Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Chemical Reaction Within Poet Lauren K Alleyne

Christal Cooper 2,404 Words

Chemical Reaction Within The Bearing 
The Mentoring of Poet Lauren K Alleyne
Difficult Fruit

"A mature poet's mind works by being a passive "receptacle" of images, phrases and feelings which are combined, under immense concentration, into a new "art emotion."
T.S. Elliot in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

“The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.”
Dylan Thomas

They will still bear fruit in old age.  They will stay fresh and green.
Psalm 92:14  NIV

In 1980, Barbara Walters asked Sir Laurence Olivier how he would like people to remember him and his career of acting. 
He responded, “I’d like people to remember me for a diligent expert workman.  I think a poet is a workman.  I think Shakespeare was a workman.  And God’s a workman.  I don’t think there’s anything better than a workman.”

Poet Lauren K Alleyne feels the same way – she likes to describe herself as a workwoman when it comes to her first poetry collection Difficult Fruit, published in February of 2014, by Peepal Tree Press (    

“When I think of fruit I think of something coming to bear.  I think of labor and process – the terms that describe something that comes from a lot happening to it before it is fruit: nurture, water, sun, (and) photosynthesis.”    

Alleyne is private about her personal life, which she describes as being the nurture, the water, the sun, the photosynthesis – but still only prefers the fruit to be shared in Difficult Fruit, where she reveals some auto-biographical details of her life.

Alleyne was born on June 8, 1979 in Trinidad where she lived with her devoutly Catholic parents and two siblings in the Central Region of Trinidad, which she describes as a very rural area and full of cane fields.  Her mother was a schoolteacher and instilled in her daughter the love of the arts – she was encouraged to play musical instruments and to treasure books.

Her first memories of poetry are the patriotic songs/poems of Trinidad and the book of Psalms, both of which she learned as a little girl.    
Her first memory of writing poems was composing calypsos for her sister, who was a singer.  In fact, she had always written poetry but never considered it as something she could pursue as a career.
“It just feels like it’s always been what I do.  It’s like asking when I first spoke or read – writing poetry has been a part of me for so long.  I can’t remember being without it.”
Instead, Alleyne’s career plan was to become a radiologist, so, in 1997, she came to the United States to attend St Francis College ( in New York where she majored in Nuclear Medical Technology.  During her sophomore year at St Francis College, Alleyne realized science was not her passion, but English and literature.  
“It wasn’t a single turning point, as much as a series of revelations – a conversation with my professor and mentor Brother Edward Wesley (, writing a paper, and loving it while my friend complained the whole time.  I finally put the pieces together and in my junior year at St. Francis College changed my major to English.”
From that moment on, Alleyne encountered mentors in her life - teachers and writers that she met, and works that she read.
“I fell in love with Jeanette Winterson (, a British fiction writer.  Her books are strange, and I didn’t always understand them but I was totally captivated by what she was able to do.”

         By this time she had tons of poems she had written, but never thought about publishing until she met poet and novelist Terry Quinn  (  

         “We were not allowed to rhyme in his class.  And we wrote not only poetry, but also monologues, and short stories.  It was during his class that I was thinking about writing more seriously, and began considering that it could be something that I could pursue.”
         In 2001, Alleyne graduated with honors from St Francis College with a B.A. in English. 
She moved to Ames, Iowa to attend Iowa State University ( where she earned her M.A. in English and Creative Writing. 
It was here that she took her first women’s literature course, taught by Kathy Hickok, and was also introduced to writers of color, LGBT writers, etc.
         “It’s the thing you don’t know you are missing until you get it. It was a steppingstone to help me learn about a whole spectrum of writers-- particularly women writers.  That class at Iowa State changed me.  It filled in so many blanks for me.”
         She furthered her education at Cornell University ( where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and her Graduate Certificate in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (   
It was at Cornell she took the course Violence Against Women taught by Dr. Andrea Parrot (

“It’s when I started thinking about how we use the word rape.  It was in that class when I started thinking about how to use language, words and form.  And that was a trigger course for me.  It was through that course that another dimension of my writing was formed.”

         Two poetry collections that had a phenomenal affect on Alleyne are Red Sugar ( by Jan Beatty ( and The Rape Poems ( by Francis Driscoll.  The Rape Poems by Francis Driscoll had a strong impact on her poem “18,” which Alleyne dedicates to her.   

Alleyne started writing the poem that eventually became “18” while at Cornell but couldn’t seem to find a satisfactory shape for it.  Then in 2010, her friend invited her to a nutritional mixer.  At the mixer, Alleyne unwittingly consumed a drink overloaded with caffeine and B12, which was a shock to Alleyne’s system, since she rarely drinks coffee.
“I couldn’t stop blinking, my heart was racing, and I felt hyper-focused.  I’d been tinkering with a new version of the poem the previous day, and so I went back to it. I had all this energy and focus, and channeled it into getting the words out. I sat in my bed for hours and I wrote and wrote. And that is how the poem got done.  It was the perfect storm.  When I finished “18” that night I knew the book was done. I also came to the realization that all along, I thought I was doing all of this advocating (not that I’m not) for women and for other people when in reality it was a way to find a voice to myself, to name my own experience.  It had taken so long, and had been so difficult to write because it was about reconciling my truth, my behavior, my actions, and my beliefs.  There was such a cathartic reaction in writing that poem that I hadn’t experienced before.  It shifted a lot of things.  I felt it stretch me.  It took every thing out of me to write that poem.  It moved me from one place to another, figuratively, emotionally, spiritually, everything.” 

         Alleyne hesitates to describe the poems in Difficult Fruit as strictly autobiographical, but insists the poems are hers.  
         “They are, of course, are inspired by my own experiences.  But, to write the poems I really separate myself from my experience and follow the poem.  The poems come from everything that makes me who I am and I have no problem claiming them, but they are not an exact transcript.”
         Alleyne subscribes to T.S. Eliot’s definition of poem and poet in his essay “The Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
         “In Eliot’s essay, he uses the analogy of a chemical reaction to symbolize the poet’s mind.  There are two gasses in the chamber. When you insert a filament of platinum they combine, and become a new chemical that can only be produced with these three components. But the platinum itself is unchanged, and there is no trace of platinum in the new product.  I think that’s the thing with art – the idea that your life becomes a catalyst, a part of the whole reaction that becomes the poem, but it’s not the same thing.  It’s the poem being its own event, its own chemical reaction.  That said, I could never have written a poem without my life.”

         In earlier work, there were numerous poems that Alleyne wrote about her family life that others could not understand.  In one poem she writes about the dislike her maternal grandmother had of her father, because his skin was too black.  Her peers could not understand racism within the black community.
Her peers were focusing on trying to understand the poem instead of focusing on the craft and technique of poetry in making that specific poem better.
         It wasn’t until Alleyne attended the Cave Canem ( workshop at the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, that she found a group of people who were able to understand her and her poetry, and therefore focus on the actual craft and technique of poetry.   

         “I found myself in a community of all black people that understood that even in a black community there can be racism.  I could get to the writing and not have to explain.  Some of the discourse was already a given, already a big part of the conversation, so that we could focus on technique and craft instead of explaining the poem.  Again, it’s the thing you don’t know you are missing until you get it.  And I got it at Cave Canem.”
She credits her experience at Cave Canem with giving her the ability to write the poems in Difficult Fruit.

         “None of the poems I wrote at Cave Canem are in Difficult Fruit, but I couldn’t have written those poems that I did write if it were not for Cave Canem.  Cave Canem was a liberating experience for me.  It’s phenomenal to be with all of these writers and their amazing work.”
         Alleyne continued to write poetry voraciously even while attending a residency she had received for her non-fiction.  It was at this residency ( that she realized she had an additional 80 to 90 pages of poems, resulting in two books of poems – Difficult Fruit and her MFA Thesis.

She asked a trusted poet friend to read both manuscripts and give her his honest critique. 
         “He said, “Lauren this one is by a really good student, but this one is by a really good poet.”  He showed me poem for poem how I was working with the same material but with a little bit better mastery.  He was able to draw some really concrete connections between what I was doing.  He was able to show me that I had evolved as a writer.  The stuff that I wanted to write hadn’t changed but the tools I was able to write with were better. And that was when I let the first book go.  And I stared really working on the second book, which became Difficult Fruit.”

Difficult Fruit has been morphing and growing since Alleyne wrote the oldest poem in the collection “The X-Ray” in 2002 while attending Iowa State University.  The collection was a finalist in numerous prizes (including runner up for the Cave Canem prize), been christened several different names (ex, What Kept Us) and has gone through many revisions and drafts.
         “It’s funny.  Poetry is hard and interesting. And expensive.  I could have given myself a handsome prize with the amount of money I spent sending the manuscript out every month all those years. But ultimately, I am okay with it, because let’s face it— we are the ones funding the publication of poems even if they are not ours. So if someone else’s book gets published and my fees are contributing to building a readership and supporting the presses I want to be around when it’s my turn – I’m fine with that.”              
         Alleyne got her big break when she submitted poems to the Small Axe Literary Prize, which she won.  Later, contest judge Kwame Dawes, the poetry editor of Peepal Tree Press, asked if she had a manuscript, and she sent Difficult Fruit. She did not hear from him for 18 months.  She assumed that he had rejected it and kept on sending Difficult Fruit to other presses, changing the book along the way by swapping out poems and writing new ones.

         It turned out to be a computer glitch, and so she sent Dawes the new version and awaited his response.  By this time, she felt she did all she could for the book.  Peepal Tree agreed, and accepted it for publication.
         “They said, “It is really shiny and ready and we only suggest cutting two poems. And we can leave them (the two poems) in there if you are wedded to them.”  I said,  “No!  That is what I need editors for.  Take them out.” Kwame also re-ordered the poems, reducing the book to three sections rather than the five I’d had. It was wonderful to have these editors that I respected to say I had produced a strong manuscript and that it was ready to go.”

         Difficult Fruit was published on February 2014 to rave reviews and praises from poetry legends Carolyn Forché (, Patricia Smith (, and Poet Laureate of Iowa, Mary Swander (    

         Difficult Fruit is full of poetic forms:  the villanelle, the haiku, the free verse, the ghazal, the crown, and the sonnet.
          “I like the form and I do think there’s beauty in the form – the inherent music.  And the structure is there.  It’s like you get a mannequin and get to dress it.  The bones of the form are given and it is a gift to have something to work from.  The form pulls my mind into a shape when I got a lot going on.”

         Alleyne is still writing, but for now, is putting poetry on the back burner, in order to focus on her prose, in the form of essays focusing on the ideas of place, home, and belonging. 

         “I just found out I have been awarded an artist’s fellowship and I am committed to take the risk and work outside my comfort zone and work on my prose.” 
         Alleyne is also the summer 2015 Picador Guest Professor for Literature at the University of Leipzig.
         Difficult Fruit is available for purchase via Peepal Tree Press ( or via amazon (
         For more information or to contact Alleyne visit her website at or her Facebook page at

The two poems edited out of the final version of Difficult Fruit are The Face of It: A Meditation on an HIV/AIDS Poster on the A-train and On Watching Little Birds, the Documentary on the Iraq War
by Japanese Video Journalist, Takeharu Watai.  Both poems are printed below with copyright permission granted by Lauren K Alleyne.

The Face of It:  A Meditation on an HIV/AIDS Poster on the A-train

We could be sisters, though I recoil at the thought of blood ties
between us. Trapped behind the scratched display, you are shame,
a pinup girl for disease, the secrets of your body made public.

You are warning: the grimy underbelly of this city, the strange
wages of desire rampant in your blood. You are the transplant
gone wrong – a Trojan horse organ, the virus its stealthy passenger.

You are the junkie who lost everything but her bones to the slick
magic of needles; you are the witless wife who waits at home
for her husband to bring her again and again his lover’s bitter gift –

You are not me, blessed with trusty luck and cunning, the straight
edge of wariness my armor and rule. I wrap myself in this comfort.
I am the face of nothing but myself, which some days is all I can bear.

But above you, a single sentence: I didn't think it could happen to me.
In its terrible mirror you, too, wear my fragile armor: in it your face
is mine – black, woman, well-versed in the world’s many betrayals,

its arbitrary lessons in pain. How we live in the crosshairs, you and I,
of our histories, our lovers, our own difficult choices. How we bear
our breachable bodies into each day’s survival. Our sisterhood, this.

On Watching Little Birds, the Documentary on the Iraq War
by Japanese Video Journalist, Takeharu Watai 

We are here to make ourselves know
the other side of our forgetting. Baghdad
bustles under the glare of the midday sun;
we walk down the streets past brown men
plying their trade—falafel vendors, a locksmith,
the convenience store. Passers-by stare at us,
some wave, others, nonchalant, mop their brows.
We follow Ali as he walks to his car,
takes us just outside the city to his house –
a spare whitewashed square. Inside,
his wife is a shy black blur in the background;
the pictures on the walls show the brothers
he lost to Sadaam and the wars in Iran and Kuwait.
Out back, in the sandy yard, walled and snug,
his four children dance as children should dance.
They make faces and strut for the camera.
They think they're going to be movie stars.
We are not the audience they imagined, this knot
of bodies stilled in the weird anticipation of horror.
Already I am dissolving: But what use are our tears?
The camera zooms in on a little girl.
I would say her eyes were live question marks,
and her smile disarmed me with its crooked teeth.
She would have been beautiful, says her mother,
she would have grown up to be beautiful…
We are here because we know how this story ends.
She is at home, playing, and suddenly the light.
She cannot see her sister’s three-year-old body,
its outline on the wall, or the awkward angle of her
brother's neck against the floor. She cannot see herself,
as we do: the giant wound from which her brain spills
red into the hands of her weeping father; her still body
in the room of bodies – some quiet, others writhing
on the edge of a slow dying. Perhaps she can,
and it makes her close her eyes, and shudder as we do.
Ali's grief is a long chord in the orchestra around him.
Habibti, habibti. My love, my love:
The sound a man makes as he carries in one arm, a daughter,
in the other, a son who no longer breathe. We do
the incalculable math: Four children played jump rope,
threw a ball from hand to tiny hand. Three. Two. One.
One left—the girl with the bangs and twitching braid.
I find myself whispering too-late prayers to the dark
Please, God, let her live, please God let her live—
Gufran lives. Later, she walks inside, points for the camera:
Zainab was here; that's her blood on the wall.
Gufran was at home, with Shahad, and Laith, and Zainab,
playing, as children should play, (God don't take her
away). Now she haunts the courtyard, plays alone
half-heartedly, runs her hands along the terrible walls.
She lives and eats and says Yes, I miss them. I miss them.
And still her child's fears: I lost my backpack, papa.
Her survival is an anxious relief— we know her life is
a flash, thunder in the hands of a careless god.
He will say this is necessary. He will name her dead siblings
Shahad, collateral Laith damage Zainab. He will say
her tears Yes, I miss them are the price of her freedom.
We in the shut coffin of the theater are a democracy
of emotions too complex to label. We flutter
out the doors, dampened shadows, walk home safe,
the dark fall night birthing its ghostly stars.

*all images are given copyright privilege by Lauren K Alleyne unless otherwise noted.

Photo 1
Lauren K Alleyne at her Difficult Fruit book party.

Photo 2
Table setting at the Difficult Fruit book launch party.

Photo 3
T. S. Elliot in 1934
Public Domain

Photo 4
Dylan Thomas in 1954.

Photo 6
Sir Laurence Olivie in 1972.
Public Domain

Photo 7
Web logo for Peepal Tree

Photo 8
Grapes on the vine

Photo 14
Jeanette Winterson and Lauren K Alleyne

Photo 15
Web Logo for Terry Quinn

Photo 23
Jacket cover of Coping With Date Rape and Acquaintance Rape by Dr. Andrea Parrot.

Photo 24
Jacket cover of Red Sugar by Jan Beatty

Photo 25
Jacket cover of The Rape Poems by Francisco Driscoll

Photo 26
Lauren K Alleyne on October 10, 2009

Photo 27
Lauren K Alleyne amongst flowers on January 25, 2010.

Photo 28
Cave Canem web logo

Photo 29
Lauren K Alleyne on August 23, 2010 in her office.

Photo 30
Lauren K Alleyne on May 8, 2010

Photo 31
Kwame Dawes and Lauren K Alleyne in February 2014.

Photo 32
Carolyn Forché in the Acropolis of Athens in June 2011.

Photo 33
Lauren K Alleyne, middle, with Patricia Smith, far right.

Photo 34
Poet Laureate of Iowa Mary Swander
Copyright granted by Mary Swander.

Photo 35.
Lauren K Alleyne and Difficult Fruit

Photo 36
Lauren K Alleyne giving a poetry reading in Trinidad.

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