Alice Templeton

Alice Templeton is winner of the New Women’s Voices Prize in Poetry (2008), which she received for Archaeology: Twenty-one Poems. Alice is a poet, musician, songwriter, educator, and scholar. In 2007 she received the distinction of honorable mention from the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation for her poem Homing. Journals which have published her work include: Poetry, 88, Puerto del Sol, and Many Mountains Moving. She currently teaches creative writing and literature at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco.

alicetempleton_smWhirligig: When we first met you told me your poetry was about nature, but it actually encompasses so much more than what might typically be called nature poetry. I see yours as more like landscapes with an aftermath of human residue. What inspires you to write?

Alice: That’s a wonderful description of it. I think I am very place oriented, and that place is the way I measure what I feel and think. In the poetry I try to define, through concrete imagery and language, where I am so that I can know how far I’ve come—what my thoughts are now, what my feelings are now.

I often write about the places that have been meaningful to me, like my parents’ farm where I lived during high school and have continued to go back to throughout my adulthood. I think those images, those cycles of labor that we went through on the farm, were formative in my sense of who I am and what language is. I hear my parents’ voices and phrases a lot. I hear that connection between the language and the tools and the landscape. So landscape does shape my poetry, but I’m also interested in and driven by philosophical and cultural questions like: What is justice? and What is history?  Hopefully those human things inform my poetry as well.

Whirligig: How did you come to write Archaeology?

Alice:I was invited by a good friend of mine, who was an archaeology professor at Western Kentucky University, to go on an archaeology dig with her and her students, to Eastern Honduras. This was a three-week field school experience where the students would learn about the area and the history, and then work in the fields. We had two sites, the village site and several cave sites up in the mountains that had ritual burials—ossuaries—in them. I tagged along on this trip and participated as if I were a student because it didn’t seem right for me to stand on the sidelines and observe. I learned a lot about archaeology and also about international politics. That might be too big of a word, but living in a very different system, under different economic circumstances, and being in that very remote place gave me an outsider’s perspective on my American life. It was life changing for me. I had just started writing poetry in a really serious way when I went on that trip. I found myself writing these very short pieces whenever we would have a break. A lot of time is spent waiting. You’re waiting for the truck to come pick you up, or you’re waiting lunch to arrive, or you’re waiting for everybody to get together to go to dinner. There are many of these periods of just sitting in a corner cooling off. So I would write these short poems. That’s where Archaeology came from.

Whirligig: Did you write the entire collection while you were there?

Alice: I did. I drafted it there. I certainly spent a lot of time after revising it, shaping it and ordering it. I think that was the hardest part, ordering it. Figuring out the arc. It’s not really a narrative, but there is kind of a story of consciousness. So it was a process, figuring out that arc and how the rhythm of the piece should work.

Whirligig: There is also a thread of the personal, and I think perhaps the transformative nature of that particular journey?

Alice: Yes. That piece is a good example of place and using the details of place to ask questions about Who am I? Who are we? Where are we in history? What is our relationship and our ethical response to the people of the past? Because in archaeological work we are handling people’s cultural fragments and in some cases their bones, so there is this powerful connection to the material evidence of human history that is overwhelming and beautiful and scary and spiritual and much, much bigger than one person. So I was trying to capture that, and to capture my own coming into poetry and language, my own creative transformation, as I spent those three weeks with my comrades and also with human history. It was very powerful.

Whirligig: The book seems to take place over a longer period of time than three weeks. But I know that when you are doing something like that three weeks is actually a very long time because every day stretches out and intensifies.

Alice: I think that’s a really good point because one of the central themes of the book is the experience of time. Obviously one thing that happens when you are not used to going to Central America is culture shock. You are taken away from all of your daily luxuries. You’re taken out of your very comfortable circumstances and put into a culture where things often don’t work, and certainly very few things happen on time. There is a whole pace to the culture that is coordinated to the sun and heat. People just stop mid day because you have to. It’s too hot. That whole difference of relationship to your surroundings is a wonderful difference but it’s shocking as well. You have to get used to it. So that culture shock, also the relationship with deep time, human history, really changes one’s sense of the power of the moment. The moment becomes loaded with larger time.

Whirligig: I was particularly struck by the line: “How old are ideas? How absolute is longing?”

Alice: That’s a line that I often go back to, too. Those are powerful questions for me. When we first started the dig, the head archaeologists gave us wonderful lectures about the history of the Mayan cultures and the questions about Eastern Honduras, which is on the fringe of what is considered the high Mayan region, so not much archaeology has been done there. These archaeologists were trying to enlighten us about the goals of the dig: What were the questions that were guiding us? What were we trying to find out? I found it very interesting the different registers in which different people would frame these questions. For the hard-core, scientific archaeologist these were just scientific questions. It was about filling in the gaps of a very objective historical narrative. For the expert in cave drawings, it was about describing an evolving linguistic and writing system. Of course, my response as a poet was to try to imagine the humanity and the consciousness of the people. That’s what I was trying to get at with those lines. Were these past people driven by the same doubts and self-consciousness and longing that I am? How old are these sensibilities? How are my self-conscious questions historically shaped? What is universal, if anything?

Whirligig: That’s a big question.

Alice: It’s huge. For a poet, those kinds of big questions can only be broached through details — the very specific tactile experiences of place and tool and dirt.

Whirligig: Can you talk a bit about your creative process?

Alice: I am a person who tends to need quiet and solitude. I tend to need days of letting things go and then I’m able to touch some things that are important to write about. I write every day. It was very important when I first started writing to have those long stretches of solitude, because I think when you’re in the process of teaching yourself how to write, the more focus you can have, the better you’re going to learn. I don’t want to say the quicker you’re going to learn, but you are going to learn different things. My creative process has changed in the sense that now I live a different life. I don’t have as many long stretches of solitude because I’m teaching regularly. I’m at the point in my own development where I’ve already learned when to sit down with pen and paper, whereas before I would just have to sit and sit and sit, and then write. Now I can do the thinking and the processing as I move through my day and then I’ll know, Oh, it’s time to write.

Whirligig: You are also a musician, a guitarist, and a songwriter. Tell us about this background and the role of music in your life.

Alice: I don’t play out anymore or pursue songwriting the way that I used to. I put myself through college and graduate school playing in original-music bands and teaching music. A lot of my best personal relationships have come through playing music, and I learned about creativity, people, and life through my work in music. I would say music was 50 percent of my life until I moved to California in 2002 and turned back to teaching literature full-time. For me there is a strong connection between playing music and writing poetry. One of the things I’m trying to do in my poetry is to get that concreteness that is typical of songwriting into the poems, to get that deceptive simplicity of song into my poetry and at the same time keep those philosophical questions that are more associated with academics.

Whirligig: Do you think that music has assisted or influenced the flow of your writing?

Alice: Yes, I do. It’s not a very one-to-one correspondence. It’s not as if you write a poem that has a verse, a verse, and a chorus. It’s much more subtle than that. But certainly I am sensitive to the rhythm of language. It is very subtle and hard to analyze on paper, like “here is the influence of the music on poetry.” As you know, the word lyric comes from music, and poetry comes from song, so music is fundamental to the history of poetry. I think the study of music can only help a poet.

Whirligig: You’ve had a lot of options in life including a full scholarship to MIT, which you turned down. Was that a difficult decision? How do you feel about that today?

Alice: I was 17 years old. I had no idea what was coming in the mail and what it meant. I did have a lot of options that I didn’t know the value of at the time. I didn’t have any way to compare what I had been offered. I was very young, let’s put it that way. When I was 15, my parents moved us from Memphis to middle Tennessee to the farm, so I lived for two years on the farm there. You can imagine at 15 you’re just beginning to make important relationships, and you join things, and you are understanding how to be part of a community. Then we moved. So all of that was disrupted. I think that my only desire at age 17 was to try to get back to something that I understood. I do think that those two years of high school in middle Tennessee, living on the farm, working on the farm, being part of a high school where most of my friends were part of farming families, I think that was a really important part of my development. It held me back academically in some ways, but it taught me some really, really important things about how people live, people who are not like me or who were unfamiliar to me. It taught me how much commonality there is among people who appear to be very different.

Whirligig: What inspired you to follow the life of the mind?

Alice: I come from a family that values education. I had a great uncle who was a history professor. He was head of the history department at the University of Georgia and was definitely a role model, a guy I really liked. He had a great sense of humor and was relaxed in the world. He had a very large presence that filled up the room in the best kind of way. I saw him reading and writing books, and the scholarly life was probably impressed upon me by my parents as a positive value. I always liked to read, I liked to build things, and so I came easily to writing, particularly when I moved at age 15. I spent a lot of time by myself playing my guitar and writing. It was a way for me to build an understanding of this change I had been through and to make something out of what were some difficult emotions of loss and isolation. I imagine that, like a lot of adolescents, writing for me was a kind of therapy, a way of figuring out who I was and where I was — what I needed and wanted.

Whirligig: Why did language become your primary interest?

Alice: When I got out of college—I just barely majored in English. I was interested in math/music/English, and English was the easiest thing to get out of school with, I guess. But also there was something always mysterious to me about language and particularly about poetry. I didn’t understand it. I still don’t think that I understand it, you know, in any absolute sense. I was drawn to that mystery, that continual ambiguity of What is this? Why do people do this? What does this mean? How come it makes me feel this way? Why is this line beautiful and this line isn’t? or Why is this poem so striking and moving and this other one somehow doesn’t live up to that? All of those aesthetic questions of value and effect, as well as just this wonderful random quality that you could write about anything. A poem could be about anything and manage to somehow speak to this core that most poems speak to. I think that is what really drew me to language as opposed to the sciences or math or maybe even following music.

Whirligig: Do you still play music at home?

Alice: I do.

Whirligig: It must have been hard to let that go?

Alice: It is, but music is very physical, especially the kind of music I play where you’ve got equipment. You got to haul that amplifier! I do miss it, but I also enjoy not staying out till two o’clock, and not being in the bar scene or the coffee house scene. I always preferred to play original music so that limits where you play to showcase bars or singer/songwriter kinds of gigs. I was always in rock bands and that’s like being in a whole family. You have to have a place to practice. It’s very complex in terms of just logistics and organization. Living in the city is complex to me in that sort of way, and to add on the logistics of trying to have a band . . . I’m not in the right space for that right now.

I think there are seasons in one’s life. I know that in the past there have been a few periods where I didn’t play music, briefly, maybe nine months, a year, and it really did me good to get away from it, to reassess, to get a fresh way of thinking, to develop other parts of myself and then bring those back to the music.

Whirligig: Writing sort of does that on a daily basis, as you’re always processing in your mind.

Alice: Yes. Writing is really crucial to my existence. It’s something that I have to do. It’s a choice in a sense, but it’s also: What kind of life do I want to have? Do I want to have a life where there is consciousness? Do I want to have a life where there is tenderness? Do I want to have a life where there is an awareness of the people around me and their needs, an awareness of my own needs, an awareness of how we can build something that is open-hearted and large? If I want that, I need to write. Writing is the way I humanize myself.

Part of what creative writing is, is a critical activity. It’s an activity of sifting through all this language that we’re given daily through media and conversation. It’s just kind of in the air. By writing we often purge ourselves of some of those automatic thoughts and automatic ways of responding. So creative writing as an activity can really tune us in to how we are relating to people or how we are not relating to people. A lot of ethical implications come out of just becoming aware of how we are programmed to respond. If we can write through some of those automatic responses, then we can see that: I need to stop and think. How do I really feel about these things? What do I really want out of this relationship? How am I inviting this other person to respond to me?

Whirligig: So you think the process of writing makes one more reflective, more mindful?

Alice: I do. I think it ought to. I’m not sure that it always does, but that is one thing that we can get out of it. I don’t think that writing necessarily makes you a better person. There is plenty of evidence that tells us that is not the case—writers’ biographies, for example. There are a lot of myths about that, for sure. I do think that writing gives us an opportunity to examine our ethical relationships, if we want to take that opportunity. That doesn’t mean we can live up to the ideals that we might imagine, but it’s an opportunity.

Whirligig: You grew up in Memphis during the civil rights movement. Was your family politically aware?

Alice: Yes. I wouldn’t say directly politically involved. My parents were very liberal. My father was a plant manager for a paper corporation. He had a lot of men who worked under him at the plant. They made bags for potato chips or something like that. I can remember as a child seeing his relationships to these men. I would either go to work with him occasionally or sometimes at night we would go to these guys’ houses because one of them was sick. I can remember one guy had an alcohol problem and my father would try to help him get on the right track so he wouldn’t lose his job. These were usually African-American men. Looking back on it, my parents were not involved directly in the civil rights movement, but I think that they were humanitarians. They had an enlightenment that exceeded certainly the previous generation—my grandparents’ generation, which was bluntly racist. I remember when Martin Luther King was shot. I remember my parents’ reactions. I remember my father weeping. I remember the National Guard tanks coming down Poplar Avenue. I’d say that was a formative political moment for me. I was twelve and I didn’t really understand the complexities, the garbage strike, or any of that. But I could certainly feel the tension, the fear, and the grief in the air.

Whirligig: In Terrance Diggory’s review of your book on Adrienne Rich The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics he claims, “Templeton proposes that the act of reading is itself a political act.” Can you respond to this?

Alice: That’s sending me way back. There are a couple of ways to answer that. Anytime that you open yourself to reading you’re engaging in a relationship. You’re hopefully entering into that relationship with a generous, receptive mind. I think that’s particularly true in poetry. Why would anyone read poetry unless they were going to go into it generously, receptively? I mean there is just no reason to go into it negatively. There are plenty of other places to seek out that kind of relationship. The other thing is that, in that book, what I was talking about was ways of reading that challenge the status quo, especially when the status quo is oppressive. That book is on Adrienne Rich’s feminist poetics. I was reading her work and deriving ways of reading cultural texts through a feminist perspective that inherently, because it is feminist, recognizes the political implications of language and how language structures gendered relationships of power as well as other kinds of domination. Things like environmental desecration, war, racism, militarism, materialism, or classism.

In what sense is reading a political act? It’s a political act in that when you read, you are alert to the assumptions that are behind the language and that are there for the reader to bring to the surface. Even when you get a piece of literature that might superficially be very sexist or racist or classist, it opens for our examination these oppressive processes. That is a kind of enlightenment. If we can read from that political vantage point, it becomes an opportunity to study the dynamics of that oppressive system.

I think that is one thing that sometimes students, for example, don’t understand about feminism or feminist ways of reading. They think that you’re only going to read things that are pro women. It’s not like that. No. You are going to read everything and even those things that are apparently misogynist can be very valuable to bringing to light the operations of sexism. It almost gives us a laboratory to break it down, analyze it, look at it. Maybe even change it.

Whirligig: Who are you reading now?

Alice: I actually have been reading a lot of environmental literature because I just taught a class in that. I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreamsabout the use of the desert as a nuclear testing ground. The labeling of the desert as “nothing” is the crucial first step, so that this desecration can happen without widespread outrage. Going back to the very first question regarding the power of place, it’s not only just the place that we are in, as Solnit points out, it’s the history of how we have constructed this place in language. It is the history of the meanings and ideologies that we associate with the place, as well as the physical landscape, that we encounter when we are there. I think that she is a wonderful writer. So many of the writers that we read in the environmental lit class are brilliant prose writers.

Whirligig: Do you consider yourself an activist?

Alice: No, I would not say that I’m an activist.

Whirligig: What do you find interesting about teaching?

Alice: It gives me a place to share what I love with other people. You know you were asking about my growing up in Memphis and the changes I’ve seen through my life. I think that the older that I get, the more valuable my teaching is because I can sort of fill the students in on what it felt like to be there in 1968 as a child. Or what it felt like in 1982 when Reaganomics was just kicking in, what the situation was during Carter’s administration. I teach effective speaking which is, in part, a history of contemporary American rhetoric. I find that is really valuable for the students, as well as for me, to have a place to explain my own history as one individual example of how history weighs on a person. My students always want to say that history is this abstract thing that happens back there and then comes down to us. One of the things that a good teacher can do is show that history is experienced on a very individual level. It’s how these abstractions of government, and these laws, and these international occurrences affect a person’s life that measures history. I find that is a powerful part of teaching.

The particular job that I have now is not glamorous in the sense that it isn’t in a graduate school of English, but it’s in a commercial design school, so I am teaching students who are very career-oriented artists—graphic designers, media artists, animators, video game designers, things like that. I think it is really important for them to be critical thinkers because they’re going to be the future culture-makers. It’s so important to be critically minded about media. They are producing it. They need critical tools.

I feel that my job is important. You were asking if I was an activist earlier. I don’t think that I am an activist, but I do think that teaching is a pretty radical act, or can be.

Teaching is a kind of calling. Growing up Methodist I was taught to serve. My father was a teacher. My grandfather was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher. I come from a long line of teachers. The assumption in my family was always that you give back. That is how you sustain whatever is good. You invite people into it. You teach them how to do it. That is how you sustain good things.

One of the things that I find most compelling about teaching now is that I find students really need the kind of knowledge and experience that reading and writing poetry, reading literature, gives them. They need the humanities. Especially my students who are taking a lot of technical skills courses in design. I think what students often get out of an English class or a language-oriented class, particularly out of a literature class, is the realization that they are not alone. Literature gives them something so different than mass media gives them. It gives them awareness that it is okay to have questions. It is okay to not always succeed. Or it is okay to have these not always absolutely perfect bodies. What I tell them at the end of every literature class is that I hope they will keep their books instead of selling them back. I hope they will realize that they are not alone.

One of the most interesting things about teaching for me now is being a Southerner and teaching in California. I have a lot of international students or students whose parents are immigrants. Also, a lot of first-generation college students. They don’t know much about the history of the south. They don’t have a complex understanding of racism or sexism or any of the epic struggles of the nation, and of the historical complications of the late 20th century. As a rule they like me to “tell them about the south,” to use the old Faulkner line.

Whirligig: What are you currently working on?

Alice: I am working on some poems that respond to some of my family’s difficulties that have happened in the last year. Both of my parents declined rapidly. My mother passed away in November and then their house burned down in December. So all of the family history, the furniture and other legacies from my great grandparents, all that heritage was either destroyed or damaged. That is a large part of the material world by which I’ve identified myself. Robin Paris (photographer, media artist) and I are working together with these burnt pieces, these remnants of things. I also have two collections of poetry that I’m submitting and still tampering with.

Whirligig: Do you have a favorite poet, someone who inspires you?

Alice: Adrienne Rich was a formative poet for me. I started reading her work when I was 17. She seems like the poet that I have always tracked through my whole reading and writing career, and my academic career, obviously. I wrote a book on her. Yeats was also an important poet for me. I actually almost wrote my PHD dissertation on Yeats. There is something about the longing, the desire, the way language and desire work together, in his poetry for me. I think that Wallace Stevens was also important, just because of his philosophical perspective. Of course, I like a lot of contemporary poets as well. I mostly read contemporary poets now. It’s interesting because when I was teaching in the university, often I could teach Yeats and Stevens in very concentrated, graduate-level ways. I don’t have that opportunity any more and that’s working for me right now because I find I can read a lot of contemporary poets and give pieces of that to the students who are less able, at their stage of learning, to take a whole course on Yeats. They wouldn’t be ready for that. It would be too rich, I think.

Teaching definitely shapes the kind of reading and the kind of study that I do. I think that’s why I’ve changed teaching jobs a lot over my lifetime. You can feel when you have given all that you have to that kind of effort. You can feel when you need a different situation, both to feed yourself and to feed your students. Change is crucial to creativity. Crucial.

Whirligig: What does it mean to you to be a poet? to write poetry?

Alice: Hmmmm. That’s a good question. I think it means that I am drawn to giving form to my life, and my thoughts, and my perceptions. I think it means that even though I may not have a notebook and a pen here with me right now, I am still actively engaged in pursuing that form. It’s not that it exists out there and I’m going to find it, but I am still taking things in—perceptions, images, pieces of language that I hear or that come to me—and carrying those in me, and at the right time I’m going to sit down and write. Those things may not come out directly in the way that they came in, but they will inform what comes out. I think being a poet means that you’re a collector in some ways, that you are soaking in the physical sensations of your life. I think being a poet, too, is also another way of saying that you have a particular value system. That you value awareness, consciousness, being awake. That you value creativity and freedom, and that you agree to go towards complexity and complication, instead of away from it.

Four Poems by Alice Templeton

Archaeology #17

One kind of salvage brings up the intact bones,
restores the shattered ceramic jar, and mounts
the glowing skull on a podium in the public square,

rescuing objects, fashioning icons to catch
the watery past and bear it to the present.
Another kind of salvage hears no birds in the field,

holds the tiny bat bone up to the gun barrel,
ponders the nature of marrow, the meaning of hollow,
wonders about the union of work and the sharing of sweat.

Not exclusive, these brands of archaeology,
just oddly at odds, a strange scale they weigh on,
each blind in the other’s good eye.

How did you make sense of it all
when the burial was first uncovered, to see
one kind of salvager leap into the pit, shouting

for the mappers, the cameras, the press,
while the other looked to the nearby farmhouse
and thanked whatever gods for no shallow graves?

(from the chapbook Archaeology, Finishing Line Press, 2008)

Off Castro Street

The four o’clock avalanche of empties
All the bars on Castro must pool their dead
then tip the wagon   bottles
tumbling out like stiff fish
sliding to their angle of repose
Night after night this ritual happens
out there beyond the back fence
trimmed with pigeon spikes
From our garden the raccoon
high in the plum tree overlooks
the emptying out   the hollow
collection harvested and delivered
while languidly we turn in our bed
At dawn the only fruits are the overripe
plums   smeared or splattered
strewn about   a few still able to roll
The fog is thinning   chased down the street
by the grocer’s high-powered hose
and all evidence of the night’s take
has slipped away in bum paper bags
or the pockets of old coats
Only a hint of whiskey and ale
on morning’s breath when you open
the door for me and we walk
to the corner for news   one rivulet
one leaking forth in this morning’s
human tide   poured out by a host
of choices   no single body
but many slicked and tender ones
tuned for work   turning for school

(originally published in Poets Eleven, San Francisco Public Library, 2008)

Who’s Lorraine?
         Memphis, April 1968

The first time Jasper cried
was the night the city burned
on TV and silence simmered
like dead limbs in the suburbs.
There was confusion in our house.

The next morning tanks cut
tracks in the deserted street.

Jasper says it’s our burden forever,
how man kills god in himself.
Watch the cars, calls Lula
like always, pressing
the long white sleeve.

San Francisco, by way of Memphis

this is not
my city     my
                   city shuffles bygones    cotton
                   and soot    treads eddie    proud
                   of not being swept down
                   stream     this
city washes gold in blue
has wind and wide shores
for favors     counts each arrival
home     my city
                                 is yellow with fever    bodies
                                 mounting for a hundred years    still burning
                                 in the twilight fog of mosquito
                                 trucks          here
the feverish are strewn along
the street    smoky heaps    scolding
the invisible    ciphering
thin air
                the bodies pour whiskey
                over themselves
                and ignite          in
                                                      my town
                                 one shot    a century distilled
                                 to a few seconds    one
                                 body    saturated    standing
                                 falling for
is          not my city my
                   body how time ignores order
                   and place sends me elsewhere

(originally published in Poets Eleven, San Francisco Public Library, 2008)

Whirligig Interview with Alice Templeton conducted by Nanette Wylde with thanks to Robin Paris.

Alice’s book Archaeology: Twenty-one Poems was published by Finishing Line Press.

Photo by Marty Chappell.