Angela Palm: How did your American girlhood influence your choice of narratives in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances?
Elizabeth Powell: Girlhood in dirty 1970s New York City was all kaleidoscope and wiping grit off my face with Bonne Bell 1006 lotion and a confused attitude of who I was supposed to be. It was riding buses and subways and everywhere being dubious. All men seemed to grope us then. Exit the train get a free groping. It was my father saying: Never look anyone in the eye on public transport, always give old people your seat, never ever spit, don’t sleep your way to the top, don’t shave your thighs you’ll regret it. Girlhood then was pretending to be a mannequin in my father’s Eames office furniture showroom on Madison Avenue. It was running down 23rd Street to his apartment as fast as I could amid catcalls and heavy objects being lifted in the sky.
AP: It sounds kind of scary.
EP: It was instamatic film warped scary. It was grown-ups stoned or mean and uptight and wearing leisure suits. It was the maxi-belt and the training bra. It was getting high at gymnastics camp on weed we bought from the back of a comic book. It was my father covering my eyes as we drove through the old-timey Times Square before it was made into a Disney show, which I found ironic since he obviously frequented the prostitutes and girlie shows. That did scare me because I couldn’t articulate how I felt implicit and involved in his dirty narrative of businessman.
AP: And yet in many of the poems in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter, your imagination and intellect seem to counterbalance that culture and life. Your forms reflect a similar hybridity.
EP: Yes! In short, my life was hybrid in endless ways. Our baby boomer parents might be hippies, but still uptight and distrusting of the sexual revolution they’d invented, like their parent might come find them and drag them off by the ear. But the Greatest Generation was no match for them, and let it rest, and let them fuck us up. Everything was grafting onto everything. I didn’t have the word hybrid then. Back then they called me a Mic Moc–half Jew, half WASP. And my mother, if she were growing up today, likely would have identified as trans.
AP: Did you have a lot of books as a kid? When did you first read Death of a Salesman?
EP: I did have a lot of books growing up. Early on and through even my teen years I was obsessed with Beatrix Potter and Tasha Tudor, and wanted to live in their “simpler,” quaint worlds. To me Tudor’s Corgiville, a mythic town run by corgis in an imaginary land that is in the middle of Vermont and New Hampshire, was heaven, was why I feel at home in Vermont. I really believed the cows in my grandmother’s barn sang on Christmas eve for an embarrassingly long time. I took acid at an early age and thought, briefly, that I was a horse. That’s when I started writing. I also started reading plays around then, age 14, and stole my father’s 1960 Compass copy of “Death of Salesman” from my stepmother’s bookshelf. She yelled at me. I knew there was a raw nerve, a great mystery in that book. I kept it anyway. I read everything I could by Miller, and also Sam Shepard.
AP: My mother claims she kept books in the house, but by books she really means quarter garage sale finds, an outdated encyclopedia set, and a copy of Adult Children of Alcoholics, which she really should have bothered to read and didn’t. I read literally everything in sight. Food labels. The dictionary. My mom’s Good Housekeeping magazines. Library books. Everything we could afford from the Scholastic book order. Newspapers, even though I was allergic to the ink and they nearly suffocated me. Sometimes even the back of the shampoo bottle. I would stand in the shower slowly pronouncing the names of chemicals. I almost always wanted to be a girl in a book instead of the girl I was. Like I was living the wrong life.
EP: Your childhood in Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here sounds like it was a different kind of wild ride, learning about sexuality and class. You’re a generation younger than me, and I’m always fascinated by the fluidity with which you and the cohort of your generation of feminists is able to articulate the experience of girlhood with such depth and dimension. What was it like coming of age in the nineties in the rural Midwest?
AP: It was a lot of mixed messaging. Nineties literature and films were still reflecting a kind of feminism that was far from ideal. On one hand, it was pro-girl power. Women in the Senate. Women in the military. Women at work. Dr. Drew on Lovelines giving good advice to women in relationships with bad men and Karen Hand on Private Lives helping women have better, safer sex. It was books by women and about women. Girls kicking on high school football teams. I was on the first all-girls soccer team at my high school. But it was also girls trying to curve themselves into a boy’s dream, the hours lost to curating an image for them, which is perhaps even worse today than it was then. It was how to attract boys in Seventeen Magazine and how to fuck them in Cosmopolitan. I read those magazines, but wore my father’s old flannels and oil-stained Levis with blue lipstick to school. The grunge look was probably never going to be traditionally sexy, and yet there was an androgynous quality to that fashion era that still pulls at me. It was Girl Scouts doing service work but also discussing their dads’ porn collections. An older neighbor fondly referred to me “the little sexpot” when I was twelve. What the hell? Some of my father’s friends would comment on my legs or appearance in a way that both turned my stomach and made me proud. But no groping, thank goodness.
EP: Was your mother a feminist? Were other women in your family?
AP: Yes and no. My mother had lived independently and worked full-time since the age of 15, but also did all of the cleaning in our home, most of the child-rearing. She would tell me I could be a lawyer, a doctor, but yet wanted me to wear more dresses, paint my nails, mind my father’s moods, cross my legs. She expected me to fill a role much like her own, but with a better job. Her most cherished accomplishment was staying married no matter what. Being a wife above all else. That biblical subservience was still so prevalent in the rural Midwest at that time. I had one aunt who had gotten an education in adulthood and who had always seen me and understood me. She tried very hard to help my mother see this, to explain to her what could be done to better foster my potential, to present other ways to be a woman, but the attempts fell on deaf ears. There were no other female role models I looked up to to speak of other than my 70-year-old painting instructor who wore muumuus and a chignon. I was largely adrift and boy crazy, using sex in an attempt to get love. I wonder now who I might have been with different women role models. I didn’t ever emulate the roles of wife or mother or want a 9-5 job, but I wasn’t aware of the alternatives, or even of other possibilities within those roles until later.
EP: It seems that your creative intellect developed within that lack.
AP: Yes. That lack resulted in a duality of personality, a self in the mind separate from the self in a body. And deep loneliness. There was the person my family accepted, the “ladylike” girl they hoped for, and the person I actually was: an artist, an activist, a budding feminist with a lot left to learn.
EP: And all that time you were ravenously fond of your next door neighbor, Corey. In the book, you write about the gruesome murder he committed, which shocked you and your small town. Did that compound your isolation?
AP: It did in so many ways. Talking about him, retaining love for him after that was taboo. He had filled some emptiness in me and his absence made other things feel empty. The whole thing changed me in ways I’m still unraveling. I studied criminology because of him. Went to law school because of him. Developed oceans of empathy for people who were hard to empathize with because of him. Dissociated sexually in part because of him.
EP: The notion of duality is so interlinked with hybridity and imagination/identity. Could you talk more about that in relation to your work? Particularly the duality of good versus bad; rich versus poor.
AP: That’s the thing, isn’t it? I detested some of the notions my mother valued but I love my mother. Girlhood in the wake of manhood–that rural machismo and paternalism–is a tremulous existence, and yet there are things about my upbringing that I treasure. Similar dichotomies–good and evil, poor and wealthy–crop up in my work, as you’ve said, and the braided essay form best allows me to explore the natural tensions between them. It allows for comparison, juxtaposition, association, and digression, all of which are excellent tools in parsing the complications of home, the complications inherent in those dualities. The braided and hybrid forms allow me to write in a way that closely models how I experience the world. I once took a personality test whose results said my type questions everything, can empathize with all sides, and often uses unorthodox methods to enact their ideas. This is exactly what the braided essay form does–it looks at the questions from different angles, from different points of origin and different source materials to better get at truths. It makes itself up unconventionally. This kind of hybridity of experience and content is also echoed in your poems’ forms, which are a blend of narrative poetry and lyric and braided essays.
EP: I love form a la Anne Carson, a la Claudia Rankine. Those women were enacting experience in a way that made sense to me, politically, as well as formally. Of course, growing up the daughter of a horny, entitled salesman and a closeted butch lesbian was the ultimate in hybrid form. In many ways form was first and foremost for me, and the peripatetic and terribly weird outsider/insider girlhood made the content for that form. I was also raised being very poor, though both my parents came from very privileged families. They were constantly going bankrupt, and I frequently had nothing to eat. I got a lot of good attention for being malnourished. It looked “sexy.” Really, I was just hungry, literally and metaphorically. Girlhood was about my growing appeal to men who sensed my hunger. Really, I just wanted to daydream under a tree in the park, hermetically seal myself in my imagination. I spent my summers escaping the heat onto my grandmother’s farm in the Catskills and ran wild through fields, riding her cows and getting lost in the woods and eating cucumber and butter sandwiches and lemonade. Up at the farm it was early bedtime, blue sky evenings, rhubarb pie, safety from the calamity of the sexual revolution which seemed related to the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of a neighbor. Everything was sexualized then, it seemed. In a devious undercurrent sort of way. Look like Farrah Fawcett, but don’t let your bra strap show.
AP: Yes! In the Midwest, things were also sexualized in a covert way or a way that was coupled with deviance. It hasn’t changed. Drive down any highway in Indiana and you’ll see a strange smattering of billboards. HELL IS REAL. LIVE NUDE GIRLS NEXT EXIT. Pictures of babies next to the words DON’T ABORT ME. Then, PORN DEN 5 MILES. There was and is a deeply Puritanical influence. And that’s part of this conversation, too. Girlhood in our work is also linked with patriarchy, with paternalism. With religion.
EP: One of my subjects, as you know, is theology and religion’s role in identity and the spirituality of children. I was moved by the chapter in Riverine “DIY for the Faithless” and the whole idea that magic precedes belief. I was fascinated by how the young girl attempts to use/find spirituality as a way to find acceptance and normality. Can you talk about how notions of God are interlocked with the child’s idea of magic and the growing consciousness of imagination that your narrator enacts and lives?
AP: The whole world is magic before you know anything about the natural laws of physics. And even then, wonder and awe can govern the imagination and reasoning of a child, if they’re lucky, well into adulthood. But that magic gets tamped down the more we “learn,” right? The idea of God, at least in Christianity which is the main religion in the Midwest, is introduced in Genesis as magic. But a “true” magic. Magic as miracle. The crafting of human bodies out of dirt and bone, a universe out of nothing at all. Belief in this kind of truth equates divinity with magic. For me, personally, religion was many different things at different times: it was love, safety, insurance, hope for the self and hope for humanity. Later, I didn’t need it in the same ways and so I discarded it. We question things as we get older, we build an intellect against those early truths and have to parse out what it is we buy into and what we don’t. We must explain things to ourselves. We must determine what the hell it is we’re here for whether we believe in magic or religion or pure reason or science. This learning, I think, invites a kind of acting. Trying things on. Living certain beliefs until they’re no longer true for us personally.
AP: I love the final stanza of the title poem “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter”: I have a feeling that’s what drama is: / the line no one wants to write or live. And so there is another hybridity here, in the line and in a larger sense, the doubling or acting self that appears throughout the collection as well as the larger framework of the classic Arthur Miller play and your imagined or erased role. Did you study acting? And is it more comfortable to analyze life as drama? Or to view drama as life?
EP: In terms of content, I’ve always gravitated toward the political and theatrical. My father’s people came from the Yiddish theater tradition in Vilnius, before the Final Solution. I was obsessed with the theater of politics growing up, obsessed with Jimmy Carter. I wanted a stable father figure, and Jimmy seemed so perfect, campaigning for president and saying the morally unambiguous things he said in 1976 and says now. At eleven years old, I would read the New York Times every day to find updates on him, and see where he might be on a campaign stop. When he was in Manhattan I’d run wild through the city looking for him. My whole tenth and eleventh years of life should be entitled, “Searching for Jimmy Carter.” I had graduated from my mother’s devotion to the Kennedy brothers, and found freedom in my own choice of Jimmy Carter. Politics was my WASP mother’s side version of drama.
EP: It’s interesting to me how those childhood narratives we construct either foretell or influence our later choices. It makes sense my ex-husband is from Georgia, near Plains. As you know, I have more memorabilia than the museum in Plains used to. All of this is a long way to say, form and content are related, yes, and influenced by my American girlhood, peripatetic always shifting, farm to city girl, smart to dumb girl, pretty to homely, Jew to Wasp, pure to sullied. If form is a revelation of content then hybrid is the way. The American experience is hybrid by virtue of its melting pot-ness, by virtue of e pluribus unum. I chose hybridity so I can be my whole self, both a Jew and a WASP, and so on. For years I kept trying to autocorrect one or the other out of myself, and then when I starting writing “Autocorrecting the Lyric I” a hybrid essay-poem in the book, I started to congeal, in terms of identity and self. My imagination finally took over and took control.
AP: That’s it, exactly. Well said. So what does it mean in actuality to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, your book’s subtitle?
EP: Well, it is a quote from Sanford Meisner, the great method acting teaching. He believed great acting was “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That idea always appeals to me, that truth exists within the imaginary. As a child, I was always acting. Who was I to be? What was this world? The Meisner quote is a guiding trope in my book because I have always felt that my “real” life was “imaginary” or at least that is how I have perceived it. I agree with the line attributed to Paul Eluard “that there is another world and it is inside that world. I spent my childhood and adolescence searching for that place. My feminist re-visioning of the original Death of a Salesman is a kind of detournement.
EP: The word imagination conjures up the idea of image, and to me and my childhood life seemed a series of rapidly scanning images that I couldn’t keep up with. My first memory is one of a psychedelic seeming confusion of existence, that real moment in childhood, looking in the mirror and thinking, “What in the world? This must be a row, row, row your boat dream.”
Now, living truthfully has always been my aim, but the truth has tricked me a lot in my life. They say the truth will set you free and I think it does, but first it will kick your ass. I guess I knew that as a kid and was weary of the truth because it was easier to make up fantasy stories about the world. I saw how many truths my parents were constructing, out of control. There was the truth inside the family, outside the family, and then also artistically and politically and spiritually. All those truths swirled around me like multi-colored pens in a Spirograph. The more I thought, the more confused I got, and I was only five. The thought that sex could produce existence, as the babysitter explained to me, only seemed another kind of fetishization and sexualization of my childhood. I didn’t want to come from sex, and I was going to develop an imaginary world where I just blossomed out of God’s head like a rose or a tulip. That seemed more rational to me, safer, a better bet. As I said, theater comes in my blood, vis a vis, the Yiddish theater. My cousins and sister and I liked to concoct detailed plays, mostly around Miss America pageant narratives. Play and theater feed my life. I loved going to the theater with my grandparents. It seemed the truth was revealed in a truer way when imagination was the prime mover, not reality. Once my grandparents took me to see Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class and one of the main characters came on stage completely naked. We were in the front row, I was sixteen, and I thought: That’s what I’m talking about. Reality that is so weird it seems imaginary.
AP: My mom loved theater, but I never really appreciated it properly. She had a similar experience when she was hired as a kid to help out as an attendant at a Hair production in Detroit in the early 70s or late 60s. She couldn’t tell what she was seeing, naked people on stage? It was how she learned she needed glasses.
EP: Also, I think theater and poetry are a way to play. Theologically speaking, pageantry and play are a part of becoming a whole spiritual person, an enactment of the art of the self and the soul converging. After all, in the Episcopal church the Eucharist is an play enactment of the last supper, which was a Jewish Seder. Jesus is the ultimate halfie!
AP: Totally! That’s a great example. Which leads us to good and evil and forgiveness and redemption, maybe.
EP: The love affair with the bad boy is a kind of muse that can be a blessing but mostly a curse. However, Riverine takes that romantic impulse and youthful experience of loving the bad boy, and dives head first into how beauty affects our ideas about morality and goodness. Your book dramatizes what it means to be in love with someone who has killed a person, and what that means spiritually, romantically, and morally. One part of the book that really resonated for me is the conundrum of being drawn in by outer beauty, how easy and complex that portion of desire makes understanding the reality of a situation. I have a close artist friend who always tells me her religion is reality, because (in part) that’s the one thing she doesn’t want to accept and it always bites her in the butt. How did writing Riverine help you gain understanding of that bad boy love so many of us fall into? Can redemption take place inside this funky constructed/unconstructed reality we find ourselves in as women and as creative writers?
AP: In some ways, by virtue of a life sentence in prison, exploring that love was a safe thing to do because there was no chance of actually enacting it. It allowed the truth to be admitted, analyzed, then put safely back in the box without really testing its staying power. And yet, it was still real. Constructed, unconstructed. I’ve looked at that relationship, its earliest inklings and later permutations, and how it fits into or establishes larger love patterns, psychologically speaking. In other words, I’ve had to say, how did I get here and why do I fall hardest for unavailable men? I wrote in Riverine about futures that never come to pass, double lives in the mind, potential that’s never really harnessed and enacted, and I think it’s similar to your idea of living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. There is an inherent unavailability in this relationship or another version of this relationship that serves as a safety net for me personally in a way that I’m not sure is positive because it is essentially a cop-out, not putting my money where my mouth is so to speak, but is also an opportunity to muse on its possibilities at length and really understand it.
EP: I love in Riverine how the enactment of scene within the context of a kind of lyric hybridity is so eloquent and moving. So, I’m interested in how I can braid poems and essays and plays in a way to finally construct a world that feels safe for me to inhabit. Reality has been a hard thing for me to accept most of my life. It has taken a lot of harsh experiences to make me see that maybe reality is the easier, softer way. As usual, I might have had everything backwards, keeping me stuck in my childhood self, which has sometimes served me well, other times, not at all. It is in this way I feel much of my life has been lived by Meisner’s injunction. To that end, I have had many imaginary boyfriends over email, imaginary husbands at school functions, a whole imaginary life. Often I notice that there are many imaginary endings that never come to fruition. For me, I’m always thinking: Gosh, I love it when the obvious becomes obvious, and that is how I know a poem is done, too. When a poem is done, entering that obvious obvious place, I begin to understand whatever message the crazy world of reality has been trying to transmit to me. For me writing is a frying pan over the head of aha! I guess I sound like a space alien, but really I’m just an introvert who was made to be an extrovert by her salespeople parents.
AP: Maybe reality is safer than our imaginations! I’ve considered it but I’m not yet convinced that pursuing the dream isn’t worthwhile, at least. I agree about the obviousness. Somehow, we still must go through the process to see it. I guess that’s what life is, what writing is. I love the idea of them being one and the same process, a kind of ultimate hybridity.
Angela Palm is the author of RIVERINE: A MEMOIR FROM ANYWHERE BUT HERE, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as a developmental editor and teaches creative writing. angipalm.com/
Elizabeth Powell‘s newest collection WILLY LOMAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER, was released in September from Anhinga Press. Powell is the author of The Republic of Self, a New Issue First Book Prize winner, selected by C.K. Williams. In 2013, she won a Pushcart Prize. Powell has also received a Vermont Council on the Arts grants and a Yaddo fellowship. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, Black Warrior Review, Ecotone, Harvard Review, Handsome, Hobart, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Slope, Sugarhouse Review, Ploughshares, Post Road, and elsewhere. She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Associate Professor of Writing and Literature at Johnson State College. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing. https://elizabethpowellpoetry.wordpress.com/