Q&A: Alice Fogel

Alice B. Fogel (photo by Mariah Edson)

There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state. As the Director of the NH Center for the Book  I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers. This month I visited with New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice Fogel who is a member of the NH Center for the Book's Advisory Board.  
 If someone hasn't read your work yet, where should they start? 

If you are an independent reader of poetry, I'd go right to Be That Empty, or one of my earlier books if you can find it online or at a library (they are out of print). If you like what happens at a reading, where a poet talks a little about where the poem came from, what went into it, or ways to find things in a poem that you might have missed, then try Strange Terrain, which anthologizes half the poems from my OP books while discussing lots of the elements--tangible and intangible--of poetry. I hope readers either familiar or new to me will look for my new book, Interval: Poems Based on Bach's Goldberg Variations, when it comes out in March of 2015. 

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

 While I didn't necessarily think of myself as a writer in the sense of "what I want to be when I grow up" until I was in my twenties, I always loved words--what they sound like, look like, do with each other, and might possibly mean--and this love hasn't quit yet. As soon as I knew how to write, I started writing stories. When I was 6, it was endlessly fascinating to see the little letters show up on the paper in my father's typewriter as I hit the keys, and to know that they added up to words that created images and meant things. At 8, it just blew my mind to look up words in a dictionary, to find a specific word exactly where it was and not somewhere else-only I often got sidetracked because there were just so many other words all around them. As for poetry, I started writing something like it as soon as I knew what it was. When I pulled books off my parents' shelves I could jump indiscriminately from Ogden Nash to John Milton. That has to have some kind of effect on a person! 

How did you end up living in NH?

I came to NH to run the costume shop at what was then Theater by the Sea, now the Bow Street Theater. I had been doing theatrical costuming, including for opera and Broadway, in NYC mostly, and also had been taking some poetry workshops in NY, with Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. I was ready to leave the city for a more New Englandy life, and Portsmouth helped me transition to the graduate program at UNH. I met my husband there, and haven't left the state since. 

Where do you like to write?

I can write almost anywhere. I write outside, in the woods or on the deck; in bed, on the floor, or at a table; at home, in the car, or in a public place. Once, when I was in grad school, I wrote a poem while I was waitressing in Portsmouth; I just couldn't help it. I'm not fussy--as long as I can focus, and my powers of focus are usually pretty good.

How important is place in your writing?

My poems very often take their images--and the kinds of contemplation these images foster--from the places I walk, such as the woods and old trails near where I live or farther afield in NH or elsewhere. I also walked along many colonial trails, once carriage or old post roads, where I grew up along the Croton and Hudson Rivers. These northeastern landscapes, of ancient mountains, rivers, and historical watersheds, inform not all but a fair amount of my writing. The rest comes from other cultural input--music, art, science, philosophy, religion--or from the landscapes in my head.

What do you do when you aren't writing?

Most things! In no particular order, and in an incomplete list: reading; making things (sewing in particular, other artwork); playing/listening to music; walking/hiking, sometimes long distance; yoga and other exercise; kayaking; corresponding with or hanging out with family and friends; domestic activities; daydreaming; teaching; learning something; other kinds of poetry involvements besides writing.

What's the best piece of advice (writing or otherwise) you were ever given?

The best piece of advice I was ever given wasn't given to me, per se, but was what I learned from three heroes that helped me believe I could make the passage from early teens to adulthood. How our heroes live their lives is a kind of advice to us to live our own in similar ways--passionately committed to what matters to us. One of my "mentors" in this sense was the sculptor Alexander Calder. When I was young, I saw a short film of him in which, white-haired and stubby-fingered, he is kneeling on the floor, intently manipulating his ingenious little wire, cloth, and wood acrobats, lions, and horses. Another was Kurt Vonnegut, whose book Cat's Cradle knocked me right off the couch from laughing so hard at serious truths. And the third was Jules Feiffer, whose early graphic novel, Tantrum, is about a father, shrunk to the size of a two-year-old in footie pajamas, who throws fits. What these works of art and their authors taught me was that I didn't have to grow up to be a "grown-up." I could grow up with an intact awareness of the wisdom of most children and the foolishness of too many grown-ups, and I could continue to do what I loved and needed to do: play, and make things. I am not sure I'd be exaggerating if I said that discovering these role models on the cusp of my adolescence saved my life.

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you? 

OK, here goes. Some favorite or life-changing books from various stages of my life:

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson)
Tantrum (Jules Feiffer)
The Once and Future King (T. B. White)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
The Baron in the Trees (Italo Calvino)
The Wishing Bone Cycle (Howard Norman)
This House of Dawn (M. Scott Momaday)
Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
Denial of Death (Ernest Becker)
Let Me Fall Before I Fly (Barbara Wersba)
Artful (Ali Smith)
The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass)
The Bhagavad Gita (translated by George Thompson, from NH)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (Gerald Basil Edwards)
The Old Ways (by Robert MacFarlane)
Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison)
Pleasure (Brian Teare)
Body Thesaurus (Jennifer Militello, from NH)
Lie Down Too (Lesle Lewis, from NH)
Brenda Hillman's poetry books

I'm having trouble stopping! I love these and others that may be (or address the) strange and mysterious, that move me and make me think and learn about the world, art, or life, take me out of my normal reality, ricochet me down hitherto unknown corridors of my psyche or that of my fellow humans, and/or surprise me with a suggestion of a truth I couldn't have visualized without their help.

What are you working on now? 

I have two very different projects I'm immersed in.  One is a series of "abstract expressionist" poems, each based  on a piece of art.  I'm trying to explore what happens to our consciousness or cognition when we're confronted with non-representational art.  The other is poems about hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

What do you want to share that I neglected to ask about? 

My hopes as the New Hampshire State poet laureate include these: that every library in the state (including at schools!) will get a copy of Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, which encourages readers to give poetry a try and get more comfortable with poetry in general; and that libraries will house as many NH poets' books as possible, particularly those of the poets who live in their region, so that readers will be exposed to the poetry available to us from the many writers here in NH and elsewhere. I would love to see poetry flying in and out of libraries and homes all over the state!

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