AK “Mimi” Allin is a life-long volunteer, a poet in a very old sense of the word who’s making it her mission, sometimes quietly, sometimes subliminally, sometimes overtly, to bring poetry to the people. In the last two years, she became the poetess-in-residence at Green Lake in Seattle, coordinated the “Running Poets” lake run, read Frost’s “Fire and Ice” through a 300 lb block of frozen water to strangers, sent 60 poetry-emblazoned umbrellas around Green Lake, and was nominated for Seattle’s Poet Populist, 2008 (VOTE!) by the Washington Poets Association. When we spoke over the phone, Mimi was in Walla Walla, sitting in the sun with her sketchbook, making a “conscious effort to be fun.” Part-one of our interview focuses on her place as a poet, and her desire to connect others with poetry. Part-two, which discusses language and craft, will be featured shortly. Visit her blog to learn more about her work and events.
DJ: The idea of “being fun” shows up a lot with you, not only in your work but especially in your public activities and poetry installations. You seem to be making an effort to define the word “poet” in a deeply personal way. How are you trying to define the word, especially in regards to how you live in this very poetic sense?
AA: I’ve been having conversations for at least 10-years, probably more, about the importance of poetry and where the artist fits into society. It has to do with coming to terms with one’s ability to make a living, and whether one is self-sacrificing. Something I come back to again and again is that poetry is the highest and most common denominator in our ability to communicate. It’s the form of communication we turn to when we really need to get the message through. After 9/11 we had poetry on the front page of the New York Times. It isn’t a typical thing for us, but it’s where we turn to for both inspiration and articulation.
Art is just a means of explaining and expressing our problems and our place. The more involved you are with projects, the more you see there’s not much difference between fully living your life, exploring your place in life and being an artist. For me, it decided to do this because I didn’t feel I had a choice. I wasn’t finding my community. I think poetry has been lacking a community, which is why it’s kind of lost. Academic degrees and programs form a different kind of community, one that seems separate from the world at large, the community that, I think, the poet is trying to reach. Like many art forms, poetry is a thing that people become afraid of because they haven’t had enough exposure.
The project at Green Lake taught me so much about myself and about what people want. Poetry, dialog, discussion and art need facilitation. People are ready to respond and interact, but we need somebody there to start or focus that dialog. Being a poet and articulating also means facilitating and transmitting poetry to people. There’s this great big public that would love to participate in art and poetry, but don’t know where to go to get it.
DJ: It seems to me that you are doing your part to take this idea of what is poetry away from the stuffy man of letters or the woman up in her room and bringing it out into the public. When did this motivation set in?
AA: I wish I could say why it is I need to solve problems when I see them (laughter). I was brought up with a sense of civic duty, with a need to make things real, and with the idea that if I didn’t do it, nobody would. Dialog feeds me. The work that goes into these projects isn’t the fun part. What’s exciting is seeing people scramble for poetry in a world where if you say, “Here let me read you a poem,” the room clears out. The idea that you can get people super excited, and you can make things happen, is thrilling to me. In the moment, it makes things worthwhile. It energizes me.
DJ: You have a knack for facilitating and bringing thoughts and conversation together in one place, as if, through your presence alone, you serve as a channel for conversation. In that way, it’s a constant facilitation. I am curious, how have you found yourself being received, taking into account both the curious looks and the voices of support?
AA: The day of the Running Poets at Green Lake, people were jumping up and down. They were excited. They were stopping and dropping their mouths, “This is beautiful, you need to get money for this.” It was a wildly popular, successful event. It was an exciting day. Things were free, connections were happening, the poets were, people were excited to see things happening.
While I was doing the Green Lake project, I was spending about 30 hours a week blogging about things that would come up during the day. One of the things that came up was this idea of parallel socialization, where people walk around the lake, they want to be seen, they want to meet people but they can’t bring themselves to go do it. The question was, “Why is this happening.” That was a dialog for quite a bit of time. I was thinking about it, and everyone who came to me were thinking about it (too). A lot of bright people came by and added their bit as to why they thought it was happening.
Some people said, “Well, you know, there I was one day at Green Lake and I thought, ‘I’m going to make a connection. I’m going to go up to somebody, I’m going to say hello and I’m going to talk to them.’” One guy reported that he did, and this woman started telling him her life story. And it was a hard and horrible life story. She’d almost died recently, and she was going through this major surgery. After about 20-minutes the guy was thinking, “I’ve got to get out of this conversation. This is too much for me to handle.” So the fear exists that once we’re in, we can’t get out, and just how much responsibility can we take and how much can we offer to the community.
DJ: As the channel, the facilitator, you’ve probably gotten to that place where, once you’re in you’re in, and you can’t afford to walk away while the show’s still going on.
AA: And I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I did have to come to conclusions about how to deal with people who kept coming back, or made me feel uncomfortable. For the most part, it didn’t happen.
DJ: What was your plan for that?
AA: (Laughter) People were worried because sometimes it would be very cold or raining all day. I wore the wrong shoes, the wrong outfit, whatever. So I would walk up to get hot tea and come back. And people would say, “Well, what about your desk, and what about your books?” And I would say, “Well, you know, something tells me they’re not going to steal my desk, it only costs $40 and I’m not really worried about it. And if they steal a poetry book, I mean, I can’t think of anything better.” That kind of stuff doesn’t really happen in this world, but I wish it would.
Almost everything that came up that I wasn’t ready for became a challenge. That very first day someone said, “Can I give you a dollar, can I donate to this cause?” I had to decide if I was going to accept money and if not, then why. I decided No, and I thought, “For this project it would be too easy. It feels good in our culture to give some money and walk away. What I really wanted people to do was to put themselves into it, or to think about it. So I said, “If you really want to do something, memorize a poem and come back and read it to me one Sunday, or go read this poem and think about what this means. Or go answer the question, Where are our poets?
DJ: There’s almost a Whitman-esque quality to both your approach to being this poet, and also in your use of language in your work. Has Whitman been an influence on you? Or is there a collection of others from where you can draw the line?
AA: I read and studied Whitman in a class called Protest Poetry. It never went to places that were visual or public, but was mostly about the kind of literature that doesn’t survive a protest, and how all poetry is protest. So I really wouldn’t draw a line there.
I think the whole idea of me going grass roots and non-profit, and throwing myself in it, is more a result in my not being interested in money, not having a business mind, or my wanting to keep capital money out of it. That could be a problem, and I’m still struggling with that. I talk a lot with my partner about whether or not the artist can make money doing what the artist loves to do, and if you don’t believe you can than I don’t believe you will. I’m trying to re-envision myself as an artist who makes money. I can see myself being a grant-funded artist, and there all sorts of artists who live off grants and that’s how they do it, but I wonder if you can have poetry become a commercial interest. That intrigues me. Why fight the system continually if you can use the system?
DJ: As an artist, is giving of yourself the most important thing? Or is it more a case where you’re simply going to do what you’re going to do?
AA: Typically, it’s not just materials and I’m gone. Once it was raining at the lake really hard. I was cold, it was winter, and I thought, “OK, what am I going to do? I’m going to read. I’m going to pace and I’m going to read.” I was having trouble turning the pages, my fingers were cold and everything was wet. And I decided to just rip them out and stick them on my poetry desk, which had beads of water all over it. Then I got the idea to go into the little forest, which was about 25 trees up on a hill behind me, and see if I could stick the poems to the trees. And they were sticking. I got about 12 trees covered with pages from my poetry book. Then I went for a cup of tea.
When I came back, there were about five people in the forest reading the poems on the trees. I was just thrilled and I thought, “My God, it’s working.” I put it into place then I watched it happening. The day it’s happening by itself will be a very wonderful day. I won’t feel like I’m out of work. It’ll be more like, “Finally, I live in a world where things are meaningful, where people have access to poetry, where the poets are being heard.” And also, the poets aren’t just being needy, but the poets are being truthful, they have something to say, and they’re giving and not just receiving. They’ve grown up and they’ve come to a place where they say, “OK, I’ve worked on myself and now I have something meaningful to share. Listen to this.” And people do listen when there’s something being said.