Alex Lemon’s most recent books are Feverland and The Wish Book (a finalist for Best Poetry Collection by The Writer’s League of Texas). He is the author of Happy: A Memoir (Scribner; a finalist for Best Book of Non-fiction by The Writer’s League of Texas) and three other poetry collections: Mosquito, Hallelujah Blackout, and Fancy Beasts. An essay collection and a fifth poetry book are forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. His writing has appeared in Esquire, American Poetry Review, The Huffington Post, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry, Tin House, Kenyon Review, AGNI, New England Review, The Southern Review and jubilat, among others. Among his awards are a 2005 Fellowship in Poetry from the NEA and a 2006 Minnesota Arts Board Grant. He is an editor-at-large for Saturnalia Books, the poetry editor of descant, and sits on the editorial board of TCU Press and the advisory board of The Southern Review. He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, writes book reviews for the Dallas Morning News, and teaches at TCU and the Low-residency MFA program at Ashland University. Our Senior Poetry Editor, Victoria Chang, recently had a chance to ask Alex a few questions about his work.
Victoria Chang: The first thing I must say is how much some of your book felt familiar to me but from the other side—my father had a stroke around a decade ago and a series of falls and brain bleeds and we’ve had a tough ride. I found this book fascinating because he has never recovered, yet you have recovered well enough to write these beautiful passages. How is your health now? And is it hard for you to write?
Alex Lemon: I’m so sorry for your father’s situation and what I imagine all of you have been through. My health: I have good days, and terrible days—but more than anything I feel incredibly fortunate. Day to day, I live with several disabilities—visual (double-vision, and nystagmus: my eyes bounce all the time), and I have issues with my vestibular system and gait—I veer to the right—have some numbness on the right side of my body. Everything is exacerbated if I’m stressed or sick, too—so it all manifests on a sort of spectrum that also intersects with my mental health too. So, my health is good, I think. I’ve learned how do to pretty much everything I want to do—I relearned how to walk and talk and read and write and everything. In a lot of ways, I’m incredibly lucky that I was so young and healthy—it allowed me more room to recover, I think. Each year, I have to get MRIs—and the last one I had found an abnormality in the same spot as the vascular malformation—but the only way to tell if it was scar tissue/growth or the regrowth of the malformation, would be to have surgery again. So, today, I’m disabled, but no one would think so just by looking at me. I’m prone to depression, I suppose, and paranoid—always thinking that I’m sick/dying/on the edge of a new calamity—but I’m also crazy happy. Ecstatic and dread-filled. Does that sound nuts? Reading and writing is taxing—it is exhausting—but I’m grateful for the technology/life that has helped me do what I love. If my eyes are tired—and not working—I will wear an eye patch or a black contact lens that functions in the same way and occludes one eye. My muscles lock up really easily so I get up and move. I use incredibly large font when I read and write and have all my students turn in their assignments digitally so I can enlarge their writing. I write all my comments in Word because it’s more efficient for me—and also because I never really relearned how to write well with a pen—so my penmanship is just shit—I think I’m embarrassed by it.
VC: That sounds very challenging and I’m incredibly amazed that you can write so well! Feverland is subtitled “a memoir in shards”—why did you forego a more linear narrative (I love that you did, by the way)?
AL: Each piece of CNF [Creative Nonfiction] I was writing was pushing back against the more traditional linear narrative—which seemed too flattened out, too simplified, very far from realizing, or nearing, for me, any sort of authentic truth. The sensibility of the pieces I am interested in (both as a reader and a writer), have a complexity of canvas that allows them a tremendously expansive scope—they might be faceted by the memoiristic, poetry, research, criticism, scholarship, travel writing, or really anything at all—which gets shaped and twirled and ordered by form and movement and time—in ways that (I hope) allows for deeply intersecting veins of emotion and intellect. They might seem dissociative at times, but, for me, each movement in the pieces is intimately linked—and these interrelating aspects amplify and modulate the vicissitudes of one another. I think about them as having the same complexity and need for exactness that my poems have/need. They are intensely haunted by mortality at the same time they are flooded with the complex exuberance of what it means to be alive. This sensibility had been informing the pieces that I’d been writing for a decade. I began collecting them for a book of essays for Milkweed Editions, but thinking about them as a whole, thinking about the pieces together, it became clear to my editor Joey McGarvey and I that this was a memoir and not a collection of CNF—but that there was work to do to make it all fit together.
VC: Well that’s what I love about your writing—the work(s) link together but not explicitly—in this way your prose operates how a poem might. Related to this, while this book is written in prose, I see poetry everywhere: “half my body is inked and there is a black box inside me filled with Polaroids” in “Heartdusting” which alone is a beautiful title. Another piece, “I can hold my breath forever” feels like a litany. How do you navigate between poetry and prose within a piece?
AL: I’m not sure I do, actually. Do I? I do I. Do. I. Do. I’m concerned with form and structure, of course, and sometimes that dictates the vessel that is filled with language—a litany, say or a lyric essay—and there are concerns related to prose like character, scene, etc. that aren’t as prominent in poetry, but fundamentally, what I’m most interested in, whether it is poetry or prose—is the language—imbuing the words on the page with bottomless and exquisite care. For me, that often means a hyper lyrical prose—prose that I have to revise endlessly to ensure that I’m attending to the concerns of narrative prose—the element of the story being told—while using language that feels alive—that sparks and gives and has a heartbeat on just the lexical level.
VC: Yes you do! A bigger question is how do you choose when a piece demands to be more prose or more poetry because I see your prose as being a hybrid of sorts.
AL: I’d be disingenuous if I said I knew exactly if it needed more poetry or more prose. I think you are spot on in seeing it as a hybrid—that’s the way I see it, too—and so I’m less sensitive to the need for more poetry or prose than the more pressing wants of the story I’m trying to tell and how that question intersects with what the best ways to tell that story might be—do I want the emotional resonance of an image in this instance or does the piece need a narrator to explicitly state something here?
VC: That’s funny—that’s precisely how I would have answered that question. How did Milkweed editors feel about Feverland’s hybridity or form?
AL: Milkweed Editions has been an amazing home for my work—both poetry and prose—and I’m so floored to be a small part of a place that publishes so many amazing books. Not only do they make beautiful art objects, but everyone in the Milkweed family cares wonderfully about the words inside the covers as well as the artists that invest so much in them. It’s amazing—something I’m so grateful for—all of the Milkweed people—everyone who works there and all the authors that they publish. They are some of my greatest friends.
That care and handling showed in writing Feverland. Daniel Slager and Joey McGarvey trusted me to write this book—trusted that I would invest everything I had in it and allowed me the artistic freedom to experiment with the writerly possibilities of the pieces, and gave me the guidance I needed to make this the best book that I could write. They were more than supportive and helpful. But maybe I don’t know how they really felt—maybe they hated it! Better ask Joey and Daniel.
VC: The few times I have interacted with Daniel, I have come away thinking he is a class act and I have great admiration for him and the press. How about readers? I’m fascinated by Feverland because in some ways I feel like my own mind works the way the prose moves in the book—jumping, leaping, associations. Do you ever think about readers and how they might be challenged by the leaping? Do you think about your readers? And if so, when in the process of writing?
AL: I’m thrilled to know that this is the way your mind works—me, too! Now, I don’t feel so alone. I do think about my readers—more in memoir/prose and only a little at the very end with poetry—but I thought about the reader a lot with this book for two main reasons. First, I think the structure/movement of these pieces, and the book overall, can be challenging—it asks a lot of the reader—it asks, among other things, for investment and work and trust—that a reader has to more fully engage, to do the work of following, tracing the routes of the mind and the heart on the journeys of these pieces and trust that all of this work and engagement is going somewhere, that it will be worth it—that what will be built will be some kind of beautiful Frankenstein. The other challenge is one of content. The book lives in some dark places—of medical trauma and sexual abuse and masculinity and sexuality and addiction and pain and loss—and it can be sad and ugly and scary and even though the book is about the joys of being alive, of fully attending to the shit-storming world, there are some hard places to be.
VC: Someone recently said to me: “Now you’ve written about your parents in three books of poems,” implying it was too much or time to shift material. I wasn’t/am not sure how I feel about this. You’ve written so beautifully about trauma throughout your writing life. Do you ever wonder about this too?
AL: NOTE: This is where I started to feel really shitty again—Thank you for saying that—I so appreciate it. I would love to know more about your feelings about that implication because I think about that question all the time—I obsess about it. And my feelings on it are all over the place on it. I can’t write in any other way—I’ve tried—and these experiments remain just that—exercises, projects, etc. This is the CNF and the poetry that wants to come out—and often I feel like an engaged spectator in its creation—but there’s no other way to go about it.
A part of me wants to swear. A part of me knows that I’m writing whatever I am writing to try and make a home for me to be alive in the world. A part of me wants to acknowledge that trauma is such an essential aspect of my me-ness that it is inescapable, that to write, to create something through the lens that is me, the words will always be shaped by trauma, etc. A part of me wishes it weren’t so—wishes that there was a shift in material on the horizon, but I don’t know if I’d believe it. And a part of me wouldn’t change a thing—thinks that by plumbing the darkness I’m finding a more vibrant art, a more richly textured me—and would say hey, wait for my next book TRAUMA TIME, AGAIN! It makes a part of me sad, and a part of me is always trying to embrace it, to be appreciative for it, and for the opportunity to write about it. A part of me thinks that if I ever saw or felt to my core the beauty in it that you speak articulated in your question, I might not write about it again, or maybe I wouldn’t write about anything again. All that is to say—I have no idea—but I think about it a lot.
VC: Haha. I had a good laugh at your response. I always tell others that we write what we write—and that I personally want to read and write things that are stitched in blood, meaning, they clearly mean something, no not something, everything to the writer. Your work feels that way to me. I imagine that is why you play so much with form and think about form a lot, which is what I do with my own work.
You’ve now published a bunch of poetry books and a bunch of memoirs—is there anything you’ve learned about publishing now that you’ve done it quite a few times?
AL: I’ve had the good fortune to publish with nonprofit presses and smaller presses and New York publishing houses and do a lot of editorial and advisory work with a number of other publishing venues and publishing is hard and scary and exhilarating. New books are beautiful things—they have their own lives—and bringing one into the world is a different kind of challenge each time. Hundreds of things can go wrong, of course, but thousands of new and surprising kindnesses and little lovelies come from them—all of the people out there that share this adoration of language with you. It is terrifying and joyous—each time—no matter the circumstances—but there are millions of other stellar writers and readers out there who somehow, for some reason, care about you and your work and it is only right that one should be grateful and care deeply for all of it—the writing and reading life, the people and the language in and of this world.
VC: How has the memoir changed over time since you started writing them?
AL: I wish I had a cogent answer for this one. I don’t think when I first started writing memoir in the early part of the 21st century that I had a very clear understanding of the genre—I barely knew anything at all, let alone had the ability to articulate trends and trajectories in the genre in either historical or contemporary ways. Only now, do I feel like I’m surer in my footing regarding memoir. So—and this might just be an awareness that resulted from my own reading proclivities—that I’m drawn to work that is more experimental—or maybe it actually is a trend—but I feel like I’m reading more challenging work, more CNF and memoir and prose that asks more of me as a reader, that experiments, is eager for the dangerousness that is play. But probably, I don’t know shit and it’s not a trend and that answer is a result of which books I read. What I do know—there are so many interesting things happening in all aspects of writing—memoir or poetry or whatever—that I don’t think one can say with authority something is or isn’t with any comprehensive attention to the field/genre. It’s an amazing time to be a writer. I’m wowed—overjoyed and oftentimes envious—that each day I get to read the new work of so many incredibly talented writers.
VC: I feel exactly the same way. What are you working on now?
AL: I’m working on three new projects—two poetry collections and another experimental memoir—I can tell you more but I need to lie down. But my next collection of poetry, Or Beauty, will be published by Milkweed Editions next fall—it’s sparse, boiled down to the skeletal—book length poem (I think there are some excerpts published online, if you want to read) that is interested in some of the same existential frameworks that I’ve explored recently—BLAH BLAH BLAH—MORE TRAUMA! I’m also working on a children’s book of poems written with my son and illustrated by a friend and also in the beginning stages of a project in which I am editing an anthology of essays on the poet Ray Gonzalez.
Before we finish, let me thank you for your questions—for the time you’ve spent with my work. I’m a huge fan of your poetry, Victoria—so this was terrific. I really appreciate it, appreciate you. Thanks.
VC: This was wonderful—and thank YOU for the interview and for writing such beautiful poetry and prose.
Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. Her third, The Boss, won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. Her picture book, Is Mommy? (Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Marla Frazee was named a New York Times Notable Book. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Antioch University’s MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.