Alexa Poteet is a poet whose only studio is the world, and perhaps enough outer space to encompass the moon and one or two illustrious planets. Her work in progress is a life in progress, small studies of a larger unfinished piece. Poteet’s debut collection Carnivores (Lines + Stars, 2019) makes a wonderful airy entrance. Where there was an exit ramp to get out of a poem, she speeds by and pushes further. Writing about desire she is infinite, and her critical eye is not a judging eye. Poteet might find a stone on a walk. Maybe it’s veined with minerals. Who cares? Lots of poets found the same rock. But Poteet isn’t satisfied to write a poem about her ability to notice something, or a poem about the clever analysis of an observation only she can make. Instead, she moves the everyday stone and finds a hole. She looks inside, squirms into the cave, realizes she can stand, hears water sounds, borrows a raft and rows toward the faint image of a stranger she once knew.
BARRETT WARNER: I kept reading the title poem as “Lovers” instead of “Carnivores.” There is such intimacy in how your husband picks the white gristle of you out of his teeth, and your stigmata—barbecue sauce in your palms—which he licks up like a pilgrim. Can you talk about eating him? Would it be more like dining, or just tearing off a piece to snack on?
ALEXA POTEET: Eating my husband…Well the man has these huge calves straight out of a Honey Baked Ham catalog. I suppose I’d start there; maybe spiralized on tiny potato rolls like a 90th birthday party or a morose 1st communion celebration.
BW: On a related matter (of utmost importance to me), since all animals are cousins, doesn’t that make all carnivores cannibals?
AP: One person eating another…Sometimes in life you’re the one doing the harming and other times the harm comes to you; I find my poems are drawn to that struggle. But I’ve got a soft underbelly like everyone.
BW: The lecture everyone gets is that they don’t need permission to write, but you never needed that lecture. You just go right to it without a Narcissistic flinch anywhere. What the Hell, did you grow up on a nude beach or something?
AP: I was a nudist raised by Irish Catholic Republicans until about age 6 or so. After I started wearing clothes, I labored under the delusion that I had important things to say. I felt I saw things that were different in the world from what other people saw. I have no evidence to support this theory, but I’ve always been very sensitive. I cried too much as a child. I could pour over another person’s glance or words for hours in my mind, tumbling small injustices smooth like river rocks.
BW: Being a Mom jumps you up into some efficient work habits too. You don’t have all day to navel gaze. You got maybe a half hour between shits and milk vomit. How has being a Mom affected your process? Do you edit with a pen, a pair of scissors, or a bazooka? Do you wear ear protection?
AP: Being a mom is a full contact sport, and my work needs a little time with the burnt barrel. I do a lot of writing in my head or on the Notes app of my phone on the go. I’ll narrate ideas to myself in voice memos while driving in the car. I am an extremely messy person with the ambition of a perfectionist. I work things over line by line. Save 4 versions and tweak each one.
A day of parenting can lay you emotionally bare. I have a three-year-old and a fifteenth month old. Everything is on the surface. Emotions, fear, literal shit. I recommend ear, eye, and heart protection if you can find it. I used to write with no regard for anyone else, but now I try to think about who my kids will be and how my words will affect them. Even after I am gone, my 30-year-old self will be able to talk to their 30-year-old selves through the poems.
BW: Everyone gets to be cremated with five books. Mix their ashes and all that. What are your five?
AP: I want to be cremated with Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov; Lust, Susan Minot; Brutal Imagination, Cornelius Eady; Wild Hundreds, Nate Marshall; and the last…I have part of Yeats’ Adam’s Curse tattooed on me, so I suppose it’s coming, too, no matter what.
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
BW: I covered stock car racing for the newspapers when I was first coming around. Journalism teaches good work habits. Except in journalism you start with a headline, and in poetry you build towards one, like the Carnivores headline could be “Wife Barbicues Self, Husband Says Pass the Salt.”
AP: I was a newspaper woman myself. My first job out of college was crafting the wedding announcements in The Washington Post. News can relay details, but what about the intangibles? The truth or kernel of life is very hard to grasp. It is always just out of reach…on the edges of an experience or soft-focus in the background. My poetry likes to live around the edges there. I can’t always snare the truth, but I can corner it for you. All we really wanted was a good look anyway, right?
I tend to think in metaphors or specific turns of phrase. Then I write those down and fill in the story between them—plain spoken language that I refine over time. Sometimes certain words or images will capture my imagination, and I let them guide me. I see myself less a wrangler of the poem and more a diligent coworker.
BW: Your brother. Can we go here? He died and you have this terrific poem about his memory and his life after, you walk up the street, you sniff his bed. You reach into yourself pretty deep, and this poem is followed by “Burial Boys” where you go outside yourself pretty far–to a different continent–and the grief is so similar, so connected to the doing of things, the doing of rituals. It speaks to the very elastic qualities of your writing, how your voice and the poet’s ego isn’t just stuck living inside the cage of the poem on a restricted diet. Yours is freer. Has room to run around. Room to run away.
AP: One of my younger brothers died of a seizure when I was 20. To say it was the first bad thing to happen to me would be too straightforward…but it was the first magic breaker. You know how a first love breaks your heart and you hold a certain tenderness for them eternally because they were the first? Perhaps, it’s less a torch for them and more a torch for who you were at a certain point in time…That’s kind of how it is between me and grief. I’ve got a weird, long-burning torch for grief as this certain sacred space. So even though the acuteness of my grief for my brother has passed, I feel a specific sensitivity and tenderness towards those who’ve had their lives changed by the abruptness of an unexpected death. Even grief a half a world away, I feel we are united in a certain hallowed bond.
BW: You often write sound effects into the line–this at a time when EVERYONE is talking about music in a poem. Your thalacks and thump-thumps.
AP: Ever stood under the L in Chicago? That sound. Shakes your whole body. Makes my bones go liquid. I miss the city…the orange street lamps, the snow.
BW: There is so much I love about “Skywriter on the Radio.” Just the fact of writing a poem about a visible art that is only heard but not seen is like ekphrasis on steroids. And that first line in which you raise up locksmith and skywriter in a short, three beat line. What a pairing, and yet it works. They are joined by a common direct object “their fair share of abuse from poets” and they’re both opening something up for which we’ve lost a key. “The three of us implausible / as ever. The poet writing / about the skywriter on the radio.”
You’re aware of the magic here, are complicit, but still haven’t figured it out. It’s like you’re saying to the reader, follow me, let’s see what’s going on. And then the haunt: “Did you know that we are an incantation?” And now, drowned Shelley, which by the way, if you combined the poetry, the skywriting, the drowning you have this weird send up of an Icarus moment, which all began because Icarus and his dad were locked in a tower. They needed a locksmith.
So, hey skywriter, want to show me your plane? How did this poem happen?
AP: I took a class on the Romantics years ago where I learned that Shelley adored sailing but couldn’t swim worth a damn and drowned. It was how I felt about love at the time. I was made to love hard. Shelley and his sardine seemed to encapsulate the comical, paradoxical, and maybe even ill-fated nature of grand gestures. To believe in such gestures is to know that often they fail but that you will pursue one anyway. There is something unlikely about them. I feel they are often more for the person performing them than the person they are being performed for. But I enjoy their relentless and reckless hopefulness, despite all odds. I am an optimist at heart despite my scars.
BW: Would you describe any body of water and how you’d cross it?
AP: I feel a certain romance for lakes. Their fresh water…that smell…loamy and full of life. The trees at night against the lavender-orange sky. My body of water is Squam Lake—a small, unspoiled cousin of Winnipesauke near the White Mountains. I don’t know if it counts as crossing it, but I like to swim to those floats with a ladder just offshore and go under. See yourself ghostly and white in the green light and suddenly the fish illuminated.
Memory and love are two hands of the same grasp for me—anything positive worth remembering is full of tenderness between people. The sadness of life is that in order to go on after the cessation of such love—whether death or otherwise—is that we must forget something integral to the experience. To engage in poetry, a certain memorialization of love and memory, is to know that our window with the intimacy of the true thing is brief. Forever instead we only recall its light. An oral history to ourselves where each time the light becomes once removed and we recall only the memory of recalling the light and not the light itself.
So yeah, all for love. Let’s catch the light while it’s fresh.
BW: “To Mother” is where you shine, stirring the everyday with the metaphysical. The horror and beauty of the world is as simple as an eggplant. As incomprehensible as an eggplant. As incredulous. And you, as a mother, how you reward your child for reaching for the ridiculous and give it credence.
AP: The world is a hard place. I think we should all try to be more forgiving of one another’s idiosyncrasies. They’re some of the most charming things about us. Any intimacy comes with vulnerability—showing someone what’s strange about us. Let’s keep love weird, and funny, and unexpected. It’s all more fascinating that way.
BW: I think so many poets are writing in clusters. It makes me think how artists used to do a hundred sketches before the painting. Except all the sketches get published and the painting never gets quite done anymore. Then all the sketches become like a project book. Ugh. What are your plans? How many submissions do you have out right now?
AP: I have four poems out right now. I find I’ve become less fearless in my writing as I’ve grown older, so that’s something I strive towards in my current work. Ideally, poems are the place where I let my scariest shit fly just to see where it wants to go. Then, maybe I am released of its grip. My goal is to be free with it and try not to censor myself too much.
My kids teach me a lot on this front; they feel everything so intensely. They allow themselves to express the full range of emotions—sometimes conflicting feelings within about 30 seconds. I think about how adult poets have been taught to filter ourselves. Trust me, I really wish my son would stop screaming so much, but also…when was the last time I let loose and fucking screamed when something upset me? Probably not recently enough.
Skywriter on the Radio
Like locksmiths, skywriters
absorb their fair share of abuse
from poets. I’m surprised
to hear the last one in New York
live on the radio. (Though perhaps not.
The vestigial tails of their crafts, wagging
one another. Thump
bedfellows. The skywriter
and the radio. The three of us implausible
as ever: The poet writing
about the skywriter on the radio.
Did you know we are an incantation?
It’s true; If you say, A poet hears a skywriter
on the radio three times in the mirror, a Romantic
appears: Shelley, with his pussy-bow
blouse soaked from drowning
in the Golfo dei Poeti. He will pour
out his shoe like in the movies,
and a small silver sardine will dance
in the light at his feet).
The skywriter speaks of slicers, which blitz
the imagined fingers of God
and faces in the clouds for his celestial
vandalism. The hot, smoked paraffin
and oozing exhaust he leaks
to write love on a blue sky day.
The messages are needy, force him
to fly backwards while holding
a cracked button for smoke with his thumb.
A pocket mirror taped
to the dash reads the hazy
plumes back to him as he hangs,
a bat in the cockpit,
upside down. Mid-scrawl he checks
his work like a schoolboy who stops,
halfway through a B
for the presence of the dotted line,
but this craft is limitless, un-college ruled.
The M’s are the impossibles.
Ask for double-backs to ward off
W, when the world is inverted.
The alchemy of the R,
at once yearning
for bent and straight.
And yet, the skywriter
on the radio written
about by the poet is undeterred
by the earth as a ceiling
and not a floor.
He writes it, difficult and forever,
Improbable every time.
Alexa Poteet is a poet from Washington, DC, with a master’s degree in poetry from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in Reed Magazine, PennUnion, Sixfold, Lines + Stars, and NewVerseNews, among others. She was a semifinalist for SUNY’s 2015 Paumanok Poetry Award and a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee. Formerly, she served as poetry editor for JMWW. Her first collection, Carnivores, was published by Lines + Stars Press. She’s also enjoyed staff positions at the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and the National Interest.