Matthew Thorburn Interviews Elaine Sexton

“What Transports Us”: An Interview with Elaine Sexton

Matthew Thorburn interviews Elaine Sexton about her fourth book of poems, Drive.

Matthew Thorburn: Elaine, thanks so much for talking with me about your new collection of poems, Drive. What a wonderful title! Many of the poems are about driving in various ways, about cars and traveling the roads. But they are also about a personal sense of motion: what drives us, and how our lives propel us forward—faster and faster, it seems, as we get older. How did this book come to be? Was this a theme that you had in mind from the outset, or did it emerge as you were writing?

Elaine Sexton: The title poem, “Drive,” was actually the last poem I wrote for my previous book, Prospect/Refuge—but I could see, even at the time, it was, or could be, the start of something more, which turned out to be this new collection.

For most of my adult life I’ve lived two places, part of the week in New York City and part on the east end of Long Island. This means I spend a fair amount of time in transit, often in a car, when public transportation doesn’t work out. Coming and going takes up at least six, sometimes eight hours a week, a three-hour drive, or train or bus ride, sometimes longer. That space and time form their own kind of landscape, and isolating that as a subject, that transport, turned out to be the foundation of the book.

MT: You mentioned that the poem “Drive” was the last poem you wrote for your previous book, Prospect/Refuge. Did you know early on that Drive would be the title of this book, or how did you get to it?

ES: As I mentioned, it started with reflecting on, literally, what takes place while driving or moving through space. I knew this might be the title of my next book when I kept returning to this idea of what transports us, the when and why and where. You know, several of the poems do take place in cars, but a lot of them refer to the body (as a vehicle), and these are about aging, and orbit the state of mind, itself, as a kind of place. In Drive, the poem “Nonplace” refers to what the French philosopher Marc Augé calls those places that have so little significance they have no actual name. I think that describes the space we are in while traveling, or that place in the body that doesn’t have a name, but is a presence.

MT: I’m also struck by how the book opens and closes with a pair of prose poems, both titled “the most beautiful thing,” and there’s one in the middle of the book that uses this phrase as well. Would you also please talk a little about your process for structuring this book?

ES: Thank you for asking about this, and for noticing these three important poems. Of course not everyone reads a book cover to cover, starting on the first page. I do. I think of a book of poems as a poem, itself. Each poem stands on its own, and you can enter the book on any page, but there is usually an order to the way the ideas unfold in a book, and you move from poem to poem, the way you move from line to line in an individual poem.

The poems you mentioned were culled from about 25 or 30 others, all using a structure built around “the most beautiful thing about x is y,” identifying the most beautiful essence an object or an idea in (hopefully) unexpected ways. At one point I thought of these poems making up an entire collection, or a chapbook. Later, I whittled this group of poems down to these three, the ones that speak to or echo other ideas in the book. They each speak to a kind of place, and also, in a way, are about poetry. These poems upend the usual way we are used to poems taking shape, with a turn or the volta as something you build up to. Instead these brief poems open with that turn.

MT: Your book has such a beautiful and intriguing cover. Tell me about this cover image. How did you select it—and how does it connect with your title and the poems in the book?

ES: I am always happy to think about and talk about book covers, and book design. I was so pleased to have as much input as I did on choosing the art for the cover of this collection. With a title like Drive, it would be easy to do something obvious or cliché. I wanted a cover that makes you want to pick it up, that makes something happen in just looking at it. I imagine this cover does what a poem does, asking the reader to make that leap in figuring out why two disparate things are paired, or put side by side.

About six or seven years ago, I had found this startling image of a flying woman by Katherine Bradford at an art fair in New York. I carried a postcard of her painting Diver, with Legs, around with me for quite a while. I just loved it—it was just so weird. As the visual arts editor for Tupelo Quarterly I later interviewed Bradford, and much later, shortly after seeing an exhibit of her work at Harvard’s Carpenter Center in 2021, just when my book was starting to go into production, I remembered this female character, suspended in air, and wondered how it would work with the word drive. It’s not immediately apparent what’s going on, how the image relates to the title. A reader could confuse the word drive with dive. But the more I thought about that, the more I liked the route one might take in making that correction, in making an effort to connect the text with the image. More than one friend has suggested the swimmer looks like she’s been catapulted into space. She’s in this state of suspension, for sure, and this speaks to that in-between place we are in when we are in transit.

MT: So did your publisher, Grid Books, give you free rein when it came to the cover design—or did you have to convince them that this was the right image for the cover?

ES: Grid Books has been a dream press. I could not have asked for a better initial and ongoing relationship with a publisher. I wouldn’t say I was given free rein, but they were completely open to my suggestions, in wanting what was best for the book. The editor Elizabeth Murphy is smart, thoughtful, and cares a great deal about the book as a physical object. Grid publishes only a few titles a year, among them art books. She liked almost all of the images I suggested, but she and the book designer, Michael Russem, immediately and enthusiastically agreed with me on this final image of Bradford’s, hands down. We had a little back and forth about the disposition of the art on the page, deciding to bleed the cover image. The designer is a real minimalist, so the typography is the simplest it could possibly be. But we all got what this work of art makes happen, and being in sync on this was a blessing.

MT: As someone who works outside of academia, I’m always interested to know what other writers do for a living—and to see if and how they write about that part of their lives. Your poems “Finding Work” and “To My Day Job” are two of my favorites in Drive. How has your working life—your day job—impacted your writing?

ES: I’m so glad you asked about those poems. You know, for most of my working career I had a day job in magazine publishing, as a publisher. That ended nearly 10 years ago, when this kind of print media downsized dramatically. And for maybe a decade before that happened, in 2003, just after my first book came out, I started teaching for the first time, and discovered I loved it. That poem, “To My Day Job,” refers to the kind of work we do to make a living. In my case that “day job” was working in an office, producing magazines, which was a way to make a very good living, but was not my big professional love. Not in the way teaching is now. When I shifted to teaching full-time I found, of course, time management was more of a challenge when my day wasn’t structured by office hours. Somehow the workload was even greater, as there is not a clear beginning and end to it, teaching writing and writing were and are all consuming. The two poems you mention here speak to the tension that occurs when you’re spending eight to ten hours a day not doing what you love, not making and thinking about poetry and art. Those poems compare work to an amorous relationship. So, I suggest that not giving your best self to your day job, as in any relationship, is a kind of infidelity.

I’ve written some of my longest poems when I’ve had more control over when I can write. Over the years, the poems that would make up my first three books were shorter, tighter lyric poems. Maybe their shapes had to do with the amount of time I had, at any given period, to spend on them. In contrast, the title poem “Drive” is three pages, and another poem in the book, “Transport,” is five….

MT: I often think of you as a city poet—and a poet of New York City, in particular—but a number of the poems in Drive take place in Italy and Long Island. Would you talk about the sense of place in your work—and the importance of that to you?

ES: So, first, I’ll answer your question about some of the specific places in this book. As I’ve said, when I’m spending a great deal of time in a car that place or space finds its way into the poems. Likewise, when I’m on a train, as I was a good deal when working in Italy, and commuting to and from Long Island, the poems sometimes are stationed in those places. I spent part of two summers, back-to-back, in Italy, teaching and working on poems. First, in Assisi, and then, during in a month-long residency at the Siena Art Institute.

Regarding my sense of place. I grew up in a small beach town, on the 17 miles of coast in New Hampshire. My mother was a great appreciator of living in that beautiful place, of the land and the sea, and as a transplant, noticed things that often go unnoticed. She grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1920s, the air was so thick with smoke from the steel mills, the street lights had to stay lit all day to see in front of you. My father’s nickname for my mother was “Cinder,” as she was from “Cinder City.” She was so attuned to the incremental changes and pleasures in nature, I learned from her a kind of attention to the physical world and our place in it, physically and mentally. Through her I found metaphor and possibility in things that present as one thing, like fresh air, but represent something else, like class and privilege. Like her I took (and take) nothing for granted: the sea air, the trees, the light, all of what growing up in New Hampshire, and now, living on Long Island, has to offer. Her heightened experience of place, became mine.

MT: What is your writing process like? How does a poem start for you? And has the pandemic changed how you write?

ES: I think almost always my poems start with a word or a phrase or an image (a thing) that is slightly off, that intrigues me. Something that appears to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. An expression—for example, that triggers something that wants to be puzzled out.

During the pandemic, I started a practice with a friend, living alone, who was struggling with the isolation and having trouble with writing. I suggested we exchange lists, a practice I learned about from the late great poet Linda Gregg, an exercise she taught, and I have taught, in noticing things: seven observations a day for seven days, or some set number of days. I offered my friend this brief and easy exchange, as a way to jump-start writing. We share a short list, every day—just seven things that we see or hear or do. This practice started about a year and a half ago, almost two, and we’ve been writing and responding briefly to each other’s lists every morning. And this, over time, enhanced, and has actually changed my practice. I start every day with that. And then sometimes if there’s something interesting in that day’s list I’ll pluck that out and develop that. I write every day, no matter what.

Elaine Sexton’s latest collection of poems is Drive (Grid Books, 2022). Her three previous books of poetry are: Sleuth (New Issues, 2003), Causeway (New Issues, 2008), and Prospect/Refuge (Sheep Meadow Press, 2015). An avid book maker and micro-publisher, she is also the author of several chapbooks, and she has curated site-specific events with accompanying limited-edition chapbooks and periodicals, among them Hair and 2 Horatio. She teaches text and image and poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and has been guest faculty at New York University and in the graduate writing program at City College (CUNY).

Matthew Thorburn’s new book of poems, String, was published by Louisiana State University Press in March, 2023. His previous books include The Grace of Distance (LSU Press, 2019), a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the book-length poem Dear Almost (LSU Press, 2016), which won the Lascaux Prize.

Table of Contents | Next Page