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Interview with 2016 Poetry Prize Winner Alicia Wright

Alicia Wright’s poem “His Father’s Wake” was chosen by Camille Rankine as the winner of the 2016 Poetry Prize!  “His Father’s Wake” appeared in IR 38.2. Do read on for insight, inspiration, and any tips she might have for current submitters to the 2017 Poetry Prize, deadline April 1st!

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Alicia Wright is originally from Georgia and has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Poems appear in The Literary Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, and New South as the winner of their 2015 New Writing Contest, among others. At present, she lives and teaches in Iowa City, and this fall she will begin a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Denver.

1. What was your inspiration for “His Father’s Wake?”

Preserving mystery, but from a place of heartbreak. The inspiration for this elegy belongs, spiritually, with my friend who lost his father. It’s a long-delayed love poem, an acknowledgment of how much loss both he and I have experienced over the years, and a formal diffusion of a long historical tension. I wrote it when I’d just come home from the funeral. Social dynamics of funerals—laden, ambiguous—are part of an event we have so little structure for feeling through. So we end up wading through it. This occasion in particular felt like a true honoring of the person who had passed—music, beer, cutting loose, and friendship all mattered very deeply. My friend is also a deliriously talented guitarist and producer, and that weekend was actually the first time I’d seen him sing solo in public. In a way, the poem is two elegies: one of direct loss, and another for our hazy early twenties.

2. What was your process putting together your submission for the 2016 Poetry Prize? Any tips for current contest submitters?

Submitting your work for a contest isn’t some kind of test—to me, it’s more about putting forth poems that could live, and stay alive, in a magazine and its archive. And equally (if not more) important is that these poems you send can be in conversation with the judge’s own work. Not a conversation at that person’s poetry—ideally, these would be poems that send messages of stylistic, or spiritual, affinity. Send poems that added a new pitch on your personal dial. Send poems that could each have a party in an empty room and fill up that space.

3. What are some poetry collections you find yourself returning to time and time again?

Denise Levertov’s Collected Poems have been, and are, so prescient. Susan Howe’s Frame Structures vivifies me. Abide by Jake Adam York and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard remind me of where I’m from. Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly is another important tuning fork. Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en banlieue is a book that I know will be with me for a long time.

4. Do you have any tips or tricks for dealing with writer’s block?

I think about periods of not writing as a retreat from articulation that it’s in my best interest to honor. Read things poetry-adjacent—for example, John Ashbery’s Other Traditions, or other writers’ journals or diaries. Stay in contact with your voice—but there’s no need to strain it, to be always producing. Be ready for when the writing comes back.

5. What are you reading now?

George Oppen’s Daybooks and Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War.

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