Rather than trying to get lesbian poetry ‘into the canon’ — as if it’s some nightclub with a picky bouncer — I’d rather reject canonicity altogether. We can dance in the street.
Alicia Mountain ’10 left Barnard after her graduation as a short fiction writer. She returns to Morningside Heights this fall, teaching across the street at Columbia, as an accomplished poet. With an MFA from the University of Montana, a Ph.D. from the University of Denver, and a long list of publication credits in hand, Mountain will be able to give her students the opportunity to learn from an established poet-mentor.
In the decade since she left Barnard, Mountain’s poetry has been published in over two dozen literary magazines. She published a chapbook, Thin Fire (2017), as well as her debut collection of poems, High Ground Coward (2018), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her next collection, Four in Hand, is forthcoming in 2023 from BOA Editions.
In this “5 Questions With …” interview, Mountain, who just finished up an artist residency at the University of Central Oklahoma, breaks down her Ph.D., challenges readers to seek out queer poets, and shares the link between ultimate frisbee and poetry.
What was the focus of your recent Ph.D., and what drew you in that direction?
Approaching the Ph.D. odyssey as a poet, my doctoral experience gave me the opportunity to dive deep into archives and think alongside brilliant mentors, while also working on new poems that became book manuscripts. My research took me in a few different directions — studying literature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the work of the Black feminist working-class writer Pat Parker, hybrid poetic forms, translations of Sappho, the theorist Christina Sharpe’s “wake work.”
The critical component of my dissertation enters a vibrant conversation in queer studies about futurity and death drive, by calling both temporal orientations into question in the context of COVID-19. This essay stakes out the necessity of facing and reconciling the present — even a quarantined present — as a therapeutic tactic of literary criticism. Drawing on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of “reparative reading,” I turn to contemporary lesbian poetry written in the year preceding the global COVID-19 crisis and temporally queer this body of literature by anachronistically reading traces of the pandemic into the texts. I argue that when read in quarantine, pandemic moments in lesbian poetry offer the reader a mode of accessing present trauma that acknowledges a rupture in temporal expectations and the grief therein, while dissolving the construct of futurity.
During my Ph.D., I also wrote a nonfiction essay called “The Gay Horizon,” which is about an eclipse, a gay bathhouse, Matthew Shepard’s murder, divinity, and queer self-recognition.
When creating Pride reading lists, who are other lesbian poets you recommend?
A few answers come to mind when I consider this question. The first is to offer a roster of the iconic lesbian poets, as well as emerging poets who I hope will be well recognized for their work in the years to come. This would include Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Dionne Brand, Gertrude Stein, Marilyn Hacker, Mary Oliver, Meg Day, Chase Berggrun, Ana Božičević, Renee Gladman, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, JP Howard ’86, Vi Khi Nao, Serena Chopra, and lots of others.
But the response that feels truest in my gut is to speak directly to anyone reading this and ask — who are some of your favorite lesbian poets? And if a response to that question doesn’t come easily, I encourage you to go adventuring into the deep and verdant internet and library stacks to find writings by lesbian poets that are new to you, then read enough that you start to discern your own tastes. I would much rather readers and artists and thinkers have lists that are very different from my own than just read and admire the writers I read and admire. By all means, read books by the poets on my bookshelf, but more importantly, go diversify the population of poets you read and find the work that speaks to you.
What do we miss when we leave queer poets out of the canon?
When we leave lesbian, gay, queer, bi, and trans poets out of the canon, we miss the same things we miss when we marginalize any oppressed people. We miss everything that is beyond ourselves. We even miss parts of ourselves — perhaps the parts that are unfamiliar to us. It’s not more complicated than that, but it is that vast. Queer elision or erasure is no more or less tragic than the omission of our comrade writers. My understanding that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people carries over to poetry. Rather than trying to get lesbian poetry “into the canon” — as if it’s some nightclub with a picky bouncer — I’d rather reject canonicity altogether. We can dance in the street.
Were there any particular professors or clubs at Barnard that encouraged you to pursue poetry professionally?
It wasn’t until the summer after Barnard that I started writing poetry. I was an English major and a creative writing student, but my focus had been on short fiction. I studied with wonderful faculty, including Margaret Vandenburg, Timea Szell ’75, and Mary Gordon ’71. Practicing close reading in their classes taught me to be attentive to language, as much as plot, and that details often reveal significant meaning.
Barnard’s creative writing workshops prepared me well for MFA and Ph.D. curricula, in which an understanding of how to respond to classmates with thoughtfulness, rigor, and comradery is key. Working on campus as a Writing Fellow, and having Pam Cobrin’s mentorship in that program, also taught me to see writing as a process rather than focusing solely on the end product.
I came out as a lesbian while I was at Barnard, and being in a space where it’s okay to be gay and queer certainly lifted a weight off me. Being out meant I was being more myself, which allowed me to show up more honestly on the page, in the classroom, in the dining hall, on the lawn. I think I joined Q — which was Barnard’s LGBTQIA organization — in my junior year and was the social chair my senior year. Taking pride in my lesbian identity started at Barnard. It’s much easier to write poems when you aren’t silencing parts of yourself.
It might sound strange, but I also think that taking physical education courses at Barnard and playing on the Columbia ultimate frisbee team encouraged me to become a student of my body. My poetry practice and my embodiment remain closely tied. Knowing that I was taking Lisa Northrup’s yoga class for three credits made it just as serious as the other courses on my schedule that semester. Breath, stillness, swiftness, and strength are themes that still show up in my work today.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a new book that will be published by BOA Editions at the beginning of 2023. It’s called Four in Hand. This is the book that my dissertation has become.
I have another completed poetry manuscript that I’m beginning to send out to presses. I’ve also been collaborating with visual artists on a few projects. I’m working with a printmaker in Colorado named Molly Dickinson to make letterpress broadsides of some of my poems. I’m also collaborating with a Brooklyn-based sculptor named Sarah Brook on a sculptural installation. I’m curious about pursuing projects that allow us to live with poetry outside of books. My wheels are turning with the question of how a poem can exist when it’s not bound to/in/by a book or the website of a journal.
Teaching is an ongoing project for me, too. I will be teaching in the undergraduate creative writing program at Columbia this fall. I’m looking forward to being in Morningside Heights in the fall semester — this time as the poet-mentor. I’m particularly excited about my seminar class, Approaches to Poetry: Technologies of Lesbian Poetics. I also teach workshops outside of the academic institutional framework online. I love that kind of teaching because it brings poets of very different generations, times zones, and experience levels to write together in communities that wouldn’t necessarily have formed otherwise. Seeing the beginnings of real-life friendships that go on to far outlast the poetry workshop or the seminar class is one of my favorite parts of teaching.