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"It Feels That Alive": An Interview with Colleen Abel

Colleen Abel is the author of a chapbook, Housewifery (dancing girl press, 2013). A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow, she has published work in numerous venues, including The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review and elsewhere. She lives in Wisconsin.

Her poems, "Niobe," "Letter to an Agoraphobic Father," "Double Caryatid," "Alternate Endings," and "Namesake," appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about diving into metaphor, mirrors, and what-ifs.

This piece includes stanzas of varying lengths. Did the content help shape the form or vise versa?

“Alternate Endings” was written at a time when I was really struggling to produce work, and I was reaching far down into my bag of tricks to generate content. One of the things I sometimes do is look at a random poem by someone else and just make mine match visually on the page: make sure the stanzas are the same, the indents are the same, the line lengths are the same. I do this for a first draft, just to get myself thinking outside my own habits, and then I usually end up changing things around once my conscious mind figures out what the poem is doing. This time, though, the subject matter was so different from what I would have normally done because the poem looks like nothing I normally do, and so I left the poem as a match of its anonymous twin.

The narrator is consistently “giving up” and “letting go,” but by bringing tangible images to the surface, the narrator is essentially “relinquishing a life.” How would you describe this “choosing feeling” of the narrator, and why does it feel “that alive?”

Oh, this is a great question—and I love the idea of bringing images to the surface. I’ve always been fascinated with this thing that poets do that I call “diving into the metaphor,” where the poem at some point introduces a metaphor and then rides it all the way to the end of the poem. It never resurfaces, it just stays submerged in the comparison. It’s more than just an extended metaphor to me, because it’s like the poem disappears into it. This device seemed like the right choice for the subject matter I was trying to tackle: the obsession with wondering what things would have been like if you had chosen differently. Two roads diverged, and all. But sometimes these “what-ifs” obsess me so much, I feel like they are living things, embodied somewhere on another planet or in another life.

My favorite moment is when the narrator stands before the window in the door as it becomes a mirror. What significance does this image hold for you as the writer, and how does this moment tie into the title? 

There are a lot of mirrors in my work. I used to think this meant I was a narcissist. Then I read this great quote by Sheila Heti, who said, “[P]eople who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster.” So then I felt better about the mirrors! In the case of this poem, though, the writer is experiencing a moment of, I guess, triple vision. She’s seeing through the window, she’s seeing her reflection in the surface of the glass, and she’s seeing the little girl’s face—her imaginary daughter—which is a mirror of her own, as our children’s often are. It’s the moment that encapsulates the vertigo that I feel when I make a choice that is going to have a huge impact on my life, and I imagine all these other possibilities vanishing. The self seems very arbitrary—constructed of a series of tiny and enormous decisions—in those moments, and I think the part of the poem you’re talking about shows that idea. 

What are you currently reading?

I am almost done with Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which is so, so skillful and just very cool, which is not a phrase I think of often when I am reading books, let alone ones that are from the 14th century. And speaking of hell, I am reading Colson Whitehead’s zombie book Zone One, which is my first experience with Whitehead’s stunning style. And I just finished Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics, a book that combines the narrative of a child’s premature birth with poems about war. It’s so smart, and I am very jealous of it.

What are you writing?

I just finished a manuscript of poems called Caryatid, where these poems from The Collagist reside, so I am taking a breather and working on not-poetry right now, mostly—short essays and short stories. Might be time again soon to reach into that aforementioned bag of tricks…

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