Alice B. Fogel and the Mystery of Poetry

Friday, September 27, 2013
Four years ago, the poet Alice B. Fogel wrote Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader. It’s a primer for people who, when confronted with reading contemporary poetry, or perhaps any poetry, feel a kind of sweaty anxiety and nervous reluctance.

What if they don’t understand it? Why do some poems seem deliberately obscure? Why do poems seem to wander all over the page, or break at odd places in the line, stranding words on an outgoing tide? Why don’t they rhyme in comforting, predictable ways?

Fogel, who lives in Acworth, N.H., starts Strange Terrain by describing what happens when she tells people she’s a poet. “I often experience a sensation of wind — my partner in conversation has backed off just enough to let more air circulate between us, as if it were viral.”

When she has presented Strange Terrain to groups, she said, she has sometimes encountered not just puzzlement but belligerence, as if she, and other poets, were trying to pull a fast one on the reader. What Strange Terrain, which alternates her poems with analyses of the different poetic techniques and styles she uses, tries to do, she said, is to “unravel the mystery of poetry.”

The mystery of poetry extends not only to the reading of it, but the writing of it. Fogel isn’t interested in what she calls confessional poetry, or poetry as personal catharsis. “When I say ... I don’t like writing about my life, I really mean it,” she said. “I’m much more interested in perception and different takes on reality and how we can express the inner life we share with the whole planet.”

The “I” that pops up in poems and prose and theater is, she said, “a construct anyway. Anything we read, whether it’s memoirs or poems, we’re presenting a kind of a self. But it’s not the same self we present to the world when we go out grocery shopping or hang out with friends.”

Fogel likes to set herself challenges with her poems. She might tell herself that “in every poem you write, use the word `I’ at least once.” She might arbitrarily cut three or seven lines out of a draft, to see how it affects the shape and energy of the poem. Or she’ll take one of the last syllables of one line and repeat it in the next line.

“The “I” challenge came from thinking that whatever you think you know about how to write a poem or how not to is just one more clue that you should do just the opposite,” she wrote in an email. “I mean this both in a sense of fun and a serious opportunity for surprise.” 

Forcing herself to work within these self-imposed constraints is a way of not falling back on old habits or tendencies. Matisse, she wrote, is reputed to have arranged the props for a still-life so that it looked a certain way from one side, but then subverted his intentions by walking around to paint the still-life from the other side.

Nominated to be the next New Hampshire Poet Laureate, Fogel will find out in October whether she is appointed to the post. She teaches writing at Keene State College and also works at the academic support center at Landmark College in Putney, Vt., which teaches students with such learning difficulties as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. She’s lived in Acworth with her husband and three children since 1997.

Her poems have been published in Green Mountains Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetica, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry 1993, and the Boston Globe, among others, and they have been praised by two U.S. Poet Laureates, Robert Hass and Charles Simic, for their complexity and intelligence. Simic called her “a poet alert to every nuance of the inner life, a true phenomenologist of the soul.” She’s had four books published, including Strange Terrain; her most recent book of poetry, Be That Empty, was published by Harbor Mountain Press in Brownsville.

“If not for a small press with only the merest of budgets, Alice B. Fogel should be a household name — in homes where poems still matter — alongside Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty. Fogel’s poems are that good,” wrote Peter Money, Harbor Mountain Press’ publisher, in an email. “Alice’s poems begin to sound like fables, which is why they are enticing, and then you realize the fable is really only language — a thing that seems so desperate in times of live feed and instant images — and you understand how fragile the whole thing is, that what will wake us, save us, is language.”

Fogel, whose euphonious name alone would seem to have destined her for a literary career, grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Her father was a pediatric psychiatrist and her mother a dietician and then a librarian; both were of a literary bent and encouraged her interest in writing.

She began writing stories at age 5, although, she said, “I didn’t think in terms of growing up and wanting to be a poet.” But prose was unsatisfying to her in the long run. “I did think I wasn’t very good at it, my thinking was abstract.” She began reading and writing poetry in earnest in high school.

After studying English literature at Antioch College in Ohio, she moved to New York and worked in theatrical design and costuming, which brought her to Portsmouth in 1983, where she worked for a theater company. While there she decided to apply to M.F.A. programs in writing and eventually studied at the University of New Hampshire, as well as taking seminars with poets Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell. She’d found her metier.

“I love the collapse of time in poetry that explodes outward,” she said. She also learned that while abstraction was integral to her work, she had to learn how to write concrete images, based in her observations of life around her, and nature in particular.

“Being too abstract doesn’t work,” she said.

But she doesn’t shy away from it either. She is working on two manuscripts: one inspired by the paintings of Abstract Expressionism, and the other based on her wanderings on the Appalachian Trail. In a way, writing poems that reflect her responses to modern art isn’t dissimilar from the reactions she sometimes gets from readers of poetry. There’s wonderment, puzzlement, excitement, unease, the desire to describe and explain — and sometimes, no apparent reaction at all.

“I’m trying to capture the lack of cognition that happens when a person looks at art that he doesn’t immediately understand. When you look at it, what do you think? Where do you go?”

When people stand in front of pieces of 20th- and 21st-century art, with their squiggles, squares, washes of color, repeated images, steel blocks and wands of light, anything can happen intellectually, Fogel said. “Sometimes we free associate, we might think about a memory or we might get descriptive — I see a blue line and a green blob — but sometimes we think in existential terms.”

There’s the life of the mind, and then there’s the life of the body, and the two are complementary. Walking is as much a part of Fogel’s life as writing is. She has walked from Acworth to Walpole, a distance of about 15 miles — just because. She has hiked alone along 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. “It’s a meditation, a walking meditation,” she said of the experience of being on the trail. “There are days when I’m just high and ecstatic.”

She has never run into problems on the trail, although, in Connecticut, she was startled to encounter a large black bear that stared at her before running off; and the rigorous climbs in New Hampshire test a hiker’s mettle. “The New Hampshire terrain is so difficult, and yet,” she said with a rueful expression, “I broke my foot in my livingroom.”

The day before the interview, walking down a short flight of stairs, she’d slipped and fallen. A relatively long recovery period awaited, which she wasn’t looking forward to. She wouldn’t be able to drive, she would have to rely on her family and friends to get her around and she wouldn’t be able to walk.

A few weeks later, she said, she’s gotten over feeling sorry for herself and has been able to edit her manuscripts, although writing new poetry will probably wait until she is free of the cast on her leg. In any case, Fogel is in no rush, and she never has been when it comes to output. “I’m not counting the quantity. I just want to make it part of my life; I need to make it part of my life.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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