Rare Wondrous Things, Alyse Bensel
Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, April 2020). Her poems have recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Puerto del Sol, West Branch, Poetry International, and elsewhere. Her fiction and nonfiction have been featured at The Boiler, Entropy, and Pithead Chapel. She is also the author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body, published by Seven Kitchens Press in July 2018.
Alyse served as the Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review, a literary journal from Red Hen Press, from 2013-2018. Her reviews have appeared in Colorado Review, Prairie Schooner, Literary Mama, Newpages, and many other journals. Her scholarly work has been published or will be forthcoming in Journal of Creative Writing Studies and the International Journal of Mobile Learning and Organisation.
She currently serves as section editor for Theory, Culture, and Craft for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies (JCWS), an open access, peer reviewed journal. Submissions to the journal are open year-round. She is also a Senior Poetry Reader for Cherry Tree.
Alyse is currently an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference. Questions regarding the conference can be directed to email@example.com.
Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did Rare Wondrous Things take to write from conception to publication?
Alyse Bensel: Rare Wondrous Things is probably the longest project I’ve probably ever worked on: approximately 10 years, from 2008, when I first encountered Maria Sibylla Merian’s work at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, until 2019, when I received the news from Green Writers Press that they wanted to publish the collection. Between those years was a lot of research, several radically different versions of the manuscript, and the annual submission cycle.
BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Do you give them to yourself?
AB: Until recently, I was in school for what seemed like forever, so I always had deadlines that kept me moving forward. I did, and still do, like to make fake deadlines for myself. I do this more for my analytical work like book reviews, and my teaching, especially when it comes to grading work, but less so for writing poems. I do check in on whatever drafts I’m working on once a week, even though I’m less pushy with myself about creating new work or submitting to journals.
BRP: Who are you currently crushing on arts-wise?
AB: So many that when I get asked this question in casual conversation I blurt out ten or more names and then won’t stop rambling. I recently finished a few collections that have stuck with me, especially Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale, Lee Ann Roripaugh’s tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic, and everything Marilyn Nelson has ever written, but honestly, I could keep going. I’ve always been particularly drawn to poets whose work resonates with the historical, persona, and the natural world. I love meticulously researched poetry that has a powerful voice.
BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate or feel are important to your writing?
AB: Reading every day if I can. Reading (and sometimes yin yoga) is the only activity that I know will get me to write. And in no way does it have to be poetry–I served as a reviews editor for several years and so I read and reviewed fiction, nonfiction, cross genre work, anything. When I love a line or a sentence or an idea I mull it over, scribble a few responses, and keep on going. I know I’m being drawn into a text when my impulse to write takes over while I’m reading.
BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?
AB: There’s so much my wonderful mentors have given me. One of the most recent pieces of advice came while revising my dissertation, the manuscript that became Rare Wondrous Things. My advisor and dear friend, Megan Kaminski, had finished reading an earlier draft. We talked about it briefly, and then she asked me about my life. I told her how I was in the midst of wedding planning chaos and how the upcoming ceremony was filtering into every aspect of my life. She told me to include that in the manuscript, to let my life seep into Merian’s, to allow myself into the conversation, even just a little bit. That opened up the collection, and my writing. I tend to enjoy my privacy in a poem a little too much, but that often shuts a reader out. I know I need to sometimes spell out what’s hiding between the lines.
BRP: What was the biggest struggle you endured while writing Rare Wondrous Things?
AB: I partially explained this struggle in the previous question, but I also had another, perhaps even larger issue I kept on encountering while writing. Because Rare Wondrous Things is within the realm of the genre of biography-in-poems, I kept on trying to write what I thought a biography-in-poems “should” be. There are so many excellent examples of what you can do when writing about someone else’s life. However, so many excellent biographies-in-poems feature subjects that have fairly extensive written records. The only written records of Merian are her dozen or so letters (mostly business related), the prefaces and captions she wrote for her illustrations (mostly observation-based and descriptive), and bits of gossip or mentions in other brief texts. She did not like discussing her personal life, as far as historians have gathered, and was an intensively private person.
I mention all of this to demonstrate the tension I was having between me wanting more from Merian and the fact she wasn’t going to give me more than I already had. I eventually figured out I had to lean into the missing, the gaps and fragments of her life, if I wanted to write about her. All biography is at least partially imaginary, but I had to go farther than I initially felt comfortable doing in a text. After I decided to bring the imagined into the conversation, the poems went from an interesting idea to a fleshed out manuscript.
BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?
AB: My notes are all over the place–my phone, my computer, my planner, random notebooks. I envy the beautifully organized journal. I can maintain order in my daily life with my planner and Google Calendar, but I could never write studiously in a journal. Lately I’ve end up piecing together the fragments I’ve written to see if a poem can happen somewhere in there.
BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?
AB: It depends on whatever given role I have and what responsibilities are attached to that role. For a while, it’s been more of an editorial role because, when I’m an editor, I am trying to give more specific guidance and feedback to a book reviewer or advising one of my students during a senior project. I’m more hands-on, getting into their work with them. When I’m curating, I’m trying to give space and bring certain ideas together. I think I do this in my teaching, when I assemble certain texts for my students and I to discuss and explore together.
BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?
AB: Typically when I’m reading or listening to others read or discuss someone’s work I’ll get some inspiration. And this may sound cliche, but I do spend a lot of time watching insects and plants and other creatures do things outside, even if I’m inside. On hikes I am always looking at the ground for mushrooms or orchids or spiders. I don’t write about my cats and dogs a lot, but I enjoy watching them. I think this gives me the space to “zone out” and let some ideas or images that have been circulating together click into place.
BRP: If you had to describe Rare Wondrous Things in only three words, which would they be and why?
AB: Recovering women’s history–because women’s work and lives are still so often ignored, erased, or undervalued. I recently saw someone wearing a t-shirt that read “name 10 women artists,” which I’d like to revise to “name 10 women scientists.” I hope that readers of Rare Wondrous Things will have at least one more name they didn’t have before.