An Interview with Elizabeth J. Coleman

Elizabeth J. Coleman is editor of Here: Poems for the Planet (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), author of two poetry collections from Spuyten Duyvil Press (Proof, finalist for the University of Wisconsin Press prizes, and The Fifth Generation), and two chapbooks. She translated the sonnet collection, Pythagore, Amoureux into French (Folded Word Press, 2016). Her poems appear in numerous journals, including Baltimore Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Colorado Review, and Rattle, and in several anthologies.  

You can read her poem On Seeing the Pictures from Deep Space for the First Time in the January 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? 

This is part of a series I’m working on (i.e., one of my current “obsessions”) about the vastness of the universe in relation to our tiny lives that are so precious to us. 

Learning about science, and leaning into that in my poems, brings me, and, I hope readers, comfort.  I am also comforted by the beauty of our planet and the universe itself.

In these poems, I also try to address my concerns about climate change and my love and concern for the other sentient creatures with whom we share our beloved and beautiful planet.

In response to my despair after the 2016 election, I edited Here: Poems for the Planet (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), an international eco poetry anthology, with a foreword from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and an activist guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists. One poet, Nancy Lynée Woo, described the anthology as an example of hope-punk. I was touched by that, and hope there’s a bit of hope-punk in these poems about the universe as well. 

There is also mention of my father in the poem. He died of what was then called lymphosarcoma when I was nineteen. Among other unique hobbies (such as playing the concertina), my dad was an amateur watchmaker. He has a habit of making his way into many of my poems (as do a lot of the people I love), and that too is comforting after all these years. 

I’ve lived in France, and taught the language, but I only realized recently there is literally not a word for home in French. There are two-word phrases (like chez soi), that fit the connotation, but it’s not the one-word cozy meaning of home that English has. After studying and teaching French for many years, reading and writing poetry in English was a revelation. I had not understood what a versatile and stunning language English is, with so many ways to say one thing. I had always admired the lyrical beauty of the French language more.

Oh, and finally, we moved to a new apartment in New York City the day before the city shut down for Covid. Three years after our move, my husband announced something I’d never noticed. Hence, that last line. 

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

Poet Geoffrey Nutter introduced me to this “Just as” construction. I am a lawyer by training, and I love using words that imply a rational logic when poetry’s “logic” is one of association, image, and sound. 

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

In college, I studied the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire in a French literature seminar. These poets have always been touchstones for me, as is the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins which I first read in high school. As poet Stacy L. Spencer pointed out, despite the vast differences among the French poets and Hopkins, their poetry has in common a kind of ecstatic response to life.  

If you didnt write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life? 

I’m not sure anything could offer quite the same fulfillment, but the strange logic of collage thrills me the way poetry does. 

I have played classical guitar for many years for patients and families at Memorial Sloane Cancer Center In New York.  Figuring out what will bring them joy and meaning and playing for them reminds me of reading poems I have written out loud, and hoping people will be moved by them.

What are you working on now? 

I am currently revising a new collection of poems, and the poignancy of our little lives in the indifferent, vast universe is the organizing principle.

How or where or with what does a poem begin? 

Often, it’s something I see or hear, someone on the subway, a piece of music, a conversation I have with a stranger on the street. Something my husband or children or grandchildren say. The poems of other poets. A memory. My poems are inspired by place, by people, by memories, and by love of learning new things. Paying attention to anything can spark a poem. 

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

Definitely visual art, especially collage. And, of course, music.. 

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

Often, I meditate before I write: to centre myself and become more aware. I read a poem. I read something about science.  I make sure I write one to three new pages in my writing notebook every day, whatever else is going on. If there’s time, I type up what I’ve done the day before, and go back into my computer poetry files to work on revisions.

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

I love discovering a poet I didn’t know. I’ve only just begun to know the work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, for example, and her intelligent and open-hearted curiosity inspires me. 

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

I’ve learned so many things from other poets and continue to do so. Every day I read a poem that teaches me something about writing or revising poems or listen to a podcast of a poet reading or talking about craft, and I learn something new.

But here are just a few of pieces of advice that have stayed with me: 

Jamaal May taught me not to make myself the hero in my poems.  

Poet Estha Weiner taught me about poetry as play, citing poet William Matthews, “Content is often unsettling or painful in poems, but form is play, a residue of the fun the poet had while working.”

Poet Richard Jackson helped me see that I could begin to follow the language of the poem itself to make discoveries I hadn’t anticipated.

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

I have been in a writers’ group with two other poets, Kate Fetherston and Melinda Thomsen, for over for seven years. We are all alumnae of the Vermont College of Fine Arts  MFA in Writing program. We model our structure on the methodology at VCFA. Every month we send the other two poets three poems (new or revised), and we write a letter to both within a few days with comments on all the poems. A real and deep trust has grown up among the three of us.

And since the pandemic began, I have participated when I can in Geoffrey Nutter’s Saturday Wallson Glass workshops on Zoom, where we write in response to  prompts and read our poems to one another. That group has become a community too.

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

For a long time, I wrote in form, now I don’t worry about it, though I am a musician, and form comes easily to me, almost too easily. I find that writing in received forms tightens my work. I admire poets who write in form but are liberated, not constrained by it. That is a goal of mine.

I am working on my poems being more language generated and driven, and to deepen discoveries I might make in the language, allowing the poems to surprise me and the reader.

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