The Bookshelf: Liz Ahl on Life as New Hampshire 'Insider'
This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR?, poet Liz Ahl of Holderness. Ahl's new collection of poetry, Beating the Bounds, is a proclamation that says: I live here now.
"Here" in this case is rural New Hampshire. In poems that feature town moderators, transfer stations, and the perambulation of town boundaries, Ahl explores what it means for her to have finally set down roots in this place. I spoke with Ahl in her office at Plymouth State, where she teaches poetry.
Scroll down to read the long-form interview and a top five list of Liz's reading recommendations.
Liz Ahl's Top Five Reading Recommendations
1. Exactly What Happened by Joel Brouwer. "These poems are exceptionally smart and funny and poignant, on many different subjects, and it's a book I wish I'd written. On my all-time top ten list for sure -- maybe even my top five."
2.The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. "These perfectly crafted stories bring the varied and complex lives of Vietnamese refugees (and their families and communities) to life. I read most of it in one sitting because I couldn't put it down."
3.My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir by Brian Turner. "Turner is also the author of a really fine poetry collection, a favorite of mine, called Here, Bullet. This memoir feels like a braided collection of lyric essays, impressionistic and surreal in spots, harshly "realistic" and literal in others. If you want an authentic glimpse into the life and world of a contemporary soldier/veteran, read this book."
4. Citizen by Claudia Rankine. "This genre-bending, heart-breaking, rage-stoking book is now required American reading, as far as I'm concerned. The retelling of such a range and accumulation of racist incidents -- from daily microaggressions to outright murder -- seems so burdensome to the book's narrator, yet the telling feels so necessary. The use of visual imagery is also highly compelling."
5. In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson. "Queer lineage, identity, and solidarity are at the heart of this excellent debut. I admire Johnson's skill at braiding together images and language from the natural world (botany, zoology) with images rooted in the human world of rooms, dance floors, airplanes, etc. The result of this braiding is a fresh and joyful vision of both realms."
So this is a book that kind of comes full circle for NHPR, in a way, because as you write here it was inspired by a story done by Brady Carlson, who used to host All Things Considered, about this strange New Hampshire law that requires perambulation.
It is current New Hampshire statute that every seven years forever, that’s a quote, “every seven years forever,” the borders of the towns should be walked by the selectmen or their appointed representatives to reestablish and re-certify the town boundaries. This is actually custom from centuries ago in England, it was a parish custom, and while we don’t really need to do that anymore to establish the boundaries, I know that some people do still enjoy perambulating the towns.
When I heard that story, I was working on a second draft of this book, which was previously under a different title, but hearing the story and learning about beating the bounds—or perambulation—helped me figure out the last stretch of the book. I’m really grateful to New Hampshire Public Radio for that story. This book used to have a different title, and when I wrote that title poem, it helped me finish the book.
What themes or metaphors did you see buried in this law, or in the ideas behind the law, that sort of tied things up for you?
In this book I am writing a lot about finding myself in middle life. As someone who was a Navy brat, whose dad was also a Navy brat, I am not from any place special. I wonder if I’m from here now—I don’t have my two generations buried here so I know I can’t be from here yet—but I have lived here since 2001. It is by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere in my life and I don’t have another home place. I was writing about the ways in which we establish and articulate home, you know, is this it for me? Do I live here now? It seems like such a ridiculous question. Of course I live here now. But I guess the question behind that question was: Am I going to die here? Is this it?
As someone who moved every two or three years growing up, have I stopped? Part of the writing for me was a struggle that I didn’t realize was going to be a struggle.
About seven years into living here, I had a real writer’s block problem, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to realize that part of my whole posture and perspective of a writer was the posture and perspective of someone who knew she was going to leave. So I got to be new, I got to perceive a place as an outsider, that was always a very comfortable position for me, but now I find myself in the new and sometimes uncomfortable position of negotiating my insiderish-ness. I test out in some of these poems the pronoun “we,” as if I am a part of the “us” of New Hampshire, which feels so weird to me and sort of presumptuous, and yet I’m as from here as I’m from anywhere.
The idea of figuring out where home is by testing your own borders and boundaries—what’s my here, what’s my there, and how do I establish and reestablish that. I loved that it says in the statute “every seven years forever,” as this kind of work that you’re never finished doing, the boundaries will never settle if you let them go. Someone will build a house right on the line, then who gets the taxes, or someone will encroach on your land, or you’ll forget if you don’t do it every seven years where one thing ends and the other begins. As I was working on a lot of these poems, I found those metaphors and that idea of that ritualistic, regular assessment of the border lands just super rich.
As you wrote about home, was there one poem in here that you felt really nailed that theme?
Oh gosh, certainly the “Bird Houses” poem about the difficulty of being housed. It’s a poem in which I contemplate all of my failed attempts of putting up a bird house and actually having a bird moving into it, and thought about my own transience and refusals, in some way, of home.
I love that poem. Can you read it for us?
I’ve never been able to persuade
a bird to live in one, though my persuasion’s
on the lukewarm side—I just make
birdhouses available—nailed to a tree, say,
or propped at the top of a post.
Even if I knew how to push,
I don’t like to.
Fixer-upper flying squirrels
transported chewed tufts of pink insulation
into one I’d be given as a gift—
mounted, even, on a good green metal pole.
Another proved excellent shelter
for bees—who knows how many
packed into that humming tenement.
Of course, I’m sure I also snubbed
or ignored or just wasn’t able to see
perfectly fine houses set in my path
as I flitted the first half of my life
from coast to coast, pausing even
in the flyover states for rest
I, too, have been difficult to house.
I, too, have been suspicious
of what was offered in exchange
for staying put: walls and a floor,
a door that locked on rooms
filled with heavy things, with family.
The closest I’ve come to housing birds
is the flycatcher nest pasted
beneath the eaves of the small shed
I had vaguely planned to be a writing getaway—
just above the door to a lot of extra space
they don’t really need, the prolific little squatters,
even with all those babies,
all those poems I never wrote there.
So you found your bird house, metaphorically speaking, New Hampshire. How has New Hampshire changed the way you write? Has it changed the way you write?
I think it would be different if I had moved to Manchester, right? So it’s not New Hampshire as a state but certainly rural, northern New Hampshire. Rural is important to me, I have not lived in such a rural place before. I’m interested to know how much of it is New Hampshire and how much is it is living here for such a long stretch of years. I think if I had landed anywhere for a stretch of years this long, I would have had to come face-to-face with this notion that I spent so much of my life writing as an outside and someone who is going to be moving on.
Now that I have stopped moving on, that has changed my relationship to the place I was in. But I do love the oldness of New Hampshire. I think coming here you are extra aware of this idea of staying put. When I first lived here, I lived in Bridgewater, which has one of the oldest or most continuous old home day celebrations in the state. My neighbors said I should go up to Old Home Day, so I drove up Bridgewater Hill in my Corolla with my Nebraska plates—I moved here from Nebraska—and they had a 100-year-old tradition of the bean-hole beans, and you’d stand there and eat your bread, and your beans and your pickles. I don’t know why those three things, but I thought that was fascinating, and that the people who were cooking the beans were the descendants of the people cooking the beans.
Inside the town house were photographs on the wall of previous Old Home Days from like the early 20th century, and then they were going to take this year’s town picture. It’s 2001, they are getting everyone together, and I stand back and go towards my car because I’m not from here, you know, I don’t deserve to be in the picture. But my neighbors who had invited me said, “Oh no, everyone gets to be in the picture. You live here now!” So I remember standing there for that picture, acutely aware of all of the pictures inside, and I suddenly felt this sense of history and connectedness to it that I don’t think I had felt before.
Then, of course, there are also things like town meetings, and the transfer station, and the Live Free or Die spirit that our touched on in some of these poems. So it’s New Hampshire, but it is particularly rural New Hampshire, and I think because of its age, because of its oldness, its sense of American history and personal family history, the generations at Old Home Day, really made an impression on me.
Speaking of transfer station, could I get you to read the poem “Transfer Station?”
There is a place for everything.
Divided neatly, all the bins
are labeled, one for anything
you’d think of. And a man to ask
when you’re not sure. “If I can tear,”
is what the dump attendant says
about what paper is allowed.
He’ll also clarify that “Dump”
is not what we should call this place
from which all leavings are removed
to distant, dumpish parts unnamed
and scarcely known. It’s all transferred.
All swept away. Except, of course,
for items left in the single-wide
identified as the “Swop Shoppe.”
We’re Yankees, still beholden to
the old proverbs and promises
to use it up, to wear it out
to make it do or do without.
So here we leave what can’t be trash,
the artifacts for which no bins
exist: old corporate coffee mugs,
cassette tapes, china, blenders, books,
and plastic corded telephones;
small furniture and Scrabble boards,
red-eyed alarm clocks, pots and pans.
And from these shelves and tables take
for free whatever things we want
to bring to useful life again.
Our waffle iron, hand mixer,
the extra wine glasses, the pot
we plant with flowers every year—
all came from here. I don’t recall
what all we’ve left behind in trade.
I guess this is a transfer, too—
from someone else’s life to this
way station at the edge of town
and then at last to us, to ours,
this pot I fill with snapdragons,
this glass from which I drink my wine.
While I was reading this book, I read that poem allowed to my girlfriend because I liked it so much, and she said, "I like it because I know what it’s about." I think that is a problem that a lot of poetry has now, is that it is in some ways written for other poets, but yours is not. I don’t know if you take her comment as a compliment. Do you?
I absolutely do take it as a compliment. I think that of course the curse of the accessibility, “Oh, your work is so accessible.” But I love nothing more than giving a reading at the town library and being approached by someone who says, “I don’t really like poetry, but that was all right. I was surprised by how endurable that was.”
I do think this is a poem, a book, in which I am speaking to the community. I think I am aware as I was putting this together that I wanted to say something not just about my home, my new home, my neighborhood, my neighbors, my surroundings, but kind of to them as well.
I would also say to folks who get frustrated by less narrative poetry, more experimental feeling poetry, that I think poetry invites us to sometimes make a different kind of sense of something that’s not necessarily about telling a story, but about having an emotion. I do write pretty clear, narrative, accessible poems myself, and I feel like I have gotten good feedback for that, but I also like to champion some of the more avant-garde, if you will, stuff.
I don’t want the readers to pressure themselves like they have to understand it all at once. What is understanding anyway? If you read a poem and you don’t sort of get it right away, you know, it’s short, read it again. It’s not a test, you don’t have to get it all at once, and you don’t have to get it. You can get the next one. Life is short. There’s a lot of poetry.
You quote Robert Frost in this book a couple of times. Is he an influence of yours?
I’m influenced by the idea of Robert Frost, like where is Robert Frost from? He’s originally from San Francisco, so I am interested in the idea of Frost becoming a New Englander, if such a thing is possible. I am interested in the uses of Frost, how emblematic he is, and I don’t imagine myself emblematic, I just am interested in him as a transplant.
I also am interested in Frost as a writer, who in his own way wrote his vision of New England, which I guess I am doing as well. I do appreciate I will say that I think one way Frost influenced me as a writer when I look at these poems now, is that he has a darkness to him. A lot of these poems are about mortality. I had a great graduate seminar in school in which we looked at Frost—and the only Frost I had ever looked at was in grade school and it was the poem you had to memorize, and you were given this idea of Frost, that turned out was not really true.
The actual Frost, who my expert professor knew a lot more about, was so much more interesting and problematic and dark, dark, dark. There is a darkness in these poems that I do think may come in part from a similar place that Frost’s darkness came from.
Tell us about your origins as a poet. Did you know from a very early age that you wanted to write poetry?
I knew from a very early age that I enjoyed when adults were pleased with things that I did. One thing that I did was I wrote things and I got lots of praise for that, and I do think that I wrote things because I loved to read things. I could spend a weekend just getting lost in The Chronicles of Narnia or Harriet the Spy, all those great Ellen Raskin books. I do think that I felt amazed at how words on a page could transport me—I mean how crazy is that?
I do know that some of my early efforts were to see if I could do that, sort of myself I guess. I also liked writing because it was something I could do by myself, I didn’t have to share it with anyone or talk to anybody about it. But that changed, because to me now writing is incredibly social. Early on, I liked spending by myself and I craved the approval of adults, and writing got me both of those things. I had lots of opportunities, very lucky opportunities, with after-school programs and summer programs where I got to sort of take myself seriously as a writer. I had really teachers, I liked to read, so it’s not a particularly dramatic story but it’s mine.
You teach now, you’re teaching at Plymouth State. What advice do you give your students?
Read, read more, keep reading. I am a firm believer that we need to be reading much more than we are writing. I also am not inclined (as my teacher was) to have my students send their work out into the world too soon. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what is too soon, students can obviously do whatever they want, but it is enough to work on it honestly and devotedly. It’s okay to just work on it for a while. I think there is definitely a culture of the prodigy in writing over the past two decades or so. A lot of awards called the “younger” or the “emerging.” There’s also a poets and writers feature on debut poets every year, and one of the pieces of information they include is everyone’s age, which I think is very revealing. For me, I have published a bunch of chap books but this is my first full-length collection, and I am closer to fifty than to forty, so it took a while.
Most of my students don’t aspire necessarily specifically to “be poets,” whatever that means. I think when we first learn about revision, we learn about this linear, idealized process in which you compose a draft, you then compose a second draft—which is of course better than the first draft, which we know right a way that’s a big fat lie. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. Then other times what you thought was the heart of it, was not actually the heart of it at all. There’s no sort of six steps to a successful draft that I can give that’ll work in every situation. You have to, as a writer, develop an endurance and a patience, and then somehow you have to learn to know the difference between a draft you need to just abandon and a draft that you just need to work harder on. I don’t think I’ve mastered that yet.
That is comforting to hear as someone who has been told by professors, “This story, in my view, cannot be fixed.” I remember that line specifically from a professor and I always want to go back and fix that story. Then publish it somewhere and send them a hard copy and ask them “What do you think about this?”
You’re reminding me of another thing I say to my students, in addition to read, read, read, is whatever pronouncements I make, as if they are messianic law, be skeptical of them. Whatever rule I throw down, already some is out there breaking it in interesting ways. I am not here to be a gate keeper, I am not here to enforce rules, I am here to share with you what I understand about the conventions of this genre, help you figure out which ones you’re interested in and which ones you’re not interested in, and help you be as honest with yourself as you can about that.
For example, show don’t tell. Okay, sometimes you have to tell though, right? It’s not that you never tell, and it’s not just an easy rule, description is not always superior to narration, sometimes you need narration. It would be great, it would be so great, if it were all a set of rules that if you just did these 17 things every time, success would follow.
Have you ever read On Writing by Stephen King?
I used to use that in creative writing, and we used to get to this moment when he has hauled out his type writer and put it on the top of the washing machine in his trailer after working his second of three jobs that day, and he’s just hiding out in the laundry room on zero sleep, and he’s showing up that day and doing his pages.
And you know we come to the Stephen King story about how to be a writer, waiting for him to reveal the secret formula, and we get to that point in creative writing when we discuss this text and we’re confronted with the fact that there is no secret. There is no magical formulation. Stephen King showed up every day when he was exhausted, when he wasn’t, when he felt like it, when he didn’t, and he cranked out the pages and he threw away that first draft of Carrie.
So, in that sense, he’s not even special, right? I mean of course Stephen King is special, but we can chose to show up like that every day. So now it’s on us, right? Now we have the secret information that we need, and who among us is going to choose to show up every day like that? It’s sort of depressing and exciting all at once for my students and I, like, we could do it. Ugh, could we? Could we do that? Would we do that, with no guarantee that it’s going to end like Stephen King’s story ends? Some of us do, I don’t show up every day. I show up every other day.
Well Liz, we are glad you showed up enough days to create this book, it’s wonderful. Thank you very much for speaking with me.
Thank you NHPR for helping me to finish this book. Thank you so much.
The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.