Former Literary Mama poetry editor Allison Blevins is an award-winning author with a long list of publications. Her most recent collection, Slowly/Suddenly, was released last September by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. A full-length volume of thought-provoking, evocative poetry, one reviewer notes the book uniquely captures “the plights of mothers, daughters, lovers and spouses in a voice that endures scars and calluses but refuses to accept them as necessary.” Blevins is also the author of the chapbooks A Season for Speaking (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), Letters to Joan (Lithic Press, 2019), and Susurration, Laud and Coming Home with Cancer (Blue Lyra Press, 2019) and has more work forthcoming. She serves as the executive editor at the museum of americana and director of Small Harbor Publishing. As an ardent supporter of arts outreach, Blevins also co-organizes a Downtown Poetry reading series in Missouri, where she lives with her spouse and three children. Senior Editor Christina Consolino corresponded with Blevins via email and discussed the dichotomy of parenthood, how the artist Joan Mitchell influences her work, and what it’s like to live with multiple sclerosis.
Christina Consolino: Congrats on the publication of your most recent collection, Slowly/Suddenly. Your work covers poignant themes including motherhood, in-vitro fertilization, the silenced woman, and more. How do you make sure each approach to these themes is fresh and interesting to the reader?
Allison Blevins: Thank you so much! While writing, I rarely think about my reader. As a mom, I have to sneak in moments to write. I write while sitting at a stoplight, pumping gas, waiting in the school pick-up line. Everything comes out as a line or phrase. Sometimes I just write titles. Often I have pages of images. When I start to get a feel for what the book wants to be, then I start thinking about the work as individual pieces and a collection. That is when the reader enters. I often think about what poems I wish I had read on the topics I struggle with. What words would have gotten me through tough moments? The best poems enter your body and you think with them forever. I hope to one day write a poem that does that work for someone else.
CC: Infertility is a topic that more people speak about these days, though not to a level that many of us would prefer. In “How to Explain Infertility When An Acquaintance Asks Casually,” you face the loss head on. Can you talk about how you capture the raw, honest pain and put it into words?
AB: That poem is so strange. When we started trying to get pregnant with our youngest, I was diagnosed with secondary infertility. This is an infertility diagnosis after a previous pregnancy. When I wrote it, I was thinking about the case of Susan Smith and all the other horrific stories of women who kill their children. I was so angry. Angry at my body, angry at other mothers, angry at a system that seems not to value who we are. The poem seemed to swell with that anger. It asks readers to look underneath motherhood because so much lives under the surface unseen.
I also must mention that this poem is in the anthology Unspoken: Writers on Infertility, Miscarriage, and Stillbirth (Life in 10 Minutes Press, 2020), which is a beautiful collection that has absolutely added to this important conversation so often absent in literature.
CC: Your writing captures the dichotomy of motherhood especially, and parenthood in general, pairing opposite words such as “ecstasy” and “loss,” both of which can be applied to every stage of parenthood. Did that dichotomy surprise you once you became a parent?
AB: I think I always realized this dichotomy was true, but I never felt how true it was until I was pregnant with our youngest. We used reciprocal IVF to become pregnant. Reciprocal IVF is when an embryo made via IVF using one partner’s egg is placed in the other partner’s uterus, a process that allows lesbians and trans men with functioning female reproductive organs to both actively participate in a pregnancy. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was both an infertile person and a pregnant person. I was thrilled to be pregnant, but I was still mourning my own infertility. It was such a joyful but difficult experience. I wrote so much during this time about that dichotomy because I finally felt it so palpably.
CC: The reader is brought back to the physical many times in the poems in Slowly/Suddenly. While reading, I often felt that I hovered between the metaphysical and physical. What was your intention?
AB: As a writer, I’m drawn to the abstract. I love image and metaphor, and I often love a metaphor with no ground, but that doesn’t always help the reader! Metaphors have three components. The tenor is the subject. The vehicle is the image that carries the comparison. The ground is the relationship between the two or what they have in common. The meaning we take from a metaphor comes from the ground, but when the ground is missing or difficult, this abstraction invites tension into the poem. I think this is a reason I’m drawn to ekphrasis, the vivid description of scenes or actions, as a technique to generate work. Most of my work begins in the metaphysical or abstract. I add the physical in the revision process. This is when I think about the reader. Abstraction is where we feel, through color, sound, touch. I have to do the hard work of translating what is abstract into just enough meaning for the reader.
CC: In one of the Kardashian poems (“Season 10, Episode 6: ‘Don’t Panic!'”) you write, “After the baby, I needed another person to mark me valuable.” We’re so defined by the baby (child) in those months, even years, after becoming parents. What are your tips for helping parents reclaim their value as someone besides a parent?
AB: I’m not sure I know how to do it! The Kardashian poems were written after the birth of my youngest. I was dealing with postpartum depression. One thing I did during this time was write. I also started Small Harbor Publishing. I knew I needed to do something that gave my life value outside of motherhood. I don’t know that everyone has to start a literary magazine! But I intentionally made time for the thing that made me feel valuable as a way to heal. I suspect the solution is different for everyone.
CC: The work of Joan Mitchell, the mid-century American abstract expressionist painter, influences most if not all of your work. The mention of bold colors (much like Mitchell used) in the Slowly/Suddenly poems are what struck me the most. What is it about Joan Mitchell and her work that inspires you?
AB: I’m obsessed. I like to say that she saved me. I got divorced during my MFA program. Sally Keith was my mentor at the time. She read one of my submissions and said, “The poems are so depressing!” She gave me a set of prompts for writing as a way to write through the trauma. Ekphrasis was part one of the prompts. This is when I stumbled across one of Mitchell’s paintings. I started using her paintings to think with. For me, ekphrasis is a hybrid form. The result is something between. It is both the art and the words. Mitchell’s paintings look small online, but they are actually massive in scale. I’ve seen most of the Mitchells on display in the US, and I’m always in awe. She experienced so much trauma in her life, but her work is bold, it is powerful, and it is unapologetic. That is the writer I want to be.
CC: I’m a big believer in learning about our own extraordinary capabilities when we’re faced with hardship. You’ve been open about your struggles with multiple sclerosis (MS), and multiple poems revolve around MS. What have you learned about yourself as you live with MS?
AB: I’m still learning. Every day is different. I clearly write from trauma. Writing is therapy for me. After my diagnosis, much of my fear came from the idea of missing out on life with my children and losing my ability to communicate. I deal with tremor in my hands, it does take me longer to speak sometimes, and I have some vision issues. Each new symptom worries me. What happens when I can’t write? How will I process the world around me? One thing we’ve learned as a family is that we have to live one day at a time. We have to value each other and what we have. I am a work in progress!
CC: What’s next for you?
AB: I have a collaborative chapbook titled Chorus for the Kill (Seven Kitchens) coming out in March. The poet Josh Davis and I worked on the collection together. It was a wonderful experience that taught us both about letting go and trusting your writing partner. The book explores queer experience. Handbook for the Newly Disabled (BlazeVox), my first lyric nonfiction collection, will be released on April 15. Cataloging Pain (YesYes Books) is a hybrid poetry collection that will be released on September 15. This collection juxtaposes my diagnosis with MS with my partner’s transition. Both experiences happened at the same time. I hope to spend this year promoting these collections through readings and as a visiting writer. I also plan to spend this year launching Harbor Anthologies. I’m working with the writer Sarah Clark to put together an anthology of work by queer disabled writers. I hope the press will be able to work with editors to publish anthologies that have social justice themes or that highlight marginalized writers in some way.