From Red Weather, Spring 2001, No. 20 - Minnesota State University Moorhead
Excerpt from The Most Important Thing in the World: An Interview with Alice Friman by Karen Joan Kohoutek
I met Alice Friman in the spring of 2000 when she came to what was then Moorhead State University as part of the Tom McGrath Visiting Writers Series. In addition to her reading and her talk on "The Writer's Craft," she also guest-taught the MFA Poetry Workshop and spoke on feminism with a Women's Studies class. This level of involvement in her visit seems characteristic of her dedication not only to writing, but also to expressing the importance that writing can have in people's real lives.
The morning of the interview I arrived at her hotel with a scribbled list of general topics to ask about and a borrowed tape recorder. I was fairly nervous, since I had never done an interview before. But Alice quickly put me at ease with her warmth and candor, and talked easily with me about her work, as one writer to another. That night, I was asked to introduce her reading, and I said I had felt privileged to spend the day with someone so inspirational, who was so clear-sighted about the place of literature in the world, but so passionate about carrying on despite the obstacles.
K.K.: In your essay on getting a tattoo, you said you have been writing for thirty years without benefit of teacher or program.
A.F.: I have never been in a class. When I started, there was no such thing. If there was such a thing, I didn’t know it. I had three kids and the kitchen floor, and I started writing. I’ve taught myself every mistake I know, and so I think perhaps I came at it a bit differently, because I don’t seem to bother with what’s the style now, since I never knew what the style was. I guess I wanted to write like the poets I had always loved, or to have that effect. I wanted to write things that mattered.
K.K.: So who were the writers that mattered to you when you started?
A.F.: They’re probably the writers that still matter. Gerard Manley Hopkins, because he thrills me, and I think poetry should be thrilling. Yeats. Rilke. Keats, of course. Adrienne Rich. Anne Sexton. The writers that matter to me now—Louise Glück. I think she’s the best thing writing in America. I’m very interested in what the women are doing. I’m interested in people who take chances and take risks and are trying to get down to the bottom of what they think and what they feel, because one doesn’t always know what one thinks and what one feels. …
K.K.: So when you first started writing, how old were you? Were you already an adult?
A.F.: I wrote poems when I was in college. I was in college when I was sixteen and wrote poems that were god-awful, about unrequited love and blah blah blah. And then, ten years after I graduated, I had a friend who was pregnant, and I wanted to make words say how I imagined a fetus is in the womb, that is, the tight, curled-up quality. Now this didn’t seem too hard, but I couldn’t do it. And it intrigued me that I couldn’t do it, and that [I couldn’t make] the words do that; I think I worked on that for maybe seven years. …How do you make words act like paint in a painting? What is that? Of course it’s metaphor, it’s image, but I didn’t know that. So I began writing, maybe one poem a year, and hid it in the drawer. I was hiding in the drawer, you see. I would take the poem out, eight months later when I had another urge to say something, and read it, and say, well, that’s not so bad. And that’s how it began. I was in my mid-thirties.
K.K.: There are people who think there should be a separation between the writer and their work, about how the writer and the poem are supposed to be separated, ideally. But I think people instinctively feel that their work is them, and that’s why it is so difficult to make the leap to be public about it. It is you. At some level.
A.F.: At some level it is. Or it’s a piece of you. Or it’s a piece that you’ve imagined being. But I’m not talking about confessional poetry. … The writing life, which is a life of process, is my life. I can’t separate. The act of writing itself is what’s important. The more you write, the more you have to write. It becomes your way of thinking. Poetry to me is like a ladder going down into a swimming pool. Or a rope. It helps you go down, down, down, down, down. You think you know what you know, or you think you know what you’re feeling, but you don’t really. That is, I don’t. I live my life in a state of total confusion. So that writing becomes a way of knowing what I feel, or knowing what I think about, and to get down there. Sometimes I create a problem in order to get down as …deep as I can go. And it’s always a wonderful shock. Oh, that’s what it is! That’s what I feel. That’s what I think. All right. Whoo!
K.K.: So, you’ve never taken any writing classes, but you’ve taught creative writing. So…
A.F.: That’s tricky, right?
K.K.: Do you have any perspective on the question of being self-taught or taking classes? I find in the world that there are these divisions a little bit, between the academic writers and the people who have the MFAs, or whatever. I was hesitant to get involved in the whole thing, because I knew some of those writers who looked down their noses at the rest of us, and I didn’t want to be like that.
A.F.: I’ve never been engaged in that problem…. And when I get too close to it, I don’t like it. Because I say, what does this have to do with writing a poem? Writing a poem has nothing to do with this. All I know is what “works.” That’s all I’m interested in. What works. To create this image, that in turn spells out the idea or feeling that I think is in there. That’s all that matters. Poetry for me is the great permission.
K.K.: You should put that on a bumper sticker…. So when you’re teaching writing, what’s your philosophy?
A.F.: Each poem is an entity unto itself. My job is to teach somebody how to see the poem from the inside out and to be true to that vision. And to cut out all the excess baggage. To get down to the essential feeling of the poem. I have all sorts of sneaky ways, tricky ways, to make that happen.
K.K.: I liked what you said [in your talk] about the contrast between the two things about [writing] poetry, that, on the one hand, it has so little meaning, in the scheme of things, but, on the other hand, it being the most important thing there is, and seeing them both. You know, you sometimes wonder what’s it all about.
A.F.: It’s about nothing. And so what? In a hundred years from now we’ll all be gone and forgotten. There is no meaning, except the meaning we put on it. And since that’s it, then let’s get on with it. As I said [in my talk], if I can get these eight lines right, even though it means nothing in the face of the world—nobody cares, believe me—but if I can get that right, then it is the most important thing in the world, because at least there’s something, some little tiny corner, that’s perfected. And I can do that. Look, the stakes are real high. There’s a goddess for poetry. There’s not a goddess for basketball, but there is a goddess for poetry, and she is damn demanding. She slaps you up one side of the head if you’re not doing it right.
K.K.: Could you talk at all about your writing process, the progress of the poem?
A.F.: If I’m lucky, a first line will come to me. Which might not end up being the first line, you understand. If I’m lucky. Sometimes, I go through an experience, like when we went to Africa, I had all of these images that were just bursting to be written. Things that happened, [things we saw]. But lots of times there’s nothing to write about, and my head is absolutely as empty as a tin can, so I have these tricks to get something going. I can give you a whole list. But one of the best things, that always works, is I take a walk. I make my head absolutely passive and jot down what I see. Six dead birds, a sack of trash, it doesn’t make any difference. When I come back, I look at what I wrote and pick one of them, and write it down. Then I try to string the images together. And pretty soon, the underlying thought behind it, why I picked those things, which I didn’t consciously know, will come out. And then I’m off.
I don’t particularly enjoy the first draft, but I like the rewriting—sometimes forty, sixty drafts. And if things are going too easily, I make myself a problem. Like, for instance, let’s divide this up into five-line stanzas and make the first line short and the last line long. This is a phony problem, but it’s to make the [bar] higher, to make the mind reach higher. And if writing a poem takes months, I’m in heaven, bliss city, when I’m at that stage. And when I think it’s done, I hang it up on the wall. In other words, I objectify it. When I pass it by, I say, “Oh, look at this, a poem.” And I read it. In other words, I look at it from the outside in. And if it doesn’t do what it was supposed to do, which is evoke in me the same feelings or the same images that I had when I wrote it, or if the line breaks are wrong, or if anything is fighting it, I pull it down and [work on it] again. I keep doing this for about a month. Then I send it to my dearest friend, and if she says it’s okay, it’s okay, …and I go to the next one. I’m slow, but I’m steady. Goethe said, and I may not have the exact translation here: “Don’t rush, don’t rest.” Isn’t that wonderful? Don’t hurry, but don’t rest. In other words, don’t hurry the work, don’t push it, just keep doing it. Just keep at it. But everybody has to find out how he or she works best. E. A. Robinson said that the secret of life is to find out who you are, and then be it. Sounds simple, but it’s hard to find out who you are, especially when who you are might keep changing. And then you must have the courage to be it.
K.K.: I think it is a lot easier said than done.
A.F.: And not to pay too much attention to what’s in vogue. I’ve been writing for a long time. The style in the academy has changed. I remember going through a period when everyone was saying there’s only one kind of poem, and that’s the narrative. Well, sometimes a poem doesn’t lend itself to narrative. Then what are you going to do?
K.K.: I want to ask you a little about feminism and writing and writing as a woman…
A.F.: When the women’s movement hit me, I was forty, and it was like a revelation, because the women’s movement put words on things I knew but didn’t know I knew. So there was language for it. You knew that something didn’t feel right but you didn’t know why. Because that’s the way the world is. All you have to do is see some of those movies …and sing some of the songs I grew up on. Then along came the women’s movement and all those women writing—Rich, Sexton, Brooks, Kumin, Piercy, with all that anger expressed. For me, the world changed. Here was where I belonged. Here was the great permission.
K.K.: I see in the ten years that I was out of college, the changes from when I was in college to the way they are now. Things have changed so much, but people who are there now, they don’t even realize. Ten years ago things were very, very different. When I graduated from high school, it was still risque for a woman to think she wasn’t going to get married, or whether you were going to work after you got married was still a question. It’s not like this has happened a hundred years ago.
A.F.: Listen—I am 66 years old. I’ve been all around the world by myself. I’ve traveled through Greece, through Italy, through Spain, I went through all of Australia by myself, through New Zealand, up in a helicopter to a glacier. I almost got killed a few times. The day before yesterday, when I was getting ready to come here and fly from Indianapolis to Fargo, my mother says, “But what about Bruce? Are you going to go alone?” Bruce is my very young husband. I said, “Well, what about him? He can make supper by himself.” And then my mother-in-law, my sweet mother-in-law, says to my husband, “Is she going to go by herself?” And then she said, “Is she taking care of you?” So between the two of them, everyone’s worried about whether I’m taking care of him. Nobody’s worried about if he’s taking care of me. And surely, nobody cares about whether I’m taking care of me. That’s not my job. This is still going on. Constantly. So, you have to fight. If I were to give people advice, certainly young women, the most important virtue to have, the most important skill to learn, is courage. Because, especially if you’re a writer, there’s nobody out there waiting for you. Nobody, not even your own family. Especially your own family.
K.K.: Is there anything you can say about the relationship between feminism and writing as such?
A.F.: I have a poem that I’m going to read today, an old poem that begins “For a woman to write a poem is loaves and fishes.” In other words, it’s a miracle. Because to write, you have to have time. More than that, you have to have a space of time. More than that, you have to know that it’s there and can be counted on to be there. It’s no good if you’ve got two hours, if you have to keep reminding yourself that you have two hours! That’s not the same thing as having a block of time out there, without an end. Now, women are brought up—were, and are still brought up—so there is no space allowed. I dare any young woman to tell me she’s got space. Tell me about it. Tell me about all this time you have, that you demand for yourself. You don’t. It’s an apology. Or you feel guilty if you take it. There’s always something to do that’s your job. Women are brought up to think that they have no right to their own space. It’s true. If you need time to create and are brought up to have none, and have no right to take it, how on earth do you become an artist of any kind? That’s why, when you go to an art colony, there’s mostly women there. Because at least in an art colony, they give you physical space to stare at the wall if that’s what you need.
As I said, I’ve got a young, dear, wonderful husband—but sometimes I just stare at the wall. And it makes him real nervous. “What are you doing?” Then I have to start mucking around in my head. What am I doing? I should be doing something. There’s the laundry to fold, etc., etc. So I rent a studio. If a woman wants to write, she’s got to have a room of her own. You know, when Virginia Woolf wrote that—it’s not just physical room she’s talking about, it’s time/space of her own, and she has to ensure that she has that. Sometimes that could be closing off a room in the house, or getting a studio outside, or running away from home, or getting a divorce. I once had somebody say to me that she loves to write, but her husband insists that when he watches television, she sit next to him. And he doesn’t like it when she goes “in there” to write. Well, of course not, because that’s claiming her own space apart from him. Well, she asked, what should I do about it? I said, “Get a divorce.” Everybody in the room, there were a hundred people, laughed. They thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. How many lives do you have? The writing is you. So it’s a fight. Feminism is a fight, a struggle, that you just keep up until the end.
K.K.: You write some prose, but I read somewhere that you don’t like doing it. I was wondering if you could talk about that. What’s the difference in writing poetry and prose?
A.F.: Molly Peacock told me, years ago, that writing poetry and writing prose is akin to a visual artist who paints and who sculpts. They come from two sides of the brain or two different places. I don’t know if that’s true. But it seems so for me. I tried my hand more than a few times writing short stories, and it made me so nervous. There was all this room to move around in. You know, writing poetry is like writing with a laser beam, like being held in a real tight girdle, in a real tight belt. Writing prose, lord, there’s all this room. You’ve got to create a scene, you have to talk about the weather….It just makes me nervous. So when a very good friend of mine said to me, “We’re compiling this book, and I want you to write an essay,” I said, “Oh, no, do I have to?” She said, “Yes, I want you to do that.” Well, okay, I put it off and I put it off. So she called me up and she said, “We need this thing.” And so, I began. I was about to go to the hospital the next day for an operation on my back, so I couldn’t write any poetry anyway. I was in a dither. I was worried. So I said okay, I’m going to write this essay. I’m going to get a rough draft down. I threatened myself. I said, you’re going to sit in this chair, and you’re not allowed to leave until you have a rough draft…. Even it if means only a scribble. So I did, but it was very, very painful. Then, once it was down and I could diddle with it, the process didn’t seem as foreign or painful.
K.K.: When I read that, that really interested me, because I’ve taken a lot of prose workshops and I find—I just don’t understand prose. I’ve been reading it, I’ve been writing it all my life, and I don’t understand it at all, how it works, creating it. It always ends up that they say I’m trying to write prose like poems.
A.F.: That’s right!
K.K.: Then you have to do all this structure and stuff that I don’t think about when I’m writing a poem. So I’d like to be able to do it, but it’s just so stressful.
A.F.: When I went back to school, in my middle thirties, and I had to write papers, I got an A on everything I wrote, but oh, it was just torture. I did all the research and I had it in front of me, but a fifteen-page paper would take me a week to write. And the bad thing is, the more you write poetry, the worse this syndrome seems to get. I should fight it, because I think the tattoo essay, the one I wrote for my friend, is a pretty good essay. You’d never dream I was suffering.
K.K.: What are you working on now? This book, Zoo, has just been published, right?
A.F.: Those poems were written five to ten years ago. We went to Africa in ’93. But I have enough poems for a complete other book. And those poems are about death, death, and more death. Somebody, I forget who it was, said that death is the topic of poetry. Since ’94, I have been actively involved in my mother and my father’s very old age and dying—nursing homes, the whole ball of wax, the whole thing. And those topics are filled with all sorts of emotions: guilt, anger, gratitude, getting driven up the wall, regret, sorrow, guilt, guilt, guilt. I was with my father when he died, and I was taking notes. That sounds crass, I know, but I think that’s how a writer mourns, writing it.
K.K.: So when you get a collection of work, then do you in your mind shape them into a particular book, like this one, and then, do you have particular publishers or editors that you work with?
A.F.: Oh, this is hard. All I can tell you is what I have done in the past. You take all the poems that you think you want included, type them up, lay them all out, and say, okay now.… When you write poems, you write one poem at a time, but somehow that book has to hold together. Somehow you have to have some overall agenda. Now, Zoo was relatively easy to put together, but the book before it was almost impossible. There must have been 50 different versions of that book. I kept changing it and changing it and changing it, sending the manuscript out to people, and they’d all disagree about what to do with the order of the poems. But Zoo was relatively easy. It knew what it wanted to be named. I could think of much better names, but that’s what it wanted. It’s a Zoo. The world is a zoo, politically, my family. I haven’t tried putting together the next one yet, because I’m not done. My mother’s still alive. Although I don’t know if you ever get done with this kind of book, with death.
K.K.: What is your advice to young writers? You kind of talked about that earlier. I like that idea of courage: to say that it takes courage to do it, to make a life out of this. That puts it in a whole different light, because you hear so much on the negative side—to call it “courage” versus “futility.”
A.F.: Well, the advice to young writers is a few things I said already. The idea of what Goethe said, “Don’t rush and don’t rest.” And to keep writing. There will be all these things out there lined up to make you stop. Just keep doing it. Have the courage to write your obsessions when everyone will say you shouldn’t. Have the courage to stick something in that’s absolutely ridiculous if your little quirky brain says to. If things are too easy, make a problem, because otherwise you’ll just end up repeating yourself, because it’s easy. Have courage. And you know, the goddess is demanding, and whatever it takes, it takes. And if it takes three years to write a piece, fine. What else do you have to do with your life? And if the person in you who writes poetry wants to write only with a black pen, or insists that you have to have ice cream before, fine! Whatever it is! She, not you, calls the shots.