Talking with Greg Allendorf

Greg Allendorf was born in Cincinnati. His chapbook, Fair Day in an Ancient Town, is available from Brain Mill Press. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Washington Square Review.

Greg’s poem “I See” will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder to reserve your copy or subscribe with a discount by March 31.

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I had the privilege of gaining some insight into your poetry in our previous conversations and I was really struck by the thoughtfulness and intention you bring to your work. You’ve found a really nice balance with the delicacy in your language and form, while maintaining an intense depth behind it. I was immediately drawn into this piece by the interplay between the speaker’s keen awareness of an emotional self and the manifestation of that physically. How do you see this interaction between soul and body propelling the narrative of this piece?

The first thing that comes to mind is the inherent parallel, so to speak, between two dichotomies like body/soul and form/content. Both might be pointing to something similar, conceptually. That is, the “form” of the poem becomes analogous to a “body” in the way that it contains, transports, and expresses the ideas, images, and music of the poem. The poem on the page becomes part of the physical manifestation of the poem as it occurred to me in thought. “Part,” because it also manifests again, physically, in a sense, whenever it’s read—aloud or silently; thought is a kind of subtle sound and hearing. Sound as vibration is physical, if ephemeral. I don’t think science knows what thoughts “are.”

I think what’s ultimately happening in the poem is that the speaker is approaching a moment of insight—I see. The poem appears to be or sounds like it is happening in the present, grammatically; and I suppose it is, cinematically. The final turn, though, the insight itself, that the speaker, as lonely as they feel, is, even in that loneliness, “beyond blessed,” but cannot ‘see’ it while the disks of the mind are loudly spinning, projects into another level of awareness and another moment in time. The poem is a tiny snapshot of the interplay between mind and awareness of mind. It longs for a connection that it at least for a moment realizes it already knows itself to have.

There’s a sharp transformation in the final lines - what was your inspiration for that ending?

The poem is true to a moment—I remember when and where I wrote it: I saw two men in the library on campus and instantly felt them to be in love. At the time, I was still recovering from alcoholism and sexual assault and had been celibate a long time (something like four years). I was spending almost all of my time alone in my apartment: meditating, reading, writing, drawing, playing guitar, and singing. All of that creative and introspective activity was great, but my loneliness had begun to feel caustic. I could feel the absence of touch beginning to crush me.

I was deeply engaged in self-examination. I had been what I’ve called a vituperative atheist for years and had gone through several dark nights of the soul. The ‘surrender’ that people talk about in the context of addiction is really profound. I think it ultimately lead me back to seeing the world in more childlike way—to be grateful for the simplest thing: perception, awareness, aliveness itself. I was suicidal for most of my 20s. And I guess, even though I was probably 32 when I wrote this poem, I was seeing in myself the traces of an ungratefulness: I was jealous of the relationship I’d only imagined the two men to have. So, the poem is absorbed in self-loathing until it remembers what it has learned: life really is a gift and I do not understand it at all.

Who are some of your literary influences and how do they impact your poetry?

The first person who comes to mind—and to whom I explicitly allude in this poem—is Sylvia Plath. When I was 15, I was realizing that I was definitely gay; my mom was descending into unbridled alcoholism and mental illness and I was increasingly trying to take care of and make up for her. When I read Ariel, it completely changed my life. I identified with it very, very deeply. So, the “Empty? Empty” moment in the poem is an allusion to Plath’s poem “The Applicant,” which is actually ruminating on some of the same desires as “I See”—the desire to find a “mate,” to fill or complete oneself with anything from the “outside.” I think this is an error we all make over and over—to think that anything or anyone will ever make us happy. It’s why I kept drinking, and it’s why I became inflamed with jealousy at the sight of two men appearing happy next to one another.

I’m also a huge fan of Emily Dickinson. And the French Symbolists. And Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, and Keats. Poe. Anne Sexton, Thomas James, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Richard Barnfield, Wallace Stevens, Thom Gunn. Those are some I really love, but I could go and on. I think the biggest way they impact my poetry is by inspiring me to write it; they also give me the courage to go on living and writing in this society which has always made me feel like an alien.

As a PhD candidate, how do you see your poetry fitting into the realm of academia and into spaces beyond the academy?

This is maybe the most difficult question. I’m very much in the process of learning the answer.