by Jen Hudgens

Aly Allen is a trans poet, parent, & veteran. She is the author of Paying for Gas with Quarters (Middle West Press). Recent publications include One Art Poetry, Two Hawks Quarterly, & new words (press). She holds an MFA creative writing from Oklahoma State University, where she now teaches.

I had the privilege of reading Paying for Gas with Quarters. The book engages the reader in chaos simultaneously existing in the body and memory of a survivor, veteran, and parent who begins to unravel the generational consequences of trauma. Aly was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work.

JH: Aly, thank you for allowing me to read your collection Paying for Gas with Quarters. I am curious about the use of silence vs the use of sound in this collection. The echoing of Tinnitus felt like a way to balance out the sensory overload while in the midst of even the simplest of moments. Those memories that blink or flicker, causing a loss of connection/time. Can you please tell me a little bit about how it feels when you read these poems on the page vs when you read them out loud, to an audience? Does the sound or lack thereof reverberate in the retelling?

AA: I want to say thank you for reading my book and for spending time talking about writing and craft. wanted to use the Tinnitus poems and silence in different ways. In an early draft, none of the Tinnitus poems were listed in the Table of Contents, they were, to me, “hidden” in this way and came out of nowhere, just as the ringing in the ears does, but the silence they generated in this way was too noticeable. They needed to be a more complete part of the book and not an easter egg or overemphasized distraction. The silence within the poems is also more effective  when they are listed, and even if you know its coming, the idea of sound as disruption was one I wanted to use with Tinnitus, but also with silence. I think the Tinnitus poems in particular sort of ring in my head when I read them just on the page, when read aloud they sing in way that also provides an underlying thread of music in the book. 

I recently read all the Tinnitus poems together at an event, it got strong reactions from the audience, it also felt like putting them all together like that was the hidden treasure, that they were verses from the same song of pain, grief, & debilitating moments.

JH: Poems such as “Daddy” really resonated with me due to my complicated relationship with my own father. I sat with that piece for a while, reading it over and over until it really set into my bones. It’s such a complicated thing to connect how our relationships with ourselves can influence those around us, especially our parent/child relationships. I’m not a parent but I’ve heard my father’s voice echo at the back of my throat a few times. My mother’s too. I wonder in “Daddy,” did you hear the sound of your own voice, or that of your father’s when this moment happened? Did it shake you? Did it still you? 

AA: There are definitely multiple voices present in the poem. “Daddy” is rooted in a moment of realization, when I heard my father’s voice coming through in my parenting, something I always swore I’d never do. Like many of us, I was intent on breaking that curse and realized I’d inherited more than I wanted; it was devastating and eye-opening and it was a catalyst for change, because it meant I was passing on things I did not intend to my children. When I wrote the poem I wanted it to devastate the reader, or more accurately myself, I also wanted to conflate the voice of my parent and me as parent and to make sure it shook me wide awake anytime I returned to it.

JH: Who/what are your greatest creative influences that helped shape your vision for this collection? How was the experience of putting the collection together? What is your hope for this collection? Who is your intended audience? How did the shape of the audience determine the poems included/left out of the book?

AA: Janine Joseph, Lisa Lewis, Laura Minor, and John Andrews all provided feedback on early drafts and shapes of the manuscript. They pointed out what was coming through and what was not when the poems were all put into conversation, and what the book as a whole was missing, which led to major revisions; the collection originally started with a twenty-page nonfiction essay. At first, I wanted to do something like Claudia Rankine in Citizen, create an unflinching documentary, but my collection lacked the multimodality and in early versions it needed to confess and address more, but I wanted it to feel honest and important. I think about Layli Long Soldier when I think about how to use the page, silence, and white space, but also along those docupoetic lines of Rankine, both powerful female voices revealing what is in front of us in the most profound ways. I think of “Labyrinths” by Oliver de la Paz when I think about writing about, or perhaps for, my kids in moments. I definitely considered epics, like The Iliad and Odyssey when putting the book together, especially with the sections, the idea of a journey that goes to the underworld (or starts in it with mine) to reveal a truth buried in the past, the painful growth, and redefining what a hero might be. I also tried to evoke the cathartic nature of writing and storytelling in the same ways Brian Doerries for veterans and trauma survivors. And of course, anytime I’m writing about death, I hope to do so in playful, poignant ways like Dickinson.

The intended audience is anyone who has experienced trauma, anyone who has struggled to break generational curses, and anyone who has sought the tiniest dot of light in overwhelmingly dark places.

JH: Where do you see your writing going over the next year or five? I know you’ve been working on some creative nonfiction, can you please tell me more about that? 

AA: I want to get another chapbook, or two, and another full-length poetry collection published in the next few years. I’d also like to finish and publish a CNF collection of essays that is approaching trauma in ways both parallel and perpendicular to my poetry book.

JH: When was the last time you felt unabashed joy when creating? 

AA: I often feel joy when I am writing a poem by hand, and very often my thought when finished with a draft is not “that is a good poem” but rather, “that poem felt good.” When I am writing for myself, or dictating for the muses, it feels good. When I am writing for others, it often feels like something is missing, like a poem is not done.

JH: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 

AA: I think a piece of writing advice that always sticks with me is to recognize when a poem is done. Kevin Prufer taught us to pay attention to what revisions do, and the moment a revised draft starts to feel like it is getting worse, it is time to go back a draft, to undo changes.

JH: Where can folks find you on the interwebs? What is the best way to buy your book?

AA: Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book, and also to talk about it with me! You can find my on Instagram and Threads @notasquirrel. Paying for Gas with Quarters is available in Kindle and print through Amazon.

Paying for Gas with Quarters by Aly Allen embraces the unreliability of memory. Anxiously but delicately balancing triggers that mutually connect/disconnect from the experience of every tense moment. The collection ends in a quieted chaos, with a glimmer of hope. There is something on the other side of survival, and sometimes, it is beauty.