Sunday, July 27, 2008

Poet Elizabeth Quinlan revisits a troubled childhood with her poetry collection “Promise Supermarket.”

Poet Elizabeth Quinlan revisits a troubled childhood with her poetry collection “Promise Supermarket.”

"We climbed the fence,
picked through the garbage from the high rise.
Among the vegetable peelings,
rotting chicken, we found
parts of broken toys and pieces
of jewelry, gems and chains.”

(“Treeless Yard”—“Promise Supermarket”)

Elizabeth Quinlan has been a member of the Writers Workshop at the William Joiner Center at UMass Boston for the past ten years. She was an honor student in the Creative Writing Program at UMass and is a graduate of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where she specialized in Book Art. She is the author of the poetry collection “Promise Supermarket” from Somerville’s Ibbetson Street Press. It deals with hardscrabble childhood in Chelsea, Mass, a city on the outskirts of Boston.

Doug Holder: Elizabeth you told me the writer, poet and political activist, Grace Paley made you realize that a woman can write about even the everyday occurrences in her life. It was all right for you to write about being a single mother, your kids, and even your period.

Elizabeth Quinlan: I was first exposed to Grace Paley at UMass Boston. I believe it was in the late Ron Schreiber’s class. He was a wonderful teacher. I think it was ENGLISH 101 in the early 70’s. We read her stories, and at the same time we read Tillie Olsen. Two amazing writers that wrote a lot about mothering, bathing children, all the things that I thought wouldn’t make for good poetry. I was at the time a young mother.

DH: You have been a student at the William Joiner Workshop for the last 10 years at the U/Mass Harbor Campus in Boston. Tell us about the program, your involvement, and how it has helped your development as a writer?

EQ: It’s remarkable. People come from all over the world to study at the Joiner. The have had a playwright from Rwanda, women from Bosnia, filmmakers, incredible. They have poetry, nonfiction, fiction and memoir. Grace Paley was there every year. She was a very down to earth woman. She focused on stories that were hard to write.

When I came to the Joiner I had already been writing poetry. The workshops were always high quality. Teachers were very open. I had a memorable workshop with Michael Casey in publishing, as well as others.

DH: You have studied Book Art. What does that entail?

EQ: At the Fine Arts School I studied drawing, printmaking, and techniques like mono printing which I use in my Book Art. I do special books for people. I recently did one for a woman who was dying of cancer. I have been making books for kids for a while. I learned papermaking and marbling techniques. I have developed my own techniques for kids that are non-toxic that I can use with children starting around age 3.

DH: The acclaimed poet Martha Collins, the author of “Blue Front,” wrote the forward to your collection “ Promise Supermarket.” Could you talk about your relationship with her?

EQ: When I cam back to UMass in the 80’s I worked with Collins in the Honors Program. Later I worked one on one with her. She has always been such a great friend. I came to the workshop with a early version of the manuscript of “Promise Supermarket.” It is nothing like I have now. She helped me edit the manuscript. It is cleaner and stronger as a result. I never felt she changed my voice. She pointed out the poems that were weaker and they were taken out.

DH: “Promise Supermarket” is a hard book to read. It deals with a very troubled childhood, and a very troubled and abusive father. Why did you choose to relive this painful time through poetry?

EQ: When I was in art school in 1975 I started painting images of violence and abuse. I kept journals. Images were coming out in my dreams. I was recording these images. I was in denial about this shadow that was following me around. It was a great source of shame and fear. I started to write bits of things over the years. I wanted to figure out where I came from—how did I get to this place?

DH: Why did you use the Promise Supermarket as your focal point?

EQ: There is a promise in food. There is a lot of hunger in this world. Food is evocative and sensual. Whether it is the smell of it, the taste, the touch, the memory of it. The promise is one of hope. I think there is a sense of hope in this collection. There is the child’s spirit throughout.

Doug Holder/Ibbetson Street Press/ July, 2008

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ July 2008/ Somerville, Mass.

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