This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Paige Ackerson-Kiely, whose third poetry collection, Dolefully, a Rampart Stands, is out today from Penguin Books. Set primarily in the rural northeastern United States, the poems in the new book explore poverty, captivity, violence, and the longing to disappear. Employing a range of different forms, from free verse to long prose poetry, the book considers the question of who our captors might be and examines the universal search for connection and freedom. As Michael Robbins writes at the Chicago Tribune, these poems “remind us to be absolutely shot through with anxiety and uncertainty and desire.” Ackerson-Kiely is the author of two previous poetry collections, My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012) and In No One’s Land (Ahsahta Press, 2007). She lives in Peekskill, New York.
1. How long did it take you to write Dolefully, a Rampart Stands?
Once I saw the shape the poems I’d been fiddling with were making, not that long. Maybe six months? But some of the poems go way back—the earliest were written in 2010, the latest in 2018. The conversation between them was revealed to me in 2016, or thereabouts. I write a lot of stuff I end up scrapping.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’m a slow-burn kind of person. It takes me a long time to commit. That doesn’t mean that I’m not working or feeling something in the intervening months or years, but it means that giving up is always within reach. The most challenging thing always is trusting that something is real / possible / important / will happen. So, in short, the length of time it takes to make a thing is always a challenge for me. The slow climb without much of a view. Trusting you will look out over the valley when you finally get there, breathless and exulted and maybe in love for a second.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Since there are so few opportunities to experience a feeling of freedom in my life, I do not allow rules and regulations to dictate my writing—it’s one thing I can control. I’ve always been a striver, and it just hasn’t brought me the satisfaction I thought it would. Also, my livelihood has never depended on a publication record. So, I’m trying to be done with striving when I have the ability to make that choice. Listen, I am middle-aged, I’m not trying to be a big deal, why should I make writing poems, something I love (and how many things do you really get to love in this life?), into another opportunity to suffer? I write when I can, wherever I am, and I am trying to accept this commitment to lawlessness.
4. What was the most unexpected thing about the publication process?
Doomsday prepper that I am, it felt like a surprise that it happened at all! And of course, lucky. And the help of those involved—from first readers to Paul Slovak, my editor at Penguin—that attention and kindness has been amazing in ways that make me feel awkward and blushy and like doing better next time.
5. What are you reading right now?
Right now I am savoring an advanced copy of Allan Peterson’s new and selected, This Luminous. He is one of the great love poets of our time, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. I’m also rereading Nicholas Muellner’s The Amnesia Pavillions, an elegant and modest book I cannot learn enough from.
6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I mean, besides every living contemporary poet? God, I am enthusiastic about so much of what I read! It’s a great time to be alive, and all that. I return to Kerri Webster’s poetry often. Reading her makes me want to join a coven—to learn how to cast a spell like she does.
7. What is one thing you’d change about the literary community and/or the publishing business?
I wish I’d had more access as a kid, and I was a library kid through and through. My own kids were library kids. So the thing I’d want to change isn’t a function of the free market or the problem of any specific community. What I’d like to see is the U.S. government purchasing 1,500 copies of every book published in any given year (large presses and small), and distributing those copies among public and school libraries in every state. I can’t even begin to imagine how differently my life would have gone, as a confused teenager in rural New Hampshire, if I’d had access to contemporary poetry. I didn’t. And that’s criminal. It’s not just about me, but many other folks (especially in poor rural communities) interested in art. There just wasn’t anything. My parents worked hard and did their taxes by April 15th and paid for wars they didn’t agree with. Everyone I care about spent too many years looking for something else, some kind of external inspiration. It felt so good early on, like we would suss it out. But some gave up, and who can blame them? It was so hard to find, and the business of living can take everything from you. Wouldn’t it be great if, as a country, we could support our writers and artists in meaningful (by which I mean financial and otherwise) ways? To think of how that war money could be diverted to makers and others who need it to meet basic needs? To get the work of contemporary writers and artists into the hands of people who are hungry for it? They totally exist, they will always exist, and it is critical they are served.
8. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I need to be kind of exhausted—I don’t know how else to put it—in order to steady myself on the page. I am curious about so many things! The Internet is a problem for a person like me. It’s like I need to get to the end of everything before I can plant myself. I have to know how mussels are harvested, I have to see all of Franky Larouselle’s work available online, walk the perimeter of my town four times, and feel some big feeling for someone (these are a few examples from today), before my mind is relaxed enough to do its own business.
9. What trait do you most value in an editor?
Oh, the human ones! Curiosity, devotion to beauty, vigorousness, humor, love of the underdog, an ability to call bullshit.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I remember when I was in my MFA program, a few of my mentors told me the most important part of being in a program would be the lasting friendships I would make. I’m sure that, jerk that I was/am, I disregarded this advice as pat. Guess what? It was totally true, for me at least. And you don’t have to go to a program—attending an MFA program is not part of this advice, though programs are great for many of us—but finding your writing soulmate: that is the best advice I ever received. And all the best writing advice since has come from my soulmate, Allison Titus. From figuring it out together. That creative relationship has been like a wish for a thousand wishes—I could not write or live without her. As I was advised.