[Greg Allendorf Two-Person Table in the Back Corner of the Coffee Shop, Next to the Fireplace Chat]
I invited fellow fiction writer Liz Jacobs to cozy up to the virtual fireplace with me and chat about Greg Allendorf’s excellent collection, Fair Day in an Ancient Town, for poetry month.
Roan Parrish: We both write fiction that’s invested in love and relationships, and are both poetry enthusiasts (though not experts). As such, I found myself thinking a lot about the role of love and romance when I was reading these poems. I wonder what your thoughts are about how poetry might give us a different language for telling love stories, or a different approach to expressing intimacy?
Liz Jacobs: I think it’s definitely a very different approach. I mean, in romantic, say, fiction, we have to build a story. That’s sort of a simplistic first difference, but poetic structure doesn’t need an arc, not really. I think it just needs a thread. And it creates a sort of … snapshot of a moment, and can certainly tell a story, but that isn’t a must, and it isn’t what we look for in poetry.
Roan: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think a lot when I read poetry is how it allows you to burrow into a moment. To really explore and sense everything about that moment. And, for me, often that’s a more … not accurate but useful way to approach romance or romantic feelings. As you say, in fiction, we tend to curate, arrange, place moments in an order that has a teleology, but (of course) feelings don’t actually work that way. I mean, duh, fiction. So, poems seem to have this mode of parallelism with romantic feeling that can open things up in really beautiful ways.
Liz: Yes. And even though, in real life, we are living out our own stories, romantic moments tend to bounce around, and not really have a complete storyline. And what poetry is able to capture is that fleeting sense of it. I really loved “Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” because it does tell a story of sorts—a memory, I suppose—but more than anything else, it captures that sense of loss. The way it zooms out from scene to scene and grabs you. I especially loved the line,
Oranges grow violet molds and stink.
Diagrams curl yellow on the walls.
—”Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” by Greg Allendorf
That’s something you can absolutely put into fiction, but in this poem, it floats in a sublime sort of way. At least to me.
Roan: I agree, and I think that the poem just before it—”We Will Become One In Luxor”—has a similar storytelling mode, though rather than a memory it’s a dream, or a fantasy. It tells the story by imagining a setting for the love that will be. Calling it into being in this place, and then populating it, plotting it, giving it a story. And, of course, neither of us (I don’t think) would ever say that there needs to be any kind of dividebetween fiction and poetry, but it does seem that a poem like this is able to use story in a very different mode. A mode that imagines an entire love affair in one page. The way it’s able to make love that might last a lifetime condensed, or to effortlessly dilate one moment into an entire poem … these are things that I think are most deftly done in poetry.
Liz: Yes, exactly. As I was writing the above, I realized I was accidentally drawing an imaginary line between poetry and prose, something I didn’t necessarily want to do. I loved that poem, too—it was intense and evocative and I sort of wanted to burrow into it for a while because of that. I think what I really loved about this entire collection is how vivid it was. So many gorgeous images and turns of phrase. I tend to read in a micro sort of way, I think—I notice phrases or snippets before I can see the whole picture. I mean, that could be how everyone reads, but with “Luxor” I felt this line so much:
I will see you there in Luxor with your jaw
–”We Will Become One in Luxor” by Greg Allendorf
It’s so simple and packs so much.
Roan: That line, and others like it that manage to render something so particular though they reference something so general, is something that this collection did so well for me. Like, yup, we’ve all got earlobes and jaws (er, mostly), but just by naming those body parts in the context of other particularities in the collection, brings something universal to such a personal level. Poems often operate on a kind of associative logic that also governs, for me, the way I feel in love or when I’m crushed out on someone. The way everything I see reminds me of them, makes me think of them. So I see the bend of a tree branch and I think THEIR JAW! And it doesn’t need to be something specific that my thoughts latch onto, necessarily, because it’s run through the filter of THIS PERSON. It draws the general and the universal quite close, and writes the tiny and the personal onto the whole world.
Liz: Yes! Yes, exactly that. I think it can be quite challenging in prose to recreate that sense of it. With poetry, you can pull words together in a different way, and Allendorf has a really light hand when it comes to that. His words are so evocative.
And what I really enjoyed about this collection, too, is that it was very much my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. The lover described in this collection is not at all idealized. He is, apparently, not very smart, has an off-putting fake tan … But he is loved by the narrator, or at least the narrator is enamored of him. And that puts such a human lens on it. It also invites the reader to think that they can be loved despite/for their own flaws, because nobody is flawless. Sometimes poetry can be used to … de-flaw, sort of shave off those peccadilloes and round somebody out until they have no definable edge, but this really dove into them, and was a pleasure to read (and made me laugh quite a bit, too).
Roan: I appreciated that too! Allendorf isn’t mean-spirited, either, and he holds up his own participation in the exaltation/unexeptionalization (is this a word? It should be) of the lover from the beginning of the collection. The opening line, “I did the love and dressed for my scant part / in the love,” announces from the start that he’s aware of the way loving is part participation in something less perfect, less romanticized, than paeans often suggest. He’s complicit in the affair that’s about to take place in the poems to follow—complicit in the loving, but also in the flaws of loving.
The next line is “As I escape my cheap / dress shirt, crystal flies embellish me.” The costume of the lover is as ornamented as the ideas of love, and he’s super up front about its paste.
Liz: Yes, absolutely. The “we” in “Good Shepherds” is also suggestive of that—that complicity on the part of each lover, and then the “I” at the end is separated from “he” and they are decoupled.
In “Catamount,” the couplet was so striking:
I hate couplets, I hate couples, hate
the tension our avulsion can create
–”Catamount” by Greg Allendorf
Amusing, yes, but also that sense of being pulled into something you can’t control. I guess we could look at it as the other side of being complicit in love.
Roan: I’m so glad you bring up “Catamount”; I was delighted by that line! It also feels like this very striking way of imagining what love can become when we enshrine it: a beautiful wild thing, “Once-feared, now dry and glass-eyed and open- / faced on an oak plaque in my rich den.” This idea that we render something living pure ornament when we attempt to capture it, hold it still.
And it’s such a fitting thing for a writer to meditate on, because that’s what the poem is doing, essentially: attempting to find a way for language to gallop at the speed of love. “I shine you with Armor All and pace / behind the blackened window flanked with lace.” The struggle of doing more than just pointing at love and screaming into the void of the white page, “LOOK! IT’S LOVE!” I mean, I’m not going all language is dead things splayed out on the page or anything, but it’s certainly something I think all writing contends with. And, for me, it’s the beauty of the words themselves that is able to tip the scales to the side of art as being meaningful in that struggle.
Liz: Yes. Language is a living thing, but it is interesting to think how it guides us in our everyday life versus in the purposeful creation of art, for instance. (See how I decided that life can be art, too? *scuffs toes*)
Roan: Yes, we must believe this, no? As we’ve started to get at, Fair Day in an Ancient Town has legs in both the ancient and the modern, the exalted and the banal, the formal and the formless, and all of these modes are used to characterize the beloved. In this, it reminded me a bit of Mark Wunderlich’s work, which I also love. I wonder what effect this mixture has on the way the collection frames love?
Liz: I’m an incredibly visual person, so I got a little thrill about turning to pages 18 and 19 and seeing a poem that looks like a cape or a waterfall. That really tickled me. I love that it goes from couplets to more dense forms. There was even a sneaky sonnet, which I adored.
Roan: Me too! I’m no scholar of contemporary poetry, so clearly this is quite broad strokes, but while for a time modern poetry was asserting itself against formal poetry by turning away from established forms entirely, more recently folks have been reclaiming form in ways that are making it quite relevant again. And in a collection that combines the modern and the less modern, that use of forms and their disruption felt particularly potent to me. And with regard to romance, there’s something rather capital-R Romantic in the way the use of form in a contemporary poem can kind of enshrine the beloved—place them inside something historically recognizable so they signify as somehow loftier than they might without it, as you mentioned in the line from Sonnet 130, above.
Liz: I am also (clearly) not a poetry scholar, but I really enjoyed the old and the new feel of it, as well. It felt playful and inclusive in a way that speaks of—and I may be totally off here—a deeper understanding of poetry, or maybe a sense of … hmm. A sense of really enjoying poetry, in its many forms.
Roan: Yep, agree. And I found myself also actively romanticizing the beloved here as a result of it, as if his association with Ancient Thingz made him somehow … more exaltable? Even though, as we’ve been saying, that’s not what these poems are after. It was almost like wandering through the Las Vegas version of ancient-ness: “there’s the pyramids, and there is Pompeii, and oh look, there’s the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and, at its center, the beloved! Only, he’s … not so perfect at all, is he?” I think maybe I found that particularly with “Luxor,” which we mentioned above, because (I learned, when I googled it to, er, double check that I was right it was in Egypt) the Luxor is also a hotel in Vegas.
Liz: Oooh, I didn’t know that! That is delightful. It’s very much a mixture of the exalted and the banal, as you say. It made the poetry relatable to the modern reader (me) who often finds herself in exaltedly banal situations and frames of mind. (Insert tongue-out smiley here.)
Roan: You too, huh? Yeah, I got the feeling that Allendorf was wielding all the tools of form, rhythm, and reference with rather a wink, though the content feels sincere.
Liz: Yes, it feels very genuine and real. Something (else) I really loved about it is his use of language. There’s no found language here, words and phrases are not expected, but fresh and different. Some were simpler than others, but also were so evocative and intriguing to me. I bookmarked this stanza specifically because it seems … simple but very original to me (in “Choking”):
Even smiling glow-most won’t erase
the unsubstantial pain I’ve felt that tests
the wisdom and sheer acreage of my chest.
–”Choking” by Greg Allendorf
I think it’s “acreage of my chest” that really jumped out at me. It paints a beautiful everyday picture that contains so much underneath.
Roan: And that fits so well for me with the tone of the whole collection. The—as we’ve noted—combination of the banal and the beautiful (wow, new soap opera!). To wrap up, I’ll be quite on the nose and quote the last line of the last poem in the collection, because bookends:
My day was an elegy always; my day had its charms.
–”My Day Went” by Greg Allendorf
He ends on an acknowledgement of what you mentioned above: the way that sometimes we experience everyday things as poetry just as sometimes poetry can be an encomium to the everyday.
Well, friend, I could nerd out about poetry with you all day every day (especially about this collection, which (in case I didn’t make clear) I adored), but I sense we should let folks get on with their lives and with watching your and my new favorite soap opera, The Banal and the Beautiful, credit: Greg Allendorf. Thanks for chatting, Liz!
Liz: Thank you for having me! I will nerd out with you any day (and that’s a threat, by the way.) Now we just need to pitch the soap opera idea to the Soap Opera gods.
Roan: Oh, I wondered how those things ended up on the air. Mystery solved, and to all a good night.
Roan Parrish is currently wandering between Philadelphia and New Orleans. When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.
Liz Jacobs has lived in many places and has no idea how to respond to simple questions like “where are you from?” She has planted roots in Boston with her wife and hopes of a dog, and is doing too many things at once but enjoying the hell out of it. She reads voraciously, writes as much as possible, and has recently begun doing a truly alarming number of online puzzles while watching TV. She also spends a fair bit of time shouting at clouds on the Internet.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.