I was given the opportunity to interview poet, essayist, and scholar Alison Powell in the middle of the most extreme winter of our generation. A broken polar vortex has sent freezing air spilling across the country; cities are shut down, Fahrenheit and Celsius have met again at -40, and the President is begging on Twitter for a little more of that sweet global warming.
And I just got back from a two-hour rabbit hole on transhumanism, sparked by the very first sentence of “Already We Are Less Than Ever Before.”
If the current state of the world seems a little too real right now, tangled up inappropriately between full-throated existential crisis and sitcom-like absurdity, Powell, clear-eyed but not afraid to sound sentimental, offers a perfect glimpse into what it means to be living our best lives in the Anthropocene. Writing in and through the Sixth Great Extinction, with one eye fixed firmly beyond, Powell guides us through our collective winter with the same narrative confidence that she wields over her form, brushing aside conventions of poetry and essay in order to find a more perfect form of both.
Judge Hanif Abdurriqib draws particular praise to Powell’s new mode, inheriting and subverting multiple traditions while soundly carving out a legacy of its own. “What I most love about nonfiction is when it is written with the ability to surprise and shake free of the constraints piled on,” he says. “I appreciate the essay’s compact nature, which makes all of its movements worthwhile, memorable, and echoing.”
My conversation with Powell illustrates just how much labor—intellectual, aesthetic, and at times emotional—goes into crafting such clean, precise movements. Whether talking about the last lion in Barbary or the first Tesla in space, I’ve learned that Powell’s intuitions can be trusted completely, but that they also don’t have to be: she’s done the research. And when the research turns up unexpected results—when Elon Musk starts to sound more like Marie Antoinette than not—Powell, as visibly baffled as the rest of us, responds in a surprising way: with delight, and a little more determination going forward.
We may already be less than ever before, but, as Powell assures in her unconventionally comforting way, that’s the best we could’ve really hoped for—and it just might be enough.
Alison Powell is a poet, essayist, and scholar of Romantic era poetry. Her creative work has recently appeared in journals including American Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Public Space, and more; she has recently received fellowships from VCCA and the Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology. Her first book of poems, On the Desire to Levitate, won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and was published by Ohio University Press in 2014. Recent scholarship includes a chapter on depictions of play in Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805), in Children’s Play in Literature: Investigating the Strengths and Subversions of the Playing Child (Routledge). She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at Oakland University and faculty adviser of the undergraduate literary journal The Oakland Arts Review. Originally from Indiana, Powell now lives in Michigan with her husband and their son and daughter
Daniel Uncapher: I understand that this essay is part of a series. How do the pieces come together?
Alison Powell: It is part of a larger series of “missing files.” Right now I have about 10, and intend to develop the series into a book length manuscript. The project began as a series on species extinction, focusing on cases where the circumstances of death of the last animal is actually known or documented (an example would be the last Barbary lion; some reports indicate it was killed by a hunter on Atlas Mountain in 1942). The project has expanded, though, to more general examples of animal exploitation, and even, as you see in this piece, examining how human beings grapple with their own animality. The pieces also interweave themes of American misogyny, gender identity, consumerism, climate change, and power. it sounds broad, but the connections make sense to me.
ALISON POWELL is a poet, essayist, and scholar of Romantic era poetry. ☆ Judge Hanif Adurraqib selected Powell’s essay, “Already We Are Less Than Ever Before,” as winner of Proximity’s 2018 Personal Essay Prize.
DANIEL UNCAPHER is a Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where he received his MFA, and a senior editor of TRUE, Proximity‘s weekly conversation around telling true stories. His work can be found in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, The Carolina Quarterly, Penn Review, and other journals.