Close River: Interview with Alexa Winik
Alexa Winik talks to Fiona Moore about her poetry pamphlet Close River, which judge Mary Jean Chan chose as the winner of the 2020 Magma Pamphlet Competition. You can get hold of a copy of Close River here
FM: May I start with a question about water? Close River begins and ends with a river, and there’s sea and more river in between. Where did all that water come from?
AW: I’m laughing a little because part of me is always hoping someone else will tell me what’s going on with all the water. As in, I didn’t necessarily set out to write a series of poems inspired by or about water. The poems in Close River are drawn from a span of about four years – with the earliest poem written the year I started writing again in 2016 – so I think the aqueous quality speaks more to certain obsessions or memories that I kept returning to during that time. A sense of being haunted by water scenes, maybe.
I think of Close River mainly as an engagement with prolonged grief, both familial and ecological. Griefwork is, of course, a process fraught with contradictions and refusals, which for me, seem to coalesce most instinctively (though not always obviously) around bodies of water—especially the non-human, or more-than-human, life forms and folklore associated with them. Water is itself an element of contradictions: it’s reflective and refractive. It invokes and alters memory; it’s a source for healing, initiation, and divination as much as it’s now a source of toxin, contamination, even embattlement, under the depredations of late capitalism and colonial power. In hindsight, these kinds of paradoxical zones seem well-suited, I think, for approaching grief more obliquely at both personal and collective levels.
On that more personal note, however, I do know that throughout my life, in which I’ve moved frequently, I’ve always lived next to bodies of water – the Rainy River, the Detroit River, Lake Michigan, the North Sea. I also know that I have almost no water sign placements in my birth chart, much to the concern of my partner (a Pisces Sun) who recently pointed this out to me. So whether by its close proximity to me or its overwhelming absence (possibly, psychically?), water’s presence often tries to make itself known to me through my writing process.
FM: And while we’re talking about water it would be good to hear about your interest in rusalka folklore, which feels brutally contemporary: how you came across it, what it means to you.
AW: I came across rusalka folklore when I began my MFA thesis in 2016. I was trying to write poems about my family history on my father’s side, namely my great-grandfather’s migration from what is now western Ukraine to central Canada in the early 20th century. We know there were pogroms happening in the area at the time, and I’ve been told that escaping them seems to factor into the story in some way. But the silence surrounding that story, especially the more submerged stories of women in my family, was generative to me in as much as it forced me to consider my own limitations in writing about them. I decided, then, to focus less on family memory and more on folklore surrounding the river that my family (likely) crossed first in their migration journey, the Dniester River.
That’s how I came to learn about the rusalki, the spirits of young women who haunted rivers and waterways after a violent death, usually because of family or intimate partner violence (i.e. my learning was, emphatically, not through Dvořák’s opera!). As I understand it, rusalka lore varies widely across the region, with various amalgamations of Slavic paganism and Christian traditions. The rusalka is, for instance, either a harbinger of death (particularly for men) or invocator of blessings for the harvest or sometimes both, depending on where she is.
Yet across her iterations, the rusalka consistently seems to embody cultural anxieties related to transgressive femininity. These anxieties were usually in relation to some kind of excess, namely of feeling or speech, such as in my poem ‘Dark Poplar’ in which protracted grief transforms a daughter into a poplar tree. But I think those cultural anxieties also have a lot to do with silence, namely the silencing of vulnerable people and the prospect of their voices returning to hold perpetrators of violence accountable. I think that question is at the emotional heart of a poem like ‘Rusalka, to her therapist’, which is a sort of playful title leading into a poem about internalised shame in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma. Now that I say that, I think this is the strain of rusalka folklore that initially attracted me and seems to be important to my pamphlet as I see it now – the question of whether internalised shame, and its attendant silences, might be transmuted into something reparative, exacting, otherworldly even.
FM: These are such generous answers, and you’ve anticipated another couple of my questions! Thinking about your family history and the rusalka figure, isn’t it interesting that poetry, which often lives by its gaps and mysteries, can be inspired by them too, and transform them. As you say about the silences of shame… Which brings me to metamorphosis – there’s so much of this in the poems, the rusalki and much else, so inventively and beautifully described. I wonder why, and what your sources are? I hadn’t made the link with your family history of emigration before, but of course emigration involves metamorphosis, willing and/or unwilling. You’ve had an emigrant/immigrant experience too. It would be good to know more about ‘Parable of the Bobbit Worm’, for example (readers, only google bobbit worms if you are feeling robust). So much is going on in this poem, whose tone ranges from funny to terrifying. I’m not asking what (mystification is good) but how did you come up with this crazy scenario that seems to combine almost cartoon-like animals with the Bible and goodness knows what else?
AW: What you said about poetry living by its gaps and mysteries feels very true and I think that’s a source of my desire to write in the first place, the surprise of what might be accumulating in silence. I just finished reading Sasha Dugdale’s incredible translation of Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, which emerges from that kind of desire (or “romance”, as Stepanova describes it) to write around the gaps in her family history. At one point, she reflects: “This book about my family is not about my family at all but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.” When I first read this, it felt almost talismanic. As in, I find it useful, if terrifying, to consider memory in terms of the relational — less as recollection for recollection’s sake and more as something desirous and implicating and expectant.
The poems in Close River feel somewhat attuned to this idea as well, that it’s not as much about my family (just as it’s not about water). Rather, it seems to be the outcome of approaching family memory more obliquely – whether that mediation happens via persona or ekphrasis or a wonderfully abject ancient worm living at the bottom of the ocean. A kind of ricochet, I guess. I think that’s also why for all my talk about grief and loss, the pamphlet mostly evades elegy in the traditional sense. The grief ricochets or happens at a glance, something both anticipated and ongoing.
I’m also glad that you asked about the preoccupation with metamorphosis because I think it’s connected to this tendency for hyper-mediation, that nothing is exactly as it seems (the tree is a daughter, the hailstone dissolves into the hand). Maybe the metamorphic elements are also a kind of residue of my broader fascination with poetry’s transformative qualities, how it gestures towards the possibility of alternative worlds/selves/ecologies/exit ramps etc.
Speaking of ‘Parable of the Bobbit Worm’, which is one of the oldest poems in the pamphlet, I consider it to be a kind of “exit ramp” poem, one that considers the how and the why of leaving a situation that has become hostile to life. As a queer woman who happened to grow up in an environment of religious fundamentalism and coercion, I have some personal experience with this kind of necessary leave-taking. (Which apparently has led to afternoons of watching bobbit worm videos on YouTube. The Lord works in mysterious ways, etc.?) Anyway, that significant departure/rupture in my life is still something I struggle to put words to, but this poem was one of my first attempts to try. I’m realising now this may account for its somewhat (anxious) exuberance for the bizarre and bathetic.
FM: I’m reading In Memory of Memory too and the quote is perfect. As for the bobbit worm, that poem now seems even more terrifying.
I love the way you describe water’s relationship with grief and would like to ask what may seem a crass question. Your account of engagement with grief would be good as a quote to throw back at those who sneer about poetry-as-therapy. Maybe such attitudes are outdated anyway now that so many of us are grieving (not that they were justified in the first place).
AW: I think it is an interesting question, and one that came up a lot when I used to lead workshops for undergraduate students. I certainly believe poetry can be many things (and I’m completely uninterested in anyone who enjoys sneering about what it is or isn’t), but I admit I’m still somewhat resistant to the notion that it’s therapeutic all the way down. Maybe it’s because I often see this conversation happening in contexts where “therapeutic” seems to be code for “return to productivity” or some vague sense of hyper-individualised self-actualisation.
That is, I tend to think of poetry’s therapeutic potentials as incidental to it rather than inherent. And I think that if poetry is therapeutic, healing happens in close relationship to the strangeness or otherworldliness of poetic language itself (i.e. how it can permit the writer to remake/bypass/dismantle rigid thought structures and systems) as well as the communities that might emerge around new forms of language.
FM: I was thinking more about the process: for example, was it grief that got you writing again; did you set yourself to do it or did it just happen?
AW: Yes, like you said, I think life in the time of Covid necessitates a rethinking of the relationship between writing and grief – especially when collective grief isn’t uniform but meted out across disparate material realities. Speaking from my own experience, I find it difficult to write when grief is acute, just as I find it nearly impossible to write when my mental health isn’t well. This is largely why I stopped writing for nearly six years in my twenties, for instance. But it’s funny that you ask me what got me writing again during that time, because lately I’ve been asking myself the same thing, now that I’m almost six months out from my father’s death. In fact, this conversation is probably the most writing I’ve done since that happened in December, and there’s a very real part of me that’s anxious, wondering how and when I’ll be able to write poetry again.
For now, I’m trying to trust that these quiet periods are indeed fallow, and, like Anne Boyer imagines in Garments Against Women, that not-writing is its own form of writing too. Not-writing as accumulation and evidence. Not-writing as refusing the first answer, the easiest answer. From that experience in my twenties, I know there were shifts in external circumstances that also helped me start writing again: the upheaval of moving to a new country, finding a therapist I could afford etc. Mostly, I think, it had a lot to do with joining a community of writers, first in St Andrews and then in Edinburgh, who never laughed me out of the room but were curious and hospitable and endlessly patient with me.
I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to successfully evade your question! But I think there are some things I do know: that whatever it was that helped me break that silence seemed to be a mysterious confluence of interior and exterior shifts. And that it wasn’t something I could do alone.
FM: Which writers influenced your approach?
AW: Many of the poets who’ve been influential for me are the ones whose work embodies the notion that poetry can be a transformative act – particularly when it comes to writing around grief’s frayed edges. I’m also especially drawn to poets who strike me as resisting the fetishisation/redemption of their grief in favour of transmuting or channeling it into something unequivocally alive, even prophetic. Of course there are many poets I could name in this vein, but a few who are coming to my mind today as I write this are Ariana Reines (“we repeat what we undergo / until a grace arrives”), Vahni Capildeo (“If I seemed quiet, it was because of what I was seeing”), Emma Jones (“The flowers are wan / travellers […] All / they know, they are”) Liz Howard (“what else is a river but the promise of a text”), and Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whose words from ‘Past the Stations’ serve as the epigraph to Close River: “the rain withdrawing / with a whistling hush…. Somebody thinks / or somebody turns into what? Into what?”
FM: That lovely BPK epigraph… When you sent it I was astonished at how perfect it was for Close River – lyrical, elusive, in character and tone with the poems.
May I shift the discussion towards style? A central element of yours is the short sentences – often highly original, sometimes cryptic. There’s an echo of biblical, prophetic writing in your cadences, and of religious fundamentalism in the environment you grew up in. I admire the way you build the sentences into poems formed from a series of one-line stanzas with each line end-stopped, such as ‘A Good Window’ and ‘Hierophant-in-a-Box’. Hierophant is a special favourite – please could you talk about its origins and how you built it up. (I’m not saying explain it, even if you could, because part of the pleasure is its strangeness!)
AW: I love that! Thank you. Some of what you said is making me think again of Brigit Pegeen Kelly and why I’m so drawn to her work. I think there’s evident pleasure in strangeness, as you say, within her poems, especially when it comes to muddying the waters between the sacred and profane. I think you could say something similar about Ariana Reines’s work as well. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I was reading a lot of Reines when I started writing the poems with the one-line stanzas, which is a form that’s certainly inspired by her. I think that there’s something about that form which permits a more spacious mode of writing for me, wherein the poem feels closer to an accumulation than anything else. I also really enjoy reading poems that are capacious (excessive?), as if any detail might wander in and not seem out of place.
As for ‘Hierophant-in-the-Box’, the origins of that poem are also mysterious to me, especially because I wrote it during the haze of the first lockdown. I remember at the time I’d been reading Rachel Pollack’s well-known book about the tarot Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. And I remember her interpretations of the Hierophant card (which is the fifth card in the Major Arcana) completely changed the way I’d been viewing it, which had always been with a twinge of apprehension. One aspect that resonated with me, for example, was the notion that spiritual belonging is something quite different than institutional belonging – and how the former often necessitates a risky extrication from the latter. Or a renegotiation with it, if not all-out reckoning.
Obviously, this is something that applies not just to religious identities but across any institutional framework in which one willingly (or unwillingly) participates. But for anyone who can resonate with the experience of disentangling from a belief system and starting over (which is, I think, a common experience!), a notion like this feels hopeful because it’s also constructive. It considers belonging as an elsewhere state, or belonging as something possible beyond the bounds of what you were told was possible. As for the poem, the clue is in the title, I imagine, but I think it might be dialed into that kind of hopeful frequency.
FM: Finally it would be good to hear your thoughts on the process and aftermath of publishing a pamphlet. How did you put the manuscript together? How did it change over time? What difference, if any, has publishing a pamphlet made to your writing? And to life generally… What have you learned from the whole process, from writing to publication?
AW: The first thing I would want to say is just what an exciting time it is for small press publishing in the UK right now, especially for poetry pamphlets. Despite all the Covid-limiting challenges of the past year, I feel like every week I hear about new pamphlets coming out that I want to read and new presses calling for pamphlet submissions. Maybe there’s something to be said in another conversation about the pamphlet form having a kind of resurgence, if we can call it that – why its condensed or liminal or insistent qualities, even affordability etc., make it so appealing in a grief-heavy time.
As for my own experience, Close River is my debut pamphlet and publishing it with Magma and its wonderful team of people has been a dream situation. I think I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the editing process, which I largely credit to getting to work with you, Fiona. Like I said earlier, the poems in the pamphlet were written across a span of 4 years, which means I was so habituated to them I had very little perspective. So it was energising to have someone like you listening closely to them, suggesting title changes or identifying narrative arcs that I hadn’t noticed. It’s a gift to be read like that by anyone, especially an editor, and it really helped me understand my own writing so much better.
Additionally, hearing from a poet I admire as much as Mary Jean Chan – whose own writing on familial relationships has felt like a beacon to me for several years now – helped immensely. Their comments on the pamphlet led me to first imagine it as an eco-poetic project, for instance, which I likely would’ve never otherwise had the nerve to do. Along those lines, I think this might be one of the most significant things I’ve learned in a more embodied way, now that Close River is out in the world – that is, the extent to which the work transforms into something else in the hands of a reader. I often hear writers talking about this shift, that is, the otherness of the book, in terms of ambivalence/self-disgust, and of course I’ve had those feelings as well. Yet I think it’s also very liberating to know this shift takes place once it leaves your hands. Or to think of that transformation as a form of intimacy too.
FM: Thank you so much, Alexa, for such an enriching conversation! You have been so generous in sharing thoughts around the context of Close River, from grief and memory to family background, from writing to not-writing.. And now’s the moment to say that working on the pamphlet with you was a delight. Everyone at Magma sends their best wishes to you, for writing and everything else that comes next.
Go here for a copy of Close River
Water photos by Alexa Winik