Hi, friends! It’s been too long, both since I’ve been on the blog and since I’ve received this interview to share with you! I am so, so excited to share my recent interview with another favorite poet of mine, Alicia Cook. Alicia is an award-winning writer and activist. Her first collection of poetry, “Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately” was a finalist for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award and is a good chunk of the interview. Her next collection, “I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip” comes out on June 5th! I received an advance copy, so expect a fun post on her release day!
I loved getting to know Alicia more with this interview. I am so appreciative of how she uses her voice and talent to advocate for those in and around addiction. There is so much in this interview I love so much and so much of it relates to the message I try to project on this blog, to share with readers. When I reached out to Alicia about interviewing her, it was simply to celebrate and share one of my favorite poets, but it was so beautiful to see her share about depression, anxiety, living in survival mode, and how music, words, and honest conversations help us live with those things and come out of survival mode.
Check out our conversation below, and then be sure to grab her newest collection!
Q: What inspired the Mixed Tape format of Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately?
A: I had been posting poetry online for quite some time…nearly 3 years at that point, and people reading my poetry online, started asking if I had a book out OR if I was ever going to release one. I wrote Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately at a dark time in my life – where hope was hard to find – so I wrote it to manifest my own hope, in a way. Plus, a nonprofit organization that helps families affected by addiction was in need of funding, so I decided that I would release a book of poetry in January of 2016, and donate the first year of royalties to them. What specifically inspired the mixtape format was my love for music, it is borderline obsessive. During that hard time in my life, music proved more than it ever had, that it could be my escape from reality – that it could help me feel less alone. I am 32 years old; I grew up in the 90’s – I used to make mixtapes all the time. I miss the simplicity of those times quite a bit, so I decided to go that route for those reasons.
Q: Why did you decide to use blackout poetry in the remix portion of your book?
A: Not many people who have started keeping up with my social media the last two years realize this, but when I first started sharing my art on social media, I was only sharing blackout poetry. I would find old books and paint, draw, whatever on them, to create blackout poetry. If you scroll allllllllll the way back in my feed, some of them are still there. So blackout poetry was always a big part of who I was/am as an artist, so I knew I wanted to include it in Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately.
Q: I would just like to start with – I LOVE the currently listening to in your book?! I love writing that in my own journals so I can go back later and really get into how I felt writing. Can you talk about the role music plays in your life, and in your writing? It seems most likely that you went back and selected songs that fit each poem, is that correct? What do you actually listen to when you write?
A: The currently listening to section of Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately came to be in a few different ways. For one, yes, I definitely went back to a few poems once they were written and plugged in songs I felt matched the feel/theme of the book. But MORE SO, songs inspire me. I will hear a line or a beat and it will pull my own poetry out of me. So, some of the songs were actually chosen because a line or something from the song inspired the piece. Track 6 in Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately seems to be the most popular piece in that collection, and some readers found themselves annoyed or even confused as to why I would match that poem with a 50 Cent song – when really, if I hadn’t been listening to 50 Cent one day say in the song “Been hit with a few shells by I don’t walk with a limp,” I am fairly certain I would have never written Track 6! I felt that putting a song at the bottom of each poem also fit my “brand” well – since I post song lyrics under each of my Instagram posts, and have done that for many years. Music plays such a big role in my life, in all our lives I think. I listen to certain music for the same reason people read my poetry – to connect with something. As I mentioned earlier, music has helped me survive some of my toughest moments.
Q: What does your writing process look like?
A: I’ll let you know when I have one! Haha. I can’t sit down at a designated time like some do and write poetry for 5 hours. That is something I am just not conditioned to do, though that practice definitely works well for others. When it comes to poetry, I write as it comes to me. I keep a journal for each project I am working on – I record voice memos since a lot comes to me when I am driving – I keep email drafts. Usually, a line or two will hit me, and I’ll write it down and each time I revisit it, I try to write around it a bit. The same process goes for my songwriting. It usually takes me 3-4 months to write one song. However, in my full-time job as Director of Communications at a college, I have to write on a deadline and that is more achievable because I swear I use a different part of my brain to write fiction, essays, and press releases than I do poetry.
Q: Can you talk about the advocacy you do for addiction and how that’s connected to your life and writing?
A: I advocate for families affected by the disease of addiction. I aim to help those affected feel less alone. I spread awareness and I hope to break the stigma surrounding these families. When I was 20, my 19-year-old cousin Jessica overdosed and died. We were very close. It hit our family hard and forever changed our makeup. I knew I couldn’t be the only one affected by a drug that in fact, I had never used myself, so I started writing about experiences and a lot of people have connected with me, especially now, in 2018, when we are facing the worst drug crisis in our history. While Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately was not explicitly about the emotions one goes through while loving someone battling drug addiction, it is implicitly implied and I also dedicated the book to those touched by drug addiction. Poetry is subjective though, and I’ve found that when someone reads a piece of mine on heartbreak or grief, they can step into the poem through their own experiences and really connect to it, regardless of whether or not I wrote it from that same space of trauma. My new poetry book, I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip sticks to many of the same things of hurting, overcoming, and healing and is dedicated to everyone recovering from something.
Q: What is inspiring you in daily life and in your writing?
A: I am writing a lot of songs, or rhyming poetry, lately. Longer stuff. I love experimenting, pushing my limits. Literally, everything has the power to inspire me – from a song lyric to something someone around me might say. I overheard two women talking the other day and it inspired something. I try to keep my heart, mind, and ears open all the time because I never know when something might really strike me.
Q: You have a new project coming out soon, what inspired you to start working on that project?
A: I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip comes out June 5 and I am excited, but also nervous. What inspired this project was my own life and travels over the last 2+ years since Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately came out. I am basically going to hand over my diary to readers and be like, “here. This was the last two and a half years of my life. Do what you will with it!” haha. Time and nostalgia were two major influences of this upcoming work. I speak more about family as well.
Q: The new work is tied in with music as well, correct? Do you find that your work is consistently connected to music, or was it purposeful that both of your books are so grounded in music?
A: Yes! I took it one step further and actually worked with these amazing up and coming musicians to turn a handful of my poetry into properly recorded songs. So, the readers will be able to read the poem, then go follow a link to listen to it as a song and get to know the singer! I am so grateful I had these wonderful relationships with these amazing artists to help bring my vision to life. The songs will also be streaming. My work will always be connected to music, whether outright like in these two collections, or in the imagery.
Q: How did you begin writing poetry? Did it naturally come to you, or did you seek it out?
A: I stumbled upon poetry when I was 8. I wrote something, my mother submitted it to a kid’s anthology, and it was accepted and published. By the time I was 10, I knew I wanted to be a writer and my parents got me my first electric typewriter. The rest is a combination of God-given skills, schooling, reading, and extreme persistence.
The following questions are related to specific poems in “Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately”
Track Six: In this piece, you talk about how the strongest people you know are not defined by the definition of strong most of the world uses. My favorite line is:
“The strongest people I know make the decision every day to wake up and place their two feet on the ground even though they know the monsters beneath their bed will grab at their ankles”
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about this – either in your own life or someone close to you. I focus a lot on my blog about living with mental and chronic illness every day and how that looks differently than most people picture it. I would love to hear your perspective on what it is like to get up every day knowing that it might not be a good day, that the hard stuff, the monsters under our beds, will come at us full force.
A: I have had my struggles with depression and anxiety. But this poem was written with my sister in mind. She was going through a tough time and I wrote this in an attempt to help lift her out of that darkness. I admire her more than she realizes. I think she’s the strongest person I know. Listen, life is not easy. I love my life, and even my life has had some pretty terrible moments where I thought for sure I wouldn’t make it to the other side. But that is when you uncork your full potential and strength I think when you need to save yourself or someone you love. I admire people who are constantly knocked down but keep standing back up. They might get knocked down again, but each time they rise they are wiser, stronger, and more prepared.
Track Eight: This poem touches on losing yourself and the typical response of society to “find yourself again.” The response in your piece is that this idea of finding yourself again seems like a terrible idea and felt more like a cure. You explain why in the poem, but I’d love if you’d expand a little more and talk about the process of becoming someone new vs going back to your old self.
A: I heard that phrase a lot while I was writing Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately. At nauseaum at times. It got to the point where I started to really dissect the true meaning of that phrase and it took on a less empowering meaning the more I looked into it. For example, if who I was was the reason I was in this mess, why would I want to be that person again? Wouldn’t that mean that the same issues would find me? BUT, if I learned from this and grew from it, maybe I could become a different version of myself who wouldn’t have to relive those terrible moments. Sure, this new me might have her own problems to face, but at least by recreating the wheel, I was giving myself a shot at a different outcome. Reinvention or changing your mindset is hard and takes work. But that work is worth it if you are not happy with the person you currently are. At any moment, even a slight change in outlook could set you on another path. I find hope in that.
Track Twenty-Two: In this poem, you talk about surviving life vs. living life, and that is such a beautiful and necessary topic (in my opinion). In the end, you say you will never settle on surviving every again. You mention a few things like travel, and lazy Sundays that helped you during this time, but I’d love to hear more about how you got from survival mode to be able to choose to live every day. Do you have any advice for readers stuck in survival mode right now?
A: Survival mode is a real thing. And when you are in survival mode, you are living in immediacy. One moment to the next, just praying that you make it through. During this time in my life, I was so focused on simply getting through the minute, that when friends would ask me what I was doing next week, I honestly would have no idea because I couldn’t fathom planning that far ahead, ya know? Anxiety would skyrocket. Immediacy. But I think choosing to live again happens slowly and deliberately because it is easy to get stuck on that hamster real of simply surviving. I think Track 22 and Track 8 complement each other well in that regard. I had to make a choice to allow good things and moments and people back into my life. Once I cracked open that door, I slowly but surely began to find joy in those things again. Coping mechanisms are so important. Open conversations help, whether with someone close to you or a therapist. There are models to healing that you can make your own that will help you begin to live again.