February 28, 2019KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“At the mercy of language”: A Conversation with Elizabeth A.I. Powell

Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of The Republic of Self, a New Issue First Book Prize winner, selected by C.K. Williams. Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, won the 2015 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize, selected by Maureen Seaton, and was a Small Press Bestseller and named a “Books We Love 2016” by The New Yorker.

Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues, will be published in the winter of 2018 in the U.K. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2013, Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, Ecotone, Forklift, Ohio, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Slope, Sugarhouse Review, Ploughshares, Post Road, Zocalo Public Square, and elsewhere.

She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Johnson State College. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She lives in Vermont.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your forthcoming novel, Concerning The Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues, makes impressive use of lyricism, performative language, and metaphor as a structural device. What can else fiction writers learn from poets about the craft of writing?

Elizabeth A.I. Powell:  Universal and personal dramas are one, at least according to the French poet Pierre Reverdy. I’m interested in that meeting point. The question is how do you enact that idea or truth in a work of fiction in a way that is not plot driven. “Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues” uses poetic device as a way to enact the feeling and performance of the social zeitgeist of a society gone mad in religious zealotry and consumerism, as a way to tell a personal story that goes beyond the development of situation.

Metaphor is a way to think about how we can explain the unexplainable to the other; to the one we want to be understood by in a human and spiritual sense. Metaphor or trope also enacts in a fundamentally different way than plot. I was interested in going beyond a character driven plot, and tried to evoke a plot that was driven by metaphor, performative language, and lyricism. Poetry, by definition, is defined as “a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response.”

Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher and literary critic spoke of poetry as the “literature of depth,” of memory and daydream. It’s not that prose can’t be driven by memory, look at Milan Kundera’s work for instance, but that fiction is the situation of memory, poetry is the enactment of memory in language. Critical theorist Jonathan Culler, who I don’t always understand, once said something I think is extremely helpful in thinking about form, that perhaps poetics is just ”a mystery religion without a firm gospel, a study of things that tries to find a systematic theory of literature, to discover structures and conventions which enable individual works to have meaning.”

These ideas were foremost on my mind when I was writing the novel. I studied Milan Kundera’s work in general, but his book The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in particular. As well, I stood as close as I could to Mark Costello’s genius and sometimes overlooked but magnificent collection of stories, “The Murphy Stories.”

Another big influence on my writing and life has been the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The high lyricism that the book evokes, makes me feel as if language and sound are pushing history forward by a force greater than narrative, a force that narrative is made of. I believe this force is the ultimate act of creativity found in what Christianity calls the Holy Spirit. I wanted to write a book that was conscious of and calling out to that force. I was interested in how that force might consciously and spiritually interact with consumer driven characters in search of a more glorious and understandable life in the book.

Poetic devices like assonance and alliteration can develop a propulsive rhythm to the language of fiction, imitating physical phenomena. The use of performative language in the book was yet another way to move the social and spiritual aspects of the plot. Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues brings together the ways in which social action, religion, art, and consumerism push forward on history.

KMD:  Relatedly, what can novelists, nonfiction writers, and short story writers learn from poets about literary citizenship and being in a community?

EP:  Well, first, your question makes me think of Robert Frost’s Education by Poetry speech he gave at Amherst College. How one must have a “proper poetical education in metaphor” or be at the mercy of language. That one isn’t safe anywhere if one doesn’t understand metaphor. If you’re lost in metaphor, you’re lost in history, your lost in science, you a generally lost.

Indeed, each genre has important information to share with the other genres. Each genre is a branch on the family tree. We are all cousins and the more effective our dialogue with each other the greater our works in the community will congeal and move us forward toward a more peaceful and just society, which leads to a body of work that changes lives for the better with deeper understandings of the human experience. We need to see the other and be a witness. That’s how community and change and movement happen.

As a writer one really exciting thing to me is how creative nonfiction writers use poetic device to structure their narratives and make their language more propulsive, writers like Maggie Nelson. Also intriguing to me are the ways in which a new generation of young CNF writers like Jessica Hendry Nelson and Angela Palm are experimenting with poetic devices in braided essays. I think genre bending makes us all better cousins, literary citizens.

The long and short of it is that poetry is a tool in the tool kit that one shouldn’t overlook. Though Hemingway’s work was very journalistic, his use of his “Iceberg Principle” was a very poetic approach, in using metaphor as a way to scale the depths, to look at how the unsaid surfaces to the top. I think of his stories “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean Well Lighted Place”.

Your question also makes me think of the ways in which poets have poet’s arguments/conversations with each other. I think about Paul Celan and Berthold Brecht’s poetic argument: Is it right to write about love during war and genocide? Within this argument is a way to build understanding, which leads to artistic/literary community and the development of meaningful art.

Ultimately all genres use community building as a way to foster the deepened understanding that all literature can bring to the world.

KMD:  Alternatively, how has your work as a fiction writer enriched your craft as a poet?

My work as a fiction writer has helped me to be more conscious of narrative, but also of the sentence itself. I often go back to the work of writers like Raymond Carver to see how the simple sentence can hold up a larger trope, like in “Cathedral”. The way Carver and Hemingway both use the implicit as a way to unpack the thing that lies just beneath the surface has also helped me immensely in poetry. I received my MFA in Fiction Writing, but the whole time I was in grad school I kept trying to turn my stories into poems.

As I mentioned previously, one of my favorite books in graduate school was Mark Costello’s The Murphy Stories a treasure of short stories that use poetic device as a way to help delineate the consciousness of the main character of the book, Murphy, an alcoholic rogue. I studied that book at great length. The book is hybrid. It is an early effort at genre bending, using genre as a way to delineate the mind of the main character and how it works. In these stories poetic device delineates consciousness.

KMD:  In addition to your accomplished career as a poet and novelist, you serve as editor of The Green Mountains Review.  What has surprised you most as you’ve curated the magazine’s poetry, fiction, essays and reviews?  As an editor, what would you like to see more of in the many submissions you consider for publication?   

EP:  Groupthink in all its realms surprises me, but most of all in the literary world. I always like to see people’s deepest dares on the page. I want to collaborate with someone’s essential, truest voice, the voice that saves him or her. I’m interested in revelation, redemption, and experimentation.

KMD:  I find it interesting that so many gifted writers are also editors and curators.  Do you feel that editing a magazine is a creative endeavor?  How is the creativity inherent in curatorial work different from the imagination, inventiveness, and improvisational skill needed for the act of writing?

EP: I do feel that editing and curating is a creative endeavor that is collaborative, letting two imaginations work in relation to one and other. Editing is definitely an improvisational skill. It is all about seeing the outline and shape of a creative vision and argument and riffing off it and offering a response to the piece’s call. By witnessing the creative force of others, we can be better able to witness to our own truths. With this in mind, editing helps me to find out more about the truth in and around me as well as in the other.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to? 

EP:  Two projects I’ve been working on for awhile are just about finished!

First… my third book of poems, Atomizer, delves into the mysteries of human sensuality vis a vis perfumery and other human inventions. Perfume being a munition in the gun of Eros. Scent evokes memory and is mostly Proustian.

As a lonely, introverted kid I spent a lot of time in a perfume shop down the street from me as a way to escape pain. I equated beauty with love for a long time. I also became very knowledgeable about perfume and how fragrance changes mood and perception.

Scent tells stories. But scent can also be a gaslighter. Scents can lure people into troubled fables. Scent turned on me; cast a spell as it sprayed out of my antique atomizer. The fox in my cautionary fable was at first appealing and promising, only later to be found a Bluebeardian/ Rochester sociopath… from the internet.

The poems in the book proceed from there, and are in conversation with two texts about love, The Song of Songs in the Old Testament and In Praise of Love by French Philosopher Alain Badiou, who argues that the commercialization and consumerism of online dating has brought about “the end of Love’. His assertion is that in the past love was a matter of saying “Yes” at each turn in the bend, but that online love has made us impatient and we don’t allow reality to congeal, we just keep swiping left and right. In fact, there is an online dating site that uses T-shirts worn by clients and sends strips of the t-shirt to possible matches who’ll discern if they want to meet that “smell/pheromone”.

And, finally, it’s about the strange human rituals around scent, sexuality, and devotion, like how foreskins discarded from early circumcisions were burned at the altar as a kind of incense to appease an Abrahamic God. Now that’s a weird segue into the Nag Champa incense for sale at Whole Foods.

The other project I’m finishing up is a hybrid memoir called “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You”. The book deals with three generations in the (no pun intended) fallout of my Grandfather’s work in the Manhattan Project and the implications for the emotional life of my “No Nukes” marching family, as we marched toward deepening family secrets. I’m always interested in how society and history influence familial cultures. It takes a village to raise us and a village to fuck us up.