Under Pressure: Alyse Bensel

2020, Under Pressure
Alyse Bensel, author of Rare Wondrous Things

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 ReviewPleiades, Puerto del SolWest BranchPoetry International, and elsewhere. Her fiction and nonfiction have been featured at The BoilerEntropy, 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 ReviewPrairie SchoonerLiterary MamaNewpages, 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 lgrwc@brevard.edu.


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.

Order Rare Wondrous Things here!

Alyse Bensel

2018, Fiction


My husband liked gradient puzzles. He appreciated the way the color blurred and changed. All that color, he said, that no one’s fucked up yet.

After he finished a puzzle, he collected scraps of paper, bills, and junkmail. He brought back discarded paper from the office. The papermaking process was reserved for the basement, alongside an abandoned brewing barrel and burlap sacks of grain. He painstakingly ensured the paper was smooth and the mottles from different colors were barely perceptible.

When he moved back to the island where his family lived, the summer after we graduated high school, he sent me prototypes for the stationary. He scrawled little drawings and designs around the edges, with few words written in contrast to my letters crammed with words. On one of the envelopes he sketched a cicada emerging from its nymph shell, maybe in response to my question about his mother’s health. In words, he returned my questions with more questions. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. Questions that asked nothing at all.

Before we married my husband had half a dozen penpals, all of whom loved paper and ink not for their utility, but for their beauty. The ephemera club, I teased.

Everything is ephemera, he reminded me.

When I began framing all of his past letters in large glass frames, to prevent more tearing and so I could turn them around to read the back, he hated the idea that anyone could read what he had written. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. But you didn’t write anything personal, I responded. He returned to ripping up paper before carrying his filled basket down to the basement, where he soaked the pieces and screened the fiber with a small mesh frame.

When the sheets had dried, the paper appeared on his work desk in our shared upstairs office. Several ink bottles had been lined up at the top edge of his desk. Later that afternoon, he decorated pages with calligraphic loops and swirls around the edges—not words, exactly, but evoking words, on the edge of a hieroglyphic language. I tried to decipher them when he was asleep. Holding the sheets to the overhead light, I squinted at the markings as I slowly rotated the paper. The cryptic incomplete loops, the wilting m’s.

Before sunrise, he burned the letters above our gas stove. I heard the pilot light staccato on a few minutes before the alarm.

The next day he used the remainder of the paper to draw elaborate mazes. He began from the center and worked his way out, barely lifting the pen to mark dead ends or offer the right path. One year every maze was a heart. Another year the mazes became labyrinths. Only one way in. Only one way out.

The year all the mazes were hearts, and cicada song had shuddered into evening, I stayed awake beside my husband until he eased out of bed and padded to the office.

I slipped out after him, then paused when I heard talking. He was murmuring something. When he emerged from the office holding the letters, I was still standing in the hallway. He looked up.

There are words here, he said. They are trapped between the pages. He brushed past me to go down the stairs.

I didn’t follow. I knew the answers behind what he had been asking me for years. But I had never made much effort to translate what I assumed were easy questions. How no one else understood the unsent letters were memorials he burned to ashes. The questions he had been asking for years changed: How long has she been gone? Where is my mother? I miss her.

Alyse Bensel is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly ReviewPleiades, South Dakota ReviewWest Branch, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference. 

Alyse Bensel

2017, Poetry


I’m a smaller woman than I used to be
                smaller-minded, too
and generous         with myself     pouring coffee
               licking banana bread batter
       staining my hands with graphite

                              I cherish carbon-on-carbon
      the kind of action you’d like to see
shedding cells mixed
         with mite dust and pollen

my castoff life is
                             leftovers I forget
    to slough off in the mornings
                I’m trying to reabsorb the world

take on mass and give my flesh
                a thrill from the inside out—
   those gaps where you’re still there

digging in, dirty fingernails and all
               that suppleness attempting
      to push away and down


At Target I browse the seasonal produce, eyeing
the warning label on the shrink-wrapped rhubarb.

I think about tearing open the package right there
and chewing the stalks like a cow with her favorite cud.

Those precautions signal the kind of rage in me
that ends with me screaming in my car. Sometimes

I let the man I’m seeing in there with the sound
to see if he’ll stick around. They all have—it’s usually

something, or someone else. I always have another
lined up next, like I’m playing pinball and have

50 cents handy for each silver ball.
A thousand quarters, that many scoreless turns.

I push the button as many times as I can. I poke holes
in the plastic. I want the rhubarb to age, the balls to keep

moving. I’m tired of trying to pause time. One of these
days I’ll stop with the night cream, face masks,

hemp lotion, argan oil, BB and CC and SPF. I need
exposure to speed up the process. Rinse. Repeat.


Alyse Bensel’s poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Zone 3, burntdistrict, New South, Bone Bouquet, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Not of Their Own Making (dancing girl press) and Shift (Plan B Press) and serves as the Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review. A PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas, she lives in Lawrence.