An Interview with Alan Michael Parker 

Interview conducted by Karl Zuehlke 

Karl Zuehlke (KZ): Your book, Long Division, uses the motif of fables to allow fantastical moments simultaneously invested in a kind of logic and the moral of the story. “Moral,” here, should be understood as the literary element: the coda at the end of the narrative. Perhaps you could talk a little about what fables mean to your writing, as a process of composing and as a genre with preexisting formal assumptions?

Alan Michael Parker (AMP): Fables fascinate me: I love the ways in which the genre accommodates the peculiarities of my imaginative process. I so distrust reality that fables seem to me more real, in a way, than realism. They include how we picture the world, yes? And how we’d like our inner lives to be made manifest? (Not that you have to worry about me, in terms of reality, but I’m not its greatest champion.) Anyway, I’m always trying to let wild-er-ness into my writing; fables have helped me do so for years.

KZ: Realism and reality are, at least to my mind, two very different things. I am inclined to think that realism is simply another kind of fable. And at times I am persuaded that the surreal contains an element of verisimilitude. To quote one of my former teachers, however, “I reserve the right to be wrong.” Perhaps you would be so kind as to expound on your notion of, “ wild-er-ness?”

AMP: One of my goals is never to write the same poem twice; one way I attempt to meet this goal is to abandon intention. “Wild-er-ness,” to me, refers to abandonment—reckless, feckless, and otherwise intuitive. If only I could let go…

KZ: If you have an ideal of what a poem should or can do, could you describe it? Could you describe it in five words or less, if you had to?

AMP: Mean thrice; recondition reality expressively.

KZ: Jacob A. Bennett in The Phantom Limb has connected some of your list poems to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but says your writing is, “more ‘Wally’ than Wallace Stevens.” What do you make of Wallace Stevens?

AMP: Stevens remains an enormous influence upon my work. Certainly, the formal peregrinations of his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” inform my list poems—but perhaps more profoundly, his willingness to take an abstraction and render it concrete, and to be unafraid of what language results, embodies for me a notion of beauty I have long aspired to understand. Accessible, brilliant, and difficult… his poems matter deeply to me, and have mattered since college, when I first encountered Harmonium.

KZ: In your interview with Colin Winnette in Word Riot from a couple years ago, you commented that, “I think of my daily life as pretty boring.” Yet inLong Division, so many of the premises and settings for poems are domestic, while not apparently autobiographical. What fascinates you about writing the interiors of the “Zoomburb?”

AMP: I believe that the poem is my great teacher, and that the subjects learned matter less than the learning. A study of interiors of a life meanslearning—which I hope happens in the poems without either solipsism or self-aggrandizement.

KZ: The epigraph of your book is from William Carlos Williams’, Spring and All. What do you take from Williams’ work?

AMP: Williams! Of course, the great poems. But also the ability to write about love, and the economy of the language, and… the variable foot. And the ambition of works such as Spring and All.

KZ: Rumor has it that you wake up quite early to write. Coincidentally, in “Bird” there is a persona that wakes up “damn early, 5:30 // every morning” (27), to do battle with himself in the form of a bird. Perhaps you could talk about how this poem came to be and your process of writing it?

AMP: “Bird” was from the beginning a kind of hysterical aubade, the obsessiveness of the sestina emotionally consonant with the speaker’s behavior. I mean, who repeats the same six words every six lines, only in different order—and one of those words is “bird”? And then repeats them again three lines later? That person must be getting up too early, and warring with Nature.

KZ: Do you consider yourself a hybrid artist, working between fiction and poetry, or is that a false distinction? Is writing just writing? Do you have an impulse whereby you know a particular piece you are working on will end up as fiction or poetry?

AMP: I’m a poet who began writing novels twenty years ago. I’m a novelist who started as a poet. These days, I’m on alternating current: every odd book is poetry, and every more odd book is a novel.

KZ : “Night Bus in Vegas” has a character, “the janitor with a shirt namedHank” (14). As I read it, this underscores a difference between interior and exterior. “Hank” is a performance, perhaps? Conversely, in “Nineteen Baby Anteaters in a Japanese Zoo,” number 7 is, “YouTube is my mind” (63), which I would read to deflate the difference between self and society. Is this motif something you thought about when composing these poems or did it appear in the poems before you recognized it?

AMP: Good question! I’m not sure that we have a choice when writing: doesn’t the need to be private publicly efface the difference between self and society? Kant might say so.

KZ: I am curious about the line, “Sadness remains the source of my politics” (6.) in “Family Math.” What is the scope of this thought? Is it specific to the poem, or is it true of all of Long Division?

AMP: I think it’s possible to understand liberalism as an exercise in, or exorcism of, sadness. (That’s my non-answer to your question.)

KZ: The Take-out Menus in the Lobby” is after a poem by Adam Zagajewski. How has Zagajewski influenced your thoughts and your poetry?

AMP: Wow, Zagajewski! He’s one of my heroes, and has been for years. I first heard him read at the PEN Congress in NY when I was a grad student, and I have read every poem he has published in English since. He’s the finest of our living Metaphysical poets—and here, I’m thinking about Eliot’s essay, and Donne, et alia. I would find it difficult to say how Zagajewski has not influenced my poems.

KZ: Any thoughts about what your next project will be?

AMP: The Committee on Town Happinessmy next book, comes out in June from Dzanc Books. It’s a novel composed of ninety-nine serialized flash fictions. It’s literary, science fiction, satire and drama; it’s experimental, poignant, plangent, free-wheeling, historical, scary, familiar, innovative, fantastic, absurd, classical, meditative. It pays homage to Bradbury, Calvino, and Kafka. It’s short. It’s philosophical. It’s funny.

A new collection of poems is in the works. Another new, new novel is still very new, mostly consisting of scraps and scraped away sentences.

Alan Michael Parker has written three novels, Cry Uncle, Whale Man, and The Committee on Town Happiness.He is also the author of seven collections of poems: Days Like Prose, The Vandals, Love Song with Motor Vehicles, A Peal of Sonnets, Elephants & Butterflies, Ten Days, and Long Division. His poetry has appeared in magazines such as The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Pleiades,and The Yale Review. In 2011, his poems were anthologized in The Best American Poetry as well as The Pushcart Prize. Among other numerous awards and fellowships, he has received three Pushcart Prizes, the Fineline Prize from the Mid-American Review, the 2013 Randall Jarrell Award, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the 2012 North Carolina Book Award for Long Division. He teaches at Davidson College, where he is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor in English.