How It’s Made: Allison Adair’s The Clearing
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Allison Adair’s award winning debut, The Clearing, which won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize from Milkweed Editions. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of The Clearing‘s journey to publication?
Allison Adair: Those simple solitary hours of writing, when the right word appeared or the sounds fell into place—those are joyful. While writing “Bear Fight in Rockaway,” I watched the video that inspired it again and again until landing on the phrase “digital mooing” to describe the bears’ guttural warnings, and it felt deliciously accurate. I was giddy the whole next day. Whenever a description felt fresh, or when a poem ended up somewhere unintended, as with the poem “Honey,” that was even better. I enjoy the thrill of writing partly because things happen well beyond my control. Paige Lewis has a great poem (“You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm”) that centers around the poem’s speaker being “disobeyed.” I love the idea that a poem has its own opinion, its own attitude, something not created but navigated, danced with. Working on The Clearing, I’d occasionally have a miraculous “Ode to the West Wind” moment, in which a poem seemed to be writing itself through me, rather than me writing it. That’s definitely joyful—but rare.
Outside of the writing process, exciting moments came from the unexpected honors received for poems themselves. So many writers feel a kind of imposter syndrome—me among them. Hearing kind feedback from editors, however, finding out that “Miscarriage” was selected for the Best American Poetry anthology and (title poem) “The Clearing” won a Pushcart Prize—these nods were vital encouragement, very much needed when other demands were vying for time and attention. When the email came in with news of the Pushcart, I was in a parked car with my toddler. After a stunned silence, I started hollering with joy and surprise, and she joined in, not even knowing why we were car-dancing. That’s a moment I’ll never forget.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
Unglamorous but real: conjuring time was tough. For five years I began writing each night just after midnight, once I’d finished work-work, housework, emails and bills and laundry, once the world was tucked in. I’d chip away at poems sketched out in my head, getting this word down one night, this image another. Ethan Canin says writers should aim to write one word a day. That’s it—one word. But he knows writers can never write only one word. A second follows, then another, and another, and before you know it you have a poem/story/collection. This trick of gradual accumulation helped a lot. But writing at the cost of sleep for so long took a toll on my health—as any parent will tell you, kids still wake up raring to go, even if you were up late cranking on a particularly innovative slant rhyme. This challenge is one of the many reasons to advocate for artist grants, fellowships, and community support: Think of how many voices never even make it to the page.
One struggle, for me, had to do with rendering conflict and tension in ways that advance a discussion. Poems in The Clearing raise questions about tough issues, some of which have explicit, readily-available foes, such as in “Mother of 2 Stabbed to Death.” It can be powerful and necessary simply to name an adversary, to call something out for what it is. But how to deepen an understanding of layered problems—violence, for example, against each other, ourselves, our planet—that’s difficult. I tried to hold out for earnest discovery. A poem wasn’t done until some new insight arose—like a hidden door opening—something I didn’t bring to the poem, something the poem brought to me.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would The Clearing not have made it across the finish line?
I don’t think I would be writing at all if it weren’t for my friend and colleague, fellow poet Sue Roberts, who invited me to join a weekly writing group a few years ago. I had a new baby and a new job, so that nudge made all the difference. The poets in that group, including Kim Garcia, Skye Shirley, and Deborah Bennett, offered line edits, process suggestions, submissions advice, help sequencing the manuscript, and general encouragement. And in turn, their willingness to share and workshop their own poems with me—to let me poke around their gardens—taught me so much about how poems function.
The work of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize readers, and of judge Henri Cole, is something that, frankly, changed my life. Henri offered not just support, but enthusiasm, a kind of generosity of spirit that goes beyond the lucky break of receiving such a meaningful award. The family of Max Ritvo has my unending gratitude, especially for deciding to designate the award in Max’s honor as a first-book prize specifically. That says something about how much they believe in emerging writers. It’s an earnest investment in the future of poetry. The same goes for the superheroes at Milkweed. Talk about dedication, collaboration, care—every word, the cover, the book’s distinctive size and shape, every choice related to The Clearing reflects their expertise, their dedication to writers and, more than anything, their commitment to readers.
Speaking of readers: Maybe the most sustaining part of writing and publishing poems from The Clearing has been hearing from readers who have connected with the work. The idea that someone would come up after a reading to say “I’ve been through that, too” or would take time out of a hectic day to find my email address and write, “Hey, that poem really meant something to me”… That connection is more that joyful, more than supportive, it’s profound. It’s everything.
There’s also indirect support, the many people, often unwittingly, who lend a hand without ever knowing it: other inspiring “emerging” writers, like Brenda Peynado, Gabrielle Bates, Edgar Kunz, and Ansel Elkins; and more established writers who push the envelope in terms of form and genre, like Caroline Bergvall, Danez Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Eula Biss. I love these writers and aspire to their amazingness! There’s support in knowing that they are out there blazing trails, trying, pushing and striving, doing the work, believing that poetry matters, that writing matters, that we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of these poems?
Putting a collection together, I’ve learned, requires flexibility and experimentation. You have to keep on inventing—otherwise, things can get stale. Though it came out after I’d already begun submitting The Clearing, I love Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk about the Trees without the Blood for this reason. Each poem is another shot at the basket, with its own new terms, innovative formal experiments, and subtle methods of disclosure. It’s like an explosion of poetic energy. I wanted my manuscript to offer that kind of variety, of reinvention. The Clearing was sequenced at least three times. The first version followed almost a rhetorical strategy—describing a problem, identifying that problem, then offering vague, poetic solutions to the problem—but it bordered on a business plan. The next sequence prioritized narrative, so that the book would have more of an explicit arc—but that led, I think, to more of an imitation of a novel’s obligations. Just before I submitted the book to Milkweed’s contest, I radically revised it. I took out any poem that wasn’t doing really hard work, and reordered the manuscript to its current form—more of a gradual deepening of the poems’ driving questions. In this way, I learned that there’s never one book: there are endless combinations, endless possibilities.
Friends helped by encouraging me whenever I’d second-guess myself or individual poems, but while preparing the manuscript, I also learned to trust my instincts. An early version of the poem “Local Music” circulated in submissions for about two years, even though I knew on some level that it wasn’t quite there. Each time it was rejected, strangely, I found myself agreeing: it wasn’t ready! So one day I sat down and weeded and cleared and seeded and sowed. The poem found its form, and it was accepted for publication right away by a great journal. By contrast, a poem that’s especially meaningful to me, and for which I’ve received very kind notes from readers (“If Imagination and Memory Met Unexpectedly, One Last Time”) was rejected thirty times before being accepted for publication. Despite these rejections, the poem reflected exactly what I’d aimed for, so I held out: it became a question not of revising but of playing matchmaker, of finding just the right journal.
The whole manuscript process forces you to squeeze more juice out of your default strategies. A move that’s charming or surprising in one poem becomes trite or predictable if it’s used too often—so, just as writing a very long poem does, crafting a collection requires increased delicacy and creative problem-solving. Line breaks, comma usage, metaphors vs. similes vs. unqualified juxtapositionings, questions vs. statements, direct address—all of these tools we use as writers become more fully explored, more fully understood. It’s a deeply valuable exercise.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
These lines from Dean Young’s poem “Faculty Summary Report” have become a kind of mantra for me: “Are we trying to get the tangible to shimmer // or the intangible shimmer to be like wet grass / to push our faces in? Just try being a window / and not taking a hammer to yourself. Even / a harp has obligations.”
Allison Adair’s first collection, The Clearing, was selected by Henri Cole as winner of Milkweed’s Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, and ZYZZYVA; and have been honored with the Pushcart Prize, the Florida Review Editors’ Award, and the Orlando Prize. Adair teaches at Boston College and Grub Street.