Writers on Their Communities: The First in a Series.
This interview was conducted as part of Jess Taylor’s research into literary communities on both sides of The US-Canadian Border. That research has gone into an essay that will appear in The Puritan later this year.
Alli Warren is a San Francisco poet with strong community ties. This is reflected in the poly-vocal nature of her work. Glimmers of overheard conversation, appropriated discourse, and sincere confession make her work complex, keenly self-aware, and thrilling to unpack. It is also sonically astute. In my favourite, “Personal Poem,” external voices appear in quotation marks, and some are worked directly into the poem, so that the poem reflects the connections and communication that make up a living contemporary community.
If when you wake you can’t stand
to walk around with yr eyes and coffee doesn’t help
take a nap you might wake up distinct
Spring training is over. A boat trip to some brewery
on the other side. Said I’d never drink again
We are asked to imagine a multiplicity
of phallus receptacles & the mental health of human beings
“Agriculture may have been a mistake”
Yoga won’t help
The buildings around the city center throb
Paul Thek’s American audience, smashed blueberry pint
Food to keep you alive
If you find yourself clawing around the apartment
Lace up your boots slowly, count the eyelets
you can see the fireworks out in the harbor
if you climb to the roof and know what a harbor is
Fitzgerald by William Bunge, Queen Mab by Percy Shelley
Cats Cats Cats, death
—from “Personal Poem” (in Here Come the Warm Jets)
I sent Warren a few questions on her poetic community and her brief stay in Toronto—where she read for Mat Laporte and Brenda Whiteway’s braingang house reading series. I wanted to know what community means to her, and how she positions herself within one.
Town Crier: Can you describe your community for the readers of The Town Crier?
Alli Warren: I’m a poet in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a deep literary history and continues to brim with all kinds of writers, artists, and activists—so my sense of community is fluid. If I had to give it a name I’d say it’s a scene that considers itself part of experimental or “avant-garde” writing traditions, although of course those broad terms can’t describe the nuances of each poet’s individual practice. It is a community committed to the histories and particularities of its locale, at the same time as it is in conversation and collaboration with similar scenes across the U.S. and elsewhere. Within these broader categories there is constant flux. Individuals and reading series and community spaces come and go, but all in all there is a pretty fervent pace of activity and engagement. I’m lucky to be inspired by this community of brilliant, committed poets.
TC: Do you find that your participation in a literary community serves a purely social purpose or do you see your interaction with other writers as shaping your work? Alternately, do you consider participating in a literary community as part of the professional work of being a writer?
AW: Poetry communities are so elemental to my life—let alone my work—that I have trouble even seeing the forest for the trees. I am so thoroughly inspired, engaged, and challenged by my communities that I hardly have any idea what my work would look like outside these contexts.
Every writer is free of course to make their own decisions when it comes to participating socially in poetry communities. For me, it’s where I go, for better or worse, for friendship, love, and sociality. For others, it’s not. So I’d never want to make claims about what the professional work of a writer should be. And of course we all have to struggle against so many debilitating socio-economic pressures that it’s almost a miracle that anyone has any remaining energy or sanity to give to a community after all the hard work of earning a wage and reproducing ourselves is through, which of course it never is.
TC: Can you give The Town Crier readers a little run-down on some of the community, projects you’ve been involved in? This list includes The (New) Reading Series, SFMOMA’s Open Space, and the Poetic Labor Project.
AW: The Poetic Labor Project, which emerged out of a conference that I helped organize in 2010, publishes writing on the social, political, and economic conditions of poets’ working and writing lives. My co-editors (Lauren Levin and Steve Farmer) and I are interested in making public and political the struggles we engage in as waged or unwaged laborers and writers. We would like to document how poets deal with the limited time available for writing, and whether the fact of our being writers affects how we think about working.
TC: Recently, you read in Toronto. How did you find your experience with the Toronto literary community?
AW: I felt very warmly welcome and had a great time in your fair city! I got to tour Coach House Books and give a house reading and meet some Toronto poets. Plus, it was my first time in Canada, so I was like a newborn babe in your northern land. I think it says something about the generosity of poets and the power of community that Stephanie Young and I were able to show up at Mat Laporte’s and Brenda Whiteway’s apartment, having never met them, and be treated like family. We were showered with all the things we needed at the end of our crazy book tour: home cooked meals, fresh squeezed smoothies, an adorable cat, a packed house reading, and a wild dance party.