How A Book Happens with Allison Seay by Kristi Carter

Click below to listen to Allison Seay read her poem “Sick Room.”

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This is the first installment of our new series in which Kristi Carter, our Book Prize Coordinator, speaks with a variety of book prize winners to discuss what goes in to the preparation of a manuscript, how winning affects the life of the writer, and the life of the book.

To submit your fiction or poetry manuscript to this year’s Prairie Schooner Book Prize contest, click here.

Today, we’re featuring her interview with Allison Seay who won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize 2012, for her debut poetry collection To See the Queen (Persea Books).

How many times was the manuscript submitted for contests and publication? Were there any exciting milestones prior to winning the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize?

I feel very lucky that To See the Queen was accepted for publication during my first round of submissions. It took me a long, long time to form the manuscript into a shape I felt worked as a book length collection. I refused to allow myself to submit it for a long time and even then I only sent it to about three or four places. Persea was a dream. I had heard the story of Lexi Rudnitsky and felt somehow that it was a special privilege to send it to a press that not only made exquisite books but also offered a prize that had been borne of something so meaningful. 

The most exciting milestone beforehand was winning one of the Ruth Lilly Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation. An extraordinary gift.

But, every time I finished a poem felt like a milestone. And every time a poem was accepted for a magazine was its own thrill.  I am a person who is astonished all the time. 

Central to the book is the relationship between the speaker and Liliana, a half-alter-ego of hers. How did you choose the name Liliana? What do you imagine she’s doing now, after the book?

This is only barely believable, but it is the truth. I learned, after I had already written what would be the last poem of the book, and never knowing why her name was Liliana or how it was I came to call her such that variations on the word Allison include the name “Elianna,” which, according to the Hebrew Naming Guide means “God has answered.” Coincidence, magic, God, I don’t know.  But I am convinced—and reminded—there are forces at work greater than myself.  As Henry James says, we do what we can, we work in the dark, the rest is the madness of art.

If your book was a room, how would you hope people feel when they walk into it? How would they leave? What color are the walls? 

This is such a hard (but brilliant) question! When they walk into the room, I want them to feel something—not necessarily suffering, but something profound, something deeply felt, perhaps something beyond their own comprehension. And when they leave the room,  they do not necessarily feel answered or completely relieved, but they have a sense of the beginning of clarity, or not-alone-ness, armed with a balm they did not realize was available.  Maybe the room is whitewashed with a chandelier and a lot of glass. Linen curtains. Some prisms in a window. A panoramic view of the ocean. A cot. Minimal, sun-lit, airy. Or maybe it is more of a confessional. A small room. Saint Francis’s cell. A sanctuary. Walnut colored, warm, dim, safe, oaky, velvety, dark red. 

How has winning changed your life?

I wish there was another word besides “winning.” It makes it sound too competitive or somehow not in the spirit of poetry. I am aware that maybe I am only saying that because I have already “won” something. Daily, it is not lost on me that I have indeed won, that these incredible, extraordinary, generous things have happened to me that I could never have imagined happening. Winning has changed my life, but I’m not sure how to articulate the how other than to say that having a book has allowed me opportunities to read and travel and meet people I would otherwise not know; and winning has introduced me to the wonderful people at Persea, my brilliant editor Gabriel Fried, especially. The Lexi Rudnitsky prize comes with an additional barely believable gift: a six-week residency at Civitella Ranieri, an artists foundation in a centuries-old castle in the hill country right on the border of Umbria and Tuscany. I had never left the United States before this trip and Italy—Civitella, Umbertide, the artists I met there, the towns and cathedrals and food and landscape—changed my life inexplicably, irreversibly. There was my life before Italy, and my life after. It was that profound an experience, and I owe it to poetry, and to winning. 

What are you working on now?

I am working on new poems, slowly. I know some poets who have an arc for a book already mapped,  a narrative already assigned, but that is not how it is for me, at least not yet. For To See the Queen, I hung a clothesline in my house and clothes-pinned the poems along it so that I could see the poems all at once and try to decipher a structure. It took a long time and I had to dismiss a lot of poems to finally see a shape and order emerge. I suspect I will do the same with the new poems whenever it feels like the right time to do it.

If you were a natural disaster what kind would you be and why?

In the depths of despair, my doctor used to talk about the “weather” of the brain. She is genius and she would speak beautifully about patterns of pressure, storms—their predictability or suddenness, their ability to damage, the precautions against them—, calmness, winds gentle or severe, about highs and lows of moods as though they were tides of the sea.  It struck me as a very true description, and it was comforting to think of the map of the mind that way. This being said, I must be a kind of windstorm at sea, deafening, in the early morning, well before dawn. Things are lost, swept out, carried away, to be recovered afterwards, or not.

Allison Seay is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lilly Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her first book of poems, To See the Queen, won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books. Other work has appeared in such journals as CrazyhorseThe Southern Review, Poetry, and Pleiades. She teaches at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia. Click below to listen to Seay read her poem “Sick Room.”