situation.

I wasn’t able to write about the storm until I found humor in it. This happened when I was making a catch list for the world’s worst contractors. I had the most ridiculous list of things for these guys to finish, and I wondered how we were stupid enough to give them a final payment. About two pages into the list I realized that the contractors would not be coming back. I was making a list of things that we would be finishing. I had to laugh about it because if not I would have had a heart attack from the stress and my unhealthy lifestyle at the time.

This lapse in writing taught me that the words will come, but never when you expect it. In my case, the words came after a fevered dream on an air mattress. I still have that notebook—there are pages and pages of insurance adjustors and contractors and estimates, and then out of nowhere is “Big Muddy River of Stars.” In my despair over my losses, I had forgotten that the words always come back.

 

4). Tell us about the current creative writing community in South Louisiana. Do writers still feel the compulsion to write “poetry of witness”? How have writers continued to collaborate with one another eleven years after Katrina?

 

I can’t speak for other writers, but I think my earlier Katrina poems were a reaction rather than the act of witness. In the immediate aftermath, any poetry I created was done so as a sort of self-defense in response to the fact that everybody seemed to be churning out Katrina poems except the people who had experienced it and who, like myself, were silent because they were putting their lives back together.

Katrina is a marker—everything is either before or after. I have finally relaxed a bit—on the ninth anniversary of the storm, I forgot about August 29 and only remembered the anniversary on August 30. But no matter how much time passes, to a certain extent Katrina gets blamed for everything that is lost. For my mother, it was Hurricane Betsy (1965), and for my grandmother, Hurricane Camille (1969). I have a poem about that, by the way, published in The Southern Review!

 

Alison Pelegrin is the author of four poetry collections, including Waterlines from LSU Press. She has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts. Her work has appeared recently in The Cincinnati Review and Crab Orchard Review.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.


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