“The tension between the lyrical and narrative”: A Conversation with Writer & Editor Elizabeth A.I. Powell

Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Atomizer (LSU Press, 2020).Her two previous books of poems are: Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstancesand The Republic of Self. She is also the author of the novel “Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues. Powell lives in Vermont, and is Associate Professor of Writing and Literature at Northern Vermont University. Find her at www.elizabethaipowell.com

Kristina Marie Darling: Your latest poetry collection, ATOMIZER, was just released from LSU Press. What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Elizabeth AI Powell: The book explores the meeting of eros and politics. Perfume is an olfactory art, so in many ways these poems are ekphrastic. These poems enact what Clarice Lispector said: “Writing to you was like trying to photograph perfume.”

KMD: In ATOMIZER, you choose a subject that’s coded as feminine, and seen by some as frivolous, and then you reveal — subtly and skillfully — the profound darkness housed within it. What drew you to perfume as an artistic subject and a structural device?

EAIP: As an artistic subject the work of Chandler Burr has been important to me in seeing the ways in which perfume is an olfactory art. Olfaction is a sense that is taken for granted in much poetry. The work of Luca Turin has also been influential, helping me to understand the chemistry and science of fragrance. The poems consider what happens when that structural device goes rogue, diffusing itself into new configurations of atoms, of false narratives, of oppressive and dark seductions.

So, yes, perfume is a structural device for writing about eros, the divine, the other, and the self. Darkness looms to subvert eros and creative truth. Atomizer’s subject may be coded feminine and frivilous by those who seek to turn the erotic into a kind of capitalistic, patriarchal oppression narrative. The erotic being desire, love in all aspects, creative power and the harmony of internal knowledge. Eros interestingly is born of chaos. So, my knowing has been born of chaos, which I hope is enacted/depicted in the poems. In reclaiming creative power, the poems look at the ways in which eros darkens when oppressed by society. Eros being the self-understanding of what feels right.

I owe a huge debt to Audre Lourde who reminds us in her essay, Uses of the Erotic, that the erotic is our source of power, and we must work from that power that place of our deepest knowledge, not the subversion of it depicted in the femininity seen in the beauty industry, for instance. My work is erotic because it comes from my deepest knowing and joy. In art, there may be no gap between the erotic and the political.

The personal narrative behind the subject matter is how perfumery is an olfactory art on the one hand and is also a disguise, a way to change perception and reality on the other. Traditionally perfume and incense are used to purify the temple, a devotion to a higher source. It was said foreskins were burned on the hill top as a perfume or incense devotion for God. My reading of John 12.3, the anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume parable,when Mary pours the nard tincture, a hugely valuable perfume, on the feet of Jesus, is that she is proclaiming the spiritual knowing that the action “feels right” to her in that instance where perfume is used in aiding spirituality, no matter the cost. It is an erotic act that gives her power.

However, the fragrance and beauty industries sometimes use perfume as a kind of gaslighting: any ads for perfume depict different kinds of subtle, yet not so subtle, violences against women in the everyday activities of human love, bonding, and desire.

My mother and her French partner were together thirty years. They both worked in the fashion industry creating narratives that kind of gaslighted my perceptions of our familial reality. They were very closeted. Today,I am overjoyed when I see gay and lesbian parents living openly with their children. Along the way, I acquired a lot of knowledge about perfume, especially from them. However, while there were admirable things about them, I suffered from their emotional abuse. And when perfume and emotional abuse are ways in which you were loved as a child, well then you are susceptible to being loved in that way. Narratives repeat in life, they can be a kind of bondage, until you can find what feels right and true. It takes untangling. Like Clarice Lispector said, “writing to you is kind of like trying to photograph perfume.” In this book, I am trying to photograph perfume, and it is difficult, impossible, but necessary to survival through document and change.

KMD: I admire the way you place hybrid texts (like prose poems, flash essays, and more) in conversation with received or inherited literary forms (like the lyric, couplets, etc.). What advice do you have for writers who struggle to cultivate dialogue between tradition and innovation?

EAIP:  You are so right. It is a dialogue. That’s critical to remember. Hybridity’s beauty lies in part in how it can be a pastiche of when memory and moment meet. Received forms help regulate emotions you can’t handle. Hybridity, at least for me, is more comfortable accepting the questions. An early influence of mine was Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles. In that book I saw how prose and poetry could come together from the pen of one of my favorite playwrights, and I was inspired by that and worked toward that kind of a vision and structure of my own over thirty years.

KMD: In addition to your achievements in poetry, you edit The Green Mountains Review, a nationally circulated and highly regarded literary magazine. What has your role as an editor — and the process of curating issues of the journal — opened up within your creative work?

EAIP:  Being an editor is a bit like being a weightlifter, both develop muscles important to their craft. As an editor, you begin to see tics that people have in their work. There is nothing really original in making mistakes. We all make the same mistakes in different ways; but, being an editor helps to see patterns in what isn’t working and then it is easy to translate that experience to your own work. I say to myself as I read a revision I’m working on: aha! There you are doing that thing that wasn’t working in the poems you wanted to like the day before on the Submittable transom. I was a radio reporter and anchor when I was younger, and in those days we used to have to splice actual tapes to create soundbites from interviews. I think something about that process helped me to also condense and see what isn’t necessary. It was also a valuable experience in seeing how deletion can change emphasis or the ways in which meaning is created.

KMD: You are also a gifted novelist, with your debut prose work recently released in the U.K. What can poets learn from novelists about storytelling, the creation of narrative, and the craft of writing?

EAIP:  In every genre there is always the tension between the lyrical and narrative. Sometimes it is just a matter of a few words, active verbs, descriptive nouns, the sturdier adjectives that can let your reader understand a fragment of a scene that is otherwise lost on them. Poetry can gift prose with a higher calling toward sound and sonics found in the devices and techniques available in the poetic toolbox.

KMD: What’s next? What can readers look forward to?

EAIP:  I’m just now finishing up a book “Into the Mistake” that explores all kinds of reproductive traumas: adoption, abortion, postpartum mental illness, the societal violence of misogyny on the body, among others. It is a hybrid work, as is my form of choice, where I am most comfortable. The book contains longer lyric hybrids, prose poems, lyric coupets. The book explores how mistakes can be mystical, as the poems try, together, to understand the creative force. The book’s title also corresponds to a seminal work by Van Morrison that has influenced the book in many ways.