Working with Words: Alice Allan

We spoke with Melbourne poet Alice Allan about grind over inspiration, teaching English and how improv can help writers.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?

Photograph of Alice Allan

As a child I wrote the same faux-noir detective story over and over, despite never having come into contact with anything even vaguely noir. In high school I wrote cringeworthy rhyming poetry about people I had crushes on, along with many, many letters to my best friend.  

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

Working in publishing taught me that work can be beautiful, interesting and challenging, and still be passed over. A rejection doesn’t always mean your writing isn’t worth publishing.

Working in a video library taught me that a job can be so repetitive it erases your creativity rather than making space for it. (I adore all libraries, I’m just not cut out to be a librarian.) 

Working as an English language teacher taught me that there is power and freedom in even supposedly simple vocabulary. 

Working in marketing and communications taught me the craft of writing for an audience. It also helped me understand that I couldn’t prioritise an imagined audience response in my creative work and stand behind the result.   

Working in publishing taught me that work can be beautiful, interesting and challenging, and still be passed over.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d love to go back to teaching English to new migrants one day. Unlocking a new word with someone who gets to go out and use it straight after class is pretty special.  

I’d also love to teach improv to writers. I think they’d get a lot out of learning how to ‘yes, and’ their ideas. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice came from my poetry mentor and friend Bonny Cassidy, who helped me realise – perhaps without even knowing she was leading me in this direction – that there was no rush to publish and that I should be reading much more than I was writing. I also loved what Eileen Myles said when they came to Melbourne to speak a few years ago: ‘Write something. Then write something else. Then write something else.’ 

The worst writing advice I’ve encountered comes from the US poet Jack Spicer, who argued that the only poetry worth keeping is that which is ‘dictated’ from a divine source outside ourselves. I believe in grind over ‘inspiration’. 

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I keep inconsistent notes and many lists, but I don’t find myself interesting enough as a subject to write regular diary entries. The lists are useful to go back to as a way of seeing that what used to be important is now all but forgotten. 

I believe in grind over ‘inspiration’.

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Even though I’m a queer film fanatic, I basically hated Call Me by Your Name. Watch Rose Troche’s 1994 low-fi masterpiece Go Fish instead. Or Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Or A Quiet Passion. Or How to Survive a Plague. Or…

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

These days I read everything aloud before I submit it for publication. I’ve done this with entire poetry manuscripts (and sometimes even emails). 

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I used to review poetry collections and there are a few I wish I’d been more honest about disliking. I think I had solid reasons for feeling the way I did, but at the time I didn’t trust my own judgement or education enough to publicly criticise someone else’s poetry.

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

I really have to talk to E.M. Forster about A Passage to India. It’s one of my favourite books for the way it portrays the ex-pat experience and human inability to comprehend the divine, but I need to bring him up to speed on the #metoo movement. If the Wheeler Centre could organise this, I’d appreciate it.

Portrait of Alice Allan

Melbourne poet Alice Allan publishes the podcast Poetry Says and is the co-convenor of Impossible Machine  an event combining poetry and improvised performance. Her books include The Empty Show (Rabbit Poets Series, 2019), which was commended in the 2019 Anne Elder Award, and the chapbook Blanks (Slow Loris, 2019). Her work has been published in journals including Rabbit, Cordite, Southerly, Australian Book Review and Westerly, and shortlisted for the Blake Poetry Prize.

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