A Poet You Want to Know - Elizabeth Austen

Today marks a new project for this toddler blog. I want to start introducing poets whose work I admire and who I think deserve a larger audience. Elizabeth Austen is a Seattle-based poet who has just published her first chapbook, The Girl Who Goes Alone, with Floating Bridge Press. I first met Elizabeth when I moved to Seattle eleven years ago this summer and have been a fan of her work ever since. In addition to her own powerful poetry, Elizabeth also interviews poets for the Seattle NPR affiliate, KUOW. Recent interviews include Mark Doty, W.S. Merwin, and Elizabeth Bradfield. But this is a blog post dedicated to Elizabeth's work - my absolute favorite of her poems follows - and then a brief interview. I hope you enjoy. How could you not?

This Morning
                                    “Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?”
                                    – Roethke
It’s time. It’s almost too late.
Did you see the magnolia light its pink fires?
You could be your own, unknown self.
No one is keeping it from you.
The magnolia lights its pink fires
daffodils shed papery sheaths.
No one is keeping you from it—
your church of window, pen and morning.
Daffodils undress, shed papery sheaths—
gestures invisible to the eye.
In the church of window, pen and morning
what unfolds at frequencies we can’t see?
Gestures invisible to naked eye
the garden opens, an untranslatable book
written at a frequency we can’t see.
Not a psalm, exactly, but a segue.
The garden opens, an untranslatable book.
You can be your own unknown self—
not a psalm, but a segue.
It’s time.
Originally published in Pontoon 7: an anthology of Washington State Poets

~ ~ ~                            

SR  Many writers seem to collect quotes on writing. What is one of your favorite quotes on poetry or on the poet? Can you say a little about why these words speak to you?

EA  Stanley Kunitz said, “Out of our contradictions we build our harmonies.”  This statement is so packed with resonance. First, in its frank acknowledgement that we ARE full of contradictions, and second, in its assertion that these contradictions – which can cause friction in our personal lives, both internally and socially – are actually the crucial stuff out of which we make our songs. Our job is not to smooth them over, but to make something with them that is wholly our own.

I’ve been interested in opposites as a creative spur for a long time – they help me burrow deeper into subjects by pushing me beyond my initial (often safe) impulses. When I teach revision, I encourage writers to consider opposites, whether it be letting an oppositional voice enter the poem, writing a new poem to contradict the impulse of the first, or turning images inside out to find another, perhaps subconscious, dimension.

SR  I’m always intrigued how other poets balance making money with making poetry. How have you been able to lead an artists life and still pay the bills? Do you see ways in which the two sides of what you do are complimentary?  

EA I am extremely fortunate to have a part-time job in the Marketing and Communications Department at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I’ve worked there three days a week for more than a decade, and it gives me those essential luxuries like health insurance and a steady paycheck. But more importantly (from a soul perspective), the work I do there (writing feature stories for the donor magazine and Web content about subjects ranging from neonatology to pediatric cancer to biofeedback for migraine treatment) puts me in touch with smart, passionately committed people who are doing very tangible work to care for sick children. In the last couple of years, the separation between my life as a poet and my role at Children’s has blurred in a very positive way. I’ve always given colleagues poems and posted them on my cube, but a couple of years ago I started co-leading staff/faculty retreats with Mark Power, a Buddhist chaplain at Children’s. I also lead monthly “miniretreats” for the staff, where I choose a poet, read a few poems aloud, and then lead the group in a short journaling exercise in response to the poems. It feels great to offer these people who care for kids something nourishing and sustaining. In turn, hearing their stories connects me to our common human impulse to heal, to offer compassion.

SR The poet Stanley Kunitz wrote, “The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write the poems.” I love that quote because it declares that the poet must work on herself at the same time she works on the page. Over the years you’ve been writing, do you think that there’s been any discernable relationship between your development as a person and the development of your work?

EA That’s one of my favorite quotes, too; Kunitz has been a touchstone and mentor since I first read his work about a dozen years ago. That said, I find this an incredibly difficult question to answer. I think there’s a very clear relationship, but then, how can I have enough perspective to really tell?  

What I can tell you is that, as with most poets, my poems reflect my obsessions – the things I wrestle with in my poems matter to me in ways that I don’t really understand until I write the poem, and those things are evolving as I grow and change. The beginning of what I consider my writing life coincided, in 1997, with the sudden death of my oldest brother, Michael, and, not long after that, with meeting my husband, Eric. Looking back, I can see in my poems the evolution of my understanding of that loss and of what it means to be married – I’ve been working those things out, day by day and poem by poem.

SR  Your new book, The Girl Who Goes Alone, from Floating Bridge Press is absolutely lovely. Can you talk about the process of putting this book together? What is the backstory to the book?

EA For someone who considers herself a very slow writer (and perhaps even slower at getting poems into the world), that book came together astonishingly quickly. When I was asked to be one of the poets featured at the 2010 Skagit River Poetry Festival, excitement at being invited back (for the fourth time) was immediately followed by a sense of shame that I still did not have a book. (I self-produced my audio CD, skin prayers, in 2006 in order to have something to take to that year’s Skagit festival.) I had a chapbook and a full-length book ms. making their way through the contest circus (er, circuit), but knew that even if I miraculously got both accepted, neither would be ready for the May festival. So, I decided to self-publish a new chapbook incorporating several threads from the full-length book and some brand-new work I had written as part of a commission for the Richard Hugo House Literary Series.

I was talking with poet Peter Pereira about it one evening as we carpooled home after a writers’ group meeting, and he suggested I submit it to Floating Bridge Press as a special project. So, that’s what I did – fortunately, the FB editorial board accepted it and was able to complete it in time for the May 2010 festival. FB’s designer, Joel Panchot, drew the cover art based on an image from the poem “What We Would Forget,” which I consider the emotional lynchpin of the collection. Kathleen Flenniken, Jeff Crandall, John Pierce and the other FB editors helped shape the order and make some necessary edits. I should also mention that Paul Hunter (editor at Woodworks Press and an accomplished poet) read an early version of the manuscript and helped me see the arc of the chapbook much more clearly – I made substantial edits to the version that eventually went to Floating Bridge based on his recommendations.

SR  When you read – or is it more accurate to say - perform the title poem from your new collection, “The Girl Who Goes Alone,” I have the sensation that I am at an award-winning, one-woman play. Your presence adds a great deal to the apprehension of the poem. Is it true that you trained as an actor? Can you say how you see the two connecting — poetry reading and acting. Is that something you’re conscious of?

EA Thank you – I’m glad you experience it that way. Yes, I trained as a classical actor as a teenager and into my twenties – I wanted to play Shakespeare, which the director Jack O’Brien describes as the “Olympics” of acting. So I had years of vocal and acting training, all of which is focused on equipping one to think, feel and speak simultaneously, and to handle heightened language believably. That training also instilled in me a very physical sense of delight and pleasure in language aloud. For various reasons, I couldn’t manage to put a successful theatre career together, but I do carry that training into reading poetry for an audience. Every time I read a poem, I want to embody the language, to make it feel fresh, vital, necessary.

The reason why it’s important to me to do this is that something magical is possible in a performance that doesn’t happen anywhere else – something electric, immediate and entirely ephemeral. You can feel it in a really good theatrical or musical performance – an exchange between performer and audience that is fluid and a little bit dangerous, in the sense that we don’t know what will happen next. I don’t want to “report” my poems in a reading – I want to bring them fully alive, so that whatever music I’ve managed to make, whatever emotional or intellectual surprises the poems contain, come alive for the audience in hearing me.


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  2. I enjoyed this interview very much. Austen has a fascinating background and your questions opened out into interesting insights. Thank you.

  3. I wonder if Elizabeth could comment on the form of her poem.

    Although I haven't heard her give a poetry reading, I've listened to her radio program and have thought what a lovely voice she has.

  4. The form is an unrhymed pantoum. This poem came after a long period of what felt like silence, when I was getting ink on paper but nothing seemed to cohere. Out of desperation, I went back through a stack of pages from the previous several months' work, and underlined the (few) lines that had any energy/interest. Once I put those four or five lines together, I started looking for a way to double them, and tried the pantoum. As I played with the order of these seemingly unconnected thoughts, I began to understand something about what I had been working on subconsiously through my writing during the previous (mostly frustrating) few months. As I let each line shift/transform as it recurred, new lines began to emerge. The final line of this poem was originally, "It's time. It's not too late." It took me a few years (and publication) to recognize the over-writing in the final line. "It's not too late" came to feel too certain, so I cut it.

    Thanks for asking, Diane!

  5. Great interview, Elizabeth and Susan. Teaching and listening at the same time. Thanks to both of you.


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