In this installment of our regular team feature, we chat with Associate Editor Allison Geller about working with AWT, poetry and her love of dance.
How did you get involved with AWT?
Kimi Mongello, an original AWT team member, lives in my building. My roommate Elizabeth was upstairs visiting her and she called me to say, “Hey, Kimi is involved with this great new women’s magazine, you should totally write for them!” I went to the meeting the next week and sat on Saskia’s balcony with some white wine as the first issue was being put to bed, and that was that!
I love being involved in publications in editorial roles, and starting things from the ground up. Plus the group of women was so fantastic. So it felt perfect.
In addition to being a writer and editor, you’re also a poet. When did you first start writing poetry?
I always wrote. When I was a kid I filled marble notebooks with poems about my dog and whatnot. I think they rhymed. I was not yet apprised of the merits of free verse.
There was no “a-ha” moment, as with some of the poets I studied with who came to poetry after reading Howl or whatever. I was lucky enough to attend a school, the University of Virginia, with an amazing undergraduate poetry writing program. That was a real boon. I got to have great conversations and refine my understanding of how poetry works with superb professors and very talented classmates.
Your chapbook, Write Home, was just released. Tell us about it—what are some of the themes it explores?
I wrote a lot of the poems in Write Home when I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia. So a lot of them are about that experience. Also love and fidelity. That’s a theme that fascinates me: what does it mean to be “faithful,” in a romantic or spiritual sense? I was raised without religion, so religious faith has always been a bit of a mystery to me. But I like considering what it means to be faithful to a person, a value or belief, or a subject you are writing about. Since poetry is really artifice—transforming experience into something that is more fascinating or moving than true—writing poems seems like an especially interesting way to explore that.
On that note, plurality or multiplicity of self. We always speak prudently about “the speaker” in workshops instead of using “you” (as in, “in the poem, when the speaker pulls out a knife…”), because what if this isn’t autobiographical? But let’s face it—the speaker is always some dimension of you. I found myself writing with a surreal “we” as subject, writing persona poems, writing poems in which “the speaker” indulges in sentimentality and then catches herself in a moment of self-consciousness.
The title, Write Home, alludes to that. When we travel, we have the urge to chronicle and report back, but those letters home are always translations of an experience. In a poem, that translation is acknowledged, ramped up, and plumbed for all it may be worth.
You’ve lived in Lyon, France and in St. Petersburg and your poetry seems very influenced by your travels. In what ways did these places shape your work, your life?
I love to travel and collect images and experiences. I think I’m really a describer; I just observe things and try to render them in an evocative way.
And speaking of the mutable, hard-to-pin-down self, in life I always get a little antsy when I stay in any one place for too long. I love the feeling of freedom and wonder I get while traveling and navigating the world for myself. I think my poems are always about travel in some way, even when the travel is not physical. There is always an elsewhere my poet-self is trying to escape to.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about your other passion: ballroom dancing. You’ve been dancing for several years and are active on the competition circuit. How do dancing and writing connect for you? Or are they each a way to escape from the other?
Great question! I think about this frequently. Sometimes my poet friends ask me why I don’t write about dance more. Rita Dove, with whom I studied, wrote a whole book of poems, American Smooth, about ballroom dancing. But I have such a hard time when I try. I feel like it always fails.
I do notice certain less literal parallels, though, or ways that one enriches the other, more in terms of practice or discipline. For example, revising. As dancers, we practice the same routine over and over and over again in an attempt to perfect our technique and presentation. In that same way, I have to struggle with each poem, to go over it again and again in an attempt to amplify the impact of every line. So there is rigor involved in each, but also joy. One leads to the other.
But as you mention, one is also definitely an escape from the other. I find the physicality of dance to be a relief. I like the feeling of getting into my body and out of my head. Sometimes in ballroom, we talk about dancers being “thinkers” or “feelers”—those who need to analyze and break things down very technically, and those who need to feel things to understand them. Perhaps the same distinction applies to writing and writers. But I think that natural inclinations aside, we need to develop our skills for both “thinking” and “feeling” in some measure. That goes for any art form.
In essence, though, both dance and writing are mediums of expression. While doing them, I feel more intensely myself.
Photo courtesy: Allison Geller