An Interview with Elizabeth Ellen by Jacob Euteneuer
Elizabeth Ellen is the author of Before You She Was a Pit Bull (Future Tense), Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix (Rose Metal Press) and Fast Machine (Short Flight/Long Drive Books). She has been published in HTMLGIANT, Muumuu House, elimae, Hobart, Lamination Colony, and numerous other online and print literary journals. She was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize for her story "Teen Culture" which appeared in American Short Fiction in 2012. She was kind enough to shoot emails back and forth with me for this interview.
Is there a specific length to a poem that appeals to you? Poems are often hard to wrap one’s head around, and the longer a poem goes on the harder it is to keep the juggling act going. Do you like to revel in the mental acrobatics of a long poem or prefer to get well acquainted with a shorter work?
Okay, I’m just going to say right off the bat, I’m probably the least qualified person to be poetry editor. I basically know nothing about poetry. Nothing academic, certainly. However, I have become increasingly interested in it over the last couple years. I know what I like (when I see/read it). And so, in that sense, despite (or because of?) not knowing any “poetry terms,” I guess I’m as qualified as anyone to pick poems for a website. Haha. Wait, what was the question? Oh, right. I have noticed that longer poems often lose me, unless, of course, they are SUPER GOOD. So, I guess only write long poems if you can somehow sustain interest. Also, for Internet poetry, I think it makes even more sense to keep it fairly short. Same as with Internet fiction. (Though this is becoming increasingly less important as people read longer works on their electronic devices.)
Among other things, you’re the poetry editor for Hobart. You’ve put up some great poems on the website, but the print portion doesn’t feature poetry. What was the thinking behind this?
Thanks. Well…the thinking behind this is that the Hobart editor, Aaron Burch, has been steadfast against putting any poetry in the print journal for years. We actually had this conversation again recently, however, and I think I may have swayed him. I know we have already picked at least one set, maybe two or more, of poems for our next print issue. I think it was merely a case of Aaron not being a poetry writer and having some sort of prejudice against it or feeling unqualified to judge it or something like that. Of course, now that he’s writing poetry…well, you see how things change.
Do you feel like a poem has to make an emotional connection with you, or can you enjoy a poem that is so different from you, it is unrelatable?
Hmmm. I’m not sure how to answer this. I can’t imagine being interested in a poem (or short story or novel, for that matter) that was completely unrelatable. Then again, maybe I have a looser definition for what is relatable than you.
Okay, I see how my question was confusing/stupid. Here is a different way to frame it. Would you rather a poem draw you in or push you away? Is there something to be alienated by a work that can be attractive? Or are you more interested in immersion?
No, not stupid. Confusing, maybe. Ha. Um, not sure I’m any less confused now, to be honest. This is a good question, though. It interests me, your question, as I’ve never thought of this, whether a work alienates me or draws me in…I suppose both. That I’m attracted to both. Ultimately, I think I’m attracted to anything said in a “new” way or in a way I haven’t thought of before (like this question). A different perspective. Whether it is something from my own experience or not. Does that make sense? Now I feel stupid. I feel like I still haven’t done a good job of answering your question. Or that I still didn’t get what you are trying to ask. I feel like this is the way poets speak to each other, like a code I don’t get. Discussions poets have. With readymade answers. I don’t know. That’s my answer.
Do you think there are things a poem can do that a story or essay cannot? With that line of thinking, are there things a prose poem can do that a lineated poem cannot and vice versa?
Oy, I am going to try to attempt to answer the first question. By the second question, I think we’re over my head. As far as articulating anything (and we may be over my head as far as articulation in general anyway). Well, for one, most poems are short. Shorter than a story or essay. So you have the brevity thing going in a poem. And in that sense, I guess you can really hunker down in a single moment. Or a single image. Or a single thought. Get comfy in it. Explore it. It seems like a poem could have the potential for being political, if that’s your angle. Though I don’t see too many of those types, so maybe that’s not “in” currently. Also, it seems like a poem could be much more stripped down, in a sense, than a story. You can leave a lot of stuff out, that you probably wouldn’t in other forms. Damn. I feel like you could probably answer this question so much better than I have. Sorry!
You are also the editor for SF/LD books. Is it different reading manuscripts as opposed to individual poems or sets of poems? Do you look for something different in a manuscript as opposed to a smaller selection of work?
Well, I would say what is the same is that you are looking for an immediate connection or immediate interest. And when I say “immediate” I mean, literally in the first line or sentence. I don’t think it’s much different, actually. You want to be entertained or moved or made to laugh. Although, in our particular situation, since we are such a small book press, and I can only take one book a year, on average, I really have to fall madly in love with a manuscript and not want anyone else to have it.
Along with that, do you feel there is a difference between a literary magazine and a book imprint? Books seem to have longevity while lit mags always have an ephemeral quality to them. Do you think they can accomplish different goals (and what should be the goals if you think so), or are they all part of the swirling world of words?
Oh, I think they are very different goals. I really don’t think anyone who isn’t a writer (today; in the past this may have been different because short stories were more common forms of entertainment, like TV) reads literary journals. With books, there is the hope you will reach outward of that circle, to more general “readers.” A small press is still going to be highly read by writers. But I think you’re expanding outward a bit. (What the fuck are you talking about? keeps running through my head as I answer these questions.)
Some of the books offered by SF/LD have interesting layouts and design choices. Are you a part of these decisions? Is there something to the physicality of a book you are trying to get at?
Yes, I am definitely a part of the design process. (Are you trying to start a fight at Hobart/SF/LD? Haha.) Aaron does the layout after he and I and the author have lengthy discussions about design and come up with a concept we all (hopefully) love. Initially the books were meant to be very small, so you could fit them in a back pocket. And for the most part we have kept to that. Aside from that, we just want the physical book to be unique and beautiful. Why else print a small press book?
What do you look for in a poem? Do you want it to be weird? Do you want it to be lyrical? Steeped in image? Concerned with sonics?
Weird? Sure. Yes. Lyrical? I honestly don’t know that I could define that term. Ditto: sonics. I like poems on a very gut level. (Is this what one says when one has no academic training?) I guess I have a tendency to like poems that are in some way humorous. Not outright “funny,” necessarily, but with a wit about them. I was also a huge fan of elimae, so anything that would feel at home on that site I would probably like.
Poets seem to do a better job of keeping up with the contemporary field than their fiction counterparts in my opinion. Do feel this way? Do you see trends of writerly influence or ideas come through the Hobart slush?
That’s an interesting question. One I’ve never thought of. I’m not trying to be a dick, but I just honestly don’t ever think about things like a “contemporary field.” The handful of poems I wrote in the past were probably influenced by Bukowski, so I guess that would make my poems not keeping up with the contemporary field (is this like keeping up with the Kardashians? Haha. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.). I haven’t really noticed anything like this (trends or whatever), but maybe if you give me an example I could give you a better answer.
I think our society is too fragmentary to really have a zeitgeist, but we do all live in the same world. When Hurricane Katrina hit, tons of poems about it flooded lit mags. You could say the same thing about 9/11 or presidential elections. If I use those as examples, do you feel that topical (or political) poems come in waves? Do you feel that it makes sense to write about current situations in a grounded way, or would you rather they be approached sideways (or backwards or upside-down)?
Okay, just looked up “zeitgeist.” I see what you’re asking more now. I thought you were talking about the way in which a poem is written. Like, when it became fashionable to try to write like Tao Lin. Personally, I have little interest in “topical” anything. Of course, if I read a poem and it was topical and also brilliant/funny/honest, obviously I’d be stoked. Same for “political.” I think I am most interested in personal experience. So if a poem was about someone’s experience in Iraq or in Katrina, and it was well written, and it was…honest in a way I’ve never read before, I’d love it. But just sitting down to write something political or about 9/11, without the personal experience, without the need in your gut to do so, would probably seem less interesting to me. I think when people ask questions like this: what do you like? What do you take? What are you looking for? They want concrete answers, and unfortunately (or fortunately!) there aren’t any. I don’t really have anything in particular I’m looking for when I open up submissions and read them, other than to feel like, shit, I have to take this because I’ve never read this perspective before.
You said in an interview that you sort of just threw all your stories and essays into one big collection (Fast Machine). It’s a great book with plenty of gems. Did this selection style fit the stories? Was there something about compiling so many words of yours together that you found appealing?
Thanks. You know, I don’t know if the selection style fit the stories or not (selection style being: everything I’d ever written that didn’t completely suck was going in). I don’t know if I said this in the interview you read, but initially I wanted to have the collection be literally everything I’d ever published (even the stories that did completely suck), in chronological (publishing) order. I got the idea to do that while listening to R. Crumb’s daughter on the radio. She had sort of done that with her collection of drawings. But then I got cold feet/talked out of doing it or something. I still think that would have been interesting, to see the …trajectory? Development? But I’m happy with the way it is, too.
A lot of your writing centers on women or takes a female’s perspective. Is that conscious choice? Does it come easier for you to write from a perspective close to your own, or can it be freeing to pick a narrative perspective or voice different from your own?
I guess I have never really thought about it. So, no, it’s not a “conscious choice.” But I would definitely be in the write-what-you-know camp. I like very personal writing (to read and to write). I don’t like writing that feels faddish or manufactured. I think writing is freeing enough on its own. The whole point of writing, for me anyway, is to feel completely liberated. Because we so rarely do “in real life.” At least, I don’t.
What is your ideal place for writing?
Alone in my house.
What is the book that has had the biggest effect on you as a writer?
Geez, I usually list about ten books for questions like this but if I was strictly limited to one book I guess I’d have to say Women by Bukowski. Can I add, though, that in 2009 I was hugely influenced by I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It by Sam Pink? I feel like Women made me want to be a writer and I Am Going to Clone Myself made me reevaluate what I could do with my writing, all these other places I could go. Also, Clone is a book of poetry, so… there you go!
Jacob Euteneuer lives in Akron, OH with his wife and son where he is a candidate in the Northeast Ohio MFA. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart and WhiskeyPaper among others. He spends too much time reading comics and playing Mario with his son.