An Experimental Formalist: A Conversation with Alan Michael Parker – Curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Alan Michael Parker is the author or editor of eighteen books: the novels Cry Uncle (2006),Whale Man (2011), The Committee on Town Happiness (2014), and Christmas in July (2018); and the books of poems Days Like Prose (1997), The Vandals (1999), Love Song with Motor Vehicles (2003), The Penates (2006), Elephants & Butterflies (2007), Ten Days (2010, with painter Herb Jackson), Long Division (2012), and The Ladder (2016). His next book of poems, The Age of Discovery, will be published by Tupelo Press in 2020.


Kristina Marie Darling:  Your next poetry collection, The Age of Discovery, will be published soon by Tupelo Press.  How did this book begin?

Alan Michael Parker:  These poems come from a period of significant change in my life—mostly, the ways in which middle age have made me oddly happy despite, um, middle age. It’s strange to be older and happy, and as a poet, to want to play with sounds and images like a newbie again. I feel full of discoveries, and I think that’s the source of this new work.

But, hell, the world’s a mess, and people are being jerks. So many jerks are in charge, and forgetting their humanity… and there’s just not enough empathy going around. And, since I’ve been lucky and privileged, both, these poems are also working from that position, and toward a generosity of spirit and lovingkindness found in the imagination.

KMD:  The poems in this collection skillfully carve a space for innovation within familiar literary forms.  I’d love to hear more about the role that form and structure play in your creative process.  What does form and its accompanying constraints make possible for you when drafting a poem?  When revising?

AMP:  I’m a nut for form, and the various effects of formal phenomena. Form has taught me rigor (and teaching poetry has taught me form). When composing, though, I want to listen more to the poem than to announce what I want: the emerging music of the language, whether formal or “free,” interests me most in the act of composing. Then meaning, then images, then form… and trying to make it all happen simultaneously, of course.

Formal poems are harder for me to revise, as I find that each tiny decision tends to cascade. Bummer, right? But I’m still the poet who loves to do the hardest job, and to try the impossible, which is probably why form interests me so much. And maybe that’s why so many of my investigations in this book are either mash-ups of received forms or structures I’ve devised.

Can I be an “experimental formalist”? I’d like that.

KMD:  Unlike so many poets working today, you have an enviable command of narrative.  When I first learned that you also write fiction, I wasn’t at all surprised.  What can poets learn writers working in prose?

AMP:  Wow, thanks. Narrative, and storytelling, fascinate me… and experimental fiction has become a second home for my aesthetics. Notwithstanding, as a novelist, it’s the sentence-writing that has most informed my poems: learning to care about sentences, and theorize different notions of sentence beauty, has greatly changed my poems over the past two books, especially.

KMD:  You have attended many prestigious artist residences, including Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where we were both in residence back in 2012.  What have artist residencies — and the presence of individuals working in disciplines other than writing — opened up within your creative practice?

AMP:  Work-wise, even as someone who’s productive at home (read: obsessed), I’m able to do a ton more each day when at a residency. The vibe, the general dominion of the freakiness of all the cool artists and their art-making, and the acceptance of (rather than constant apologizing for) our limited role in capitalism… I embrace happily all of these weirdities. Also, I can “stay in a book” that I’m writing when I’m at a residency; notwithstanding meal-time socializing, the work seems ever-present in me, and more available, and as a result, I don’t need to re-boot a project each time I sit down to work. 

Oh, and other artists rock. There’s that energy, too—the inspiration gleaned from people working in different art forms and media makes me all aflutter.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a writer, you’ve also edited many anthologies and scholarly volumes, including, with Rebecca Hazelton, The Manifesto Project, as well as The Imaginary Poets, an anthology of persona-driven writing.  What has surprised you most in your work as an editor?

AMP:  Editing is a greedy pleasure for me, because I not only get to promote all of this amazing work by other writers, but I also have an excuse to keep up in my reading. Working with Rebecca was especially fun, given her big brain and the different tastes we had to negotiate as friends and coeditors.

KMD:  What’s next?  What events, workshops, and readings can we look forward to?

AMP:  Well, I’m just a sucker for sharing ideas, and poems, and evangelizing on behalf of the art form, which means that I’m about to get busier. Once the new book drops in August, I’ll surely be traveling and making noises in public, and probably blogging too. I think you’ll find me online… shhh, it’s secret and I can’t say where just yet… but I’ll be present in PoetryLand for sure. Plus, low-res teaching at the University of Tampa, and some contest-judging, etc., which I love to do.