V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




In November of 2006 I was pleased to introduce Elise Paschen for her poetry reading in the excellent Writing Out Loud series of author presentations at the Michigan City Public Library, not far from Valparaiso. Before Elise read her poems, she and I also engaged in an informal conversation on the stage to allow those in attendance to get to know her and to learn about her approach to writing poetry. Since then, Elise and I have continued our discussion by email, and she has agreed to this more formal interview for Valparaiso Poetry Review. I thank Elise Paschen for generously giving her time and her effort in responding to this interview, as well as for her poems included in this issue of VPR.

Edward Byrne:
In a number of your poems, autobiography or family history appears important and influential.  Could you begin by presenting information about your personal history and background?

Elise Paschen:
Frank Bidart wrote: “Somewhere in the family romance lies, each of us suspects, the secret or mystery of erotic power, the source of sexual energy to which, with slight but significant variations, we again and again return.  Within the givens of familial, racial, gender and class history lie the materials out of which we must make ourselves . . ..” This is an excerpt from what he wrote on the jacket cover of Infidelities.  (I am one of those writers whose mentors wrote a blurb on my book!  Bidart generously had worked on the manuscript with me over the course of a year.)  At the time I was intrigued by what Frank wrote, but, until recently, I don’t think I really understood what he meant. During the process of assembling the manuscript, he suggested I write some “childhood infidelities” poems. I now realize, by encouraging me to write those poems, he was nudging me to further explore that “family romance.”
    Now that I am married and the mother of two children, I, perhaps, have a better perspective of this notion of “family romance.”  I was an only child, the daughter of an Osage/Scotts Irish prima ballerina from Fairfax, Oklahoma and a Norwegian/German/Anglo Saxon businessman from Chicago.  My parents fell in love, married, separated, and then got back together to remain happily married until my father died several years ago. It is a myth I attempt to fathom and understand. As an only child, I often discovered refuge in the world of the imagination.  From the vantage point of a parent, I now see our two children creating their own make-believe play, but it is a universe they share. After I learned how to write—literally when I was seven years old—I was able to convert those imaginings into my attempts at plays, stories, and poems.

You mention being “an only child, the daughter of an Osage/Scotts Irish prima ballerina from Fairfax, Oklahoma.”  For readers who may not be aware of it, you are speaking about one of the nation's most famous and accomplished ballerinas, Maria Tallchief, who also formed (with first husband, George Balanchine) the New York City Ballet and later founded the Chicago City Ballet.  Your mother’s presence in some of your poems seems especially poignant, particularly when you view her almost as two personas—the mother you know and the artist everyone recognizes.  Could you speak about her as an inspiration, influence, and role model on your interest in art and becoming an artist?

I enjoy relating the story how, when I was young, my mother wanted me to become a lawyer (a profession I never entertained!).  I suppose she realized the emotional and financial challenges of an artistic career and hoped I would choose a more secure life.  It was my father who encouraged me to become a writer.  He felt I should pursue my passion and devote my life to what I love to do.
    But my mother served as the role model of the artist and, in that way, she inspired me to become a writer.  She devoted herself to her craft and did not allow anything to get in her way.  I grew up knowing that a woman should have a career, and, fortunately, I realized my own calling at a young age.
    After my mother received the Woman of the Year award from the Washington Press Club, she called her mother to say that she had again met President Eisenhower. My grandmother replied:  “Well, your sister, Marjorie, just had dinner with the Aga Khan.” Both my mother and my mother’s mother were exacting parents, demanding excellence from their offspring.  I know my grandmother was incredibly proud of my mother.  Several years ago a friend was seated near my mother at one of my poetry readings, and she overheard my mother describe my writing career.  So I know, ultimately, my mother is proud I chose to write poems.
    As you mention, my mother has inspired various poems—such as “Oklahoma Home” and “The Other Mother” as well as some poems I’ve written for the new manuscript, such as “Eurydice,” a poem which explores the pull between the artistic and the domestic life.

In addition to writing about your mother, you also have written poems about your father, including a wonderful newer poem, “Threshold,” that ends with an image readers might see as a more tender version of Roethke’s elegy for his father, “My Papa’a Waltz.” It seems sometimes that the most effective poetry about parents, especially elegies such as Roethke’s poem or Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” are written when the poet has grown to be a parent.  Do you think writing about your parents and their relationships in more recent poetry is affected by your identity as a wife and mother?  Has your image of yourself as a wife and mother caused you to write more poems from that perspective? Can you tell me about your new manuscript of poetry and what concerns you seem to address in it?

Now that I myself am a wife and a mother I certainly am less judgmental!  Last summer I attended a dramatization of the poet Susan Hahn’s poetry collection, The Scarlet Ibis.  A thread that runs through the poems is a dialogue between the poet and the muse, a conversation that spurred me to consider my own dialogue with the muse; how, perhaps now, my muse has become a bit domesticated. The poet Grace Schulman looked at my new manuscript and she noted this interplay between domesticity and the wildness of art.  Several manuscript titles I had been considering explore these different directions:  “Sanctuary” and “Bestiary.”  (The new book to be published by Red Hen Press is titled Bestiary.)   I am compelled by tensions within the poem and between the poems—and I hope the new manuscript will reflect this dialogue.
    As with the case of my last book, Infidelities, I have been working on the poems in Bestiary over the past ten years—and the poems reflect my various predilections during this time.  As my friend the poet Jason Shinder pointed out:  “The poems explore, in part, various domestic preoccupations set against the backdrop of the wild-heartedness, real and imagined, of the animal world.”  So there are poems inspired by our children, such as “Monarch,” “Birth,” and “Hive.”  Also poems about my father’s death, such as “Threshold,” as you graciously mention.  I have a poem about my mother’s detachment from the things of this world, titled “The Broken Swan.”  Another new poem inspired by my current appointment as the Three Oaks Poet Laureate (I was asked to write a poem about winter) called “Pond in Winter.” There are a handful of love poems, such as “Moving In” and “Magnificent Frigatebird,” and several persona poems such as “Engagement.” Yeats once wrote that all his poems are about sex and death—I see similar themes at play in these poems.

Are there patterns in your process of composition, perhaps common ways in which you begin writing a poem and a routine in your writing method?  Do you revise extensively?

Often the first draft of a poem will happen quickly.  I will be struck by a line, perhaps the entirety of a poem, and then will scribble it down.  (I remember writing “Cicadas” in the middle of the night while we were staying at a house in Lakeside, Michigan.)  I then spend many days or months revising a poem.
    When I first write a poem, I attempt to let my conscious mind surrender to the unconscious and allow the poem to unravel on the page. It is always a thrill when the unconscious leads me to undiscovered places. I may put the poem aside for a day and then look at it, again, with the “conscious” mind or editorial mind—unearthing the poem’s shape, its structure and configuration, and I will spend many hours drafting the stanzas, carving out the lines.
    Often I will write down the first draft on a scrap of paper—let’s say if I’m walking somewhere or sitting in a plane or on a subway. . . . Then, when I return home to my study, I’ll transcribe that draft into a small notebook.   Sometimes I’ll work on the poem in a larger notebook, after which I start drafting the poem on the computer.  I use my computer as a typewriter and print out each draft of the poem, saving the versions in a manila folder, marked with the date on which I first started the poem. 
    As I mentioned, I will look at the poem’s shape and then will determine what sort of metrical pattern attempts to emerge.  I tend to favor the iambic tetrameter line, for its length, yet also for its tautness and its ability to rein in words.  Stanza length will vary—again, I hope the shape of the poem will present itself.
    As I look back in my notebooks on the composition of “Moving In,” I wrote this note: “Setting up house.  Poem about pairs.  How someone said everything comes in twos, balance it off.”  Then I drafted a version of the poem—in free verse.  At the end of that draft I wrote—“Write in rhyming couplets”—and then with the next version of the poem (which I wrote several months later in another notebook), I started to establish the poem’s meter and rhyme scheme.
    I have spent many years researching the history of the Osage Indians.  After I left the Poetry Society of America, I received a fellowship from the Newberry Library to formalize this research on a particular period of Osage history called The Reign of Terror.  About ten years ago, I tried turning the material into a long poem, and then tried reshaping it into prose.  Recently, I have been collaborating with another writer attempting to render this subject matter into a more dramatic medium.
    Oftentimes, reading other poems will help me figure out a poem I’ve been attempting to unravel.  While reading through a poetry anthology that a friend had edited, I was struck by Rosanna Warren’s “From the Notebooks of Anne Verveine, VII,” which offered me a lens to look at the Osage material from a different perspective.  (I was actually working on another poem called “Pond in Winter,” and had not even been thinking about writing a poem based on the murder of Anna Brown, a woman who was killed during the Osage Reign of Terror, whose story has haunted me, as I said, over many years.  I even visited her grave site in Fairfax, Oklahoma, while researching the material in 2001.) Rosanna Warren created a persona named Anne Verveine, and she has written a sequence of poems involving this persona.  It suddenly struck me that I could do something similar with Anna Brown. I started drafting a poem called “Wi-ge-e” (which means “prayer” in Osage) and, while working on the poem, I remembered another “river” poem that Seamus Heaney had once discussed at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. I had been attending a Writers’ Retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and had driven to Sligo for the day.  I found the poem in my bookshelf:  Vona Groarke’s “The Riverbed.”
    The Warren poem helped trigger this new poem about Anna Brown that had been building over the course of many years, and the Groarke poem helped chart a path through the maze of writing.  I also consulted the Osage Dictionary to discover language as a way of entry into the material. 
    There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than working on a poem—when you have begun a poem, when you are thinking about it, when you return to the poem, whenever you can grab some minutes, which may turn into hours, and you haven’t noticed that any time has passed. 

 “Angling,” in Infidelities is a terrific poem that brings to mind a classic poem—Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”—and even uses a line from it as an epigraph.  Yet, your poem playfully takes the reader in a different direction.  You wrote your Ph.D. dissertation on the poetry of Yeats.  Some critics suggest current poets are always engaged in a conversation (or sometimes in a competition) with poets of the past.  Which poets of the past do you believe have influenced your own writing of poetry?

At a young age I came to understand the musicality of poetry through the songs of William Shakespeare in, for instance, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. In the third grade I memorized William Blake’s “The Tyger” and returned home from school one afternoon to recite the poem from memory to my mother.  I grew up surrounded by music; I was a backstage baby, after all, and I studied the piano and singing, so I responded to the rhythms and the rhymes and the images of these poems when I was young. 
    In high school I was introduced to the poetry of William Butler Yeats.  After I read “A Cold Heaven,” I became passionate about Yeats’s writing.  Our British Literature teacher was a former monk, Bill Duffy, and he would discuss the dualities in Yeats’s work, the division of body and soul.  As someone raised a Catholic, I was fascinated by how these dichotomies played out in the poems. 
    I entered college having no knowledge of contemporary poets. I took a poetry writing class freshman year—recommended for sophomores—with the poet Allen Williamson, and he compared one of my poems to Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  I had no idea who Stevens was, so I ended up enrolling in a Wallace Stevens reading group in Cambridge.  Many of the poems I wrote during that time were convoluted and indecipherable! (I also was intrigued by the French symbolist poets, such as Mallarme, and the Metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne.)
    I suppose it was my professor, Seamus Heaney, who guided me toward understanding how to carve out my own type of poem.  The oldest poem in Infidelities, “Oklahoma Home,” dates from the time I took his poetry workshop during my sophomore year. Heaney also taught me the necessity of revision and, at his suggestion, I started looking at Yeats’s manuscripts in Houghton Library.  I began studying the manuscripts and became fascinated with the way Yeats revised his poems.  In a sense I “apprenticed” myself to Yeats. Later, while studying with the poet Richard Tillinghast, I was introduced to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III and became a life-long fan of her work.  She was a poet I consciously tried to imitate, and I wrote several sestinas modeled after her own.
    In graduate school, I intended to write my masters thesis on Bishop, but the proposal was rejected, as she was barely known in England.  (Soon after, Craig Raine and the “Martian School” discovered her work and she began gaining popularity in Great Britain.)  So, as you mentioned, I wrote my M.Phil. thesis and then my D.Phil.dissertation on the manuscripts of Yeats. 

You speak of the oldest poem in your book being “Oklahoma Home.” For many poets a sense of place is important in their works.  Your poetry often reflects locations where you have lived and traveled—New York, Chicago, Europe, etc.  Do you feel a sense of place, or perhaps at times even a lack of sense of place due to traveling, is important to you and has influenced the poetry you have written?

Yes, I think a sense of place is important in my work.  My first chapbook, published in England in 1985 by the Sycamore Press, was called Houses: Coasts. The ocean and various houses figured prominently in those poems.  I wrote the poems in Infidelities over the course of 10 years—and lived in England and then in New York and I traveled a great deal during that time—especially for my work at the Poetry Society of America.  My new manuscript seems to be more home-bound. Since I moved to Chicago in 1997 and started a family, we have stayed closer to home.  But even with this new collection—thinking about your question—I find that places influence the poems.  There is a longer poem inspired by visiting a fort in Key West.  I suppose I have a rambling imagination and am interested in places other than home.  I have a poem that begins in Millennium Park, here in Chicago, but it then travels to the Caribbean and ends up in Captiva called “Chancing Upon the Manatees.”
    I think the discovery of new places heightens your sense of awareness.  It puts you into a state receptive to poems.  Traveling jolts you out of the ordinary, and the notion of travel, the journey, can serve as a metaphor for the act of writing.  I chose to live and raise a family in the place where I grew up.  This place is a sanctuary, and yet it is the mystery of the unknown, the sense of discovery, that inspires me as a writer.

You have worked as an arts administrator and as an editor.  Do you see these roles as beneficial and complementary to your writing of poetry? In what ways have the experiences in these positions shaped your view of the writer’s role?

I feel these various roles—as editor, arts administrator, and now professor—inspire what I attempt to accomplish on the page.  Because I write poetry, I was passionate about my job as Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America—endeavoring to create the most exciting and diverse range of programs, seminars, festivals, etc.  When I edit anthologies, I also approach the work of other poets as a writer and attempt to select the poems which speak to me and which I hope will speak to others. As a professor in the Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute, I urge my students to absorb and learn from the work of the great poets throughout time.
    I admit, though, when I was running the Poetry Society, I often felt the job was taking over my life—it was challenging to find time to write poetry!  But because the salary at that time was so low at the PSA, I was able to negotiate a four-day week.  As a result, I devoted those days off to write the poems that comprised the collection, Infidelities.
    During my tenure at the PSA, I had the opportunity to work with incredible and inspiring writers. To name just a few of the poets who either read or taught or judged or received prizes from the PSA—Joseph Brodsky, Yehuda Amichai, Octovio Paz, Czeslaw Milosz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mona Van Duyn, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur.   What a great inspiration to listen and to converse with these authors.
    I always have enjoyed editing poetry journals and anthologies and have served as a poetry editor, in some capacity, since high school.  After graduate school, I had intended to find a job as a poetry editor at a publishing house or at a magazine, but instead I was hired as the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America.  Since leaving the PSA and settling in Chicago, I continue to edit various anthologies, among them, Poetry Speaks and Poetry Speaks to Children. I currently am assembling Poetry Speaks Comes of Age.
    Editing these anthologies allows me the opportunity to read as much as possible, to make the best and most diverse selections, to introduce others to the oeuvre of these poets.  While working on the recently published Poetry Speaks Expanded (co-edited by Rebekah Presson Mosby), I had been dipping into the poems of, among others, May Swenson.  What a privilege and what a discovery.  I always have admired her poems—I remember my excitement when I first heard her audio recordings in the basement of the Library of Congress while researching Poetry Speaks to Children.  One is like an archaeologist discovering a rare shard when you find a poem that moves you.  Or, as Emily Dickinson says:  “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry . . ..” This absorption in the work of poets throughout the centuries helps me navigate my own way as a writer.



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