Elisabeth Workman is the author of the chapbooks a city_a cloud, Opolis, Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf (Dusie 2006, 2007, 2011) and Megaprairieland (Grey Book Press, 2010). She is the recipient of a 2009 Jerome/SASE Emerging Writer Fellowship, a 2010 McKnight Artist’s Fellowship in Poetry, and honors/grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Born and raised in the pharmaceutical suburbs of Philadelphia, she’s since lived in Boston, the Netherlands, on/around the Standing Rock Reservation of the Dakotas, and most recently, in the Middle East. A member of the Flarf Collective, she lives in Minneapolis with the designer Erik Brandt and their daughter Beatrix.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When I was living in the relative remoteness of Doha, Qatar, I had submitted some work to the journal Dusie (in Switzerland), and was, in response, invited by editor Susana Gardner to be a part of the first Dusie Kollectiv—which turned into a dynamic international community of poets creating, producing, and distributing their own chapbooks to each other on an annual basis AND a vital alternative to rote, dubious publishing paths. Having lived in a sequence of fairly isolated places (South Dakota; Happy Valley, Pennsylvania; and, then a little peninsula off of Saudi Arabia) and having somewhat willfully detached from any kind of academic poetry scene, being part of the Kollectiv was a way of becoming part of an alternative community that was previously unforeseen, as if Susana Gardner suddenly flipped the switch on a secret, impossible power grid. And maybe in my case I was Amish and had little exposure to electricity before. Likewise, the invitation presented the formal opportunity (and deadline) to collaborate with two of the most talented artists I know—visual artist and designer . The chap—a city_a cloud—ended up being a sort of anti-chap as conceived by Erik, a fold-out map-like grid comprised of Barb’s collages and 26 text fragments/collages of mine. I still thrive on collaboration. Content-wise, my current work is somewhat different: less melancholy, more surly, less oblique, more wired, less spare, more spastic, more “bad,” more WTF.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first “collection” of poems was called “Poetry for All Ages”; I wrote it when I was eight. I remember the blue folder with the title scrawled in purple marker, but not much about the poems themselves, other than that some of them were vaguely ripping off/riffing on those sailing-weather mnemonics (“Red skies at night/sailor’s delight”). Regardless it does seem to suggest that from a fairly early age poetry was part of my M-O, along with my love for the high seas. And marauding.
Also, it was a nightly ritual that my mother would read to my sister and me, from in utero until we could read to her. I remember resting my head on her lap or her shoulders as she read and hearing the language in her body, feeling its vibrations and resonance. Language was physical, alive, gurgling, kinetic. Maybe poetry over fiction or non-fiction because its privileging of rhythm and texture over transparent meaning more fully vivifies language (or my original experience with it).
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
This varies, but generally I like to have several projects going at once (as the bedside pile of books--some a lot dustier than others--in the process of being read is symptom). Since my process is generally heavily collage-based, I like to have a variety of material on-hand before starting. With the interwebs, access to material is greatly increased and accelerated, though so also is the potential to get lost or distracted or to slip into various rabbit holes (which can end up being poems all their own). Generally, drafts look close to their final shape and edits are mostly homophonic, but there are exceptions, like a poem I finally finished that took me almost a year to get to its final form; only a few lines from the original draft remain.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I love restrictions, or really “the liberation in stricture,” so it’s my ideal to be working within a project of set parameters—formal (I just mistyped “feral”--which is probably more accurate) or thematic. E.g. Opolis was an abecedarium with very specific rules, while Megaprairieland grew out of a small three part poem, partly out of a desire to further explore the passive aggressive Super Target supper club depravity and simultaneous anarchic longing and beauty of living in the Midwest and to find poem homes for these episode titles I came across from the Japanese anime series based on the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, called “Laura, The Prairie Girl.”
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Though I don’t do them terribly frequently, I enjoy doing readings, especially for boisterous, slightly drunk audiences.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?
When I was studying with Cecil Giscombe, he asked me one day, “What is your elevator speech for your manuscript, Ms. Workman?”and I (after a pause) replied, “Fuck you, Descartes,” which Cecil, understandably, found insufficient. (He was the first mentor I had who encouraged the theoretical and even more importantly--the articulation of a poetics.) What I was trying to get at, then, and what I still think I am actively working against now are the reductive forces that pigeon-hole people and thought and realities into limiting bipolarities (mind vs. body, red state vs. blue state, good vs. evil, us vs. them), and working against these forces by plugging into the generative capacities of binaries through juxtaposition, parataxis, multiplied perspective, mutation, collision, and invention as a means of blowing up reductions.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There are so many different kinds of writers that we could probably form our own ecosystem. Lots of roles, and narcissism for all.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In 2009, thanks to the Jerome Foundation, I had the opportunity to work with the redoubtable poet Sharon Mesmer--an experience inspiring awe, rabid verse, and slight head trauma. Though she was more mentor than editor, her perfect pitch and uncanny ear would put a lot of editor-editors to shame and so should be noted.
As for an editor of a press, Scott Sweeney at Grey Book Press was fantastic--a careful reader with great suggestions for the ultimate sequence and grooming of a weird and gangly manuscript.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In the Advice as Advice category: “Wait.” (The giver of this piece of advice actually wrote it on a Post-It note for me, so I would remember. I still have it, pressed to the inside cover of Satan Says.)
In the Literature as Advice category: “If you think of something, do it.” (from Lydia Davis’s “Extracts from a Life.”)
In the Advice as Literature category: “Don’t burn your bridges, bomb them.” (courtesy: my spouse)
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m a mother of an eleven-month-old. Everything is hand-to-mouth.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Depends on what’s called for. Included in the first-aid kit:
being with my two great loves, Erik & Beatrix, then, in no particular order:
movement (yoga, walking, booty shaking)
looking at art
The Old Testament
Lydia Davis’s shorter stories
Alice Notley’s owls
John Ashbery’s gnomes
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lilacs in the cul de sac. That sounds like a suburban perfume. Speaking of which, I have a memory of a bottle of cologne in my father’s medicine cabinet that I’m not sure ever existed or if I’ve fabricated it, but I’m 99% certain that he had a cologne called “Gravel” that had actual tiny rocks in the bottom of the bottle--such a perfect name for a cologne of the suburbs. Okay, I just googled it, and it really existed. The follow-up scent should be “Macadam.” Also, this is nasty, but true--that very distinct meat packing plant odor that emanated from Hatfield Meats, “Home of the Smiling Porker” (I’m not making that up), next door, into my clammy middle school cafeteria. The confluence of puberty and slaughter and chicken nuggets.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art (especially right now: Farhad Moshiri, Barbara Kreuger, Jenny Holzer); music (anything that doesn’t suck, and of course live is usually best); performance art; art as social intervention; history; typography; dance (particularly contact improvisation); science, technology, and society studies (a la Ivan Illich); astronomy; satire in all forms; YouTube memes, email memes (via my mother), and others, like the “Haters Gonna Hate” panda.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This could be a very long list. In addition to those works already mentioned, I always have at least one of the Poems for the Millenium anthologies off the shelf and my copy of The Politics of Poetic Form (ed. Charles Bernstein) has traveled everywhere with me since I came across it (belatedly) in 2000. I am continually humbled and inspired by the work of many contemporary poets, including this partial list: Stan Apps, Ann Boyer, Brandon Brown, Maurice Burford, Shanna Compton, Maria Damon, Kevin Davies, Jordan Davis, Katie Degentesh, Nick Demske, Brandon Downing, Chris Funkhouser, Ben Friedlander, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Lacey Hunter, Jennifer Knox, Rodney Koeneke, Michael Magee, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, Mel Nichols, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Jess Rowan, Sandra Simonds, Rod Smith, Gary Sullivan, Edwin Torres, Alli Warren.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Open for a show at First Ave.
Run a collaborative press called Yeti Research Center.
Live in a yurt (with a wireless signal).
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would definitely not be a skyscraper window washer.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I spent most of my adolescence training to be a professional dancer (ballet, but something about the way I say it always has people hearing “belly” dancing--a far cooler, and much more sustainable enterprise). Anyway, even though I always wrote, it was not my creative ambition as a youth. So, in a pubescent way, writing IS my something else.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov & Miranda July’s The Future. Common motif: talking cats.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A series of poems “translating” coded office talk
A serial poem,“Small Suitcase Society”
A collaboration with Erik Brandt (always)
Finishing this interview so I can go read some more chapbooks submitted to Grey Book Press’s second annual chapbook competition.