Sonic Relationships and Semantic Rhythms in “Field Music” – Chicago Review of Books


Alexandria Hall’s National Poetry Series-winning book, Field Music, possesses a poetic maturity born less from extensive experience than from piercing vision and sensitivity. Hall, a finalist in the 2018 “Narrative 30 Below Contest” has lived some, undoubtedly, but somehow manages to sidestep the typical language registers of youth—the naiveté, the callowness, the arbitrary ambiguity. Her poems feel as lived-in as ancient farm boots, yet unsettle like a dreamer’s slip into nightmare. There is personal pain and genuine perplexity in these pages, and there is also something like a grasping, emerging wisdom. Both communications, under the honest fire of Hall’s pen, offer a reader equal excitement. I spoke to Alexandria Hall about her fine debut collection, Field Music. It was a pleasure to do so.

Ryan Asmussen

The bucolic aspects of Vermont are rather left by the roadside in this collection, replaced by an often fierce, sharp, sadly poignant reality. What can you tell us about your home state that you don’t reveal in Field Music?

Alexandria Hall

The book only shows glimpses of a pretty small area of Vermont, and only from my own limited perspective, and much of it is from reflecting on memories. So, I think there’s actually a lot that it doesn’t show. But I think the bucolic elements are always present. I imagine most people, when they think about Vermont, already have an idea of green mountains, fields, and lakes. To me, it’s not any less beautiful for its griefs. 

Ryan Asmussen

Many of the poems give one the impression that Vermont has, if not quite a sinister, then perhaps not an altogether friendly hold on you, that it somehow seems to want to pull you back into its green orbit.

Alexandria Hall

I actually really love Vermont. It’s been difficult this year not to be able to go back and see my family and friends and swim in the lake. I think the sense of ambivalence comes mostly from the fact that I grew up and spent so much of my life there, so I came to know myself in relation to it. I think, in writing the poems in this book, one concern was an anxiety around boundaries of the self—both a drive toward and a fear of dissolving into something else: a person, a landscape, etc. While I saw beauty, cruelty, and loss in Vermont, these are things that one experiences anywhere. The details just might look a little different. I guess the question then is how one identifies one’s own limits in relationship to their emplacement. I have a feeling it’s my own orbit that I’m more afraid of. 

Ryan Asmussen

Your poem “Travel Narrative”—a poem ostensibly about some of the places you’ve journeyed to—I read as an extended metaphor of the poetic process. I wonder if you would talk a bit about your own process. How do you move through drafting, for example? What are you searching for?

Alexandria Hall

I tend to do a lot of drafting informally in my head. I always thought I was a lazy writer, and maybe I am, but it’s helped to recognize that a lot of the work is not actual pen-to-paper work. Sometimes when I’m walking, a line starts to materialize and I feel like I can just follow it. Other times I sit down with the intention of writing and it feels like much more of an effort, but it’s usually really helpful in thinking through something. It’s interesting that you mention this in relation to “Travel Narrative,” since it refers in part to a trip I took to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago, and I feel like walking and writing are the two ways I think most clearly. I know some people who seem to have the world very clearly in front of them, who can express themselves precisely and immediately in conversation and name events as they are happening. I’m not like that. When writing, I think I’m trying to process it all and searching for whatever I’m trying to tell myself or someone else. 

Ryan Asmussen

I get the feeling that a sense of almost panic, or at least distress, lies at the root of the ‘abundance of things’ for you. That your poetry is a place within which you attempt firm standing against an onslaught, an over-washing, of people and things.

Alexandria Hall

Absolutely. I think that abundance for me is exciting and fascinating and nourishing, but also completely overwhelming. I joke with my partner, whenever I end up hiding away in tears in the bathtub because it’s all too much, that it’s just that I have “a poet’s constitution.” I think I tend to need time to process things, which I always want to do carefully.

Ryan Asmussen

You are also a multi-faceted musician. How do you understand the impact of music, of your own music, during composition? How much does a line or stanza benefit from your sense of rhythm and melody? How is music “a handling” for you?

Alexandria Hall

The music of the language often guides me through the poem, and therefore guides the thinking. The sonic relationships in the poem have their own semantic qualities. I’m interested in the sonic likeness of semantically different words that brings distant concepts in close proximity to each other, the rhythm of thought, the way rhythm moves the body. The music of a poem can really bring the body into it and in that way it’s like a gesture, reaching out to the reader. It can feel good or it can be jarring, just like any other sound or music. 

Ryan Asmussen

As someone who considers Thoreau a deep influence in his life, I was excited to discover you’d participated in your high school’s Walden Project—in their words, an “outdoor, alternative public education program […] modeled on [his] sojourn to Walden Pond” —which sounds like a remarkable experience. Has Thoreau been an influence in your thinking and writing?

Alexandria Hall

The Walden Project was an incredible experience. I’m so grateful for the fact that this really open-minded alternative education program was available to me for free as a public high school student. As for Thoreau’s influence on my writing…that’s a good question. It may be clearer to someone at a greater distance from it than I am. Most of all, I think Walden meant a lot to me when I was young and needed to know it was ok to march to the beat of a different drum. And I think it primed me for my later interest in Romanticism, which I think influenced my work. Certainly in both (Thoreau and the Romantics) there’s a particular relationship between the self and the landscape that I think exists in some form in my writing.

Ryan Asmussen

Tell us about the titular poem and how you feel it’s representative of the collection. What can it tell us about you as a poet?

Alexandria Hall

“Field Music” is one of the earliest poems I wrote for the book, and I think writing it kind of brought more clearly into view what I was thinking about and what I was trying to think through. It’s a poem full of the sounds and images of my childhood: the things I saw, the things people said and how they sounded to me, and what that meant to me. It’s a poem about encountering the world, learning to be in it and in language. And that being in it, in language, demonstrates how one thing always slips into another. I guess in that way there’s both a kind of associative, expansive delight and also a sense of profound instability. 

Ryan Asmussen

Rosanna Warren, who also has a fine book out now, selected Field Music for the National Poetry Series, a singular honor. How do you see yourself heading into the poetic future? You now have a higher-level platform from which to see and imagine! Do you have any poetic goals or aspirations?

Alexandria Hall

It’s such an honor to be recognized by Rosanna. As for the poetic future, I’ve been working on a couple of new projects that feel pretty different from Field Music, one is another collection of poems, the other is short stories. Both are concerned with themes of dread, anxiety, mortality and immortality, the fleeting vs. what is lasting. I guess my goal is mainly to keep moving, learning, and trying new things. 

POETRY
Field Music
By Alexandria Hall
Ecco Press
Published October 6, 2020



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