An Interview with Elizabeth Crowell

Elizabeth Crowell grew up in northern New Jersey and has a B.A. from Smith College in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry from Columbia University.  She taught college and high school English for many years.  She lives outside of Boston with her wife and teenage children.

You can read her poem To the Robot I am Not in the April 2023 issue of Pinhole Poetry.

Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context?   

Part of it was that I began to look at the phrase “You are Not a Robot” and just became ruminative about being human.  A part of being human, I thought, was the odd wistfulness and curiosity I feel about the images in those little blocks, the places where they might be, where they got the pictures from, who might be in them.  It was sort of like a fiction exercise at first, making a narrative. There is so much we do to prove who we are. 

Why was the poetic form the best fit for this particular piece of work? 

Because it was a narrative moment, it seemed that this was the right form for it. I really struggled with the form a lot. In fact, the poem kind of begged for more formalism.  Repeated theme and different images stanza to stanza often lend itself neatly to a form. I finally decided to let it rest in loose stanzas. 

Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone? 

Anything by Elizabeth Bishop is a touchstone for me. I go back to Sestina and Questions of Travel and At the Fishhouses especially.

If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life?  

Not sure I could. I sometimes have the same feeling being in a room in a museum alone looking at a painting. 

How do you revise your work? 

Endlessly, without method.  

What are you working on now? 

I am trying to put together a collection of poems about childhood, motherhood, disease and loss.  

How or where or with what does a poem begin? 

I wish I knew. Often, I recognize something that doesn’t make sense (like not recognizing my own child or a phrase from a news story). Sometimes a line of poetry floats into my head. That’s heavenly when that happens. Sometimes it’s an odd fact – I recently wrote a poem that started with a news story I read about someone who returned their library book after forty years. 

Are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry? 

Painting for sure. Good prose – essays, even news stories, can inspire me. 

How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine?  

I don’t. I wish I did. I sort of take time when I have time. 

What are you reading or watching or listening to lately that intrigues or inspires you? 

I am trying to read more very contemporary poetry. I have picked up some books by poets I have never heard of. I think this is a good practice. I have definitely been affected by the movies that came out this year —  I love how stories get told. I learned a lot from watching Everything Everywhere All At Once one week and The Banshees of Innisherin the next. Talk about different narrative voices! 

Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it?  

Interestingly, the best advice I got was from the prose writer Pam Houston. She said, “Don’t confuse your reader.” Seems obvious, huh? 

Do you belong to a writer’s group? If not, where do you find poetry community and feedback? 

I’m in one writer’s group. I do find it helpful, but reading around the poetry scene is most helpful. 

In terms of poetic style or craft, is there a big question you are trying to find an answer for?

Yes. I am trying to figure out how to put together a collection, how my poems might go together or speak to each other. It is very puzzling, but fun. 

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