An Interview with Alice Friman

Patricia Clark | November 2023

Alice Friman, Patricia Clark

Alice Friman’s seventh full-length book, Blood Weather, was published by LSU Press in fall 2019. Her last book was The View from Saturn (LSU); the previous one, Vinculum (LSU), won the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. She is a recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, and is included in The Best American Poetry series. Other books include Inverted Fire and The Book of the Rotten Daughter, both from BkMk Press, and Zoo (Arkansas), which won the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize from The New England Poetry Club and the Ezra Pound Award from Truman State University. 

Other awards include three prizes from The Poetry Society of America: the Consuelo Ford Award, the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award. From The New England Poetry Club, she has received the Gretchen Warren Award, the Firman Houghton Award, and, twice, the Erika Mumford Prize. She has also been awarded the 2001 James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry from Shenandoah and the Ekphrasis Prize for Poetry 2012 from Ekphrasis. Friman has received fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Arts Council of Indianapolis, MacDowell, Yaddo, Millay, and the Bernheim Foundation. 

Patricia Clark: What fuels your poetry? You write about family and family situations, but I also note a fondness for myth and history. What causes you to pursue something into a poem? What gets you going? 

Alice Friman: What fuels my poetry? I suppose many things, but at base I think it’s when I come across something I don’t understand, something I read or see or something from my past (and at this stage at eighty-eight years old, I’ve had a long one) that haunts me. Then poetry becomes a vehicle for figuring things out, or for remembering more deeply, or for digging out what I really think—what perhaps I’m even hiding from myself. So poetry becomes a way of pursuing a truth. Poetry doesn’t lie. I lie, sure, but poetry, never. When it does, it’s a greeting card. About myth? To me, what you call myth, I see reenacted before my eyes all the time. Those old stories live, not buried in the past, but they’re still part and parcel of human activity being acted out in the present. I suppose that’s due to the fact that as an old English professor I’ve taught those stories, and they’ve become part of my thinking and how I see the world. 

Clark: Could you talk some more about the process, the inquiry involved in writing poems and the writing itself, whether or not it ever involves research. So many stereotypes of poetry seem to see it as an expression of emotion, often immediate and uncensored, perhaps. Does it really work that way? Do you know where a poem is going when you’re writing it? 

Friman: That’s right, I don’t know where the poem is going or where it will end up. If I did, that’s an essay, not a poem. Not knowing where it will end up—indeed not knowing where and how to get there—is one of the joys of writing poetry in the first place. Robert Frost said something like that—a poem should be a discovery not only to the reader but to the writer as well. The poem then proceeds (if it’s going well and I hold my mouth just right) by one idea or phrase calling up another and the next and so on. Have there been times that I wrote my way into a corner and couldn’t get out? Sure. That means going back to where I got off track and going in another direction. If I’m lucky I end up with a rough draft. Then the work starts—the part I like best—the rewriting, maybe twenty to thirty (or more) drafts if necessary. Each one getting a bit closer, clearer, and I hope, deeper to where, by this time, I think I’m going. You ask if the writing sometimes entails research. When it’s necessary, yes, and I always find that fun. I recently came across a true, yet strange story about Hitler that I was sure would make a fine poem. It seems that before he would sign the Nazi-Soviet pact, Hitler sent Ribbentrop to secretly photograph Stalin’s ears just in case they were “Jewish ears.” What a story! So I did a lot of research not only about the pact, but finding out what the Nazi racial laws meant by “Jewish ears” and looking up a photo of Stalin to see if he had them, which he didn’t. By the way, being Jewish myself, I assure you that nonsense isn’t true. 

So yes, research is often necessary and enlightening. 

About the idea that a poem is or should be an emotional one-draft outpouring—well that sure sounds good. And maybe there are fine poets who can bring it off, but I’ve never been able to succeed and birth something with any kind of depth without exploring, thinking, and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Everybody has emotions, the trick is to make the expression of your emotions unique, while evoking a similar response in your reader. No small trick. 

Clark: I’d love to hear more about your beginnings as a poet. I understand you began a bit late as a writer. What caused you to pick up a pen? 

Friman: I was vacuuming. I must have been around twenty-seven at the time. And I heard a voice reciting poetry on the radio, poetry that stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t understand a word, but I knew it was wonderful. It must have been around then that I began writing. For fourteen years I wrote poems and hid them in a drawer. By then there were three children and, always, a house to clean, dinner to cook, etc. My first husband and I had left New York City where I was born and grew up, and I found myself in the Midwest—Indiana, just imagine. I don’t think until then I had ever seen a cow up close. Why did I hide what I was writing? I know now that what you write comes from the deepest part of you, but I didn’t know that then. Why hide the poems? Perhaps they hinted at what I was hiding from myself. Understand, there were no MFA programs then, or if there were I didn’t know it. Instead I went back to school for literature, paying for it by writing and putting on plays for children. But I wrote poetry because I loved it. Those first lines of poetry I heard on the radio became, if you will, my first “influence”—Gerard Manley Hopkins, my first love affair with language. I ended up teaching in a small private college in Indianapolis, getting a divorce, and ultimately taking the poems out of the drawer. Here’s another beginning as to how and why I picked up a pen. I had a friend who was pregnant, very pregnant, and I wanted to describe in language a fetus in utero—the curve, the curl of the body, the clench of it, and I couldn’t do it. I could draw it, I could paint it, but 

I could not make the words do it. That little poem (the first one I saved from those days) became an obsession. And I was off and running. 

Poetry doesn’t lie. I lie, sure, but poetry, never.

Clark: Please talk about your role models, the writers who influenced you. 

Friman: Because I began writing on my own with no literary instruction, I was influenced by the poets I loved. Reading them was a way of figuring out what kind of a poet I was or maybe could be. From Hopkins, I realized that I wanted poetry that was thrilling. Since I knew little about the style of the day, who was writing what and in what way, none of those things seemed to matter. I remember the night I heard Denise Levertov read from Candles in Babylon, which had just come out (1982). I was so struck I could hardly get out of my chair. There was Adrienne Rich, of course, and Anne Sexton. Later Albert Goldbarth, who has subsequently become a good friend, and who taught me that you can write about anything, anything. I remember a poem where he likens a moon to a pizza, or maybe it was a hubcap. That was a revelation. I guess my biggest influence is Louise Glück. The starkness, the ferocity, the clarity of her voice. You might wonder how the lushness of Hopkins pairs up with Glück and her pared-down, laser-like vision. I don’t know if I can explain that. 

Clark: What advice would you offer to young writers about how to find their influences? If you go to a bookstore and look at the poetry on the shelves, it can be bewildering where to start. How do you find the poets who will bowl you over? 

Friman: I don’t know if you find your influences so much as they find you. What didn’t speak to you one year, might, as you change, speak to you the next. When you read a poem or go to a poetry reading and feel as if you were hit on the head by a two-by-four, that means the poems stirred in you a like response, not just what they say but how they say it. Buy that book and swim in it for a long while. Read poems out loud. Feel them in your mouth. Don’t be too hung up on styles or the latest trend. A young writer needs to find their voice, their unique way to lay down the words, and that’s going to come from the self as it develops, not from any outside source. When you buy that book, your purpose is to feed the self, not to copy someone else and call it influence. 

Clark: I’d like to return to your education as a writer. You didn’t go what some call the “traditional” route of getting an MFA or perhaps ever studying creative writing at all. Can you talk about that and what challenges that presented for you as a writer? How did you go about finding readers, then, and gaining feedback about your work? 

Friman: What you call “traditional” and “the typical workshop model of creative writing” is neither traditional nor typical. It’s new. And although your readers might think learning how to write in a workshop is how it’s done, let me assure them, Keats didn’t attend a workshop. Neither did Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, Pope, Sappho or even Homer. The workshop model, ubiquitous now, has only been popular for a few decades.

But there has always been poetry. Always. It survives and has survived on its own because it is intrinsic to human life and thought. I started writing poetry because I loved it, and because I thought and hoped I had it in me. I write for the muse. Does that sound corny in this day and age? Perhaps. But it is so. And the muse slaps me around if what I write is weak, or too easily gotten. I have found that I do better with one friend instead of a group, one friend whose opinion I trust, one honest friend to share work with, one. 

Clark: Connected with your education as a poet, I’m also thinking of certain creative writing craft issues such as the line in poetry, or perhaps even imagery and rhythm in poems, if not questions of form. Did you get The Book of Forms? Did you practice some traditional poetic forms on your own? What about prosody? Did you write free verse from the start? And finally, did you end up taking individual workshops and studying with anyone in particular? I can see that there might be minuses as well as plusses in not studying creative writing the way everyone else did. Can you identify some of each? Does that contribute to your voice as poet? 

Friman: The bad thing about not studying creative writing the way so many others did and do, is that I am perpetually on the outside of what’s going on—the trends, the gossip, the knowing who’s who and what’s what in the poetry world. I don’t have and never did have the contacts, the camaraderie, the pleasure it must be to share certain like experiences. And for that I am truly sad, for I have missed something important. The good part about writing on one’s own is that for me, writing poetry was the great permission. There were no “rules.” except to do it well. I remember when there were rules for what you can do and what you can’t do. Only active verbs, no to be verbs. I once got a rejection that said, “Don’t you know you can’t use ‘its’ in a poem.” I remember a spell when narrative poems were frowned upon. And one famous editor refused to consider any work written in the first person. Poetry was supposed to deal with what was “universal.” We were told that childbirth was not a fit subject because it wasn’t “universal.” Robert Bly once told a friend of mine that we’re not writing about fathers now. That was before he wrote his Iron John and all those pieces about his father. And that’s just the beginning. 

As far as learning craft was concerned, I read, did research, experimented with line breaks (which I still do), and tried to teach myself what I missed. I wrote some sonnets, played around with rhyme, which was fun, and tried some forms. But for the most part I stuck to free verse. 

For fourteen years I wrote poems and hid them in a drawer. By then there were three children and, always, a house to clean, dinner to cook, etc.

Clark: And later, when you began teaching creative writing, how did you find your pedagogical methods? 

Friman: The university where I taught was a small private university in Indianapolis. They had no creative writing program. No creative writing at all. I began by holding a poetry contest associated with May Day. I even made a maypole—ribbons, flowers, and all. I asked a friend of mine, a fine poet from Bloomington, to judge. I begged the administration to give me some money to pay him (we’re talking maybe twenty-five dollars). They refused. So I knew: I was on my own. I paid him out of my own pocket. I created the first creative writing class because I was asked to. Where did I get my pedagogical methods? I made them up. I taught the exercises—ways to generate poems—that I had created for myself. They seemed to work better—producing deeper work, more challenging work— than the exercises I read about in books. And although I did do workshops, my main thrust was always individual conferences—a policy I carried out until the end of my teaching career here in Georgia in 2017. I was interested in having students discover and mine the depths of themselves, the depths where poetry comes from. I was never a great fan of workshopping, especially for young students. Too many times, if a poem is still in its liquid phase—not quite knowing where it is going— having the opinion of twelve different people is only confusing. The poet sees their work from the inside out. Those twelve people experience it from the outside in. They can’t possibly at this early stage help the poet clarify their vision. 

Another issue I took up with students was how to give a reading: how to get up, walk to the podium, and deliver. What to wear, what not to wear. I have suffered through many an unprofessional reading that made me cringe. To me, poetry is sacred. It deserves respect. 

Clark: Let’s talk about your early book, Inverted Fire. It’s such an intriguing title and cover illustration. I was going to say that the whole book seems to be a cosmology, and now I notice that the cover suggests that with its astronomical instruments, I assume. I love “Stars,” the opening poem (from which the book title came, I take it) —it seems to introduce a number of themes that will run throughout the book, namely, an interest in the Classical Greek world, a clear setting in the real and natural world, perhaps with a lover, and also a certain edginess (the last line: “howling for a wildness that burns”) that runs through many of your poems, and seems to be an expression of pain, tension, and/or animal desperation. Then the poems are divided into four sections: “Libra,” “The Moon,” “Black Hole,” and “Red Shift.” And I notice that each section has epigraphs, a couple from Stephen Hawking. I feel as though the book is thoroughly “of this world,” taking on depths and heights, tackling emotions as well as thought/thinking. It’s a very thick book, meaning that as a compliment. You must still be proud of it. It feels tightly and carefully structured. Was that a learning experience? An interesting experience? 

Friman: It took four and a half years for this book to finally get picked up. It was a finalist five times and a semifinalist too many times to count. During that time, it underwent many changes. But the title was always the same, taken from the Heraclitus quote of the opening poem. By the time Michelle Boisseau first saw the manuscript, the order was fixed, the same as it is now. The story behind the acceptance was that she found the manuscript on a shelf in the BkMk Press office, left there by Dan Jaffe when he retired. It had been there for years, gathering dust. New to her position as editor of BkMk, I imagine she was cleaning the office and found it. She called me and asked if I still wanted it considered. You can imagine my absolute joy after that phone call. 

The opening poem, “Stars,” is about my first trip to Greece when I was forty-three, the time a woman (well, this one, anyway) should be tied down. For me, having taught and having steeped myself in Greek art and literature for years, Greece and the idea of it was to me the center of the universe. I wanted to find out what it was that produced so many of the things I loved: drama, philosophy, myth, art. after twenty years of marriage, I got a divorce, bought a duffle, packed up and took myself to Greece. I had no plans. Except for reservations for my first night in Athens, I went cold and alone. I just went. It turned out to be the crowning weeks of my life. When I came home, back to Indiana, I felt as if I were living in a negative. All the color drained out of my life and left across the ocean. That, I imagine, explains the tone of the opening poem’s last line. But except for a few poems over the years, I’ve rarely written about that trip. Perhaps it was too sacred? I search through all my books and find only a few of them, five or six, scattered like Hansel’s pebbles on the path, just enough to take me home. 

You’re right, the poems in Inverted Fire make up a rather eclectic collection— mostly personal poems, a few political ones, same travel ones, etc. Rereading it, I’m surprised there’s not more poems about Greece and my time there. But Inverted Fire was published twenty years after that life-changing trip to Greece, and twenty years is a long time. But yes, I’m still pleased with it. 

Clark: I’d like to ask especially about your tone, starting with The Book of the Rotten Daughter. It’s a striking book, cover, title poem, etc. There’s a certain boldness, toughness, even fearlessness in your tone—and I don’t mean just in the Rotten Daughter book, but throughout your work—but what’s amazing to me is how you also manage to include humor, tenderness, and vulnerability. Did this tone come naturally to you when you first wrote poetry? does it reach a peak in Rotten Daughter? Do you ever find you’re a little too tough and must dial back a bit?

Friman: I must admit, to answer your question of “tone,” I had to look it up in my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, because I’m not sure I know what tone is. Their definition opens tentatively, saying that tone defines an “intangible quality.” Right away I’m in trouble. Then they use words like “color,” “mood,” “impression,” “spirit,” “accent.” All this leaves me more confused than ever. To me, one’s tone is related to one’s DNA. And that is a quality so intrinsic to the psyche of the particular writer that it is incapable of being separated from the sum total of who that person is. When I read a Louise Glück poem—whether the older, short-lined ones or the loose, long-lined ones of her last books—I know it’s her. I doubt if even she could change that signature tone. It’s her, and every experience she ever had in her life that made her, coming through the pen. As far as my work is concerned, I am more than pleased that what comes across is, as you say, a certain toughness, boldness, tempered by a tenderness and vulnerability. I am delighted that you think so. As far as the humor is concerned, well, I’m funny. Growing up in the family I had, we were all funny. We had to be. You ask if I ever find I’m a little too tough and must dial it back a little. I thought about that for a long time, and I came to the conclusion that for me, it usually works the other way: that is to say, I think sometimes I might get a bit too close to sentiment and need to “dial it back” the other way, that is to say, toughen it up a little. 

Clark: As always, I’m curious about opening poems, especially “The Dream of the Rotten Daughter” and the vivid “After Shooting the Barbados Ram.” I see why the first poem is the first one, but why this second one? What are you aiming to achieve as you begin your book? 

Friman: The personal poems that intrigue me most and are the most difficult for me to write are the ones that deal with my own mixed feelings. How to be true to all sides of one’s self in the same poem? The first poem that you asked about, “The Dream of the Rotten Daughter” (a name my father called me regularly), relates a dream I actually had the night I buried my mother. It portrays my father as he was—both in the dream and in real life—cruel and vindictive. When I put the book together, I placed “After Shooting the Barbados Lamb” right after it to show another side, a more complicated side, not only of him, but of myself and my feelings for him. As a child, I adored him, for he could be irrepressible—full of life, dancing, and joy. For a reader, opening a book about facing the death of one’s parents, I needed to introduce not only them, but myself as whole: multi-faceted, perhaps even inconsistent, but real. He died of a meningioma in June, and I was at his bedside. I knew there was a poem to be written but couldn’t figure out how to get into it, the experience being so fraught with meaning and emotion for me. So I was stuck. A few weeks after, we were invited to a July Fourth picnic by my brother-in-law who’s a country doctor in a small town in Arkansas. When we arrived, he was slaughtering a sheep to put in his cooker for the crowd. On the grass lay the brains. There it was, my answer, my way to start. I grabbed paper and pen, and got the opening down. The poem begins with a description of the brain in the grass and the trussed-up sheep being disemboweled—death in all its blunt reality, and moves in closer, rather scientifically, to a description of a brain, anyone’s brain, being squeezed by a meningioma. Then, like a camera moving in closer and closer, ends with my father’s brain and my personal sorrow. 

Clark: Blood Weather: what an imposing book title and cover. Certainly perfect for our time—of strife, etc.—in the U.S. And the opening poem is fascinating: I don’t mean “Drawing the Triangle,” which is fascinating enough, but the “Once Upon a Time” poem. Am I right in reading this as a never-ending searching-for-the-self kind of poem? Or perhaps it isn’t just searching but a desire for mutability, changing out of the self into another.

Where did I get my pedagogical methods? I made them up.

Friman: You are right on both counts: a search for the self and a desire for mutability. I chose it to open the first section and begin the book because “Once Upon a Time” is how all stories used to begin and still do. Besides, it is a familiar, nonthreatening opening, a, so to speak, invitation to enter the world of this book and read further. 

Clark: Another couple of poems fascinate me, “The Visitation” and “Lady Macbeth.” I love the phrase “I am left pacing my discontent before my night window” in the first poem. Discuss, please. What is this creepy restlessness? 

Friman: Ah, creepy restlessness. You found me out. Sometimes I walk at night. Ostensibly to ease my back, yes, but to think, to mull. About my discontent? Well, I always wanted life to be a grand adventure, and if it didn’t prove to be, then I would make it so. But that doesn’t always happen, does it? In “The Visitation” and in that line, I guess I am likening myself to the winter tree dying outside my window. After all, I am almost ninety now, still with so much left to do! 

Clark: And what’s with the way Macbeth “handles” his wife in the second poem? “What was left of her?” indeed—are you talking about the role of women? how women are used up by men, perhaps? 

Friman: After the 2016 election, I wrote three poems: “Clytemnestra, Unleashed,” “Judith,” and “Lady Macbeth.” They are each about a woman in history or literature who has done terrible things. Terrible but understandable. I call those poems my murder poems. All of them are about women who are used by men, tricked and betrayed, stymied and controlled, or, in the case of Lady Macbeth, fondled and cajoled into giving everything she has—even, by the end, the last dregs of her sanity—until there’s nothing left. The aberration of blood on her hands in the sleepwalking scene is usually attributed to her guilt of Duncan’s murder. I chose to flip it, to suggest that that blood—since she’s given away everything else she has—is hers. I ask, “Whose blood was that?” You asked before about tone. I guess the tone of all three poems is anger. Mine. 

My husband would say my work combines great joy with a sense of darkness, each reinforcing the other— the heads and tails of the same coin— poetry of high emotion and beauty coupled with a sort of hopelessness. 

Clark: Finally, I know you’re working on, perhaps finished with, your selections for a New and Selected Poems. What a fantastic achievement for you! How are you approaching this? I imagine you looked at what other poets have done. Yes? Talk about your choices: how are you shaping the book? What do you hope it shows? When will it be out and what’s the title? Cover image? 

Friman: When I proposed a New and Selected to LSU, I took down all the New and Selecteds from my shelves and examined them. I was surprised to see they were all different. I decided to follow the layout of Donald Justice’s New and Selected Poems because it was the most straight-forward, and because I am a great admirer of his work. The book opens, as does his, with newer work and then deals chronologically with work from my seven books, from Reporting from Corinth in 1984 to the publication of Blood Weather in 2019. The title is On the Overnight Train, which is the title of one of the newer poems. To go back over fifty years of writing and publication is educational to say the least. It’s gratifying to see I really did get better as the years went on, even though it didn’t always seem so at the time. Reading it through, I’d say the manuscript holds every dream and disappointment in my life, and, because it is a “selected” and I only chose the best from each of the seven books, yes, I am pleased and even proud.

Patricia Clark is the author of Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars, her sixth book of poems, and three chapbooks. She has new work forthcoming in PlumeThe Southern ReviewNorth American ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Her poem “Astronomy: ‘In Perfect Silence’” was chosen to go to the moon in November 2024 as part of the Lunar Codex. She has won awards for her work from the Poetry Society of America, Mississippi ReviewNimrod/ The Pablo Neruda Prize, and ArtServe Michigan. She was poet laureate of Grand Rapids, Michigan from 2005–2007. 

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