Both Fashioned and Elemental — an Interview with Alexandra Umlas
David Hernandez says her poems in this debut collection ” are deft, attentive, and often turn the quotidian into moments steeped in mystery,” and Charles Webb declares it a “first book of extraordinary maturity”—Alexandra Umlas’ At the Table of the Unknown gracefully, comfortably, confidently strides amongst the daily accumulation of details: cooking, working, mothering, loving, daughtering, writing, loss. We’re honored to have had the chance to dig into its themes of motherhood, love, and living with Alexandra in this interview.
“This is what she offers, not the wisdomof words, but the care of growing,something that can nourish. Some thingthat starts underneath and rises,blossoms, carries its seeds, is createdto be consumed. The sun slices throughthose desiccated stalks, the sweet milkstrains underneath.”
So much of your poetry revolves around the ways you nourish the world around you—your children, your husband, you home and garden. My question: do you see poetry as a way to connect to the traditions of your grandmother? How is poetry’s role in this effort at nourishment, care of growing?
Alexandra Umlas: Poetry is the best way I know how to connect with anything, especially those things that elude me or that are paradoxical. This poem, “Corn,” is actually about my great grandmother, who only spoke Russian. I have only small, scattered memories of her, and so I think this poem comes from my desire to have a deeper relationship with her. This is impossible, since she has been gone for many years now, but revisiting these memories and writing about them somehow allows them to morph into something that is very much alive. I think poetry has the miraculous ability to incarnate. It allows my great-grandmother and my relationship to continue to grow, and I think this comes through in the idea of the seed. In a way the poem is a seed, a small thing that has the capacity to create something bigger than itself. For me, parenting and writing are so similar. We cultivate children or poems with the idea of sending them off into the world, where even though they are linked to us, they will live separate from us and take on lives of their own. We hope we’ve done a good job.
FP: I really love this idea of a poem as an incarnating seed—parenting and teaching both wrapped up in the idea that what we are working to create will be, and may always have been, out of our control. It’s mystery-work, the writing and the parenting—I’m curious, how do you approach mystery as a mother? Because the stakes there, as compared to writing a poem, are so much richer, so much higher. What is a mother’s relationship to mystery?
AL: How many times have I wished I could look into the future and see how things will turn out before making a decision! I was completely surprised by how much my life changed when I became a mother… the complete totality of it. All of a sudden I was responsible for this tiny, breathing entity, who couldn’t tell me how she felt or what she needed. Everything was different, and not gradually, but all at once. Plath captures the mystery of motherhood so well in “Morning Song,” which begins,
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Motherhood feels both fashioned and elemental, both heavy and light, both natural and bizarre. For me there is an incredible amount of wonder around motherhood and around writing. Am I really a mother? Am I really a poet? These things seem almost impossible to me. I think we can get caught up in the minutiae of the writing or of the mothering and then we are paralyzed by all of these little decisions we have to make—which is the best school? what do I send for lunch? is this word or that word better? is this poem done? did my child eat enough?
Writing and parenting requires a certain trust in the process, an embracing of what John Keats called “negative capability.” Every corner we turn to find more uncertainty, but I think the important thing to do is to take hold of uncertainty’s hand and continue on.
The poem is where all of these paradoxes—life’s mechanisms and mysteries—live most beautifully and completely for me.
FP: This really shows well in your collection, the vulnerable mothering of words and babies and marriages and careers. The poems reveal intimacy without any of the cloying confessional dramatics—a simple laying bare of all the ambiguities threading through our speaker’s life. I want to have our last question be about love though, because “It Was Already the Beginning of the End” is one of my favorite love poems I’ve ever read. It says,
Even now, in the quiet living
room, I hear the tick of the wind
in the fig branches or the clawing
of winter leaves against the street and know
Two of us will become one
and then none …
I’m okay with it.
How have your love poems changed over the years? What new features have they taken on? And where, if you can guess, do you see them going in the future?
AL: This question scares me. When I was first married, I had never even been to a funeral — aging and death were just concepts. I remember one of the first love poems I wrote about my husband was, “He Refuses to Take Pictures in Pompeii,” because I was struck by this aspect of him — that he didn’t want to photograph the plaster casts that showed people suffering in such detail.
When you say, “For better or for worse…” you really don’t know what the “better” or the “worse” will actually look like. I’ve been married for seventeen years now, so I have experienced some “betters” and some “worses”, and I think these complexities show up in the poems I am writing. I know more years will bring more intricacies, and I hope I will continue to embrace all of them. I hope there will still be a brightness, an optimism, to the poems– I think there will be.
Alexandra Umlas is the author of the full-length poetry collection At the Table of the Unknown (Moon Tide Press). You can find her work in Rattle, Poetry Super Highway, and Cultural Weekly, among others. She serves as a reader for Palette Poetry and on the board of directors of Tebot Bach, a non-profit literary organization. Alex currently teaches 10th grade English and holds an M.Ed. in Cross-cultural Education and an M.F.A. in Poetry from California State University, Long Beach. She now lives in Huntington Beach, CA with her husband and two daughters.