The High Road / An interview with poet Allyson Whipple

The High Road

by Allyson Whipple

I. Highway
To know if you love
someone, drive
at least 500 miles with them.

Make the night owl get up early,
and the early bird wait.

I stare too hard at how
industry has cracked
open landscape.

We cross into New Mexico.

Oilfields,
fracking rigs,
behind us.

For 100 miles,
I sighed at dead
earth, sites
where trash outnumbered
cacti, where groundwater
was full of poison.

We cross from oil country
into no country.

II. Atmosphere
To know if you love
someone, spend
a week in close quarters.

West wind careens
against our tent at 35 miles
per hour. The sides buckle.

I am about to suffocate
in my shelter.

Wind brings the tent
to its knees.

The roof pulls down
toward our faces,
hair flying skyward
with static electricity.

The car our only refuge,
I watch sun
rise across a crack
in the windshield.

III. Cavern
An 800-foot descent
into the cavern.
In darkness, all my body
craves is sleep.

My knees have never known
such pressure.
My body thinks it is about to break.

I am deep in the heart
of New Mexico.
Some stalactites
still pulsing.
Some stalagmites
still reaching up
toward a ceiling
they will never penetrate.

An 800-foot ascent
out of the cavern.
My thighs burn
in cool cave air.

Upon emergence
I believe I am weightless.

IV. Bluff
On the night of no wind,
my body cannot adjust
to the cold, even with three
shirts, two pairs
of paints, gloves,
socks, hat, three cups
of coffee, two warm
bowls of beans.

The tent befriends
the air, welcomes
the chill in.

Things I took
for granted:
brushing my teeth;
toilets;
space heaters;
hot tea;
pillows.

My body believes
if I sleep, I die.

V. Water
When I am in the desert
all I think about is water.
Each drop I drink,
use to wash dishes,
my face, to brush my teeth.

On the night of rain,
we stay dry.

The tent stands
firm against the whims
of weather.

On the night of rain,
I sleep.

VI. Trail
We cross back into Texas.
Road signs only speak
of superficial distance.

At our best
we move two miles
an hour.
At our worst, half.

Two miles
into the Chihuahuan desert:
maples.

For a moment, I can believe
we are borderless.

I did not understand
how much dust
the desert contained.

Two more miles:
pine trees and firs
run up and down the mountain.

I did not understand
how quickly a landscape
could change on me.

VII. Peak
You warned me
about the weight of water.
I only half-listened.

Anyone who makes a metaphor
out of climbing a mountain
has never summited anything.

My body believes
if I stop,
I will never walk again.

There is no metaphor
for having to carry the remnants
of your own excrement
in order to leave no trace.

On top
of the mountain,
I am too tired
to sit.

We can look down,
see clouds beneath us.

I cry,
but I am not sure why
I need to.

To know if someone loves
you, cry
in front of them.

I am almost too tired
to stay awake
for the stars.
The Milky Way
a white ribbon
for my naked eyes.

For a moment, I believe
we are bodiless.

To know if you love
someone, climb
a mountain with them.

blue_house_photAllyson Whipple is a poet, amateur naturalist, and perpetual student living in Austin, Texas. She is the author of two chapbooks, most recently, Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press, 2016). Allyson teaches business and technical communication at Austin Community College, and enjoys hiking and camping.

She describes herself as “an environmentalist and a feminist struggling with how to be political on the page. A confessional poet struggling with the ethics of turning real people into art. A poet in love with Texas, and angered every day by Texas politics.” She says she writes “from the intersection of deep love and deep conflict. A study of tension, always tension.”

Allyson and Bekah’s work has appeared together in TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism’s “Animal Instincts” Issue (2013) and When Women Waken’s “Knowing: Issue (2014). We wanted to know more about Allyson and her poetry, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about your poem, “The High Road.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~In the workshop I was enrolled in last spring, we were asked to write a poem that was a minimum of 6 pages long, without individual sections. I’d never attempted to write a poem that long before, but I was set to take a week-long camping and backpacking trip in the Guadalupe Mountains. I decided to draft the poem throughout the trip as a travelogue. On revision, I shortened things slightly and did add relevant sections, but the essence of the trip is still there.

Q~How is the poem representative of your work?

A~“The High Road” is a poem that deals with my two greatest obsessions: the terrain of Texas and the terrain of my heart. It’s a poem that focuses on something deeply personal, and the ways in which the personal is woven into the far west Texas landscape, the way in which I am constantly surrounded by something greater than myself. I always find myself returning to the idea of place and space. After both of my chapbooks, I thought I’d said all I needed to say about landscape and its effect on a person, but as I delved into my thesis, I found myself returning to those themes yet again. Geography is, for me, as large and mysterious as God, and the way I wrestle with place is akin to spiritual exploration.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~The first draft was grueling, because up to that point I hadn’t written a poem longer than a page. I had to really stretch myself here. I was grateful to be able to revise and trim it down and shape it into a poem that felt more my own.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~My process is always changing. I find I need more mental/creative composting time than I used to. My poems require more research, because my works has become more concerned with the world beyond my limited vision and experience. These days I go through bursts of writing and revising, and then I spend several weeks doing anything but writing. Those fallow periods used to scare me. I used to think they were dry spells and worry if I’d ever write again. But I’ve come to realize they’re an essential part of my process now. I do have daily habits (yoga, meditation, walking). I feel I get stronger poems now that I’m not trying to push creativity every single day.

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?

A~The Austin scene is amazing. The Austin Poetry Society hosts monthly meetings, talks, open mics, and critique groups. We’re home to some amazing slam organizations, including Austin Poetry Slam and NeoSoul. The Austin International Poetry Festival is a mainstay of our city. And of course, the University of Texas, Austin Community College, St. Edwards University, and Huston-Tillotson University all contribute through journals, readings, classes, and events. We have some of the best local bookstores around, including BookWoman, which is one of just a dozen feminist bookstores left in the country. And, we have open mic events in Austin or surrounding towns nearly every night of the week. My all-time favorite is I Scream Social, a showcase that features women-identified poets (and free ice cream!) every month. I’m there regularly and hate the months when I have to miss out.

Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?

A~I love poetry that plays with form, such as the abecedarian sonnets in Barbara Hamby’s All Night Lingo Tango. I simultaneously love the expansive poems of Rachel Zucker, and the compression of haiku. As for dislikes, I’ve never really enjoyed a poem in which the word “fart” appears.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and it feels like every poet is reading this book right now, but also I think everyone should be reading this book right now, so that’s a good thing.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Your process is going to change. Your creative interests are going to change. Your projects are going to change wildly between when you get that first idea and when you actually finish them (or let them go). Sometimes that change can make us uncomfortable. However, it’s inevitable, and it’s worth learning to accept that all or most aspects of your writing are going to evolve over time.

Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?

A~My high has been finding a long-distance haiku partner. Each week, we send each other a new haiku by midnight in our respective time zones. No critique, no judgment, just sharing poetry. Not necessarily writing for publication, or worrying about whether the poem will go anywhere. Just writing and sending it. And, sometimes we miss our deadline, but we pick back up again. At the end of the year, my friend surprised me by telling me what his five favorites were. That’s the only feedback, and it was a delight to know which pieces had resonated with him the most. We’re all our own worst critic, so I loved knowing that two pieces I thought were inadequate actually were his favorites. This very simple writing practice brings me incredible joy.

Here’s one of my haiku partner’s favorite pieces of mine:

the breath from my sun
salutations in time
with your snoring

My poetry low, I hate to admit, has been my MFA program. Although I will graduate in the spring with a manuscript, my program has isolated me more than fostered community. I now understand why some people never write again or don’t write for many years, after completing an MFA. It has been difficult for me to speak about this, and I would never say that nobody should do an MFA program, but it was definitely a mistake for me.

Q~Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

A~In the spirit of not ending this interview on a low note… In addition to my thesis, I’m working on a long-term project in which I’m creating blackout poems of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. I post updates on Instagram, my blog, and my Medium account, so if you’re interested in those, check out my social media and enjoy!

Q~What drew you to Ezra Pound’s Cantos?

A~I was drawn to it for a few reasons: 1. Ezra Pound, for all he contributed to poetry, was a fascist. There’s apparently been a resurgence of blackout poetry since our current president took office. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to write over the words of politicians and artists with gross moral failings and make our own texts out of them. 2. The Cantos seems largely antithetical to Pound’s earlier poetics. Of course, poets and their creative interests change over time. But the Cantos are bloated, stuffed with allusions you need a degree in classics to understand, and the imagistic impulse Pound once prized is buried in a convoluted narrative. Once while on a hike, my boyfriend off-handedly suggested it might be fun to try to turn each canto into a haiku. I didn’t take his actual idea, but I am interested in finding the actual images in each poem.  3. Pound said “Make it new.” Well, Ezra, I’m taking your advice literally!

Q~Where else can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~I’m participating in the 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, and you can find work there:  http://allysonmwhipple.com/. I also have recent work in the Summer/Fall issue of WORDPEACE. Finally, I have haiku forthcoming in Under the Basho.

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