High Ground Coward by Alicia Mountain
Interview by lindsay adkins
TSR previously published three of Alicia Mountain's poems in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue, and one on TSR Online. "This Particular Solvent" appears in her new collection, High Ground Coward, winner of the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize.
Alicia says of her poems, "Sometimes I have to approach them like trying to catch a dog: being patient, sly, slow until it’s time to be quick."
This Particular Solvent
What exactly did you think you were going to get
out of a bowl of saltwater taffy?
Less a kind of sad? Less neighbor-sad?
More a thought of the sea?
Go walk by moving water
was a prescription.
Take evening primrose oil
for the tenderness.
Every high-water mark, every low tide.
Daytime moon, what do you run from?
Lindsay Adkins: How did "This Particular Solvent" come to be? What from this poem can readers expect to see more of in High Ground Coward?
Alicia Mountain: TSR has been a longtime supporter of my work, so “This Particular Solvent” joins a little cluster of other poems here that show the range of style and tone you’ll find in High Ground Coward. This poem is a bit of a weirdo! The movement of this poem is still mysterious to me. “This Particular Solvent” is drawing on a waiting room vibe, or an overhead lighting cubicle vibe. Something with a touch of bleakness and a resistance to that bleakness, like a potted plant in a windowless room. I ate a piece of saltwater taffy from a bowl of saltwater taffy and was disappointed by it. This poem is a gesture toward interrogating that small inconsequential disappointment. Ocean water, tears, saline solution. Trying to fix whatever it was that brought me to the waiting room. I’m most interested in the second stanza of this poem—how there are many different sadnesses. These ones (neighbor-sad and street-sign-sad) sound like loneliness to me. I’m also fond of the shift from the penultimate to final stanzas by way of tides and moon—this moon being out of place in the daylight, without stars for company. This speaker looking to the incongruous moon to answer the question they cannot answer themself. I trust it, though. I don’t always have to understand. In High Ground Coward, readers can expect to see more seeking, more sweet and salt on the tongue, more looking up to the sky, more street signs, more running from who knows what, more tenderness.
LA: How long did you work on High Ground Coward? Did you set out to write these poems knowing they were a part of a larger collection, or did you have an “aha” moment at some point in your writing and realize you were working toward a book?
AM: Many of the pieces that eventually came to form High Ground Coward started out as discrete poems. I wrote this collection day by day, often on the pages of a generic yellow legal pad at the same broad wooden table at which I’m sitting right now. I didn’t know I was writing a collection, I just knew I was writing poems. Sometimes the poems would talk to each other, or I’d get fixated on something and it would pop up in more than one piece. I wrote most of the poems in High Ground Coward when I lived in Montana—a few from Brooklyn (my life before) and a few from Denver (my now place) worked their way in, too. There’s probably a five-year span between oldest and youngest poems, but most were written in a two year time-frame. I find that if I set out to do almost anything with my poems, they resist me. Sometimes I have to approach them like trying to catch a dog: being patient, sly, slow until it’s time to be quick. So I did not sit down and decide to write a book. It would’ve run. It would’ve hid under the porch.
LA: Your first lines really grab the reader by the hair and I'm curious how you find your way into a poem. Do you tend to start at the beginning?
AM: My openings are lines that grabbed me by the hair, too. That scalp sensation. They're often declarations, sometimes a bit brash, that make me want to write the rest of the poem in order to back up the assertion. When I’m on my best poet-behavior, I carry around a small notebook to write down lines. Those are usually the bits that end up at the top of the page when I sit for intentional writing time. Whatever compels me enough to write a line down, the nagging of it or the umami taste, that same intrigue is enough to tumble me into the lines that follow. My first lines don’t see much revision, which means they have to hold up. The first line sets the course for the rest of the work. Other lines get tweaked if they aren’t living up to that first one.
LA: Much of your work is grounded in everyday details—like Wendy's, leftovers, saltwater taffy, day jobs, and car wax. But your poems are also filled with imagery that evokes Montana and Colorado. Can you talk about what inspires you, and how you go about blending these different aspects of your work together so seamlessly?
AM: I’m ready for all of us to retire elitist ideas about poetry. Poetry is for people who go to Wendy’s. Poetry is for people who work at Wendy’s. Poetry is for people who sleep in the corner of the parking lot outside of Wendy’s. Poetry can be for special occasions, yes, but only because special occasions fall on days ending in y.
My work is laden with images of natural, environmental experience placed alongside everyday / day job / leftovers experience—much of America is like this. I wonder if much of the world is like this. In some ways, engagement with natural beauty has also become a privilege for those with structurally affirmed power. However, access to the natural world from which I draw my images cannot be withheld from marginalized folks. Access to poetry cannot be withheld from marginalized folks. Of course, land in America is stolen. Of course, in many of the poorest places in America, people live with the land.
I've been lucky to live in the dense vertical cities, beneath vast gasping sky, and in in-between places. In all of these geographies I see poems in life being lived: forest fires, laundromats, porn, rivers, zumba, trains, falling in love, chopping wood, taxes, training a horse. These are all of a world in High Ground Coward. I want to exalt the quotidian, even if it doesn’t match canonical images of poetic beauty. The beauty is in there—in the drive thru, in the day job. The canon will change.
LA: What’s next for you?
AM: This next year I'll be touring with High Ground Coward, offering readings around the country. I'm so thrilled to speak this work aloud. It comes alive in a new way when I read it with my voice. (If readers want to check out events, I’ll have the info posted at aliciamountain.com.) I'm closing in on finishing the second year of my PhD this spring. Next year I'll be teaching, writing, and doing editorial work on the Denver Quarterly. I’m also working on new manuscripts. I was going to say “a new manuscript,” but I have a couple of concepts that are pulling me in different directions, so I have a hunch that I’ll be moving back and forth between projects. I can’t wait to hang out with my new poems. In the meantime, I find that High Ground Coward is ripe with little discoveries that surprise me. This book is still tugging at me, even now.