A. Prevett discusses their poem “Explication on a Nude Photograph Taken After Hours at the Bright Beach” in the Fall 2021 Southern Indiana Review and their background as a writer.
Sarah Doan: Thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview! First, I’d like to learn a little about your background as a writer. How did you get your start? What first inspired you to become a writer?
A. Prevett: Writing didn’t show up in my life until just before my senior year of high school. I was, at that age, very determined to become a successful musician (I was a mediocre guitar player obsessed with artists like Iron & Wine and Bon Iver), so songwriting, rather than poetry, was what first made me want to put pen to paper. I tried a few times to write a song, but realized quickly that I had no idea what I was doing; that anyone could meld words to music suddenly seemed impossibly difficult, and I grew pretty discouraged (how very teenage of me to give up at the first sign of difficulty). What surprised me, though, was how much I enjoyed the act of writing lyrics; even if I couldn’t put them to music, I felt like putting words together made sense in a way that I hadn’t realized before (it helped that it was a great emotional outlet, too). So, I decided that if I couldn’t be a musician, I could at least give writing a shot. And now here I am, somehow finishing an MFA in poetry; the path between A and B was a strange and dizzying one.
SD: According to your bio on your website, you specialize in the genres of poetry and prose. Now of course there is a general difference between poetry and prose, but for you personally, how do you approach writing each of these genres differently? What are your goals when writing a piece of poetry versus a piece of prose? What do you, as an author of both poetry and prose, prefer to focus on when writing each of the genres?
AP: It’s with some shame that I must admit I haven’t actually written any prose in almost two years, so I’m not confident I can even say what my mindset for approaching prose looks like nowadays. But I think instinct and intuition are, or at least were, trustworthy allies; I had a good sense of which ideas and observations felt more appropriate for poetry or for prose and tended to depend on that. A good rule of thumb I practice now is that if there’s too much to say in one poem, it’s probably an essay instead (at which point I file the idea away for some distant future me who actually writes essays).
No matter what genre I’m working in, I’d say being innovative and exciting at the line level is always my first and most important goal: I want to place words next to each other that no one would expect to see in the same room.
SD: It is often the case that writers incorporate the same general kinds of topics and images in many of their works, whether intentionally or unintentionally. What kinds of topics and images do you feel you tend to gravitate toward the most in your writing? Related, how do you think these common topics and images represent you and your authorial style?
AP: I’m always writing about animals, usually birds but often other small woodland creatures like chipmunks and squirrels and such. I have an admiration for nature (as most poets do, I suppose), and am especially drawn to the strange and cumulative circumstances that caused these animals to take the forms and habits they do (isn’t it weird that a frog and an ant are made of the same things but have such different lives?) I’m envious of them, too, because they live so simply; they aren’t burdened by things like rent or credit card debt or careers or student loan debt or police or racism or xenophobia or TERFs or capitalism or war. How much more fulfilled they must be than us.
I also write a lot about the body and about the intersection of bodies with one another, and about how strange it is to be me and not you or anyone else. And as a trans woman, I’m also constantly and compulsively viewing my body from the outside, imagining how other people perceive me and whether their views of myself line up with my own; this comes up a lot in my work, too.
SD: What inspired “Explication on a Nude Photograph Taken After Hours at the Bright Beach”?
AP: So, this poem is actually the companion poem of another poem of mine, “Oil and Dye Afloat in Water” (shout out to Sixth Finch for publishing that one). In that poem, the speaker is a trans woman wearing a bikini to the beach for the first time, and as she’s in the ocean crying at the sunset, she’s imagining someone on the beach, witnessing this and deciding to incorporate it into the painting they’re doing. In “Explication on a Nude…,” the same speaker is home from the beach, changing out of the swimsuit and taking some photos for fun along the way. Both of those poems draw from an actual experience of mine, where, at a beach in Florida last August, I wore a gender-affirming bathing suit in public for the first time ever, which was exhilarating but also an extremely heavy emotional moment. Nobody was painting on the beach at the time, but I’d just seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire and was fixated on the idea of portraiture for a moment, the idea of being shown how you appear to someone else, of trying to find the common ground between their perception and your own. Then, as you might have guessed, I went home and took some selfies in the bikini, which I saw as a different kind of viewing, where my own agency was still intact, and I could frame myself how I wanted.
Together, I see these two poems/moments as emblematic of my own shift in thinking towards my body: I was initially ashamed, but then came freedom, confidence, joy, and with them, a comfortability with sharing those feelings with others.
SD: In “Explication on a Nude…,” your speaker explores the relationships between nature, language, and exposing oneself both literally and figuratively. Specifically, the speaker mentions language when they say near the end, “There’s an art to this. / In it, a grammar, sweet syntax. I am writing / a letter to you in fragments….” In this part of the poem, the lines are each differently indented, in a way becoming “fragments” of the poem themselves. How do you feel these and similarly structured “fragments” in the rest of the poem work together to amplify the main ideas of your speaker?
AP: I guess language itself is just fragments, right? Letters become words, words become sentences—we’re just stringing together larger and larger bricks until, bam, a house, or a cathedral, or maybe even a Denny’s.
I think there is something to be said in the poem, though, about trying to shore together pieces of the self into a coherent and singular identity, like putting a puzzle together or something. The image/meaning/message doesn’t exist in the words, but in the arrangement of them and in their relationship to each other. The same can maybe said of the self. (Or maybe not!)
SD: Relating to these presences of structural experimentation, the concept itself shows up in more of your works than just “Explication on a Nude….” In fact, most of your poems seem to be structured in more experimental ways than traditional stanzas. This choice to create a more uniquely-structured piece can have a significant impact on how the reader interprets said poem in addition to any content and language on the page. My question is, what is your process when deciding what kind of structure you want to use in a poem? How do you go about creating the perfect structure for your poems?
AP: I don’t know that any of my poems has ever had the “perfect” structure, but I’ll say that each poem tends to emerge organically and the choices I make are often arbitrary or inspired by whatever I’ve read recently. In “Explication…” for example, I had just read a poem that used that same stair-step style of alternating indents (is there a word for this? Probably; I’m not great with poetic terms). So I just wanted something similar to that. But the poem grew so long that I felt the need to further break the poem into pieces without actually creating a stanza break, so I just double-indented the lines I would have otherwise inserted a stanza break before, which I think happens every six lines. I thought it created a good balance without feeling like one long movement.
Oh, this might be a more useful tidbit of info: The director of our creative writing program at GSU, Josh Russell, once mentioned in a workshop the idea of every piece needing a “container,” likening the form of the piece as the container and the content as the liquid within. Sometimes you start with a container and you see what you can fill it with, but sometimes you have to seek out the proper container for whatever liquid is currently sloshing around in your head. “Explication…” is an example of me already having a container in mind (the alternating-indents style poem) and testing what sorts of things I could fill it with. Most of my poems, however, start out as loose piles of liquid and goo.
SD: The next question I have concerns the chapbook you released earlier this year titled Still, No Grace. From what I understand, this is the first chapbook you have released, and it has been quite successful, selected for the 2020 Madhouse Editor’s Prize. What advice would you give to a less experienced author looking to publish their debut book or chapbook?
AP: A billion things come to mind, but I’ll try to pick three pieces of advice:
1) Research presses and try to identify the ones that seem to fit your style and attitude (and don’t work with people who aren’t thrilled about your shit!).
2) You probably won’t get picked up at the first press you submit to; do not let this discourage you. You probably weren’t accepted in the first journal you ever submitted to either, right? The same principle applies to sending out manuscripts: it’s a mixture of luck, circumstance, and quality, only one of which you have control over. Dedicate your efforts to what you can affect.
3) Remember, you’re writing for yourself, not for anyone else. Publications, awards, etc., they make us happy for a moment, but that wears off pretty fast, and then you’re just left there wondering what to do now. So don’t write for them. Write like you’ll die if you don’t.
SD: Lastly, I want to briefly ask about your goals for your writing. Writers tend to write not only for themselves, but also for their potential audience. What do you hope readers, current and future, will take away after reading your work?
AP: Hardest question for last! I think I probably want the same that every writer wants: to reach someone when they need it most. The difficult part is that you’ll probably never know who you affect, if anyone. But if my writing can do something for even one person, well, that’s all one can ask for I suppose.
A. Prevett is the author of the chapbook Still, No Grace (Madhouse Press, 2021). Their work appears in such journals as Sixth Finch, West Branch, DIAGRAM, and others. They are pursuing an MFA from Georgia State University, where they currently serve as editor of New South.
Sarah Doan is a senior in the English department, concentrating in the area of creative writing. She also currently serves as the editor-in-chief of FishHook, USI's student-run literary and artistic publication. In her free time, she enjoys writing, learning about languages, teaching color guard, and spending time with her cats.