Disappointing Alice cover

In my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Rachel Piercey about her poetry pamphlet Disappointing Alice (HappenStance)…


“Alice was a disappointer
of people she loved and who loved her.”
(‘Deep in the Desert’)

Your pamphlet is called ‘Disappointing Alice’ – a wonderfully evocative yet enigmatic title that immediately makes me want to read the pamphlet. Why Alice? And how do elements of this apply to, or make themselves felt across, these poems?

Thank you! The pamphlet had a few possible titles but now I can’t imagine it being called anything else. Alice in the poem is a kind of nexus for many of the pamphlet’s explorations. She’s caught up in people’s expectations – but then some of those expectations are reasonable. She’s looking for and losing connections. She herself wants more from people than, probably, they can give. She feels abstractly harried; she is anxious. She uses drama and hyperbole to get her point across. Her problems are no doubt amplified by technology, but they are also eternal human concerns, so I enjoyed using a variety of registers to express them.

The name ‘Alice’ can never be free of the associations of Wonderland and I like that. Wonderland Alice has a kind of eternal, fluid symbolism, attached to and detached from the context of the actual book. She exists in so many versions, she is used to sell so many things, but she never quite loses her charm. She’s brave and inquisitive and has very human reactions to events. My Alice benefits from the symbolism of Carroll’s Alice – just by using her name, especially in combination with a disconcerting adventure – even as her sense of self crumbles apart. Maybe there’s also a hint that this could be a new manifestation of Carroll’s Alice, tumbling down an unfamiliar modern rabbit hole.

But equally important was that the name worked, sonically. I had the word ‘arid’ early on, it was exactly the word I wanted to describe being emotionally exhausted, and the name ‘Alice’ chimed so beautifully.

I am interested in role models – the ones we choose and the ones we are given. Alice is failing to find or be someone admirable, but I hope she is relatable, which in turn might make her a funny kind of comforting example. Many of the characters in my poems are at some point in the process of defining themselves against or within a set of symbols and expectations, for better or worse.

“I would scream until my voice
smashed […]”
(‘Glass Slipper’)

This is one of many striking lines that really caught my attention. Could you talk about fairytales and the potential ideals or role models that appear and/or are subverted in this pamphlet?

I like the ‘and/or’! I want to probe these pervasive and harmful ideals – which often relate to the concept of a woman’s proper conduct and therefore ‘marriageability’ – but it’s important to me to honestly represent how seductive I find them, as well. Cinderella has very little agency, like most fairytale ‘heroines’, and I think she’s a terrible role model for young girls, but oh the world she lives in is gorgeous: soft, glittery, romantic. I can’t dismiss that appeal and, for me, any interrogation must acknowledge it. Likewise with the age of chivalry. The women are so passive – but that whole aesthetic, and the idea of courtly love, knights and maidens, tugs on some gold-brocaded part of my imagination. (I can’t be the only one, look at Game of Thrones.) I want to be upfront about my ambivalence.

I also want to be upfront when I am sure of my role models! The pamphlet features two of my heroines, Kate Bush and Amelia Earheart, as well as a poem in praise of some of my favourite women from The Archers, and poems where Eve, Miranda from The Tempest and Anne from Famous Five turn away decisively from the suffocating elements of their lives. Some literary / pop cultural / societal ‘types’ are oppressive, but some are fun to engage and play with. One of the many reasons I adore Kate Bush is that she tries on so many roles (lover, mother, child, witch, ghost, pilot, rocket, soldier…) making them her own and then springing gracefully on to the next.

The cultural allusions in these poems are wide-ranging and always intriguing. Be it Enid Blyton, the Bible or ‘The Archers’, park gardens, the sea or aviation history, each poem takes a striking and unusual ‘slant’ on its subject matter. What are your main sources of inspiration and influences, in this pamphlet, and more generally?

I would find it hard to pinpoint any main sources of inspiration, outside of reading as widely as possible. I was lucky enough to study Latin at A Level, which encouraged my interest in classical literature and etymology, and then my degree was in English Literature – three glorious years of reading a thousand years’ worth of prose and poetry. I find the sheer breadth of contemporary poetry giddily inspiring. There’s a sense of freedom at the moment – I don’t feel bound to write in any particular style, or on any particular theme. The poets I have always gone back to and back to are Mary Oliver, Philip Larkin, Alice Oswald, Kathryn Maris. Recently, I’ve been deeply struck by Tara Bergin, Dorothy Molloy, Melissa Range… Oh, it’s hard to narrow it down. I’m loving Deaf Republic (Ilya Kaminsky) and Flèche (Mary Jean Chan) right now. Reading any collection and watching that poet leap again and again into the mystery is the most inspiring thing of all.

I’ve always got my ears and eyes open – when a concept and a feeling come together and shimmer a bit, I know I’ve got something to work with. Misreadings and mishearings can be productive. That’s how I started ‘Complaint’ – I thought I heard someone say something about gardens writing letters to each other. It was actually nothing of the sort, but I loved the idea, and I’ve always been interested in Georgian era design. I wrote ‘The Sea of Marriageability’ after a stargazing event with some friends – they showed me a map of the moon, and I noticed the Mare Nubium. My Latin is a little hazy now, and my brain went to ‘nubile’ and ‘nuptials’, though the actual meaning is ‘The Sea of Clouds’. I wondered what a ‘Sea of Marriageability’ might look like and wrote to find out. Though now I’m looking up the etymology, it turns out ‘nuptials’ and ‘nubile’ originate from the word ‘clouds’, as in ‘to cover or veil oneself for a bridegroom’. Another poem?!

In another life, I would have liked to study biology, and be working in some way with woodland. I love trees – I made a conscious effort to learn to identify them a few years ago, which has been very rewarding. There is something powerful and connecting about being able to name something. But that raises interesting questions too – why do I find it so important to be able to name something wild and natural? Is it respectful or is it a kind of human imposition or insertion? I am really interested in the interaction between humans and nature: how we conceive of it, adore it, use it up. Thinking about this is more urgent, now, than ever.

Rachel Piercey

Given the title ‘Disappointing Alice’, I want to ask what you feel are the hardest types of disappointment to deal with, in life and in poetry? Also, about the possibilities of disappointing (expectations, demands, impositions…) as a potentially positive and active form of defiance?

Disappointment is a funny one. The word itself is almost fussy, bureaucratic. It means ‘to deprive of a position’ and in a way, when it’s focused outwards, it’s the language of complaint letters. You are disappointed that your train was delayed, or your favourite lipstick is discontinued. But it’s a gut-wrenching emotion when it’s focused inwards, when you’ve disappointed yourself, or someone else being disappointing feels personally directed. Then it’s a polite word for something very painful. I wanted to play with both levels in the Alice poem.

Disappointment in poetry… well, rejections are an obvious one! Sometimes they really get you. But in the sense of day-to-day writing, I get disappointed with my practice when I know I’ve got a good idea but I’m in a hurry to get the poem finished, and so I skim over or allude to the heart of the issue, rather than digging deep and submitting myself to multiple redrafts. I’m trying to work on that.

I think several of the characters in my pamphlet embrace their ability to disappoint tired and damaging stereotypes: Miranda, Eve, Anne from Famous Five, the speaker inspired by Kate Bush to reject the tropes of ‘chaste’, ‘whore’ and ‘witch’. I am proud of the fire in these poems. But then other poems just try to lay disappointment and anxiety bare, without offering solutions – I find reading poems that do this comforting, and I like the idea of offering that perspective to another reader.

At the same time, I’m interested in how certain expectations and responsibilities can anchor and connect us to other people. My poems about pilots and the idiosyncratically supportive women of The Archers probably speak most to that idea. The daily predictability of Susan, Lynda and Kate creates a rounded and reassuring radio world; they are like reliable friends, which I enjoy testing out in an extreme hypothetical situation in the poem. So I hope that Disappointing Alice comes at the notion of disappointment from multiple perspectives.

What haven’t I asked that the pamphlet would absolutely insist that I should question? And what is the answer?

I want to tell you about the peacock in ‘Love’! I really admire the Australian painter Sidney Nolan and I went to an exhibition of his work a few years ago, which included his Ned Kelly series. There was one painting of a policeman being scared off by a peacock – apparently people used to use peacocks as watchdogs, because they could see for up to two miles. I just loved this fact. The Ned Kelly element fell away, but for me this poem exists in the queasily saturated, frenzied world of those paintings. I heartily recommend taking a look.

Disappointing Alice cover

Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘Disappointing Alice’?

If you’d like to buy a copy – and thank you very much! – please visit the HappenStance website: https://www.happenstancepress.com/ As well as a webshop full of exquisite publications, the website also contains an inspiring and extremely useful blog and a link to the unique One Point of Interest review site. Nell is a wonderful editor and HappenStance is a wonderful press – do consider becoming a supporter, you will receive all sorts of generous goodies in return.

Thank you, Sarah, for your careful readings and insightful questions.

Thank you, Rachel, for these wonderful insights into ‘Disappointing Alice’, your role models, influences and inspiration.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.
My OPOI (One Point of Interest) review of Disappointing Alice can be found on Sphinx here. And my second, complementary, micro-review here.