Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Process and Community: An Interview with Elise Paschen

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Photograph by Jennifer Girard

FWJ: Infidelities, your first book of poetry, was published in 1996, and Bestiary, your second, in 2009. Prior to that, Houses: Coasts, a chapbook, came out in 1986 in England. All along, you have been publishing in magazines at a steady pace. But you obviously are not a writer who rushes into print.

Elise Paschen: While at Oxford I wrote my doctoral dissertation on William Butler Yeats’s revisions, and I often emulate his process as a model. I believe a poem should begin with an emotion, so something will spark the initial impulse to write. For me, the first draft of a poem often comes quickly. I then transcribe that impulse into a small brown notebook. Then I leave the poem alone. Sometimes it may sit for several months or even years, but in an ideal situation, it will be a matter of days or weeks. When I return to the poem, I transcribe that version into a larger notebook, at which point I try to figure out what the configuration of the poem might be.

By configuration, I mean, of course, form. At Harvard, I studied with Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator, who taught me to understand the necessity of prosody and rhythm. For the most part, my poems have a formalist impulse. In most cases I write in some sort of meter, whether it is iambic tetrameter, or dimeter, or pentameter. I feel strongly that the poem should announce to me what form it wants to take. Then I start to figure out the line length, stanza length. The writing process, though, is organic. I revise my poems many times, using the computer as a typewriter, and I tend to print out each version of the poem.

FWJ: So how do you know when it is ready to be typed out in its ultimate, or, in your case, since you are a tireless reviser, its penultimate stage?

EP: In his letters, Yeats says, “The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.”

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Paschen and Seamus Heaney at Oxford. Photograph: Jaani Riordan

FWJ: And you then hear the click of that box. Do you also try to find out whether that click is heard by others? That is, do you have a reader or readers whose opinion you seek before you conclude the poem may be ready for a larger reading audience? Chicago has many lively poetry communities, not all centered around the Poetry Foundation or Poetry magazine.

EP: Well, I never thought about this before. But now that you mention it, in one way or another, I have always been part of a literary community. At The Harvard Advocate we would discuss our poetry together, as well as in poetry workshops taught at college. Later, at Oxford’s Magdalen College, while reading W. H. Auden under the tutelage of John Fuller, I joined the Florio Society, a group of writers whose work was critiqued anonymously. That experience taught me the importance of hearing the views of others in the poetic process. But I think, ultimately, my work has been cultivated by a handful of mentors throughout my life. Seamus Heaney and Richard Tillinghast in college. John Fuller in graduate school. And Frank Bidart, who helped me shape Infidelities, when I later lived in New York City.

fuller-coverWhen I moved to Chicago, we started a poetry workshop that, during its various incarnations, included Reginald Gibbons, Li-Young Lee, Julie Parson Nesbitt, Kevin Coval, Michael Warr, and later others, including Chris Green. Over time, that group dispersed, as such groups tend to do, and now only Chris Green and I remain. I appreciate having someone see the work before I send it out for publication. In fact, Cynthia Atkins, the poet and former Assistant Director of the PSA, and I have exchanged work since the early nineties.

FWJ: As executive director of the Poetry Society of America, you had a major role in extending that idea of community across the nation. Was there any difficulty in this for you as a poet?

EP: When I was running the Poetry Society of America in New York City, it became more of a challenge to me as a writer because I felt almost like a divided soul. My job was to promote poets and poetry across America, and often I would make myself invisible as a writer because I didn’t feel as though I should promote my own work. On the other hand I belonged, and still belong, to this vibrant poetry community which stretches across America!

FWJ: As an undergraduate, you did your academic work in literature, except for a couple of writing workshops. The general wisdom today is that young writers need to get into a ready-made community where they can hone their skills, such as a writing program like the one in which you currently teach, the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. You did not go that route, although you are a poet, a teacher of poetry, an editor, and have been an arts administrator of a national poetry organization. What advice would you give a young writer today who says to you, “I want to be a poet”?

paschen-infidelitiesEP: Personally, I felt strongly that to become a writer I needed to study literature. And I knew, as a child, that I wanted to write. But it wasn’t until I reached college that I decided to concentrate on poetry. There I took as many classes in literature, particularly poetry, as I could. Then, when I went to Oxford, I studied twentieth-century English and American literature, particularly the work of James Joyce, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf . . . the Modernists. I hadn’t even considered applying to an MFA program. I thought I could learn to be a writer by studying the work of great authors. When I completed my academic work, having been the poetry editor for magazines at both Harvard and Oxford, I thought I would pursue a career as a poetry editor for a magazine. But, instead, I became executive director of the Poetry Society. I then married and moved to Chicago in 1997, while still running the Poetry Society, and commuted to New York City, even after we had our first child. At a literary event at the Chicago Public Library, Jim McManus, who taught in the Writing Program at SAIC, saw my new book Infidelities. He knew my work at the Poetry Society, but didn’t know I wrote poems. He suggested I apply to teach classes in the Writing Program at SAIC, where I am currently an adjunct assistant professor. So I began to teach in 1999.

My first advice to students is that they need to absorb themselves in literature. And secondly, I tell my students to take advantage of the fact that they are in a community where they can write and can show their work to fellow students and teachers. Another piece of advice I give students, if they are not already enrolled in an MFA program, is that they should study other fields, such as botany or physics.

FWJ: You yourself have studied music and dance, and many of your poems and your edited books have motion as subject, instances of movement. This is natural, of course, for a daughter of Maria Tallchief, America’s first prima ballerina. You say that a poem begins with emotion and moves to configuration. And you often seem to find that configuration through poetry that is about the fine arts. And you are drawn to ekphrasis, a mode of poetry championed by John Hollander and also by Richard Tillinghast, one of your mentors.

Let’s talk for a moment about what you are doing now. As you have written the poems for FWJ, are they written with another book in mind?

paschen-bestiaryEP: I do have another book in mind. But I don’t approach a book of poetry with a firm idea of what the book will be about. A book of poetry for me is, like a poem, an organic process. It’s a question of accretion. I would love some time to write a book that is planned from the start, perhaps a long poem or a sequence of poems. Perhaps this will happen one day, but until then, I still write poem by poem. Except for several very new poems here, the work featured in FWJ grew out of those notebooks I mentioned. The poem resurrects an idea jotted down some time ago. The process of completing several of these new poems was a challenge, since my usual process is to work long and hard on one poem at a time. Some of these poems I have written might have been included in Bestiary. They reveal my fascination with animals. Bestiary is still projecting itself into my unconscious. I see “Falls” almost as a concrete poem — where I contemplate space, experimenting with motion. I liked the phrase you used to describe the work: “instances of movement.”

FWJ: That’s interesting. You are doing that in part in “Text,” a poem that surprised me a bit after reading your previous work. You have always written about what you have experienced. But this poem about your daughter has an intimacy to it that I think is unusual. This is not only about texting but also about context, a relationship between mother and daughter that is evolving, particularly as the daughter is not only becoming a woman but is also communicating to others in a language that makes you somewhat uncomfortable. She is a person who exists, in part, in a world from which you are walled off.

EP: When I began writing some of these new poems, I was influenced by the work of Kay Ryan. I was attempting to write poems from a more objective perspective. I believe the “I” appears less in these poems than in my earlier work. And, while working on these poems, I turned to the work of Jane Kenyon. Kenyon absents herself in the poem and allows the world to create a presence with such clarity and luminosity. I stumbled on a Kenyon poem with several lines about mice. Here I was trying to revise “Of Mice,” and I came upon this astounding poem of Jane’s, and it allowed me to think of how I might grapple with my own poem.

I feel these days almost like a translator. I visit the first draft and then imagine how much I need to push the language further to heighten the speech. “Seed” is a poem where the emotion was so great — the death of a dear friend’s husband — that the language is similar to the poem’s first draft. I have had difficulty with the ending of the poem. Several versions of that final stanza were very “poetic.” My initial impulse was to end with the hummingbird. Something I tell my students, à la Yeats, is that the poem is an argument with oneself and not with others. How do you continue that tension and dialogue throughout the poem? Sometimes the first impulse may not be the place where you return. You need to keep attempting to torque the poem as it moves down the page.

FWJ: Elise, thank you for giving us this insight into your work and how it is made. But before we conclude, I have one more question concerning process and community. The University of Michigan has just published Kevin Stein’s insightful Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in a Digital Age. Although Stein sees a number of challenges to both readers and writers by advances in technology, he finds that the genre will not only survive but flourish with this technology. As a poet who relies on a process of writing that is as old as print, are you resisting the changes in process that technology is bringing?

EP: Absolutely. I strongly believe in paper, the tactile experience of writing. And writing out the drafts of the poem, saving the drafts in folders, allows me the opportunity to go back in time, retrace my steps. And, as I mentioned, I wrote my dissertation on Yeats’s process of creating a poem, a process we couldn’t know unless we had evidence of its genesis and its evolution.

I was honored to have one of my poems painted under the Foster Avenue bridge where there is work dedicated to our Native American heritage. But the line breaks are willy-nilly. If all poems end up on iPads or Kindles I would be concerned about what would happen to line breaks and stanza breaks. Perhaps the technological reproduction of literature is more conducive to prose than to poetry.

FWJ: Yes, I understand the analogy. It seems that we’ve now broached a subject that will, like your poems, occupy a new generation of writers and readers of poetry.

Elise Paschen’s website

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James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010, the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois.

This interview appeared in the Spring 2011 Issue 8 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.

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