It took five seconds for me to fall in love with Alice Anderson. When we met last year, I became captivated by her charm and hilarity. Plus, she has this magic, otherworldly quality that made me feel like I was hanging out with elves. But when I heard her read from her poetry collections, The Watermark and Human Nature, her words left me spinning, a raw nerve. She writes the body alive through the dark.
I read her memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, in a couple of days because I could not put it down. Her story, stitched with dazzling and tragic moments, is rendered with a poet’s eye and ferocious heart. It is a book about weathering the darkness of intense intimate partner violence. But it is also a love letter to motherhood, to her children, and to a place decimated by Hurricane Katrina ten years ago. Like her beloved Mississippi, Anderson has had to rebuild and redefine her life after the storm, and her memoir shows that process in gripping, soaring detail. You can read an exclusive excerpt from Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away here.
Alice Anderson’s second collection of poetry, The Watermark, contains three Pushcart Prize-nominated poems; her first, Human Nature, was published to critical acclaim. The recipient of The Plum Review Prize, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Prize, and The Great Lakes Colleges Best First Book Prize, she also received the Haven Foundation Grant from Stephen King. Anderson lives in Northern California. She teaches writing at the country’s most ethnically diverse community college on Sacramento’s south side, spends every possible moment with her three light-filled children, and bakes a lot of cupcakes.
The Rumpus: I was just sitting here in my little office, like okay, I have five minutes; what can I do for five more minutes? I was like, I’m going to pull a tarot card for this interview. I don’t always do that. So I pulled Judgement. Have you ever pulled tarot cards, have you ever been into that?
Alice Anderson: I do not use them myself. I have had other people pull them for me and tell me what they mean; I’m very fascinated by it but I am naive to the meanings and ways of tarot. So tell me what does pulling that tell you?
Rumpus: I use The Wild Unknown Deck. And when I saw Judgement, I was like, Oh. First, because it’s a card covered in birds. And let me read you what it says: The word judgement conjures fear and guilt in many people, but this card is about another aspect of the word: seeking the truth. No more blaming yourself, no excuses, now is the time for forgiveness, personal freedom. This card asks you to rise up and let fear fall below you, expand your wings and be reborn. That’s the perfect card for this book, I think.
Anderson: That’s absolutely the perfect card. The whole impetus, the whole drive for this book, is freedom, it’s the finally, it’s the fly away—that’s really the message of the book.
In fact last week when [my daughter] Avery and I were in New York we realized it was the anniversary of the day my son was attacked, and for us that day is a celebration now. Because we don’t see it like, oh my gosh this is a trauma-versary. We see it as that’s the day we flew away from it all. That’s the freedom day.
Rumpus: It was like your ex-husband was an axe by that point. You survived pain and terrible strife as a result of his strike, but it is also like, the final filament that he cut that let you guys go.
Anderson: Oh my gosh, that’s absolutely perfect. It was so early on in the process, the guardian ad litem telling me, “You need to, we got to give him enough rope to hang himself. We got to put the pot on the fire.” And at that point it seemed so torturous and I had no idea how long that pot would have to simmer. I certainly didn’t imagine it would take ten years, or that it would have to really truly boil over before my kids and I would have the ultimate freedom that we have now.
And when you said judgement, I thought of us finally arriving at the criminal court. We had been embroiled in family court for so long, where it is just kind of endless negotiation. To finally arrive at this criminal court case that’s where there was finally a judgment. That’s where it was a judgment that felt like reality. Like what Avery said, it was the finally. Like finally someone was saying, This is not okay.
Rumpus: I really get this sense from your book, that nobody wants to take sides in family court, not even the judge. They just want to heal the family. They just keep trying to make reconciliation between your kids and their dad. It’s probably fine for a large percentage of families because the parents are both fine, and they just don’t like each other. But in a case where there is abuse, like your situation, it’s just so backwards to try to create wholeness when there is such a shattering beneath.
But criminal court is a place of judgement. It is a place where judges aren’t afraid to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s quite interesting how those two judgments are really critical to your story.
Anderson: Right, and how they came together in the end and that I could go back to family court and say, “Here’s the case that you said wasn’t recent or relevant and here was the outcome.” And to have that judge say, “That’s enough, that’s enough forever.” As you probably know, that is a very extreme action for a family court judge to issue a lifelong restraining order. That was when all the roads came to the same place finally, in the judgment.
Rumpus: Speaking of freedom and flying away, the entire time I was reading your book, and since then, I’ve had that Alison Krauss song, “I’ll Fly Away,” stuck in my head. Do you have any connection to that song?
Anderson: Yes. Well, after The Storm, as we call it in Mississippi (we don’t call it Katrina), but before the violent evening with my ex occurred, we were thinking about moving away. We would go off for weekends because it was so unbearable where we were. Our house was okay, but you know, our town was devastated, everything was a disaster, and it was unbearable, with these two-story-high debris piles, for someone with OCD.
So we would either be away somewhere interviewing, for my ex, for another position, or we’d be in New Orleans because he was seeking treatment at Ochsner. Because his OCD had gotten so extreme that he could not get the idea of killing me out of his head. So we’d be in New Orleans in the French Quarter seeking treatment. I’d go to Jackson Square with my three children, and as anybody knows that has been to Jackson Square, there is this one band that is always there, and they sit on this one bench. And they were kind of decimated, there were only a few guys left. But they were still there, a few of them.
And they started playing this song which I have always loved, they started playing I’ll Fly Away, and I don’t know what came over me. I was sitting there with my boys and my daughter on my hip, and I started singing. And I guess because it was post-Katrina and everybody was kind of undone in a way, looser, the band said, Come on up, come on up, and I just did.
Then, every weekend when we were in New Orleans, and they’d see me coming, whatever song they were playing they’d just abruptly end and start playing that song. And I’d come up and sing. So it started to feel like that was my escape song.
Rumpus: Like your anthem.
Anderson: Yeah, it became my anthem. But a secret anthem. Because when we were there, even though my ex was seeking treatment, in the evenings I’d be alone in the hotel room and he’d be out drunk and doing whatever. It was a very lonely time for me. It wasn’t like these were great family weekends. It was sort of the first time I started thinking about escaping that marriage, and so that was why.
Rumpus: This book, in a way, it’s an ode to motherhood. What are some of your narratives around motherhood, your archetypes and mythologies? Did you plan to be a mom?
Anderson: Planning to be a mom is what got me into this marriage in the first place. I really don’t think I would have committed to it as wholeheartedly as I did if I didn’t have such a strong pull to wanting to be a mom to multiple children. I had three children in six years, and there was a fourth, after the third one, that passed away. It was motherhood that got me into the marriage and it was motherhood that got me stuck in the marriage. And it was really motherhood that kept me fighting all through it.
When I started writing the book, motherhood was the missing narrative. The first chapters that I wrote were chapters that had nothing to do with the kids. I’m not really sure why, but I did kind of come late to telling that warrior-mother story. But ultimately that really became the biggest part, along with the fight for my life; it was really about them.
And I’m incredibly lucky that a hundred percent of my children are on board with me telling their story. None of them are like, Oh, leave me out of it.
Rumpus: They have a cute nickname that they call you. Do you want to share it?
Anderson: Eight years ago I suffered a traumatic brain injury. And I was really homebound for several years, recovering. And so when AWP was in Seattle, my friend, Jo-Ann Mapson, was kind enough to bring me along with her, and let me stay in her room with her, and drag me around with her through the bookfair and whatnot. And when I came home my kids were so proud. That was really my first foray into the world, and I did a reading, and they were so excited that not only did I get out into the world, but I did something as an author. So my kids usually call me Mama, but after that trip they started calling me M’author.
Rumpus: I just love that so much.
Anderson: It’s kind of like when kids see their schoolteacher out in the world somewhere, and they realize they are more than the schoolteacher in the classroom. They have a fuller life. It was sort of like that. My kids saw me like, Oh she’s not just our mama.
Rumpus: I feel like for a lot of us, myself included, you have to be out of the house before you start to see your mom as a whole person, and not just your needs-pacifier.
Anderson: Exactly. I think part of it, too, is because they helped me, they saw me struggle to learn to speak again, learn to walk right again, to read again and to write again. I think that I became more real to them, earlier, so they were very invested in me. It makes me very happy when they call me M’author.
Rumpus: How did you start writing; what did that look like for you?
Anderson: I started writing before I went to kindergarten. My parents don’t have degrees from big colleges or anything like that, but we always had a house full of books. My mom was a one-room schoolhouse teacher in South Dakota. Her dad, who was a farmer, I don’t think he even got to middle school, but he memorized Shakespeare sonnets and he wrote poems.
My mom taught me to read very early, and read me poems, so I have this tiny book of poems I wrote before I went off to kindergarten. It’s called, The Colorbook of Poems and it’s these surreal little poems about colors. The pink one is about clipper ships in the sky. So I decided then that I was going to be a poet, and then I promptly forgot about it, all the way through high school, college. I majored in English. I was going to go to law school. And then I took two years of graduate poetry classes as an undergrad with this wonderful poet, Dennis Schmitz, who encouraged me to apply for an MFA.
And I really feel like that’s who I am in my core. That’s how I think; my dreams are poetic. Even when I wrote this memoir I felt like, I have no idea of what I’m doing but if I could think of each chapter as sort of a loosened-up larger poem, then I could still manage to pull it off.
Rumpus: Isn’t it interesting how with poetry you are always trying to concentrate whatever you are saying into the most refined, intense version. But prose it is almost like you are taking off a corset and you are like (deep inhale) Oh, I can take six pages to say this, what do you mean?
Anderson: Well, my poems are not so small. They are very big. My agent is very much old school; she’s like having an editor. She took me through so many versions of my proposal. She’s incredible. I remember I was being so painstaking about these chapters that I was writing, and she was like, ‘Alice, every paragraph cannot be that intense, like, give people a break to breathe.’ Because like you said, I was thinking like a poet, wanting every word to have that intensity. I had to learn to let a little air in. Hang out on the couch, take off the bra, maybe drink out of the can a little bit. [Laughing]
Rumpus: And now you are working on a novel is that right?
Anderson: I am indeed… what the hell am I doing!? [Laughs]
Rumpus: See you took off your bra and now you don’t want to put it back on.
Anderson: I know! I’m never putting it back on. Apparently I’m just like, what other genre can I walk into without my bra on? I have no idea. I’ve written about five chapters in a couple of months. And just like I was when I started the memoir, I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m figuring it out as I go.
Rumpus: Katharine Coldiron, who also got an advance copy of your memoir, let me read her review. She had this brilliant insight that she wrote about. To me, it pulled a theme in the book together. And I asked her if I could ask you about it. So, brilliant Katharine pointed out drag as a unifying theme. And I know your daughter is really into drag. Can you talk to me a little bit about drag?
Anderson: Interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Rumpus: Yeah. So okay, first they tell you ‘you are going to be a high fashion model,’ and you put on the clothes, you do the walk, you perform. Modeling is a this exterior performance. But inside, you’ve had this horrible accident, you are hiding in the bookstore. You aren’t a model, you are just playing a model on TV. That idea, right? And then you meet your ex-husband and it’s that same thing; you’re like, I’m going to be a wife and a mother and I’m going to perform that, and you do. And of course, the conversation with Stormé, where she’s like, Honey you are going to go perform this court hearing all the way now.
Anderson: Yeah, Stormé says, You are going to go in drag. She outright says that.
Rumpus: I think also how you’ve always loved women and had girlfriends, but in the book you had two really serious relationship with men. There is the performance of being the straight, white, blonde mother of three. You know, that thing?
Anderson: Absolutely. That’s actually brilliant, and there are so many more layers. Two very serious instances of a kind of drag in the book is just the drag of battered mothers in custody courts.
Men who seek sole custody are likely to have been abusers. Most men do not seek sole custody from mothers. Every instinct of a mother in family court, that you would be furious, that you would heartbroken, that you would cry, that you would be outraged, that you would defend your children to the bitter end. You have to ignore all of that, and you have to perform this kind of ultra-Stepford appearance. That is the only way that you can win. This sort of false motherhood, it’s kind of backwards. You are not showing yourself to be a passionate, protective, feeling, mother. You are showing yourself to be a sort of unfeeling, cool, very emotionless, person.
I am involved with people in the battered women custody conference and in that movement, and I’ve seen woman after woman after woman lose complete custody of their children to men very much like my ex because they acted naturally. They acted honestly in court. Whenever I can, I try to help people and explain to them that you really do have to put on a kind of face, and a kind of drag performance.
Rumpus: That’s such patriarchal bullshit. That makes me so angry, because of course your authenticity as a person, as a mother, a human being, who loves your children, is not valued. No, they value this weird super logical performance.
Anderson: The sick irony and sadness of it is that I was raised to excel at doing that, right? I think about that scene where I was going to court after my ex and his lovely attorney are saying I’m homicidal and suicidal and I’ve had this lifelong, sick, sexual relationship with my own father. And I have to pretend like, Oh gosh how silly, no. Daddy drank a little, and he may have been a little inappropriate. But you know, anybody else would have been furious and crying. That is a natural response, like, how could you say such a thing? But I had grown up in such a sick family. I had grown up in a family where my father was sexually abusing me but he was also the president of the local exchange club that raised money for victims of sexual abuse. So I knew how to be the best at that performance, and you know it served me, it helped me later.
Rumpus: I don’t want to say, Oh it’s a silver lining because it doesn’t mean it was worth it, but there are things you learn how to survive, or endure, or withstand, that you might not otherwise have known. The first time we met, I heard you read “The Split,” a poem of yours that is very famous. And you talk about that performativity in that poem as well, with the rollerskating outside and the father saying something over that fence.
Anderson: This is the life. That’s what he says.
Rumpus: So that’s been in you all this time.
Anderson: And the timing of my ex trying to use that was so interesting to me. Because of course, when I first heard it over the phone from my attorney, I was physically sick. I dropped the phone and threw up. But I was also ready for it because I had already walked through it all.
My father, I was estranged from him for nine years, and then one night my mother called me and said, Your father is dying. So I hung up the phone with her and called him and then he said, Yes I did everything, and I am so sorry, and then he didn’t die for four years. And so then he made amends. That is the most profound experience I’d had in my life. Most survivors don’t have that kind of experience. My father had only been dead a year when my ex pulls out this lifelong consensual sexual thing with my father thing in court. I sort of felt like I was marching in there with my father, who had made everything right, and said, Oh no you aren’t going to sully it up again. So I was ready for battle, and it was kind of the silver lining thing. Because I think if we hadn’t made peace, I would have gone in more broken and less qualified to fight.
The other big drag in the book is the drag of my ex. Because when I met him he was the student, we were both students. Then we dated briefly and then I went away to graduate school, he went away to medical school. And when we reconnected again, we saw each other through the window at the Just Desserts café in San Francisco. We were both living in Berkeley, and he was the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic van doctor, taking care of AIDS patients on the street. And so that is who I married. This kind of genderqueer, long haired guy, lots of jewelry. That’s who I married.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting. I can’t even imagine that person being—
Anderson: People are like how could you marry him? That’s who I married. You can imagine me marrying someone like that, right?
Rumpus: I can. Yeah.
Anderson: Then we have a baby and he’s like, Oh my gosh I can’t work for an HMO, I feel like I’m selling out my soul, I can’t treat people this way. And I’m said, I’m from Mississippi, I know where there is the lowest HMO per capita, and you could hang up your own little sign. And we can live on the beach. And it sounds like heaven, right? So we moved to Mississippi, and in a few months, Mr. Haight Ashbury Free Clinic van morphed into Trent Lott. What I didn’t know at the time was that my ex, whatever the most extreme thing was about where he lived, that’s what he became.
Rumpus: He was like a chameleon.
Anderson: Exactly. The longer we lived there, the more money he made, the more right wing, the more racist. A shocking transformation. People are like, How could you marry? Well that really isn’t who I married. So talk about drag.
Rumpus: Do you miss Mississippi?
Anderson: I miss Mississippi every day. It’s hard for people to understand. I do not miss the politics of Mississippi, but I miss the Mississippi life. For example, right now I am sitting on my porch talking to you and there is not another soul who is in their front yard on my block. In Mississippi everyone eats dinner about the same time and then people just boil out of their front yards. I knew every neighbor very, very well. I know one next door neighbor very well but there are many neighbors on my street I don’t know their first names. I really, I do miss Mississippi. I miss a lot of things about it, yes. I miss the small town living, the culture.
Rumpus: Are readers shocked at the things you’ve been through?
Anderson: I think, for people who have read the book so far, I’ve gotten a lot of shock, because people felt, because I’m pretty open on social media, a lot of people felt they knew what the book was going to be about. They thought the book would be a lot about brain injury, maybe a little bit about divorce. There were so many things, because I was always in court, that people have no idea I was going through. So I have gotten a lot of reactions like, Holy fuck, I had no idea that this was your life.
And I do feel like in this book there are a high percentage of secrets revealed. Like, I always kept the modeling a secret because I always felt like if people knew that about me that they would judge me a certain way or see me a certain way. Now that I’m an old broad I don’t give a fuck.
Rumpus: Is there some relief in that that you can finally put these secrets down?
Anderson: Yeah, yeah there is, kind of. It’s like, well here is the whole story. I’ve lived eight years with people saying, ‘How did you get your brain injury,’ and I say, ‘A fall.’ And I have this swirling fire of other things going on my head and I can’t say a word. That’s probably the biggest secret revealed.
Rumpus: You also have a hidden marginalization, or a hidden disability; I don’t know how you think of it. But to meet you, I had no idea until you told me, that you had gone through this whole traumatic brain injury and recovery process that is so intense.
Anderson: I like that phrase, a hidden marginalization. That’s a challenge in my life. I’ve been even in romantic relationships that have ended fairly quickly because of someone saying What, I can’t see you that way, or you are smarter than I am. They just refuse to acknowledge that.
Rumpus: So even when you are trying to tell people, This is who I am and this is what I’m dealing with, they are like, No, no, no.
Anderson: It’s like drag and inverse drag, drag that is intentional and drag that isn’t, like drag that is imposed upon you.
Rumpus: Thinking about that word, when I think about pictures of your daughter or people in drag, there is so much joyousness and self-expression in it. And so much of what you’ve had to do in your performances is hide.
Anderson: And the other thing about drag, too, that cannot be ignored, is it gives you this exhilarating feeling of power, and how much I needed that. Stormé equipped me with this look and this armor, so I went into what was arguably the most terrifying day of my life feeling like I was powerful. I actually was enjoying the day. I was having a good time on that day, unbelievable! I was goofing around, and flirtatiously bending down to put the money in the Pepsi machine. It’s interesting that drag, and whatever drag you are putting on, when it’s intentional, it’s putting on a sense of power.
Rumpus: There’s an ownership there. It’s like managing your own image.
Rumpus: I love that. Writers talk about killing your darlings. Were there things your editor made you take out?
Anderson: Mostly, I had to birth more darlings. My editor and my agent both said, You have to tell us the love story, you have to show us the light with the children, you have to tell us the beautiful things. I am very good at writing the horror stories. I had to add in the darlings. I remember having a little list of stories about my kids to write, and they were all these little sweet moments.
One thing is that the book originally ended with the final day in court, when I tell Avery we just survived it, finally. My editor said, What you need is a new last chapter. And I was like, no, she’s wrong, that’s the perfect ending, what is she talking about? I was like, that is the finally, that is the end of the book. And the day before it was due, I decided to read the last four chapters, and I’m like, she’s right. What am I going to do? It’s due tomorrow! And I thought, can I write a day at the beach with my kids? That seems like the most terrible idea ever. But that scene just came out of me. So I wrote that final chapter literally on the day the book was due.
Rumpus: It’s a lovely soft landing.
Anderson: That’s the thing. I am learning. That was last summer, that day at the beach. I’m learning that now. That day in the court, that isn’t the finally. That was the beginning of the finally. That was just the launching off spot. Our real finally is something where he’s not connected to us. I’m very happy that I took a leap away from that day in court, because that is the real message, is that we are not forever intertwined with him. We got to step away, and to be free. Finally.
Author photograph © Avery Anderson.