Friday, August 20, 2004

NEW POETRY INTERREVIEW, #2: Shirley Shirley by Alica Askenase 

"she had to drop her bomb

on the wrong nation under God"
--Alicia Askenase, Shirley Shirley

NEW POETRY INTERREVIEW is an occasional PhillySound webzine which reviews new books of poetry by interviewing the poet about the book.

issue #2
with Alicia Askenase on her new book SHIRLEY SHIRLEY

questions/review by CAConrad

poet's biographical information and contact information:

Alicia Askenase was born in Waterbury, Connecticut (formerly Mattatuck, aka Holyland, USA). She has lived in Puerto Rico and Spain, and for the last 20 years in the Philadelphia suburb of Moorestown, NJ. She is the author of the chapbooks The Luxury of Pathos (Texture Press) and most recently, Shirley Shirley (Sona Books). Her poetry has appeared in such journals as The World, Kiosk, Feminine Studies, Rooms, Chain, 5_Trope and sonaweb, as well as the anthologies 25 Women�s Perspectives and 100 Days. Her work will also be published in the forthcoming PhillySound anthology. She was a founding co-editor of the literary journal 6ix, and literary programs director at the Walt Whitman Art Center for many years.

For copies of her new book, contact her directly at AskeAlicia@AOL.com

Alicia, your humorous and disturbing serial is a lot of fun, especially the disturbances. My favorite thing when I first opened the book was the handwritten form for the Women's State Correctional Facility / Inmate Evaluation Data:

Inmate name: Shirley Shirley

Offense: Seducing a minor man, Attempted suffocation of Authority

Oh yes, and, the note in the top margin, "get in by Tues!!" The "Dream Analysis" section was all I needed, and I went to the front of the book and read my way through the serial, hooked on finding out WHO this woman was!

How did Shirley Shirley originate as a character to serialize?

Believe it or not, Shirley was a typo. I don�t remember what I was trying to write, but when her name appeared, I discovered this character, and took off with it, the line Shirley Shirley was the First Lady of Agitated Depression followed, set the tone, and has always remained the first line of the series. Though I shelved the project a few times, whenever I went back there was always so much to write, and later revise. I had a limit on the number of pages for this chapbook from Sona Books, but I still have enough material left for one book, maybe two chapbooks. I�d like to do a Shirley Outtakes, and then Shirley Shirley: The Musical.

What was your process in writing the material, especially in how you came to weave the various forms?

As I said, this was a project I set aside and returned to so the process became a series of processes. I played around with the material a lot and even converted it all to prose at one time. My focus shifted to form as the content grew, and what had begun as a relatively linear narrative transformed into a more complex series that included multi-genre work. All of this led to changes that would require what you refer to as a weaving of forms, their placement affecting so many aspects of a text, from timing, tone and meaning to visual aesthetic appeal, ad infinitum. In the end I fine-tuned all these components to the maximum benefit of the text, in other words, to death. Fortunately I had a deadline.

You start the book with a Vaclav Havel quote:

"The cliche organizes life; it expropriates people's identity; it becomes ruler, defense lawyer, judge, and the law."

Most of those front page quotes evaporate as I go on to read the book, but not so with this one. You gave us something solid, something to pivot across an entire page of your poetry with, to see how Havel's statement comes alive, in all the bristling agitation the world musters. Did you set out to give us this with Shirley Shirley? Or was the quote a happy accident? I'm interested in hearing how this quote made its way into the book.

I didn�t plan to use the Havel quote with Shirley at first. It was one of those happy accidents. So many happy accidents, so little time.but as soon as I read it, I wanted to use it as an epigraph because it helped articulate where I was going with Shirley, and then where I could take it further.

Of course Havel struggled against a totalitarian regime�s control over minds among other more blatant forms of power, like tanks, and greatly suffered for it. But eventually he was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution (that�s a gorgeous name, and no, this was not the same as Elvis�). So in the book the quote is meant as a cautionary summary, and the stories behind it offer hope.

The front cover is of a woman's naked torso, and she's pointing to her pussy, which is covered with a cloth turnip (or potato?). Tell us about this photograph, and why you feel it works with the poems?

Well actually it�s a cloth radish, a stuffed vegetable. In the original black and white photo, it�s colored-in red. A few years ago, I was on the board of this uninteresting art center, you know, good for your resume, or something, where a friend of mine also worked. Her husband had taken the photo during art school, late Hippy style, and one year he donated it to the center�s silent auction. When I arrived, it had been banished to a corner of the host�s pantry--the board members had refused to use it! When I was thinking about a cover for Shirley I remembered the photo, felt it was perfect and got permission to use it.

I think the image works with the poems on a few levels. As an entity the photo can initially manipulate the viewer through its suggestion of sexuality. In her more pathetic phase Shirley does the same to her lovers, who however have control over her thoughts and actions. As such the cover is organically bound to the parts of the text.

I also like this mischievous element of shock because the cover is really tongue in cheek, if you�ll pardon the expression, there is a lot of playfulness in the book! And the photo is beautiful, as our semi or naked bodies are, it dares the viewer to retract the programmed reaction of seeing it as SEX! Bad, titillating s-e-x!

The photo is paradoxical like Shirley herself, manipulated and manipulator, fragile and powerful while coyly seductive, among other inconsistencies. As Mrs. Shirley might say, "You can�t judge a book by its cover", which is yet another way photo and text can overlap, even after the book is finished! Shirley cannot be easily "nailed down" as she is eventually unpredictable, and surprises.

If Shirley Shirley were given a $10,000 gift certificate to Home Depot, what would she buy?

I have to say that I don�t think Shirley would have any use for a gift certificate to Home Depot, but if so, it would depend on which stage of her development she was in when she received it. If it�s pre-prison, then she�d probably go to the local Home Despot and look for a cute construction worker and try to hook up with him. If it worked out, she�d give him the certificate, and if not, she�d either move on to another, or offer it to her old lover Frank in return for cigarettes and gas.

If Shirley Shirley were given a plane ticket to go wherever she wanted to go, all expenses paid, where would she go? What would her vacation be like?

If Shirley were given a plane ticket to go anywhere she desired, all expenses paid and it was pre-prison, she might go to Cancun or Vegas and stay in an ugly high-rise hotel. She�d take Mrs. Shirley along in order to guarantee that the trip was perfectly miserable.

If she got the ticket post-prison I think she�d feel overwhelmed and visit her psychic/therapist Consuela Dolores to ask for advice. It would just so happen that Consuela would be leaving for a visit to her small Central American country and invite Shirley along. She�d go on this long journey by plane, bus and taxi to the mountainous village of Consuela�s family. To the suburban townhouse-bound Shirley this would be a life changing experience, and a great place to go after her incarceration. She would have the best time she�d ever had in her life. She�d meet the village poet/shaman and might decide to stay in this tranquil sanctuary, adore sleeping under the stars at night, and learn to weave and cure. She also might not stay, but she�d have earned some flying mileage, and I�m pretty sure she�d return many times.

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