“Sometimes, in life, what we meant to be and what we are becomes a kind of performative autocorrection”: An Interview with Elizabeth Powell

Elizabeth Powell’s debut novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues, released this year, focuses on the lives of J. Crew models through photo spreads, and touches on intersectionality and American consumerism. In The Literary Review, Jamie Wendt writes that Powell’s novel “savors mundane moments and adds poetic language and biblical imagery and ideas while revealing stories of human desire.”

Primarily a poet, Powell’s honors include the Pushcart Prize, the New Issues First Book Prize for Republic of Self, and the Robert Dana Prize for her second collection, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter. Over a Google doc, Powell answered some questions about her poem “Pledge,” “autocorrecting the lyric,” and childish troth.

You were born in New York City. What is the difference between living in Vermont compared to living in the Big Apple? 

I always knew I wanted to eventually live in the country, in Vermont. Plus, my father moved to New Hampshire when I was in college. 

I am curious about the headspace you were in when writing a poem like “Pledge”? It’s one of my favorite poems of yours. Were there any inspirations that you had before writing this poem?

Thank you. It was the first poem that I published. I wrote it after a friend of mine from school said she didn’t see the real me in my poems, so I wrote “Pledge” as a way to try to access my childhood, and how I developed an interest in politics.

I had no idea it was your first published poem. Are there elements of “Pledge” based on your childhood? I ask that because the poem’s speaker says “I wanted a white communion dress/Like the ones Catholic girls wore” and “I didn’t ever want to go to school/On Saturdays.” 

Yes (see above), it is totally based on my childhood, and is full of things that happened and influenced my life and writing.

I love the “childish troth” wording.

Troth, as in solemn commitment (or pledge), usually taken in a kind of archaic marriage ceremony. I used the word troth to imply the act of patriotism as a child and how that can seem like a kind of marriage.

You won the Pushcart Prize, and also received a Vermont Council on the Arts grant and Yaddo fellowship. Can you describe what it means to you to get this kind of support?

It meant time to work and money to hire help around the house and daycare so I could work on my writing. The Pushcart Prize was a nice validation from the world that my poems were pretty good.

How does it feel to get a manuscript of your work published by Anhinga, one of the biggest poetry presses in the country?

It feels like bliss and a joyful gratitude. It took ten years to write the book they published, and I was happy that they took it off my hands.

How did you come up with such a name for your 2016 book Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances?

I love Joni Mitchell and the title is a spin on her album and song titled Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter….

Can you talk a bit more about your poem “Auto Correcting the Lyric” from Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter

The poem is about how life forces shape us and build us, like the way autocorrecting changes the words we meant to write. Sometimes, in life, what we meant to be and what we are become a kind of performative autocorrection. The Lyric I is the speaker in the poem, and I wanted to give that voice, as it searches for identity, a voice, and I wanted to enact that in a poem. 

Last question: what made you choose your career of being a poet? 

The great poet Shelley said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” When I couldn’t afford to go to Law School, I thought I’d go back to the writing I’d always done. It was something I always did, and wanted to do, but there isn’t money in it. It’s a career of devotion, like being a monk.

—Interview by Tyler Osbourne 

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