The subject of my first poet interview is Alarie Tennille, a Kansas City poet whom I met at a fund-raising event for The Writers Place late in 2010. Our initial conversation was everything you might expect in such a social situation, but beyond our words was an instant affection and respect for each other as poets. I frequently run into Alarie at area poetry readings and other events and always make it a point to seek her out and have a conversation with her. It is my pleasure to feature her in this, my inaugural interview. Please sit back and enjoy this lively conversation.
Alarie Tennille was born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia with a genius older brother destined for N.A.S.A, a ghost, and a yard full of cats. A Phi Beta Kappa, she graduated from the University of Virginia in the first class that admitted women. She has spent most of her career as a professional writer and editor. Alarie met her husband, graphic artist Chris Purcell, in college. They moved to Kansas City in the early 1980s.
A Pushcart nominee, Alarie serves on the Board of Directors of The Writers Place. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry East, Margie, ByLine Magazine, English Journal, Coal City Review, Kansas City Voices, I-70 Review, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Little Balkans Review, Rusty Truck, and The Kansas City Star.
How to Get an Unusual Name
Pick ancestors from a foreign-speaking
land. Begin with a name that is little heard
Now stir up some rebellion. Politics and
religion work best. But first make sure you’ve
chosen visionary or stubborn stock. Neighbors
must wish them dead, must drag ancient uncles
from their beds to execution by gallows or
guillotine. This culls the family tree, makes
those who stay change their names.
Send the few remaining branches to
different countries, where spelling will be
changed and more cousins lost. Your name
will trip the new native tongue, and you’ll
spend a lifetime correcting it.
Now for the first name. Choose parents
who crave the exotic. Hippies and
Southerners work well. They’ll take care
of the rest.
What drew you to writing, or more specifically, writing poetry?
My earliest writing was an extension of make believe. I was in the second or third grade when I wrote “The Mouse Family Christmas.” I read it to my mother as she washed dishes, and she thought I was reading from a book. That was a very proud moment! In the fifth grade, I made friends in a new school when I wrote a wildly exaggerated, five-page essay on “Why I Shouldn’t Talk in Class.” I later wrote for school papers, but didn’t care for journalism the way I enjoy writing fiction. I was first drawn to writing because I enjoy creativity and because it’s a thrill to be able to entertain and move readers.
When I decided at 17 that I wanted to be a writer and an English major, poetry was the last thing on my mind. I wrote short stories and plays in college along with the long stream of required critical papers. I read mostly novels and drama. I think my lack of interest in poetry then had a lot to do with not reading the right poets. I was in the first co-ed class at the University of Virginia. Almost all the literature in the curriculum was written by dead white men. But I think it was the archaic language and formal verse, rather than who wrote it, that made me feel poetry wasn’t for me. Later, poets like Jane Kenyon, Ted Kooser, and Nikki Giovanni helped me see that I could write about the small, everyday moments in my own life rather than war, politics, and epic heroes.
I’ve been fortunate enough to support myself with my English degree, working as an editor or writer since college. Frankly, it’s tiring and hard on the eyes to do that much paperwork every day, so for years I didn’t have enough passion or interest to write for myself when I got home from work. A friend kept urging me to write my family stories, a project I was planning for retirement. Then one day those stories started arriving in poems. I was hooked, and I started devoting myself to writing poetry in my spare time.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I’ve been writing a poem here or there since elementary school. But I only got serious about writing poetry about seven years ago. I’m a poet!
That’s still a surprise to me. Getting involved with The Writers Place, where I’m on the Board of Directors, helped me make connections and learn more about the craft. So I suppose I’m either an overnight success or a late bloomer, depending on whether one sees the glass as half full or half empty.
Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Feel free to discuss your writing space, the time of day you write or any rituals or visuals you might utilize to help you with your process.
Poetry doesn’t pay my bills. I spend my work week writing and editing, so I try not to pressure myself with a tight writing schedule at home. If I’m tired and force myself to write, it shows. I spend much more time reading poetry, which is a vital part of the process. When a few weeks go by without a poem, I begin to fret, but looking at artwork can usually jumpstart my writing. I’m a night owl, so I most often write when I get my second wind—after 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. Or I may just turn ideas over in my head all through the day–or several days–before sitting down to work on them. I have a cheerful, red study, full of books and my computer. But I prefer writing first drafts in my family room, sitting on a sofa with an afghan, tablet, and maybe a cat on my lap. Then I type the poems into my computer upstairs and begin the work of polishing. The most structured part of my writing process is my writing group. We try to meet about every six weeks. Because there are only three of us, we can critique quite a few poems in an hour. ANT (Alarie, Nancy, Tina) meetings give me the deadlines I need to make sure I keep writing. And I believe every writer benefits from constructive criticism.
Tell me about your first major publication.
Maybe it’s because I’m still new to poetry, but every publication is a thrill…and I’ve had about 50. My first poems appeared in The Kansas City Star, when John Mark Eberhart ran a poetry column in the Sunday paper. Not only did that give me real confidence to submit to literary journals, but I was read and complimented by people I know who wouldn’t have seen the poems in journals. I then branched into the local literary magazines, and we’re fortunate the Kansas City area is rich with them: Kansas City Voices, I-70 Review, Mid-America Poetry Review, Coal City Review, Little Balkans Review. I like submitting to local journals because of the opportunities to give readings and mingle with the other authors. It was a thrill when I had a poem published in Poetry East, because I was able to see my poem at Barnes & Noble. My poems have also appeared in Margie, English Journal, and ByLine Magazine. But, while It’s exciting to be in a volume beside poets I’ve admired for years, sending to little known journals can also have advantages. Finding a fledgling review, Touch:The Journal of Healing, on duotrope.com, gave me the opportunity to publish my first chapbook through their publishing branch, The Lives You Touch Publications. Spiraling into Control came out in July 2010 and is available on Amazon.
What are your creative goals, plans, or dreams for the immediate future?
I try to keep poems in circulation to publishers. If I’m waiting to hear from at least three editors, I find I’m less discouraged when a rejection notice rolls in. Often an okay will follow right behind it. Another chapbook would be nice, but publishing a full-length poetry book is my dream.