‘The poems in The Country Gambler, McAlpine’s first collection, are intelligent and poised’, writes Beverley Bie Brahic in the The Times Literary Supplement; ‘they teach and delight’. The teacher and scholar certainly shine through in Erica’s debut, which is full of poems that are as bookish as they are beautiful. We’re thrilled to hear more from her about teaching, writing, and turning to poetry in bleak times.
– Editors, The Kindling
Congrats again on your debut, The Country Gambler! Could you tell us a little about the process of putting this book together – while managing a full teaching schedule?
The secret to putting this book together while managing a full teaching schedule was taking years and years to do it! The Country Gambler contains more than a decade’s worth of poems. I first thought to publish a version of it five or six years back, but then I felt that with every new poem I wrote, I matured in some way as a poet – which led me to think that I should wait until my style and ability stabilised in some way. I hoped I’d reach a plateau of quality, so that the collection would be as even as possible and I would feel like I had fully blossomed.
Of course such a blossoming never happened. But I now feel more at peace with the idea that every poem I write in some way reinvents my overall project as a writer—and maybe I get little better. In any case, once I realized that the process of “becoming a poet” would be ongoing, I felt the freedom to send my manuscript out and get on with things. So one weekend in August of 2015, I spread all my poems out on the floor and put them in the best order I could. I gathered them very loosely into thematic sections (poetry, erotic love, marriage, and death), and I was particularly brutal about which poems I left out; anything that contained a word or line that embarrassed me in any way got the axe, as did poems I liked but that didn’t quite fit with the narrative I saw emerging across the collection. Maybe some of those cut poems will reappear later, in different forms.
You’ve been described aptly in Vela Magazine as taking something from Marianne Moore – and you published a paper on her student Elizabeth Bishop back in 2012. Has your career in academia made you conscious of your likeness to other writers, especially during the writing process itself?
I think being an academic does cause me to be somewhat self-conscious about my style. But then, all poets are readers of poetry, so I imagine we all have some underlying suspicion that somebody else’s voice is hanging around inside of our poem, talking to—or even critiquing—us whether we like it or not. I usually hear Robert Frost in my first drafts. I don’t know if it’s because I do occasionally sound like him or if it’s just that I wish I did. Moore is definitely an influence on me, but I didn’t know it until embarrassingly late in the day. I couldn’t see or feel the similarity—the influence—until I had a large number of poems whose style showed signs of compression and finicalness and whose forms were based on syllabics. You’d think that the syllabics would have tipped me off to Moore right away, but I thought I was cribbing off of the meters of Horace and other Latin poets—not Moore. Of course she was there all along teaching me how to write by numbers. Sometimes you don’t know the person you are stealing from until it is too late to do anything about it. Being an academic increases the guilt—but not the tendency to steal.
Do you have separate academic and creative ‘writing heads’ or do you find yourself adopting an academic stance in creative writing, or vice versa?
I’m not sure I have two heads. If I have one, it’s the poet’s head, not the academic’s. I try to write and read poems as if I were a poet. I admire academic writing that places itself in the same milieu as the writer in some way; both kinds of writing are creative, and knowing a bit about how it feels to write poems has felt to me like an advantage as I have tried to write about literature.
Are any poems inspired by your students?
I suppose not, but the germ of the poem “Peonies” came to mind right outside of the classroom where I was teaching at Exeter. So perhaps some of my students were near. There is a poem in my head that is trying to get written—about a day several years ago when a small bird suddenly flew into my classroom (in a basement) and flitted around crazily until my students and I managed guide it out the door. It was so dramatic I sometimes question whether it even happened. In the poem that may or may not come to be, I want to connect that bird to the one Bede talks about when he says that human life is as brief as a sparrow flying through a hall.
The Country Gambler is your first published collection, and has been described as “teach[ing] and delight[ing]”, is this pedagogical aspect something you’ve consciously taken from academia into your poetry?
I think the pedagogical instinct is what draws me to poetry and to teaching. So it’s not exactly that my work as a teacher informs my poetry, but rather that I see myself occupying this role in both settings. I love a good didactic poem. It’s part of why I admire Horace so much (and Frost). It’s not a popular mode anymore, but I think it’s great when poems have something to say about how we should live our lives. Morals are underrated! For awhile I resisted this urge in my writing, because I suspected that it might be unappealing and because I worried that it would encourage me to break a rule about writing that I very much believe in—that is, “show, don’t tell.” But you can’t dictate your own style—not easily anyway. So one of the challenges I continue to face as a poet is avoiding the trap of “telling” while still managing to offer up some kind of advice in as clear a way as possible.
Finally, in light of the political panic at the moment: do you find yourself turning first to academia or creative processes when confronted with something politically or personally frustrating?
Definitely I turn to poetry. Academic writing can be political of course—and it can be personal too. But poetry is more naturally political and personal, and it has the advantage of lending itself to figures, which can offer a wonderful solace. To say a feeling (of frustration or sadness or fear) is like something is to control it in some way—to remake it as your own. My poems often work in and through conceits. Poetry invites transformation—through simile and metaphor and other devices—that can be as valuable personally as it is artistically. You become the master of your subject, your feeling, for the duration of the poem. This kind of work may not change the political situation outside of your writing room, but it’s a powerful personal antidote.