“These poems explore the monumental pressures put upon bodies to conform to specific beauty and behavioral ideals, especially how those struggles to achieve or reshape the physical self should appear easy.”
Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about the title poem?
“Lies to Tell the Body” establishes the world of this chapbook, one in which men feel agency over women’s bodies, where women’s pain is delegitimized by the medical establishment, and where mistakes are often made when reclaiming the body. This poem, which opens the chapbook, serves as the map for the poems that follow. In fact, every poem could all get placed somewhere along the ridges and crevices.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I ordered the chapbook to follow the conversations between poems. For example, “Neighbors” and “Your Eye Is A Red Dwarf Planet” both revolve around distance and lost physical objects. The damaged satellite signals paired intuitively with the marked eye in the following poem.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Ron Mohring, the editor of Seven Kitchens Press, was very open about the editorial and design process from the moment he emailed me about my manuscript. Lies to Tell the Body is part of the Summer Kitchens Series, which publishes limited edition runs of chapbooks that typically placed in the previous year’s competitions. The chapbooks in this series all have a similar design aesthetic, although Ron ran a few vintage quilting fabric designs he was considering for the cover by me for my approval. I also received a proof of the chapbook and discussed a few changes to help with the overall appearance of the poems, so I felt that I had considerable input for a chapbook of a print run of 49 copies.
Lies to Tell the Body seems, obviously, concerned with the speaker’s relationship to their body. At times, the speakers in your poems seem to reject, accept, or be betrayed by their bodies. Could you say a bit more about how your work explores alienation from and intimacy with the body?
These poems explore the monumental pressures put upon bodies to conform to specific beauty and behavioral ideals, especially how those struggles to achieve or reshape the physical self should appear easy. I wanted to display those scars and nonconformities despite these anxieties by having speakers admit to their conflicting desires to embody an unachievable ideal and to be wholly themselves.
“Do Not Consume Raw” plays out these tensions with the speaker shopping at Target—she’s disgusted with the idea of shrink-wrapped produce and begins to revel in the irony of trying to preserve her own youth through beauty products. Even as she’s likening her own body to the rhubarb, she’s also considering her past lovers as pinballs: metallic, disposable, unloving playthings. The body always points to something (or someone else) trying to control it.
Other speakers may approach their bodies differently, but they still arrive at the inevitable tension between what the outside world dictates as their desires, their own projected desires, and the reality of how their bodies move and interact with the world. There’s no simple solution to an “acceptance” or “rejection” of the body. Instead, the body remains in tension from desire to desire.
Plants and fruits appear in your chapbook often. I read in another interview at the York Daily Record that you worked on a community-supported agriculture farm. Could you reflect on the relationship between nature and the body in your poems?
I worked on CSA farms extensively for several years. But before that I grew up in a house with a modest garden that included green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and several rhubarb plants. In Kansas, I kept a small garden of mostly chard and kale and a small herb garden in my front yard, so I have a history of being in and tending gardens. Harvesting produce for someone else educated me on proper growing and harvesting techniques and broadened my knowledge on produce. I could never have told you what kohlrabi or fava beans were until I began working for other farmers.
There is something very repetitive but meditative about picking produce, removing pests by hand, prepping onions in midsummer heat. When I was writing some of these poems, I returned back to that headspace, where the image of harvest and produce kept on returning. Farming and gardening are very bodily acts in which we sometimes end up projecting many of our fears and desires onto the plants. A lot of conversations happen between you and the plants when you’re out there, and not all of them have to do with growing techniques. The conversation may be one-sided, but it gets pretty personal.
The speaker in many of the poems seems to estimate their relationship to beauty, telling the reader, “I was pretty but not too pretty” and exploring how they are sometimes common, sometimes accidentally seductive. How does beauty and others’ response or nonresponse to it inform your writing?
You know that idea of having a full face of makeup that doesn’t look like you’re wearing makeup? There is that impossible task of conforming to beauty standards without appearing threatening to others. When critiquing others for superficial reasons, there is that cruel idea that if someone wears too much makeup they are trying too hard, but if they aren’t wearing any makeup, then they are just a plain, lazy human being. That contradiction—what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of beauty—informs this chapbook.
The women in your poems tell their listeners that they are resilient or strong. One teenager is given the power over water currents. What kinds of strength are you interested in giving the women in your poems and your readers?
In the periphery of these poems is a very real physical violence. When I was writing these poems a few summers ago I would take breaks to walk downtown. Men would slow down their cars and yell at me, honk their horns, follow me for periods of time. The catcall is a promise for control. I did not want the speakers and women in these poems to have control ripped from them. Even if they appear subservient, they are biding their time. That defiance is essential for me.
How does your former work as the Los Angeles Review Book Reviews Editor influence the way you read and write?
Being an editor, especially for book reviews, over the past several years has developed my critical eye for what I appreciate in a poetry collection and also to truly consider audience. If no one is responding to your work, or wants to have a conversation with you about your work, then there’s an issue.
Lies to Tell the Body is your third chapbook. Is there something about chapbooks that draws you to them? If so, what? If it just happened to work out that way, why is that?
Chapbooks are, for me, little experiments I can set in motion to see if my ideas are working before I go further with a concept. Each of my chapbooks has been its own experiment, sometimes attached to a larger concept or full length manuscript, other times only living within the scope of the chapbook.
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 Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.