by Ally Malinenko
I’m staring at that word
printed on an ad on the subway.
I’m not even sure what the rest of the ad
says or what it’s trying to sell just the word
the way it has loud in it
you’re a fucking bitch
you hear me you little bitch
I want to turn the volume up
in my headphones but everything
is locked. I will not move my arms
or my lips or my eyes.
I will not turn up the volume in my headphones
even though I don’t want to hear him.
I love telling bitches to suck my dick
He’s close enough that I think I can feel his breath
on my cheek
feel his hatred against my skin
if he touches me
make a fist
knuckles tilted down.
Go for the throat
and then run
I sound it out in my head
Punch and then run
to the other end of the subway car
but what if he catches me?
Punch once and keep punching.
Suck my dick bitch
You fucking bitch
The train is nearly empty
though I make eye contact with the woman seated
in front of me
for a brief moment
her eyes say
I’m so sorry
but I can’t help you
before they flit away
You fucking bitch.
He hisses and I am frozen
like a deer in headlights
like a small useless thing
my teeth locked together
biting down hard
waiting for the doors to open
punch and run
cloud like loud.
He is not big
and my height
Out of the corner of my eye
I see his hands curl into fists
and I look back quickly at the ad
punch and run
he and I are thinking the same thing
First published in Paper and Ink Zine 2018.
Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collections, The Wanting Bone, How to Be An American, Better Luck Next Year and Fitting the Ocean in Your Mouth as well as the novel, This Is Sarah. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets a lot about David Bowie and Doctor Who.
She describes her style as “narrative, usually first person and as straight forward as I can manage.” She says, “I don’t usually go for flowery descriptions. I try to cut to the chase though I’m sure I fail at that.”
Ally and Bekah’s work–including the above poem–appeared together recently in Paper and Ink Zine’s all-female issue, “Girls to the Front.” We wanted to know more about Ally and her writing, so here is our interview with her.
Q~Tell us about your poem, “Cloud.” It’s really evocative. Is there a backstory you want to share?
A~Everything in this poem actually happened. It was on the 2 train on my way home from work. There was a super aggressive guy on the train saying all the things he says in the poem. The MTA in NYC had this initiative where they published poems with accompanying artwork in train cars. The poem that I was staring at when he was saying all of this was called “Cloud.” I don’t remember who wrote it or anything else about it. I don’t know why I changed it to an advertisement in the poem. For some reason that seemed easier. All I remember is that word and this man’s aggression and my own fear. There was another older woman there who I did briefly make eye contact with. I was only on the train with him for two stops, but it felt like a lifetime. When the doors opened at my stop I practically ran through the station.
Q~How is the poem representative of your work?
A~In the sense that it is a narrative, yes, it is pretty representative of my poetry. Because I am also a novelist most of my writing is an account of events, some real, some not. I write a lot about moving through the world as a woman from a feminist standpoint both to honor the good work that feminism has done and also to hold up a mirror to where it has failed women.
Q~What can you tell us about your current project for Women’s History Month?
A~John Grochalski has been running a resistance blog since Trump’s election. Every day he posts a piece of artwork–a poem, a story, a picture, what have you–as a means to combat the darkness. At the end of each week he includes a wrap up of what went down that week politically. In March he’s handing the reigns over to me so consider this my sincere plea for art. Creative women and women-identifying persons everywhere should send their work to email@example.com with the word “MARCH” in the subject heading, so I can feature them on the blog. There are no limitations to what you can talk about, but it would be amazing if for the month of March it was focused on elevating women’s voices and experiences. So, it doesn’t have to be about politics but anything about what it is like to navigate this world as a self-identified woman. Submission information is here. In times of uncertainty art can be both a sword and a shield. Art has the power to wake people up, alter their path, shake them into awareness. Pieces can be previously published, too; just give me a heads up as to where so I can credit them. John has kept this thing running for over a year, and I’m honored that he trusts me not to screw it up in March. In order to do that I need everyone reading this to please, please, please submit!
Q~What is the time frame for sending you submissions for the resistance blog?
A~There really isn’t. It’s an ongoing thing. Basically send something, and it will show up on the blog at some point. For March the sooner, the better because I’ve got to fill 31 days, and I really don’t want those 31 days to be the “Ally Show,” so I’ll take whatever people have got when they send it. And, I should stress that John is always taking submissions so even if they don’t get something in by March for Women’s History, he’s always looking for more women and POC and non-binary folks to fill the blog. He’s posting something every day for as long as that idiot is in the White House so….
Q~How does this relate to the poet’s role in society?
A~That’s an interesting question, considering the times we are living in. I think in general it’s the same as any writer–-to document our time. To hold a mirror up to humanity. To remind us who we were, who we are and who we have the potential to become. I think art has power, and writing has power, and the great thing about poetry is that simplicity of it. There’s a whole novel there in each and every one. Good poetry is a knife point that cuts right through the nonsense. And, right now there is a lot of nonsense. And, on the flipside, I think the amazing thing about art is that it is transformative. It can take us away from the nonsense, transport us, if only temporarily somewhere else–somewhere beautiful and peaceful. It works both ways. I think every poet should know that she carries those two possibilities every time she sits down to put words to paper.
Q~Why do you personally choose to write poetry?
A~I feel like even though I write prose and speculative fiction my inner voice sounds the most like my poetry voice. And, I started writing it as a teenager as I’m sure many poets did, so it’s just been something that I have been doing for a long time. Because so much of what I write is confessional and based on my life I find poetry really cathartic. I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2014, and unable to manage this huge crack in my life I turned to writing. I wrote poems about the whole experience, and that eventually turned into my book, Better Luck Next Year. In all honesty, being able to write about what was happening through poetry helped to keep me sane. Writing has always been there for me like that.
Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?
A~I write a lot of about death, or more so, the incredible luck it is that you are even alive to begin with, how everything had to go perfectly right since the very beginning of time. Sort of like Mary Oliver’s “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I use writing as a means of connection. I throw something out in the world and see if it resonates with anyone else. I’m basically saying, “Hey I feel this. Do you feel it, too?” Whenever that happens I feel like this human web gets a little bit tighter, a little bit stronger. Against all obvious signs I still believe in the goodness of people.
Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene?
A~Honestly, I’m not. I’ve done some readings in Brooklyn–a whole lot more in Pittsburgh where I went to college and maintain some close friendships–but scenes in general always made me uncomfortable. I don’t particularly like reading. I don’t like being on stage and being looked at. No matter how many readings I do, my hands still shake like it’s the first time. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because the stuff that I usually write poetry about is so personal that I just feel like a fool up there. I might as well be reading out of my journal! When I do readings in Pittsburgh and see my friends, who are also all writers, it doesn’t feel so much like a scene as it does a bunch of people hanging out, drinking, listening to records and talking about books and movies and music. Maybe that is a scene, I don’t know.
Q~Who was your poetry first love?
A~Anne Sexton. Definitely. I jokingly refer to her as my mother. The confessional style that she used to cut right down to the heart of everything I had wanted to say. I read her as a teenager, and she legitimized what I had been scribbling down in secret. She made it okay to say it out loud. She became a gateway drug to Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds and down to my current obsession, Marie Howe. Howe is my hero and everything I aspire to be.
Q~What is it about Marie Howe and her work that you love and want to emulate?
A~I don’t know. I struggle a lot with poets. It’s strange because I love it, and I love to write it but often I have trouble finding people that I love to read which is terrible when it comes to looking for inspiration. When my husband gave me Marie’s first book, I couldn’t stop reading it. I walked through the subway at Atlantic Station reading it, and honestly if you know how awful Atlantic Station is and how much I hate people who meander in the subway, you’d understand how huge that is. Every line just seemed to cut right through me. Her book What the Living Do is powerful as hell. She’s got this poem in it about how if she could go back in time and see herself as a little girl she knows that girl would never come into her arms, would never trust her enough. As if even as a little girl she was still a woman with a woman’s sense of caution, fearing even herself. I just really related to that. And, her poems about her brother dying of AIDS would gut anyone. I’m just saying, very few poets have made me cry. Go read the poem “The Last Time” about her brother confronting her about death and her insistence that she understood that he was going to die. It’s short–maybe 10 lines–but the end is an absolute punch in the stomach. I won’t ruin it because it’s that good. I read that poem and thought about that poem and realized that is the kind of poetry I had been trying to write my whole life. Something that opens you up, makes you feel comfortable or familiar and then by the end, flips it on its head. And, then even the mundane, the way she writes about a cheese and mustard sandwich, the messy parts of living, of what it means to pass through one day after another, how we balance that mundane with the knowledge that all of this is going to end forever. She does it like no one else. I just wish she would write a book more than once a decade, but that’s just cause I’m greedy.
Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?
A~I don’t know if this is really advice as much as what I practice. I’m a big believer in my schedule. I get up every weekday morning at 4:45 am, and I write until I need to start getting ready for work around 7:15. I’ve been doing this for over ten years–my husband who is also a writer, started this plan–and I really feel like it works. There is no way I could have produced four books of poetry and three novels without it. I guess something has to be sacrificed to the muse, right? I chose sleep.
Q~What’s it like being married to another writer?
A~Oddly enough other than complaining about being short on ideas, we don’t really talk about it that much. We’re very different writers even though we’re both poets and novelists. There was a small period of time where I wanted us to share notes and give feedback on each other’s work. I wanted to blend this part of our lives together, and it was an absolute disaster. I tortured the poor boy. We’ve both got really strong personalities and really strong writing voices, so it turned into this thing where I would be like, “Well if I wrote it….” and it was a mess. Because I didn’t write it. He did. And I needed to respect that. I think most creatives who are in long relationships with other creatives discover that you need to keep the relationship and the work separate sometimes. I don’t think it’s a terribly good idea for your writer-partner to be critiquing your work. I think you need less involved sources. On the flip side, it’s really fantastic to have someone to bitch with. To complain about magazines going under or who rejected your work. I mean writers can be petty as hell, so it’s nice to have someone on your side in the trenches. I respect what he does, and he respects what I do, and we support each other. But, we’re not a writing circle. Hell, no.
Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?
A~Pretty much everything is on my website. I also tweet (probably too much) at @allymalinenko, and I’m on Instagram and FB and all the other social media things. And, at the end of the day a Google search will pull up a pretty fair idea of what I do. You can also purchase my latest poetry book, Fitting the Ocean in Your Mouth, here.