Interview with Alex Quinlan

Alex Quinlan is a professor at UTC, and a poet.  This year at Meacham he read some cool poems, and Iris Negrete interviewed him.  The conversation is detailed below. (Note: Alex Quinlan can speak in Rich Text! There are links here, quite clickable ones in fact. Check them out!)

IN: I understand you were recently published by the Bat City Review.  Tell us about  your poem, “In the Ladder of Perception, the First Rung is Love-Of-Vision?”

AQ: Yes, that poem was published about this time last year.  It’s come along significantly since then.  As far as the process of writing it goes, I don’t remember much except that it began with the end, with the final line, as an experiment in a kind of metaphysical conceit I learned (it is probably painfully obvious) from poets like James Wright and Larry Levis, and their master, Yeats.

IN: A lot of writers can look back to when they were young and point out one or more key pieces of literature that were elemental in forming their love for the written word.  Were there any specific pieces that inspired you from an early age?

AQ: The first piece of language I remember impacting me as a piece of art—though I am sure there are others: sentences from a speller, the voice of the priest chanting his blessing over the wafers at school mass, my mother’s old country records—is Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which I was assigned in high school English.  The rhetorical virtuosity of the intertwining refrains hypnotized me; I saw in the tender lines that open the poem’s final stanza, “And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,” a refraction of my experience.  I think it helped, too, that the poem seemed familiar on the level of form, a principle of repetition that I recognized from the folk and blues music around me.  Of course I didn’t recognize any of this then.  All I knew was that it felt good to repeat the stanzas of the poem under my breath in the hallway of the Catholic boys school as I shuffled from between classes.  Still, my engagement with blues, with music, was the basis for my experience with poetry.

IN: What are some other influences that you draw from in your work?

AQ: My biggest influences are other poets.  Last night, for example, I was looking at Yeats’s  The Tower, which opens with  “Sailing to Byzantium.”  The poem is in ottava rima, which brings me to the reason I’ve been looking back at Yeats to begin, which is that lately I’ve been writing a bunch of poems that tend toward blank verse, and I feel his poems are so finely nuanced in that regard.  I find that is useful for me to have models to show what is possible within a form.

There are other models, of course, than poets.  I learn from the movies, like anybody.  Hitchcock is big for me, especially something like Vertigo or Rear Window.  The rhythm of the cut, composing a scene from a cluster of images, knowing the mind will fill in the gaps (and at times taking advantage of this): these are translatable into formal propositions about language, which are expressible as the parameters of a poem, the formal pressures under which it is produced.

IN: Do you have a favorite genre that you like to work with?  What is it about that genre that speaks to you?

AQ: Poetry, if that isn’t already clear, is the genre I work within the most.  Almost exclusively, really.  I enjoy the physicality of language, its capacity to be transformed into song through an act of attention.  There are other things I enjoy about it of course, but the wellspring of my enchantment is in the music of the language.

IN: Are you currently working on any projects?

AQ: Right now, I’m working on a manuscript of poems.  It’s slow going: I revise obsessively.  I hope to be finished with it by the fall.  We’ll see.

IN: If you could change one thing about your writing, what would it be?

AQ: I’d write more funny poems, more poems that skip alongside the reader, tongue-in-cheek and arm-in-arm into the twilight, laughing despite it, etc.  Really, though, there is a great relief in being able to laugh, even (perhaps especially) at oneself.  It’s one way we can forgive the world for what it has done to us, ourselves for what we have done to it: laughing at the absurdity of it.

IN: If you could meet any author (living or dead) who would it be, and what would you ask him/her?

AQ: I would ask Keats if “This living hand, now warm and capable,” scared him as much when he wrote it as it scares me now when I read it.

Also, we have a sample of Alex Quinlan’s Poetry here:

In the Ladder of Perception, the First Rung is Love-of-Vision

These black horses, a sheen
licking blue-black manes
in the bright pasture, daze me.

The scraplight cuts itself on the brush,
shreds to silver in the shaded pools
where the black horses drink.

Struggling against the shelved bank
and each other, they kick and cut
in line, angling—ears pinned, hooves cocked.

One stands midstream of a sunny stretch,
apart from the others
as if it has traded cool water

for solitude.  Its nostrils flare,
moons of negative space,
as it takes a breath-long draw.

The pasture gate opens its red mouth.
A wet sound from across the field, a kiss.
The farrier rustles an empty feedbag.

What looks back is tick-black and shudders
at the sound of its name; head askew,
eyes clear, it stamps the ground;

swish-of-the-tail, the ash muzzle
turning almost away—
suspicious of its own desires.

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