S. TREMAINE NELSON interviews ELIZABETH A. I. POWELL
Born in New York City, Elizabeth A. I. Powell is a Vermont-based poet and editor in chief of the Green Mountains Review. She is the author of two poetry collections: The Republic of Self and, most recently, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2013, Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and many other eminent publications.
Powell and S. Tremaine Nelson met over lunch at the New Moon Café in Burlington, Vermont. As two former New Yorkers, they spoke about the differences between New York City and Burlington, as well as the subtle, but crucial, distinctions between Vermont and the rest of New England. They also talked at great length about Powell’s poetry and Arthur Miller’s legendary play Death of a Salesman.
S. Tremaine Nelson (SN): Why are there so many writers in Vermont?
Elizabeth A. I. Powell (EP): I think it’s because you can live your own life here, the way you want to. There’s a kind of no-bullshit-allowed stance, informed with dignity, individuality, creativity, hard work, a kind of rural reverie, closeness to the land. And, for the town dwellers, they used to call Burlington the Paris of New England.
SN: So there’s a sense of independence afforded to artists living here?
EP: Yes, I’d say so. Long winters, dirt roads, no one to bug you.
SN: Does the proximity to Boston and New York and other cultural centers have anything to do with Vermont’s appeal?
EP: Maybe. For me it had more to do with the history of the “back to the land” movement. I moved up here in 1989. There were these baby boomers and older folks who put down roots in these hippie communes, and I found that romantically alluring. Hippies were appealing to me because a beloved bunch of my aunts were hippies when I was a kid, and it spurred on my imagination that there were other ways to live than the rat race chaos.
SN: Seeking a simpler life?
EP: Yes, but more importantly the hippie philosophy of thinking outside the box, not completely succumbing to capitalism. Living off the land appealed to me. My mother’s mother and her second husband had been Ivy-Leaguers who left the big city to go start a dairy farm in the Catskills, back when the Catskills wasn’t chic because of anti-Semitism, among other things.
My Waspy grandmother was very progressive, had taught music at progressive schools, wanted to live like the Nearings, be the master of her own destiny while doing the least amount of harm. I like to think of her in conjunction with Woody Guthrie. She might have said: “This milk kills fascists.” And she always liked to tell me that back then they couldn’t afford a farm in Vermont—New York State was cheaper in the late forties and early fifties.
My being here fulfills a kind of familial wish and generational narrative in terms of destiny. I love Vermont more than I can tell you. This place means more to me than I can even express.
SN: So you were born and raised in New York City, went to school in North Carolina for a year, and then finished your undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. Is that when you moved to D.C.?
EP: Yes. I was a political science major and I worked for the Gary Hart presidential campaign, as well as voter registration efforts while I was in college in Greensboro. My mother had worked for Mayor Lindsey in New York City, marched over the Pettus bridge with me in utero. At age seven I was obsessed with listening to the record The Wit of JFK over and over again. At age 11 I became obsessed with Jimmy Carter, sent him all my allowance. I used to take the bus through Manhattan whenever he was in town, looking for him.
SN: Has your political experience informed your writing?
EP: Definitely. My first book of poems The Republic of Self draws from my political experience. I love what Arthur Miller says about drama: “It’s a great jurisprudence.”
SN: I’d love to talk about your new collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter. Would you say that your book is about New England?
EP: In some ways. It’s not restricted to New England, though. New England has always been a destination, for my family, trying to get out of New York to get to that “better” place. The New York of my childhood was the scary, dirty New York. I like to call Brooklyn “the old country.” Somehow, New England seemed more refined. New England was where salesmen disappeared on the road, much like Willy Loman himself. My father came to New Hampshire to avoid taxes and live free or die. Ultimately, he couldn’t live free, so he died.
SN: Your book uses Arthur Miller’s classic play as an artistic backdrop. One question I kept thinking was this: what would Willy Loman do for work today, if he wasn’t a salesman?
EP: Excellent question. I don’t know how he could be anything but a salesman.
SN: What would be he selling today?
EP: Marketing, technology.
EP: Yes, maybe marketing focus groups. Or inventing marketing ideas like “shabby or boho chic” and “artisanal.” At the base of Death of a Salesman is a notion that longing for the past is a kind of violence to the self, a corrupting force for society.
SN: You mentioned the similarities between your book and some facts of your own life. Is Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter a work of elegy?
EP: Yes, it’s definitely a work of elegy. It’s looking at my father’s life through the prism of this book, so iconic, so mythic, but it speaks for all of us, the deluded dream can make one sick if you drink too much of it. Living by false values can actually make one physically sick as well as mentally. The striving for the thing that may never substantiate, that’s the drama of the will. On top of that striving, the struggle between parent and child. So close and so far, it imprints itself in the human heart. My way of saying the predicament is: “If only is further than you think,” which is also the title of my next book. I love how Arthur Miller talked about the writer being a destroyer of chaos, privy to hidden laws that might destroy us if we don’t understand them, something like that.
SN: How much of this book is autobiographical?
EP: Quite a bit. Willy Loman started a long, long time ago when I was a child. Death of a Salesman was a primary text in our family, and my aunt called my father Willy Loman as a joke. My father grew up in Brooklyn as a first-generation American, from a Jewish family originally from Eastern Europe—Vilnius in particular, where our people were artists, musicians, part of the Yiddish theater before the Holocaust. That attempt to rise up in American society really informed my family; at one time some of my great uncles had been put in an orphanage. The family was so poor when they first arrived here.
Willy Loman the book came to me when my father died at 61 in his car, just like Willy Loman the character. Interestingly, it was a completely opposite family trajectory on my WASP side. My maternal grandmother came from a social register family, her father was a Boston Brahmin lawyer who had played football for Harvard, but she dropped out and became a farmer and was poor for the rest of her life. My daughter calls me the Episco-Jew, and this book tries to get right with my identity.
SN: Why should someone study Death of a Salesman today?
EP: The narrative of Death of a Salesman is pertinent because it enacts beautifully how family secrets and oppressions are deadly. The play shows this in a uniquely American context. It’s a version of selling your soul to the devil, so that your family might live. A bad deal all around those pipe dreams. Biff says in Death of a Salesman: “He had all the wrong dreams,” to which Charlie says something like, “A salesman has got to dream, it comes with the territory.”
SN: To that end, in your poems, the narrator mentions How to Win Friends and Influence People, along with The Art of Selling. Have you read those books?
EP: Yes [laughter]. They were in my house growing up. One of the many similarities between my father and Willy Loman.
SN: Would you say a knowledge of selling can inform poetry?
EP: Well, yes, in a manner of speaking poetry is an argument. Poets make arguments for ideas. In that way, poetry is like sales, even though you may not want to buy what a poet is selling. There’s an Edward Hirsch poem I love about his salesman father creating boxes to sell. The boxes mirror the idea of form in poetry, ready to receive our content, metaphorical and real, each object or syllable an atom.
SN: It calls to mind the quote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
EP: That’s a Shelley quote. I thought of that quote when I stopped working on Capitol Hill; it made me not feel so bad about quitting politics. For a long time I thought writing poetry was “not allowed.”
SN: How is that quote relevant today?
EP: Because legislators enact laws to help society as a whole, and poets enact things in their poems to take a stand. Think of Seamus Heaney in Northern Ireland, or Claudia Rankine’s work about what’s currently happening with race in America.
SN: Can poetry stop a war?
EP: I wish it could. I think if we leaflet dropped Leaves of Grass instead of bombs more people might embrace us.
SN: Can poetry start a war?
EP: I can imagine that—poems so stinking bad they erupt. Seriously, political speech is sometimes highly poetic; look in particular at the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. If anyone’s verbiage could stop a war, it was his.
SN: There’s Lincoln’s quote, perhaps apocryphal, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he supposedly said: “So you’re the little lady who wrote the big book that started this great war.”
EP: Well, again, look at Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen. It may not start a war, but it’s a good example of documenting what’s wrong with our society.
SN: Citizen shares some formal concerns with Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter. Can you talk about how poetry ladders up to the form of a book, versus the individual pieces?
EP: I don’t think a book of poems has to cohere; there are lots of different ways to order a manuscript; Auden did it alphabetically, or others have done it by chance. I’m really interested in the moment where an essay becomes a lyric poem or prose poem. I’ve always been in love with Anne Carson’s work, where the art straddles the lyric essay and poem.
SN: Beside voice, what are the fundamental elements to creating character?
EP: Character is just a delineation of consciousness. For poets, or at least for me as a poet, the images come first, and then the story emerges.
SN: So your muse is more visual than aural?
EP: I think it’s about fifty-fifty.
SN: Are you more in tune with the typographical play of words on the page versus read aloud?
EP: More read aloud.
SN: Most of the poems in your book follow conventional typographical standards, whereas your poem “Epilogue” has a more explosive layout. When should a poem test the boundaries of typography?
EP: I think that’s more about fragments of consciousness, more than a steadier consciousness.
SN: If To the Lighthouse or Ulysses are modernist attempts to capture consciousness, why would Joyce and Woolf stick to a more traditional topography than what you’ve done here?
EP: Stream of consciousness narrative ultimately does tell a story, whereas fragmented consciousness is more like a pointillist painting. More imagistic.
SN: Are there poets who deserve a wider readership—that you read and think, how is this poet not read in every home in America?
EP: Yes, Matthew Lippman. He’s definitely an unacknowledged legislator.
SN: If you could meet any living writer whom would you like to meet?
EP: I would like to meet Anne Carson.
Elizabeth A. I. Powell is the author of Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances.*
S. Tremaine Nelson is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and founder of The Literary Man book blog.
Photo credits: Elizabeth Powell headshot by Marion Ettlinger; first edition cover of Death of a Salesman, designed by Joseph Hirsch, used under fair use copyright.