Thursday, September 8, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Allyson Whipple is the editor and host of the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), a project devoted to the intersection of food and haiku. During her 14 years as a Texas resident, she served as board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and was co-creator of the interactive fiction Choice: Texas (www.playchoicetexas.com). Allyson is also the author of the chapbooks Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press). She now lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her family.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What ignited your interest in it?
AW: Poetry has been in my life in one way or another since I was a small child. I remember having beautiful illustrated anthologies of nursery rhymes that had belonged to my father when he was young. I think it’s easy to get dismissive of nursery rhymes as being just for children, but when you think about it, they’re really illustrations of rhyme, meter, and other major literary devices in formal poetry—and I believe formal poetry is still worth studying, even if you want to write free verse. When children recite nursery rhymes, they’re internalizing poetic structures, even if those structures are not being taught explicitly.
I can’t recall what specifically interested me in writing poetry regularly. I think it was simply the impulse of adolescent angst and the need to express myself. There might have been a particular poem, or a particular assignment in my middle school language arts class, but if so, enough time has passed that I lost it. Maybe I just really wanted a reason to justifying a notebook covered in blue glitter at the mall? Honesty, that would be pretty on-brand if it’s true.
CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
AW: I was 12 years old, on spring break visiting my aunt in Pennsylvania, and I just got it into my head one day that I was going to be a poet. The way I remember it is that I was sitting on the couch at her apartment, and the thought came to me like a flash. Or maybe I was already at the mall, and the moment I saw that blue glitter notebook at the Claire’s store, that was the moment the divine inspiration struck. This was 26 years ago, so the finer points are a little fuzzy. But I still remember that notebook. I filled it before the summer was out.
I will say that my identity as a poet waxed and waned for many years. After being a prolific writer of angsty adolescent sonnets, I really struggled to hack it in creative writing classes at Kenyon College, and turned my undergraduate focus to literary theory and criticism. I would return to poetry occasionally—it could never leave me completely—I didn’t really start to feel like I could be a serious poet again until I moved to Austin. When I started working at BookWoman and started meeting all the poets that hung out there, I found a community where I could be a writer, and things started to blossom from there.
CH: Tell us a little about your two chapbooks, Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press, 2016) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press, 2013). What would you say they have in common? How do they reflect your development as a poet?
AW: We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are is about my first years in Texas. I’d moved there from my home of Ohio, and those were some intense years. I’d had a rough time in my first graduate program, and even though I’d finished my master’s degree, I was feeling ashamed of not riding it out all the way to a PhD. I was working in a nonprofit where I was getting paid too little to work too much. I was trying to be in a marriage even though we were both too young and had ignored so many warning signs of incompatibility that were glaringly obvious in hindsight. It covers the period of time where I was just trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult, and what kind of life I wanted to create for myself.
Come Into the World Like That came together in a burst of productivity about a year after my divorce. I put it together in the span of one summer. Some of the poems in the manuscript were older, but most of them were written in a span of about six weeks. It’s like I was purging things I still hadn’t processed, getting ready for the next phase. It’s more overtly confessional than We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are, and doesn’t conceal identities. The chapbook focuses first on my childhood, and then on my own marriage and divorce. I was looking at my parents’ own fraught marriage through the lens of my own, using the past to make sense of the present, and also using the present to make sense of the past. The book is an exploration, but also a reckoning.
Both chapbooks cover periods of my life that feel so distant to me now. I don’t read from these collections very often at all anymore, even though there are some great poems in both of them. They’re also time capsules of some intense periods of my life, and it doesn’t always feel good to revisit the past like that. I still write poems about difficult things, but I’m more interested in sharing my awe of the world around me. I’m more interested in poems that balance the tension of difficult topics with a love for the world.
CH: I find both your chapbook titles to be intriguing. What’s your approach to titles at the level of the poem and the collection?
AW: I actually hate having to title things! For individual poems, I wait for the title to reveal itself during revision. Often I take a line out of the poem itself, and that becomes the title. Since I tend to write shorter poems, I prefer not to also have the title be a line in the poem; that often feels repetitive to me in a short piece. Of course, with haiku, I don’t have to worry about titles at all!
With my first chapbook, the title was also the title of one of the poems that I felt was really at the heart of the collection. Abe Louise Young was mentoring me through the chapbook development process, and that title emerged through our explorations of the manuscript’s themes. For my second chapbook, the phrase “come into the world like that” was used in a poetry prompt; when I saw it, I knew that had to be the title from my chapbook. The manuscript was untitled at the time, but I had the immediate gut sense that it was the right fit.
CH: How has the focus of your work changed since the publication of Come Into the World Like That?
AW: A lot has happened since 2016! That chapbook came out when I was 1/3 of the way through my MFA, which I finished in 2018. I unfortunately had a great deal of difficulty writing after I finished my program and went through a long fallow period.
I did turn my MFA thesis into a chapbook manuscript, though I had been frustrated with the thesis experience because it felt like I was putting together a manuscript by committee. After about 18 months, I went through and stripped out everything that didn’t feel authentic to me or to the manuscript (even cutting some poems people thought were fantastic), and ended up with a solid chapbook. I sent it out to contests and open reading periods for about two years, and then decided I was done paying $15-$30 reading fees. I absolutely understand why small presses need reading fees–my time working with Borderlands and handling the financial aspects of the journal was illuminating–but eventually I just got tired of spending the money to get nowhere. I believe in the chapbook and I know that presses can only take on a certain number of books per year. I was just ready to be done with that system.
The chapbook really synthesizes my last few years in Texas, my explorations of Mexico, and chronicles the first few years of my relationship with my partner. Although it’s less confessional than my first two chapbooks, it’s in many ways more vulnerable and personal. Especially now that I’ve moved to St. Louis, I want to get that chapbook into the world as a final farewell to my Texas years. I think the DIY route is the way to go; that’s my approach to so many of my other projects these days. Self-publishing is new territory for me, though, so I need to get settled a little more in St. Louis before embarking on that project.
The early months of COVID were also rough on my creativity. The disruption, the uncertainty, and the fear all made it difficult for me to focus on writing. It was even difficult for me to read. So many people were writing work in immediate response to the crisis, and much of it was quite good, but I just couldn’t look at any of it. That’s actually how I got into quilting; it gave me a creative outlet without having to work with words.
And that’s also how I ended up focusing on haiku. I’d been interested in the form for years, but I always have a number of projects going, and haiku would drift out of my life sometimes. The brevity of haiku, the immediacy of it, made it a form that I found comforting. I could even read other people’s COVID-inspired haiku, because there’s no room for analysis. There’s just the moment. The haiku form has a level of complexity that often gets glossed over in English-language education, so I started reading books and listening to podcast that covered haiku beyond just the number of lines and syllables. I haven’t tired of it yet; I think I will be with haiku and its related forms for many years to come.
CH: I understand you have a black belt in Kung Fu, and I know that you have been working on a Pilates certification. How do these embodied practices inform your writing?
AW: I loved movement before I loved poetry. I started ballet when I was 8 and studied various forms of dance until moving on to other practices. I try to get some sort of movement in every day. Pilates helps me tune into my body and focus. My favorite form of movement is walking. It’s a chance to get out of my head, let my mind wander, and work out problems without overthinking things. That’s where I get my best ideas.
CH: I’m intrigued by one of your newer projects, the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), which is “devoted to the intersection of food and haiku.” Tell us a little about this project and how it got started.
AW: This past spring, I decided to embark on a daily haiku practice focused around the concept of kigo, which are words that denote specific seasons in haiku. Kigo are often compiled in saijiki, which are volumes that organize kigo based on season, and provide sample haiku that show excellent use of seasonal words. Usually, those who compile a saijiki usually offer some commentary for each season word, explaining why it ties to that particular season. One of the most famous Japanese kigo is “cherry blossoms,” which denote spring. Of course, living in Texas, cherry blossoms weren’t a relevant spring kigo!
One of the best-known English-language saijiki is Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson. There are also a number of online saijiki, as well as those offered in e-book format, but I still love print books, and I liked the idea of choosing a kigo a day from Haiku World and using that to inform my writing practice, making notes in the margins as necessary. Although a short form, haiku have many facets, and I wanted to see what would happen if I just focused on kigo for an extended period of time.
I was only two days into the project, which I started in March, when I was struck by the idea to explore more about how food serves as a seasonal word in haiku. I was walking my dog, which is where I do most of my poetry-related thinking, and it occurred to me that with food being intimately connected to the seasons, food words had the potential to serve as useful kigo. However, Haiku World only contains a few food words, and many of them fall into the All-Year category, rather than a specific season. I browsed some other saijiki, which again, had few to no food words, many of them only pertaining to foods specific to Japan—not necessarily useful when you’re writing from Texas! So I decided to start a blog in which I would collect haiku with food words, organize them according to season, and write about my observations. At the moment, this isn’t structured like a formal saijiki, but ultimately, I do plan to put together a print volume that resembles Haiku World.
The idea for the podcast came soon after. I’d always wanted to do a podcast, but couldn’t think of what specific thing I wanted to talk about. I realized that with The Culinary Saijiki, the podcast could be a complement to the blog. I love conversational podcasts, so I wanted something where I could be in dialogue with my fellow haiku practitioners, and add another layer to the conversation.
CH: You were a long-time resident of Austin and have recently moved to St. Louis. What’s enlivening about being in this new place? What impact has the move had so far on your writing?
AW: This week, my partner and I are closing on a house in St. Louis proper, after three months of staying with family in the suburbs. I love being in an old city in St. Louis, and am excited to live in walking distance of the historic Soulard Market. It’s a neighborhood where you can really be part of a community. Being in a liminal state for the past few months, I haven’t been writing regularly. I did the Poetry Postcard Fest in August, which did help me with the structure I needed to carve out writing time every day. But between adjusting to a new job and searching for a place of our own, I haven’t had the brain space. I’m looking forward to being settled with my furniture and all of my writing tools, and cultivating a new space to work.
CH: You were co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. How did these literary citizenship roles affect you as a writer?
AW: Literary citizenship is part of my overall practice as a writer. To me, there’s no real distinction between the two. There are times when editing a publication, or doing budget reporting for a literary nonprofit, can take away from the time you spend as an individual writing or revising. But that doesn’t mean it’s not contributing to your writing life. Literary citizenship is how we ensure continuity of community. It’s how we foster relationships, find mentors, and support each other when times are tough. That sense of community is going to feed your work in its own way. How that works is not always immediate, tangible, or quantifiable. But I believe that being in community is essential to most of us as writers.
There are plenty of ways to be in community, and there are plenty of ways to practice literary citizenship. You don’t need to have a lot of money or even a lot of time. Sometimes, literary citizenship is as simple as giving someone a ride to a poetry reading because they can’t drive, or lack access to public transit. Literary citizenship, to me, is simply the actions we take that foster the greater literary community, without worrying about how it’s going to benefit us as individuals.
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read? What’s one of your favorites?
AW: Right now I’m reading A New Resonance 12: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, edited by Jim Kacian and Julie Schwerin. I love this series, published by Red Moon Press. Each edition consists of a chapbook-length number of poems of a few haiku poets. A New Resonance 12 is the newest installment, and it’s got some of my favorite haijin (haiku practitioners) who are working right now.
One of my all-time favorite poetry collections is All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby. This collection features free-verse poems, but also sonnets and abecedarians. It’s one of the best collections of formal poetry I’ve ever read. Part of the poem “Nine Sonnets from the Psalms,” is tattooed on my arm. It reads:
I’m a hundred million molecules in search
of an author. If that’s you, thank you for my skin.
Without it, I’d be in worse shape than I’m in.