Mixtape Poetics: An Interview with Alicia Cook

photo credit Patience Randle

by Gerardo Del Guercio

Alicia Cook is that rare creature in the world of poetry publishing: an author who has had books become bestsellers and poems go viral online. Earlier this year she released the third and final installment to her “mixtape” series, The Music Was Just Getting Good ($16.99), following 2016’s Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately and 2020’s Sorry I Haven’t Texted You Back as well as a poetry collection not in the series, I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip (2018); all have been published by Andrews McMeel, an industry giant. Her writing is known for how it compassionately takes up themes of trauma and grief, and she is a passionate activist in the battle against the opioid epidemic, writing essays and speaking publicly to shed light on how drug addiction affects the mental health of entire families. Also an aspiring songwriter, Cook holds an MBA from Saint Peter’s University and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Georgian Court University; she lives with her family in New Jersey.

Gerardo Del Guercio: Let’s start with the basics: What is it that draws you to writing?

Alicia Cook: Writing was always my “safe space.” Even from a young age, it’s how I worked things out—made sense of my head. To this day, it is a way I can control my own narrative in a world built on perceptions and assumptions. It’s a way I can connect to people who may be a few steps behind me and help them feel less alone and more understood.

GDG: Like your first two books, The Music Was Just Getting Good is designed as a cassette mixtape. Tell us more about how and why you use this format. Was there something specific that set it off?

AC: Format-wise, I’ve divided The Music Was Just Getting Good into two parts; “Side A” holds ninety-two poems, titled as “tracks,” and “Side B” holds the “remixes,” which are blackout-poetry versions of those ninety-two poems. And there are other touches to the mixtape theme I lean into as well. I’m trying to create a more immersive experience than just sitting down and reading a book.

In the new collection, I’ve returned to the themes of mental health, hope, and grief. Grief isn’t confined to death alone. We grieve for who we used to be, for moments that never found their way into existence, for the physical places that hold our memories, and most profoundly, for our people—those who’ve departed earth, but also those who walked away and those we had to let go. It’s a profound exploration of the multifaceted nature of loss and transformation.

The poem that put this particular book into motion is the title poem, which I purposely put as the final poem in the book. The title comes from a line in a memorial card poem I wrote for my aunt, who unexpectedly passed away after a brief but brutal cancer diagnosis. But again, I’ve always been very aware that grief is not a linear experience, nor does it have a cure, so The Music Was Just Getting Good tries to examine grief in all its forms, not just death.

GDG: What artists have influenced your writing the most?

AC: From a poetry standpoint, I really respect Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, and Poe. They all, especially Plath and Poe, found a simple way to deconstruct the busy mind, and their openness about their own manic behavior struck a chord with me. The book that solidified my decision to pursue writing, though, was The Lovely Bones; my mother, an avid reader, recommended it to me and I can sincerely say it changed my life.

Songwriters that influence how I see and hear words are Leonard Cohen (though he’s both a literary poet and a songwriter), Kacey Musgraves, Amy Winehouse, Bright Eyes, Julia Michaels, Mac Miller, Taylor Swift, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Jason Isbell, Tom Petty . . . the list goes on. I can talk for hours about music; it has been a lifeline for me.

An artist I always especially admired is Aaliyah—how she fiercely protected her private life and was well ahead of her time. If you listen to her last record from 2001, it holds up; it doesn’t sound dated. I try to emulate that by keeping current references and fads out of my writing so it can still be understood by future readers. You will never see me write “I got into an Uber”; I’ll use the more generic “taxi” or “cab.” Now, that might be a terrible example because Uber might replace taxi and cab in our lexicon entirely, but you see what I mean—I don’t mention pop culture or anything that might be fleeting.

GDG: This is a good segue to talking about your creative process. How does a poem start for you—with an image, a line, a narrative, or in some other way?

AC: An academic once described my work as an “over confessional style,” and I think that is about right. People who read my work know that it is personal; somewhere along the line I learned that the more detailed I get, the more universal it becomes. It’s fun to see how my writing is interpreted by readers.

In terms of starting, there is a poem titled “Springtime in the Cemetery” in my second book, I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip; the line that sparked this poem came from my father, who had come to Easter dinner covered in dirt because it had been raining and he still went to plant flowers at the graves of his buried loved ones. He said, “It’s not really Easter until you visit your dead.” I thought that was one of the most poignant things I had ever heard—it became the last line of that poem.

My creative process is something I have tried to explain many times, and each time I fail miserably. But maybe most creative people can’t describe how something “hits” them. It always changes. Sometimes it flows out all at once; other times it will just be an idea, or a line, that I then continue to revisit and build upon until I feel like it’s complete. Since I began writing songs, I have begun to think more in rhyme, and voice memos have become my new best friend these last two years.

GDG: What about the titles? Do you first compose a piece and then title it, or do you come up with the title first?

AC: I always title last, if at all. I like when titles give another dimension, or act as an extension, to the piece. For example, I once titled a poem “What I Wanted to Say That Night in the Shower” that I hope added another level of vulnerability to the poem.

GDG: And to follow up on your mention of songwriting: How is your poetry related to music? 

AC: All my poetry collections are tied to music: each comes with its own playlists. At the end of each poem is a “currently listening to” song listed. To me, there is no difference between a beautifully written song and a gut-wrenching poem. I listen to certain singers for the same reason some people read my work: to feel something. We are all just storytellers.

I was watching A Star is Born, and Bradley Cooper’s character says, “Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.” That rang so true to me, I wanted to clap.

As I have grown in my craft, I have paid closer attention to meter, rhyme, cadence, and form. Not every poem benefits from these musical properties, which is a wonderful thing about the fluidity of poetry, but some really do.

GDG: We are nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century. In your opinion, what is the current state of American poetry?

AC: Some critics may feel that we modern writers have mutilated the sanctity of poetry, but I just don’t agree. With any medium, it’s a mixed bag, but there are many authentic, talented people who came up through social media and have helped breathe new life into the art form. And we are selling books. People are reading them, purchasing physical books, reviewing them, taking photos of them, and connecting with people all over the world who love the same thing: reading. It’s a beautiful community.

GDG: What are your plans for the future?

AC: I hope to continue writing. All I want to do is help people work out how they feel, because as crowded as it is, the world can be a very lonely place. I know what’s it like to feel isolated and excluded. I want to continue to use my platform to advocate for families affected by drug addiction. And I want to keep growing, so though it is bittersweet, I am ready to put the mixtape series to rest and enter the next phase of my career.

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