INTERVIEW BY THOMAS FUCALORO
Eric Alter is a poet who wrestles with cultural identity and truth—and tries to make them submit themselves to a laugh or a gasp from the audience. He is backed by the full credit and standing of Long Island University and holds a MFA in Creative Writing. His work has recently been published by Overpass Books, Brooklyn Paramount and great weatherfor MEDIA. He is also a 77.4 ton Sherman tank, editor of NYSAI press, and a bass player in the band Giga Herbs.
TF: So you recently made a poetry vid where you break down the borough of Staten Island called Where From or This Was Meant to Be a Pride Poem. How did it came to be? What did you hope to accomplish with it?
EA: "Where From or This Was Meant to Be a Pride Poem" started, like many of my poems, inside a car. I was driving and it was one of those moments where the words just came, seemingly out of nowhere, and were formed into the exact lines of poetry that the poem holds today. During the time that it was written I was focusing a lot on how people come to define themselves by way of their geographical setting. I had come to witness various moments of geographical pride and was intrigued, perplexed even. I thought to myself, How does a place define a people and how does it define the individual? Is it by choice or by circumstance?
Being from Staten Island causes many people to make assumptions about your character, personality and background. They fall into the stereotypes about mafia, the dump, the suburban endlessness of it all. And all this is true to an extent but also a faulty way of characterizing a person. I imagine it to be as reliable as judging the flavor of a pie while only tasting a crumb of it.
So this poem is attempting to put those stereotypes on the spot by bringing attention to the broken parts we actually can fix. Simply identifying it and saying, "Yes, I am from here, so what? Come and see for yourself." I was searching for a way to be prideful about the land mass I lived on but found it did not define me—yet it was how people on the outside defined me.
TF: Your poem "Driving" has just been published in the great weather anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand. Can you talk a little about it?
EA: The poem "Driving" surprisingly was also written in a car. The first half was written during some travel I did from Wisconsin to New York. I was visiting a childhood friend, painter Dan Schein, and we took on the seventeen-hour journey in his little truck. The road, at long stretches, does something to your mind. The sitting still of it all. The fast movement of it all. The bad food rest stops and geography flying by. The kinship of taking on such madness with a handful of close friends. The first half of driving is attempting to link the sentiment of this Wisconsin to New York journey with the driving trip I was on a few weeks later while on tour with my band Giga Herbs.
The physical act of driving reminded me very much with the subconscious act of living. The ups and breakdowns. The beauty and the restlessness. The hunger for escape.
TF: In "Driving" you have the line It's leaving home/ and inevitably/ It's coming back. What do these lines mean to you?
EA: That line is really focusing on the idea of escape. How we yearn for it. How it's been presented in writing. We are inundated with stories that call for shotgun movement. And they appeal to a young and idealistic mind. Often what is lost in those stories is the need to reflect and return. So that line is a sort of call to self-reflection and the idea that we can find a home within ourselves.
TF: So you are an editor for the Staten Island based literary press NYSAI. What is your role?
EA: My role in NYSAI Press has been as a co-editor of the magazine and is beginning to grow into other roles, such as grant writer and slam host. The prospect of grant writing excites me greatly because funding for literary based arts on Staten Island has been lacking and the other editors and I want to change that. Helping create a slam team in Staten Island causes me to get goose bumps. I really look forward to providing a safe place for a slam to exist on the Island of Staten because I think there are actually hundreds of poets out there, with vibrant voices, who are just waiting for the right group of people to operate. Being a part of that team sort of gives me purpose for the moment. So look forward for the Staten Island Advanced Slam.
TF: You are becoming a figure in the slam scene. How has slam has influenced your writing and performance? Do you have any advice for young poets who want to get involved in slam?
EA: I had no idea that I was becoming a figure. There are so many amazing poets on the slam scene in New York City that I'd say I was more of a humble barnacle on the bottom hull of the massive ship known as Slam. Just last night I was at the Sidewalk Café, where the Urbana team hosts their weekly workshop, open mic, feature and slam. I have grown to need the slam community, specifically Urbana, to the extent of carving Tuesday nights out of my work schedule in order to attend every week. Workshops with peers have propelled my writing and shown me the unlocking power of editing. Watching performers like Jared Singer, Jeanann Verlee, Omar Holman and Thomas Fucaloro has created a desire within myself that not only calls for meaningful writing but heartfelt, captivating performance. The slam scene really provides a continuation in the education of poetry for me. It's like an MFA but with way more booze and socially aware writers.
Read Eric Alter's poem "Driving" in the great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.