Elizabeth Cantwell Publishes New Book of Poems

How does your practice as a poet influence and enrich your classroom teaching at Webb?
I’d say it’s actually the other way around! When I teach, I tend to dive deeply into the subjects, concepts, and moments I’m conveying to my classes, so often those temporary obsessions will spin off into a poem. For example, there’s a poem in All the Emergency-Type Structures“Something Not Empty”—that I literally wrote after a student presentation pushed me to research a topic further, and there’s another poem heavily influenced by a specific sequence in Hitchcock’s The Birds, which I was also teaching at the time. Teaching pushes me to think about things through new lenses, and to hear voices I wouldn’t otherwise hear, which has definitely made me a better poet. As far as whether or not my writing affects my teaching style—I suppose I am interested in forcing the students to slow down and unpack small moments in texts, films, discussions, or essays—to essentially write their own thought-poems about the things we read and think about—but I don’t know that my approach there is all that different from many other Humanities teachers’ approaches!
What has been the reaction to your new book by the reading public, and by students and faculty on campus?
The faculty here have been very supportive. It’s been great to see faculty at my readings, and to hear about specific poems they’ve liked or that have made them think. I don’t know if any students have read my book yet, but they probably wouldn’t tell me even if they did! Those are healthy boundaries, right? As far as the “reading public,” I’m not sure who the poetry reading public is, always, but it has been really great to chat with some people at readings who have read the book and found that the voice speaks to them in some way.
This is a gorgeous book on a number of levels. First, the physical book is a thing of beauty. Can you describe the process of working with Inlandia Books?
Inlandia Institute is a small press that also happens to be local—they’re located in Riverside—so it was invaluable to be able to not only communicate with the editor (Cati Porter) and designer (Kenji Liu) over email, but also to sit down with the editor in person and talk to her about the book. Kenji was a fantastic designer to work with, as he is also a poet, and could think about the work on a form and content level as well as a design level. He knew right away that he wanted to do a wider than usual book to accommodate some of my long lines, which I loved, and he also was really thoughtful about laying out the different sections of the book. We did go back and forth on the cover a bit—his first version was hot pink, which I just didn’t see for this book—but he was really flexible and willing to accommodate my vision along with his expertise. And, on a non-design level, Cati was also a great editor to work with, giving me a lot of freedom to edit the manuscript after it was accepted, even to the point of pulling certain poems out and inserting new ones.
Many of the poems are personal yet still interested in the philosophical, political, what is universal. Do you have a few favorites poems in the collection?
Oooh, that’s hard. Yes, I do think I try to combine a personal, almost confessional, lyrical voice with a more abstract and omniscient register … if we’re talking about that aspect of my poetry, I really like “Housewarming.” I feel like I was able to pull off a poem that starts quite solipsistically but slowly zooms outwards to encompass something more global. And I also love reading that poem out loud just because of the work I put into the auditory resonances in that piece. Whenever I do readings, though, the poem everyone universally says they loved is “Another Inexpensive Solution With a Big Payoff,” which leans hard into a sarcastically humorous register for the majority of the poem before taking a hard turn towards the end.
Can you describe the processing of putting this collection together?
Because of how long it takes to get a collection of poems published, most of this book was written in 2016/2017; I was pregnant with my second son and kept repeating “second book before second baby” to myself as a sort of motivational mantra. That’s sort of tongue in cheek, but I did know my time was limited and would be even more limited after my second child was born, and so I pushed myself to solidify the still-nascent manuscript during my pregnancy. It’s also hard to find time to write while working at a boarding school, so I particularly remember staying in a hotel in Atlanta (where my husband was working) over Spring Break in 2017 and just writing and editing as much as I could nonstop, with brief breaks to eat cookies and go for humid walks. I was thinking a lot about climate change, anxiety, capitalism, the strangely comforting trap of suburban domestic life, and the resilience of the natural world, which I think comes through in the book itself.
This is your second full-length collection; how is different from your first book?
My first book came out of my work in graduate school, and while I was confident in my work and stand behind it, I was still figuring out who I was as a poet and how I could employ my voice on the page. This book, to me, feels a little more mature in its themes and obsessions, although I’m sure I still have a ways to go as a writer!
Can you describe your writing process? What about it remains relatively consistent and what changes?
I’m not one of those writers who writes consistently every day on a tight schedule. I tend to write a whole lot in short bursts and then do nothing for a long period of time, and while I used to beat myself up over this, thinking it made me a less valid poet, I’ve now embraced this rhythm. I think, as a side effect, taking time away from whatever I’m writing allows me to have the distance necessary from a poem to really see it objectively. Between parenting two young children and teaching, it’s usually necessary for me to prioritize things in my life other than writing for periods of time. But my brain always tells me when the words are the thing that need to be prioritized, and then I’m good about carving out the time to sit down and write through whatever it is I’ve been unconsciously processing as I walked around Vons looking for applesauce and trash bags. I write fast, without thinking too much, and then edit carefully and slowly, kind of like diving into the ocean without thinking and then having to doggy-paddle your way towards the shore.
What have you been reading lately? Are there three or four contemporary poets you would enthusiastically recommend?
Contemporary poetry is actually full of really incredible people working on the page in all different kinds of ways—it’s a vibrant scene, and there are so many strong voices right now. I recently read The Tradition by Jericho Brown, which was just nominated for a National Book Award, and was really blown away by what Brown was doing in that book; I also loved Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem and, a little less recently, Tracy K. Smith’s Life On Mars, which is still one of the contemporary books of poetry I recommend most frequently. I heard Ada Limón read last year, and she’s so dynamic; there are honestly so many contemporary poets whose voices are both urgent and carefully crafted. It’s a subjective medium, so everyone’s going to find someone different whose voice really resonates with them, but there’s really a poet for every taste out there right now.

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