Born in New York in 1961, Alan Michael Parker is the trick of all trades. As a novelist, he has written three novels. As a poet, he has written eight collections including Days Like Prose, Elephants and Butterflies, Ten Days, and Long Division. As a professor, he has been teaching creative writing at Davidson College since 1988.
He has received a number of awards and fellowships, including three Pushcart Prizes, the Fineline Prize, and the Randall Jarrell award twice. One of his novels, Whaleman was up for Book of the Year in 2011 by the ForeWord Review. Recently, Time Out New York called him a “beacon of brilliance.”
Published in the Spring of 2010, Alan Michael Parker’s well-known “Family Math” poem has become a mysterious puzzle for my co-interviewer and I to figure out. We first encountered the poem in our 2011 version of Best American Poetry and immediately appreciated his writing. After reading “Family Math,” we knew that we wanted to interview Mr Parker to find out more.
Morgan Kennedy and Liza Burke: What message are you trying to get across to your readers through your poem “Family Math?”
Alan Michael Parker: The “message” is actually a number of messages. The poem considers the ways in which we’re schooled, and how accomplishments are so often viewed as a function of accumulation: more of this, more of that. I’m playing with this information autobiographically, and also thinking about how my mind words (as I’m OCD). What’s the relationship between the series of statements and questions—themselves a kind of tally, rhetorically, in terms of how the poem lists ideas—and what’s really important? And the notion of letting go, at the end, is really important to me, at least; that Zen moment matters greatly, and is one of the poem’s messages.
MK and LB: What is the significance of the “birth room smell” in “Family Math”?
AMP: The primordial smell of the delivery room relates directly to the question of meaning: that experience symbolizes how to balance an extraordinary sensory moment, a moment of pure living, with the go, go, go, go tallying of everyday life.
MK and LB: How would you define poetry?
AMP: Lots of ways! “The best words in their best order,” Coleridge said (apparently in an offhand remark, that genius), and it’s a pretty marvelous definition. I might add a couple of other ideas: “words on the edge of meaning,” and “words that mean more than once at the same time,” and “words that make meaning of their music.” In other words, all of the above…
MK and LB: Do you enjoy being a poet, novelist, or professor the best?
AMP: I’m an artist who teaches, and loves both of those activities. But it’s probably true that I would write no matter my other job, so maybe it’s the writing I love most. My students are mighty fun though.
MK and LB: Out of all your awards and accomplishments, which one stands out to you the most and why?
AMP: That’s a question I’ve never been asked. Cool. I’m tempted to answer by saying my first book, or my first novel, or some award… but I wouldn’t be telling the truth, exactly. Maybe my son is my most outstanding accomplishment, or my marriage: those two ongoing delights are often the most meaningful I experience, day to day. But in terms of my writing life, perhaps I’ll answer idealistically, and say that the book I’m writing now is the most significant, and it stands out the most. I guess it would have to, by default—because why else write it?
MK and LB: Thank you for your time.