By: Pablo Teasdale
Pablo: I'm very glad for the opportunity of interviewing you, Ellaraine. Your audience is rapidly growing, and I'm not the only one who wants to know how you think. So. . . Femininity is very evident and strong in your poems. Could you please express how your beauty and femininity translate into thought and word?
Ellaraine: Thank you, Pablo, for doing the interview. I'm smiling at this first question. The last person who bought a copy of my chapbook, Finishing Lines, was a woman medical doctor from Russia who is well-read in poetry. She said after reading it, "You write like a man."
And the judge of the recent Elizabeth Curry Award from SLAB at the University of Slippery Rock, in writing the analysis of the winning poem (which was mine), referred to the poet throughout as "he." (The contest entries were anonymous.) I think this was because the poem reflected a realistic look at Montana farm life, and it also used the word "bullshit."
But okay, two of my collections (Midlife Muse and Crossing the Center Line) have dealt with a most feminine issue--that of menopause. The poems in them have struck a cord with many women because I openly address experiences that they are either too embarrassed to talk about or sometimes even to think about. And I have quite a few poems about sexuality, one collection in particular about illicit love affairs (Coloring Outside the Lines). Another in progress is a collection on electronic love. These are all written from a woman's viewpoint, either my own or others', mostly women's.
I feel more qualified to write from a woman's stance for the obvious reason. When I do so, as I do with every poem, I try to strip the layers away of whatever subject I'm addressing until I'm down to the core of it. This requires an unflinching look and a willingness to write what I find there, no matter what is revealed. These are truths as I either experience them or observe them. That's what poetry should do I believe--deliver the truth. And I do think that the truth is perhaps harder to communicate sometimes for women, especially of my generation. We were brought up not to say the word fuck, for instance, when men said it all the time. But there are scenarios that can only be described by using the word. I have a poem, in fact, about how my daughters taught me that it was okay to use it. It's a very effective word, as long as it's used sparingly.
Pablo: How do you define truth in poetry? How factual are your truths?
Ellaraine: Poetry by definition is creative writing. Many poets and readers forget that and put poetry in a memoir or diary category. In the workshop that I teach, "From Picture Books to Poetry," I've started having students write "lies" just to get them feeling comfortable with the creative aspect of poetry, because sometimes we have to write non-factually, either to get at core truths or to make our poems the best they can be. The term "poetic license" didn't become cliché for nothing.
For me, the excellence of the poem is the only criteria for honesty. Of course I'm not advocating telling lies about particular people in poems. In fact, that's one of the great things about creative writing--being able to change say, from first person to third person at will, thus protecting everyone's privacy--including my own. I often write someone else's experience in first person and my own in third person. Also, many of my poems are composite poems--ones that utilize multiple people and/or experiences but then tie them all together in one voice. And I never tell which poems, or which parts of a poem, are factual. It's a question I get often at readings, and I have to clamp my mouth shut in order to avoid giving a lecture.
Sometimes, too, poems inherently demand deviations from facts in order to read musically or to follow a particular form. And what difference does it make if a dress is red instead of blue or if the experiences in the poem really happened to five people instead of one? The only thing that matters is that the poem reads true, and the readers will know when it does.
Pablo: Do you have any expressible thoughts regarding writers (and poets in particular) using opposite gender pen names or about the use of pen names in general?
Ellaraine: Oh, for sure I do. First of all, pen names no matter what gender, are great fun, and they have a way of becoming alter egos. For instance, I often use mine in public. Everyone at the local Starbucks where I write every morning knows me as the first name of one of my pen names. (It's so much easier to remember than Ellaraine.) And let's face it, there are times in life that maybe we don't want to use our real name.
Writing-wise, having pen names has allowed me to get poems published that wouldn't be copasetic with the image of a children's picture book writer, a market that I wish to enter. Publishers aren't likely to want a picture book writer, at least until she/he is established in the picture book market, to be known for sometimes writing sexually explicit poetry. This type of conflict of interest is all the more relevant because of the Internet.
I've also found the made-up names to be handy in protecting others' privacy. For instance, I just wrote a poem about an experience my daughter had touring Europe as a member of a fairly famous rock band. To use my name, the last of which is also her name, would identify her and this band. She would be furious, and I wouldn't blame her.
Then sometimes we poets just want to pursue several different styles of writing, and for me it works to have different personas holding the pen. Oh yes, and it intrigues a fair percentage of editors/publishers. One of my pens has an ongoing correspondence with one of my editor's pen names. It's belly-laughing hilarious.
I have three pen names. The first one originated back when I was first writing children's picture book manuscripts. I'd sent seven, one at a time as they were rejected, to a certain publisher when she wrote back and told me not to submit any more. I was green then as a writer, and this upset me terribly because I felt that all of my children's stories were vastly different from one another, and I had several more to send. So I made up a name, used a friend's address and sent the rest. She didn't take one, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing they were read.
Now I tell all perspective editors in my submission letters when I'm using a pen name. That's the right thing to do, and the right thing for them to do is to protect my privacy, which they've always honored.
My two additional pen personalities were born when I wanted to enter twelve poems in a contest with a theme, but the publisher's rule was one entry of three poems per poet. So I wrote and asked if three pen names could each enter three poems in addition to mine (paying of course the entry fees for all entries.) The answer was yes, and subsequently all but one of us were published in the winners' anthology.
And did I mention the romance or mystique of having a made-up name or two?
Pablo: Now I thought we'd deviate from the usual interview questions and go a little deeper. Let's start with this one: Why are men still ruling and running the planet?
Ellaraine: Brute force. In the end, after all discussion about women's rights and equal opportunities, men are still physically more powerful than women. In many parts of the world men are legally allowed to use physical force against women--to go even as far as killing them. And in parts of the world where it isn't legal, it still not only happens, but the fact and the threat often stand between the sexes as an unconscious force that influences not only relationships but community, state, national and international policies.
Pablo: How are you affected by your dreaming life?
Ellaraine: I love having dreams--even the nightmarish ones, because they mean that I've been able to get into a deep sleep. I've battled insomnia for twelve years and have tried every remedy out there, I think, including two extensive stays at the Stanford Sleep Clinic.
Before that, most dreams seemed like a continuation of my life, some euphoric and some horrendous but most rather day-to-day-like. I've never spent much time analyzing them, but one particular and reoccurring dream fascinates me enough that I recently wrote a poem about it. It involves flying, or perhaps floating in the air above every earthly thing. I'm often in the form of an eagle. This is an incredibly happy experience and leads me to suspect that I've either been an eagle or that I will be one eventually. The closest awake feeling to this that I've ever had is when I do Tai Chi, where I sometimes feel like I'm floating through clouds. I didn't reach that state until I'd practiced Tai Chi for fifteen-plus years.
Pablo: I find it more and more difficult to think of God in terms of gender. I won't elaborate. What would your thoughts be on this?
Ellaraine: I stopped thinking of God as a kind-looking man with a beard when I stopped attending church after I left home for college. God, for me, rather has evolved into a force. I find this force in everything--people, animals, trees, rocks, the earth itself. It's all connected. Nothing affirmed this more for me than attending a writers' retreat called "Writing the World" two years ago in the Sonoran Desert with Harvey Stanbrough at the helm. Harvey is one of my poetry mentors. I'd like to add one of the resulting poems from his retreat at the end of this interview if there is space. I think if we all adhered to what Harvey teaches in this retreat, there wouldn't be any more wars. I wish its attendance were required for all world leaders.
Pablo: For this question I must loosely paraphrase the poet William Everson. He believed that there was a "mantle" the poet could put on (if it fit) that endowed the poet with authority and that this was not to be taken lightly. What are your thoughts on this?
Ellaraine: I'm not familiar with William Everson or his stance on this subject, but my definition of a powerful poem is generally one that is written by someone who comes across as an authority on that which she/he has written. Fakes usually can't pull off a good poem; the mantle just isn't going to fit.
As for a poet having this kind of authority, who better to have it other than a person who is committed to write truth? Is there responsibility on the part of the poet? Tremendous, but it's to the poet him/herself. Readers are free to choose the impact the poem has on them.
Pablo: If a complete stranger were to trust her infant to you to nurture until the child was three years old, what single thing would you feel was most important for that child?
Ellaraine: Security, in all it's facets: To be fed when hungry, to have its thirst quenched, to be physically held and emotionally nurtured, to be kept as safe and pain-free as possible and to be taught that someone loves it enough to enforce gentle, consistent and nonviolent discipline when the age/stage requires it.
Pablo: What in your opinion is the biggest source of trouble in the world today and what do you think can realistically be done about it?
Ellaraine: I don't think there's any all-encompassing answer to this; the questions are much too complex for the space I have, not only on paper but in my mind.
I've been lucky enough to travel extensively, and the happiest people I've encountered are perhaps those in cultures that put the least emphasis on material things that money can buy and who put a big emphasis on family and community. It seems to me that status quo gets out of kilter, even in these societies, when part of the people get overly greedy--for things, money or power.
What to do about it? I might know more about what not to do about it, and that's not to force one's government or religion on other countries or cultures that have functioned in their own ways since the beginning of time. (I believe this comes under the "power" part of greed.) Of course, we could try to send everyone to Harvey's "Writing the World" retreat; but there I go, trying to push my own beliefs on others.
Pablo: Imagine with me please. If you were marooned on a remote island with two strangers. . . a world class female athlete and a female astrophysicist, what synthesis of thought might the three of you produce?
Ellaraine: Boy, you weren't kidding when you said we were going to skip the usual questions and go a little deeper. This is about the strangest question anyone has ever asked me.
Okay. I know a bit about survival, not from fighting for it myself but from hearing about it through those close to me who did: my parents and grandparents, who homesteaded on the Montana prairie in the late 1800s. And that's what we're talking about here--survival.
My grandparents, when they were dependent upon the land for their livelihood, had little time to synthesize their thoughts in any way that didn't involve feeding and clothing themselves and their families.
And that's what the three of us marooned on a remote island would be strategizing too. The thought of it makes me squirm with how little I'd be able to contribute--perhaps the spinning of yarn from wild animals that the athlete would capture and then the knitting of those yarns into warmth to cover with and wear for insulation from exposure. I could make paper out of natural fibers, one of my true craft talents, and sew clothes from the bark of trees.
I would likely be the one to do the killing for food after the athlete hunted down the animals. I can mercy-kill, again as a result of growing up in Montana, so I could kill to stay alive. I might be able to make a fire from two sticks of wood, as a result of an excellent demonstration in a Masai village in Kenya recently.
As for the astrophysicist's contribution, she'd probably entertain us at night with her extensive knowledge, as we lie gazing at the stars. I could fictionalize and poetize what she said and record it using natural plant dyes on the handmade papers. Eventually, we'd probably discuss lesbianism.
Pablo: The world is ending tomorrow at noon. What will you do between now and then?
Ellaraine: I'll gather up my family and anyone we love who chooses to come, and we'll cook and eat a last meal together, incorporating everyone's favorite foods and wines. (Mine will be popcorn, any Caparone wine, homemade bread and Ben and Jerry's Coffee Heathbar Crunch Ice Cream.) Then we'll make music together. (My family is very musical.) Then we'll break into privacy, with partners or vibrators or magazines or whatever works, for a final sexual encounter. Lastly, we'll all hold hands, tell stories about each other as though we were attending our own funerals, and then we'd vow to meet in our afterlives.
Of course, this is all idealized. Maybe I'll just be immobilized by fear of pain and death or crazy in anguish that children and grandchildren, all of them all over, won't have a chance to live full lives. Who really knows how any of us will react in outrageous situations?
Ellaraine writes poetry, nonfiction books, magazine articles/columns and children's stories. She is a well-published and awarded poet who has received ten nominations for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and has three published chapbooks: Midlife Muse, Poetry Forum, Crossing the Center Line, Sweet Annie Press and Coloring Outside the Lines, The Plowman Press. She also teaches school and community poetry workshops.
Her nonfiction books are All Because of a Button: Folklore, Fact and Fiction, St. Johann Press; The Gourmet Paper Maker, Creative Publishing, and The Low Lactose Kitchen Companion and Cookbook forthcoming in 2007.
Ellaraine has recently been to Kenya on a poetry fellowship and to Centrum in Port Townsend, WA, for a poetry residency. She has just received the Elizabeth Curry Award from SLAB at the University of Slippery Rock in PA. Forthcoming is a chaplet, Roadtrip, from the Rooftop Chaplet series and a chapbook, Blue Ribbons at the County Fair, from PWJ Publishing.
. . . observe the things that were and watch them pass, not rushing them along nor holding them too tightly.-- Great Expectations, Harvey Stanbrough
He speaks of writing the world
Of sensing the wholeness first
While we sit on hay bales
Pens in hand
Near the edge of an Arizona night
Our mentor encircles the gift of knowledge
His words unwrap it
Ribbons of preconceptions
fall to the Sonoran floor
Sharp observations cut away the clothes
that seam our separateness
from sand, saguaro, hawk
grasshopper and sunset
He casts a last ray of sun
on the continuous web
that weaves us all together
The spider who snares a butterfly
in a creosote bush
Whose seeds feed a kangaroo rat
The two toads who have enrolled in the retreat
And me watching a beetle spin in circles
fighting its own fading light
on a picnic table just out of reach
We're all related says our mentor
Cousin Coyote, grandfather owl
His words soft now in the silk of night
Brother beetle has flipped onto his back
Legs beating against the darkness
His dirge in baritone buzz
is steel wool that scours the sage's waxed words
While the other listeners lean into enlightenment
I curl up in confusion's shadow
Words of patience and intimate observation
waft by in the grey zone
The buzz is bright white and the beat of legs blinding
I want to yank that connecting web
Hang the beetle with Hemlock Society blessing
But I wedge my hands and their traitorous twitch
between butt and hay bale
Our mentor's final message for the evening
comes on sound waves so round and full
they overflow the soul with ancestral memories
And of the branch from which the flute was formed
Even the beetle is silent
But suddenly propelled by unexplained energy
onto the plate of leftover vegetable wraps
landing up-side down and mute
His legs still moving
The man of wisdom and music sits down as I leap up
Sledge a book of poetry onto the plate
The web snaps like a rubber band
and the entire Sonoran Desert winces
But I'm the one with the welt
that stings and reddens my cheek
Pablo Teasdale’s first interview was with Raquel Welch when he was a sailor and she was a new star. Since then, he has interviewed many artists formally and informally. . . both well-know and unknown. Among the notables: Anais Nin, Bob Hope, Lyn Lifshin, James Leo Herlihy and Brian Morissey. His drawings have been published in the U. S. A. and Germany. His synthesizer compositions are used by poets and dancers in live and broadcast productions internationally. Teasdale has been the subject of four documentaries and lives in Santa Cruz, California. He is currently writing a memoir titled, "Let Me Tell You About My Redundancy Again."