Interview with Ellen LaFleche
WG: Ellen, your poems have such interesting titles such as "Estella, With One Lung Keeps Her Appointment at Brenda's Beauty Box" and "Visiting the Abandoned State Hospital Where I was a Patient on the Floor for Psychotic Men." How did you come to use longer titles like this? How important do you think a title is to a poem?
EL: This is a great question. I am very interested in writing narrative poems with strong imagery and character development. The longer titles help to summarize the plot, allowing me to concentrate on imagery and other poetic devices like rhythm. Of course, the longer titles are also meant to pique the reader's interest by drawing them into the character's world. It's more interesting for a character to walk into a beauty parlor if she only has one lung. It's likely that she has had lung cancer, and may be undergoing chemotherapy, so why would she be walking into the salon? Is she going to get her head shaved before it all falls out? Does she work there, and if so, how might it feel to be a bald beautician working with a room full of lush-haired women?
I should mention that I am a member of several feedback groups, and they do keep me honest about my titles. If some of the plot information can be integrated into the poem, they always encourage me to do so. Sometimes I am caught in the middle. One group might be in favor of the longer title, while the other thinks it would benefit the poem to edit down the title.
I have a mixed answer about the second part of your question. While I do enjoy a good, evocative title, some of the best poems ever written have simple (even boring) one-word titles. So, yes and no. I must confess that when I am reading an anthology of poems, I scan the table of contents. Given some of my personal interests, I might turn right to the title that refers to, say, baseball, or cotton mill workers, or a health issue. Depending on my mood, I might turn right to the page with a love poem! Right now, I would be very intrigued by a title that promises a poem about the Japanese nuclear workers, or effects of the oil spill.
One more thing about my long titles. Sometimes they serve a temporary purpose. I might start the poem with a really long, plot-summarizing poem so I can figure out in my own head what is going on. As the poem gets written, and details begin to emerge, some of the title information might get integrated into the poem.
WG: What is it that appeals to you about writing narrative poems with strong character development?
EL: I think my love of narrative comes from listening to my relatives tell stories. My family members are such wonderfully gifted story-tellers, and holiday gatherings usually end up as mini versions of "theater in the round."
When my husband first joined my family twenty-five years ago, he couldn't understand why the same family stories were repeated over and over. He couldn't understand why we would roar with laughter each time the same punch line of the same story was repeated. He finally came to understand that the repetition was a kind of unconscious poetic device. With each telling, the story grew and grew, eventually reaching mythic proportions. Repeating each story - with embellishments, new dialogue, and the addition of new characters - turned each family story into a family myth. And because these are family stories, character development is the point. It's true that literacy doesn't require writing the stories down, that sharing the love of family history is an amazing way to develop literary skills.
My dad is 85 and he still relishes telling the same stories. We sit in a circle and shout out requests. "Tell about the time Uncle Theodore drove his Model T to New York City." This prompts my dad into a description of Theodore's antique car - which required hand cranking - with sound effects for the sputtering engine and the exploding muffler. And we listen, we laugh, we gesture, and then make him repeat the whole story, again. The car is cranked again, the car bucks, the car stalls, and Uncle Theodore -who passed away in the 1960s - springs to life in our imaginations.
I guess I inherited this love of story-telling, and feel very fortunate to have had a lot of formal education, where I learned the tools to write them down. I use the same story-telling devices, and draw on the same love of plot and character development.
WG: Are the characters that you portray in your poems drawn from your actual life experiences? What prompts you to write about a particular person?
EL: Another great question. I'll start with an anecdote. I have a good friend who is a psychotherapist, and we always say that our jobs are very similar. Both the poet and the therapist try to access and make meaning from whatever conflicts might be going on the unconscious mind. And I think that idea is important in answering this question. Unconsciously, I am sure that the experiences of actual people get embedded into my poetry, but I try to keep my conscious mind aware of issues of privacy.
I usually try to keep my characters fictional, with realistic details. I think that privacy is very important when I am writing about difficult and deeply personal issues like illness. However, sometimes an actual person is consciously portrayed in my work. I feel comfortable doing this when the poem is a celebration of a positive event. For example, a couple of years ago I took my family to a minor league baseball game. And when the announcer said, "Play ball," a group of nuns came trotting out of the dugout. True story! And one of the nuns was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch. The crowd just came to its feet, applauding in delight. The announcer never explained WHY the nun was given this honor. I assume the nuns were being honored for their work in the community as nurses or teachers. But the reason remains a mystery to this day, and I believe that areas of mystery are always a great starting point for a poem. I kept thinking about this mystery, and recalling my enjoyment of that day, and eventually created a fictional nun, named Sister Beatrice - alluding to Dante's Beatrice - who throws out the first pitch on opening day. And this fictional nuns throws a fastball into the catcher's glove, which I represent as a heart opening and contracting. The catcher is caught in a kind of limbo or hell, and wonders if he will ever make it out of the minor leagues. The poem tries to capture this theological conflict, and also creates a scene where I portray some of the divine aspects of sports.
So that is an example of consciously drawing on an actual experience. When I write about illness and disability, I am much more careful. For example, I have written poems about Alzheimer's disease, using fictional characters in fictional places. But I don't think I would ever write about, say, Ronald Reagan having Alzheimer's. I cannot know his real experience with the disease, and why take the chance of adding any more pain to his family's experience? I am not saying another poet shouldn't write about him --- I wouldn't censor anyone from exploring his experience - I am just saying that I probably wouldn't be comfortable writing such a poem at this point in time.
WG: Can you walk us through how you developed one of your poems around a fictional character with a disability or illness?
EL: I think that I have a strong capacity for empathy. My friend jokes that if someone else stubs their toe, I grab my foot and howl. There is a bit of truth in her teasing, because I do feel the other person's toe-pain zinging up my leg.
With a fictional character, I try to use the same empathy to figure out what the person is thinking or feeling. For example, when the fictional Estella was facing the knowledge that she was losing her hair, I had to try and understand her feelings even though I've never faced impending hair loss. So, I thought about how Estella loved her weekly ritual of going to the beauty salon - a ritual that took her into a kind of sacred women's space. And that is the place where I could empathize - I do have ritualized spaces involving my women friends (including weekly critique groups where we share food, friendship and writing), and I had to think about how I would feel if an illness or disability kept me from those gatherings. I would of course feel a strong sense of loss and bereavement. So Estella keeps her weekly appointment at the beauty salon even though her hair has already begun to fall out. It is an act that shows Estella's defiance and determination. The hairdresser knows why Estella is there, and she honors Estella's presence by proceeding with washing and setting Estella's hair.
I have to mention that dealing with my own illness has helped me to understand my characters even more deeply. I've had Type II diabetes for the past several years - a disease that runs through both sides of my family. And because I have seen some very serious complications among my loved ones, I've had to deal with a lot of anxiety and fear. Sadly, I have found that some health care providers don't like dealing with anxious patients. A couple of practitioners have been awfully rude and dismissive. (This remains a mystery to me -- why would someone chose medicine as a career if they are not interested in easing a patient's fear?) And coming to terms with that medical indifference has helped me to understand my characters better. My forthcoming chapbook, Ovarian, is about a woman who deals with significant anxiety after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unlike Estella, who tried to hold onto her weekly hair salon ritual, Julia tenderly washes, dries, and brushes her own hair, using her Native American great-grandmother's hairbrush, and then cuts it all off. Because so much of poetry is generated on the unconscious level, it took a long time before I realized I was actually dealing with the theme of anxiety.
I've often tried to write about my own personal experience with diabetes, but these poems never seem to come together for me. I can't explain why, it is just a reality for me. So, once again, I've had to turn to fictional characters, like Cinderella, whose mythological identity - her tiny foot - is threatened by diabetes. In this case, the symbolism of the poem was conscious to me from the start. I have a size 2 foot (another true story!) and used to shop for shoes at a specialty store in Boston called the Cinderella Shop!
WG: Who is going to be publishing Ovarian? When do you expect it to come out? What has the process of publication for the kind of poetry been like for you? Have you found publishers receptive to kind of topics that you write about?
EL: My chapbook, Ovarian, is going to be published sometime this year by Dallas Poets Community. I won their annual chapbook contest or 2010, and received the good news in January. I have had a fairly easy time placing individual poems about disability. But it took a solid three years before having any success with a chapbook. It's hard to get a chapbook published - there is a lot of competition and many, many gifted poets. It was very frustrating -- so many times, I would end up as a finalist, or a runner-up, always coming very, very close but no chapbook offer. My strategy was simple. Every time one of my chapbooks was rejected, I would send it out to two places. When those two got rejected, I would send out four. And so on. So my advice is to keep trying.
Interestingly, I won the Philbrick Poetry award for a chapbook in a contest judged by Dana Gioia a few weeks before hearing about Ovarian. That chapbook, Workers' Rites, just came out last week, published by the Providence Antheneaum in Rhode Island. In addition to disability, my other poetic passion is working class issues, and the many connections between the two topics. For example, growing up in a factory town, I saw many people experience all kinds of disabilities and illnesses as a result of workplace trauma. I gave a reading at the Providence Atheneaum last weekend on the day Workers Rites was published, and I dedicated the reading to the workers at the Fukushima Nuclear plant in Japan. Those workers are going to suffer terrible illness, and probably death, as a result of their efforts on our behalf. So, I think this is an important area for disability studies and disability poetry - making more connections about the social roots of health, illness, disability.
WG: It must have been nice to have Gioia choose your book.
EL: I was just stunned when I found out that Dana Gioia was the judge. I got to meet him last weekend in Providence. The publisher put on a reception and book release party for me. It was overwhelming. Dana was so gracious and we had a great conversation about Operation Homecoming, which he organized while he was the head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
WG: I think that the connection between disability and working conditions is an extremely important one and tends to be overlooked much more so than in African or Asian countries where the connection between social conditions and disability are so much more obvious. I wonder if you could give an example of a poem you written that connects disability and working conditions.
EL: Certainly. Here is another poem with one of my long titles - "After Losing his Arm at the Mill, Chickie Dubois Goes to Work as a Gravedigger". This is the closing poem in Workers' Rites. When I first brought a draft of this poem to my feedback group, a few people were concerned that a person with one arm would not be able to physically dig a grave. But the job of grave digger in this poem is not necessarily a literal one. Rather, the poem can be read as an extended metaphor for the process of facing injury, disability and loss. Chickie finds himself unable to stop looking at the bereaved wives who come to his cemetery; this symbolizes his attempts to come to terms with his own loss.
Although the actual accident takes place off-scene, I hope it makes a point about workplace safety. When I was a teenager, my mom worked in a small local factory that made plastic widgets. Every sixty seconds the worker had to open a door and reach inside an industrial oven and pull out the widgets. And one of the machines kept throwing out electrical sparks, and the women who worked there kept insisting that the machine was not safe. Every day my mom would come home and express concern about the sparks. The bosses shrugged off their concerns. And one of the workers lost her arm when the machine short-circuited - the door slammed shut while she was reaching inside the oven. This was an extremely traumatic event for the worker and everyone who was there. So, I think this unconscious horror worked its way into the Chickie poem.
WG: I'm curious to know how your poems about workers are received by working class readers or listeners. As poet laureate, Billy Collins did much to try to wrest poetry from the academy and, whatever one may think of her as a poet, Maya Angelou has done a lot in bringing poetry to a whole new audience. Do you feel you reach people with your poems about workers tap in to the lives of people that may not usually be all that interested in poetry?
EL: I think about these issues a lot. I try to write poems with some degree of clarity. I want my readers (and listeners) to appreciate the narrative thread of the poem and to enjoy the characters. That is really important to me as someone with working class roots. But I also try to embed many layers of metaphor and meaning into the poem, a "best of both worlds" kind of approach.
So, for example, someone listening to my Sister Beatrice baseball poem at a reading can relish the story of a nun walking onto the pitcher's mound and throwing a split-fingered fastball smack into the catcher's mitt. But a closer reading of the poem may bring additional pleasures as well --- a chance to reflect on such issues as redemption, the connections between sports and religion, etc.
WG: To what extent do you read your poetry in readings, and what that experience is like for you? I know a couple of them have been out on youtube.
EL: I mostly read locally, at bookstores, cafes and libraries in the western Massachusetts area. I love the process of sharing in this way, as it connects with my family's love of oral story-telling. I like to mix humor and tragedy in my readings. I usually start with the true story about the nun who threw out the first pitch for the Pawtucket Red Sox. And people love this story, and howl with joy. And then I read more serious poems. I always end with the only poem I ever wrote about a real person. It's a performance poem about Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the first Navajo to play major league baseball. Since my husband has a lot of Native American heritage, we became very interested in his story, and as a family we got very interested in researching Navajo culture. It's just SO much fun reading the Jacoby poem to an audience. I live in a baseball Twilight Zone located approximately halfway between New York and Boston! So, it's always great fun for the inevitable Yankee fans to throw out a few BOOOOOOOS, and for the Red Sox fans to cheer and cheer. So, the Jacoby poem ends the reading on a memorable note.
WG: Ellen, I've enjoyed our interview and appreciate the time you've taken to give it. Is there anything else that you would like to add about your writing or about poetry in general that we may not have covered?
EL: Thanks. I enjoyed it too and learned a lot about myself in the process. As for final thoughts about poetry, I find it to be a form of writing that nourishes my soul in difficult times. And, if any piece of my writing also nourishes other people in the process, I am thrilled.
In general, I would just like to encourage other poets to keep writing. Don't let people take away your own voice. Don't worry about trends and fads. Those come and go, but your own unique voice - that is forever. One trick I used to keep me going. Whenever I get a rejection, I send the same piece out two times. If those two get rejected, I send it out 4 times. Then 8 times.... My mailman knows me well.