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Interview with Eric Elshtain
Part of the PoetryCircle Showcase series.
  • Poetry Circle: Eric, who would you say are your primary poetic influences?  What outside of the world of poetry most influences your work--either how it is composed or the content?

    Eric Elshtain: I don't really distinguish between influences from poetry and from things "outside" of poetry.  In a way, it's all language to me.  So here's an incomplete olio:  Silver-Age (1960s & 70s) Marvel comic books for the idea of constraining utterance into little bubbles and boxes; 30s and 40s American Gangster movies for their patter; Shakespeare's sonnets and Bob Dylan for showing me how to listen; Herman Melville for writing about American democracy in the way that he did; Arthur Sze's sequence "Six Persimmons" for its psychedelic poetics; Christopher Dewdney's The Immaculate Perception for its ideas about language as a prosthesis of the mind; Alfred Jarry's pataphysics for providing the idea that poetry, among other things, provides solutions to imaginary problems; Christine Hume's poetry for its relentless sonics; scientific journals and books for their poetics; the blues for its form of poetry; the members of Oulipo for  proving that true poetic liberation comes from writing within constraints.

    List aside, there was a time that James Tate, Russell Edson, Miroslav Holub, Judith Herzberg and Sandra McPherson had a strangle-hold on my poetics.  I saw them as digging deeply into the ways one can poetically illustrate psychological and ethical dilemma--often with a dark kind of humor.  The end of Tate's "Goodtime Jesus" is an exemplar here:  "Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey.  Hell, I love everybody."  Then I came across Aime Cesaire, who exploded into my way of thinking about language.  From there, I have become very catholic in my reading, and try to not be too heavily influenced by one poet or another, though there are a few poets that I return to again and again to remind me what it is I want to be doing with words, including Rae Armantrout, Matthias Regan, Stefanie Marlis, Heather McHugh, René Daumal, Norman Dubie, Theodore Enslin, Stacy Doris, among others...   

    Poetry Circle: What do you find most challenging as you're composing a piece?

    Eric Elshtain: Recently, to find a way to say things poetically while making sure that there are a sufficient number of crevices so readers can get some kind of handle on the poem.  A long while ago, when I was getting my MFA in poetry, there was just a base assumption that poetry brought in to the workshops was somehow autobiographical.  This did at least two things.  It protected certain poets' poems--to their minds--from criticism ("But, this really happened!  I need to be true to the experience") and it also made readers of my work, which at that time consisted of odd, Russell Edson-like family dramas, to bring these assumptions to bear where they, in fact, had no place.  They kept insisting on easy explications--a thesis statement in the poem to yell to them what the experience/poem "meant."  They wanted the poem to be patient and psychologist at once--both symptom of and explanation of the behaviors illustrated in the verse, as if poetry were nothing but an extension of one's ego.  As I reacted more and more against this practice of writing and of reading, I fear that my poetry became a bit too fractured--too willing to forgo traditional ideas of "sense" to gain another form of integrity.  Now, I still don't put "self" into the poems, but I attempt to invite others into the poetry--to provide threads for them to follow--more than I have in the last few years.  To be clear, I never write poems that have a singular meaning in mind which I then purposefully obfuscate.  I've become so interested in other modes of acquiring and communicating "meaning" that my poetic experiments can be a hermetic in some ways.

    Poetry Circle: Your work might be said to ask a lot of the reader who comes at your work expecting to be delivered "content" in a more conventional manner. What are you expecting of the reader, and what do you hope the reader to come away from your work with?

    Eric Elshtain: Hopefully, a reader is not entirely bound by generic expectations (see above), whether those expectations are narratival, psychological, thesis-driven or what have you.  A reader, unconstrained by the typical orders of meaning, might be able to see another form of logic at work in a poem.  For example, a sonic logic--a way of thinking in the poem based upon sound rather than "sense."  The German Dada sound poets took this idea to its extreme (e.g. Hugo Ball's "Jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla" or Kurt Schwitters' mesmerizing Ur Sonata, which is available on ubuweb) but reigned in, this form of aural thinking is another useful tool.  Rhyme--say, the traditional end-rhymes of a sonnet--are never just there for dressing's sake.  Rhyme means just as much as the content of a poem.  Taken more broadly, sonic elements can be brought to the fore and perhaps become the main arbiter of meaning in a poem, like a spell.  We all agree with the old saw that it's not just what's said but how it's said.  Readers, I hope, might recognize efforts to emphasize the how over the what.  I might also say that, personally, I like poems best when they challenge the mind to construe.

    I am consistently heartened by the fact that the fourth graders I teach poetry to in a poets in the schools program here in Chicago will title their poems such things as "Funny World," "Weird World," "World of Nonsense" &c.  They intuitively understand that poems are not necessarily successful only when the language of the poems instrumentally refer to the world outside.  The students delight in non-sense.  I delight in the idea that poems wear or bear the shape of this world--like sand wearing the shape of wind--but that poems are not this world, thanks be to God, but are other worlds containing other ways of thinking and being.  For me there is a psychedelic impulse in poetry (and I am not here referring to the music/ideals &c. of the American 60s) whereby, through language, the mind can be made to over-ride, if for but a moment, the typical pathways of knowing about and being in the world.

    In regards to convention--I wonder what it even means anymore to say "conventional manner" in terms of poetry.  Haven't we seen the idea of incoherence pass into the convention?  Hasn't the hegemony of free verse favored the disassociative and contingent nature of poetic language?  What of Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism, Vorticism, the Language Movement?  Aren't they all part of poetic convention?

    Poetry Circle: How has your work evolved since you started writing poetry?

    Eric Elshtain: I don't presume to think that my poetry has unfolded in any sense, that it has developed gradually from a natal state to a mature one.  My poetry has changed, that's all.  Mostly consciously.  There was a time I wrote one kind of poem--and I became quite proficient at it.  I would come up with a scenario--and then pen very short, taut lines to turn that scenario into something symbolic of how humans relate to one another or to animals.  At one point I got very bored, and decided to explode my sense of the line.  In doing so, I realized that I could not keep writing about the same thing. I also began to experiment more with forms--mostly the sonnet and villanelle (which was recursive on some level--my first poems were acrostics, and the first time I saw and heard in my mind's ear what poetry could really do was in the fourth grade--we were asked, as an exercise in penmanship, to find a poem and copy it out in cursive--the poem was Shakespeare's sonnet #12 ["When I do count the clock that tells the time"]) and again these new forms forced a shift and expansion in content.  I noticed that I was able to move out of a more private "poethical" space (to borrow a neologism from Joan Retallack) into a more public  one.  Out of a private code--the code informed by free verse--and toward a code that was about public things, though not necessarily "understandable" in any traditional way.  In any case, the poetry I began to write informed me with this paradox:  the stronger the constraint, the freer I was to speak about other things.   

    Poetry Circle: Let's say your poem "Our Human Approach" was read in a creative writing class, and after the reading, everyone was silent for a few minutes. And then a student in the back says, "huh?"  If you were the teacher, what would you say?

    A great and challenging question...  

    I would first ask them what they expect from poetry.  I would then ask them to close-read the poem--to use explication de texte--that is, to approach the poem, at first, as if it did not necessarily have anything to say about the "outside world" but had only an internal logic, and internal theoretics.  I would ask them to focus in on the design--on the microcosm, not the macrocosm--to find what Coleridge called "the germ" (perhaps how the poem uses tropes, or conflates the ideas of personal history and public history:  "to my knowing you then,/before they did all that/to the drosophila") and then, and only then, to spiral out into what the poem might suggest about "the world."  People tend to want language to be as invisible as possible--I would ask the students where the "visibility" of the language gets in the way of how they want to understand the poem, and then discuss those moments of resistance to their understanding of how language should mean.  I would also remind them that poems are not novels--their meaning does not entirely rest upon the fact that they come to an end--the meaning is not necessarily always in the last line!

    Then I would have them do this exercise:

    1.Write a comparison.
    2.Say something ridiculous.
    3.Use one image for each of the five senses.
    4.Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
    5.Use a slang word.
    6.Contradict something you've already said.
    7.Use an example of cause and effect.
    8.Write something down you've overheard recently.
    9.Create a sentence using the following construction:  “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun) is (verb).”
    10.  Refer to yourself by a nickname.
    11.  Write something in the future tense.
    12.  Modify a noun with an strange adjective.
    13.  Use a phrase from a language other than English.
    14.  Make a nonhuman object say or do something human.
    15.  Write down moment from American history.

    Now, like they would do with images to make a collage, I'd have them cut out bits and pieces of their responses and create a poem, using as few "logical" connectives as possible.  I'd have them compare their results with the poem under review.  Hopefully, the exercise would have challenged the students to make sense in a way different from how they usually do so.  The above exercise, however, is not how I composed the poem under discussion.

    Poetry Circle: How do you arrive at the form or shape that your poetry takes?

    Eric Elshtain: My decisions about form and shape hinge upon the linguistic aspects I want the poem to emphasize and the speed I want the reader to use when reading the poem.  

    For example, if I want to show the fact that even a random poetic procedure leads to coherent utterances, I might choose a block shape that emphasizes grammatical clauses and  mimics in form poems people usually associate with more typical ideas of "coherence."  That is, I won't fracture the language--splash it all over the page like the cliched "experimental" poem.   

    If I want the reader to move slowly through the poem, I might choose couplets, isolating bits and pieces, using space to create pauses.  I am very much informed by blues of the 20s and 30s--the idea of a couple of lines being sung, and then there being musical fill.  Absent of the music, white space becomes the "fill"--a moment for the reader to reflect on what was just said in the poem.  

    Yet it's a tuning fork relationship between form and content--once I decide upon a form, the way that I write the poem is significantly affected--I am affected by the choice as much as I ultimately want to the reader to be.   

    Poetry Circle: Could you talk about your editing process? When do you feel that a poem is complete, and how often do you tend to rewrite or rework?

    Eric Elshtain: I often begin with a germ--a phrase or phrases, like "sugar cane and railways" (heard on CSI:  Miami) which I carry around in my head, building bits of language around it.  I usually have four or so lines, and I've usually decided what form the poem will take--I like writing within a constraint.  Each new written phrase becomes a sonic or ideational seed for the next linguistic association.  In other words, I write like many, many other people do.  

    I write until I can not think of anything else for the poem.  Then I tinker a lot--move things around, cross things out, add bits and pieces.  Set the poem aside for a few days.  Go back to it and tinker.  Read it out loud.  Tinker more.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  I feel a poem is complete when it has the quality of a geometric proof--that it solves the problem it initially posed--what is the best linguistic context for the germ phrase?  Of course, the germ phrase may eventually get excised in the revision process, but the standard for the poem being finished, I think, still holds.  

    Now, the revision process for me does not consist of jumbling up groups of words that had been holistically grammatical and syntactical; the poem is composed using a loose grammar and syntax, so I can discover meaning as I go along , maybe uncover a direction I want to go in, an image or idea I want to emphasize.  For example, I remember that these lines were composed in this manner:

    windowed oaks quicken
    out of cut-fruit meadows

    spirits organize men with
    pouring concave faces...

    Do the "windowed oaks" both "quicken...spirits" and "organize men," or do the spirits organize the men?  This kind of ambiguity is not revised into the poem, but comes from the associational way I compose poems.

    Poetry Circle: Thanks, Eric!
  • Eric Elshtain was the poetry editor of the Chicago Review for five years until stepping down in February of 2005.  He is now the poetry editor of Beard of Bees Press, an online poetry chapbook press and home of  Gnoetry0.2, a poetry generating software he co-created with Jon Trowbridge, who is a software engineer for Google.  He is finishing his PhD in the University of Chicago's Committee on the History of Culture, his dissertation topic being the "poetics of speculative science."  Through the Snow City Arts Foundation, he is a poet-in-residence at Children's Memorial Hospital where he works on poetry with patients ranging in age from six to 21; through the Poetry Center of Chicago he is a poet-in-residence at Galileo Scholastic Academy (a public school in Chicago), where he teaches poetry once a week to three fourth-grade classrooms.  Elshtain's poetry, reviews, and interviews (with poets such as Arthur Sze, Thalia Field, and Rae Armantrout) can be found in McSweeney's, Skanky Possum, Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, Interim, Salt Hill, GutCult, Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Kennesaw Review, and others.  A chapbook, The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter, appeared in 2004 from Transparent Tiger Press. In 2006, RubbaDucky press will publish a chapbook entitled Here In Premonition.
  1. maggie flanagan-wilkie
    Liked your response to the question of influences, Eric.
  2. Lance Watson
    George Benson is where it's at.
  3. David Belcher
    Interesting read. I was struck by the way you work, it's very fluid. It's an approach I've come to favour more and more.
  4. Tom Riordan
    Enjoyed this!