The Bookshelf: Poet Alice Fogel's 'A Doubtful House' Takes on Relationships, Living Space

Apr 14, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice Fogel. In her new collection, poet Alice Fogel makes a house come alive. It can fly, it can support, it can contain, it can expand, and it can serve as a sort of proving ground or cradle for a long relationship. The collection, called A Doubtful House, is a lyric exploration of identity and living space and how the two connect. 

Fogel has appeared previously on The Bookshelf from NHPR, and you can find  her top five reading recommendations here. Scroll  down to read the transcript of her conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello.

An excerpt from A Doubtful House, published by Bauhan. Note: some browsers may incorrectly shift line breaks. 

Walls

Go ahead expose the beams
                                                         try the open concept subdued by love seats
islands and throw rugs but please
                             don’t complain about the walls each Sheetrocked one once
plastered by a different hand in a different subtle
                                                                    design stripe swirl half moon wave
hello to each fingerprint of someone like you
                                                                have these slogans tear down the walls
don’t put up walls that offend the house wants you to know
                                                                                            you misunderstand walls
are boundaries everyone needs
                                                                      some civilizing factor some structure
to hide behind to hold up
                                                       the stories and the roof have a little backbone
i.e. a wall
                                                                                                    has windows and doors
maybe you should talk more about doors
                                deceptive ones like pocket doors submissive folding doors
fussy latches defensive locks and nervous keys what about knobs
                                                                                       let’s talk about knobs not walls
because who controls you not the walls
                                                                       identify and organize yours from yours
inside from outside in here over there compartmentalize like parts
                                                                   of your brains areas where to be together
or not are natural options to balance
                      individual taste in framing and paint colors places for your things
thrown or dropped yours hung or shelved we all
                                                                feel a little vulnerable sometimes need
a little personal space and boundaries
                                                               are not endings but definitions to rest within
lean against pass through
                                                               remember those knobs retreat back through
now houselings square up
                                                                                   this wall between you and the walls
with how you love suspense a tease a glimpse
                                              around a corner these angles you step into and out of
shadow and light hour by hour freed through doorways
                                                                                       waiting or moving down the halls
you know those times when you sit in a room
                                                                       and it’s nice the house tucked around you
like a vow how could you
                                                                                                                                without walls

This is just one of many examples of how a part of a house becomes almost personified. It becomes a character in itself. It has a role. And, of course, there are words like “fussy,” “defensive,” “nervous”—these are things people can become. I was wondering how you managed to deconstruct the house like that and then reconstruct it almost like a person.

In most of my books, most of my writing, I do everything I can to avoid the word “I.” I think the word “I” is in this book once and it’s in quotes because it’s the house referring to itself.

In this book, I was taking the house as my alter ego and letting the house talk to its inhabitants. It talks to all its inhabitants as “you” so that’s why I might say “you” and “you.” It’s not in the first person, the house, but it’s from the house’s point of view. It’s looking at the people in it, saying, “Come on people. What are you doing?” And caring about the people.

It actually became really fun as a project to go around the house and look at how many things are in the house that are symbolic and represent things. The cracks in the floorboards. Our associations. The kitchen sink. The attic. The basement.

The things in the house, the tchotchkes that you gather as proof of having once not been inside the house, laying them all over.

Right.

And some of the lines when you’re exploring little bits of life inside the house—the closet line, for example: “If you want to know the truth/of who you are, then open up/the door to that closet.” That works for me on so many levels.

It was really actually pretty easy to use the house in such a way, where it was becoming representative of all those aspects of humans and relationships.

There are two humans in the poem. There’s no “I” for the most part, but there are hints that there’s a relationship evolving and, for me, the book makes me think about relationships. Who is the individual that’s part of a pair? That one line in “Walls”: “Boundaries are not endings but definitions to rest within.” It really spoke to the need to maintain some kind of individuality when you are in a very close relationship, especially over so many years.

Right. That’s, I think, any long-term commitment. You really have to examine where the boundaries are and where you’re willing to go. That’s what I was doing with the syntax as well and the layout on the page is—our radio listeners cannot see—the way they look on the page is that they line up on both margins like two sides of a room and lines reach towards each other from the two sides and sometimes overlap and sometimes pull away from each other. So visually it’s doing what happens in a long-term relationship. And also syntactically, because I’m overlapping. Sometimes we finish each other’s sentences. Sometimes we leave sentences hanging. So I’m overlapping in those ways, too—trying to aurally mimic what happens in a relationship.

There are sometimes where it’s really dense, where it moves very quickly and there are other times when it slows down quite a bit. We see this in “Walls.” As you read them, you really have to take a moment to get around these overlapping lines.

That’s great. I’m really enjoying your reading of this. So you’re seeing how many ways you can read a phrase. It can finish the last phrase into a sentence, and it can start a new one, or it can be something on its own. So there’s definitely a lot of recursivity you have to do, if that’s a word. You have to keep going back and look and say, “What was that?”

Which is something you do in relationships, right? “What did they say just then? What did they mean by that?”

Right. What are the different ways I can interpret that and why?

So what do you hope readers and listeners take away from these poems?

I hope that a lot of people can find themselves in the poems in thinking about all the different ways of how they relate in relationships—the overlap of identity and trying to maintain oneself by giving oneself and receiving another.

I also hope that they really enjoy the play of language and what language and syntax can do on a page or in our ears, in our minds.