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A Conversation with Poet and Professor Alice Fulton

Nate Brown

This interview appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun,
Jan. 31, 2002, and is reproduced in full by permission of The Cornell Daily Sun and Nate Brown.

Copyright © 2002 by Nate Brown and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.

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Felt Jacket Painting by Dorothea Tanning

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Nate Brown, "A Conversation with Poet and Professor Alice Fulton," Cornell Daily Sun, Jan. 31, 2002.

Works discussed: "Split The Lark," "Maidenhead," "Sequel," Felt.

Topics discussed: A.R. Ammons, Cornell MFA creative writing program, teaching, emotion in contemporary poetry, felt and feltmaking, complexity theory, Emily Dickinson, privacy and solitude, eccentricity.


“A Conversation with Poet and Professor Alice Fulton”
by Nate Brown.

Cornell Daily Sun,
Jan. 31, 2002

Whether you're in the Arts school or not, you've probably seen evidence of this campus' literary heritage. From the pictures of A.R. Ammons and Alison Lurie that hang in Libe Cafe, to the plaque mounted outside of what was Vladamir Nabokov's Goldwin Smith office, the Cornell campus is riddled with clues that point to the school's long standing literary roots. Perhaps even more impressive is that, in an age where biology departments and engineering schools seem to take an academic precidence, Cornell has upheld its dedication to the written word with such initiatives as the John S. Knight writing program and an MFA program in creative writing that has produced recent stars like Melissa Bank and Junot Díaz.

Currently, there's a buzz on the second floor of Goldwin Smith Hall, and it's not merely the hums and racheting of the construction crew's various tools. Rather, in the south wing of that hallway, in the office that was occupied by the late Professor Emeritus and American poet A.R. Ammons, there's another reconstruction underway, a different kind of building and growth. This semester marks the return of Cornell graduate and nationally recognized poet Alice Fulton.

After gaining her MFA in creative writing from Cornell in 1982, Fulton moved to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., for a short time before accepting a position at the University of Michigan where she taught in the creative writing department for 19 years. Daze recently sat down with Fulton to discuss her passions, her professorship, and her dedication to poetry.

Felt was awarded the 2002 Library of Congress Bobbitt Award and was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 2001 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry.

Felt was also chosen as "New and Notable" by the New York Times.

Nate Brown: You've been teaching at Cornell now for...

Alice Fulton: Two weeks.

NB: Wow, what a change. How's the transition been?

AF: I was here twenty years ago. In fact, this office that we're sitting in was the office of one of my teachers, A.R. Ammons, and when we met here, he'd tell me to sit in that chair [Indicates the chair I'm in]. I feel as if I'm the caretaker of this room now, in a certain sense. For over thirty years it was his space, and so I feel this is an important place ... I haven't decorated yet. I plan to put up a big poster of Archie, and keep his memory alive here. It's great, but it's odd, to be sitting here in his office without him. My other teachers are also teaching here still. Phyllis Janowitz was my teacher, Ken McClane, Bob Morgan, Alison Lurie. Also, Dan Schwartz and Scott Macmillan. We do miss Archie.

NB: I'm sure you heard this, but shortly after his death, this hall [Goldwin Smith, second floor] was just lined with his poetry.

AF: It was wonderful that Marianne Marsh thought of putting up his poems like an exhibit down the hall, because this was his place. He just about lived here.

NB: How has the move been, coming from Michigan back to Ithaca? Did you ever expect that move?

AF: No, I never expected it at all. But when I was offered the position, I immediately wanted to accept. I have fond, fond memories of Cornell. The two years I spent here [getting my MFA] felt like twelve years because so much happened. And I met these wonderful people, my teachers. Academe can be pretentious and cold, but I felt that the writers here and the English Department, by extension, created a warmer culture. So, I liked the place and the thought of coming back amongst friends. And then, there are the wonderful students. Both the Cornell undergrads and graduate students are terrific. Back in 1983, when I was leaving Provincetown and returning, briefly, to Ithaca, I got a note from Archie. He said: Spring has already come — it was maybe late March or April — one crazy daffodil has put up its head. Hurry yourself on home. He had this beautiful way of telling people that this was their home when they went someplace else. I hope I can extend that welcome to students.

NB: So, first and foremost, Poet or Professor?

AF: Well, they're both important parts of my identity. They have to be. You know, I couldn't be a teacher unless teaching was interesting and rewarding to me. I put a lot of time into it. And poetry is at the center of my life. They're both very important to me. Over the years teaching has come to resemble a spiritual practice for me. It sounds really smarmy and sappy, but in my heart I try to teach from love. If there's a difficulty, I try to think about what the student is going through, think of that person's dilemma. Sometimes a student might seem [pauses] well, obnoxious, but then you say, wait a minute, what's going on in their lives? I try to imagine their perspective and feel something for them that's not judgmental in a negative way. I try to do that as best I can and that's helped me.

NB: Your latest book, Felt, was very well received — on the L.A. Times 2001 Best Book List. What was that award like?

AF: It's not really an award, but it was nice. The L.A. Times picked it as one of the ten best books of poetry published in 2001. It was a good honor. I was pleased that they liked it and that they drew attention to it. I was in good company, with James Merrill and Seamus Heaney, for instance, and I was happy about that.

NB: Megan Harlan from The New York Times Book Review, described your poems as being obsessed with "identity, yearning, and intimacy." How would you respond to that? Is that an accurate description?

AF: That's part of what that book is about. I tried in Felt to get to emotions that perhaps aren't written about much in contemporary poetry: awkward, untoward, even embarrassing feelings. Emotions that are repressed, things I didn't want to think about sometimes. Feelings that spring from inconvenient knowledge. The other meaning of "felt" is the fabric. Felt is made by pressing fibers together very forcibly, crushing them under great heat and weight. To me that suggested our own interconnectedness, the way every move we make affects the planet. You know, it's the butterfly effect of complexity theory: The butterfly flapping its wings in Ithaca affects the weather in Rio tomorrow. So Felt is about intimacy in the big sense — not just between lovers but the intimate relation that humans have to the world, to animals, to everything, you know, to the walls, the relation I have to this office ... It's about proximity in that sense, how close we are to things.

NB: It feels like, especially in talking about emotions being recalled and then written about — repressed emotions and maybe esoteric emotions — the writing process would be quite a task to take on.

AF: It comes out of a self-critique in a way. I realized that in my previous books I hadn't allowed myself to think about emotion. I always thought feeling should just happen to happen in a poem. I never let myself think about it because I believed that would be manipulative and somehow untrue. Craven and untrue. But with this book, I thought, what would happen if I meditated on (for instance) repulsion or disgust? There's a poem in Felt called, "Split the Lark" that begins with an eviscerated rabbit on the snow. I lived in the country before I moved here, and one day my husband came upon the rabbit. When you see such things, you might feel revulsion but at the same time, there's something about it that we need to witness: the cruelty of nature, and by extension, human cruelty. Many of the newer poems in Felt are concerned with suffering and cruelty.

NB: In your poem "Maidenhead" there are the lines, "On the bus home / from school, I'm reading Dickinson, living on her / aptitude for inwardness and godlessness, thinking/ of the terror she could tell to none/ that almost split her mind." When I first read that I immediately thought of the Dickinson poem, that begins with "I felt a funeral in my brain." It made me wonder if you would consider Dickinson to be a direct influence on your work?

AF: I hope so, but to claim influence from her might be a form of self praise because she is such a great poet. I hope I've learned from her. I love her work, and I think all writers learn from the writers they love.

NB: A similar theme pops up again in the poem entitled "Sequel" which is from the fifth part of Felt. That particular poem begins with the line, "The universe's ignorance of me is privacy." Once again, I thought of Dickinson. Does that line directly correlate to your writing of poetry? How personal is the experience of writing poetry? What's the motivation behind the writing?

AF: It's odd, isn't it, that a private person, one who needs solitude, would want to expose herself in words? But I'm driven to write, and I hope I would write whether or not my work was published. You know, if you keep a journal, a portion of your mind and life are there, whether the diary is published or not. It's there for some one to discover and read. To have even one good reader would be — is — a high honor and an intimacy.

NB: Do you have any other poets or authors who you would credit as an inspiration or an influence?

AF: I learned from all of the teachers I've had. They're all fine poets and I learned different things from every one.

NB: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you also received the editor's prize in fiction from the Missouri Review, so you're a multi-genre writer?

AF: Yes, I also write fiction and essays.

NB: In the words of A.R. Ammons, do you feel like you've come home?

AF: Well, I think we define home as the place where we're happy. I hope to be happy here, but I'm too superstitious to assert a place as home until I've lived there awhile. I don't want to be smug or certain. Those qualities seem to invite their own undoing.

NB: Are there any other general thoughts you might have about being the new writer here at Cornell? Anything you want to add or change yet?

AF: I'd like writing to remain central to Cornell. I hope we can continue to build a community in which writers are respected and afforded time to write. There's a gentleness, as opposed to competitiveness, in the writing program here. There's a tolerance for eccentricity; I love that. I like it when quirks are celebrated. Why don't we revel in people's differences? Love them, you know, instead of saying, be like everyone else. I like it when eccentricity is considered fun and useful. I hope that tradition can continue. Let's stay weird and eccentric and strange.

Copyright © 2002 by The Cornell Daily Sun, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nate Brown was the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Cornell Daily Sun when this piece was published.