Ali Blythe is the author of three books exploring trans-poetics: the debut collection Twoism, the follow-up Hymnswitch, and the forthcoming Stedfast, all with Gooselane-Icehouse. His award-winning work has been called intelligent, charming, jangly, jarring, moody, dreamy and a little bit deadly. He lives in Quadra Village.
Interviewed by Barbara Pelman
Barbara Pelman (BP): This is a work in progress, I understand. Can you tell a bit about where you would like it to go? Is your focus on the image (the swan in mythology) or the theme of transformation, or something else? Or both?
Ali Blythe (AB): You know, I’m not used to talking about works in progress. It’s a little bit like you’ve been living in a hotel room, and all you have to do there is sew this outfit that’s a perfect second skin, it’s so akin to you. At some point the time comes for the performance of being in the world, and you’re going to have to let people see it. That it’s made of clouds and arrows or whatever.
The theme, in that way, is always transformation. The image arises in pursuit.
BP: I love the ballet references: Nijinsky, Swan Lake, Kschessinska. Why did you choose to write about this ballet? (A fellow lover of ballet maybe?)
AB: I do love the ballet. I saw Swan Lake when I was a kid and was totally mesmerized. I won’t lie and say that it didn’t have a lot to do with the body. What you got to see in those smooth white tights. With no one explaining anything except with movement.
I wanted to write about a male ballet dancer. And then I found Nijinsky. He was the first gay superstar, really. He had an incredible life, marked by both triumph and tragedy. And my lord, he could leap. I had a dream that he (I) was asked how he (I) could jump so high and he (I) said well you just jump, then pause, then jump from your jump.
When he and Kschessinska performed Swan Lake in London, 1911, it was right as audiences were being introduced to modern choreography and more challenging composers. There were riots, apparently, when they watched Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913, with Nijinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky’s composition.
But this was a classical story. With Nijinksy as the prince and Kschessinska dancing both the part of the white swan/ Odette and the black swan/Odile. The whole problem starts when the prince is bamboozled by a spell and chooses the wrong love. But really, it’s the same person dancing. Don’t worry, you want to say…your eternal love is your eternal love.
It is also interesting to me that the “feminine” dancers transform and change but the men always stay men. Until Matthew Bourne’s version in 2018.
BP: Your choice of couplets is also intriguing. I remember a talk with Arleen Paré about the choices of stanza length—whether you choose a couplet, a tercet, a quatrain, or none at all, and how each choice functions differently. How is the couplet an effective choice for your poem?
AB: I have always used consistent stanzas in poems. Whether couplets, tercets or quatrains or whatever five and six is. Once, seven, I think. Never free form. (Well, just once I broke form. The final line of Twoism is out there on its own.)
It gives me such a sense of relief and happiness to 1) think about the number that best suits the poem and why, and then 2) to have to live within it. This is the first time I’ve written a whole book with just one type, the couplet.
I loved it. This is a book of love poems, so I like the two-thing of the couplets. And to try to make these spacious, flowing, precise, magical things in the small amount of space couplets afford you—that’s a good time to me.
I try to imagine one can also do the same thing with one’s own body and its constraints.
BP: Swan Lake is such a rich haul of transformation issues, betrayal, ‘two spirit’ suggestions, and of course loss—which is the theme of all poems, eh? How did you come to this choice to write about? And the other references—I will have fun looking them up. Would you add footnotes, or leave it to the readers to do their own research?
AB: No, I won’t do footnotes. Some people’s footnotes are really wonderful, but mine wouldn’t be. Though I’m now imagining the way the floor looks after a century of dancing. Those footnotes.
BP: “We swan in the follow spot”—what a lovely statement! I’m not sure what it means, but it’s delicious anyway. Which brings me to the idea of what is ‘obscure’ in a poem and what needs to be developed. When the poet knows what they mean, how far do they need to go to persuade the reader? And similarly, how ‘subjective’ is the poem to the reader? How does the poet guide the reader to meaning? Or do they need to?
AB: Well, that line has a few meanings.
In the poem, the sun is finally just rising, and things could maybe be getting a little sexy. So the two are swanning about in that.
But it’s also about Swan Lake, as you say, so you could see the two dancers under the main follow spot lighting of the stage.
And finally, I suppose, I’m asking the reader to come with me, to follow the beam of light I cast from myth to myth, as they dissolve one into another.
BP: And the title?
AB: “Or else swoon” is poem 27 of 28 of my new collection, Stedfast. The book takes Keats’s final sonnet before he died, “Bright Star”, and breaks it into 28 poems. So the first is “Bright Star”, then ‘Would I Were Stedfast” and “As thou art” and so on “To death—” with this swoon right beforehand.
I was thinking about refuge when I wrote the book. What makes a poem a place of refuge. For some reason this poem kept coming back to me. With its perfect first line and the wonderful word “stedfast” with its missing letter “a”.
(With the titles I was careful to use the very first unedited version of Keats’s poem, which he scribbled into a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets next to “A Lover’s Complaint”.)
I was wanting to believe in a steadfast love. So I was writing into that, too.
So I made Keats’s poem an actual home, a place of refuge, for me and my poems and my love.
The whole thing takes place over one night, in bed next to a sleeping lover. It’s an apostrophe through and through, and self-awaredly so.
At “Or else swoon” the book kind of busts open right before the ending. The two careen across the floor, performing myth that spills into myth: the or, or, or.
My kind of night.
Anyway, it’s a small book. One you might read in a sitting.
BP: Ali, I can’t wait to read the whole collection! Such a rich poem, this one. Each time I read it, more flows out of it.