SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — For author Alicia Mountain, reading excerpts from her first collection of poetry, “High Ground Coward,” which won the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize, in the basement of Words Bookstore in Maplewood on June 15 was not just another stop on her book tour — it was a homecoming. Like at many homecomings, Mountain was met by a large audience exuding an overwhelming sense of pride.
“It’s such a treat to be in a basement in Maplewood, the environment in which I made many memories as a young person … basements in Maplewood,” Mountain joked with the Words audience.
Mountain, a South Orange native and a 2006 graduate of Columbia High School, is currently working toward a doctorate degree in the department of English and literary arts at the University of Denver. Her road from South Orange to Denver was not straight; Mountain, who was born in Oakland, Calif., has lived in South Orange; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Missoula, Mont.; and then Denver, Colo. But the SOMA community holds a special place in her heart. She and her two younger sisters all attended Marshall, Jefferson, South Orange Middle and Columbia High schools.
“The South Orange-Maplewood public school system gave me a wonderful education. I had wonderful, kind, overworked, underpaid, heroic teachers. They read to me, they taught me how to read, they taught me to care about justice, they let me figure out who I was and who I wanted to be,” Mountain told the News-Record. “The arts curriculum in our South Orange and Maplewood schools was hugely important in my growth as a creative person — I was involved in the performing arts and I think it gave me a sense for how sound, rhythm and emotion in music and in language might overlap.”
But Mountain, who identifies herself as a lesbian poet, educator and scholar, acknowledges that she had many privileges while growing up in SOMA and that, due to systemic oppression, not everyone had that experience, she said.
“Growing up in South Orange and going to Columbia High School ingrained in me the recognition of diversity as strength, liberation as a collective responsibility and success as communal accomplishment,” she said. “I deeply agree with those who say that none of us are free until all of us are free. The seeds of this belief were sown in South Orange and Maplewood.”
Because of this foundation, Mountain — in addition to her academic and recreational activities — is heavily involved in activism.
“I am also politically active and it’s important to me that I put energy toward causes that matter to me — things like racial and economic justice, HIV advocacy, prison abolition, etc.,” Mountain told the News-Record.
At Words, she read aloud “Almanac Traction,” a poem she was spurred to write by the country’s political climate.
“This is a poem I wrote after the election — you know which election,” she told her Words audience.
Her beliefs certainly come out in her poetry, which is equal parts scintillating, revelatory and jovial. Even when discussing heavy topics in her poetry, such as unfulfilled desire and intolerance, she uses wit and a tone that brings to mind a wink and a nod. Several of her poems in “High Ground Coward” explore her feelings surrounding HIV/AIDS and testing for it.
“HIV advocacy work is close to my heart,” Mountain told the News-Record “As a lesbian woman living in 2018, I know I owe so many of the civil rights and cultural acceptance that I enjoy now to the hard work and heartbreak of LGBTQ activists in the ’80s and ’90s, whose work catalyzed change. This is part of my queer inheritance, this debt that I owe to that movement and those people. There’s also much work yet to be done. HIV is still criminalized, stigmatized and marginalized.”
In her quest to put her beliefs into action, Mountain has volunteered as an HIV tester and counselor.
“A few years ago I was writing poems, but also working a day job as a case manager for people in need living with HIV. I love being a poet and a teacher, but serving people living with HIV was probably the most important job I’ll ever have. I’m grateful I got to do that work,” Mountain told the News-Record. “Those beliefs and experiences show up in ‘High Ground Coward’ because they show up in me, in how I see the world and how I want to change it.”
Mountain doesn’t just draw from her volunteer work for her poetry, but from all aspects of her life. Many of her poems feature her parents and her life growing up in the SOMA community.
“My poems are sometimes based entirely on my life, sometimes completely made up and most often somewhere in between,” Mountain told the News-Record “When I write, I’m usually drawing on experiences of the senses or bits of language that have caught my attention. Sometimes I’ll have a scene in mind or a movement. Ideally, I write as soon as I get up in the morning so that some of my dream state lingers before the outside world becomes too present.”
It is clear after talking to Mountain and reading her poetry that she is true to herself in it and she really bares her soul. As she joked about her poetry to the audience at Words, “It’s just me … in paper form.”
“I don’t give much thought to being too personal,” she told the News-Record. “I think an openness and honesty with my reader establishes a trust that lets the poems perhaps reach them on a deeper level. I have an aversion to any sort of hiddenness or repression. Of course, my life intersects with the lives of others and so I do give those folks the opportunity to change their names in poems if they want to keep more distance between their identities and the representation in the work.”
Mountain’s poems were certainly reaching her audience at the Words Bookstore reading.
“One of the great things about making a book of poetry is that I get to bring it to friends and family, who don’t really like poetry,” she said at Words, explaining that some people mistakenly think poetry is “stuffy.” “Poetry is supposed to be fun. Sometimes it’s serious, but it’s mostly fun.”
The audience at Words was certainly having fun. As newcomers came down the stairs, Mountain would pause to wave to them. Her energy was contagious and the entire room seemed excited, eager and thoughtful.
At one point, Mountain animatedly thanked the entire audience for coming and spent a few moments detailing how she knew most of them. In attendance were friends from church, former teachers, Girl Scout cohorts, children she babysat for, old neighbors, school friends, parents of her school friends and — perhaps most exciting of all — people she had never met before.
One advantage of having the room so full of people Mountain knows — aside from the fact that Words sold out of her book a mere hour after her talk ended — was that they were able to ask her penetrating questions and even help her answer some. When she was asked when she first read her poems aloud to people she knew, she began to answer “grad school,” before a friend in the front row called her out and reminded her of the friend of a friend’s jazz night in New York.
A former teacher asked Mountain how she came to poetry, recalling how Mountain, as a student in SOMA, had been focused on prose. Mountain recalled always having a strong connection to poetry, having read Shel Silverstein and William Carlos Williams as a young girl.
“They showed me a way of being with words that was outside of convention,” Mountain told her former teacher at Words.
Mountain’s admiration for Williams, among several other poets, comes through in her own work as she makes reference to him and his work throughout her own.
“Williams is a complicated figure,” she told the News-Record. “We are all complicated figures in some ways. His language and poetics have influenced my work — his line breaks, his use of language, his movements through logic. He’s a New Jersey poet who moved through domestic spaces as a doctor making house calls, trying to heal people.”
Though Mountain did not always write poetry, she has always been a writer.
“I started writing poems after I graduated from college. I knew I wanted to be a writer and up until that point I had been writing short stories and nonfiction pieces. The summer after college, I decided I’d write a poem every day, as a way to keep writing. Out of that process, I realized I wanted a community to help me grow into myself as a poet, so I started taking community workshops at the 92nd Street Y in New York,” Mountain told the News-Record.
Once she started writing poetry, she was hooked.
“I think I was first motivated by stillness in poetry, by the way things could just be rather than relying on a narrative for meaning. The image could stand for itself,” Mountain continued. “I think this was a new way of thinking about meaning, value, purpose and beauty. Poems don’t often grab as much attention as action movies, but I think they can have just as much impact on us as louder media — sometimes even more.”
Mountain does not just want her work to make a statement, she wants it to affect readers and help them better connect with themselves.
“I hope that my poems invite readers to be very present, in their bodies and in who they are as people,” she told the News-Record. “I want my work to allow readers to be comfortable with themselves and to see the world around them with attention and care. I would like my readers to feel that they will be kept company by these poems as they move through their lives.”
That is certainly how she feels while writing her poems.
“I love writing poems. It’s also not an easy task. When a poem is brewing inside me I have the impulse to get it out of me and onto paper. Being able to make that happen feels like a relief. Sometimes it feels cathartic. It can also be playful and silly or like digging a deep hole from my belly button up into my heart,” she told the News-Record. “I don’t do very much editing right away when I write a new poem. Usually what emerges is pretty fully formed. I have a sense of accomplishment and vulnerability when I put a poem down on paper, even if that poem doesn’t end up in a book. Just the act of writing poetry is something to be proud of.”
“High Ground Coward,” published by the University of Iowa Press, is a cheeky, sensual, defiant and dizzyingly wonderful first collection of poetry from Alicia Mountain. To learn more about Mountain and her writing, visit www.aliciamountain.com or follow her on Twitter at “@HiGroundCoward.”
Photos by Yael Katzwer