The play Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins represents a chance for the award-winning poet and memoirist (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) to “work a muscle [he] hadn’t before.” He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.
Is Alice your first play?
In my memoir there are fragments of writing that look like plays. It’s interesting to build whole worlds out of what people say and to line that up against what they are doing, which can create another level of tension, especially if the two don’t line up perfectly.
How many productions of Alice have been staged?
Alice started as a commission for the Vineyard Theatre in New York—they asked four poets to each write a one-act play, then connected us with actors and directors, and we had a week or so to rehearse before a two-night run.
What have you learned from the directors and actors who have staged it?
One thing I’ve learned is that actors want to know the backstory to a character. There’s a guy in Alice named Ivan, and it is unclear whether he is a businessman or homeless, and the actor really needed to know. The problem was, I didn’t know, and still don’t—he’s a slippery character.
How do you approach a play differently, from a poem or memoir, knowing that live persons will have to act out your words?
From the work I did with the actors, my respect for the craft of acting really deepened, to see how seriously each word was weighed, considered, attempted in various ways—how they could find aspects of the characters that even surprised me, through intonation, inflection, pauses, gesture. It really feels very collaborative, but then even writing a memoir feels collaborative, in a way, in that I had to get inside of other people’s skins—especially my father’s—in order to write about what I had experienced in a way that would come close to something like compassion, rather than as a judgment.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City chronicled your problematic relationship with your father. Has your perspective on parenthood changed now that you have a five-month-old daughter?
I don’t know about you, but at each stage of my life my perspective on my parents changes. When I reached twenty-one—the age my mother was when she had two kids and was a single mother—I developed a much deeper respect for what she had accomplished. When I reached the age she was when she died, I understood something about how one could have all these life experiences and yet still wake up one day utterly lost. And now that I have a daughter I understand what my mother meant when she said that kids were amazing.
In your notes to Alice, you tag modern-day entertainment—such as The Apprentice or Rich Dad, Poor Dad—as “handbooks to justify the exploitation of others.” Has American pop culture reached a new nadir?
I think there’s lots of amazing things in popular culture these days—alternative music seems to be thriving, The Wire was great TV, some of the best poetry I know has been written in the past ten years, we’re riding more bicycles, the Internet is alive—but sure, the darkness around us is deep. Maybe all that I just mentioned is technically outside of popular culture, but it seems pretty easy to avoid the true dreck, if one chooses to, though I admit it’s hard in the checkout line at the grocery store. I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those people who doesn’t even have a TV.
You teach at the University of Houston for one semester a year—is being an instructor as fulfilling as being a creator?
Ideally you figure out how to make teaching a creative act, which I hope I’ve done. Houston is a great place to be for a few months a year, and the students are some of the best young poets in the country, which is challenging and inspiring.
What projects are on your desk at the moment?
I’m finishing a hybrid memoir based on the reaction in America, and in myself, to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. Part of it involved meeting with the ex-detainees portrayed in the now infamous photographs. That was eye-opening. Right now the title is “The Ticking Is the Bomb.”