Talking with Alice Pettway

Alice Pettway is the author of The Time of Hunger (2017), Moth (2019) and Station Lights (forthcoming 2021). Her work also has appeared or is forthcoming in The Miami Herald, The Progressive, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and others.

Alice’s poem “Schadenfreude” appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Carve. Order your copy here or download the digital issue.

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I’m curious about how this poem developed. Did you start out with the title “Schadenfreude” in mind, or did the poem evolve to capture that feeling?

It’s funny you ask about the title. This poem will be included in my forthcoming book, Station Lights, but I’ve changed the title to “The Path.” I’ve always struggled with titles. I tend to oscillate between being too on the nose and too vague, maybe because I almost always write the title after I write the poem. There was a period during my MFA where I refused to title anything, and that sense of resentment toward titles is still in me for sure. I think “Schadenfreude” fell into the too-on-the-nose category, and it’s possible that “The Path” falls into the too-vague. Ideally, I’d like my titles to lend necessary context to the poem without giving away the punchline.

Can you talk a bit about the imagery of bread throughout the piece? It’s such a universal symbol, but you’ve used it in a way that feels very fresh still.

Thanks! I tend to use a lot of everyday images in my poems. For me, poetry is about shared experience. The big emotions—love, grief, anger, fear—typically don’t happen in extraordinary settings but rather in people’s kitchens and living rooms. It makes sense to use the language of those places. And, I think it’s more powerful when we use simple words to describe complex ways of being.

You noted that you currently live in Shanghai, China. How has living abroad, and in Shanghai specifically, influenced your writing?

My poetry is deeply rooted in place, which makes sense given how much I’ve moved around. I was born in the United States, but I lived in Europe for a while as a kid. As an adult I’ve lived in North and South America, Africa and Asia. Maybe because I’m not strongly tethered to any one place, my poems have a habit of attaching themselves to the cultures and landscapes where they were created. Sometimes that’s a particular vocabulary; sometimes it’s a set of images or sounds. My most recent book, Moth, is very much about the tension between the idea of home and distance from that place of origin. My guess is that unless I give up my suitcase and settle down somewhere, my poetry will continue to morph along with my travels.

Who have you been reading lately?

Lots of amazing poets! I just finished up a six-week residency as an artist fellow at Chulitna Lodge in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. A good portion of my weight limit on the bush plane was taken up by books of poetry I’ve been wanting to read or reread. Chase Twichell’s Things As It Is, Jennifer Chang’s Some Say the Lark, Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture, Teddy Macker’s This World, Danusha Laméris’s The Moons of August, Gregory Orr’s How Beautiful the Beloved. And just before leaving Shanghai, I read Kamilah Aisha Moon’s Starshine & Clay, which stayed with me through the spring.