Alan Felsenthal

Alan Felsenthal is the author of Hereafter (The Song Cave, 2024) and Lowly (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He is the the editor of Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt (The Song Cave, 2023). Felsenthal teaches poetry in the humanities department at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. He is also the co-publisher at The Song Cave. Hereafter is concerned with grief, opening with an elegy and ending with a sort of treatise on death. Yet it is also a meditative collection that is full of life—crawling with plants and animals, and exploring how the human body exists among these life forms. Could you talk about your practice of observation as a poet? Might a poem be a moment of stillness? 

Alan Felsenthal: When I write I’m trying to understand life, to “see it feelingly.” Death, too. My observations try to be accurate to this language of feeling, not the language of information. I reach for the essential. Seeing can be suffering; I learned that from King Lear. Some of my observations reveal as much as they hide, but that’s what makes them mine. There is both austerity and precision within the lines of each poem in this collection, especially “Cover Letter” and “Stay Dry.” Who are some of your strongest influences in directing how you craft lines? 

AF: Marie Ponsot taught me how to listen for precision, that the ear picks up on things the eye can’t. Her lines are so exact in their pursuit of sound. Sense is there, too, and she makes music with it. She was also one of my best teachers. With Rosemary Deen, she cowrote Beat Not the Poor Desk, a magnificent book about teaching students to write. It’s invaluable and really illuminates the practice of observation. 

One of my favorite books is Marianne Moore’s Observations. Though it appeared a century ago, it still feels newer than everything since. Her strangeness influenced me. She taught me that I don’t have to become a different person to write a poem. I become one by writing a poem. I had to figure out how to sound like myself. 

Come to think of it, both Marianne Moore and Marie Ponsot translated the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, and I love both volumes. The poems seem to take place in liminal spaces—of vision, ether, elegy, and spirit, with pathways to both the moon and below the pond water. In what ways were you thinking about place, and how did approaches to this context influence your writing process?

AF: Life is liminal. Many of these poems were initiated by real places. My dear friend Bob, who the first poem in the book, “Elegy,” was written for, loved to stay in Pawling, New York. We frequently went there together during the last few years of his life. The details of that landscape and experience made their way into the poem. The images are mournful because I was mournful.

Some people see a pond and it’s just a pond to them. But if you’re on the verge of losing someone you deeply care about, staring at the moon’s reflection on a pond’s iridescent surface, the pond becomes a world. 

If I didn’t have an imagination, life would destroy me. Some of the poems were written near the sea, imagining its life. Others imagine places where I’ve never been and will never go, like the moon. Books and movies saved me as a kid. I was able to see other places, other worlds; and though they were born of artifice, they felt as real as living. “Ordering a Casket From Amazon Prime” is quite interesting in that it maintains the imagery of both the celestial and mythic, used throughout the book, while talking about something as mundane and modern as Amazon Prime. How did you balance this imagery so that it still harmonized stylistically with the rest of the collection? 

AF: The first drafts of that poem were nervously grasping for humor. The tone was all wrong, and I needed to find a way for it to balance with the rest of the collection. The title is waggish, but the poem didn’t need to be. I wanted to discard anything that could be perceived as sarcastic.

Amazon Prime is a relentless virtual mall that sells every kind of container you can think of—from travel cases for bananas to a handmade rosewood urn for human ashes. One dreary day, I looked up “coffins.” A coffin showed up called the “Atlas XL,” manufactured by Titan Casket. How could I see these names and not think of Greek mythology? 

It’s not important that I learned that Amazon sells coffins. My friend had chosen to be cremated, so my search had nothing to do with practicality—it was emotional and possibly spiritual. I’m a believer in the intersection between the mundane and the sacred. What are you currently reading?

AF: Sleep by Amelia Rosseli and Regeneration by Pat Barker. What are your favorite poems on

AF: I have so many favorites and this question doesn’t imply a limit. Here are some of my favorite poems that include audio on I love to hear the poets read their poems, and I’m grateful you keep their voices in circulation:

Still” by A. R. Ammons
sky hammer” by Julian Talamantez Brolaski
My Mother Would Be a Falconress” by Robert Duncan
Some Kinds of Forever Visit You” by Brenda Hillman
May Perpetual Light Shine” by Patricia Spears Jones
Words” by John Keene
The Burden” by Sara Nicholson
Betrayal” by Alice Notley
This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo” by Marie Ponsot
A Yellow Leaf” by Ariana Reines
Music from Childhood” by John Yau