Alyse Bensel is never revealing her old fanfiction.net username
When I was bored last month and picked up the chapbook Shift from a basket on our living room table, I didn’t know a lot about Alyse Bensel. There are plenty of chapbooks, zines, and small collections of poetry stuffed into this basket that I have never read and (sadly) might never find time to.
Alyse Bensel was touring through her old stomping grounds two Octobers ago, and I missed it; luckily, Erin didn’t. She saw Bensel read when she made a stop at Barnes and Nobel for The Lancaster Poetry Exchange. This is how the cardboard-cut-out-covered Shift ended up in our living room. I read it, loved it, and was enamored by the fact that my home-county of York, PA produced not only the poet, but all of her poems—each of the specific, industrial images.
In Shift, Bensel encounters the stuff poets claim poetry can be about, but often isn’t. It’s about work. It’s about manual labor, and odd-hours, and motorcycles, and 5am alarms, and bulldozers, and FedEx Ground. It’s about how relationships run through all of that, how love and loss take no sick days.
After snooping around online I saw that Bensel has a new book coming out. It’s called Not of Their Own Making, and it’s out now from Dancing Girl Press. I emailed her to see if she’d answer a few questions about where we come from, what inspired the work in Shift, and what her new book is all about.
Tyler: Your favorite thing about growing up in Southcentral PA:
All right, enough about the food. Growing up I felt like I had such free reign on the landscape in the suburban limits of Shiloh. I spent many summer afternoons along the trails of the Little Conewago Conservation Area, which I’m happy to see has been maintained and semi-landscaped through the efforts of local scout troops. I was also always at camp, always outside (until the internet came into our house in late elementary school, and then slightly less time was spent outdoors). I’ve always loved the Susquehanna Valley landscape, being near its river, plenty of moving water, and the hills. I long for some rolling hills.
Your favorite thing about Southcentral PA now:
Probably still the soft pretzels.
But, really, the rise of the art, literary, music and sustainability collectives, not to mention the triumph of the local businesses in the region, particularly in York and Lancaster. I am beyond thrilled that when I visit there is always an open mic, a show, a reading, something going on that I can go to myself if I want and have a good time, and a good drink. I love downtown York. I always have, but I love that some of my favorite places I frequented in high school (Sunrise Soap, Sweet Melissa’s Dream, Central Market, Esaan) are still there and thriving. Even more amazing places have popped up since high school—I haven’t even been able to visit them all yet. I hope I can, soon.
Your favorite thing about places that aren’t Southcentral PA:
While I’m still heavily drawn to the landscape I grew up in, I’m also becoming more receptive to differing landscapes, especially the radically different landscapes within different regions in Kansas. I live in Northeast Kansas now, an area that is surprisingly similar and yet drastically different from York. Lawrence has hills (well, one really large hill called Mt. Oread, where the University resides, and some smaller ones), but then it becomes flat, and then it becomes the Flinthills. Until you reach Manhattan, KS, the land continues to change due to even the slightest elevation. Pennsylvania does not have prairie, and I have to say that I’ve become a fan of the prairie landscape.
Did you experience any writing community while you lived here? What fostered your writing?
I only had marginal experience with writing in high school in any creative capacity. While I started the first 100 pages of a fantasy novel during middle school, I had only passing interest in poetry, and nothing academically really fostered writing poems. Certain teachers would read and help me revise my writing, but I remember distinctly feeling a lack of support or outlet for my creative writing, except online. And yes, you can still find fanfiction I wrote on fanfiction.net if you look hard enough. But I will never reveal my old username.
Consequently, I felt starved for an art scene. I was involved in every music group imaginable (school choir, church choir, county/district/regional choir, musical), but I had a strong interest in visual art and writing that wasn’t really sustained during school hours. After my freshmen year of high school, my aunt found me a volunteering opportunity at YorkArts Art in the Parks Program (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary!), where I could work with youth in the city to help them express themselves through art. Over the course of several summers, I worked my way up from volunteer to co-coordinator for the program and assisted with morning programs at the gallery. The last summer I worked there I practically lived there. Being at YorkArts was the first time I felt I was in a community of artists (who practiced all different kinds of artforms) and wasn’t being graded or assessed by anyone. I’ve made some lifelong friends, some of whom have moved on from YorkArts and others who are still keeping the organization strong.
I don’t think I would have gone in the direction of a fine arts degree in graduate study if not for that first exposure to community art and outreach. I still have yet to find anything like YorkArts anywhere else I’ve lived, included Lawrence, which is the most art-friendly liberal town I’ve lived in.
Can you talk a little bit about other writing communities you’ve been a part of? At Penn State? At Kansas University? Do you have a personal writing group? Friends you share and edit with regardless of where you are?
I think once you get to higher education, there are almost always more opportunities to find writing communities, since they’re built into the institution’s academic and extracurricular structure, especially if there’s a focus on creative writing.
I explicitly went to my undergraduate institution (Washington College), a small private liberal arts school, because they had a creative writing minor (which I never actually fulfilled all of the coursework for) and a large endowment to bring in notable writers, as well as an active literary house with letterpress along with an active publications unit for undergrads. There was always an opportunity to get involved. I hung out at the Literary House on campus, read my first copy of an actual literary journal (Zone 3), got to meet some amazing writers like Neil Gaiman, Ted Kooser, and Daniel Handler, and actively took workshops. It was in my freshman year of undergrad when I realized fiction writing was not for me, but poetry was.
At Penn State, my (now defunct) MFA program had a wide array of visiting writers, community groups who needed volunteer writers on staff, and I always had a few close friends who I could exchange work with to receive feedback outside of a traditional workshop setting. I also have a good friend back in State College, and we try to be productive poetry buddies, even if sometimes we get sidetracked.
Now, in Lawrence, I’m still in coursework and have been in workshop, but I’m also at that stage in my work where I know who my best readers of my work are. On Sunday evenings a few of us have Poetry Time at a local bar, where we drink craft brews and exchange poems for an hour or so. I think having that close group, where people care about your work and want to give you the best feedback positive, is a really positive and motivating experience. It makes me want to get a full-length manuscript completed, stat.
Can you talk about the process of writing your first chapbook, Shift (Plan B Press).
This is actually the first time I’ve been asked a question about any direct experience working the jobs mentioned in the chapbook, so I’m glad you’ve brought this up.
While I hope this doesn’t alter your reading of the poems too drastically, Shift is rooted in persona of those I was close to who were working those jobs at FedEx, Kinard, Frito Lay, Harley (although I don’t mention that one in the chapbook), and other factories in the area. Southcentral Pennsylvania, particularly York County, is a very factory heavy town, and I wanted that to come through in the chapbook.
During high school, I had boyfriends through the years who worked factories throughout and beyond high school just to make ends meet. Sometimes these jobs became careers, but oftentimes they didn’t. My first high school boyfriend is now a professional trucker for Kinard and absolutely loves his job.
My sophomore year boyfriend worked second shift at FedEx—4PM to 11PM. After school let out, he’d race to his car, grab a snack along the way, and work in the sorting room for seven hours, three to four nights a week. He was living in a studio apartment in the West York borough at the time, so he’d have to scrape in rent from his part-time FedEx job. I’d try to help him with his homework when he had time. There was never enough time.
After high school, another previous boyfriend [the one I mentioned previously who works at Kinard] landed a job as a truck driver and has been doing that ever since. He drives all over the East Coast, at different intervals and times. And my brother-in-law worked at Frito Lay briefly on various shifts, but he didn’t stay long. My sister complained about the smell and the fact that so many incidents occurred on a weekly basis.
When did you start publishing?
My first poem appeared in The Meadowland Review in their Spring 2011 Issue, but I had essays and poems appear here and there in my undergraduate publications. After that first publication, I’ve had poems and book reviews appearing steadily in journals ever sense. It’s an incredible and humbling feeling to have editors I don’t even know select my work and then, after the fact, I get to know them as writers and people.
As an aside, I’d like to add that now that I’m on the editorial end of the whole publication process, I’ve felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the writer. I want to be communicative, supportive, and honest with any writer that I come into contact with. I only think it’s fair and respectful. Sometimes I think we need more reciprocal respect and exchange when in comes to submitting, evaluating, and communicating with one another. I try to do the best I can, and I just hope everyone else out there is, too.
Who are you reading lately?
As much as I can. Whomever I can. But currently the stack of collections beside me includes Dandarians by Lee Ann Roripaugh, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, Nestuary by Molly Sutton Kiefer, Almost Any Shit Will Do by Emji Spero, Ultramegaprairieland by Elisabeth Workman, and Pie School, a pie-baking cookbook by Kate Lebo. If you love pie, go buy this book. It is also a work of art in itself, but I know what makes good pie, and she delivers.
And I’ve also just gone through nearly the entirety of the Collected Work of John Keats (that one’s for a seminar, but I forgot how much I do love Keats’s work. But still, William Blake forever!). I’ve also recently finished Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and will be asking my 101 students to read from it as well. Just incredible.
I also have a stack a couple feet high of review copies that I always hope I can get to. I keep it close by so perhaps I can somehow absorb their contents through osmosis.
How is your new book (Not of Their Own Making) different than Shift? What is its focus? How pumped are you?
In elementary school, during the fourth grade Scholastic bookfair, I picked up a copy of Mermaid Tales From Around the World by Mary Pope Osborne (you can still get copies on the cheap from Amazon), a “kid-friendly” retelling of classic fairy tales from different countries, cultures, and eras, with illustrations in the “style” of that culture and time period to match. I cannot tell you how many times I read that book. I was obsessed. Currently that book is displayed on one of the bookshelves in my house. I wrote Not of Their Own Making over a two week (!!) period in May, after teaching, as a way to entertain my friends over gmail. Every day I tackled one or sometimes even two of the stories from the book, either retelling or responding to them. I also re-watched Splash, one of my favorite movies, and wrote a response to that. After the two weeks, I looked at the poems, shocked at how they turned out, and decided to send them out to chapbook presses. Kristy Bowen, who runs Dancing Girl Press, emailed me at the end of the press’s open reading period to let me know it was accepted. I was trying to make eggs under the influence of a fever but managed to do a happy dance in my kitchen anyway.
There is a somewhat bizarre connection between Shift and Not of Their Own Making, in that Shift ends with my experience with the York Fish & Oyster Co. mermaid, the kind of beautiful and terrifying figure that takes up the entirety of this second chapbook. I certainly didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it happened!
This is weird question, maybe, but I’ve been asking writers this a lot lately: What do you like the most about your own work?
I’m usually far more concerned with how a poem sounds than the syntax making complete sense. I come from a predominantly music and theater oriented background and had little to no experience with poetry, but I always had an ear for the lyric and for how words sound when sung or spoken. While I love grammar, maybe a little too much, I also will obsess if a poem doesn’t sound right. I hope that sense of sound and rhythm comes across to readers and listeners, because I always intend a poem to work statically on the page and sonically on the lips. I love it most when I achieve that effect.