I am (still) here: A Conversation with Alicia Mountain about Four in Hand– curated by Tiffany Troy

Alicia Mountain’s debut collection, High Ground Coward (Iowa, 2018), was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy to win the Iowa Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Four in Hand (BOA Editions, Spring 2023). Her chapbook, Thin Fire (BOAAT Press), was selected by Natalie Diaz. Dr. Mountain was a Clemens Doctoral Fellow at the University of Denver and the 2020-21 Artist in Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma. Mountain serves on the Board of Directors for Foglifter Journal and is a Consulting Editor at the Kenyon Review. She is a lesbian poet, based in New York City and an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Writer’s Foundry MFA program at St. Joseph’s University.

Four in Hand, Mountain’s latest collection, is a wide-ranging collection of four heroic crowns of sonnets, loosely-defined, which probes what it means to love and what a body means in being.

Tiffany Troy: How do the four epigraphs of Four in Hand set up the four sonnet sequences that follow?

Alicia Mountain: Four in Hand opens with epigraphs from JJJJJerome Ellis, James Merrill, Natalie Diaz, and Marilyn Hacker. Each of these poets has taught me—through their work—lessons that informed the heroic crowns in this book. Ellis changed the way I understand time and reminded me to be attentive to language as a musical instrument. Hacker and Diaz showed me lesbian desire on the page. Merrill modeled formalism and inspired me to mystically channel a speaker. In undertaking this project, it was meaningful to have Ellis, Merrill, and Hacker’s book-length poem projects for guidance. A version of Merrill is also a sort of character in the last heroic crown in the book— ”MyMerrill.” Diaz is an exquisite describer and image-maker. Diaz and Ellis write with the natural world. Plus, all of the poets have a winning sense of humor in their poetry that serves as a counterpoint to deep anguish or sorrow; I aspire to work deftly in and between those emotional registers.

These epigraphs include major themes and images that show up later in the book— inheritance, questioning, yearning, legends, licking, failure, grief, maps, a horned animal, and a pattern that reveals itself as you read. I knew that a book called Four in Hand, made up of four sections of interlocking sonnets, needed to have four epigraphs. I placed these particular passages in their particular sequence so that as you move from one quotation to the next, you find that they form their own little poem of borrowed text as a prelude to the book ahead.

TT: Can you describe the process in writing Four in Hand?

AM: I feel it explores what it means to love (“if we were sisters—their wicked way of denying what was already buried and plain”) as well as what a body means in being (as a monument, being weighed by its value, which you explore in Initial Descent.)

To be most literal, I wrote Four in Hand on a yellow legal pad in mechanical pencil. I wrote each heroic crown starting with the first sonnet and continuing on through the 14th sonnet, but I was constructing the 15th crowning sonnet— the poem made up of each preceding poem’s first line—as I went. In revision, I did a bit of tinkering on the diction level and refined some images or phrases, but once the pieces were constructed there wasn’t much major revision to be done. Everything locks into place.

The “MyMerrill” crown required a few extra steps. That section is entirely written in found text pulled from Merrill Lynch financial advisor newsletters. It’s also in blank verse— unrhymed iambic pentameter. To create that piece, I printed out two years worth of weekly newsletter emails that I had been receiving from Merrill Lynch. Once I realized that the poet James Merrill was the son of the co-founder of Merrill Lynch, I kept the idea of doing something poetry-related with my Merrill Lynch emails kicking around in the back of my head and started archiving them. Eventually I printed out the emails and decided that they would be my found-text word bank. I could only write using words that appeared in that word bank, and I could only use a word as many times as it appeared in the repository. On my printouts, I’d cross out each word I used. On top of that, the language had to fit (and occasionally) disrupt the iambic pentameter prosody. Perhaps it goes without saying, but that heroic crown of sonnets took much longer to write than the preceding sections.

It makes good sense to understand Four in Hand as an exploration of what it means to love. I kept anchoring myself in the love poem, and turning over what it means to write love poems. I was asking who I love and how I love them; I was particularly interested in troubled love. In “Train Town Howl,” we have the speaker longing for a lover who is partnered with someone else. In “Sparingly,” the speaker writes to the beloved planet that our species has betrayed. “Initial Descent” wrestles with family love, among other political motifs. “MyMerrill” has a lot to do with learning to love the self, by way of externalizing that loving voice and creating a character through which to feel loved.

The body is a companion in my poems. It’s also often a barometer for emotional weather. The body can be a conduit for receiving and expressing love, desire, striving, grief, alienation, comfort, playfulness. And the body also provides an existential landmark for the speaker, an “I am (still) here,” when the speaker recognizes her embodied self in the world.

TT: How does the (loose) sonnet sequence form inform your collection? Can you speak about the one word lines you adopted for Sparingly as well?

AM: I think of the sonnet as a form with a distinct volta. Although these sonnets don’t indicate their turns through rhyme, they are full of turns— the literal turn of the page as we pivot from one poem moment to the next, turns within the arc of the 15 poem crown, turns as the repeated lines double (and then triple) back on themselves with new meaning, and turns in the tone, temperament, and thought process of the speaker. My attention to melody in phrasing is a gesture toward the songliness of the sonnet. And, at the same time, these aren’t strict sonnets in that they are not Petrarchan or Shakespearean or Italian sonnets. They also stray beyond the scope of a single subject per poem. That capacity for expansiveness was important to me. I wanted to write into narrative spaces that needed more room than a stand-alone poem and had more threads to weave throughout, so the sequence format of the heroic crown gave me the space I was seeking.

“Sparingly” is the section concerned with ecocatastrophe. The sonnets in “Sparingly” are very tiny. Each poem is 14 lines and each line is one word long, so each sonnet is 14 words— one below the other stacked very skinny down the page. I chose to engage brevity and white space in this way as a conservation challenge— what does it mean to use less, to use as little as possible to meet my needs? Compared to the other pages in Four in Hand, these pages are sparse. The text is skeletal, the wide river has become a trickle across the terrain whitespace. And yet, there’s still imagery. I found that this spare form meant I had to make every word count in order to keep the imagination fed. The poems in sparingly can bloom and expand into much bigger worlds in the mind’s eye if you linger with them for a while.

TT: What does the idea of four mean to you and how does repetition manifest itself in the collection? To me repetition helps evoke the sense of the epic, as the human body can almost be imagined as a whole world, across Train Town Howl.

AM: Numerology is as useful a sense-making device as anything else. (A lot of what I do in my writing is try to come up with ways of understanding the world, so why not numbers?) I admit I have a soft spot for the sonnet because I was born on the 14th of August. The book takes its title from the “Initial Descent” section. In that crown, the speaker ties her necktie with a four-in-hand knot. This is an easy, asymmetrical tie knot. It’s not impressive, but it gets the job done. As a butch woman, I wear a tie for formal occasions and sometimes when I teach. I usually use a four-in-hand knot and don’t overthink it. I liked that the term four-in-hand also refers to a team of four carriage horses driven by one person. (The driver of the coach has all four horses’ lines in their hands.) Though the horse-drawn carriage image is of another time, some of these poems have a bit of a folklore element to them. I also was fond of the idea that when the reader holds this book, they hold four stories, or four lines, in their hand.

Repetition is one of the great delights of verse. In the heroic crown format, we get to see repetition operating in a really robust way. Sometimes it’s quite muscular and sometimes it’s more subtle or playful. These different modes show us that repetition is a tool that can do a lot. I try to use it with intention. In addition to the repeated lines, there are images and phrases and descriptive epithets that recur. Because these longer narrative poems span 15 pages, I wanted to give my reader landmarks to return to. I wanted them to feel like they were in on something, that they were struck with moments of familiarity even as we walked further into unknown territory. When they recognize “rough” or “rumble” or “violet” or “bull,” they may feel better prepared for the journey through the long crown.

TT: I’m curious about the personas in your collection, particularly in MyMerrill. Could you speak to the know-how’s of adopting a persona in your work?

AM: I start out a bit wary of persona poems. Usually I write from a speaker who is quite like myself and I put that speaker in situations I may not have encountered. In “MyMerrill,” I was inspired by James Merrill’s own practice of using a Ouija board to channel spirit voices in his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover. The voice that emerged from my financial advisor found-text emails was some combination of the poet Merrill himself, the poet Alicia myself, and this robotic computer AI sort of voice. The limited, niche diction and the persistent iambic pentameter really coaxed out that uncanny lilt. But the disposition of the MyMerrill voice was sympathetic, heartening— a weird warm guide down coaching me on an uncertain path. It was a good vector through which to get in tune with a part of myself I hadn’t met yet. I met that part by writing the sonnets.

TT: Any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

AM: Just that I am very grateful for the life I have. I’m grateful to be alive in this world. It feels like a profound gift. If I ever wander off from gratitude, I’ll try to make my way back quickly. Writing poetry has taught me to pay very close attention to what’s around me and inside me. It’s humbling and amazing to be alive. Reader, I hope you are very much alive, at whatever part of your life this finds you. Thank you for reading and for being.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.