We’re continuing with our National Poetry Month daily poet interviews, and today’s featured poet is Elizabeth Colen! Stay tuned all month for more featured poets.
1) Do you think poetry is still important, relevant, and vibrant in today’s culture?
There is a reason poets trot out what now seems adage that line of WCW’s in Asphodel: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” We want what we do to seem vital. And to those of us who write it, and to those of us who read it, and to those of us who live it, this is absolutely true. I would not want to imagine my life without the tumult of words and lines and rhythms gathering and dispersing in my head. I am in the world more hugely (to and for myself, nothing greater) because of this. Every bit of etymology, every bird song recognized, every plant name learned, all historical fact (and fiction), every movie seen, and conversation had becomes fodder. And I live two or three times this way.
If by culture you mean literary culture, the readers and writers and academy, I will say yes. Never before has there been such a variety of voices being heard, so so so so so much excellent work (and, if I’m honest, a glut of terrible work as well). Poetry is alive and well and not going anywhere. And it’s become a machine, MFA writer teacher MFA, put in some words and some class time and you too will be qualified to catapult out the next generation.
If by culture you mean the wider public or American culture, I would say we have probably never been farther from poetry mattering to the masses. Sadly.
I could speak on this, the “difficulty” of poetry, the rise of bigger-faster-slicker-better forms of (dis)engagement with the world. But that would take all night.
2) What makes you want to write poetry?
Part echolalia, part glossolalia. When I read—and I can’t stop reading—sounds start to form in my head. I match them with words. Honestly, I can’t help myself. However, if the writing I’m doing isn’t focused in some direction, isn’t saying anything about anything, I keep it to myself. There’s enough nonsense in the world. This is where I’ve been for almost a year. I’m not working on anything.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
There are poets I go to for sound & syntax, there are poets I go to for image, but what is imperative to me now are those poets (or other writers—but usually poets) who are using a full manuscript as form and imagining different organic means for completing a book project. I don’t just mean collage, though this is much of it—broadly speaking. I like books that are doing several individual things well (not just poem poem poem), capitalizing on different forms, and different approaches to meaning-making, but then that accrue into something that is (a cliché way to say it, sure, but) more than the sum of its parts. C.D. Wright is definitely one of these for me. I find myself wanting to list more though (Craig Santos Perez, Liz Waldner, Karen Green, Forrest Gander, Raul Zurita, Sara Greenslit, just to name a few recent loves). Wright is a poet who sets up projects for herself, either intentionally or organically. Sometimes the books feel like they want to run in a conventional narrative course, but just can’t. There’s a stuttering of language, repetition of sound on the page, repetition of phrase and image throughout, a variation of cadence and diction and point of view. And at the end you’re just left thinking: how the hell did she do that? By what mathematical or supernatural means?
4) Tell us about one lesser-known poet who you’d like more people to know about.
Well, there’s Rosalie Moffett. I got turned on to her after I read a poem of hers in The Believer last year or the year before and then went and read everything I could find and always get excited when her name pops up. Again, I want to list more than one, but I’ve already done that trick.
5) How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
It seems a little like a popularity contest sometimes. You know: the poet who dresses the best or posts the cleverest things or takes the best selfie or shouts the loudest or can interact with other humans without spilling her drink on herself becomes the poet who people talk about most, who get the most “likes” on their publications (who knows who clicks through), which translates to… something. More publications, probably. It makes it hard for the average reader to really know what’s good versus who people like personality-wise. That said, there’s poetry everywhere! The access to new stuff is mind-blowingly fantastic. That I don’t have to go to the bookstore or even my shelf to read poems, but can just take a few minutes here and there to enter the stream of it anywhere I am? It’s a beautiful thing.
6) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
I do this thing to keep writing when I’m not working on anything. I play a game with a few friends, by text. Once an hour or every few hours or a couple of times a day a friend will text a word of their choice. To this I add a word at random, using the flip-and-blindly-point method with whatever book I have handy. With these two words I am to create one sentence. For instance, most recently I had “sequence” and “force.” The resulting sentence I created: “The sequence of events as strong as the force of the heaviest hand.” (I know it’s not technically a complete sentence.)
Sometimes I string these together in some logical way; occasionally they build themselves magically into something interesting. Here’s one of those.
Only Looks Like Leaving
1. I have one play left: to push the two fingers—middle and fore—of my imaginary-gun hand into your mouth as rubied light stipples the room’s pale walls.
2. I dropped a shard of a larger broken mirror—shattered—onto my bathroom’s checked tile and watched the many tiny spikes of me, hair hanging in cylinder around my face, watched how what had once aged in increments seemed now to have grown old all at once.
3. Craven at the thought of wild birds carrying flu, I flailed my arms to rid our yard of a greasy, half-dead crow who pecked stupidly at the unripe buds of cherry trees, undetected by my not-birddog who had wandered next door in search of some lost ball.
4. When my brother was six, he skinned both his palms and both knees falling from his daredevil ride on the back of the mailman’s truck while his father who was supposed to be watching him worked his lathe to the wood’s black burn in the 3-car garage.
5. She borrowed my camera to try to photograph the voices going into the radio. Shadows were one way.
6. A studio set, a warm thought, then winter, suds, a turn of phrase, colloquium underwater; you shift your weight to allow my hand more deeply inside you.
7. The world is ending—that much is true. I see the sunset, worldset, moonset in the miniscule sizzle of the lamp’s popped bulb. We are in the dark now.
8. The temperature dips and the furnace can’t keep up; I heap blanket after blanket onto the bed, wanting to feel in my whole body that fast-rise, shock-blooded hotness my face had after the slap.
9. And the clarification that comes of that slap and after: dazzling pavement like diamonds spilled from under the hood of your car. I never try to stop you; you were always meant to leave.
Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of poetry collections MONEY FOR SUNSETS (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and WAITING UP FOR THE END OF THE WORLD: CONSPIRACIES (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), as well as flash fiction collection DEAR MOTHER MONSTER, DEAR DAUGHTER MISTAKE (Rose Metal Press, 2011) and the recently released lyric essay hybrid THE GREEN CONDITION (Ricochet Editions, 2014).