interview: Alina Pleskova
This spring, Spooky Girlfriend Press released What Urge Will Save Us, the debut chapbook of Philadelphia-based poet Alina Pleskova. Co-editor of bedfellows magazine and co-host of the podcast Poetry Jawns, Pleskova is an active and beloved member of Philly’s literary community. On a Sunday afternoon shortly following the book’s launch party, which featured an incredible lineup of local femme poets and a reading by the author herself, we sat down with Pleskova in the back garden of a café to discuss her new book.
In 2013 you co-founded bedfellows, a thematic literary magazine that “seeks to catalog contemporary discussions of desire and intimacy,” and you have now also published a chapbook (congratulations!) about desire. What initially drew you to this subject matter, and what keeps you interested in it?
AP: I can’t pinpoint what it is about it that drew me exactly, but I found that I kept returning to it again and again, and it was something that, until I stumbled upon certain poets and certain writers who wrote about it in a way that was resonant, it was something that I felt like I needed to work out in poetry, for myself or for anyone else who might be thinking about it.
And with bedfellows, sort of similarly, my co-founder Jackee [Sadicario] and I found ourselves writing about sex and desire and intimacy a lot, and then thinking about what to do with writing like that, what spaces exist for it, and looking around and finding that there wasn’t a space explicitly carved out for that. There was erotica being published; people certainly write about sex all the time. But to have a space where people write about sex in a way that rings true in the sense that it seems like it comes from a lived experience, that isn’t cartoonishly smutty where you’re veering into erotica, or so sanitized for the widest possible readership that it’s then losing some grip on reality. That’s what we wanted. Differing perspectives, different folks coming with different identities talking about their relationships to sex and desire, and how sex can often be not sexy at all, how it can be funny and strange and awkward and traumatic, and how all those things are profoundly more interesting to me as a writer than sexy sex, so to speak.
So how did this chapbook come about? What was the process, and how long did you spend on it?
AP: I keep referring to this as “the chapbook of my 20s,” but it definitely didn’t take me the entirety of my 20s to write. I spent a lot of time working on bedfellows and reading and trying to like, figure out what kind of voice I wanted in my work. So the eight or nine poems in here—it took a couple years for them to reach their final forms. But I noticed I kept writing about, kept bumping up against the same themes in my work over and over. And at first it was like, this really cartoonish way of thinking about sexuality in your 20s, where I was writing about the novelty of one-night stands and feeling empowered about sluttiness, that sort of sexual discovery of constantly having new and different kinds of partners.
But I think the real crux of this chapbook came after the fact, when I realized that I was sort of either lying to myself or trying to construct a certain persona. And that’s when the interesting work began, where I was like, no, wait a minute. Like what I just talked about with bedfellows—it took so long for me to enact that in my own writing. I was like, what would it mean if I was honest about how… well, sexual liberalism isn’t the answer to everything, but I have learned some things, let me talk about those things, be really honest. But trying to figure out all of that, how to write about it without writing around it, definitely took a couple years.
Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process?
AP: I was just talking to someone about this the other day, and it’s kind of shameful, or not elegant in the way that some writers talk about waking up at five a.m. and having a little space in their house that’s their designated holy writing space or whatever… I think all of that’s beautiful and great, but what I do a lot of times is just get stoned, put my phone on airplane mode, and walk around the city. Because Philly (as you know from living here, too) is relatively small, it’s pretty hard to get lost. So I can just like, put my body on autopilot and let my brain do its thing. I’ve ended up in some weird places as a result, but it really helps my writing process to do that.
I often find my ideas come to me when I’m in motion. I travel for my job a lot, and I find myself often writing on trains, on planes… in these liminal spaces where I’m not at home and I’m not at my final destination, and my brain is reacting to that in some way and like, ideas get knocked loose. And I think getting stoned is kind of like a cheap way to make that happen? Like, I’m still here, I’m still very much in my life, but things are sharpening, or I’m seeing things a little differently as a result.
That’s really interesting. Having read the chapbook and noticed the theme of motion and liminal spaces, it’s interesting to know that it’s tied in with your process.
AP: Yeah. So it shows up in real time because I have this habit when I’m writing, instead of waiting to figure something out and then write about it, writing about the process of trying to figure out a thing. So you’ll often see the speaker—whatever, it’s me, me in the poems—sitting on a train or whatever the case may be, thinking. Then it just shows up in the poem because I can’t even zoom back far enough to wait until that’s finished to write a poem about that. I hope it’s a very present book, or it’s meant to be.
I think it’s very immediate. Who are some of your literary influences, and what are you currently reading?
AP: In terms of influences, Frank O’Hara’s the poet that made me realize that I was a poet, or really made me want to write poetry. I think that had a lot to do with the poetry that I had encountered before that in my life, rather than maybe Frank O’Hara specifically, but he was the first poet I read who wrote about dailiness, just walking around the city in the way that I just described, experiencing things, talking about people he knew. It was my introduction to the New York School, all of that.
But then, more importantly, the poets or the writers that got me writing the way that I write now—people like Ariana Reines, Kathy Acker, Alice Notley, Maggie Nelson, June Jordan, Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles—this all is kind of of a theme. They all have these complicated relationships to femaleness, to femininity, to sex, to gender, sexuality. There’s a strong I who is not afraid to be messy or quote-unquote “hysterical.”
Just to pick one example from that list, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick was so formative for me, because it was this woman completely losing her mind and knowing it over this man who’s like, a total dickhead academic and hardly worth the trouble. And instead of trying to be the chill girl, or chill woman, about it, she just goes full throttle into that and explores it, which is really more interesting to me than any alternative perspective that strives toward some empowerment narrative. So, yeah. Women who are…like I said, a strong, complicated I. Who aren’t afraid to be confused or vulgar. There was this realness that was so comforting, but also super generative, for me.
This is really corny, but I also was thinking about who else said something like this before. In the foreword to I Love Dick, Eileen Myles talks about her early experiences reading other women’s work. I don’t know which women specifically she’s talking about, but she talks about how it always added up the same. There was a loss of self, endless self-abnegation. The female was trying to be an artist, she wound up pregnant, desperate, waiting on some man.
So, I guess… Women like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton certainly paved the way for female poets in a certain sense, but I remember reading them and thinking this is not my experience, this is not a voice that rings true for me. And then reading these women I just named felt like such a relief. Like oh, there it is.
I am also in the fortunate position of having friends who are fantastic writers, so I read my friends a lot because I would anyway, even if I didn’t know them.I just finished Marisa Crawford’s Reversible, Gina Myers’s chapbook Philadelphia, Raena Shirali’s Gilt. Oh, also There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, who I don’t know. Right now I’m reading Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, which is blowing my mind, it’s so good… There it is, I finally mentioned a male writer!
In your bio, it says that you strive to maintain “optimum chill,” and in the chapbook there is also a sense of longing for balance (i.e., “When he sends a fresh batch / of dick pics my equilibrium returns”). What does it mean to maintain “optimum chill,” and why is it so important?
AP: I love this question. I was thinking about giving a flip response at first, but I do think part of it’s joke-y, but part of it is… again, hearkening back to my Chris Kraus reference—I cannot be chill. I can talk about being chill, but I actually have none and like, that’s okay, it helps me figure things out.
But then last week I was watching this documentary with my friend about Leonard Cohen, and he said something really beautiful that I wrote down. He’s talking about poetry, how “a state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you,” and I think maybe when I think about optimum chill, what I mean by that is that state of grace where like… especially now, things are nuts, things are hard. If you can find these pockets where the world makes sense, where the world is beautiful… I’m so not anti-sentimentality or sincerity, in poetry or otherwise. Maybe, ideally, that’s what optimum chill is, if we can find it.
The “dick pics” line was just… I think it was the exact moment of realizing that I didn’t care about this person, and that was okay, and it was all kind of funny, just like receiving this batch of dick pics and being like, what is my life right now? The realization was comforting, that like, this isn’t working out, this is fine, let me just lean into that instead of like, thrashing against it. You know, trying to make this better or more interesting than what it is. Zen-like acceptance!
In “Magpie,” you start with the line, “Alone now / but like radically.” What does it mean to be radically alone, in general and/or to you specifically?
AP: So I guess I threw the like in there because I wanted it to be a little… not insincere, but facetious maybe? I kept coming up against the term radical aloneness on the Internet—I think Cheryl Strayed defined this term in Wild, which is about this woman who had all these awful things happen to her. She’s addicted to heroin, her mother dies who she’s very close with, a marriage ends, all this stuff—so she goes and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a totally inexperienced hiker, and she goes out there on her own, and the whole book is about her surviving by herself without anyone, without any emotional support system or anything like that. Being alone in her head and whatever. It’s a lovely book, don’t get me wrong, it was very inspiring to a lot of people, Oprah came out of retirement to tout it, you know…
It goes along with this sort of empowerment narrative that I think women are very rightly touting now but I think it’s okay sometimes to be alone and not have all the answers. You know that old adage, “Find yourself before you can find anyone else,” or whatever? I think sometimes you do find yourself—you have a strong sense of self—and things still aren’t okay. And that’s okay. I think in that poem I’m recognizing that I’m alone and that I’m okay with it, but still not finding that to be some kind of solution or answer. It’s very much about a process of thinking about things and figuring them out rather than, Oh, I settled on this concept of radical aloneness and now I’m good, whatever else happens to me!
You refer to Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s book The Ethical Slut and the “tattered concept of monogamy” in the collection. I was wondering if you think polyamory is always preferable to monogamy, and why or why not.
AP: Maybe I’m overstating how often this comes up in my poems, but I think that’s a central question that I’m always trying to come back to, where I’ve tried both, and I can’t be prescriptive about whether one is better or worse. I don’t think I can ever be strictly monogamous, just because it’s impossible to me for a lot of reasons. One person can’t be everything to me, in the same way that I can’t just have one friend. It just doesn’t make sense.
But I think when I first started out exploring non-monogamy, I really thought it was like, the answer to everything, that I’d figured it out, cracked some kind of code, become like “woke” or evolved or whatever. I got that it came with its own set of problems and complications and everything, but I think I still was kind of smug about it for a few years and wasn’t seeing the reality of it. It sort of happened on a lag, where like, perhaps you’re replacing one set of complications with another.
So I think it depends, rather than which one’s better, which set of issues you are willing to deal with, which issues are preferable to you. Emotional fidelity is something that I still find to be complicated, but like, physical fidelity? Just be safe about it, be consensual, be communicative… and even then, things are gonna go wrong, but I think that’s less about the container of the relationship than maybe the relationship itself.
And I refer to The Ethical Slut sort of like a wink, wink, nudge because in the non-monogamy community it’s seen as this woo-woo, hokey kind of thing. It’s a formative book for a lot of people, but a lot of people break off after that. I find myself thinking about it from time to time, like, Can I apply any teachings from this book to this scenario?
It’s not like there’s a class that you take when you decide that you’re gonna be like, in a [non-monogamous] relationship. I think for me it was like, there was a Dan Savage column where he was talking about being “monogam-ish,” and I was like, Ah, instead of breaking up with people all the time when I want to sleep with someone else because I don’t wanna be a jerk about it and cheat on them, maybe there’s another way!
One of the poems in the book is titled “Don’t Call Me, I’m Practicing for Our Threesome.” And I just have to ask, how does one practice for a threesome?
AP: So… the question that you ask is a question I asked myself that prompted this poem to be written. I’d had threesomes in the past, but this one in particular was like… it was like an invitation to a threesome, and the dynamics between the three of us were more complicated than anything I had dealt with before. I was at the bar with these two people, and we’d thrown out the idea and all left to ruminate on it or whatever. And I was like, I don’t feel ready for this! And then I was like, Wait, what does that mean to be ready for a threesome?
It was one of those things where, as with many things, when I’m thinking about sexual openness and sluttiness and all the things I thought it was gonna reveal or do for me, the idea of it was more transgressive (or more sexy, or more interesting) than the execution itself. Like, this threesome didn’t even end up happening. I think the poem ends with “the wanting itself suddenly enough.” I was like, I’m just gonna leave this here. In the way you entertain fantasies about people or doing certain things, and you’re often disappointed, perhaps, it’s like, Let me just leave this and walk away. So that’s how that poem happened: that question, and then realizing that I didn’t want it.
What did you enjoy most about writing these poems, and what do you like most about how the collection turned out?
AP: I’m such a slow writer, but I really felt like something broke through at some point. I think like, maybe “Alight” was the first poem where I felt like I was really writing in a voice that I had been writing toward for a while. That things were coming out the way that I wanted them to, so it felt very satisfying.
I was nervous about putting out this collection where the speaker is so very much me and showing it to people. People that I’ve written about, people that I’ve had relationships with, people who were around me when I was writing these poems—what would they think? And then everyone was really supportive and very enthusiastic.
It feels good to have something to show for myself, to complete something, and to feel like I still have more to say. This chapbook was sort of a way of testing those waters and seeing how it resonated with people. I’m sure you can relate to the really exciting feeling of a book getting away from you, of hearing strangers with so many degrees of separation from you that you can’t even trace how they got the book or where they heard about you, knowing about it. And seeing their response to it is fantastic and really exciting for me.
In “Q Train Poem,” you write, “Can’t make the erotic subtle / or write one graceful poem.” What do you think makes a graceful poem, and is it even possible to make the erotic subtle in 2017, or was it ever?
AP: Okay, so I think often the erotic is too subtle… like, I think part of working with bedfellows is I was like, why are people writing around this stuff? Why not just come at it head on? I don’t mean just cunt this and dick that for the sake of it, but I do also mean cunt this and dick that for the sake of it. Reading Kathy Acker was so liberating for me, because I was like, you can be literary, and you can write a story, and you can have things to say and at the same time, talk about fisting if you want to. Like, talk about what you’re into, put that in the book, why not?
A graceful poem… Many graceful poems exist. I don’t want to write them and I don’t want to read them. The line sort of comes off self-admonishing but it’s actually me checking myself and being like Okay, I can’t do these things and like, fine, whatever, so be it, I’m just gonna cry on the street! To me a graceful poem is like, those elegant, crisp poems you see about like, a hummingbird in someone’s backyard, and then like, what that means or… you know, these really neat encapsulations of these impossibly grandiose topics like love, death, war. I’m really not inclined toward poetry like that. For me, it’s about the little moments, and making a bit of a mess.
One of my favorite poems in What Urge Will Save Us (if not my absolute favorite) is “Alight.” It stands out to me from the rest of the collection because it feels the most intimate and tender. How did writing that compare to writing the others?
AP: I’m really glad you noticed that because it was something I noticed after the fact. Someone was asking me if it’s hard to write about sex so much, if it feels like I’m exposing myself too much or whatever. And I thought about it, and “Alight” was the poem that I read the least out loud, and I feel nervous talking about it, because it’s like a love poem and it feels so intimate and tender. I guess like, that’s the spot for me where I really start to feel like I’m revealing something fundamental about myself… and that’s the only one that came out that way, because I wrote it when I was falling in love with someone. I’ve thought a lot about including it and whether it matched the voice of the book, and then I was like, Well that’s silly, sluts fall in love too!
What are some of your goals with regard to your writing career? What are you looking forward to, and do you have any new projects in the works?
AP: I would very much like to expand this into a full-length. I thought at the time that I was writing it that I had said all I could say about these loose themes, but now I think there’s more still percolating… I’ve thought a bit about applying to residencies. There’s only so much I can do with this full-time job and my schedule and my lifestyle such as it is. Maybe taking myself out of here and my routine, and being somewhere else and thinking through some residual things I had going on in my head when I finished the chapbook, and trying to sort of dump that back in and expanding it into a full-length is something that I want to do.
Interview and photography by Amy Saul-Zerby.