profiles in poetics: Elizabeth Colen

colen_watercolorElizabeth Colen


Elizabeth Colen is a witness of absence entangled in the chemistry of writer as engineer, immediacy, and intimacy. Intimacy in this interview is exposed to the tentacles of emergency, control, and vulnerability presented in interpersonal familial and romantic relationships. Colen speaks to how the writer, and intrinsically poet, is a manipulator of language domains. She acknowledges that poetry writers have “control in calling the shots. It’s hard to get another body in a room and understand that you’re not in control. And writers sometimes try to control, which goes badly.” Here surrendering control fluidly fleshes intimacy. Colen expresses, “I think intimacy is a double-edged sword: difficult, but necessary. As writers we are so inside ourselves, intimate with ourselves, knowing ourselves, even knowing when we are lying to ourselves, etc. in a way I think most people aren’t.” Because of this heightened awareness, we also acknowledge the inedibility of direct communication.

Miscommunication is inevitable. And so Colen relates this dissonance to disaster, how “emergency is the world miscommunicating with us. The way a lover will get things wrong no matter how we sculpt our words.” Intimacy swims in the same lap pool as the disassembled mold of writer as creator and “an accretion of meaning through negation … fills the psychic space”. Miscommunication, intimacy, and emergency interact in the ways in which father is archetypically “the ‘no’ of language”. This uncomfortability is a negation of control in each alternating perspective. And so we have to ask ourselves how we find trust in language, the yes in language and intimacy. For Colen she says, “We’re made to be watching; we’re making ourselves in the process of being observed. What does this mean for intimacy and romantic love? What does this mean for anything? That terrifies me. That threat of disappearance.”

Elizabeth J. Colen earned a BA from Georgia State University, an MA in Fiction from Western Washington University, and is currently completing an MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington, where she is the recipient of the Nelson Bentley and Frederick Ingham Fellowships. She is the author of poetry collectionsMoney for Sunsets (finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, as well as flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake




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?

From a very young age I sought to change my environment any way possible. As a child you can’t get up and move, switch towns, you can’t sever ties when relationships aren’t working. As soon as I could write, I did. And this changed my world. I rewrote moments from my life and altered the endings, made them come out the way I wanted them to. Anything from some girl or boy I liked returning my affections, to the dog not running away, or my mom being nicer to my father. But then I got away from it and later turned to photography and visual collage. The return to writing in my late 20s was not something I planned on. I have always read a lot and at some point the books just started forming themselves inside my head.

Gosh, favorite writers… I am tempted to make some comprehensive list, but recent favorites include Richard Siken, Rachel Loden, Liz Waldner, Mary Ruefle, all time favorites include Kenzaburo Oe, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson. The biggest change would be that the focus of my affections used to lie in excellence in narrative / escapism, and the past six or seven years (how long I’ve been writing poetry), I’ve been more in love with sound.

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

Should I admit that I have had a crush on every almost every English teacher I’ve ever had from grade school on? This is inspiration. And I can say that every time I read a good book, I take on that writer as mentor in that moment—what can I learn? where do I geek out about the language or structure of the piece?—and how can I figure out how to use what the writer is teaching me. That pat statement made—that the world is my mentor—I have had a couple of very influential writer-to-writer / mentoring relationships. Most notably Suzanne Paola, Carol Guess, and currently Linda Bierds, who I am working with at UW in the MFA program. I have learned an inestimable amount of things about being a writer from each of them.

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

In form: I started out writing fiction, went to grad school the first time around for that, wrote stories, wrote a few novels (that I’m still slowly revising with a poet’s ear, so slowly). My writing process for the last ten years has involved reading other peoples’ poetry out loud until the voices start. And then, I am not entirely sure how it happened, but somewhere around six years ago poetry stopped being just a catalyst for me and became blood. So that’s form. Oh, and lineation. I started poetry with prose poems. I am trying to teach myself how to break lines; that’s not natural, and is in part why I went back to school. I don’t know how I’m doing. I own the confusion though. It’s not a bad place to be.

Content-wise, the shift has gone from a local, often personal focus to more global  / historical considerations. Most of my current projects involve some amount of detailed research (as Waiting Up for the End of the World did).

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

Absolutely. I read everything and I read constantly. At all times I am reading (and carrying with me) at least one collection of poetry, one book of fiction, and one of nonfiction. I also have a large collection of old textbooks on every subject, and am always picking up more. I read them, cut out snippets of information and carry them around, and cut up whole books to make visual collage, or erasures, or both. Oddly, the editing work I do professionally, which is really dry stuff, has been incredibly helpful in getting me to quickly reimagine my work on the sentence level, and become really adept at concision. I can drop articles and rearrange syntax and slash a word count like nobody’s business.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

Right now getting through the academic details of school (my “critical thesis”) so I can get back to writing poems! I finished a third book of poems last year (actually a novel in prose poems called What Weaponry). Almost all of the individual poems have been published, but I haven’t yet been sending it out as a whole. So I need to get on that. I am fairly prolific when it comes to writing, but I am not so good at sending work out regularly. I’m currently working on a new manuscript of poems tentatively titled: Feral. I’m also looking for jobs.

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

I am of a few minds about the question itself. I’m not sure I can separate writing by women in the last twenty years with writing in the last twenty years. Most of my favorite writers are women, though this hasn’t always been the case. I have paid a lot of attention to all the talk lately about how women aren’t given a fair shake in literature, their voices not heard as loudly or as often as mens’. That all the top ten lists and top 100 lists and whatever always include such a dramatic ratio of men to women. The pie charts about literary journals and what they’re doing. I can’t speak in general terms and say that right now women are writing more interesting, innovative, honest work, only to say that what I am reading of contemporary female writers, the good stuff anyway, is overwhelmingly interesting, innovative, brutally (in many ways) honest work. We’re constantly catching up. The male side of things is out there, it’s been done. It’s still being done in new ways, sometimes brilliantly. But I think male writers have their work cut out for them if they want to make it new. We know your bildungsromans, gentlemen. We’re familiar with your misogyny. And the ways you love. It takes a lot to surprise.

But the inequity is real, and that’s a problem. And maybe it’s unpopular to say, but I think most female readers are indiscriminate; they will read a female writer or they will read a male writer and get the universal, and see themselves in it. All reading is this: we must be able to cross that bridge. I think a lot of men—and this is the problem—just can’t see a woman writer or a woman’s story as universal, as applying to their life. Unless they are trying to figure out how to get a woman in bed. I’m generalizing, yes. And in poetry, the gendered divide does not seem so important. Because it is more dependent on sound than sense, more on language at very close range than on narrative. And that’s universal, or more so. Arguments can be made both ways.

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

Just a few off the top of my head that I am constantly surprised by Emily Kendal Frey, Tarfia Faizullah, Mary Biddinger, Kristy Bowen, Soham Patel, Anna Journey, Jane Wong, Daniela Olszewska, Janice Lee, Sarah McCarry (aka The Rejectionist), Mary Miller, Roxane Gay.

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

Naming is hard; I like “writer.”

9.)      Your poem, “JUST AFTER TAKE OFF,” presents a disaster. The opener reads, “In losing the landing gear we give up the rhythm a little. / there is a thump, the lights dim and go out.” I am predominately interested in the casual tone of this piece and how it reacts with the subject matter. If language is historically the mode in which we interact in relationships what does this say in times of disaster when we are unable to say the unsayable or write the disaster? In other words, the poem reads, “The triple-proof of our love: I didn’t say anything to you.” Does disaster alter intimacy and how do our linguistics express the vitality of this silence and or movement? How does the body fit into this discussion? –

I think intimacy is a double-edged sword: difficult, but necessary. As writers we are so inside ourselves, intimate with ourselves, knowing ourselves, even knowing when we are lying to ourselves, etc. in a way I think most people aren’t. We have a first loyalty to ourselves, and to books, to writing, language. Maybe it is just me in that it is “first,” but it is a complicated and sincere, sometimes desperate, sometimes uplifting intimacy / relationship. It is hard to let other people in. At least I find that it is. We control our worlds through language. Fiction-writers manipulate and create whole worlds they move people around in; but poetry writers no less, even sometimes have more control in calling the shots. It’s hard to get another body in a room and understand that you’re not in control. And writers sometimes try to control, which goes badly.

Maybe I am speaking from personal experience. I have dated a lot of writers. and while we can’t actually control the external world sometimes we believe we can. Our lives get tightly wound. In moments of emergency we are reminded how little we control. And it’s shocking. It invalidates us as kings, I think.

We may say we want the unexpected that’s part of life, of interest, of things to write about. But I think that’s usually not true. Even the risks we take, we calculate. And so emergency puts us on a level of intimacy in the world where we understand we are totally out of control. The way with another body in the room, a point of intimacy, we are totally out of control. And that closeness, there is no language for that. Nothing proper, nothing adequately “sayable,” and so we miscommunicate, even under the best of terms. And it all goes awry. Emergency is the world miscommunicating with us. The way a lover will get things wrong no matter how we sculpt our words.

10.)   A concentrated focus on the past is seen in your poem “MEN WHO RUN BACKWARDS”. Denial here is learned, reading, “We want water, wind. There are men who run backwards. There’s nothing to worry about; my father learned this in the army.” In this denial, there is a lack of exchange, a speech that permits an invisibility and authoritative hierarchical presence. Here, “if father didn’t watch, it never happened.” Can you please comment on the social tradition of the army, masculinity, and how the poem addresses cultural violence? Furthermore, the ways in which the linguistic codex of denial maneuvers in this space.

I’ve always been interested in an accretion of meaning through negation. How things mean when they are taken away, and what fills the psychic space. My brother has been missing for nearly a decade and so I talk to him a lot in my head. “11 Bang-Bang” is the poem that starts my first book (Money for Sunsets) and deals not only with absence, but the absence of absence (caskets returning from war not being seen on TV). I have no relationship with my mother and that impacts me. Part of what fills that space is a hyper-awareness of familial relationships (mine and others’) in general. The other parts I probably don’t want to talk about. To some degree every bit of writing I do has to do with danger, a lack of control, and absence.

I mean the whole book (Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies) is about what feels like an impending apocalypse. That’s absence on a big scale. I don’t know if I can comment articulately about the social tradition of the army, or even masculinity. Maybe power structures, which both of those things are… my father was never in the army, he was in the navy, and I don’t know, but I would probably call him a pacifist. I can’t ever imagine him physically violent, though I’ve seen him cry many times.

I am interested in the ways in which children are defined by what their parents are and aren’t, when they learn these things, how that effects a parent’s say. When my parents separated my father cried and cried and my brother cried and I just thought that was weak; everyone thought it was awful that I didn’t cry. But I was tired of the fighting, and I knew my mother was destroying my father. I was five or six at the time. I remember thinking maybe he could be happy elsewhere. I didn’t know what it would mean not to have him around, but somehow I could imagine other worlds for him. And he was never domineering, but I guess like language, like Freudian whatever; I guess I think I was thinking Lacan there in the poem. The father is the “no” of language. I’m paraphrasing horribly.

I have a sister poem in my next ms that basically says the same thing of the mother; the mark of existence is questioned when she’s not around. I mean watch a child fall, he won’t scream unless someone’s watching. What does that mean? We’re made to be watching; we’re making ourselves in the process of being observed. What does this mean for intimacy and romantic love? What does this mean for anything? That terrifies me. That threat of disappearance. Maybe that seems hyperbolic. But think about the devastation of a break-up. What is that about really? You the person haven’t changed; your molecular structure hasn’t been altered. Life is going to be different, sure. But is that all the strife is? Or how much of it is about identity? How you will be seen / not seen?

11.)   “SOCIOLOGY OF MYTHMAKING,” is a poem that floods the western cultural attraction to escapism, how this affects the prosody of our livings including how technology participates in this dance. There are several illustrations of this in the text: “this is what our lives are like. This is where we come from. You don’t believe in expectations; I don’t believe in paper trails … the T.V. sizzles … I take a forty-five minute shower in water / I don’t have to pay for.” How is the domestic sphere contracted, coded, and entangled in this temporality, and how do you believe this disguises the presence of, disrupts, alters, or gives access to intimacy?

I think a culture of distraction is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. And I am interested in the ways in which interpersonal relationships expand and contract based on situation, based on technology, yes, but as I’ve said before absence is key for me. With technology we create own distances, our own presences and absences, by this I mean how close and how far apart we want to be from someone. You know who you’ll put your phone away for and who you won’t, for example. Gosh, that sounds awful, but it is what it is.

“We keep looking up for someone else,” yes. YOLO, FOMO, and all of that.

Sometimes I think about human interactions in terms of electromagnetic repulsion. How the atoms that make up matter never actually touch. How when we sit on a chair we are actually hovering just above it. As we hover before the people around us, close, but never meeting. How there is always a distance. And for me there is a conservation of space, as though there must be the same amount at all times. If something (or someone) is close, a gap must open elsewhere. How a poem means is like this as well. In poetry, the space conserved is where the reader fits in.

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