In a time of confusion, pain, anger and sickness, Elizabeth Powell has a new book of poetry to confront our unique modern turbulence. Powell is a professor of writing and literature at Northern Vermont University Johnson and also edits The Green Mountains Review. Her new book of poems is: Atomizer.
Powell spoke to VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Maybe it's that I see everything these days through the lens of this pandemic, but so many of the poems in this collection seem related to or reflective of where we are now. I also sense that maybe this is a false assumption on my part, because even though it feels like we've been dealing with COVID-19 forever, it's been less than a year.
I'm curious: When did you write most of the poems that appear in this book?
Elizabeth Powell: That's a great question. I've been writing these poems over the past four years or so, and they definitely are influenced by our current political climate. So I'm glad you noticed that.
I couldn't help but notice that. Did you go back and rewrite some of these? I mean, I'm sure that's part of your writing process anyway. But did you say: 'OK, I wrote this particular poem maybe a year or more ago, but I want to add something to it now?'
Absolutely. Writing poetry is an art of collage and pastiche, I think. And, you know, I like what Carl Sandburg had to say about poetry: that poetry is a phantom script, telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. So when I'm writing a poem, I really think of it as sort of a phantom script that's helping me to understand what's happening around me and giving me directions on how to interpret it.
You inject a lot of humor into this volume as well, at least I found some of these poems funny or lines from them funny. I particularly like this line from the poem Chemistry.com—He's a Match. You write:
"You live in this little box spread across / the screen of pixellated desires."
That there is just such a beautiful encapsulation of dating in the modern age. Why did you include poems about the online world of dating in this volume?
I'm a big fan of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, and he has a book called In Praise of Love. He looks at how love and truth are constructed in our society. And he talks about how online dating lessens the likelihood of chance encounters. And he believes that love is saying yes at every turn. But with online love, you can constantly swipe if there's one little thing you don't like, so there are endless possibilities. There's never a commitment to the word yes, just yes to the next thing. So I was trying to enact some of those ideas and images in the poem itself.
You know, what's happening in our authoritarian world is also seeping into our love lives, our work lives. And I think it's important to look at it. I mean, there are good things about online dating. There are good things about Zoom. But they're also changing the way that we as humans, biologically, psychologically, spiritually connect with the world. I wanted to connect that to the experience of the senses like perfume. How would you smell a perfume online? You really couldn't. And writing is a lot like trying to photograph perfume. We're trying to document the invisible.
What's it been like teaching during this time for you and your students?
It's hard in that the poetry workshop really counts on people sitting around a table in a circle and being able not only to hear each other and the words we're using, but to catch the nuance of body language, because beginning writers and all writers really can be very sensitive about their work. So being able to understand all of the communication somebody is bringing you and bringing to the table is really important. That said, we've been having some good online sessions and it also helps students who are shy or have social anxiety to speak up more in online discussion threads, I've found.
My students struggle. It's not fun to be a young person in this society right now. All the things when we were young, Mitch, that we take for granted, we got to go out and see people and do things and be in the world. And now it's so much different. I don't exactly know how they feel, but I empathize with it deeply.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.