Welcome to the one hundred and fifty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with poet Elizabeth Harrington. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello Elizabeth. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Elizabeth: I grew up in Oklahoma, where there’s lots of open space and room to daydream. When I was about 8, I tried my hand at short stories, mimicking O’Henry’s surprise endings which, in my stories, weren’t surprising. My dad was my first editor.
Morgen: 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Elizabeth: I write poetry and that’s it. In a creative writing workshop I once attended, I tried writing a story about family – using my own family and a trip home for Christmas as the setting. My teacher said, “It’s not really a story. It doesn’t have a plot and it doesn’t really end.” I said, “but it doesn’t end. That’s the problem.” Based on that feedback and my earlier O’Henry stories which made me cringe, I decided I should stick with poetry.
Morgen: Oh dear… but then it’s good to have a focus. I don’t. I write about anything and everything – not conducive to getting an agent. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Elizabeth: My first chapbook, “Earth’s Milk” (2007) was published by Main Street Rag, after being awarded first-runner up in the publisher’s chapbook competition. I remember the thrill of seeing “Earth’s Milk” on the shelf in Poet’s House. My second chapbook, “The Quick and the Dead,” (2010) was published by Grayson Book, having taken first prize in their chapbook competition.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Elizabeth: A while back, I started a website and over time it naturally became established as my “poet” brand. After that, I created an official “eharringtonwrites” logo, which is displayed on my website, my twitter page, and my poetry blog.
Morgen: Apart from the award mentioned above, have you been placed in any other competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Elizabeth: For individual poems, I’ve been a winner of the Alan Ginsberg Poetry Award a couple of times, second prize awarded the The Ledge, and various other competitions. I think winning or being recognized in any way may get readers to pay attention to your work, but the work itself has to stand on its own.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Elizabeth: No, I use my own name. I don’t think it makes much of a difference to the reader. But I feel I should be able to own up to my poetry. If there’s a topic that’s hard or embarrassing to write about, it just makes it that more challenging to write it in a way that turns it into art.
Morgen: I have three poets in my writing group and listening to them it definitely is that. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Elizabeth: No. I don’t think agents in poetry would make much money!
Morgen: <laughs> I think you’re right, sadly. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Elizabeth: No. I have read a handful of eBooks, in most cases to learn more about a specific business topic or marketing tool.
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Elizabeth: My first acceptance was for a newspaper that published poetry. As far as I know it’s no longer in print. I was thrilled at the idea of being accepted, and I continue to get excited whenever one of my poems is published.
Morgen: 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Elizabeth: Of course! In the beginning, I was devastated by them. Now, I take it more in stride. Sometimes it makes me examine the work to see if it needs improvement. Sometimes it does.
Morgen: It’s very easy to be gutted but it’s great if they point out why it’s rejected and I agree, it is focusing. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Elizabeth: I’m currently working on a new chapbook about unemployment, and the job search.
Morgen: I’ve been made redundant twice, I can relate to that. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Elizabeth: I don’t write every day. My style is to write intensely over a number of days, starting more than one poem, then craft them over time.
Morgen: What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Elizabeth: I think everyone has suffered from writer’s block at one time or another. The best cure, I think, is to be disciplined and try to write, even if it’s just free association. Also, to be kind to yourself, and realize you may have to wait for your mind to stir. Stephen King has said that you need to pick a time and place to write and be there, so the muse knows where to find you. Over the years, I’ve learned that it always does; that helps.
Morgen: A question some authors dread, but I think this is especially relevant for poetry, where do you get your inspiration from?
Elizabeth: Everywhere. Reading others’ poems, poetry readings, movies, dreams, the newspaper, the backs of cereal boxes, to name a few.
Morgen: Ah, those well-mentioned cereal boxes… ooh, maybe you could contact them and see if they’ll print some of your poetry. 🙂 This probably isn’t relevant but do you plot at all or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Elizabeth: There are no “plots” for poetry, of course, but if the question is whether I know what a poem is going to be about before I start, the answer is hopefully no. The more surprising the poem is to me, the more surprising it will be to the reader, too.
Morgen: Absolutely; if you’re bored, the reader will be too. Do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Elizabeth: I mostly write free verse, although I’ve tried writing in form as well (sonnets and haikus mostly, with a few sestinas as well). I think writing in form is a good discipline, reminding you of the “music” and inherent structure of poetry, whether in form or not. I think poetry is poorly paid because its value is seen as elusive. Poets aren’t household names, and the word of mouth that propels sales of novels and movies is not there to help “market” it. If you don’t go to readings and aren’t familiar with a poet’s work, how do you decide what to buy?
Morgen: Absolutely, although I guess this is where anthologies work well. If you like a particular poem in it you’ll, hopefully, go and buy their poetry. I think the way the British public is reminded of poetry is when a new Poet Laureate is announced, and our latest, Carol Ann Duffy (who I saw last year at a Lit Fest I volunteered at) was the first female so that made the headlines. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Elizabeth: As mentioned, I have a poetry blog. I’m a market researcher by profession, and maintain a blog about qualitative research. I’ve also written articles for Suite101.com, Examiner, and a poetry book review published in The Vineyard Gazette.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Elizabeth: My father was my first reader. A geologist, at one point in his youth, he had gone to New York City to become a writer. He encouraged me in my writing, editing my work and guiding me along the way.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Elizabeth: If anything, I think I edit more now than I did in the beginning. Of course, it depends on the poem. Some need much more work than others.
Morgen: Sure. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Elizabeth: As a rule, I don’t do research for a poem, but sometimes I check facts after I’m done. I often look up words and their origins as a kind of language research and refresher, though.
Morgen: What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Elizabeth: It’s best if I start turning over something in my mind before sitting down to write. Sometimes I have an opening line that gets the ball rolling. If I come to the page “cold,” I usually read poetry as a warm-up, a way to spark ideas or feelings.
Morgen: One of my aforementioned poets (who’s currently in my spare room!) often starts with the last line and works backwards. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Elizabeth: I never compose poems on the computer, but I often do significant revisions on a poem I’ve started it on paper. Then it goes back and forth between the page and the computer.
Morgen: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Elizabeth: It depends. Sometimes I need absolute quiet to write, and others, I need some type of background noise, like the surround of people in a coffee shop. I use music sometimes to get me started, but it has to be instrumental music – jazz or classical. Singing distracts me.
Morgen: Me too, it has to be classical. Again, I’m not sure how relevant this is to poetry but do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Elizabeth: I used to try putting some type of quote as prologue, but it never seems to work well for me. It generally ends up being a distraction from the poem, rather than shedding light on it, or giving it another perspective.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Elizabeth: No. Everything I write seems to eventually turn up somewhere – either on its own, or part of a larger piece!
Morgen: Wow, that’s great. 🙂 I’m in the process of going through my writing to build some eBook collections and it’s interesting to see what’s good (thankfully quite a lot) and what’s not (probably too many in the early days). What’s your favourite aspect of your writing life?
Elizabeth: I love the “zone” I get into when I’m really involved in writing poetry. It’s a kind of animated suspension in which I feel completely alert – the state of consciousness that is associated with meditation. For me, writing is meditation.
Morgen: Isn’t it great – that’s my favourite too. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Elizabeth: The wonderful power it has to take you to another realm of consciousness. Sometimes it surprises me how it can make pressing problems in my life seem blessedly far away, if only for awhile!
Morgen: 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Elizabeth: “Read, write, rewrite.” I think that’s the maxim I’ve heard. And it’s so true! I would add, “don’t give up.” Sometimes rejections can be discouraging, but all writers get them and they can be an impetus to improve your writing.
Morgen: They can, but I always think that if you want to write you’ll just do it and not stop… that’s me anyway. What do you like to read?
Elizabeth: I have many poets whose work I admire, including Elizabeth Bishop, Stephen Dunn, Emily Dickinson, Louise Gluck, Marie Howe, for starters. I’m also a big fan of Mary Stewart Hammond’s poetry and teaching. I have been attending her “master’s poetry class” workshop for years.
Morgen: I’ve often said that I don’t “get” poetry so maybe I should come to one. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing?
Elizabeth: My day job, qualitative research, takes up much of my time, but I also love long walks in the Rockefeller Preserve near where I live. And in keeping with the stereotype of poets, I have a cat – a black cat, no less. She’s not only a source of entertainment but has been known to walk, literally and figuratively, through more than one of my poems.
Morgen: I didn’t know that of poets, one of my three has one but I think she inherited it. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Elizabeth: I have included a comprehensive list of such sites on my blog, along with what each resource provides. In addition, I would recommend the book, “Sound and Sense,” for those looking for a serious study of poetry—its forms and elements, and how to read and appreciate it.
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Elizabeth: The U.S. I can’t really say how being a poet here is different from being a poet elsewhere, but there are many great ways to learn about and promote one’s poetry in the U.S., such as Poetry Society of America, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and Poet’s House, to name a few.
Morgen: Ooh great. 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Elizabeth: Yes, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I think they’re extremely valuable as a way of connecting with other poets and writers, and discussing common issues around writing and publishing.
Morgen: They are, I’m on all three. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Elizabeth: There will always be a place for poetry. No matter what is happening in the world, poetry is a needed respite, grace, a resting place. William Carlos Williams’ words are as true today as when he first uttered them: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Morgen: Is there a question you’d like to ask me?
Elizabeth: Not a question, really. A “thank you” for helping poets and writers have a place to say what they’re about, and to showcase their work.
Morgen: You’re so welcome. Thank you for saying “yes”. I’m really enjoying these interviews and to be honest I originally worded the ‘blog interviews’ page as ‘over the next few weeks I shall be bringing you…’ as I thought I’d get a trickle of interest but it’s gone way beyond anything I expected that I’m more than happy to keep doing it as long as I have writers wanting to be involved… or until I interview every writer there is! 🙂
I then invited Elizabeth to include an extract of her writing and she kindly provided the following two poems: ‘Fitzgerald’s Funeral Home’ from “Earth’s Milk” (2007), published in The Hudson Review and ‘Pain’ from “The Quick and the Dead” (2010), published in Field.
Fitzgerald’s Funeral Home
Yes, yes, he was dead but who could deny the fun,
the sheer joy;
the way we kept opening the door,
letting the July heat follow us into the cool
fake living room;
the way I slid the poem into his left breast pocket
and then folded my arms
in the kitchen and told the others about it
until everyone wanted to add something:
Lise’s bedside journal during his last days,
Will’s rock collection,
Alison’s poem “Fall Feelings” –
wooden frame and all,
Gracie’s paper creation
that had swirled and caught the light
in his window till the end;
the way the funeral director
came running in, his face
a cold plate and rubbed his unctuous
hands saying stop stop
there will be no more room
for the body; the way we just kept
remembering what we wanted
to send him off with, as when you
run out to the car of someone
who’s pulling out of the driveway
and you mouth wait
wait you forgot this or the way
you lean over the sun-baked
car and motion to roll the window
down once more for just one last hug
as if you were squeezing the last
and forever air between you.
The surgeon has done all he can and the beautiful
people on the wall-mounted T.V.
smile down on me.
When the pain returns, it is slow, insidious. Intimate, even.
It wants me.
It wants my skin.
It wants my breath.
It enters the red silk lining that runs the length of my torso
and closes its fist.
The nurse covers me in snow
and checks my pulse.
Elizabeth Harrington’s poems have appeared in The Hudson Review, Field, Connecticut Review, Nimrod, The Sun, Rattapallax, and other journals, as well as in an anthology about divorce (“Split Verse: Poems to Heal Your Heart“. She was a winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and second place winner in The Ledge Poetry Contest. Her chapbook, Earth’s Milk, (2007) was first runner-up in the Main Street Rag Chapbook Poetry contest. Another chapbook, The Quick and the Dead, took first prize in the 2010 Grayson Books competition, and was published by them in July of this year. Harrington, who grew up in Oklahoma, lives in Tarrytown, New York. She has a Ph.D. in Psychology and recently started Harrington Research Associates, a market research consulting company.
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