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The Flapper Press Poetry Café: Debbie Theiss Interviews Alice White, the Poet of Vivid Mystery

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

By Guest Editor Debbie Theiss:


The Flapper Press Poetry Café celebrates poetry from the globe and features unique poets of all ages. This week, we've invited a guest editor, Debbie Theiss—a renowned poet who has been featured on our site—to interview artist and poet Alice White.


Alice White

Alice White is a poet from Kansas City who now lives in rural France. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, The London Magazine, and swamp pink.


Learn more about Alice White and read her poetry at poetalicewhite.com and find her on the socials @poetalicewhite.

Please Meet Alice White!

 

Debbie Theiss: Welcome, Alice, to the Flapper Press Poetry Café! You are originally from Overland Park, Kansas, completed an M.A. in English from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and now reside in France. Would you mind sharing what motivated this journey and how it has influenced you as a writer?


Alice White: I think a common trait many poets share is the feeling of being an outsider. While I am very grateful—and was very privileged—to have grown up where I did and to have been born into a tightknit, loving family, I always had the feeling that I didn’t quite belong where I was in the world. Or perhaps in the world in general. When I went to New York City for the first time—in high school—I had an overwhelming sense of relief. Kind of like that children’s book Put Me in the Zoo, where an odd leopard keeps trying to prove he belongs in the zoo and then realizes that he doesn’t: he belongs in the circus. (Though, just to be clear, I don’t think any animal belongs in either place!)


So I ran off and joined the circus. While I was at the University of Kansas, the college my parents and all three of my sisters attended, I took out student loans and went off to study abroad for a semester in Scotland—then never came back. After graduation I moved to LA for three years, then New York for seven, then the village deep in rural France where my husband and I have lived for almost a decade now and where our two kids were born. I still feel like I don’t quite belong in the world, but does anyone? We’re here such a short time, and—I hope—this life, this body, these circumstances, are just part of a greater adventure. I’m sure all this shows up in my work, which is where I wrestle with the difficulty of being human. It’s so fucking hard.


DT: How did your parents influence your writing?

AW: I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t first been a reader, and I wouldn’t have been a reader without my parents’ influence. We had a house filled with books, and both of my parents fostered a love of reading.


I’m losing my mind with the book bans I’m seeing happening in the States (are some parents really more worried about books in school than guns?).

My mother would read (or recite by heart) poems from an anthology she had when she was a child, and which I now read to my children (though it frequently needs to be taped back together). I can still remember exactly how she would say certain lines. Later, my mother read A Wrinkle in Time to my sisters and me before bed. (When I had my first child, I was so excited to do this, I read it to my infant daughter while breastfeeding her.) Later still, when I began to read book series, my mother would get the next book in the series without telling me and hide it somewhere in plain sight like an Easter egg. Better than chocolate.


My father wrote the occasional poem, and I would ask him to recite them for me, along with Rumi poems and other poems he had memorized (I can hear him reciting the opening lines of “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake in my head now). He and my stepmother are both big poetry lovers. There was also a key moment when I was two years into college and told my father I was thinking of majoring in Journalism. He said, “Why? You’ve always loved English. Why don’t you major in English?” I said, “Well, I’m going to need to get a job.” And he said, “The purpose of an education isn’t to get a job. It’s to get an education.” That conversation changed my life.


DT: We first met in a writing group. Can you share what brought you to it?


AW: For the thirteen years before we met, I kept my poems to myself. I was a closeted poet, having retreated after receiving a handful of rejections that I was unable to handle in my twenties, when I was inclined to believe the worst of myself. I received some encouragement—largely from the wonderful Brian Daldorph, the poet and KU professor—but it slid off my skin like a seal suit. Then when the pandemic hit and the world went on Zoom, my author aunt Mary-Lane Kamberg, who is a co-facilitator of the Kansas City Writers Group, suggested I join their critique workshop: It was going virtual for the first time, so I could participate from France.


Your work stood out to me right away. I learned so much from everyone in the group. Without the emboldening I received there, I don’t think I would’ve had the switch in me flip that year (2020—the year I turned 40) that made me suddenly capable of facing the insane amount of rejection required to be a published writer. It was my aunt who pushed me to start sending poems out into the world—I needed someone to shove me out the door, and I’ll be forever grateful that she did.


DT: I know you are dedicated to writing and growing your poetry. Can you share what your writing process is and how it helps support writing?


AW: Can I answer with a poem? Here’s one, if so, . . . This, to me, is what being a poet is all about. What you do.


How You Do It


You walk through the world

with your arms outstretched,

ready to catch a poem.


They float across the air

like dandelion seeds, like snow

with no gravity.


You can’t see them,

but you can learn to feel

when one is close by—


You must follow it.


You might chase the same poem

for years, but as long as you try,

it will not leave you.


To catch it, gently cup it

in your hands like a firefly

and set it on a page.


Its light is its own. Your task

is to make it visible.

To answer in prose, my process is mainly paying attention, then following any thread I find to the end of it or tugging until the whole sweater comes undone. I’ll pull the car over to catch a poem or stay up the rest of the night when I wake up between dreams with a line on my tongue.


I also love participating in monthlong poem-a-day challenges with a group of other poets. It forces me to make poetry a priority every day instead of putting it off in favor of things like “cleaning the house” or “taking a shower” that are supposedly more important.

DT: When we were in a small writing group together, you were honing your sonnet poems. How has your poetry changed over the last few years?

AW: I’ve been in love with sonnets for two full years now. It’s the poet Sophie Klahr’s fault: I took one of her (excellent) online poetry workshops, and her sonnet obsession turned out to be catching (beware!). I tend to stick strictly to fourteen ten-syllable lines with a volta but without traditional rhyme or meter (though I love rhyme and use it often).


So far I’ve had fifteen sonnets accepted for publication in journals. I’ve written hundreds. I keep thinking I should force myself to move on, and I do write in other forms—or no form—but lately I’ve just been letting myself enjoy them. Maybe someday I’ll “divorce the sonnet,” which Diane Seuss said she had to do when she finished Frank: Sonnets (a book that destroyed me for all other poetry books for a good long while after I read it). But I suspect I’ll always write them. They’re such wonderful containers. Magic boxes.


DT: You have received numerous awards and been a guest resident at writing retreats and conferences. How have these experiences affected your poetry?


AW: One of the best things that’s happened for my poetry was receiving a Rona Jaffe scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2021, the year it was virtual. I holed up with my laptop until 4 a.m. France time attending workshops and lectures and getting to know other writers, several of whom have become ongoing feedback partners and dear friends. (One of them, Carolina Hotchandani, has her debut poetry collection, The Book Eaters, coming out in September from Perugia Press—I highly recommend it!)


Bread Loaf also allowed me to be in a workshop with Brenda Shaughnessy, an amazing poet and person. She gave me encouragement at a time when I needed it and was finally able to take it. At that point, I’d been submitting poetry into the void consistently for a year but had just had one poem accepted for publication. I was starting to worry it had been a fluke. My one good poem. I remember asking Brenda if something I read in workshop was even poetry. She said, “Alice, listen to this” and proceeded to read the entire poem out loud. Listening to her read it made me be able to hear it. And to trust it: my voice.


I heard recently that one of the core questions we all ask as children is “Am I real?” At some point, I think anyone who writes poetry asks, “Am I a real poet?”


Yes. You are. We are.

DT: What advice might you offer for a beginning writer just starting their poetic life?


AW:

Welcome to the party! Enjoy yourself. Make friends. There are lots of people here—there’s room for everyone, in fact—and if you encounter any not-nice people, just try a different room. You’re a poet: you write poems. This means you’ll never be alone, even in an empty room. You’re connected to all the poets you read and all the people who read your poems. You are alive and you are paying attention. You have language and you have the page. You have line breaks and you have white space: It can hold anything.
 

My husband and I moved from the heart of New York City to our rural area of France (near Pompadour in the Corrèze) nine years ago, and it’s by far the closest to nature I’ve ever lived. There are no other houses visible from our little cottage, which is situated on a hill leading down to the edge of the woods. We’re constantly fighting back plants that want to—and would—quickly overtake us if we stopped.


Photo by Alice White

Sometimes it feels so animal—


the peach tree trunk breaking our fence in half

to make room for itself, wisteria

reaching its fingers into the windows

when we look away. Waist-high nettles lie

in wait at the property line, a field

of them, teeth bared. The trail through the valley

disappears in summer under brambles

that catch and tear our clothes and skin. I chose

to have kids. To replicate myself, spread—

that’s what life does, from the most innocent

forget-me-not to the knotweed we fought

for years, painting poison onto each leaf

in spring. Of course life wants to keep living,

wants to live so much it will kill for it.


First published in New Ohio Review


 

This was the first poem I ever had accepted for publication. (The only poems I’d had published prior to this were solicited by beloved poetry professors—Brian Daldorph at KU and Douglas Dunn at St. Andrews.) It was interesting to see the variety of responses people had, what different people took away from it. Some read it as a heartwarming mother-child poem. Others as a bone-chilling poem of existential dread. I wrote it as both.



My Son Is Undone by My Hair


I mean he buries his face in it

and breathes it in, holds it with his little hand

like an elephant as I carry him

post-nap, still halfway in a dream.


I mean he asks to brush it, then does

for ten minutes—hours at two—

gently. Says again and again

Mama, I’m doing hair salon.


But watch him find

a hair of mine,

one single hair,

separated from my head.


Watch him lift it like a spider leg

mistaken for a string. See

the realization of what it is

creep across his gaze:


a part of me

no longer part of me

and what

it could mean.


First published in The Threepenny Review

 

I’ve been looking for the girl I was when I was little—the wildest, freest version of myself. The search has proved difficult; it feels like she ran off into the woods at some point in my childhood, or at several points in my childhood—and adolescence—until one day she stopped returning. I can hear her howling sometimes. I follow the sound.



Girl in the Woods


I get glimpses of her in pictures, in

a t-shirt and no underwear, before

she cared, or bareback on a horse before

the branch. Before boobs, before boys. Before

school she was everywhere, that much is sure—

before the world condensed into a shape

to fit into. Some days I can sense her:

I disappeared from a girl scout campout

to commandeer a wooden raft I found,

looking. My counselor shook her head, just said

I wouldn’t have expected this of you.

Whenever I think I’ve got hold of her,

she kicks my shin and wriggles from my grasp,

runs for the trees, calls back, Try and catch me—

First published in The Poetry Review


 

Debbie Theiss

Dr. Debbie Theiss, Ed.D., an award-winning poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, grew up in the Midwest and finds inspiration in the unfolding art of daily life and nature. She has poems published in I-70 Review, Helen Literary Journal, River & South Review, Star 82 Review, Bluebird Word, and others.



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