The Act of Looking: A Q&A with Stephanie Ford

Article by annalia

Writers read—they need not be pushed. However, I’ve found that I am stubborn when it comes to poetry. Sometimes (often), I think I have “my” poets, and why seek others? Anxiety limits me to recommendations by friends or new releases by certain publishers. After all, there are piles of collections that come out every year—not to mention chapbooks!—and everyone already knows [IMPORTANT BOOK OF THE MOMENT] is good, right?

Reading Stephanie Ford’s debut ALL PILGRIM, I realize part of my resistance has been due to the amount of political or otherwise controversial books that have been released the past few years—it’s overwhelming. Which is not to say I only want happy poems about cat paws—I don’t. Sometimes, it’s just hard to remember my particular “place” in the ongoing conversation about our issues and causes. With ALL PILGRIM, the frustration and exasperation are ever-present but addressed in an oblique way.

Take, for instance, my favorite poem in the collection “Hazard Map.” A love story told backwards, in ten lines over three verses, the romance and its fallout is abridged to a degree that it allows me room to enter but does not betray anyone that might have inspired it. “You had a story about your heart,” Ford writes. “I had another about silence.” Then, this conversation, out of context:

Me: Like a murmur?
You: Like a trigger.
And I: Keep talking, keep talking.

Where is the disaster? Not in this poem, but not unfelt.

Ford was kind enough to answer some questions over e-mail.


Brazos Bookstore: One thing I really appreciate about ALL PILGRIM is that grief and longing can be read into the poems but that the loss itself remains unseen (or else is an existential loneliness). Similarly, this is not an overtly political collection. The poet steps aside for poetry. Were there other reincarnations of this book that were more purple, as it were? If so, was there anything in particular that led you to this landscape?

Stephanie Ford: In my daily life, worry, complaint, and protest feel like my default responses to being a human in America. I go to poetry—as a reader and as a writer—to awaken, recover, or even just reach toward the possibility of other ways of being alive and aware in the world. And yet: I also go to poetry for the way it brings hidden histories and lost connections to light, and these restored connections often lead me right back to worry, complaint, and protest. So the question of how a poem can account for the full complexity of a moment—present and historical dynamics of power included—without becoming something other than a poem, is always a pressing one for me. In ALL PILGRIM, I hoped to stay grounded by letting let the visible world take the lead.

BB: You are from Boulder, went to school in the Midwest (Iowa & Michigan), and you currently live in L.A. How does place inform your work? How does L.A. keep your attention?

SF: Place strikes me as being one of the central paradoxes in the dilemma of being American. Of the Boulder Valley—where I learned to look at the world around me and name things (trees, flowers, weather patterns) as if I could, in naming, know them or make them a part of myself, Chief Niwot legendarily said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.” And yet, I go on writing from wherever I am. Any place will reveal its tensions if you keep a close enough eye on it, and I continue to be interested in reading landscapes and trying to render their simultaneities—particularly in as fraught and overwhelming a place as Los Angeles, where I write poems in order to feel less lost.

BB: Tell me more about your art studies. Do you often collaborate with other artists? Will your next collection feature artwork alongside poetry?

SF: I “did” art before I realized that I could make things with words, and now my relationship to art is fairly removed. Certain habits of thinking about perspective and “framing” have stayed with me, though: to draw a frame around a scene and try to see the relationships between the elements inside of it was part of my method when writing ALL PILGRIM. The act of looking is so important to me—I sort of think I chose to be an art major in college in order to have a chance to sit down in the grass and look at things for long periods of time. From my later, briefer stint in “real” art school, I may have learned to approach each poem as its own object—to feel in a very concrete way that each poem is a chance to invent what a poem can be.

BB: I imagine the title of your collection comes from the first verse of “Address”: “Landlord, I am all pilgrim / lost in privet hedge and primrose, / caught in every kind of bind.” Here, the speaker is trapped but by lovely things that are meant to shelter, soothe, delight. “Stonefruit” opens with the sentiment that “gravity is a weird glue.” What does being tethered mean to you?

SF: That’s a great question. It hones in on the driving tension of the book for me: the desire to be more free than I am, paired with the desire to feel more connected than I feel. For much of the time that I was writing ALL PILGRIM, I was in my car three to four hours each day going to and from work—not driving, usually, but just stuck in stop-and-go alongside my fellow faceless commuters. For a long time I was stricken with the sense of being caged and constrained by this routine, and then at a certain point I woke up to the fact that, like it or not, the things that bind us are also what give us access to the world—our particular corner of it, wherever that may be. So, in this way, the book is sort of torn between my wanting to insist on my sense of loss and longing, and my desire to make the most of where I was by paying the greatest possible attention to it.

BB: You don’t know who we’ll speak to for our next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that—what should we ask them?

SF: “Who do you imagine is looking over your shoulder as you write?”

BB: Since we don’t have a question from a previous author yet this year, I’ll ask you—what was your favorite game to play as a child?

SF: Snail racing.

All Pilgrim Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781935536598
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Four Way Books - October 6th, 2015

Stephanie Ford will read on Friday, April 8 at 7PM


Annalia Luna is currently the marketing assistant at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX. She earned her B.A. in Music and Literature from Butler University. Her work has been published in Plougshares.


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