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Alex Quinlan

BPR 48 | 2021


I’d like to begin with your latest collection, More Than This. The title poem braids together three stories—two heartbreakers and a witty barbershop riff about a dead cowboy. Could you tell how that poem came into being?


Sure will, Alex, since what I say about this one poem will say a lot about how I write in general. I’m in this for the long haul, so I keep what I call a “bits journal,” one into which I throw everything. And I mean everything: overheard conversations, graffiti, childhood memories, images that come out of nowhere, stories people tell me. (When people know you’re a writer, they’ll seek you out and give you material. I like that: it’s a lot easier when other people do your work for you.) When my bits journal gets a tad overgrown, I’ll go into it and do one of two things: I’ll find three or six or eight bits that look as though they have something to do with each other, or I’ll identify a single juicy bit and then start looking for others that might make it even juicier.

“More Than This” (the poem, not the book) grew up out of the first method. Here were three very different stories that all centered on heartbreak, as you say, on tears and deep, deep feeling. How could I (a) make these stories come together and (b) leave the reader not just reconciled to death and loss but elated? I hope you can hear me rubbing my hands together with glee at this point as I think, “Okay, how am I going to sell this difficult material?” Because why write otherwise? As you can see, I used one of my favorite tricks, which is to tell half of one story, then tell the others, and then finish with the other half of the original story. Works every time.

I make my students keep bits journals because you can’t write poetry every day, but you can add to your bits journal every day. The bits journal is the key to longevity. Some students resist because they’re used to just “popping ’em out,” as one said about her poems recently. But the most frequent comment I get from students I’ve had five, ten, twenty years ago is “Thanks for making me keep a bits journal.” I was just Skyping with a former student who’s close to forty, lives in another country, and is a married mother who works in procurement—which is one of the many jobs other than mine that I don’t understand. I just assumed she wasn’t writing poems anymore, but then she said about something, “Yeah, I made a note of that in my bits journal.” Swoon . . .

Read the full interview in Birmingham Poetry Review 48, or download the PDF.