“Writing makes sense of what does and doesn’t matter!”: An Interview with Alexis Sears

Alexis Sears is an educator, poet, and a fresh new voice. Her debut poetry collection, Out of Order, explores the intimate experiences that arise growing up: difficult family dynamics, selfhood, and friendship. 

My interest in getting to interview Alexis Sears only grew after taking a deep dive into her poetry and realizing how much I found myself relating to her words and feelings based around race, death, and girlhood. David Yezzi writes the following about Out of Order: “If you have never read Alexis Sears, prepare yourself. Her poems draw blood. It’s hard to think of a debut collection since Heart’s Needle [by W.D Snodgrass] that is at once so deeply felt and so finely tuned. In her hands, form is the fist that delivers the blow, conveying the pure force of language. With so much at stake—identity, melancholia, a father’s suicide in a distant place—feelings could easily overwhelm and blur, but Sears’s poems remain precise and richly textured. Her poems do not succumb; they triumph, as we do, thrillingly, through them.” 

Pine Hills Review recently published Spears’s poem, “Notes to Self.” Over a series of emails, Alexis Sears and I talked about identity, mantras to live by, and the role of humor in coping with sadness. 

You have a speaking event this month at the West Chester Poetry Center, where you will be a keynote speaker. Is there a main takeaway you hope the audience receives from your speech or any insights you seek to gain from this exciting event? 

I was a little apprehensive about the keynote. I hadn’t given a speech since high school speech and debate! But ever since Out of Order was published in March (even before publication, actually) I’ve been thinking about the relationship between form and voice in poetry; there’s this idea that poems that rhyme or use meter are old school or “white men on their death beds”–type of poetry, but that’s just not true. Poets today such as Erica Dawson, Chad Abushanab, and Jenna Le are proving that you can be a technical, formal aficionado and have a modern voice. I hope the audience takes that away from the speech. 

Your poetry manages to express a plethora of emotions and deeply intimate experiences that I fell in love with as a reader. One of your more praiseworthy abilities is the way in which you view yourself and your emotions with an immense level of compassion and care. As we all know, it’s easy to be self-critical and fall into the trap of hiding our emotions away. I guess my question is: What aided you in getting to this point of self-acceptance? Was there a particular breakthrough moment that allowed for this empathy to come through, or is it an ongoing personal journey? 

I love this question, though I’m not sure I have a particularly profound answer! Growing up is hard for everyone, but my father’s death and subsequent struggles with serious depression made it very difficult to practice self-love. I was so self-critical! Sometimes, I still am. But I’ve definitely become much more self-accepting than I used to be.

That happened for a couple of reasons. I think the main one was becoming a poet. It’s a little cliché to refer to poetry as therapeutic, but the whole writing process taught me how to be empathetic to myself, whether it be previous versions of myself or who I am becoming right now. When you’re writing a personal and intimate poem, you have the opportunity to really examine feelings and situations from all angles. 

Writing brings all sorts of emotions to the forefront; it’s a time to think through why you did certain things, why you felt or feel a certain way, etc. Basically, it brings you clarity you didn’t have before. So looking at these events through a non-judgmental lens results in me having more compassion for myself. Most of my poems are about the past (many about early childhood), so it’s pretty trippy to look back, as an adult, and think, “Wow, I was too hard on myself about x” or “Look how much I’ve developed since [insert embarrassing event here].” 

It’s an ongoing process, of course, and I don’t want my relatively newfound confidence and self-acceptance to turn into complacency. But I think you can love yourself and still want to be a better person; in fact, I think you should want to develop as a person because you love yourself. 

Cover of Alexis Sears's poetry collection Out of Order.

In “Hair Sestina,” you reference your relationship with your father, stating: “Not brilliant, but he could have helped me come to know my hair, my blackness, self. Oh well, without some emptiness, what’s life?” I feel this is something others who grew up in a mixed-race family may also identify with. I know this situation feels all too familiar to me, since I grew up with a mother and father of two different races. Was it cathartic for you to write out these feelings into words? Did you hope that perhaps others could feel a sense of comfort in knowing they are not alone in this experience?

I think the mixed-race experience lends itself to many overused tropes, especially in media, about “not fitting in on either side,” etc., and I didn’t want “Hair Sestina” to turn into another one of those poems, you know? But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have definitely felt “othered” in life, especially when I was younger. 

People have these ideas about what a black/biracial person is supposed to look like, or speak like, or feel, and I don’t really fit any of those. Most people can’t even tell what my ethnicity is—I’ve been mistaken for practically every ethnic group under the sun—and I hated being a black and white person who apparently looked neither black nor white. I would see biracial women in the media and think, “That is what I’m supposed to look like,” not just because they were beautiful, but because it made sense.

Then I grew up and became more socially conscious and (hopefully!!!) less self-absorbed. I realized that my “woe is me” tale doesn’t even come close to the actual struggles of POC in America. I’ve never been followed around a grocery store by a suspicious employee like some of my black friends in Madison, WI; as far as I’m aware, no one has called me a racial slur; I probably don’t need to worry about being shot by law enforcement when I’m lying in bed in my own home or innocuously going for a run. 

I wanted to capture the nuance of my biracial experience: the feeling of not fitting in or being knowledgeable about black culture (my father died when I was 11, and he was the black parent); the acknowledgment (and sometimes guilt) associated with my privilege; and honestly, grieving the rich culture I could have embraced had my father lived. The whole “Hair Sestina” writing process was cathartic, yes, because I got some control. I couldn’t control my father’s death, or how I looked in terms of “race,” or whether I was accepted by either the black or white community, but I could take it upon myself to learn about black hairstyles, which was honestly a ton of fun. And hearing that the poem resonates with people is just the icing on the cake!

As a reader myself, I know I tend to seek out writing that I can relate to on a more personal level, or writings that simply make me feel seen as a person. Your work in particular has completely drawn me in as they feel brutally revealing and true to heart. I am thinking of poems like “On Turning Twenty” and “Seven,” for example, in which you reflect on core life memories and the conflicting emotions brought about by getting older and entering adulthood. I was wondering if this is a sentiment you share when it comes to your own reading habits, or do you prefer reading books about topics less familiar to your own life? 

Hmmm. I’ve never really thought about this, so I’m super glad you asked. Interestingly, I find that most of what I read has to do with late or middle adulthood. This isn’t a conscious choice at all, but there’s something really exciting about the future and its possibilities. What I mean by that is that I absolutely love reading poets who are more seasoned in life, who have loved and lost and learned and all that jazz. It really fascinates me how despite our progress in so many ways, so many aspects of society, especially for women, remain the same. So when I read poets who are much older or who grew up in different generations, I still find the writing relatable in a lot of ways. 

Later on in your book, you include the lines: 

     I hear my best friend’s voice inside  

my head: It doesn’t matter. Nothing does. 

She’s right. None of it matters much, not sonnets;

calories; those rock gods, greasy-haired,

I love. 

These lines speak to me as I too find it freeing that most things don’t inherently matter, or rather that we have some control over what matters to us uniquely. I’m curious, when did this mantra first start to ring true for you, and is it something that can be felt within most, or all of your other writing? In other words, can your work help make sense of what does and doesn’t matter to you personally?

Shout-out to my friend Andrea for the “nothing matters” quote. I agree with her sentiment, especially as I get older. Crushes, for example, that used to completely consume me have become a “so what?” situation. Here’s the kicker, though: even though I’ve become more lax about a lot of things, I’m still a poet. So the things that matter to me…those things matter an awful lot. I wish I could say there was some sort of light switch moment that gave me perspective, and made me realize what mattered to me and what didn’t. But I think it just sort of happened, gradually and randomly. 

I definitely think that writing makes sense of what does and doesn’t matter! Like I said earlier, it lets me analyze situations and events. When I’m writing the poem, I get to put all of my energy into something that was such a big deal (at least, big enough for me to write about it!) and then I can more or less move on… . for a while, anyway. 

You work as a sixth-grade English teacher, and I am curious to know, does your work as an educator play any kind of role in your writing career? Has there been a specific moment teaching in your classrooms that has sparked any inspiration for you in terms of what you want to express in your work? 

Teaching nowadays is such a strange experience. On the one hand, things are so different. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to worry so much about social media at such a young age. And almost all these kids have smartphones, which means someone is probably filming you sometimes. A student once confessed that her biggest fear was saying something “problematic,” getting canceled, and then going viral for saying the problematic thing that got her canceled. Yikes!

But equally interesting is the fact that I see so much of myself in these young people. I had a student who lost his dad at the same age I was when I lost mine. And it brought back so many feelings and memories that it was almost scary. It made me see myself as a writer in a different light; usually, I’m the young poet(I mean, I wrote Out of Order in my teens and early twenties), but what if I could offer some kind of wisdom? What would middle school Alexis have wanted or needed to read? 

You mentioned on your website in the “About My Writing” section how you use humor in your writing delivery as a way to make sense of the difficulties and complexities life brings. In your own words, you describe your method as “Humor with an undercurrent of sadness.”I wanted to know if this mindset has always come about naturally to you, or was it something you channeled over time as a way to better cope with different hardships? 

Honestly, I’ve always used humor as a coping mechanism! Don’t we all? So many poets who are just starting out feel like they have to be as “deep” or  “profound” as possible. Ugh! When I first started writing, I noticed that the more I tried to be serious, the more ludicrous the poem became! As a reader, I want authenticity. A poem should be an experience, and even in the darkest of times, we can usually find something to laugh about. Look at Shakespeare, for example. Even his tragedies have made me laugh out loud. 

I can imagine that seeing your work published for the first time is an exciting and fulfilling moment. Your work has been published over twenty different times in a variety of publications, which I find to be quite impressive for a young writer. How was your experience in being published for the first time ever back in 2018 with “Children of the Streets” in the Texas Review? Was this a moment that helped to solidify your talents and overall confidence as a writer? 

Funny that you ask! I was reminiscing about this the other day. I remember when I got the acceptance email for Texas Review. I was on my way to Helen C. White Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was just about to begin my M.F.A. I was glowing. 

I remember when the poem was set to appear, though, months later. In typical Alexis fashion, I decided it was an absolutely mortifying piece of writing that didn’t deserve to appear on even a bathroom wall at a dive bar! Wisconsin was hosting (now Poet Laureate) Ada Limón, so we got to eat pizza with her, and I remember asking if it was common to decide you hate your work once it is about to be published. She laughed. She said that some things never change.

Jasmine Bates is a passionate writer and creative. She graduated from The College of Saint
Rose in December 2022 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She is excited to continue
forward with her writing career.

Alexis Sears photo: Pat Branch

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