BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Recently, I had the privilege of reading Liz Axelrod's chapbook "Go Ask Alice" (Finishing Line Press, 2016), which was a finalist in the 2015 New Women's Voices Series at Finishing Line Press. In the collection, Axelrod invites us into a bizarre, distorted landscape echoing Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" landscape. She doesn't stray away from what we are all obsessed and anxious over--sex, body image, technology, politics--and makes us evaluate the world we live in.
I was lucky enough to ask her questions about the collection:
JV: Why did you choose to set the story in "Alice in Wonderland?"
LA: Well, I didn't actually choose to set it that way, but I was working on a book review (another of the writing hats I wear) and I came across an ad for the 150th anniversary of the book. I started remembering how much I loved that book. Then a little while later I was listening to my Fiona Apple Pandora Station and the Jefferson Starship's song "Go Ask Alice" came on. The lyrics pulled me in and I started thinking about lines like, "We're all mad here" and "One pill makes you larger..." The music was with me. I started thinking about a collection of poems that spoke to each other with all the intelligence and craziness and somberness of those lines.
I have many crazy, powered-up poems and they just seemed to fit with Lewis Carroll's lines. Finding the right epigram for each poem became a labor of love. I was really happy with it. But I was also petrified, since it seemed like something that no one had done quite like this before and it also seemed so right for me (which automatically made me think--"is this wrong?"). The book went through many incarnations and many, many rejections--even from friends that were publishers. They were all so nice and encouraging, but they just couldn't seem to find a home for it. Obviously, you enter stuff in competitions too--but I had pretty much given up hope when I heard from Finishing Line Press. What a beautiful thing it was to hear that the book was a finalist!
The collection focuses on change, growth, transition, and transportation of some sort. Why did you focus on this? How does it relate to being a woman?
We are all in a state of transformation--all of us at all times. I've learned this from my travels, my education, my marriage, my divorce, motherhood, love, loss and living. It's what makes us feel the colors and taste the fabrics that stitch together our very being. I have this passion for change, which makes some of my friends and colleagues, and definitely my students a bit crazy, I'm in continual edit mode, but in the end it usually produces better stuff.
I want better stuff for all of us. I'm petrified at what is going on in the world today and how the only change that seems to be happening right now is for the worse, chains and robes and holding each other down for the beatings (both virtual and physical). This needs to end. We as women have so much MORE power than we know. So much more tolerance for pain, growth, and positive change, and we are so much more connected to the cycles of the Earth. For Goddess' sake--we bleed every month! We give birth, to both MEN and WOMEN! We need to figure out how to use that power and pain for positive transformation. This is why I write.
What were you listening to and reading and watching while writing this?
Basically everything. I had read The Hunger Games, because my sister said I HAD TO. I finished it in four hours (really) and needed to write that poem to get it out of my system. While writing I listened to my Pandora Radio, cruised the internet, and devoured books of poetry written by my friends, mentors and heroes: Anne Carson, Brenda Shaughnessy, Mark Bibbons, Claudia Rankine, Matthea Harvey, Gregory Pardlo, Kevin Young, Cynthia Cruz and so many more. I keep piles on my den table and other piles by my bed.
I used Neruda for when I needed to reconnect to my romantic side, Matt Hart when I needed to be smart and giggle, Mary Gaitskill and Margeret Atwood for when I needed help confronting the present. I was also in a comedy/tragedy Netflix zone and binge watched stuff like Broad Church, Kimmy Schmidt, Grace & Frankie, and Black Mirror.
How do you know to break a line?
Aside from what we are taught in MFA (which I learned, used and then, made up my own mind about), the line usually breaks itself. My enjambments are natural. I try to infuse them with a certain rhythm--sometimes sweet and sassy like a pop song, sometimes short and staccato like a march, other times just punching it out like a Punk Rock anthem. However, that said, I will go over a poem 50 times and change just one line break, then change it back, then change it again, then take it out completely, then start all over. Sometimes I just have to walk away for a few days. Then I come back and look at it and usually it tells me its finished and I need to leave it alone.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
Well...I think most of what I wrote above covers the obsessions. I use my place in the world as a Woman, a Pagan, a Mother, a Lover, and an advocate of Social Justice and try to view what is around me from that lens. When I'm passionate I write poems. When I'm on a wine binge I write poems. When I am inspired by others I write poems. When I'm pissed off at the injustices of the world I write poems. I write from my head, my heart, my bowels and sometimes even my brain. Not all of it survives. But I have hope.
Liz Axelrod received her MFA from the New School in 2013. She writes poems, book reviews, essays, fiction and anything her pointed pen finger deems relevant. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, Publisher’s Weekly, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Counterpunch, Nap Magazine, Yes Poetry, The Ampersand Review, and more. Her Chapbook "Go Ask Alice" was chosen as a finalist in the 2015 Finishing Line Press New Woman's Voices Competition and will be published in March, 2016. She is an Adjunct Professor at SUNY Westchester Community College, a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine, and co-host and curator of the Cedermere Reading Series in the home of William Cullen Bryant. Find her here: www.yourmoonsmine.com