On The View from Saturn & More: An Interview with Alice Friman

Gina Abelkop: L is for Leaves,” your poem in our Summer 2014 issue, begins softly, with a meditation on daily routine and watching the leaves outside through a window, but ends with a darker finish with the narrator “not knowing / which of us is screaming, Hold on, hold on.” I was surprised when I found myself at the end of the poem—the change in tone was slyly crafted and engaged me in an entirely different way than I was expecting. Was that a shift you anticipated before sitting down to write the poem, or did it naturally arrive as you wrote? Do you often find yourself surprised by your own poems?

Alice Friman: Do I find myself surprised by my own poems? Sometimes, but this one was no surprise. Perhaps I should explain how this piece came to be written. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes I am greatly bored. One day I said to my husband (in my usual dramatic fashion), “I’m so bored, I think I might go crazy.” He, of course, laughed. But then I thought, what if I did go crazy. “L is for Leaves” was born from that thought. So here’s a woman with nothing to do but watch meat defrost on the counter, check the refrigerator light’s on and off, and stand at the window imagining that the surrounding leaves are signaling to her. Buried in the poem, too, is the growing tension between her and her husband who obviously has no patience for her insecurities. As far as the question at the end of whether he slaps her around or she just imagines it, I leave that up to the reader.

GA: How has your writing process evolved over the years? Do you find marked changes in the kinds of turns and questions your poems tend to make?

AF: I don’t know as though my “writing process” has changed over the years, except for the fact that I—so technically challenged, so late to even consider owning a computer—find myself doing what I said I’d never do: composing on the thing.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Computer or no, I still type with one finger, and it still takes me months to complete one piece. I write every day, or that is, I wrestle with the words every day, rewriting and rewriting, looking for the “perfect” word.

About any “marked changes in the kinds of turns and questions” the poems make, I don’t know as I can answer that. Each poem demands its own language, its own rhythm, and, most importantly, its own interior logic. My job is to figure out what that logic line is and write it, which I guess accounts for all the rewriting. My mother would have called such a trait plain stubbornness, and perhaps she was right, for I do tend to stick to a thing, hang on like a bulldog until it’s done. Sometimes I think that somewhere in my head the poem exists as a Platonic Absolute, and my job is to bring it to a realization, give it life.

GA: Tell us about your forthcoming book from LSU Press, The View from Saturn. What preoccupations arise in the poems and how did they come together to converse with each other? What new stories, art, writing, music, or film inspired or informed your writing of these poems?

AF: The View from Saturn endeavors to look at the earth and our life on it from two perspectives: objectively as if from a great distance, and subjectively, focusing in on the body with all its cells and hungers. That is to say, a telescopic view interspersed with a microscopic view. Imagine your life as a train you’re looking at from a distance so that you can see the whole thing—the beginning and the end at once. Then, at the same time, be in the train, in the midst of your life, but aware always of the locomotive at the head of the train as well as the rattling caboose—the end, that last car. That duality is what I was aiming for. I imagine that duality reflects how I think and is thus mirrored in the work. How could it not?

The book tries to deal with the big questions: what does it all mean; what have we become that we destroy not only each other but our little home in space; what is the writer’s place, etc. Laid out in five sections—each of which begins with a short poem focusing in on the body—the book flares out from a long center piece called “The Joker” which suggests the possibility of some sort of a reason behind all this. A trickster? a destiny? a god?

To answer your last question—what informed the concept of the collection—I’d have to say the most crucial thing was taking a trip to the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, and being privileged to see Saturn through a powerful telescope. It changed my life.

GA: What have you been reading this summer? Which contemporary poets / collections of poetry do you find particularly exciting?

AF: I’m in the middle of three books at the moment: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf which I read slowly and out loud, A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman, and the biography of Philip Roth by Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) which Judson Mitcham gave me as a gift. And I just ordered W. Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats. In the car, Bruce and I are reading Boccaccio’s The Decameron and we’re enjoying it very much. We often read to each other in the car. Two years ago we went out west, twenty-two states, and read all of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A real glory!

About poetry: A few weeks ago I bought The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov and it’s marvelous. And at my feet, here in the studio, are the latest collections by Albert Goldbarth, William Trowbridge’s Put This On, Please, and all of Louise Glück.