A Conversation with Alexei Perry Cox
Author of FINDING PLACES TO MAKE PLACES (Winner of 2019 Vallum Chapbook Award)
Interview by Natalie Podaima
Natalie Podaima (NP): Can you tell me a bit about the process of putting the book together—how did it come about?
Alexei Perry Cox (APC): With skepticism and love. I mean broadly I think the manuscript wants to explain the necessarily simultaneous failure and potential that exists as the heart of revolution. It also reveals that I personally feel the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a communal existence across time. And it’s also supposed to be a defense of poetry as a means to evoke the necessary accommodations human beings can make to survive what is unsurvivable.
NP: In the poem, “Matter,” you quote a number of poets (i.e. Kaveh Akbar, Claudia Rankine, etc.), but you also directly reference your own project, Finding Places to Make Places. These references/self-references give the feeling of a conversation, a back-and-forth dialogue between the speaker, the poets you’ve invited onto the page, and finally back to your collection. It really feels as if you’re using poetry as a kind of tool for collective discourse—is this in fact what you’re doing? To which degree do you keep your reader in mind in this conversation? Who do you feel like you’re writing to?
APC: Finding Places to Make Places was built from my thesis research actually, sort of an investigation of how poetry may be used as part of a current, cultural-critical discourse to make a unique statement about personhood. Lifelong, people had urged me to study more “useful” subjects but I maintained that specifically poetry could be useful in developing a new literary politics. Describing her own response to a barbed question from an audience member, “What use is poetry?” our recently departed Meena Alexander cited poetry as an alternative to history. She wrote, “We have poetry / So we do not die of history” and elaborated that the canon of historical great works is recorded only by those who were in a position to do so, and those having access to the power of public inscription. So for me, in this work, it was important to vary in both genre and voice to openly complicate and extend the canon and to do so from a space that is culturally coded as feminine and marginalized. For example, bringing to light positions that are non-European and other-ized. I wanted my manuscript to argue that non- male/non-canonized voices find in poetry a place for possibility. Claudia Rankine, as one of the writers you mentioned, confronts—as an African- American woman—the impossibility (and impossible complexity) of attempting to reconcile herself with a racist society and thus shows poetry’s unique ability to give some relief for impossible conditions. There is an answer to her question: “Do feelings lose their feeling / if they speak to a lack of feeling?” and it resonates as a potential, through negative ideal and disillusionment; a way to be understood in spite of under- recognition. That’s the kind of stuff that motivates me. Finding Places to Make Places, in its entirety, is really about that: making better places out of the current places we find ourselves.
When you ask who I’m writing for, it’s harder to answer, or harder for me to know still. In the same way that I feel an urgency to invite particular poets on to the page, I also know that it’s just the beginning of a conversation and a conversation that I want to have with as many people as possible, being a part of it by reading it and taking it into the dialogic natures of their own lives. By bringing to light the polyphony of voices that I do here, I guess I’m trying to argue against the poet’s task to unite us in our differences, to constitute some collective subject through the magic of language and prosody, one who speaking for her/him/zirself, could speak for every self. Instead I always want to look at the specificity and singularity of voice in authors whose rival virtues of pain and pleasure are alternatives to outright denunciations of poetic value. My dad reminded me recently that when I was a kid, I used to enthusiastically tell people “I love how you are doing things differently than I am doing things differently,” and I guess I’m still the same kid. Interested in the differences. And sharing them.
NP: I’ve seen you perform your work a number of times, and it’s such a pleasure hearing your poems aloud. In particular, you use silence in a very thoughtful way, your pauses allowing the listener a moment to reflect. I feel like this is also apparent on the page, in the structure of your poems: Finding Places to Make Places is laid out landscape style, each line flush with either the right or left side of the page, a column of space running down the centre. What is the significance of quiet in your work? And when you write, do you consider how your work will sound when performed aloud?
APC: I’m really touched you feel that way about hearing my work aloud. I always feel like a fully nervous wreck doing readings. I normally throw up before and flee immediately following. My fear is real and wild. So, my honest answer is that I use silence on stage for the same reason that I structure my poems like that. You pegged it exactly. I’m really interested in how we make choices, like the actual pivotal space in which we do so. That’s the reason why I structure things like that, and try to perform them like that too. It’s really scary to have to commit to your action and your ideas. It always takes this tipping of some weird internal scale to be able to do so. You go back and forth, left and right, but also always forward just by the logic of time passing. Probably when I’m writing, I don’t think about how it’s going to sound but that’s how it sounds in my head so I try to write it down that way.
NP: Your writing carries a kind of tenderness, while also capturing a kind of distrust in government systems. There are immense moments of hopefulness in the text, but you manage to present this optimism and human resilience without dispelling how dark these times can be, making reference to movements like #metoo and Idle No More. You write, “Oh, my daughter, how horrible and possible it is here” and end the book with the line: “At the moment of supreme violence and I can answer that I have become more ourselves.” How do you remain hopeful despite our current political landscape?
APC: I’m working on this project right now that is specifically about this distrust of government systems! It’s called Balance/Unbalance and it interrogates and negotiates the complications of injustices in various federal judicial systems as these injustices are presented in the works of contemporary poets. People like Canisia Lubrin, Megan Fernandes, Tess Liem, Kaveh Akbar, for the first iteration. It’s this ongoing interdisciplinary project that stems from Finding Places to Make Places and its research into poetic works generated during periods of revolution such as the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59, the Cultural Revolution in China of 1966-79, the Civil War of Lebanon of 1975-90 and the Arab Spring in the MENA region of 2010-11, as well as present revolutions in the lands officially known as the United States and Canada (the stuff specifically from the “Matter” section). It looks at the justice systems of each poet’s origin or domicile, interrogating the racist and classist and masculinist judgements that have been suffered under law, while incorporating interdisciplinary methods to critically engage with the resultant poetic works using film and theatre.
The injustices presented in our various published texts of poetry, as we are subjected to them under civil law, are recorded in a bifurcated form, written as if in dialogue, and this new text will be developed into my next manuscript I guess. The individual poets are also filmed reading excerpts from their work relevant to the questions of balance/unbalance and justice/injustice. Each writer performs their own reading of their own text and then the video readings are projected in split screen of the writers in discourse with each other, while I simultaneously engage with the material by reading my own work live on stage. It’s this act of both erasure and invention, I navigate and trigger the filmed clips to create anew an imaginative act of regeneration each time it is performed. The recitations are changed each time, shifting focus to different concerns
as the conversation continues. In this process I reveal how justice and the various systems of justice can only be kept from their injustices by perpetual conversation, for the creation of more tenable respectful treatments of each other. I mean, perhaps I’m not hopeful really but it feels less lonely when at least you’re talking about how disillusioned we collectively feel! The tenderness in the writing is the fact that I feel love, no matter how dark things are. It’s the Bertolt Brecht idea I guess:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Natalie Podaima is a poet and writer living in Montreal. She is the director of Bookdance, an audiobook-publishing project. Learn more at
Alexei Perry Cox is the author of the poetry collection, Under Her, and short fiction collection, To Utter a Life’s Sentence. Her work has appeared in various iterations in The Puritan, carte blanche, CV2, Hart House Review, Vallum, Makhzin / مخزن , Matrix, Cosmonauts Avenue, Rusted Radishes, Journal Safar (سف جورنالجورنال ), The Beijinger, Lemonhound, and elsewhere.