Interview: Elisabeth Blair; Poet, Multidisciplinary Creative, & Manuscript Consultant

Describe your early years and your first connections with writing.

Elisabeth Blair; Poet, Multidisciplinary Creative, & Manuscript Consultant

As a small child, I loved to put together what I thought of as “grown-up” writing, like making homemade newspapers with interviews and hand-drawn comics, or stapling together books complete with title pages, blurbs from famous publishers, and illustrations. At that time everything I wrote was fiction.

At age 13, I encountered Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “A Lovely Love” while thumbing through books at the library. It served as a strong awakening out of childish literary sensibilities and into the whish and whoosh of complex, forbidden feelings and sophisticated sonic textures. Around this time I also began to immerse myself in the strange, pointed, and often feminist lyrics of singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, Jill Sobule, and Liz Phair. I soon also discovered the poetry of e. e. cummings. Each of these artists embodied freedoms—of form, sound, story, abstraction—which I reveled in. When in my mid-teens I found myself living through several traumatic years, writing poetry became my primary method of self-soothing and of processing the world. I’m nearly 40 now and this is still the case.

Describe your work, intention, and successes as a poet.

For years, my writing was very strange, as I struggled to translate my inner network of tangents, imagery, and emotions into something understandable without sacrificing that essential peculiarity. My first chapbook We He She/It (Dancing Girl Press)—a set of angry, improvised prose-poems—was my first success in that struggle.

Then I wrote a memoir in poetry, because God loves the wasp (Unsolicited Press, forthcoming in 2022), about my teen years. With that project, my approach expanded. I had often employed an automatic style of writing that stemmed from raw emotion. This time, however, I made an outline and followed a rigorous step-by-step writing and revision process. I used the same approach for my second poetry chapbook, without saying (Ethel Press, forthcoming in October 2020), an homage to a close friend who survived domestic violence. These newer book projects are approachable to a general reader, yet I think still include enough elements of that subconscious world to achieve a satisfying but curious character.

Right now I’m working on several book projects — among them, more sets of homage poems; a fictional novel in poetry form that reckons with femicide, war, and global warming; and a fun book I’m co-creating with my friend Peter Tunstall on experiences we’ve documented while in hypnagogic or hypnopompic states, the states in between waking and sleeping.

Ah, and a sci-fi novel!

What do you look for and appreciate in a piece of writing?

I love intricate, story-based poetry that embeds itself in both fiction and reality, and that uses historical documents and non-autobiographical forms, like the persona poem or the found poem. Three examples would be Olio by Tyehimba Jess, Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove, and Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis.

I love poetry that rages against violence and oppression, such as the lived realities of racism and sexism. Magical Negro by Morgan Parker is a stunning example, as is Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.

I’m a bit heart-on-sleeve, and I love wild passion, like the exquisitely controlled emotional wilderness of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry or the riveting, destructive ecstasies of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart.

I love imagery. So many poets employ this technique so expertly that it’s hard to name favorites, but T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was my introduction to the intoxicating yet subtle power of image-as-metaphor.

I love poems that employ rhyme and near-rhyme, albeit conservatively. Too much rhyming or assonance can be distracting, but a poem lightly dappled with it will delight me.

True to my early aesthetics, I still enjoy enigmatic writing. But more and more, I find myself preoccupied with how, for example, the diffuse power of a strange poem by Gertrude Stein compares to the focused emotive power of a car commercial. I look for creative work that wrests that power away from advertisers, pop, and kitsch, and marries it to poetics and subtlety to tell challenging, relevant stories.

What have been the highlights of your experience with BWW?

At many of my workshops, I give folks a “voluntary take-home challenge.” Whenever a participant brings in the product of such a challenge, I feel humbled, joyous, and honored. To help quietly provoke the birth of a new artwork is thrilling. The workshop participants’ writing is invariably inspired, profound, funny, moving…each voice so unique, with its own style, its own universe. It’s a privilege to get to know each of those universes.

What talents and skills do you offer as a poetry manuscript consultant?

I have a background in many different media—visual art (my BA is in photography), folk music, songwriting, performance, improvisation, classical music composition, podcast production, and poetry. This has honed in me a flexible, expansive sense of form, rhythm, and presentation, and has exposed me to a wide variety of influences, all of which I will draw on as I offer ideas to help you reach your goals.

I’ll also make certain your work showcases your voice and your intentions, not mine. My first step in reviewing your manuscript will be to interview you about what your creative work means to you and what you want it to accomplish. Everything I say and do afterward will live within that framework.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I want to write meaningful, inspiring, literary books which interrogate reality, society, and history and provide new pathways to empathy.

I want to help uplift others’ voices wherever I can.

Outside of literary life, my partner and I have a long-term plan to start a rescue farm for factory farm animals which would double as a self-sustaining artist residency and community. The happiest periods of my life have been when I’ve been lucky enough to live in an arts residency for several weeks at a time. I’d love to grow old in a similar environment—writing, forming multi-generational friendships and collaborations, and helping enable others to make their art and live their best lives.