The Blues of Grace: An Interview with Lauren K. Alleyne

In this interview conducted by Emily Ellison, poet Lauren K. Alleyne discusses how desire and grace infuse the elegies of her latest collection, Honeyfish. The gift of grace, she believes, not only fuels the exchange that happens during any reading or writing experience but may also ameliorate our social relations through acts of recognized kinship, in a way that offers the reader a regenerative place to mourn. Alleyne hopes to escort her readers through her body and voice, charging her work with the energy she finds through her writing process—a process that sometimes even surprises her.

Lauren K. Alleyne is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, (2018 Green Rose Prize, New Issues Poetry Prize 2019). Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been widely published in journals and anthologies such as The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Guernica, The Caribbean Writer, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. She currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she is an Associate Professor of English at James Madison University.

 

 

Emily Ellison: Honeyfish brims with elegies and dedications: commemorations, prayers, incantations. Could you speak on the personal significance of writing elegies?

Lauren K. Alleyne: I haven’t really thought about this too much before. I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship between the love poem and the elegy. I think if we go with Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, then there’s the idea of the deceased as a beloved who is now forever unreachable, right? The field she talks about of longing, of desire—and not of a necessarily sexual nature but certainly of wanting to be in communion with—is permanently gone. I think that makes it a really fertile space for language and poetry to emerge from.

I was just talking about this with a friend—actually, with the sister of my friend Anton, for whom there are many poems in this book. When I went to his funeral, they were doing the singing/dancing/“He’s in a better place” thing by the graveside. And I was so angry. I was mad because I didn’t get to be sad.

We have this belief that heaven is what comes after—so my friend died, and I go to his funeral, and then at his grave I’m supposed to be rejoicing that he’s with God now. And I was like, “This?” [laughs]. I think that’s actually where I met his sister for the first time. She was just collapsing with grief, and we stood there clinging to each other. We had never met before, and we were just holding on to each other; we became friends in that moment because it felt like we were the only two people.

And I don’t think that means everybody else wasn’t feeling pain or loss, but I think the ability to stay in that for a minute and to really feel it is not a thing we get to do. I think, even with public elegies, it’s a moment, it’s a sensation, it’s a headline. I would move so quickly into outrage. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice. They are based in grief, yes, but we then use that grief; it becomes utility immediately. For me, the loss, the anguish, the anger, the hurt, the desire, the longing need a space to live—that’s what the elegy offers.

And I’m not being prescriptive about it. People can mourn how they want to mourn. But I’m a poet, so words are the only way I know how. Maybe what other people get from singing and prayers, I get from writing a poem. Part of why there are so many poems for Anton is that his death date comes around every May, and I just write—it’s how I communicate.

Ellison: Poems offer change in two dynamics: through the process of writing, the poet necessarily changes; through the written poem, perspective on that subject shifts. I’m curious—how do you feel you are changed through writing elegies, and how are their subjects newly received?

Alleyne: How am I changed? I think it’s a change one experiences with any sort of poem which, if it’s done well, moves you along somehow. I don’t even know if you get to know what axis you’re on that it’s pushing you along, but I certainly feel that you move from one place to another in some visceral way—and even beyond visceral, in some spiritual sense—if the poem is doing its work.

I’m not sure I can talk about how it’s received, because I really leave that up to my readers. I know that in delivering the poem, what I try to convey with my voice and my body is what I find through the process of writing the poem. There’s that moment when you finish the poem and you realize its done, that you’ve arrived someplace you didn’t know you were headed to. I try to make that journey visible to the reader. And maybe I’m a little bit more sure, because I’ve taken that journey before. So I can be a guide in that way: I’m able to use my voice and my body to guide the reader into the sort of thing I had to stumble through.

I think those are the two paths: the first way, you’re sort of stumbling through and you arrive, or the poem sort of stops and you’re like, “Okay, this is where we were going.” Once you work with that, you get to revise and have a handle on what that journey or movement was. Through reading and sharing the poem, you then became a guide. And like any good guide, every time you give that tour, you notice what other little detail you’re able to add an inflection on or able to connect to some other thing that’s outside of the poem but might be in the moment of your speaking.

Ellison: I feel like elegies offer some grace in the mourning period, and many of your poems seem like offerings: tokens of grace for those who need to feel something, whether it be grief or elation. What do you see as the role of grace in your poetry? How might your poetics be related to grace?

Alleyne: Well, first of all, thank you for feeling that way about my poems [laughs]. How is grace connected to the poem? I feel as though… I have to think about that one. I mean, I love the idea of grace as something that is sort of undeserved. It’s the most honest, truest gift that you can give, right? I guess that’s what the poems try to be. I think in the way that I write poetry, I try my best to be transparent to the reader. I’m not a poet of obfuscation or veils. I try very hard to be open and vulnerable in the poem, and I think that allows the possibility of a connection for the reader, a way for people to stop and respond honestly as well.

You know the “poetry noise” people make—it’s like, “Oh” [released breath]. I feel like that’s the sound of the poem connecting; that’s the sound that these words have landed somewhere, and you’ve received them. That exchange, or possibility of exchange, between a poet and poem or a reader and listener—I think that’s what grace is made of sometimes.

Ellison: That sound, now that I think about it, might be the same sound I make whenever I’m offered grace. Because I was raised in the church, I’m particularly intrigued when grace comes up; grace in those terms has a very specific meaning, so I’m always curious about what other perspectives I can gain on it through daily application.

Alleyne: Well, I’m a church girl, too. I certainly grew up in the church, and I definitely think my understanding of grace starts there: you bear something for someone you love, and you offer it without condition.

Ellison: And it usually seems to be met with the humble acknowledgement, “This is unearned, but needed.”

The color blue surfaces repeatedly in this collection, and the significance attached to it shifts often as waves. Blue drowning, blue grace of sea salt, blue ability to set sail. This assemblage—a state of blues—vivifies sadness, as well as reclaims, in a way, that genre of song. So, I’d just like to ask: why blue as the container? It appears so frequently—what calls you back to this color?

Alleyne: So, it’s really funny, because I did not plan the blue; the blue emerged later as I was trying to put the book together.

When I first pulled this manuscript together, I gave it to a couple of friends. It was called Red Pilgrimage after that poem. And I just don’t know why I had called it Red Pilgrimage! [laughs] My friend Nicelle was like, “There’s so much blue in this collection! There’s blood in here, and there’s ‘exit’ in the red, but the poems live in the blue.” She had a completely different organization of the collection; the sections she called “The Sky,” “The Horizon,” and “The Sea.”

That’s what having good readers does, though—you picked that up, and Nicelle picked that up, and by the time I got around to sending it out, those readers clearly picked it up. It’s so right for the book.

But red is my favorite color, so there’s also that thing where sometimes you can’t see the thing because you’re in the thing. So, I had thought, “Red Pilgrimage, obviously!” But that poem itself—when I now look at the collection, there’s so much ocean and water and blue, and that poem is about being in the desert and being dry. It’s clearly a moment that happens in the whole trajectory of the book, but at the time, when I was in the midst of it, it seemed to me to be the thing. So, yeah. I did not plan the blue; the blue emerged.

Ellison: I remember trying to trace the blues to compose a theme, but a comprehensive meaning kept eluding me. Mostly I was struck by your application of color and the vivid landscape composed through those tones; it was interesting to see how far the ideas we associate with blue can be shifted and pushed and all exist together, and not just exist as “the blues.” Did you plan the red, or did the red emerge and you went with it?

Alleyne: For that particular poem, I was in New Mexico at a residency conference. Anton had actually just died. It’s so red, if you’ve ever been to New Mexico—the earth, the land, the houses, the adobe. Nicelle Davis, the poet who gave me the ‘blue,’ was walking with me, and as we walked through this dried out river bed we could see the river bottom. That red soil was surrounding us, literally; I was pulling from that imagery for the poem as a way to give language and feeling to my mood back then.

Ellison: Lastly, I’d like to talk about the theme of dislocation and the duality of belonging. As a country, what can we do to turn our house into a home more welcoming to its members?

Alleyne: Oh, oh dear [sighs]. It’s a big question, right? Because home means that we are somehow all family, that we all can be family and agree to share the space. I mean, we can fight over who’s in the bathroom too long and who never does the dishes, but we don’t get to kick people out, you know? [laughs].

I think it’s a lot of things—you mentioned grace earlier, that hospitality to the stranger. I think it is also recognizing kinship with a stranger, so that they’re not forever a stranger. It’s a whole cultural thing. But I think for me, when I had to think about what Honeyfish was trying to do and how it could work, I was thinking about what it means to just bring yourself with all of your baggage—which is what I did to a strange place I had not been before—and to walk into the middle of its history, its complications, its politics, to reckon with what one thinks of as “back home” and what America in a lived way really is. You stop being a guest and you start being at home, and that teaches you perspective a little too. I think the poems just try to think about that: this shifting, an always shifting, and the question of “How do I inhabit this space?”

Being an immigrant, that space between being a guest and being at home is always precarious. You can be fine one day, and then suddenly you’re like, “Oh, wait! I actually have to file three extra steps of paperwork to do this thing,” or “Ooh ooh ooh, someone said there’s a prize for poetry, but oops! Citizens only.” The reminders that you’re not fully belonging pop in all sorts of ways.

So, I guess this idea of making home and being home is just part of what I’m thinking about, and I don’t know how to apply that in a more national and cultural level. But I can tell you that the places I feel more accepted are the places that encounter me with goodwill, curiosity, welcome, and grace. You know, back to church, right? Just love your neighbor in all the ways that that might mean: helping somebody who’s having a language difficulty at a checkout, or letting them know you support them if they’re being yelled at by some crazy person in a car. Big ways and small ways, we can be good hosts, and we can all be graceful.