ALISON PELEGRIN’S most recent poetry collection is Waterlines (LSU Press 2016.) She is also the author of Hurricane Party (2011) and Big Muddy River of Stars (2007), both with the University of Akron Press. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, her poems appear in recent issues of The Southern Review, Tinderbox, and The Cincinnati Review.

ALISON PELEGRIN’S most recent poetry collection is Waterlines (LSU Press 2016.) She is also the author of Hurricane Party (2011) and Big Muddy River of Stars (2007), both with the University of Akron Press. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, her poems appear in recent issues of The Southern ReviewTinderbox, and The Cincinnati Review.

A Conversation with Alison Pelegrin

                                                                                                                       Cody Smith, Serena Tennison

 

     On a humid Sunday afternoon in South Louisiana, we met Alison Pelegrin in the town of Abita Springs, a picturesque Northshore community 40 miles from New Orleans. We were only weeks removed from the historic flooding that ruined 90 percent of the homes in Livingston Parish. On I-12 from Baton Rouge, we passed dually-pickups crammed with migrant workers hauling large trailers advertising themselves to be water damage specialists. 

     Before the interview, Serena and I drove a few miles out to Fontainebleau State Park and walked through groves of ancient live oaks, their old limbs tired and leaning close to the ground. We walked out across a dock to an empty cabin built on stilts over the Pontchartrain. The only thing demarking the gray water from the gray sky was the new six-mile Twin Span Bridge.

     We met Alison at the Abita Springs Mystery House. An alien greeted us by the door, kudzu crawling the belly of the porch’s roof. Inside, a gator mannequin wore a house dress and jewelry. Art prints of Fats Domino, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Slim Harpo, and Professor Longhair hung on the walls. We paid a few bucks to enter the museum out back and saw an airstream filled with more aliens, shrines to various hot sauces, Darrell the alligator-dog, a hand-powered organ, demented clowns, and shrines to PBR and JAX beer.

     Right in the middle of all the decidedly weird artifacts, in the middle of a wonderfully strange little town, we sat at a picnic table in the center of the outdoor museum and talked about poetry with Alison under a darkening sky that bluffed rain by sending down a few sprinkles. It was perfectly Louisianan: We all sat close to each other comfortable with our own sweat. I took off my glasses that wouldn’t quit fogging in the humidity. A snake shook the limbs of a tree a few feet away as it crawled the branches looking for eggs. We became part of the exhibit of strangeness at the Mystery House, three poets sitting among the tourists and locals.

     And if there is ever a poet who can take the eclectic grouping of people who reside in the Acadian and Floridian Parishes, a poet who can translate all the grotesque art in the Mystery House and gothic sensibilities of the swamps, it’s Alison Pelegrin. Surrounded by all the green that comes from constant storms, we talked about poetry, unbothered by the few drops of rain that fell, betting correctly that the deluge would hold till evening.

download (8).jpeg
download (2).jpeg
download (3).jpeg
download (4).jpeg
download (5).jpeg
download (6).jpeg
download (7).jpeg

Cody Smith

I’m drawn to poets of place: Phil Levine in the Detroit factories, Mike McGriff in the pulpwood mills of Oregon, Hugo in the mountain towns of the Northwest. With you, there’s an even richer connection. Not only are you a poet steeped in place, but that place also happens to be Serena’s and my place, the bayous and the rivers of our shared pelican state. What does it mean for you to be a poet here in South Louisiana?

Alison Pelegrin

The first time I ever took a poetry class, I was in college. Tim Gautreaux was my teacher. He’s the first one that gave me permission to write about place. I grew up on the West Bank, which is not very glamorous. People tease you if you’re from the West Bank; they still do. Once I had someone in a position of authority telling me that it was okay to write about that, that’s all I ever wanted to write about.  I ride my bike on this trail; I walk around here; I come visit here. I go to the same places again and again. And I never get tired of them. I never get tired of looking at it. I don’t feel like writing when I’m in other places. I feel like it’s just something in this oppressive landscape and temperature that pulls stuff out.  

Cody Smith

Well, when you say that you don’t feel like writing when you’re not here, does being away from here for a while help you to write about this place when you’re back?

Alison Pelegrin

I guess I would have to say yes. The first time I really experienced [a long-term absence] was when I was at the University of Arkansas doing my MFA. It’s beautiful there. The Ozark mountains are incredible. I saw my first fall. [Laughs] I didn’t understand. I knew that the leaves fell, but I didn’t understand the colors. I used to drive around taking pictures. But the further I was away from home, the more I had to work to describe the things that I was made of, the things that I saw when I closed my eyes. That did make it easier for me to write about home. I don’t think I ever wrote a poem about Arkansas as much as I loved it and the people there. 

Cody Smith

There’s this sort of rollicking, zydeco/cajun/rock-n-roll energy to a lot of your poems. Would you say that the music and musicians here have had an influence on your work? 

Alison Pelegrin 

I would say that about my earlier work. When I was a child, my dad used to be a dance teacher. He taught people Cajun dancing. In addition to teaching a couple of classes on that, it meant that we would go out to all the different places where musicians were playing. One of those places would be on a Sunday afternoon. I think it’s still going on: Tipatina’s. Sometimes they would have a dance at a school gym down south. They’d pour flour all over the floor to make it nice to dance on. I used to follow [my dad] around and do that a lot. I really loved it. He was a really great dancer. My earlier years of doing that certainly influenced my early work. I think maybe not so much in the later poems. I think those are more voice driven.

All my dad’s love relationships centered around the dance floor, as well. So it was interesting to see the flavors of the month come and go. [Laughs]

Cody Smith

That’s something I truly love about South Louisiana. There’s always a dance floor, and there’s always people on it. We drove to Breaux Bridge, which is just over the basin from where I’m living this summer in Baton Rouge, and every Saturday—maybe Sunday, too—but I know every Saturday, they have a Zydeco breakfast. All the little mom and pop cafes and coffee shops have dance floors, and they have Zydeco bands come in. So you’re there eating your boudin omelettes, and there’s people out there dancing the Zydeco. 

Alison Pelegrin

I’ve been at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou where somebody is going around the dance floor passing out hot boudin. It’s good, too! Best I’ve ever had.

Cody Smith

What about the people here? I always describe myself as a narrative poet, not by choice but by heritage. All my people are these Southern storyteller tropes. It takes my granddad twenty minutes to tell a five-minute story. It feels like stories are just something we do down here. Is there anyone in your family or the people you run into at Walmart or neighborhood crawfish boils that influence how you approach poems?

Alison Pelegrin

I don’t. I feel like I have a love/hate relationship with the people of this place. Up close, I love them. But some-times, from a distance, I just want to run away screaming. I like it best when I can see the human parts of the people. Because I do think that’s there. I think I’ve drawn from my family, especially in earlier books. Part of that, too, as much as I liked hearing stories again and again and again, I had never seen anything like that in poems before. You know how when you’re in grad school, sometimes people try intentionally to be obscure and difficult. I felt like I reacted to that by doing the opposite. I am inspired by the people around me, just like the place. Most importantly, I’m influenced by the sound of their speech. When I’m away for a while, I like to go sit somewhere and listen to people talk because it’s just the most beautiful sound. People make fun of it, and I want to punch them in the throat. [Laughs] To me, it’s the most beautiful sound, the music in the voices of the people around me. 

Serena Tennison

I always remember coming down to South Louisiana to visit my dad. And the people were much more open and friendly and communicative than people I know other places. Would you say that maybe that openness is one of the good things about the people here?

Alison Pelegrin

Definitely. I think of my grandfather who in so many ways was a horrible racist man who said so many horrible things that I hated. He used to embarrass me and make me cry. But at the same time, he had these neighbors, a black couple, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson. When Mr. Robinson had a stroke, it was my grandfather who would go over there and help take care of them, so that thing you said about up close and far apartI mean, I’m not excusing the things he said, but up close I saw him able to behave in a way I hope is more demonstrative of his humanity than he was when he was saying the things that I heard him say. 

Serena Tenison

I think about your references to Katrina and to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—I guess I’m talking mostly about your book, Hurricane Party. It takes the poet, I believe, to draw those things out, to notice the layers of oil still left in the sand, waterlines left from floods and hurricanes. You seem to be a true representative of what’s going on here by looking at those things. 

 Alison Pelegrin

The waterlines I have seen my whole life. I couldn’t even attempt to count how many times our house flooded. We liked that. It’s so much different when you’re a child. But we thought it was the best thing in the world, to be floating on the sofa cushions while water came into the house or seeing our Sunday shoes floating around and knowing we weren’t going to have to go to church. All the while, my mom would be crying and my dad, who couldn’t drive, would be trying to walk home. 

I don’t know if I feel representative. I guess I’ve just been looking at it for a long enough time. After Katrina, I didn’t want to write poems. Everything was falling apart. I was a wreck. My whole family was uprooted. We were living in this house where we didn’t belong, and every time I came home, I was expecting to find our stuff out in the yard. It was so much about survival. Every day was taken up with some crisis or another. So I never thought I’d write poems about that, but all these outsiders—or the gawkers to go back to what we were saying earlierwere writing [Katrina] poems. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Really?”

I had a pile of trash outside of my house till Christmas Eve. Our Christmas card that year, we strung lights on the garbage and stood the kids on a pallet in front of it, and it was “Merry Christmas." Meanwhile, everyone was “Katrina” this, “Katrina” that. “I’m going to write a poem in the voice of the people of Katrina,” and I was like, "Oh my God, you have to be fucking kidding me." I was deeply disgusted by that, but I still didn’t want to write poems. But one day I was sitting at my kitchen table back in my house which was still screwed up. My kids must have been at school, because I was sitting at the table writing, and these guys were cutting trees. They had a crane. They were taking these gigantic pine trees out of the back with a crane, carrying them over the house. I was sitting in the middle of that chaos: branches and sawdust everywhere. I was like, “I’m writing a freaking poem.” It was “Ode to the Contractors Possessing Various Levels of Expertise.” It started from a list of things that the last group of contractors left unfinished, which was basically half the work they were hired to do. They just left. The longer I got into the list, I was like, “This is stupid. These people aren’t coming back. I’m doing it.” So I’m making this list of stuff for me to do. I was upset, but I just started laughing. I wrote the title and started writing the poem. That was around June or so of 2006. Then the poems came real quick, which was unusual for me at the time. So I finished up Big Muddy River of Stars, the title of which came to me in an air mattress dream. I put them together in a manuscript, mailed it off, and we took the kids to Disney World. 

Cody Smith

You said something interesting earlier when you were talking about when the floods happened, how you were so excited as a kid. The poems you write about now are from your adult perspective. We get the chaos of being an evacuee, the chaos of having to go to North Louisiana or Mississippi or a FEMA trailer, whatever it may be. But there’s also this quiet domesticity in those poems that I absolutely love. There seems to be this push and pull of chaos and order at work in those poems.

Alison Pelegrin

You’ve got to get a routine. Most hurricanes you evacuate and it’s two days, and it’s just so boring. With Katrina, there were so many things that we were trying to do. My mom was with us. Because my kids were so little, we were trying not to expose them to all these images from the news. They wouldn’t have understood that all. Plus, it was killing me. But we were trying: “Okay, it’s time to get breakfast. Oh, okay. Well, now we’re going to take a walk down to the pool. Oh, for lunch we get to walk to the Subway.” I guess you’re so desperate for home. We couldn’t even get money in the bank. We had Handcock Bank. They’re in Mississippi. Their headquarters was absolutely destroyed. So we couldn’t even get to our money. So I was going into Walmart because my kids needed underwear, just the most basic things you would never think of. I didn’t bring shoes. It was so crazy getting my kids out. I had a pair of rhinestone flip-flops. That was it. And so, you know, if you ever see people and they’ve gone through this and they’re in the store shopping, it’s because they’ve forgotten their shoes. [Laughs] You’re trying to make it. You know you’ve lost so much. You don’t know where to start building it back up. 

Cody Smith

I think about all those professors at UNO and Tulane just throwing away their books. 

Alison Pelegrin

Kay Murphy, I think, wrote about that.

Cody Smith

That would be tough.

Alison Pelegrin

Now I try to travel light. I really do. That’s my attitude. We purge. I don’t want stuff hanging over my head, worrying we can’t live here or there because where are we going to put our stuff. Whatever, I just don’t care anymore. I'd miss my books, but I don’t have that weight on me.

Serena Tenison

There was a line in Hurricane Party that really stuck with me. It was your apologies for the times your blessings arrived at others’ expense

Alison Pelegrin

Even this week there’s [a tropical depression] in the Gulf. I don’t want to wish it on anybody. I just want it to dissipate although I may have said it’s Florida’s turn to take a little tropical storm. We’re full at the moment. You know if it misses you, it’s going somewhere else, and that’s nuts. 

Serena Tenison

I believe being in Monroe, when hurricanes come, I imagine, “Okay, we’re just going to get the shower after everyone has gotten the pain.” And then, you know, people who aren’t used to getting it so much like the evacuees from Katrina who now live in Baton Rouge whose homes are once again flooded after they’ve tried picking up and starting again. Is it different with Baton Rouge? Or even the North Louisiana flooding this spring? How is it different for you as an observer rather than participant on these occasions? 

Alison Pelegrin

I don’t know.

Serena Tenison

It still hits close?

Alison Pelegrin

It does. Just seeing the pictures that people post. I hate staring at people’s misery. I hate being a bystander to that. But seeing it, I say, “Yeah. It’s just like that.” But then also, I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you say something to a kid who is devastated by whatever, and you’re like, “Trust me. It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this.” But you can’t say that to somebody who has put all thier kids’ dolls and stuff in the garbage can. 

I think people, especially after Katrina, learned how to be more compassionate to people’s suffering during these losses. I hate saying something positive came out of it, but I would. I do think people have learned to be more positive and sympathetic to people in times of loss.

Serena Tenison

How would you say you’re writing differently about Katrina now, or flooding in general, when you revisit the topics?

Alison Pelegrin

I’m so far removed from it now. It’s a distant memory, so I guess I’m more surprised than anything when it creeps in there. I’m like, “Really? Still?” I used to get nervous about being ready to go during hurricane season. Now I’m totally lax about that. I guess it’s like the stages of grief, too. Time moves you through it and makes it okay. It doesn’t diminish someone else’s loss that they’re just starting, but for me, I’m just accepting in my life that [Katrina] was the before and after. For a lot of people in my life, it’s been hurricanes that have been that kind of marker. 

We made so many mistakes. The big joke my husband and I have now is that the house is for sale “as is” because someone came and offered us a ton of money for our house when it was wrecked [after Katrina]. And I said, “No. We have to bring our children back. They won’t understand.” And now we’re like, “Goodbye.” 

Cody Smith

In Waterlines, you end “Half-Acre Aubade” by saying “to praise what there is to praise.” It made me think of my favorite Phil Levine quote where he talks aboutand this is paraphrasingbut he talks about not begrudging your life, whether it’s just a workday, just the mundanity of it, because if you have your eyes open to it, it’s all poetry. I see that leveling in your work where you elevate the Southern grotesque, and often mundane things to poetry. So I wonder if you’d talk about elevating these oftentimes off-kilter things to that of poetry? 

Alison Pelegrin

You say elevating it to poetry; I think that’s fair. If I felt like I had to write about only big subjects or big themes, I would be frightened away and probably wouldn’t want to say anything, but I do think it’s poetry. I feel like I could be Walt Whitman walking up and down the highways of Louisiana making a list of things that I’ve seen and that can be the poem without even having to change it.

Cody Smith

Well, talking about theological things, in Waterlines I was interested in this large swath of all these spiritual things. There are psalms, there’s Jesus, ghosts, voodoo dolls, saints, communion, charms, baptisms, angels. So there are these disparate things moving between Jesus to voodoo dolls. With your access to all those things, how do you put that to work? 

Alison Pelegrin

I don’t know. I don’t participate in voodoo. It’s something I’ve been aware of and witnessed. But I don’t dabble at all. But I remember this one time being at this voodoo exhibit at a museum. At the end, they had this actual voodoo altar. I don’t know if the creators of the exhibit created it to be so, but people had been adding to it. They were putting playing cards or saints cards because the Catholicism combines with the Haitian things. I just thought it was so weird because it was all these saints, but then there was a black candle and when you lit it on fire, it turned red or something. What is that? [Laughs] I don’t even know what that is? 

I think now, too, people say hoodoo and voodoo, throwing those words around for something that means magic or something else that they can’t understand. 

Cody Smith

So, participant or not, does having such exposure or access enrich your poems?

Alison Pelegrin

Yes. I guess it’s just a delight, all the different cultures and systems of beliefs. I really enjoy that. When you grow up in New Orleans, even if you’re not a Catholic, you’re a cultural catholic. You don’t eat meat on Fridays. You don’t know why you don’t do that. If you’re not Catholic, it’s because you have fried seafood on Fridays, or whatever. I think there are ways to culturally adopt, sanitize, or change religious practices. 

I actually bought my mom a Saints voodoo doll, which doesn’t make sense, because you’d want to wear the voodoo of the opposing team, right? But on Sundays when the Saints play, she’ll be wearing her voodoo doll. 

Cody Smith

Extending the landscape of the place through its culture.

Alison Pelegrin

I guess so. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a church around here, and I rather enjoy that. 

Serena Tenison

The part I knew about Catholicism from my visits with my father down here was having a cabbage leaf up above the door on New Year’s. These things that get mixed in with Catholicism. 

Alison Pelegrin

The thing you do when lightning strikes, or whatever, it goes back to what y’all were saying about lore and storytelling. “Memaw always said _______.” You don’t know what she said, but Memaw said it, so it must be true. It gets passed along.

Serena Tenison

I noticed a recurrence of the serenity prayer in your poetry. I believe it goes, “Lord, help me to”—

Alison Pelegrin

"—accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." 

Serena Tenison

How does that philosophy find its way into your life and poetry? 

Alison Pelegrin

If it creeps up in those poems, I think it’s certainly in my language and speech like a metaphor. I grew up in a house where the serenity prayer was a constant refrain. I had a father very actively involved in AA, so that was always there. 

That’s another one of those phrases, too, that I think has been culturally adopted. People might say the words without knowing where they came from.

Cody Smith

We were talking earlier about the music and musicians here as influences in your earlier work. With your new work in Waterlines, I’m taken aback by the origami poems. If some of the previous work displayed this rollicking energy, the origami poems give Waterlines a Zen quality, a quietness. Would you talk more about the folded poems in the collection?  

Alison Pelegrin

It was a summer day much like this day, maybe a little earlier in the summer; but I woke up, I’m sitting at my desk. But nothing is happening. I was getting frantic, but then this title came to me, the first poem in Waterlines: “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogau Folaya.” So I wrote the title down, sat there a little bit, and wrote the poem down. It was one of those poems that came out. I ended up cutting a couple of lines because it was getting decorative. Then I copied it on another piece of paper, no joke. I looked up origami on the internet, folded it up, and [me and the boys] went and dropped it off in the Bogau Folaya River after church. 

It reminded me of Li-Po writing poems and as soon as he finished them, sending them off into the river. I heard that story years ago, and I used to think, “I would never do that. I would never write a poem and throw it away.” At its essence, that practice, to me, came to say something about the act of creating art is more important than the object you’re left with. 

It became really fun because I started thinking in animals, too. I have a limited repertoire that I can make. And I had to start finding these shorter poems that would fit onto the paper. We did that all summer and into the year. I would write a poem, and we would go fold it up and have an adventure, decide where to put it, and then it would get rained on. It was fun. It was public, but it was totally private. 

Cody Smith

You think about form as a sonnet or a villanelle, this practice of restricting yourself into something creative, but here origami becomes a form. 

Alison Pelegrin

Something that will fit onto a six-inch square of paper. I wrote another poem, too, more recently about loving and hating the people of a place. On Martin Luther King Day—and this isn’t the first time this has happened—but in all the driveways on the street where I lived were plastic baggies with a hate flyer from the KKK with whatever it said. It had their website or phone number or whatever, trying to recruit people on Martin Luther King Day. I just absolutely lost my stuff this time. I went and picked them all up. I folded them into origami cranes.

Serena Tenison

Did you send them down the river?

Alison Pelegrin

Yes, ma’am. Yes, I did. I have a picture. The way I folded them,  I hid the text so it was just pure white. 

Cody Smith

You were just talking about Li-Po. It makes me think of all your Cajun-fied Li-Po poems, even later than that, your Eunice poems. You use these characters as objects of address. How does entering that address mode help you as a writer? What do these addresses to Eunice or Li-Po do for you?

Alison Pelegrin

I guess it’s kind of a sneaky way to slip in what I want to write about. I’ve been writing a lot of those poems lately to saints or to imagined saints. So it’s a way to twist a situation into a way that I want to handle it. There’s just more that I can say when I twist that to my desiring. 

The Eunice poems have been so long ago, it’s hard to remember. I used to always write persona poems, so at that time, that would have been something different for me. But now I’ve been sticking mainly to the lyric. I’ve not written many dramatic monologues. 

Cody Smith

The lyrics fit better onto the origamis. 

Alison Pelegrin

[Laughs] There’s no room for The Iliad, unless you did a thousand cranes. 

Cody Smith

We’ve touched it broadly with everything we’ve been saying, but when I read your work, on the whole, I think so much about water, not even flood water.

Alison Pelegrin

 But just water.

Cody Smith

Yeah, just water: rafting, tubing down a river drinking  beer, whatever. It’s probably impossible to ask you to sum up what water means for you as a poet, but what does water mean for you as a poet?

Alison Pelegrin

Water. I look at a river, and I’m always looking at the same river whether it’s the Bogau Falaya River or the Miss-issippi River or the Abita River right over here, but it’s different water, right? It’s different at different times of day. It’s different after rains. It’s something constantly changing. It’s comfort but also threatening. It’s beautiful but also destructive. It’s necessary to life and also detrimental to life, so I don’t know. It’s just been something that I’m surrounded with, all the time. I was reading poems the other night from Waterlines. They weren’t poems that I would normally read to an audience, and I was like, "Jeez it really is in every poem." The image of the book, too, which I love because those beautiful, colored creatures and flowers seem to be melting away, reminds me of looking out, sitting in the chapel at the place where I worship, looking out through the leaded glass, and it’s like being under water. I think about that a lot when I’m in there. 

And it feels like you’re under water when you breathe here, right?

Cody Smith

[Laughs] Yes, it does, especially when you’re not used to the humidity anymore. 

A lot of times when we read poems about New Orleans, it’ll be a Jackson Square poem or a Bourbon Street poem. You know what I mean? They feel so touristy. Yours gets it right.

Alison Pelegrin

Thank you.

Cody Smith

 Yours are the place, very much so. I just wanted to say thank you for that. You handle the people here so well. You get the goodness and the warts of the people here, and that’s not easy to do. I don’t have a way to make that a question, so I’ll just say thank you, again. 

Alison Pelegrin

[Laughs] Well, thank you.