Ellen Doré Watson Interview
The Yearnings You List
Amy Wright: Dogged Hearts is riddled with fascinating characters like Angry Ivy and Captain Left Brain, Speedboat and Chaz. Can you describe your process for populating poems?
Ellen Doré Watson: It’s not process that I remember about how these characters got made, at least in the first couple stages; it was a wild excitement leaping like flames. But, to back up: almost all my published work to date had been firmly based in autobiography. After the last collection, This Sharpening, which focuses relentlessly on the dissolution of my marriage and my mother’s illness, I was hungry to veer away from my own life. I wasn’t sure where the urgency would come from—or the characters—so I began by turning my own experience upside down, creating a very different breakup story. Writing a handful of the Baker & Tess poems made me eager to branch out, so I left those two behind for a while and set myself the task of writing a series of poems, each in the voice of a different created character. The complete openness of this assignment was exhilarating. As was my usual practice, I sparked poems with prompts pulled from other people’s poems, but in this case without any nagging interior image or issue that I was setting out to approach by a side door. Flying blind, free to follow any glimpse or whiff that presented itself was fantastic.
AW: I like your character Tess, who wants “a weeded house, / an ocean a month, time with [her] spice grinder...one flower—wild—worthy of a vase.” Until her, the only Tess I knew was my roommate in college who left voice messages that lasted so long I thought she was having a conversation. Years later, I realized I had begun to leave monologist messages as well. Have any of your characters contributed mannerisms to you, or, on the other side, helped you break habits?
EDW: Ah, Tess. When I turn back to that sequence, I see that unlike most of the other characters she has a lot of me in her, including the yearnings you list. I think I positioned her as the actor instead of the reactor not only to differentiate her story from my own, but because it had taken me so by surprise to be cast in the opposite role. What does it take to be the one to simply “step out of the boat”? An awakening to selfishness, can this be the first step towards growth? As a kind of extension of the theory that we’re all the characters in our dreams, are we also the characters we create? Maybe. But there’s a kind of openness in ‘creation’ that can affect both who we mean to be and how we understand the other—and both explorations seem to me to be essential.
AW: In “He Watches Them,” the speaker, watching a tussle of birds, confesses to thinking only of himself when he reads, “Nests are tragedy waiting to happen.” A poet watches like a hawk for opportunities to swoop into image, experience, or observation, and seize its language. Or perhaps the process is more invitational: the poet waits like a frog for a morsel to fly within reach of its tongue. Either way, the action is undeniable that you call in another poem—“option three: to frame.” Whose writing has most instructed you on frame-building, and how so?
EDW: That’s a hard one! But, yes, I think all art-making is about framing—freeze-framing, to allow for an intimate, layered gaze, which then gives us the insight to contextualize and acknowledge perspective, to step back far enough to see a real thing as a metaphor, and a metaphor as tangible and real. A fundamental part of craft in any art is cropping—deciding how far to zoom in or out, what’s extraneous vs. what’s crucial to a particular moment being explored in a particular way. And everywhere I look, I see my instructors in this.
AW: Will you give an example of one or several?
EDW: Well, Carl Phillips makes bold use of the scalpel, carving down to essentials—and pairs this with extravagant use of syntax to establish voice, attitude, thrust. (In an essay he talks about “the erotics of syntax”—Yes!) And Adrienne Rich’s “Frame” comes immediately to mind. It’s brilliant not only in its framing (in every sense of the word), but also in its strategy, leading the attentive reader to discoveries that are revelatory and disturbing, and which break down the frames and barriers that divide the poet from history. (By the way, this is a terrific poem to teach!) I also think of Robert Hass’s Sun Under Wood, the surprising distances between the poems’ starting and finishing points, and the framework of “Faint Music,” the way its last line echoes and underlines the path of the piece: “First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.
AW: In “Night Mirror” the speaker combs the current of observation back to reveal the “gorgeous forgery of self-love.” It’s an eye-catching phrase that makes the subtle observation in the poem that love is counterfeited by time—that is, the promise of the mirror image to “give herself back.” Can you speak to ways poetry allows you to preserve glimpses of the ever-changing reflections?
EDW: Ha! I love your phrase about combing the current of observation back (brings to mind a kind of comb-over!). In any case, I think sometimes we need to attend to what’s “powering down,” not what’s heating up. As to your question about the ever-changing reflections poetry allows us, I think of the shifting light in a series of landscape paintings, say—surely as hard to capture and as subtly intriguing. And I think of how during revision we turn the thing side to side under all kinds of light and dark, hoping to discover an angle that reveals a facet we didn’t know we needed to see or say.
AW: What’s the prettiest myth you ever bought?
EDW: The myth of the one-and-only. Whether of the happily-every-after variety, or those of one country, one life’s work, one religion. So beautiful, so tempting—to value the righteousness of persistence over the acceptance of difference and change. But aware or unaware, in small increments or by tectonic thundering, we are shifting and evolving, in positive and negative ways. So. Against my nature and upbringing, I’m trying to apply my considerable doggedness to perceiving these processes rather than to denying them. (And I find there’s often not just relief, but pleasure in this.)
AW: I love your phrase “just a crib full of books” because it alludes to the baby in our language that develops and burps, bobbles and cries out. Where there any noticeable parental twinges over the years as you watched your poetry grow up?
EDW: You’re really great at taking a phrase of mine and extending it beyond my intentions in wonderful ways. So corporeal and so right, the idea of our language bobbling and toddling about as we develop the muscle control to try new things. It’s crazy-making to watch a child learn to walk when the world’s furniture is full of sharp corners. The metaphor falls apart here, but in large part my own insecurity derived from the assumption that to be a true artist I would have to develop one sure gait, completely mine, or at least move through stylistic phases, as Picasso did. That that’s what maturity is. Untrue! Gerhard Richter is my hero! Consistency now strikes me as a potentially useful choice, especially when applied locally and judiciously, but a very poor overall yardstick. And maybe we’re always striving to mature, but I’m not at all sure that deciding we’ve grown up would be anything but deadening to our work; redefining the challenges keeps things fresh and surprising.
Describing this, I’m slapped by a massive wave of nostalgia, because at the moment I’m working on a sequence based on historical material, which feels like I’m living inside a small, fascinating box, desperate to find—create?—some fresh air in there.
AW: There’s a bit of what Wallace Stevens calls “la nonchalance divine” in your work. Tell me where you find such soft starch for your pinafores, or how you see levity functioning in poetry.
EDW: Hmmm, lets’ see…maybe I wake from emotional bedlam with a can of spray-starch in my hand—an unconscious survival strategy? Seriously, though, I think levity is as elemental to human experience as grief. It’s very American to assume darkness and light to be separate realms, as reflected in most Hollywood movies, where one or the other is magnified to the point that the result is black and white in Technicolor: broad, shallow comedy or a riot of fear and violence, neither of which bears much resemblance to life as we know it. And life as we know it requires humor—and not simply as a cordoned-off moment of relief. Which is why I love Almodóvar, for example, whose films satisfy so deeply precisely because they reflect the very short distance between tears and laughter.
AW: You have translated Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, whose work you introduce by her belief in metaphor as the “guardian of reality.” How do you believe or disbelieve in metaphor?
EDW: What could be more concrete? Metaphor is not only where we live and how we feel, but also how we enter the experience of the other—which might just be the most crucial part of being human.
AW: You liken the process of translation to acting or performing a text into the author’s idiom. How would you characterize the role of a poet who teaches poetry?
EDW: I think the poet-teacher’s job (as in translation) is to resist every temptation to “direct” the performance/text, twisting it in the direction she most values, and instead to discern its intrinsic intentions, and (unlike translation) to identify its possible pivot points/opportunities. But it is equally important for her to inspire students to read constantly, widely, deeply—both in and away from their comfort zones.
AW: Clearly a poet describing the cheek bones of china and oranges “brittled into ice” is sipping the “birth-juice of bedrock.” Whence and with what Grenadine were you first enamored with words?
EDW: Whence the Grenadine would be a fabulous title, no? My family essentially valued the values expressed by words, not the words themselves, but I was always alert to words—sung, written, muttered. Then I discovered that leaving apologetic notes with just the right tone and a bit of humor often caused the parental firing squad to set down their rifles! What power! Meanwhile, I had teachers who reverently offered up Donne, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Woolf, Stevens. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s, though, long after my MFA and years into translating novels, that I came to see writing as imperative. And it was probably not until 15 years ago that I realized that for me, whether or not I was ever published again, serious play with words was not just sustenance, but joy.