Ashley Opheim in Conversation with Alex Manley

Ashley Opheim: Where did you write this poem and what kind of frame of mind were you in when you wrote it?
Alex Manley: I wrote this poem in my small apartment, on my twin-sized bed, on my laptop, around 4:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, about five hours after the shift ended. At the time, I was usually working the Saturday opening shift and afternoon shifts during the week, so it had been a while since I'd been there until 11:00. It's a bit of a different crowd at night, but it can also be nice and peaceful and comparatively empty for these long stretches. I guess I wanted to sort of represent that duality—sometimes you're at the mercy of intimidating people, and sometimes it's quite slow and pleasant. Anyway, it felt like an “eventful” evening, and I wanted to capture it in my memory before it slipped into nothingness like so much sand in an hourglass. I think it worked on that level.

AO: Your writing this year has been largely inspired by the magazine shop you work at. Is this a conscious intent on your behalf, or does it just happen to be a rich source of inspiration for you?
AM:  It's not conscious, or at least, it was less conscious than it is now when I wrote "Sunday Night Shift," but you're right: I submitted pieces about my day job to all three workshops I was in this year. It's an interesting place, and it serves up a lot of life experiences I wouldn't have expected, going in. In theory it's a magazine and newspaper store, but given the decline in revenue/profitability in the print industry, it sells a lot of other stuff to get by, and some of that stuff (drug paraphernalia, knives) attracts a certain clientele. In any case, everyone seems to be addicted to something—porn, cigarettes, soft drinks, whatever. I've been there for about two years now, and every now and then I think I want to compile all the writing I've done about it into something bigger.

AO: These work-focused pieces often deal with strangers. I find this interesting in the sense that we never really get to know them on an intimate level, but we get to know them on a level of either conversation or consumption. What is it about a stranger or customer that inspires you?
AM: It's hard not to see people for brief snippets of time over and over without developing an idea about them, putting them in a certain box, but sometimes you realize that your perception is totally based on context. I appreciate some of my regulars because they're quiet and they always buy the same cigarettes and they don't hassle me, but every now and then I realize that they're probably people that I would never get along with or like in any other situation, and sometimes someone will reveal himself to be a nasty, conservative old man who hates immigrants or something. It's interesting, seeing the sides of people they're willing to expose to a corner store clerk. There are a lot of lonely people downtown with no real opportunities for conversation, I guess, and often you'll get these snapshots of someone's personality or character that you tend not to get from strangers. So that's really interesting, from the perspective of a writer, being able to see these details of these lives you'd otherwise never get a peek into.

AO: It has always perplexed me that you write (for the most part) simplistic poetry, as there seems to be a lot left unsaid in the poem. Your poetry, in this way, seems to come from a place of restraint. I find this interesting because, knowing your experience in journalism (aside from opinions-based writing), I would think that poetry would be a medium that you would utilize to free yourself from any restraint you feel in journalism. Could you speak to how your journalism and poetry differ or complement one another?
AM: I feel like my poetry has always been a place where I'm afraid of being too free-flowing. I think I instinctively seek out constraints; without a container to hold me, I don't know what shape I am. The journalistic pieces I write are easier, because I'm supposed to use the constraints of journalism. I can write an opinions piece, or a review of something, or a feature, and it's important—valued, even—to be able to copy aspects of the genre. In that sense, a good journalistic piece will act as a copy in many ways of the pieces that have come before it. Whereas with poetry, I'm trying to be original; I don't want to use specific constraints of past poems. So I have to come up with my own, and I think I often over-compensate. That's something I'm working on now: de-constraining myself. Often I'll end up making new constraints as I'm working to make the poem freer, but working in that instinct towards freedom is important, I think.

AO: I know that the term flaneur is thrown around a lot in literary circles, but I do find your writing deals consistently with societal observation that is so characteristic of that style. I guess I wonder if you are a conscious observer, or is it something that comes naturally to you?
AM: I don't consider myself actively a flaneur, although I don't mind being considered (or not) in that tradition. I think flaneurs are cool, but I think having a job probably precludes me a bit from being one, too. I feel like my observer status and my outsider status are sort of a snake eating its own tail, inside of an egg, which may or may not have come before a chicken. I've always felt like one or the other, I think, but who knows which grew out of which.

AO: What, if any, literary traditions are you drawn to?
AM: I guess I'm primarily drawn to the literary tradition of white men writing about their feelings, especially their feelings with regards to women. I don't know if there's a specific term for that.

AO: What have you been reading lately?
AM: I haven't been reading much fiction or poetry lately, unfortunately. I'm pretty swamped by my job and extracurricular projects. I do read a lot of stuff in magazines at work, though; Paul Theroux's "Our Raccoon Year" in Harper's, Jonathan Lethem's "The Porn Critic" in The New Yorker, and Johanna Skibsrud's "The Homesickness of Astronauts" in Maisonneuve are all bits of short fiction I've read in the past month that stayed with me long after my shift was over. Also, the latest issue of The Void—which, admittedly, I got published in—had a lot of compelling stuff in it. It's free, so if you're around Concordia you should try to pick up a copy.

AO: If you were to re-write this poem in one sentence, what would the sentence say?
AM: I edited the poem a bunch after deciding on a final version with you guys; I got rid of some of the guiding constraints and made it much more free-flowing, and re-introduced my friend Sara, who was there in the original version. I like one of the sentences from that new edit; it feels like a fractal of the larger poem. It goes, "For stretches here and there, the city leaves us alone to converse." Do you know about fractals? Michael Crichton describes them in Jurassic Park. "A big mountain, seen from far away, has a certain rugged mountain shape. If you get closer, and examine a small peak of the big mountain, it will have the same mountain shape. In fact, you can go all the way down the scale to a tiny speck of rock, seen under a microscope—it will have the same basic fractal shape as the big mountain." I think poems might sometimes work the same way.

AO: What is, or what should be, the purpose of poetry in 2012?
AM: To give people the experience of reading poetry, which is important, I think.

Alex Manley is a Creative Writing major at Concordia University. He was born and bred on the island of Montreal. He is left-handed. Despite this natural handicap, he won Concordia's 2012 Irving Layton Award for Fiction. His work has also been published by The Void, Ribbon Pig, and the Scrivener Creative Review.