Allison Benis White is the author of Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for The Levis Prize in Poetry and named a finalist for the California Book Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
“Everything That Is Not Conversation,” an Interview with Allison Benis White
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “It was such a pleasure to interview Allison Benis White. She handles her work with incredible eloquence. I appreciated her openness to discuss her poems written in response to her friend’s suicide because they deeply resonated with me.” In this interview, Allison discusses the imagery of dolls in her latest collection, her definition of poetry, and the expression of loss and love.
Superstition Review: In your interview with 32poems, you discussed how the tangible “smallness of dolls” in your poems enabled you to mourn both through a maternal lens and through the innocence of a child. What was your process in capturing these juxtaposing emotions?
Allison Benis White: I think engaging with the images of the dolls themselves allow for the expression of these juxtaposing emotions. So I suppose the choice of meditative object is the central to that process, followed by the willingness to enter the space of both child and caretaker, which is regressive—i.e., the memory of being a child playing with dolls, playing “mother”—and an act of vulnerability—i.e., the memory of seeing my friend’s newly dead body, wanting to hold her, care for her, and being reduced to the impotence/innocence of a child.
SR: Small Porcelain Head engulfs the reader in feelings of grief and obsession over sudden loss. Just as your poems intertwine, anguish casts invisible threads that elicit empathy. Your writing conveys disorder so succinctly. I get the impression that these poems would have been more constrained had they been written in verse. Could you discuss the use of prose poem as a form for this collection?
ABW: The disorder you touch on is the root of my decision to use the prose form—in that the justified prose poems, the little boxes, work as a counter to the extreme disorder that inspired the book. The prose poems gave me comfort in their visual sameness, their predictability, and this kind of order allowed me to more safely fill the poems with the enormous bewilderment I felt in response to my friend’s suicide.
SR: In Self-Portrait with Crayon you called upon Degas’ dancers. In Small Porcelain Head, your poem that begins, “What we end up with…” depicts a harrowing image of Marie Antoinette carving a doll “[a]waiting execution.” I love these images. For you, what does drawing upon the timeless creations of these historical figures say about loss? Explain how physical objects serve as a poignant reminder of mortality.
ABW: The use of Degas’ dancers in my first book worked, in one sense, as a way to provide scenes and characters for a story that had no scenes and characters—a story of silence and absence, specifically the absence of my mother for the first eight years of my life. What these images say about loss has to do with a rejection of time, with holding someone very still so that they will not or cannot leave. Employing these images and their connotations is an act of control and grief, and devotion. Of course, the objects/images of women/children serve as reminders of mortality in their lack. They don’t die and we do—or maybe we don’t entirely if we devote ourselves to them relentlessly.
SR: In an interview with Guernica, you remarked that titling your poems “felt restrictive or unnatural.” Could you elaborate on why this was true in this particular collection? How does this differ from your process to titling other poems?
ABW: I’ve never been very good with titles, and so not titling these poems was a relief, and also a reflection of the fact that I was writing a book-length poem titled Small Porcelain Head. In this way, the absence of titles works to point to a continuum, to the fact that the poems are working in relation to each other directly, as part of a single body. With Self-Portrait with Crayon, I used the titles of the paintings, sculptures, or sketches each piece meditated on, so I got out of having to title those poems as well. And my forthcoming book is also a book-length poem called Please Bury Me in This, so it seems like I’m working on avoiding titling poems forever.
SR: Could you discuss the evolution of the book’s structure? Was this something you had in mind while writing the poems or did you experience this inspiration later?
ABW: I didn’t think much about structure when I was writing the poems—only periodically would I think oh, maybe this is the first poem, or maybe this could be the last poem. Only after I was finished writing all the poems did I sit down for hours on end trying to locate their shape/order as a whole. I feel this act of ordering is the process of writing the long poem that becomes the book itself. I work very well in small spaces, in individual poems, so the process of organizing a larger manuscript is extremely difficult and time-consuming for me.
SR: There is an element of careful control throughout the collection, from anthropomorphic dolls to the containment of the poems themselves. Even writing in prose, do you feel there is a need to have restricting elements? As a writer, how are both love and pain a product of control as suggested in the poem that begins, “Because the pain is company…”?
ABW: I think I articulated the need for formal restriction and order earlier in the interview in the context of the deep bewilderment and disorder that came with my friend’s suicide. But the idea of love and pain in relation to and as a product of control is interesting—as a writer, the need for formal control is an expression of the wildness of love (specifically the love one has for a dead person that can no longer be expressed directly), and the pain that comes with it. Love folded into inherent loss is pain, and circular, and the doorway (the way out/in) for me is to write.
SR: In the poem that begins, “After our fingers…” the last lines read: “Think of the way it broke until the breaking is language.” Throughout the collection, the speaker is not only heartbroken, but traumatized. Describe how poetry fills such absence and the longing to convey something more.
ABW: I like the definition of poetry as everything that is not conversation. In this sense, I don’t think poetry fills absence, but it does work to try and articulate the ineffable--or at least (at most?) brushes up against an articulation. I like the word “longing” you use in the question. Maybe that’s a better word than articulation—maybe poetry mainly works to crystallize longing.
SR: Discuss your feelings on being selected as the Four Way Books Levis Prize winner. Has this opened new doors to you as a writer?
ABW: Winning the Levis Prize was very fortunate. I’ve always loved Four Way Books and the extraordinary work they publish. And having Claudia Rankine choose my manuscript was an enormous gift. Frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a better press to publish Small Porcelain Head, and I’m so pleased that they’ve agreed to publish my third book as well, which is the key way winning this prize has opened up “new doors” for me. To have a press stick with you and publish beyond the prize-winning manuscript is unfortunately rare.
SR: For me, your poem that begins, “If God is everything…” evoked a particularly powerful message. In a past interview, you mentioned that you hope to “see differently…to be changed, to learn something” after writing a poem. In what ways has your collection, Small Porcelain Head changed you as a writer? Is there a certain poem that especially allowed this?
ABW: In a way, I conflate the way my friend’s suicide changed me and the way writing Small Porcelain Head changed me. My consciousness of mortality and violence was sharply raised by both, and my experience of “God” and spirituality/meaning-making was deeply reorganized. The book allowed me to say (to myself) what I could not say to others. I don’t know if writing the book changed me as a writer beyond the fact that I was able to write a second book at all. I had been so focused for so long on writing my first book that I didn’t know, once it was finished, if I had anything else to say, or any other story to tell. Small Porcelain Head showed me that I could still speak on the page in a way that was meaningful.
SR: I was captivated by your poem that starts, “An entire story…” because of the mythological imagery. Could you explain the significance of duality between the girl and the “wolf in a velvet hood”? I’ve read others suspecting references to the two-faced deity, Janus. If so, how did the association of these characters to the dolls originate?
ABW: This poem was written in response to a “two-faced” doll that, when you turn the knob on top of its head, shifts from the face of Little Red Riding Hood to the face of the wolf. This image was evocative in the context of my friend’s bipolar disorder, as well as the act of suicide itself—how one murders oneself, how one becomes one’s own predator.
SR: “Cutting her black hair…” speaks to your ability to pack powerful messages into small objects and occurrences. Trimming a doll’s hair is something that almost every girl has done, and most likely regretted. For me, the innocent realization of permanence in our actions and impermanence of our mortality emerges. How did you negotiate such large themes into relatively small spaces?
ABW: I think the meditative object and the gendered, universal act of cutting a doll’s hair helps to get at the larger themes of permanence and mortality quickly, concisely. Also, the larger consciousness of these poems is that there is little time to speak, so by the time I wrote this poem, I had been practicing speaking/writing in small spaces, quickly, boldly—because there was no time for throat-clearing or ornament or avoidance or lies, because my friend was dead and I could not go back and say anything (to her) anymore.
SR: When I first read your collection, as a whole, it completely resonated with me. Your words and images absorbed my mind for days because your poems are all beautifully and hauntingly interconnected. Although the poems are distinctly different, how did you come to the decision to write a thematically linked collection? As a writer, what are the advantages of this decision?
ABW: I don’t think I decided to write a thematically linked collection as much as I discovered, while writing the individual poems, that the occasion of the work demanded an entire book—so the advantage of a linked collection only exists if the linking is truly organic and necessary. If it is simply an external or “fashionable” choice to write a linked collection, the poems may risk feeling artificial or reaching. I’m a big proponent of allowing the collection to develop poem by poem, and working to serve the demands of the poems themselves, whether they ask to be one long poem, a part of one seamless body, or whether they work in sections, or are loosely dependent on/independent of one another.
SR: I love the line “if death is a failure of imagination, we are alive” in your poem that begins “The arm is wood…” Because your poems are compelled by true life events, what role does imagination play in the genesis of your poems?
ABW: Everything in the poems is generated by imagination except the fact of my friend’s death and the lines from her suicide note I included. In other words, I was not interested (could not be) in writing a book that included the words “suicide” or “gun” or “chest” or “mental illness” or “hotel room” or “cremated,” etc. The emotional or psychological story is told via the speaker’s imagined interactions with the dolls, as a stand in for the newly dead body. It is a story of how the mind repeatedly shatters and congeals over the imagined and re-imagined dead body.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ABW: Right now, it looks a little dark, as the sun is going down and I haven’t turned on any lights yet. Also, my dog is sleeping on the floor just to the right of my desk, which is L-shaped and stacked with notebooks and open and closed books of poetry and fiction. I have a little greenish-brown couch behind me and five bookcases of various sizes, and most importantly, a window to my left that looks out on four pine trees and a few birds-of-paradise that need to be pruned. This question has reminded me to look around, and to be grateful I have a room to sit in quietly, safely—to think, to feel, to write.