Interview with Liz Whiteacre
WG: Liz, your poem "Trash Can, Unmoved" recently won first place in the 2010 Inglis House Poetry contest. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to write the poem?
LW: A spinal injury in my early twenties transformed the way I view my body. My experiences acted as catalysts, and I explored in poems how people respond to accident and injury last year on sabbatical from College of DuPage.
"Trash Can, Unmoved" was part of this exploration. Its birth lies in a creative writing class taught by Elizabeth Weber in which we were prompted to identify a significant moment and explain its significance to our younger selves. Why this moment? I was drawn to its solitude, fear, and frustration: woman versus trash can. Suddenly stripped of the ability to walk, I was unprepared, desperately navigating my new life.
WG: Can you elaborate a little bit on how your spinal cord injury transformed the way that you see your body?
LW: You immediately make me think of "invincible youth." When we’re young, the miracles of our bodies encourage us to believe anything is possible. Before we become aware of injury, illness, and pain, whether it be through our own experiences or those of the people we know, it’s easy not to think about how fragile our bodies are. We ask our bodies to do countless things from waking until bedtime. Until we must do so deliberately—until two hours to get a trash can to a curb becomes a painfully realistic time table—it’s easy to just do what needs to be done, right now, this minute, without necessarily thinking about the consequences.
My injury gave me access to many caregivers and injured and ill people after my accident, and I was able to witness people in all stages of recovery. What were most poignant were the stories of how we all ended up in the doctors’ waiting rooms. A poem I wrote, "Other People’s Pain," sums it up in its ending, "…he couldn’t believe life could change like that,/in the moment it took to hit the ground."
WG: You were awarded the Vesle Fenstermaster Poetry Prize for emerging poets from Indiana University in 2008. That sounds pretty impressive. Can you tell us a little bit about the contest and the work that one the prize for you?
LW: Indiana University has hosted an excellent Writers’ Conference in Bloomington, IN for nearly seventy years. Drawing writers from across the country, the conference facilitates a program filled with sessions to help writers explore writing, publishing, teaching, and performance. Each summer, prominent writers serve as faculty for these sessions and for fiction and poetry workshops. Participation in these workshops is competitive because space is limited. When a writer submits an application, the work may be awarded a prize and scholarship to attend the workshop. Interested writers may visit www.indiana.edu/~writecon for more information.
In 2008, I applied with a sample of ten poems, and my work was accepted to a poetry workshop lead by Kevin Prufer. In my submission, I included poems from my graduate thesis, which I felt needed some attention. Within this group of poems were several that stemmed from my accident, and I was encouraged by writers in my workshop to explore my experiences further.
WG: It is not every poet that wins contests and you have won two so far, so I think it would be interesting to our readers to hear something about how you work. What is the process of writing a poem like for you? How do you go about it? Is it inspiration or perspiration?
LW: When inspiration strikes, its timing is usually inconvenient. I do my best to hold the image or line in my mind until I’m able to write it out.
I find that I write best when I work with prompts. There are stacks of excellent books out there that prompt. Two of my favorites are Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius and The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. I’ll join in with students when I prompt them in creative writing classes; sometimes, I’ll respond to challenges issued by poet friends, which ask me to explore a topic or metaphor in new ways.
In a way, responding to a prompt is like responding to a dare--I enjoy that push to come up with something unchartered. I will usually customize the prompt by applying it to a subject I’m interested in, like accident and injury, and see where it goes. This focused attention and quiet time when I work to meet my goal helps me be more productive.
WG: What is it that you expect a poem to accomplish? Put another way, what effect would you want your poem to have on a reader?
LW: Poems I admire stop time, and by this I mean, the room, worries, or lists of things to do disappear. A great poem immerses me and focuses me on the images and ideas the poet has created. These poems also elicit strong emotions—something magic has happened on the page when I find myself laughing or crying. And, these poems demand to be reread. First, because wow, and second, because I’m curious, how did the poet accomplish that? This may not be accomplished in my own poems, but I strive to elicit this type of response from readers.
WG: I like your idea – much like Dickinson’s – that a poem makes you stop and say "Wow", then following this up by asking how the poet accomplished that. Can you walk us through how you tried to capture that feeling in the process in the writing of one of your poems? I’m speaking of a specific poem.
LW: The poem "Retirees Pity Me during Water Aerobics," which will be included in the 2010 Inglis Poetry House Contest chapbook, was a challenge. The life event it stems from took place in my past, but I chose to write in present tense, since I would have to present a context for the moment poolside. It begins, “[t]hese decaying bodies barely covered by black lycra/ have bobbed and bent and flexed for over a year with me.” I favor writing narrative poems, and I worked to create a vivid scene--myself (or the speaker) newly injured leading retirees in water aerobics--that my audience could clearly picture.
This was a poem I struggled to revise; fortunately, my friend Kevin McKelvey, is patient, and when I shared drafts, he pushed me to take "leaps" as Robert Bly suggests. Condensing description and letting actions and dialogue show the audience the speaker poolside allowed me to “leap” to her youth and body pre-injury and create metaphors, for example, "[a]nd now, my broken body in its ugly brace sits, watches/ from the sidelines as an eager pubescent watches kids dance/ in the gym from the bleachers." These leaps hopefully serve to highlight not only how uncomfortable she is being viewed as an injured or crippled person, but also her jealously of the aging bodies’ relative health before her: the scene ends, "I call scissor, egg beater, sweep,/ and their buoyant bodies respond, beautifully churn water."
WG: Liz, I know this is a rather stock question, but who are some of the poets that you feel have had the biggest influence on you? Are there certain poets, especially contemporary poets, that you would urge beginning to writers to read?
LW: Contemporary poets who’ve had great impact on my work are Allison Joseph, Rodney Jones, Lucia Perillo, Margot Schlipp, Tony Hoagland, and Ted Kooser. The book I’m reading right now is A School for Fishermen by Carlo Matos, which was published by BrickHouse Books in March.
I think an excellent way for beginning writers to discover poets’ work they love is to read literary magazines, like Wordgathering. They offer so much variety, and when readers find a poem that moves them, they can follow up by exploring the poet’s body of work.
WG: I really want to thank you for taking part in this interview, especially, as you know, at such short notice. Is there anything more that you would like to say about your work that we might have left out? Any books coming out or upcoming poetry projects?
LW: It’s an honor to be recognized by the Inglis Poetry House alongside so many talented poets. It’s fantastic to find such excellent models for writing about disability hosted in one place.
I continue to write about accident and injury. I’ve just finished a collection titled Rubbernecking. I am seeking a home for it.