profiles in poetics: Elizabeth Myhr

Elizabeth Myhr

the vanishings and other poems cover


Elizabeth Myhr, poet and editor of Calypso Editions, spent fifteen years in her first career as a jazz pianist. She tells us, she “came at poetry through music”. Importance of music’s connection to living and our silence in this space encapsulates life in alternative spheres. Time then becomes a concern of light.

In her forthcoming book, the vanishings & other poems, which will debut September 2011, Myhr addresses the perceived linearity of time and confronts the surreptitious unraveling of light. The exposed skeleton is one of great fragility and makes us question our experience of being in addition to the tools we use to describe this experience; language. In the process of this deconstruction we are able to embrace music in both its noise and silence. The negation of noise being possessed first before language.

She leaves us with this: “I mean, imagine if every car on the road had a silent electrical engine but was tuned to a particular note such that freeway travel would result in an amazing, flexible harmonic experience?”

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Inspiration for writing came in a different way for me than I suspect it does for most people.  I didn’t start writing until I was about 22 or 23 years old, and for the 15 years before I became a writer I was a jazz pianist. Writing was and is a second creative career.  Because of the music, I initially approached writing almost purely as sound, aware of rhythm and cadence and tone – those words we so often use for music – as well as composition, phrasing, meter – so I came at poetry through music. This happened one day inBerkeley. The urge to write came quite suddenly one afternoon and I started writing like mad, but I knew I couldn’t be both a writer and a musician at the same time.  Music is just too demanding.  So I made a choice and chose to be a poet.

My favorite poets in those days were Rilke, Sandburg, Bly, Snyder, and Plath, and they were great for someone starting out because, on the surface anyway, they write accessible poems. But my true early influence was T. S. Eliot. Before I had become a poet and been warned against the “dangers” of influence, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Eliot.  So I had, and have, no defense against him, and he still walks the streets of my poetry and he probably always will.  Now I am influenced by Polish and Russian poets, Herbert and Mandelstam in particular, but I also love Stevens,Ireland’s Yeats andHeaney,England’s Keats and Shelley, the Italian poetMontale,Germany’sCelan,Canada’s Anne Carson, and Latin’s Virgil and Horace.  I hold the very strong opinion that no poet should (or can) go without reading Latin and Greek poetry. It’s the foundation of everything and most of it is fabulous.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Luck has been at my side with my teachers.  Diane DiPrima, Jody Alieson, John Haines, Reginald Gibbons, Ilya Kaminsky, Jeanne Murray-Walker, Jeanine Hathaway, B.F. Fairchild, Robert Cording, and those are the writers who also teach. I have to include my high school science teachers in that mix, and I have to include my parents who are both amateur naturalists.  Also, musicians are on that list, Randy Halberstadt, Gaylord Young, Clarence Acox and Jerry Grey. Those men stood in front of me or sat beside me for countless hours and taught me how to listen to the creative voice that flows through a person when they are improvising, and how to capture that voice in my head and translate it to my hands and to the keyboard without losing focus or concentration.  Jerry in particular used to blindfold me and make me wait until I heard the next note before I played it. It’s the best training a poet could possibly hope for. Because the bad music will try and sneak in, the music (or phrases) that you think instead of feel.  They taught me to feel my way in.  I wouldn’t be the writer I am without them.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

Punctuation and capitalization have gone out the window for me because it’s just more challenging to try and write clearly without them.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I’m deeply influenced by scientific writing, field biology in particular. I read a lot of essays and non-fiction books about adventure, natural history including anthropology, and lately, archeology and physics. So I guess I like facts along with my fantasies. For fantasies, I watch a lot of films and look at a lot of paintings, particularly the high modernists. If you’ve never seen Cy Twombly’s paintings of Greek epic battles you haven’t seen one of the most extraordinary intuitive renditions of violence and passion on the planet.  They’re remarkable and they remind one of what fine art can do with literature.

5.)    What are you plans for the future?

Just to keep reading and writing as much as I can before I die, and to publish what good work comes of it.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Honestly, gender doesn’t matter much to me. Political situations in which poets find themselves and out of which they write is another matter. That’s critical, and it’s critically important for poets to tell it like they see it.  But woman or man, a writer is a writer and if your work is amazing, it will get published eventually. All one needs is one passionate friend who cares to make one’s work available to the public and knows how to do that.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I trust there are hundreds, if not thousands, of astonishing and gifted women all over the world writing in this moment. I don’t know of any woman writer in theUnited Statesthat everyone who cares to listen hasn’t already heard of. We’re pretty good at locating remarkable talent in this country.  But as a publisher, one always hopes to find unknown talented women writing in other countries who need their work translated.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am a poet.  I don’t really write anything else but the occasional book review or essay.

9.)    How has your editorial career affected how you approach your personal work?

Editorial work makes a person humble, because as an editor it’s one’s job to spot the weaknesses in writing and to correct them, so one becomes hard on oneself.

10.) In the conclusion of your essay “A Haunted Silence: Examining Poetry’s Relationship with Silence in the Wake of the Shoah through the Work of Johannes Bobrowski and Paul Celan,” published in Web Del Sol Review of Books, you state that the “cultural obsession with media is having a deep effect on poetry. Silence of any kind is no longer the place to begin. There is barely even a blank page.” And later, “[t]he result is contemporary poetry that feels recycled, tired, self-referential.” This is in reference, as you argue, to a move away from the divine silence inherent to poetry before World War II. I am interested in whether or not you believe this movement “inside noise,” you later state, is positive or negative, and what effect this has had in your own work.

Working “inside noise” is pretty exhausting, for me anyway. Those of us who live in huge cities forget how loud the world has become. Electricity makes everything hum, even at night in the country it’s hard to get away from noise, and now there are all these conduits for the internet under the earth – it’s pretty wild, our wired world. We forget that it hasn’t always been like this – only for a few hundred years. So I seek out silence where I can find it – in the woods, in meditation, in the places where there are no machines. It’s hard to find those places but it’s valuable to do so. Interesting things happen to perception when silence comes into one’s head and body, when speech is interrupted for an extended period of time. You see, there was a time when human beings did not speak, but that we have forgotten what that time was like. So I go look for that. What happened as a result of the Shoah was the opposite of the silence I seek. The silence created by the Shoah was the silence of a mass grave. That is a horrendous silence. I hear that silence too. It is also a silence, a terrible silence of the earth.

11.) In your forthcoming book the vanishings & other poems, there are weighted pockets of meditation and breath crafted through your use of sound idea and image. The effect leaves the readers with an elegant grasp of recycled space in a quiet ambiguity. Can you elaborate on this sensitivity and how this relates to your previous negotiation of noise?

the vanishings is a book less about noise and silence than about light and its corollary in abstract terms, which we call time. So I think the sense of “recycled space” and “quiet ambiguity” have to do more with my explorations of non-linear temporality and its disorientations than silence per se. I also talk about the limitations of language though – limitations such as the forces of history, of love, of war, of desire, of music.

12.) In the vanishings & other poems, a fragmenting theme expresses the limitations of language. There is fragmentation in our experience of the world similar to the fragmentation of the letters of a word. If language and more specifically speech permits us to share our humanity, how does this limitation in your opinion affect our ability to articulate humanity in and outside of poetry?

Language does some things well, like advertising what’s being sold in a store or creating a gift for a loved one that we call a letter, but it is a poor tool for explaining, for example, religious experience, true love, profound loss, and other difficult human emotions. Music is in some ways a much better vehicle for emotion than language. The world’s response to September 11th is a good example – the Requiem was a far better explanation for our feelings of that event at the time than any language would permit. Language always comes second, after music. I think we probably learn music first anyway, and language second.  We may have even sung and played music to each other before we ever spoke. Think of that world. We could create a world like that today if we wanted to. I mean, imagine if every car on the road had a silent electrical engine but was tuned to a particular note such that freeway travel would result in an amazing, flexible harmonic  experience?

2 thoughts on “profiles in poetics: Elizabeth Myhr

  1. Pingback: An Interview « the vanishings & other poems

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