Allison Seay’s collection To See the Queen (Persea Books) is the winner of the 2012 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Allison earned a BA in English at Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 2002 and an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2005. Her honors include publication in such journals as Poetry, The Southern Review, Meridian, Mississippi Review, and Pleiades. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lilly Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
TCJWW: The poems in this book take a lot of risks by making elliptical moves between images. The poems are all held together by the recurring queen. Who is this queen? How does she hold such power over the speaker, and therefore the reader?
Seay: Liliana is a figment, a god-queen, a hallucination, a metaphor. She is sadness, mercy, God, love. I realized in structuring the manuscript that became To See the Queen that I wanted to create an emotional narrative that felt true to the crisis I had experienced. I depend most heavily on the blurred presence and voice of the figment, Liliana, who is the thread, silken and sublime. The confession is that I had a psychotic break and I saw a figment of my imagination. It is as simple and as complicated as my trying to reconcile different versions of myself with my “real self.” I discovered that her changing forms became a way of managing questions and discoveries of the psyche and that she was the poetry in my possession to write. She was at first harrowing and haunting, the queen of my despair, but then, as I became well again, she was gentle, majestic, a vision of mercy, something divine. She was both blessing and curse, the muse, a vessel by which, or in which, I traveled.
TCJWW: Many of the poems in this collection (“Ultima Thule” and “My Husband, the Roe” in particular) depend on litany. I’m always attracted to the energy and pacing of lists in poems. Can you describe the process of gathering images? What do you see these poems as accomplishing?
Seay: I suppose every poem is variations of some similar process, part of which includes gathering images. My process is always uneven, and not particularly graceful. Sometimes I will have an image for a long time and not know where or if it belongs in a poem. Sometimes I will have what feels like a line of poetry but no poem in which to place it. “Ultima Thule” and “My Husband, the Roe” are two that existed in a liminal space between forms until they became their own form. I realized eventually I had to get out of their way. At least this is how I think it happened. I am always astonished at a new poem’s existence and the hidden forces from which it was borne and how it was made. A poet I admire, Christine Garren, says that whatever the poem has to offer, whatever metaphor there is, might appear “like a drowned figure surfacing.”
TCJWW: So many of the poems in this collection are composed of stanzas of varying lengths, including single-line stanzas (“Train Dream Recovery,” “Town of the Beloved,” and “Before the War” are three that come to mind). I’ve often considered a single-line stanza risky, and I’m curious about the process of dividing a poem into stanzas. What do you consider when breaking lines? How do you see form working for these poems (or others)?
Seay: I learned “stanza” was Italian for “room,” and it changed everything I ever thought about poetic structure. I can’t get over how beautiful that is to me: a poem as a house and the stanzas, its rooms. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God was hugely influential; she uses “towns” as organizers (and as metaphors, of course) and after I had the “Rooms of the Queen’s Dreams” I started to think about the “house” in a larger landscape. And so the “Geography” section and the “Towns” section were ways of looking beyond those rooms, of understanding Liliana in a larger world.
More specifically, the form of the poem, its stanzaic structure for instance, is always such a peculiar process to me. The mystery of how shapes emerge in poems is as mysterious and invisible to me as the poem itself. Part magic, part craft. I just reread Jack Gilbert’s essay, “The Craft of the Invisible” and he spends a good deal of time trying to define form. He arrives at the last definition in the O.E.D–form meaning the hole in which the rabbit sits–and decides that one is closest to what we mean when we talk about form in poetry. “With invisible form,” he writes, “the poet and the form and the material are like somebody riding a horse over broken terrain. The three are constantly changing. The horse and rider accede to the varying hillside, the rider adjusts when the horse finds solutions, the horse adapts to each move the rider makes. And all of it subject to where the rider plans to be that night.”
TCJWW: I love the poem “The Town of Longing.” This poem, like several poems in To See the Queen, has no punctuation. As a poet, how do you make the decision to omit punctuation? What do you see this omission doing for the poem?
Seay: I know that even a brilliant poem is disfigured by poor mechanics or misuse of Standard English. To dismiss punctuation was a known risk but there were poems whose voices sounded truer to the poem without the pause and breath and instruction that punctuation provides. Without punctuation, we must make sense of white space in ways that feel unfamiliar if not urgent and this was a necessary tension (and its own metaphor) at times. Because there are many different ways of being silent, and many kinds—shades, variations—of silence, I believe working with punctuation as a technique, as a tool, is important to the sound a poem makes or, in some cases, chooses not to make.
TCJWW: I’m always curious about writers’ influences. What poets/poems did you turn to while writing this collection? Who are your literary heroes and heroines?
Seay: I am heavily influenced by an unlikely trio: Anne Carson and her cerebral, raw poems, especially in Glass, Irony, and God; Edna St. Vincent Millay and her restrained but feverish formalism; and Kay Redfield Jamison, whose scholarly work in psychiatry not only saved my life but led to great discoveries in art.
My literary heroes and heroines are, my God, too many to name: Rilke, Sappho, Plath, CS Lewis, Flaubert, Hopkins, Carson McCullers, Maurice Manning, Christine Garren, Linda Gregg, May Sarton, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell. I could go on and on; I love Paul Harding’s Tinkers, all of Graham Greene, Lolita, Jack Gilbert, and have a particular obsession with a poem called “Donal Óg” by Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory.