“Poetry is about language being as complex and as beautiful as it possibly can be, all at once,” says Alice Fulton, English. “It isn’t to convey facts or information. It conveys something that is beyond words—you can’t ever unpack everything in a good poem because the language is inherently slippery and purposefully layered.”
This depth may be why poetry has been used over centuries to address the topics that require it: love, death, grief, and the experience of time. Fulton, author of seven books of poetry, a book of essays, and a collection of stories, found herself pointedly writing toward these deeper, more difficult themes in her latest book of poems, Barely Composed (W.W. Norton and Company, 2015).
“I think as writers get older, we have a sense of there being less time,” she explains. “Better stop fooling around with these little things and get it said. And it came out to be a book in the end.”
Engaging Trauma through Language
Part of Fulton’s turn towards darker themes is autobiographical. She wrote many of the poems after caring for her dying mother, a confrontation with profound loss and mortality. Initially, she didn’t think she would write about it.
“My impulse was to not want to go through it again,” she says. “At the same time, I realized it was one of the most important human experiences that I’d ever had, and it was very deep. It’s something that’s there for everyone eventually—losing people they love—so I forced myself to go back and encounter it.”
“I tried to engage the trauma with language and to convey some of the unsettlement and uncanniness. I still feel I’ve really skimmed the surface,” Fulton adds. “You can never get to the bottom of any trauma. You go on, and it’s always with you.”
Images of loss permeate her book Barely Composed, but the tone, what Fulton calls the soul of the poem, is not always dark. Even within one poem, the tone can oscillate between acerbic, sad, sincere, cynical—and also funny. A more light-hearted thread is marked by poems about celebrations, like birthdays or holidays. “I became very interested in the notion of communal gatherings,” Fulton says. “What we do to counter loneliness, darkness, and hardship.”
While the humor balances the darkness, it can also carry its own edge. “I think humor can be very serious,” Fulton says. “It’s very subversive. You can get away with saying things with humor that you could never say otherwise. And it’s self-mocking, too, because there’s a part of you, when something dramatic is happening, that realizes you’re being caricatured. I wanted that in the book.”
The humor and sarcasm also help to undercut sentimentality. “In theatre, if someone melts down completely, it’s not as moving as someone who is trying not to, who is holding back,” Fulton says. “The whole book is about that struggle to keep it together—just to get through was to be barely composed.”
Room for Fiction
Before writing and publishing Barely Composed, Fulton had already established herself as a poet, with six previous volumes of poetry to her name. Between her sixth and seventh collections, however, she gave herself a new challenge—fiction. She was motivated to write The Nightingales of Troy (W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), a collection of short stories, by two kinds of love.
“A complex system is process-based, it’s always evolving, and that to me was a very beautiful notion,” says Fulton.
“The first is that I’ve always loved to read fiction, and I think as writers we want to write the kind of book we love to read,” she says.
The other kind of love was familial. “The book is based very much on real people I knew, my mother and her sisters. It was wonderful to be able to tell these stories and to be with them again,” she says.
Fulton’s curiosity about her family was fueled by mysteries, kept intact by their habit of circumspection. “It’s a good way to write fiction, to have a story where you know a part of it, but you don’t know how it ended,” she says.
The first story Fulton wrote, “Queen Wintergreen,” which appears second in the book, was selected for the Best American Short Stories (BASS) series. “It was beginner’s luck,” she says. “After that, I realized I had to write a second one, and I didn’t know how to write fiction. I had everything to learn.”
Fulton read the entire BASS series, as well as the O. Henry Prize series, and story collections from the authors with whom she fell in love. “I used new models and found new teachers,” she says. “But it was a very long learning curve with a lot of backsliding and forgetting how to put the things I’d learned into effect.
“The story was more tight a form than a poem,” she continues. “It’s the hardest form I’ve ever tried. And I’ve written villanelles and double sonnets. But writing fiction was this huge room I could enter that I had never been in before. It was very hard but completely thrilling.”
The Inspiration of Complexity and Innovation
After completing her master of fine arts degree at Cornell, Fulton left for fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and then at the Michigan Society of Fellows. She came back to Ithaca, she says, because of the community of writers and their embrace of nonconformity. “I don’t like societies or communities where everyone has to be the same and think the same way,” she says. “There was a tolerance here for difference that I liked.”
Fulton has also appreciated the spirit of industry and innovation on campus, especially since she draws inspiration from other disciplines, most notably the sciences. “The language of science is incredible and very ‘other’ to the language that’s been used in poetry,” she says. “And the ideas of science, if you are truthful to them, are also productive and inspiring.”
Complexity theory, a specialty of the late John H. Holland, Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at University of Michigan and a dear friend of Fulton’s, proved particularly fertile ground. “A complex system is process-based, it’s always evolving, and that to me was a very beautiful notion,” says Fulton. “I also liked the way John talked about looking at structures—looking at the background rather than the foreground, at all the details that had been left out, rather than the ones we had been taught to recognize.”
Before complexity theory, Fulton developed a theoretical framework based on fractals, from mathematics, that helped explain the structureless structure of free verse. “It’s neither very ordered and rigid, nor totally amorphous gibberish,” she explains.
In Barely Composed, Fulton moved on from thinking of fractals and became more interested in rhetoric, how poetry could incorporate different rhetorical phrases typically not seen in poems—to, as she says, “make it strange.”
Now, she is working on new poems, with threads emerging, some new and some returning. She’s interested in how humans see themselves in relation to animals, as well as gifts, how and what people communicate to each other through objects.
“I’ll write poems and then see what they’ve done, see what they’re telling me,” Fulton says about her process. “Then eventually I’ll look at what’s missing, what I can deepen or write more of. I really think writing has to have pleasure, and I’m just having fun with it, enjoying this stage when my options are completely open.”