This week’s Featured Poet Eleanor Ellis interviewed.
“Why do you write poetry?”
People who were tortured by bad poetry in high school feel that just because they abhorred (insert your favorite esoteric poet here), they will not be able to stand the likes of Billy Collins or Stephen Dunn or Frank O’Hara. It’s irrational. Any number of people loathe their literature courses and but grow up to enjoy novels just fine: just because you didn’t like Hemingway when you were fifteen doesn’t mean you turn up your nose at all the prose you run into for the rest of your life. So why do people do this with poetry?
Poetry is not obscure recitation, scholarly art, intellectual musing. You do not read poetry to improve the mind. You do not read poetry because you seek philosophical isolation. You read poetry for a reassuring glimpse into someone else’s life, because no other form of writing provides such brevity, intimacy, and clarity – such relief. I write poetry to achieve this relief of expression for both myself and the reader.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been telling myself stories for longer than I’ve been writing them down. I started writing instead of enacting my stories at about twelve, and at about 13 I discovered I also wanted to write down emotion, and that was when I started writing poetry.
Do you have any publications to your name? What’s the next stage for your work?
I’ve been published in Teen Ink, Pomegranate, and Cascadia, which is the publication of the Oregon Student Poetry Contest. I also have a short story forthcoming in a publication of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards called “The Best Teen Writing of 2009.” The next stage for me is getting involved in the writing community at Whitman College, and see where that takes me from there.
What do you consider your biggest poetic achievement?
I won second place in a state poetry contest and was invited to read at the dedication of the Oregon State Poetry Library alongside the state’s poet laureate. It was such a fabulous experience, to have my work commended among a gathering of other writers and poets.
What’s the best thing about writing poetry? And the worst?
The best thing is when someone tells me a particular line resonates with them, to feel that a phrase of sticks with someone, the way a good poem does for me when I read it.
The worst thing is the opposite – to feel I took a metaphor too far, or became so wrapped up in the wordplay that the poem lost its accessibility.
Do you have any suggestions for young, upcoming poets?
I think it is extremely worthwhile to submit to publications and contests in your region. This is not to say that one should not submit to larger, more distant competitions (or, indeed, international blogs) – but rather that small, local contests shouldn’t be undervalued. It made an immense difference for me to become aware of the community of writers around me and to meet other people who were passionate about words. It has changed the way I view my writing.
Who/what influences your poetry?
Billy Collins has had a huge impact on my view of poetry, and especially when I first began writing, the basic framework I worked from was his idea of a clear, accessible poem with a memorable twist. A lot of the other poetry I really admire comes from three eclectic anthologies: Good Poems, Good Poems for Hard Times, and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday. The former two are compiled by Garrison Keillor; the latter one was put into being by Billy Collins. They have bland titles but great poems.
Both also make marvelous arguments for accessibility in poetry. Billy Collins says in his anthology’s introduction that the word accessible gets used too broadly: it gets applied to “Mother Goose . . . as well as Mary Oliver” and thus people mistake it to mean simplicity. He suggests instead to define “accessible” as “easy to enter, like a building”. Theme, emotion, tone – these all vary in my poems, but I try to keep with Collins’ tenet of readability: “If a poem has no starting place, how can it go anywhere? If a poem does not begin in lucidity, how can it advance into the mysterious?”
Confronted with a decision,
our eyes watch her eyes, older
and her eyes scan our mutual indecision.
this is a process she knows well, a yearly task,
a boat she’s often sailed. the whole idea of
these cumbersome Atlantic crossings is almost a chore. she knows
we will arrive. still, my hands are clammy at the wheel.
I can feel your eyes on me, feel their eyes on us.
we would give our lives for a dock, an ending, a safe harbor
and yet we question that we will come to the same shore
what if, this year, the islands are not the same?
what if I am Leif and you, Christopher?
is this not America?
I can see these thunderous new shores reflected in your eyes
but she is there, firm and practical
she wants a decision about the direction of the wind
but you want to name the land
that already belongs to so many others, that
has long been conquered and subjugated,
a world that will not be ours.
Your pupils are still bright, but I
look away. I don’t know what to say.
I look to you, hovering between apology and declarations
of independence, and cannot let go.
I steer the ship straight, away from your disappointment,
your relief, that all we have hit
is the same yellow sand.
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