Nettie Farris's The Alice Poems
Reviving Wonderland: A Review of Nettie Farris's The Alice Poems by Cassidy Witt
The Alice Poems (new in 2023 from Dancing Girl Press) by Nettie Farris is a collection of short poems, all of which pertain to a main character, “Alice,” who is heavily implied to be Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland storyworld. The poems mention familiar characters like the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, and the Jack of Spades, but this interpretation moves beyond the versions of these characters as we know them. Instead, Farris’s reimagining of these beloved characters plucks them from the surreal and fantastical realm of giant teacups and and caterpillars with hookahs, and deposits them within a world very much like our own. The poems tell Alice's story from a third-person perspective exclusively—and, yet, weaved within the speaker’s blunt sensibilities is a nuanced perspective on common life experiences. Farris uses familiar characters as a vehicle for delivering underlying content, allowing the reader to fall into the role of a fairytale character while the fairytale character falls into the life of the reader.
Farris is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Louisville College of Arts and Sciences, a poet, writer, and dedicated educator. In addition to, The Alice Poems, Farris is also the author of Communion, Fat Crayons, and The Wendy Bird Poems, which have received critical acclaim. Farris was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award for Part-Time Instruction by the University of Louisville College of Arts and Sciences for her exceptional teaching skills. She continues to reside in Louisville, Kentucky, where she writes, teaches, and contributes to the literary community. Read her work in Issue 18 of Miracle Monocle.
One of the most charming aspects of this collection is the brevity of each piece. The book can be read very quickly, and thus can be read multiple times over if you’re someone who likes to read between the lines. Furthermore, the brevity makes each piece feel less like a poem and more like a quote. Each poem can be pondered over, even memorized and recited. Farris’s ability to put so much weight into so few words is a gift that’s hard to come by. One of my favorite pieces in the collection is actually the first piece, “What Alice Thought, While Falling.” It reads: “the good thing about hitting the bottom, she thought, is at least you have something to stand on. Something solid.” The piece is only twenty words long and yet so much can be taken from it. From the first page of the collection on, I felt roped into the world of mysterious “Alice” and her thought-provoking “fall.”
Another poem I really like is “Alice Attends the Romantic Ballet” which reads, only, “I’ve always wanted to be an imaginary creature.” The ambiguity of this piece is both striking and alluring. Somehow, within this simple string of words, I’m able to see myself. I would never think to describe myself as wanting to “be an imaginary creature,” and yet, upon reading it, I understood myself through Alice. The entire collection released this sort of feeling inside me; Farris finds a way to read her readers’ hearts and souls in these single-line pieces of verse.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with the writer recently about the collection. The following is a transcription of our conversation:
Cassidy Witt: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself (in general, but specifically as a writer)?
Nettie Farris: I hate this question in general. You might say that my writing life began when I enrolled in Introduction to Fiction taught by Leon Driskell. He literally taught me how to read and to write and inspired me to take courses in creative writing. I continued to take courses with Leon, who supervised both my undergraduate Honor Thesis and Master Thesis. Meantime, I studied with Maureen Moorhead, who taught me the cumulative effect of the poetic sequence, which I discovered namely through her Laura and Purple Lady poems. From Sena Naslund I learned the beauty of the sentence and the usefulness of imitating writing models in teaching. From Jeffrey Skinner, I learned not to overwrite. From reading Sylvia Plath I acquired an obsession with assonance. I suppose my work, now, is more underwritten than overwritten. I love the construction of a solid sentence. I continue to write in sequences. And I consider assonance a coherence devise.
CW: What inspired you to write poems about Alice from Alice in Wonderland?
NF: I don’t think I began with Alice particularly in mind but the feeling of falling, which of course leads one to Alice. She also seems to me to be very matter-of-fact and solid. Also courageous. She falls, she shrinks, she meets nonsensical characters and keeps going because she has a strong and stable mind of her own. I suppose she was my vehicle for finding solid ground.
CW: Is this your typical format for writing or does this differ from your norm? (The use of pre-established characters, the brevity of the pieces, poetry vs prose, etc.)
NF: Established literary characters are useful because they provide both a context (which allows brevity) and a point of departure. In addition to Alice, I’ve written sequences about Harry Bosch, a detective created by novelist Michael Connelly; Philip Marlowe, a detective created by novelist Raymond Chandler; a poem in the voice of Wendy; and a sequence in the voice of Peter Rabbit.
For the most part, I believe, I tend to discover a form, complete a series in the same form, discover a new form, then eventually return to a previous form. I do write in both poetic lines and prose. A majority of my prose poems are much longer than the Alice Poems, but all of my work is brief. By nature, I am a minimalist. Furthermore, my mentor, Leon Driskell, instilled in me the practice of eliminating every unnecessary word. You might say I’ve taken this concept to the extreme.
CW: Do you feel that you identify with the pieces in The Alice Poems?
NF: I do identify with The Alice Poems. In some of them, I am simply playing, but in others I explore concepts central to my identity, of lack thereof.
CW: What’s your favorite piece from the collection? What do you like about it?
NF: “Alice Sings the Blues,” which is in first person rather than third person, is the poem I am most connected to. I wrote it after my dog died, and I cry when I read it aloud.
CW: What else would you like for readers to know about your work?
NF: My work is at its best in the form of a sequence, which provides a sense of narrative.
If you’re looking for something short and sweet, The Alice Poems are for you. You’ll find yourself basking in the nostalgia of the characters, but feeling touched in an all-new way by the adult perspectives. In just a moment, all of the many versions of yourself will be found and reignited within Farris’s words. Grab your copy of The Alice Poems today.