Allison Seay is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lilly Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the author of a collection of poems, To See the Queen, and has placed work in such journals as Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and Poetry. She lives in Richmond, Virginia. Her poem "Dinner Party" is included in the Spring 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by April 29 for special savings and discounts.
In what ways do your new poems like “Dinner Party” feel different from those in your book, To See the Queen?
Actually, I fear that they might not be different, or may not be different enough. Then again, I don’t know if that’s a real fear, or if it’s just some part of my ego aware of other writers who seem to have a kind of breadth of material that doesn’t feel available to me. I fear that I might have One Subject and in place of breadth, there is (obsessive, maybe, or compulsive, maybe dangerous) depth. I said fear again, but I realize I don’t mean it. It might be more accurate to say that I am aware of this and that maybe I am self-conscious about it.
The poems are different, essentially, because I am different. My inner and outer worlds are different. The Queen poems feel far away from me even if they still are me. And maybe new poems are never really new.
Suddenly, I am reminded of that line of Emily Dickinson’s: “...and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”
In “Dinner Party,” the speaker is reflecting on an event that happened years before. Do you usually need time to sit with a memory before you are able to write about it?
I do need time. I’m one of the slowest writers I know. I think some version of that particular dinner party happened over three years ago. Or maybe it’s ten dinner parties that I am marrying together in one memory. Some things are precise, and other things feel fluid and dreamy. It’s only been in the last six months that I found a way to make a poem of it all. And there are probably twenty more poems I should write about the very complicated situation that is Eating Dinner with Other People. There is so much to pay attention to; no wonder dinner parties exhaust me. No wonder it takes me three years to say something.
In what ways did this poem transform in its different drafts?
At first, I had this long, dense, thick page of handwriting, and later single-spaced type, where I was recounting this particular scene (which, again, was actually probably some strange collage of scenes). I had a list of all the subjects I remember hearing—there’s so much I wanted to include but couldn’t figure out how to say.
But in this poem, in “Dinner Party,” that image of the vessels came like a gasp. It was a kind of clarity that I have not experienced often. And it happened while I was in church watching the priest celebrate the Holy Eucharist. It was the moment where he went to pour the water into the wine (never to be separated back out, the human and the divine inextricable forever) that I realized it even though I’m sure I learned something about it in a science class sometime (the “it” being something about trajectory or velocity, I don’t know). But I was aware of it in a way that felt like I was experiencing the divine. For a fleeting moment, or even less than that—the world is suspended. And then it’s irretrievable. Part of me thinks that if all I had to do was contemplate liquids being poured into vessels for the rest of my life I would be perfectly content.
But I guess there are other things to think about, too.
What were some of your considerations when using direct address in this poem or in other poems?
My main consideration is usually about whether or not whatever it is is a poem. The other considerations, like direct address, or using third person, or tercets, always feel like the more manageable work. And I really enjoy revision, especially drastic revision—changing speakers, cutting and pasting, starting from the end, cutting it by half, forgoing punctuation. That kind of work is energizing for me. Truly, my torment is about whether or not a poem exists in the first place.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?
My first mentor, Claudia Emerson, said, “there is the subject you have to write about… and there is the subject you have to write about. You must write what you have to write.” I really like thinking about “have” that way—have, as in available, in possession of, and HAVE, as in must, a necessity, the imperative.
And also, when I read Rilke’s line “you must change your life,” I choose to believe he is addressing me directly.