We ask UI’s Alexandra Teague a series of questions about her latest book of poetry: The Wise and Foolish Builders.
- How long did it take to write the book?
AT: About four and a half years—from the initial poems through final edits (with a lot of reordering of the poems in the final year or so).
- What are the first and last poems you wrote for the book?
AT: The first poem I wrote is actually the final poem in the book, “The Blueprint,” which was, when I wrote it, pretty much what I knew of the Winchester story, and interestingly, by the time I finished the manuscript, made sense to me as its final note. I’d had the idea for the poem “Repeater” early on, but I was finally able to figure out how to write it near the end of working on the manuscript, after I’d gone to the Buffalo Bill Center’s archives and read some of Oliver Winchester’s letters and old Winchester advertisements. I also wrote “Calamity Jane” late in the process, and “Sarah Winchester Reads Great Expectations.”
- In what ways was your writing process for this book different than with previous work?
AT: My first book, Mortal Geography, draws far more directly on my own life and family stories, with fewer researched or historical poems. I never thought I’d be a research-based poet, but after I published Mortal Geography, I started thinking about Sarah Winchester and the house (which I’d toured maybe 5 years before); I initially thought I’d just write a poem or two, but then I did a little internet research and realized how amazing and resonant the story is, which led me to more research in libraries, and pretty soon I was applying for grants to go to archives. Throughout the writing process, the back-and-forth between my being fascinated with something and researching it and having to figure out my personal stake again, given the new information, etc. was really interesting and challenging in new ways.
- How was the cover image chosen? How does it speak to the book?
AT: I commissioned the cover art from my good friend, UI Sculpture Professor Stacy Isenbarger. Stacy knows my poetry well, and we share a lot of overlapping preoccupations—including with reimagining women’s stories in relation to traditional narratives. So I knew she was the perfect person to respond to the poems visually. The image’s building-on-top-of-building and impossibilities speak, I think wonderfully, to the book’s themes of how history and other stories are constructed, and the ways in which fact and legend often come to overlap.
- How did you know when the book was ready for publication? That is, when did you know the manuscript was complete?
AT: Early on in my writing the manuscript, a friend joked that I might be cursed to endlessly write like Sarah Winchester was said to be cursed to endlessly build, and the stories of Westward expansion (and even Sarah Winchester’s story alone), along with the more directly personal resonances, really could have kept me writing forever. I finally realized that I was never going to write about all the stories that could and maybe should be included in terms of Manifest Destiny and the Winchester gun and Sarah and the house, and that what I’d built, instead of being comprehensive, was my own idiosyncratic take on the stories, given my own history and preoccupations, and who I was as a thinker and writer during those years. Publishing many of the poems in journals, as well as getting feedback from other poets with whom I workshopped the poems, definitely also helped give me confidence that the poems were ready to be a book.
Thanks for the interesting questions! I talk more about these ideas and others in Dave Thacker’s interview with me in the current issue of The Southeast Review. And at www.alexandrateague.com.