MATT W. MILLER interviews ELIZABETH A.I. POWELL
Elizabeth A.I. Powell’s most recent book is Atomizer (LSU Press, 2020). She is a Professor of Creative Writing at North Vermont University. Her poems are forthcoming in The New Republic and American Poetry Review. You can find her at www.elizabethaipowell.com.
The terrestrial assumption is that on any given day you can find humans crying out to the heavens. Elizabeth A.I. Powell is a poet who has “spent a lifetime trying to say the truth in a beautiful way,” and operates on the assumption that we all have celestial cries to process. In this interview, Matt Miller and Elizabeth A.I. Powell explore the invisibility of sexuality, the enactment of fury, and poem as atomizer. Walk through this synesthetic interview and discover how poetry approaches the smell of memory.
Matt Miller (MM): The opening poem, “Atomizer,” the title poem, is a rush, like you have literally and figuratively used an atomizer to spray the reader in the face with all the scented atoms of the universe, or your universe. It has a feel of automatic writing, associatively riffing off of biology and biography, of pop culture and poetry, of perfume and potpourri, and yet at the same time it seems so crafted, as precisely as the physics of a liquid leaving a perfume bottle. And then come angels. It is destabilizing and yet it announces the book so well as a place where collection and connection will wash over the senses of the reader. Is that what you were hoping to do with it? Did you worry about the weight a title poem has to carry, especially as the opening poem? How did this object, the atomizer, your aunt’s atomizer, take such a central place in the book?
Elizabeth A.I. Powell (EP): The poem wants to enact the fury and panic of trying to make sense of one’s narrative over time, and what that says about one’s immortality. So, the invocation, come angels, is a speech act that hurries out in the instance of wonderment one has when confused and contemplating one’s life toward the moment when we cry out to the heavens for help. That is where metaphor is so important in poetry and life and spirituality. If we as poets can determine a central metaphor that helps make sense of the natural disorganization of our lives, and let us understand the situation of life and humanity more deeply. Within the poetic technique of double meaning, I was exploring how the word atom is in atomizer, which here means the instrument that diffuses perfume and all its chemistry, nuance, and ability to provoke vital memory.
A perfume atomizer can seem rather demure, but in fact it holds within it the power of earth, chemistry and physics. I wanted the opening poem to be sure and let the reader know that this wasn’t just a book about perfume and desire, as I wanted to the bull’s eye of the book to be where the erotic, the scientific, and the spiritual all meet.
As a poet, I am interested in the metaphors and poems that can encompass angels and scientists hand in hand, where the search for meaning is a kind of love that glues the opposites together. I didn’t worry about the weight of the title poem. It was the last poem I wrote toward the book. I wanted it to enact the function of top, mid and bottom notes of perfume and I wanted it to serve as a kind of outline for the poem’s experience. So the form was a given there. Within that form I wanted to show how experience and desire and understanding all have layers of narrative and that outlines aren’t always numeric. I needed this to be the first poem to set the reader in the olfactory memory-world that the book explores. I wanted the reader to have a guide to the overarching narrative that informs the poems and the poems’ desires to understand the larger story.
MM: Throughout the book we encounter the collection of scents connected to memories that are connected to a swell of emotions and images and experience. Of course, scent is so connected to memory in the brain. A few years back my mother lost her sense of smell and even though I knew its connection to memory, I didn’t think about how much she had been isolated from her own history and memory. I don’t even think she realized that the sadness and loneliness of losing her mother, her husband, and her brother in the last few years had also been compounded by this sensual loss that cut her off from them even more. This book made me think about that loss, the almost synesthesia of coldness we feel without smell to heat us with the past. And then more research into smell has started because of Covid, and it’s starting to dawn on the world how much olfaction makes us and connects us. And even with the capacity to smell, this pandemic has cut us off from scent, from our musk, even if we can see and hear each other. So you were out ahead of all of this. Can you see how you came to this? What drew you to this as a topic to explore? Did it find you or did you go in search of it?
EP: Olfaction as a guide to memory has been getting traction during Covid. Scent triggers our neural networks to re-engage with memories. There have been so many interesting pieces in The New York Times about olfaction and memory and place such as “What Does History Smell Like” (my goodness, I love that question), “Welcome to Our Museum of Smells,” and “What Does it Smell Like Where You Are,” among others. It makes sense that we turn to this primal sense when we are stuck in place, and need a way to understand different spaces and places and the poetics of memory, which helps us survive in general, but in particular in the Covid life.
I have always been intrigued with the mysteries of perfume like the use of incense in prayer and meditation. My mother and her partner worked in the fashion/beauty industry, and there was always a lot of information to be had about these sundry elixirs. Also, as a latchkey kid, I walked around town exploring everything. I came upon an old-school, European type of pharmacy. It had many crystal bottles of perfume and the stillness and clean cases and giant bottles of Guerlain calmed my weary tormented childhood self. The woman who worked there was Swedish, and she just took me in and I followed her around, we hardly said a thing. Later, like forty years later, I experienced a traumatic situation that involved someone who was expert in perfume, and the story of that trauma all of a sudden showed me the continuum of the narrative of perfume that had been in my life since I was a small child. I became interested in the old again, and started reading works by Luca Turin and Chandler Burr, two writers on scent that I admire very much. It’s interesting you mention synesthesia because I have that and it has influenced my worldview and poetry quite a bit. Also, I highly recommend Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses and Mandy Aftel’s books, as well as the fabulous Catherine Haley Epstein’s Nose Dive.
MM: When I first got your book, I just flipped open to a random page and there was “Killing Rabbits.” I actually had been rereading some of Watership Down the night before and it seemed serendipitous to start there, and right there were allusions to Watership Down, and yet so much more of sex and sexuality, the female body, menstruation, birth control, abortion, pleasure and pain, relationships. This poem hit me right away with its rawness and honesty as well as its prosody. I hadn’t before known the phrase “the rabbit died” as a euphemism for pregnancy, and maybe as a male I was allowed to be comfortably dumb to terms like that. Did that phrase find the poem or the poem find the phrase? How did you pull all of these rabbit associations and human reproduction associations together?
EP: “I killed the rabbit” or “the rabbit died” is a very old-fashioned and out of date expression from the 1920s that was on its last gasp in the eighties when I was a teen. So, its meaning has really faded quickly with the advent of home pregnancy tests, which are a godsend, though plastic. It used to be that doctors injected the urine of women into a rabbit, and if there was pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, the rabbit would die. I hated that in order to have confirmation of pregnancy something else had to die. There I was watching my childhood dying, but also a rabbit. C’est horrible.
It scared me that I killed a rabbit that way; it made me feel like a monster. I wanted to show how language further traumatizes us in the slang we use for our ways of being that hurt others. Then all of sudden every rabbit I ever thought of in literature or the world came to me. I was a huge Peter Rabbit fan, had every Beatrix Potter book of my grandfather’s, never learning myself as a young person to stay out of the proverbial Mr. McGregor’s garden. Once I had a first draft I then went and researched all the kinds of rabbit archetypes. That part was fun.
MM: Atomizer has so many fascinating tonal shifts. There’s anger and ecstasy, quiet moments and loud, and there’s love and lust as the poems often move between the delightfully raunchy and the provocatively sexy. In fact, the sexuality of the poems are something that had me thinking about how people of a certain age, especially women, are disappeared from sexuality in this culture. We are at that edge of the age when “the heyday in the blood is tame,” or is expected to be, but here is a voice powerfully refusing that good night. Here is woman, at an age perhaps when this culture wants her sexually invisible (I think of Jarrel’s “Next Day” but even that is a man voicing a woman’s story) claiming and proclaiming all the nuances of sexuality (“Everything I touch wilts, except penises”). These moments read as powerful and alluring, but is that even something that you think about? Is it an act of defiance and courage or just the natural and honest place you write from? How might it speak to the project of the book? Do you ever worry how some readers—I guess I’m thinking mainly of American readers—may react to the honesty, and even bravado, when it comes to this topic?
EP: I think it’s just the natural place I write from. My mother’s greatest hits of advice to me was always “a little sugar goes a long way.” I just can’t stand lying, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to say the truth in a beautiful way. A kind of ars poetica begun at my mother’s knee, a lesson on how to behave, especially to get what you want. In the culture I grew up in men were gods who were not to be eaten in front of or barely breathed in front of, etc. When my brother was born, it was as if the prince had arrived, the bearer of the family name. I was cognizant of the fact that my mother and aunt, the mothers of all girls, were in a race to have a boy child, which was interesting to me because they were both women’s rights activists. Women of their generation, place and time had so many contradictions that I would never totally understand.
I have some female relative’s virginity pins, those circle pins girls wore in the 1950s on their sweater sets, and when my kids were looking through my jewelry they were outraged and astonished by that fact and what that pin was. They thought I was joking.
All that said, my mother eventually (sort of) came out, but I never really had a role model for what a healthy heterosexual woman looks like. I just found my way by saying what I say in a way that hopefully transcends the difficult and makes it redemptive. I had so much fear for so long, I just try to be fearless in a kindly way. And it is true all of sudden you do become invisible somewhere in your forties. It’s a preparation for the ultimate invisibility to come, I guess. I have endeavored to look at, in these poems, the way women can take ownership of the erotic, a kind of eroticism that lives deep in the known unknown. I like what Audre Lorde talks about in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” and how the erotic is for women the self responsible source of power. I love how the essay starts out, and I’ll quote it here at the end of my questing and answering:
“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”
Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of three books of poems, most recently Atomizer. Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was a Small Press Bestseller and named a “Books We Love 2016” by The New Yorker. The Boston Globe has called her recent work “wry and fervent” and “awash in synesthesiastic revelation.” Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues, was published in 2019 in the UK. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The New Republic, Stand (UK), and American Poetry Review. She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Vermont University. Find her at www.elizabethaipowell.com.
Matt W. Miller was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and is the author of the collections Tender the River, The Wounded for the Water, Club Icarus, winner of the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, and Cameo Diner. Miller has published poems and essays in Gulf Coast, Birmingham Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Narrative, Southwest Review, 32 Poems, Massachusetts Review, Adroit Journal, and Crazyhorse. He is the winner of Nimrod International’s Pablo Neruda Prize, The Poetry by the Sea Conference’s Sonnet Crown Contest, River Styx’s Microfiction Prize, and Iron Horse Review’s Trifecta Poetry Prize. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and a Walter E. Dakin Fellow in Poetry at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy and lives with his family in coastal New Hampshire.