I first met Alli Warren at a reading she gave when she was visiting Philadelphia. I was awed by her work. She asked me why I was wearing so much black, and it seemed like a genuine question; not actually some kind of read. I liked her unassuming honesty. We laughed together. Alli is very serious, so her laugh is cheeky, like the sun. Over the past few years since I moved to the Bay Area, it’s been a distinct pleasure not just to learn from her writing, or to be in the literary community with her, but to live with her. To think about the easy abundance of the lemon tree in her yard, or the feeling of growing a tiny carrot. To complain about the bureaucracy of work, and love, and the politics of buying an expensive vacuum.
Alli’s poems have always been an exacting condensery of these contradictions, but in her new book, Little Hill (City Light Books), her lines have turned softer and longer, loosening so the curves of her thought meander and grow. And as we follow her along the path winding up the hill, we too are buffeted by the wind, given more space to read and feel the living tensions of the mundane, flayed delicately thin in verse; we are more able to feel their sonic subtlety thrum in the soft cartilage of our ears.
I don’t know how to write verse; it’s not natural to me. My unit is the sentence. Once, though, when I blithely asked Alli how to write a poem, she shrugged and said, “It’s easy. You just notice what’s around you, and then you write it like you see it.” She made it seem simple, but it’s not. Looking through her eyes, I access a liminal space—both prescient and attentive, intimate yet unyieldingly material. No one writes the composition of a subject like she can—the way the tides of ourselves turn; our quiet moments of desire or denial, when we choose or don’t. Alli’s work is a different vision, and I’m so happy I get to see through.
Trisha Low So, during the time that this book was written, you moved from Oakland to El Cerrito, where you are a regular at the Little Hill Lounge, the place the book is named after. I’m always interested in how for some writers, changes in form come with geographic movement. Did moving inform your writing of this book?
Alli Warren I enjoy my drink, but not enough to name a book after a bar! Little Hill is actually named after the city of El Cerrito — in Spanish, cerrito means little hill. It’s also the not so little hill that dominates the view from my kitchen window. Light does fantastic things to the hill throughout the day. It’s hard to ignore.
I’m not sure I ever felt like an Oakland poet, or a San Francisco poet before that, and I don’t feel like an El Cerrito poet, but I wonder if my work has been affected by the fact that I now have a larger domestic space. I moved from a studio apartment to a two bedroom house with distinct rooms (!) with their own shape and smell and feel. I also have a little backyard where I can plant things and feel the sun and track the weather. Maybe these changes have meant I’m embracing my tendency toward amatuer nautralist pondering (I like to pretend poets make good natural scientists) and encouraging the poems to elongate. Does that logic hold up?
I do feel like a Bay Area poet. I mean how could I not? I’ve lived my entire adult poetic life here. But it doesn’t seem possible to distinguish the geographic place from the shifts inside a person precipitating a move. It’s all so gummed up together. I’m sure if I moved to, say, New York City, my writing would change. Would that be because I moved, or because a change in me opened up the possibility of moving?
TL It’s true, thinking about you making the decision to move to New York City seems… not possible without certain significant changes to your personality! Although vacationing there with you is very fun, like the time we went to VBar for six hours and then shared a bodega bagel with cream cheese in our hostel room at like 4:00 AM.
AW We put in a hard day’s work at VBar! I’m of the opinion that taking over a bar and staying for hours on end is an under-appreciated skill of poets. And my god that bagel. I’ve got a terrible memory, but that bagel and its schmear is seared in me forever.
TL About moving though, I can never tell what’s impacting me that’s external, and what’s changing within me that’s, well, independently me. Perhaps that is indicative of how difficult it is to parse out the different forces constantly working to produce us as subjects under capitalism.
In conversation with the poet Amy De’Ath once, we talked about how your poems are so good not because they talk ideologically about capitalism or communism per se, but because they exemplify how it feels to experience the push and pull of all the disparate forces that come with existing in the world. Is that something you feel resonates with your work in Little Hill?
AW It’s so generous of you and Amy (hi Amy!) to talk about my work together—thank you. The thought of it makes me squirm.
That internal/external question, what’s inside and what’s outside, that’s always been there for me, ever since I was little. I guess it probably is for everyone. Are you supposed to ignore or pretend to resolve that question as you get older?
I try not to have particular goals in mind before I actually start to write—to allow what comes to come, and to work the rest out in editing. But a little ways into the process of writing these poems, it became clear that the form was a productive way for me to capture the nuances and variousness of the structures and shapes of feeling of the inside/outside dichotomy. The length of the lines and the length of the poems allowed me to stretch out, to bring more into the poems, to chew and digest and incorporate, which is also a way of spitting out—naming the thing in order to reject it.
Poems can be like music in that way where you listen to a song and it produces feelings you may not even know how to name or explain. And if it’s music with lyrics, the meaning of the words may not even matter—the important thing is the feeling the music and melody creates in you. Maybe these poems do similar work, but instead of musical instruments, it’s language and prosody that produce a way of thinking through feeling, a thinking-feeling. Not by talking ideologically about the structures we live by, as you say, but by producing a realm in and through which to feel these structures and their effects and affects differently. There are plenty of think pieces and essays and data—I read that stuff, of course, but as a poet, I’d like my work to contribute to discourse from a more embodied, intuitive place.
TL It’s so funny because I was just anticipating you talking about music in your answer (yes, this is a Scorpio Summit, and I can read your mind). I was thinking too, about the rhythmic riffing off of longer lines in Little Hill, in comparison to the shorter, more abstracted lines of your previous work, how they let a little more of life in, but make that window strange, the familiar life-image more alien. I wonder if you feel like these poems are more intimate or vulnerable in a certain way? If that feels new to you?
AW You can read my mind!
I do feel like Little Hill is more vulnerable, in that the shape as well as much of the content is built on prosodic slices of my personal life, and my thought-feels about the wider socio-political world. These aspects are a fundamental part of my previous poems, but in this book there’s less attention to the tension and torque of enjambment and more space for the elaboration of twists and turns in a phrasal thought.
I love reading work that shows this kind of openness of expression, so I thought, why not try to write it? Trisha, you know that I am a secretive, self-protective Scorpio who requires a lot of trust before I reveal myself, so writing in this way was for me an olympic feat! Actually, I’m curious how you as a Scorpio have managed to write such intimate work? For me, it took more confidence and acceptance of myself, and that has seemed to come with age. Confidence that what I think-feel is worth expressing and that someone might be interested in reading it. That they might be interested in the mundane details of my life (say, sitting outside and watching the light move) and my more critical thoughts (say, the horrors of the US prison system). Expression in both these realms—who am I kidding?—any verbal expression at all requires a leap of trust for me. I’m not sure anyone other than close friends would read this work as vulnerable, but it certainly feels that way for me.
TL I know there’s been a lot of contentious debate around this, but I just don’t think of myself as a real Scorpio!
AW I stand by my assertion that you are the most Scorpio!
TL I think my Leo rising and Sagittarius moon do a lot of work in freeing me up to be able to be open in my work. Although, because I’m a Scorpio, the way I express myself is still pretty curated. As you know, I think that writing about life is always necessarily a kind of lie. There are probably more people who think they know me than there are people who actually know me like you do.
The longer I write, the more grateful I am for those around me who continue to write too. So many things get in the way, and it can feel like such an impractical, useless thing to do. Sometimes I think it’s better when we write for each other than for any other reason. So I’ll ask my last question: what does friendship mean to you and your writing?
AW I’m not sure where I would be without friends! My friends and the care of a wider community help me to try to live well in this world, and I hope I help others in this way too. Even though I’m a private person who very much enjoys hermitage, I live in order to be with others. Isn’t that, uh, the human condition? And like anything that’s a fundamental part of my life, friends are elemental to my writing. I couldn’t write if I didn’t have a circle of care and support to keep me alive and relatively sane.
But maybe that’s obvious, undeniable. I so cherish the friendships I’ve found through poetry. For me, a big part of the pleasure of being a poet is forming close intergenerational friendships with people much younger and older, and I hope that continues to be the case as I age. These friendships also extend back in time with those who are no longer physically living, who live on through their writing—friendships with people I knew who have passed, or those I never had the chance to know, as well as relationships with those in the future who may read our works, either five years from now or long after we’re dead. This stretchy sense of time helps me imagine different models of what an individual life can be without relying on reproductive-futurist norms. My life doesn’t have to be so constrained by the here and now, by my mortal body. When I’m at my best I can grab hold of this perspective and use it to support and sustain me, to be a bit braver than I might be otherwise, and to continue to try to do the ridiculous thing of being a poet in this hellworld.