Tuesday mornings find Alicia Mountain biking through Denver on her way to class, a fruit-and-almond-butter smoothie packed in a mason jar in her backpack. She’s dressed the way one would imagine James Dean’s clandestine lover dressed, button-up long-sleeve over T-shirt tucked into a leather belt. Cuffed jeans, paisley socks, blue-and-leather brogues. She follows up a discussion on Lucretius and M. NourbeSe Philip with lentil soup and a slice of lemon, a chat with friends at the nearby Israeli restaurant. She loves poetry and her friendships. She excels in both.
Mountain’s debut collection, High Ground Coward, won the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize, and was published by University of Iowa Press in April. At the heart of the collection is an insistence on personal, lived, quotidian experience. In her descriptions, she insists on dismantling the hierarchy between the sublime and the tangible, giving as much attention to a pair of underwear as she does to the lofty concept of love. In refusing to look away from the problems in everyday life, in the self, and in seeming moments of happiness, the poems are often harrowing. But a peculiar quality of her poems is that, even in such lacerating moments, they still pulse with an optimism. They entreat the reader to see the joy in the everything, big or small.
In May, I had the pleasure of chatting with Alicia through email about her book, the surveillance state, Space Jam, and queer representation in the poetry world.
The Rumpus: Your book begins with an epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.” Do you see the need to witness as being a motivating force, or background energy, in the book?
Alicia Mountain: High Ground Coward is, I think, concerned with bearing small witness. This collection operates in moments within days within seasons, that kind of scale where wonder has the room to stop us in our tracks, and at the same time, before we know it, spring has melted something that seemed like it would never thaw. But High Ground Coward isn’t testifying to one particular conviction; rather, it testifies to conviction as a practice altogether. There’s an element of trust within all this witnessing, a belief in the wisdom of the gaze, of what these speakers behold. This is a world in which potting soil, Space Jam, acne, and women kissing in the front seat coexist with parabolic formulas, meteors, absent gods, and pastoralism. If this is a book of honest witness, it tells us there is very little distance distance between the common and the lofty.
Rumpus: Space Jam and absent gods! Sounds like its own quirky cosmology. Is the incorporation of elements of high and low culture, using elliptical language and register, a hallmark of your work?
Mountain: It’s interesting that the range in register and cultural points of reference gets a lot of attention. I mean, it’s something folks seem to mention when they talk about my work. During a workshop years ago, one of my poems was being discussed, and a classmate said, “I just could never put Ikea in one of my poems. I don’t know how to make it work.” Truthfully, there isn’t much trick to it! I take a liberal approach to what I deem suitable for poetry. I think that readers respond to the co-occurring high and low culture because it’s true of the world in which we actually live. Poetry is too often put on a pedestal of reverence that makes it seem inaccessible, exclusive, or dismissive of our weird messy daily humanity. With High Ground Coward, I wanted readers to get comfortable enough to stick with me through strangeness and fascination and weight. That requires a lot of trust. Maybe writing about putting my underwear on inside-out is a way of building trust.
Rumpus: In High Ground Coward, do you see a separation between the “I” as speaker/persona and the “I” as you?
Mountain: I have a lot in common with the speakers in High Ground Coward. I have thought of the speakers here as many versions of myself, other Alicia Mountains who have followed slightly different trails through the world. These are, perhaps, slightly exaggerated renderings of my selves. And there are, I think, a handful of variations on Alicia Mountain in High Ground Coward, including the Alicia Mountain who sends the texts I delete, the monogamous Alicia Mountain, the Alicia Mountain who works the other jobs, the Alicia Mountain that is just an id-drive toward language-pleasure, the one who watches me make mistakes and picks up the pieces. I wrote much of this work to keep myself company. I wonder whether other lesbian/gay/queer writers do this. These speakers are somewhat separate from me, but I know we answer to the same name.
Rumpus: That’s a lovely way of speaking to how construction, and expression, of non-cis-het-white-male identity in poems can feel isolating—quiet even. Who, then, are some of the writers whom you imagine your lyrics sing to?
Mountain: Honestly, I’m still learning what trans-generational company I might keep, or the work might keep. Lesbian poets have been and continue to be underrepresented in the literary canon, and to a certain extent even in the LGBTQIA+ canon. Misogyny compounds. I sense that lesbian identity is not often honored or taken seriously by others. To that end, archival gaps and lapses in recognition keep some of that isolation persistent. I remember reading gay male poets in college and feeling seen, but in peripheral vision. I’m in a PhD program and am starting to do scholarly work on the poet Pat Parker, whose work feels so immediately relevant and prophetic and wise, even decades after her passing. Contemporary poets like Natalie Diaz, Donika Kelly, and Brenda Shaughnessy have been so important to me. They have kept me company. Works by many other queer writers keeps me company. I think High Ground Coward wants to talk with them, or just to sit at the same lunch table with them.
Rumpus: In previous interviews, you have spoken about the Montana landscape’s influence on your work. But much of the book takes place in urban spaces, in convenience stores and liminal spaces. For example, in “Deadbolt Door Syndrome,” the speaker “steal[s] a red Sharpie from Rite Aid / and write[s] fagz run this town on walls / in plain view, thinking no one is watching.” You are queering the landscape of the poem but fearing surveillance, the need to deadbolt the door even as you exclaim pride. Is surveillance a fear you address in the collection?
Mountain: Surveillance wasn’t one of the major themes with which I was consciously working during the years I wrote these poems, but in the police state of twenty-first-century America, I think it seeps into our awareness. You’re right to note both the more rural and more urban spaces within this text. Montana gets attention in High Ground Coward as a venue for sublimity and a gorgeous stage on which to encounter love and heartbreak, but the poems in convenience stores and on trains and in laundromats have love and heartbreak coupled even more closely. The urban spaces—and this is true of my lived experience—are where I have found absolute intimacy with strangers and with anonymous circumstantial community (with the other six people riding the same bus, with the gas station attendant). At the same time, shared urban space is so rarely actually communal; capitalism, white supremacy, militarism, and the prison-industrial complex conspire and manifest in surveillance. This monitoring turns up in High Ground Coward in poems that reach for justice (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome,” “Haymaker Barnburner,” “The Difference Between Oasis and Mirage”), poems of the everyday (“The Most Elegant Way to Win Was to Quit,” “Upland Honest,” “Museum Fear”), and poems that navigate identity (“Little Rectangular Earths”). Truthfully, I move through the world with privileged ease. The anxiety in these poems around surveillance has more to do with recognizing inequality in how different bodies are policed, recognizing how I am not policed the way that many of my friends are, owning that as a first step in dismantling it.
Rumpus: Can poetry be an instrument in the fight to dismantle systemic problems?
Mountain: Of course it can. I am tempted to say that poetry is the instrument to dismantle systemic problems, but I don’t believe poetry can do it alone. However, at it’s best, poetry strikes loud the deep gong within us that signals revolution. When Rilke writes, “You must change your life,” this is not in the abstract. This is urgent and unavoidable. Some of the most powerful and acclaimed collections being published right now have a recognizable “political” element to them. But that “politics” is also lived experience. These are real lives, generously put forth on the page. I feel so lucky to be a reader of poetry in this socio-historical moment. I’m convinced that poetry does dismantling work deep down at the root of the thing, underground, chipping away.
Rumpus: Is there anything that is a pet peeve of yours in a poem? Anything that immediately makes you sigh in pleasure upon reading?
Mountain: I’ll keep my pet peeves to myself in the hopes that I become a more generous reader. Not all poems are right for me, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. In my own work, sometimes I see myself making the same gesture over and over, and I can’t tell if it’s a fruitful obsession or a weakness. I swoon over description. When it’s just right, it’s just right. Spot-on sensorial images for days, that’s what I want. I also appreciate a speaker with a bit of identity rather than a neutral observer; I want to pick up on that subtle personhood through language or gaze. Also, titles can be hard, but I find a good title so satisfying.
Rumpus: The collection comprises self-contained lyrics, serialized meditations, voice-driven narrative poems, and even prose poetry. What draws you toward a given form?
Mountain: I approach each poem on its own terms. At least, that’s my goal. I know some of my own habits and proclivities about shape and form, but sometimes the poem has its own needs that push me outside my usual spatial modes. The pieces that start left-justified and then include lines indented with a tab or two are informed by the way I was taught to create outlines by my middle-school biology teacher. In some poems, those shifts from left to right loosely track subordination of ideas. Prose poems, either in prose blocks or in page-long lines that break naturally, seem to be somewhat monologue-y. When the page is scattered with words, there is probably something dispersive about the thought in that piece, something on the verge of giving way.
Once I’ve written a first draft, sometimes I move parts around on the page, but more often I’m playing around with stanza breaks at that stage. Of course, I also have great reader friends who help me sort out what form the poem is wanting. As a reader, encountering range in form is one of the things I love about full-length collections. I hope that in High Ground Coward variety in the work serves to heighten the ways that the poems stand on their own within the shared world of the book.
Rumpus: As clear-eyed and unflinching as the collection is, I nonetheless see it as having a complicated relationship with truth. In “No Collar,” we are told to “number the secrets you are keeping. / Set a place at the table for each.” In “The Difference Between Oasis and Mirage”—its title itself wanting to discern the truth of a place—we get this moving scene: “I am gripping her shoulders in an alley. / I am saying don’t let your life go undocumented in fear. / No one has to know it was you who left the water in the desert. / No one has to know that everything you write is true.” How do you see truth and secrets functioning in the book? What is at stake?
Mountain: High Ground Coward doubles back on itself. There is mention of a wife and then there is the decision never to marry, there is a brother who is not a real brother, and there are all sorts of emotional contradictions. I think this returns us to the questions of speakers and the many true possible selves in here that may contradict one another. There’s also something to be said for how solitude, self-knowledge, and secrecy intersect. In deep, somewhat unexamined ways, High Ground Coward rubs at the residual symptoms of growing up in the closet. Truth and secrets both hold power in this book. Often what’s kept secret is what’s truest. But the reader is let in on everything in High Ground Coward. The truth, the seclusion, the loneliness, the ambitions, the knowledge, the companionship, the failures, the deceit, the forgiveness, the renunciation of shame. It’s all at stake. It’s all at stake. It’s all at stake. At the same time, truth can also be a space for play. Truth doesn’t have to be spoken before it’s ready. A truth can burn small in you and still be true and be yours. In “You, the Undersigned,” the line “I will lie until it’s true” could be read as I will lie until what I say becomes true, but it could also be I will keep saying the true thing that others call “lie” until it is recognized as truth. High Ground Coward includes many different truths. Some of them are made up, and those are true, too.
Rumpus: Is there any advice you’d offer to poets and readers of poetry? Maybe to those still waiting to cross the first-book finish line or poets who feel unseen in the community?
Mountain: My advice to emerging poets is to trust yourself and trust your work. Learn from others and listen to your gut. Early on I realized that there is little capitalist reward to be gleaned from a life in poetry, but the scale of our field means it really can be a community. Seek out journals, collections, and chapbooks that speak to you, then tell the poets and editors that you appreciate their work. When you can form ongoing relationships with folks at all levels, but especially with other emerging folks, especially with the interns, assistants, volunteers, and helpers. If you have trouble advocating for yourself, imagine the way your best friend would advocate for you. Do not underestimate the power of gratitude, patience, and kindness. Cast a wide net and keep sending your work out. Keep writing new poems. We need them. We need you.