A Head Full of Music

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke talks to Tami Haaland about songs, sandhill cranes, and editing in her head



I HAVE ADMIRED Allison Hedge Coke and her work for many years. We met in 2002 through the Billings YMCA Writers’ Voice, and for two years we worked together on programming for the High Plains BookFest, then stayed in touch off and on through the years. From the beginning, we talked about family, teaching, and poetry.

Sometimes Allison’s poems feel familiar to me. “Eddy Lines,” for example, reminded me of kayaking the Marias River with my brother. “I’ll feather, you ferry, / until eddy lines / cross apart / and yet together / through this art.” Often they move through worlds that are much less familiar in both rhythm and vision, and I feel lucky to be taken into her work. Allison’s depth of spirit, her generous energy, and her honesty appear equally in her poetry and her life.

This interview transpired through email. I sent the questions and Allison answered. It was simple as that. What I know of Allison’s background, what I understand from having farming, the natural world, and music in my own background, guided my questions. My assumption was this: these early inclinations— what poets learn from parents and environment, from the art forms they choose not to pursue— underlie and inform the work. I am deeply grateful for Allison’s thoughtful exploration of these questions–Tami Haaland

Tami Haaland: You have often spoken about your father’s influence on your work, his oral storytelling and how it has affected your composition process. Could you elaborate? Do you go through many drafts on paper?

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Since he passed, speaking of this, of my father, is different. There is a deep sadness in his absence and I miss him all the time. His gift for story, song, for sharing knowledge through both, has profound effect on my thought process, composition, on my beingness in the world, and how things are revealed, or become available to me. He was a great dad. So many things more I wish I’d done to convince him of it.

The number of drafts is never something steady, for me. Some pieces require far more than others, and some are realized more fully at the time of writing. I edit a lot in my head, probably far more than on the page, so the drafting is happening oftentimes way before I begin to write. Not sure there is a way to report how many drafts that could be. Gathering the whole of it, on the page, sometimes just needs tending to. Some pieces require more work. Revision is an essential part of revealing what the whole of a poem is, so to stay with it until then is necessary, absolutely.

TH: Where do your rhythms come from? Many lines exhibit sprung rhythm—“fluttering, fine, fly, pit, painted lady ritual,” for instance. I’m interested in your influences, and I know that’s sometimes a difficult question because influence comes from so many places. Whose poetry and whose music is in your head?

AHC: My head is often full of music. It just exists there, original, new.
In some ways, I think in it. Emotions are enabled within the intimate space there, in music. If I think about it, it makes me weepy, so I just enjoy it, when I have time. Or, let it carry me into a project, a poem, an idea, and ride along with it until that manifestation presents.
Other people’s songs also ride along, carry me to weigh situations. Or something that happens comes to me through a bit of song. Could be anyone’s, but more often is blues, R & B, jazz, or soul. Early influences from the radios we dug out of people’s throw-aways, rewired, changed out and gave homes and new life to in our rooms.

Birdsongs, songs from nature. Traditional songs, songs of place and of living. Songs all around us when I was young and throughout life. They’re here, too. I’ve always known them. They inform me and deeply influence me. I’m just lucky enough to have a point of relevance I walk around with, so they are with me.
For a long time, I thought everyone held music. When it became apparent to me not everyone, I just felt strange. Makes me wonder what is happening for others without it though. How their way of thinking differs. It’s quite interesting.

TH: Would you discuss your musical and performance background? How has that come to rest in your writing?AHC: My father sang all the time. My mother was a pianist. I began to try out instruments preschool and continued in school. The first money I ever made was coins tossed toward my song-dance imitation on the corner outside a store so my sister and I could get Cokes. She put me up to it. Garage bands, kid stuff, later became more real. Eventually, I was writing better songs, performing in studios, sessions. Took a performance class in Nashville to learn more about character development because I was interested in writing script and moving the lyric into longer works. The coach there sent me a letter of recommendation to study more as I was making my way to the west coast for field worker retraining and a chance for alternative work since my body wasn’t up to the labor-intensive life I’d always known. I ended up working in the industry for a while, then shied away from it after someone I loved died. I turned back to poetry for solace and re-homed there.

Most of my work in performance is in studio, or collaborative staged gigs, and also behind the scenes. I love being immersed and surrounded in others’ genius. Love improvisation and sound art.

I never had great dexterity and crushed a hand that was atrophied for almost two years. It grew back wrongly, and I don’t have the use of it I did once. Writing embodies almost all of it now. On occasion, I have an opportunity to stage something, poetry, music. Completely natural and still thrilling for me. Some of the longer poems require staging. They are librettos really. My poetry isn’t far from my music.

TH: You have been explicit about your farming and physical labor background. Does working in this physical way offer inspiration or contribute to the development or completion of poems? Did this background develop a kinesthetic orientation for you?

AHC: Absolutely. The musicality in motion, in muscle, in work, labor, stay with a person, literally forms you if you began heavy labor in youth. I’m inspired in motion, in movement, and have a deep sense of respect for what becomes available to me when in motion and when with physical engagement. I was a field worker, a sharecropper. Worked in factories and fishing. Worked horses and construction. All of the work is with me still, whether in the rhythms I exist in or bodily damage from the labor. It is me. Too, I descend from field laborers and workers all the way back, so a good part of my genetic code is likely enhanced with those characteristics. Those rhythms, those bursts of thought, ideas, ways of seeing, are some of the staples of poetry, the seed of it.

TH: In the years we have known each other, I have always been impressed with your generosity and engagement in community. Would you talk about your work to celebrate and protect Sandhill cranes, and your work with incarcerated youth? How does your vision encompass these and other passions?

AHC: My father took me to bird councils when I was small and throughout my youth. His father took him, as well. It is in our family, this love for and care for attention to the seasonal gatherings of birds. My work with Sandhills is one of love and respect for their greatness, their longevity in the world. They are the same as they were 9 million years ago, literally. Perfect people in their form. Lovely, beautiful, and powerful birds who are so organized and caring, it is utterly moving to be witness to them during their councils. Dancing beings, with throats shaped like saxophones, they are music, and every matter of their magnificent migration, a learned thing, is elegant and beautiful. Language has been passed through them to all kinds of peoples on their flyways. This is true for cranes around the world. The histories of written language in North America, Ireland, Asia, so many places demonstrate their meaning to mankind and their gifts. People have learned what foods to eat, what medicines to take, how to approach dance, partnering, relationships by emulating sandhills, other cranes, a multitude of birds of prey, and birds in general. For eons it’s been this way. Birds are part of our identities, our teachers. Standing for them is an honor. Witnessing them, in their lives, is a privilege, pure pleasure.

I was incarcerated as a kid. My mom was in asylums, locked in, as well. It only makes sense to go back to what you come from to be of help to others wading those waters. It is a duty and a responsibility to help others finds ways of coping through challenges, hardships, and perpetrations of the State on its citizenry. To help kids find a way to survive, to live, to cope, to make change, and to find themselves and a place for themselves in this world is a real privilege, an honor, as well. It is something I will also do to some degree. In some ways I am trying to make up for what did not happen for me when I was in their shoes, I am certain.
Whatever brings you to do for others, has heart. No matter what form it arrived in, heart is within. Anything with heart is good for your heart, as well. We are all working toward balance and having heart is an essential component to embodying balance and experiencing love and all it brings. For some of us, it is the way to make it relevant.

Reciprocity is this in practice. For everything I have ever received, there are offerings. I will continue to offer, whether receiving or not.

TH: In social media, you send love and poetry prompts into the world almost daily. It is a simple and profound gesture. What does this sense of love mean to you and why is it so important?

AHC: People are suffering, struggling, stumbling along in all matters of ways and the meaning of it is something so fleeting, I feel compelled to offer what is available toward coping, nourishment; toward balance in a regular manner. You know, we never know when we might leave life, what might become of us. Small gestures from sincere places have resonance, reverb, move beyond an utterance, a note, and take on their own measure in the world, beyond us. There is so much to move through in life. So many daily challenges. We never fully know what someone else is experiencing, or how so. Consider it an offering, of sorts. Something I can make available and hope it helps.

For this time we are in now, I began creating original daily #poempromptsforthepandemic as soon as we went on lockdown. To date, there are over 225 of these posted on Instagram and Facebook. They can easily be used for prose, script, lyric, as well as poems and would also be starters for artworks and other creative works. It is something I could offer, can offer daily, for free for the people. For love for the people. (Enjoy!)

TH: After your reading at SDSU and in relation to your long poem, “Burn,” you mentioned that “associative leaps bounce off the elemental.” Would you say more? To what extent is your poetry or any poetry dependent on the elemental?

AHC: Forces of nature, what embodies their characteristics generate (regenerate) in all surroundings, in everything touched or moved by the force. It continues. Same is true for what makes up the stuff of life. For fire, water, air, earth. Also, for substance, for what cannot be broken down into other substances. For what compels us, what moves us, what senses and visceral properties draw us, engage us, create change and motion within us and move us to act in the world, to participate. An electrical storm may bring possibility, hope, danger, clarity, so many things. Each increment of the primary, of force, pummels, bounces, elicits, compels response. In the case of thinkers, dreamers, poets, writers, music makers, artists, associative leaps then bring new formulations, ideas, through the kinship connective force. In some ways an exceptionally large amount, perhaps all of the poetry, exists there and we just collide with it, differently on occasion, then bring it to the page. In close readings of almost anyone’s work, it seems evident to me.

TH: Your poem, “America, I Sing You Back” is dedicated to several people including your father. The poem and what I know of your life makes me think you have much hope for the future. What are you working on as you look to his future?

AHC: I was traveling to read in a festival in a war zone, years ago. Embarrassed by our imperialistic and irresponsible State, hurt by knowledge of the crimes from its audacity, this poem was suddenly available. It wasn’t written in anger. It was written with a feeling of hope and call for restoration of origins. Music first, then flash memory of the Whitman poem responded to by Hughes, and the woman voice, embodied mother, grandmother voice calling back the land. The poem was cast with hope for return of land, for the longer America, before the term of the new country. The Western Hemisphere, riddled with devastation since colonial powers invaded with the selfishness of conquerors endangering wholly the environment, living creatures, all of it. Like a toddler, the ego of the settler-colonial state acting out so dangerously, egregiously and so egotistically. Then again at every stage, pre-teen, teen, young egocentric maiden, all driven by commercialism, by capitalism, resourcing, by greed, ego, that I felt an urge to sing back the land, waters. To sing back all of the land, waters, air, the flora and fauna that nurtured this sad, narcissistic, entitled made-up new country, so horribly egocentric, driven by egomania, by megalomania to act out, pout, and harm the very lands, waters, air, that nourished it, spoiled as it is. To return the country to herself, to bring her back to reason. The land, the country, beyond the state. It is the essence of the land that makes the continent what it is. Without care and concern for her, the country, the planet is doomed. The manifestation of state leaders representing that child, though truly frightening and terrible are not surprising. Dictators rarely are.
My hope lies in truth and matters of the continent, the place, and all its life sources and living beings. My hope lies in truth reaching across boundaries and bringing the earth back to a place of beauty, of plentitude, of health. The US is a very young country and it is in turmoil, in deep trouble. We must hold hope for better ways, for change, for restoration of the bountiful world, and for love of peace and planet to move leaders to be good to the world and its many peoples. To restore reverence, peace, harmony.


Read “Viscera” by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

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