Catching Up with Allison Adair

Where can we read some of your recent work? 

Cover of "The Clearing" by Allison Adair

The Clearing, my debut collection, just came out in June, as winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize from Milkweed. Some of the collection’s most recent poems have been featured at Poetry Daily, Waxwing, Southern Indiana Review, and Kenyon Review Online.  An essay related to underground imagery in The Clearing (“The Spiritual Mysteries Beneath Our Feet”) appeared earlier this summer at Lit Hub. I had so much fun trying my hand at prose! 

What are you reading right now? 

Along with coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge, more time for reading seems to be one of the few benefits of the current stay-at-home orders. I finally caught up with Sarah Blake’s second poetry collection Let’s Not Live on Earth, and found it eerily prescient. The first half of the book contains beautiful individual poems (“Rats,” “The World”), but the second half is an extended poetic narrative (“The Starship”) about ditching Earth for some unknown cosmic alternative. It feels prophetic, but in a modest, human way, like a teenager who, tasked with an epic journey to save humanity, casually shrugs and says, “I mean, I guess. Sure.” Blake has such a great way of blending the fantastic with the everyday to create this hyperreal reflection of things. As a reader, I found the collection intimate, and as a poet, I found it instructive. 

After waiting in a long line for it at my local library—it’s a hot book!—I’m finally reading Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s moving novel The Mountains Sing. The language is so casual, you hardly sense the heft of the subject matter, but it is a stunning act of alternative history. The project reminds me a bit of Primo Levi’s repatriation memoir, in that it picks up where much “war coverage” ends. Nguyễn, also an accomplished translator, makes a generous choice to write the novel in English—to add, as she says, a voice from inside Vietnam to the overwhelming canon of West-centered English-language literature about the war and its impact. The book is equally interesting formally, with experiments in point of view that encourage reconsideration of the relationship between formal/academic and personal/community histories.

Strangely related to this question of historiography is Christopher Boucher’s very cool Big Giant Floating Head. Chris and I are colleagues, and we co-teach a creative writing course together for high school students. I’m so happy that our proximity has led me to his most recent novel. BGFH mashes together the starkest, most entrenched elements of fiction and nonfiction to produce an original approach to storytelling that is as much a commentary on writing itself as it is a vehicle for his humane, character-driven narrative of love and loss. Example: the narrator is a fictional character named Christopher Boucher. It’s sort of like if Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) were reborn as a really fun, sad, contemporary novel. 

This very night, I’ve been rereading Marcus Wicker’s gutting collection Silencer, which I’ve read many times before but love love love. This book has been celebrated, but in my view, it can never be sung about enough. The poems’ delicacy, their interrogation of faith, the earnest exercises in self-exploration—the book is a full meal that leaves you hungry (in a great way). As a poet, Marcus Wicker is for me a kind of polestar. My favorite poem of his is “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television,” though I also love “On Being Told Prayer Is a Crutch,” which begins, deliciously, “So what if it is?/Clear days, I understand it,/molecules scatter azure//light from an in-his-feelings-/sun, & that’s why/the sky is blue. We know//too much, or want to.” (Also: those line breaks!)   

Last but not least, I’ve slowly been making my way through the crowded chapters of David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful. This nonfiction book—a kind of creative science writing in the realm of Eula Biss, Oliver Sacks, and The Atlantic’s Ed Yong—questions whether or not we’ve overlooked the role pure aesthetics might play relative to evolution, especially as a complement (or counterpoint) to Darwinism, which, according to Rothenberg, tends to gobble up most natural subtlety with its incessant evolutionary thrust. In other words, can plants and animals appreciate a thing outside of its Darwinian function? It’s a great book for writers, especially poets—explains (or, complicates explanations of) the bowerbird’s obsession with the color blue, the logic (and art) of a peacock’s plumage, and the natural world’s intersection with abstraction. Rich, rich reading.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to do some readings related to The Clearing, and perhaps to experiment with more prose pieces. I’m also going to be participating in a poetry debut book club with some other writers I admire—a project organized by the amazing Leila Chatti.  The reading series hasn’t been named or web-addressed yet, but stay tuned.

Allison Adair


Allison Adair’s collection The Clearing was selected by Henri Cole for Milkweed’s Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA; and have received the Pushcart Prize, Florida Review Editors’ Award, and Orlando Prize. Allison teaches at Boston College.

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