An Interview with Elizabeth A.I. Powell
Author of Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances
by William Trowbridge
William Trowbridge: It has been nearly 16 years between your previous collection of poems The Republic of Self and Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter. Why so long?
Elizabeth A.I. Powell: This new collection was pretty much finished in 2005, and was a finalist that year for the National Poetry Series, and almost every poem and essay in the book had been published in literary journals. In the last 10 years, a lot of advanced thinking has gone on about genre, especially hybridity and the lyric essay. I have always loved the melding of the essay and the poem forms , notably as in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. I also adored Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles when I was younger, especially for its genre-bending fluidity and verve. Curse of the Starving Class, another Shepard play, remains influential. I think in the past few years some important voices, particularly female voices, like Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, and Jessica Hendry Nelson, have advanced hybridity in genre. So maybe the world was not yet ready in 2005 for this book.
WT: In an interview, Arthur Miller said of the first performance of Death of a Salesman that he was surprised to see grown men crying as they left the theater. The implication is that the play had a much deeper effect on men than it did on women. How did it come to have such a strong effect on you?
EP: As I see it, the play is a depiction of patriarchy poisoning men with the false dreams of unbridled capitalism that strip some men of their humanity and spiritual freedom. Perhaps Miller was surprised by the power that his play harnessed to crack the surface, make men feel the pain of the societal trauma that was being depicted on the stage.
Miller’s play has always resonated with my upbringing, having had a Jewish salesman father from Brooklyn who could never quite measure up to his father’s sales and success glory. There was a lot of sexism in my growing up, and I wanted to create a persona who could speak to all the issues that Arthur Miller’s play brings up about society, family, and the old deadly American dream. I was thinking about how Luigi Pirandello’s great play Six Characters in Search of an Author, where all his erased/deleted characters speak and try to take over. I liked that idea in a number of ways, and experimented toward what that might look like in a poem. The voice that came out was the voice of the erased daughter in a man’s world of commerce, which has traditionally been the locus of power in the U.S. I was also listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and I thought that’s it: Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter. The rest of the title, “Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances,” comes from Sanford Meisner, the great method-acting teacher. Reading about Method Acting helped me construct a persona who wanted to speak in reality. That phrase seemed to fit my whole life, that I had been living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, so I started to play with that idea in developing a voice deleted from an imagined version of Death of a Salesman. At times in my life, my brain and circumstances were such that only my imaginary life sustained me, but it wasn’t healthy. I believe reality is the great God of taskmasters. In some sense, the opposite has also been true in constructing this book, which I have lived imaginarily in truthful circumstances as well in a positive way, imagining positive things that could be. So a woman thinks! For a long time I fought that with my will, now I just fight it with my pen. The will can’t change reality. Reality has big muscles and eats spinach.
I grew up with a salesman father and grandfather trying to push through toward the American dream, but even as a child I could see it was making them sick. They were far from the Shtetl for sure, but the trauma was layered. I wanted to give voice to the female experience of the familial, generational trauma of making it to and in an “assimilated” America.
Death of a Salesman is, as David Mamet has pointed out, a Jewish play. It was a central text in our family, referred to often by my father’s family members. It was the only literary book my father had. That old tawny brown paperback book had a mythical feel.
The absence of the female voice in the world of business and sales, made me want to write about it from that perspective.
WT: In your new collection, the father is a dominant figure, one the speaker seems to want both to exorcise and to identify with. Can you elaborate on that?
EP: Fathers are mythic creatures. Look at Greco-Roman stories. Look at the Bible. The Prodigal Son. We see this in Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus,” where she tries to exhume the mythical father, the image and effigy of the father. In Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter there is an attempt to ritually remove the powers of the father through drama and poetry, so that the daughter can live outside the “dollhouse” box she has been placed in.
Paternity reminds me of the words “pattern” and “eternity.” Perhaps part of paternity is seeing patterns in eternity, which certainly fits into what I am doing in this book, trying to understand how familial/literary/historical narratives weave and propulse each other through time and space. “Genre-bending” and blurring categories is playing with such patterns.
I wanted to explore this idea of paternity, or father/eternity, intellectually, artistically, psychically, historically, politically. There is something lovely and beautiful about men, on a fundamental level, that we can sometimes see in fathers, but when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong. Even the Christian mystery riffs on the Father giving his ONLY begotten son, or how in the Old Testament Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son on the mountaintop, though God only requires a foreskin. Holy cow, that’s some pretty wild, hairy stuff.
In my childhood home, my mother was very butch, and there seemed something so soft about my father, but later I could see that softness was a kind of charm to make him the innocent he was not. My concepts of masculinity and femininity were all mixed up. It was a good situation for my parents for a while: a serial womanizer married to a closeted Butch lesbian. Despite it all, he was my first male love, a serious reckoning, especially in the 1970s, when all the parents were living the Me Generation life. Or at least some of them.
The daughter in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter, the forgotten voice who speaks, is looking for agency in a world she sees as so male that there is no space for her to live and breathe. I wanted to find out what the daughter’s strongest voice was in that Mad Men Willy Loman world of New York I grew up in. How to have agency in that world, for me, was through a kind of mythic storytelling that uses imagination and persona to break the glass ceiling of that mythic American dream narrative.
With Zeus, Athena is born out of her father’s head and represents knowledge. If the daughter in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter can figure out the mind of the father, she might be born again, perhaps out of the mythic head of the father, for she has obtained a kind of transcendent knowledge.
WT: Your collection deals extensively with bipolarities of faith, region, and self. Do they apply to something beyond the personal i.e. could they be seen as particularly American?
EP: My hope was to illustrate that like hybridity in literature, humans also contain multitudes, as Whitman said. Our American dinero says: E Pluribus Unum, out of many one, and I’ve always liked that idea. That is why the book’s mixed genre, itself, pays homage to that idea of assimilation, a grafting of new identities upon older identities.
As David Mamet mentions, Death of a Salesman is a Jewish play. It is about assimilation. In the 1940s and 1950s, Ivy League schools were trying to limit the Jewish intellectuals from taking over the academy, so for many Jews assimilation meant stripping any ethnic exterior, a kind of passing. This is the dark side of assimilation. However, I find hybridity a modern, hopeful way that we can be all the things inside us at once and not have to claim a team. I refuse to let any one make me choose between being an Episcopalian and a Jew.
Also, growing up in NYC in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was fascinated by signs I kept seeing on telephone and lamp poles: Jews for Jesus. I knew there was something wrong with this idea, because I had overheard conversations amid the grown-ups about it, but I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this, since I was what my daughter calls an Episco-Jew. During the summers, I went to the Episcopal Church and at Christmas time with my maternal Grandmother, and celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, and Chanukah with my father’s family. As I child I felt divided, as if I didn’t fit in anywhere. There was no discussion of identity around me then, even though I grew up in a leftist family. No one talked about my mother being gay, even though it was super obvious. Back then it seemed assimilation was a kind of silence, but it is an idea that we need to talk about. I fear we are going the other way now, too divided, eager to say things without really thinking through what we are saying.
As far as regions go, I think my Grandparent’s desire to leave Brooklyn for Westchester, and the immigrant experience behind them as fast as they could kind of made Brooklyn seem like “the old country.” Willy and Biff Loman also want to get out of Brooklyn, have some space. Willy’s brother, Ben, has made it big and been freed by his trips to the American West.
My father felt this tension too, always wanting to get out of the city, go to the country. Eventually he left his home in Greenwich Village for New Hampshire so he could “Live Free or Die” (New Hampshire’s motto). Yet, when he got there in 1984, and lived there for twenty years, he couldn’t live free of the things that still haunted him, so he died young, never having attained the freedom that the Loman men also sought. I’d rather be a country mouse than a city mouse. On my mother’s side, my grandmother became an early back-to-the lander with her second husband. Sort of like the Nearings, they left Washington, D.C. and New York for a dairy farm.
So, yes, place and the binary of country/city looms large in the book. The idea of finding place amid one’s e pluribus unum. So many different ancestors, so many different voices. One tries to belong. One tries to listen to the heart. Just as content is a revelation of form and vice versa, so place is a revelation of character and the shaping of character and vice-versa.
WT: You’ve mentioned the importance of humor in your poetry. Why is that?
EP: I love what Charles Simic says about the timing in a poem being reminiscent of the timing in a joke. The way into a joke is similar to the way into a poem. It starts with a question.
I grew up listening to Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce on stand-up records that my father played. Pretty young, too, I was 10 or so listening to this stuff.
But mostly, I see my attraction to humor based upon growing up with a Jewish father who was extremely comedic. It is said that comedy is an expression of oppressed people. I think that is certainly trueJewish humor is central to part of the religious tradition in terms of the legal arguments of the Talmud. Comedy was a way for Jews to assimilate, especially in Anti-Semitic America. As Lenny Bruce said: “He was charming . . . . They said, ‘C’mon! Let’s go watch the Jew be charming!'” There is also a tradition of the Holy Fool in Jewish Literature, as in the works of Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. My WASP side appreciates the work of John Cleese, especially in Fawlty Towers. Love Wodehouse. Also, as a kid I sat around listening and memorizing this record album we had, “The Wit of John F. Kennedy.”
WT: Two contemporary anthologies of seriocomic poetry offer noticeably more poems by men than by women, though the editor of one has told me he tried hard for a better balance. This seems to support the notion that women poets are less inclined to use humor regularly in their poems than men are. If you agree, why would you say that’s so?
EP: What is funny is such a personal thing. Society makes us think the funny girl is ugly in some way. Humor is a powerful force for change, like poetry a joke can set off a chain of events for change, sometimes violently. Look at Charlie Hebdo. Women have much to catch up to. Falstaff, the court jester, the holy fool prototypes, all male. I think it is discouraged by that dumb idea of “unladylike.” Women have been raised to believe, that if we are too smart, guys won’t like us or hire us or take us seriously, although such attitudes have been changing. We are trained by society not to outshine men.
Also, humor is the great weapon of the ages: it’s a way to tell the truth while no one is really realizing what message you are slipping in. It is the ultimate oppression to deny the power of enacting laughter that gets at the truth. So while men who are in the minority can use humor to get a leg up, it is still denied to women for the most part. It is enforced by mother jokes of all kinds. Misogyny in humor is a way of silencing women, both through the prohibition to be humorous and also through the topics of the jokes themselves.
And laughter can be disturbing– I’m thinking of Samuel Beckett’s “Not, I”–where the laughing is not that different than crying. I could never cry for the longest time. Then I wondered why I was such a weirdo, since every time I saw an ambulance or an accident I laughed. I now realize I laughed because I couldn’t cry. Sometimes something is scary because, once you start, you might not be able to stop.
All that said, here are some witty women writers you should read: Melissa Broder, Nin Andrews, Jennifer Knox, Stephanie Brown, Dorothy Parker, to name only a handful.
WT: Are women poets still at a disadvantage in gaining significant recognition as poets?
EP: Sometimes we need to be dead for others to like us and read us, but it is improving very slowly. The #MeToo movement shows just how much oppression women face on many levels. Academia is notably one of the last bastions of sexism. I’ve had student evaluations comment on my outfits. I’m sure they’d never do that to men. That is just the least of it. There are still very different standards for men and women in academia.
A couple of ways to help? Revolution! Then some sundry points: I think Bread Loaf needs to quit asking age on applications. The world still doesn’t like women over forty that much. Also, I think some of the feminist presses started in the ‘70s are publishing stuff not by women now, and that is a problem. Radcliffe Buntings used to be for women.
WT: What kind of feminist would you say you are?
EP: A give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death kind of feminist. A question- everything feminist. A “the greatest of these is Love” feminist: Trust but verify.
My mother was a second wave feminist, for sure, a displaced homemaker who was really a Butch woman. My whole childhood I wore a T-shirt that said, “A Woman’s Place is in the House and in the Senate,” but now I think a sister should be wherever she wants if it’s not hurting anyone or herself.
I was named for my Great-Grandmother, who was a suffragette in Boston and worked at her own peril to bring birth control and women’s health issues to the fore for all women, especially the poor and hungry and frightened.
WT: In your pre-poetry life, you were deeply involved in politics, both in campaigns and as a Congressional aide on Capitol Hill. How much of an influence would you say that ’s had on your poetry?
EP: Politics seemed to be a place where you could question everything and, by doing so, perhaps change things that were denying freedom and hope to our citizens. It was a place where I could think in questions and arguments. I have found out it is better for me to think these things through in poems. And as Rilke said, “we must live the questions.” That said, I have started to think about running for office, so ask me again in a couple of years.
WT: W. H. Auden once said that a young person who wanted to write poetry “because I have something important to say” has no hope as a poet. He added that, if that person wanted to write it because of a desire “to hang around words and listen to them talking to one another, “ there is hope.?
EP: Fair enough is what I’d say. I had a lot to say when I was younger, and that is why I worked on Capitol Hill. The poetry comes from experience with language. Real wisdom is knowing you don’t know. So I’d agree with Auden. Poetry is not a project. Poetry is a cacophony of words searching to row together toward meaning through image, through sound. The desire to ask questions and use language to highlight that which one doesn’t understand is what makes the art of poetry exciting to me.
WT: William Faulkner said, “ The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Do you agree, at least in the sense of the heart in conflict with its selves?
EP: Not sure. Does that leave out pastoral poetry or eco-poetry, for instance, the poem that is not anthropocentric but engages with the consciousness and spirit of the world outside. Sometimes other creatures and places are in conflict, too, and that is certainly interesting to me, especially in poets such as Frost and Brigit Pegeen Kelly, where the conflict comes in the natural world and sometimes is in the natural world. Faulkner in that Nobel acceptance speech is talking about the question of survival, of not being in fear and not blowing ourselves up, which in 1950 he says is the central human question. Perhaps for us, too. Today, the North Korean’s warned us that nukes are an option. We haven’t gone far in the nearly 70 years since Faulkner made that speech. His advice then, seems to me good advice now, especially when he says it is our privilege as writers to help people preserve and overcome, that we must not be afraid and that we must summon courage and empathy and love.
The first poem in the book, a “proem”, or a prologue poem, “Psychic Proem”, engages with the intuitive and imaginative knowing that governs the book. The poem is psychic because in its writing it predicted events, imagistically, which later can be understood in the lived life of the narrator as well as the book. Images as premonitions. Only living the questions can get one to the understanding of the narrative behind the imagistic glimpses of the intuitive and spiritual self.
Poetry can and does make beauty out of the pain of unknowing or not understanding. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Poets, as unacknowledged legislators of the world, as Shelley called us, must seek to understand the times we live in and the outcomes emotional spiritual and physical and practical.
There is a kind of gas lighting of America going on now, the idea that things can’t be true. That untruth can be true. I believe in Beauty and Truth, always have. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but the crows are coming home to roost. What I am writing about is how we have eaten the American dream, and as for the Loman family in DOS , it has made us sick.
I think all political campaigns should have a poet laureate who travels with them and writes poems. Corporate journalism is no longer the fifth estate in so many ways. Is it possible to write after Auschwitz? Celan and Brecht prove it is possible, they have left us a legacy.
Also, the 21st century seems to me to be about hybridity on many levels. I’m interested in the hybridity of forms, where poetry becomes theater, or prose and vice versa. As poet Denise Levertov said, form is always a revelation of content, and the idea of hybridity is one that interests me very much. We are in a state made in part of the effects of hybridity from globalism, so it is asking us now to explore the real differences between reality and a kind of “enhanced reality,” which is really untruth.
WT: If you could go out to dinner with one of the great poets of the past, whom would that be and what would you want to talk about?
EP: I wouldn’t go out to dinner. I’d take him or her for a walk, botanizing, as Frost called it. The best dinner discussion might already have been done in the film My Dinner With Andre.
WT: Your collection deals in part with the influence of the past on the present. What would you say is the past’s main influence?
EP: Exactly. I love what Einstein said—that time is simultaneous. In a spiritual, philosophic, and scientific way this is true: how moments engage our imagination of possible worlds, with tangential images that recur as well as appear out of nowhere, perhaps biologically linked by heritable memory. All are fascinating and part of the building blocks of poetry, because time and imagination enact the world with possibility. Staying fluid in that flux is the key to dance, to art, to poetry. The “whysciality” of time and possibility is real and always with us like a friend or foe, never leaving our side. Also there is the notion of identity. Working with an outside text from my own world, the similar world of Death of a Salesman, in my family’s struggle with assimilation made it more engaging and less navel- gazing to me. I wanted to be in conversation about identity with someone who came before me that I admire, namely playwrights, particularly Miller and Pirandello. Poetry is a conversation, within Einstein’s idea that all time is simultaneous, vis-a-vis physics, biology, spirituality, process theology, love, etc. I want to be involved with that. Process Theology encourages us to think about the ways in which we change time and God by our actions interfacing with the actions, time, and moments of others.
WT: You’ve said method acting had a significant influence on your writing. How so?
EP: I love, love, love what Arthur Miller says about drama: “There lies in the dramatic form the ultimate possibility of raising the truth-consciousness of mankind to a level of such intensity as to transform those who observe it.” Even as I child I was searching for truth consciousness beneath every action the adults in my life were taking. I am always been moved by Miller’s definition of drama: “ With the greatest presumption, I conceived that the great writer was the destroyer of chaos, a man privy to the council of the hidden gods who administer the hidden laws that bind us all and destroy us all if we do not know them.”
Method acting, as Sanford Meisner taught it is “Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances,” and that is interesting to me precisely because it resides in the imagination’s interpretation of reality.
WT: A prominent idea behind modernism was that literature could be, among other things, a substitute for religion, which was losing its grip on modern life. Has such a substitution been possible for you?
EP: No. Literature can help us access spiritual truths, but the main spiritual truth that religion can enact is service to the other. I agree with what W.C .Williams said, “people die everyday,” but let’s face it : people die for lots of other reasons than, “for lack of what is found in poetry, “ and we need to take action to reach out to our neighbor. Also, I still do believe in capital T. The current socio-political mode makes me believe in it all the more. There is something called the truth whether people like it or not. We might not always be able to define it, but we know it when we see it or hear it. Metaphor is truth in some ways, but in some realms there are higher laws than metaphor. Literary theory has done a lot to dissuade me from believing that literature is the only form of redemption.
WT: What’s your attitude toward the displacement of the so-called “New Criticism” approaches to literary study, with their emphasis on craft and close-reading, by more theory-oriented modes?
EP: Theories are like assholes, everyone’s got one. I like What David Lehman writes about in his incredible book of scholarship Sign of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man.
Deconstruction is part of an Anti-Semitic thought process started by folks like De Man. The French thought that deconstruction was a joke, so they exported it to the USA. Yale ate it up, and then it was the drip down theory. Doesn’t work for economics, but it works for bad ideas. I know Truth when I see it, Beauty when I see it. I think a deterioration of our political discourse and courtesy is based in some small part on this. But, don’t get me started. I favor close reading and craft. I prefer one heart and mind speaking to another heart and mind.
WT: “First, do no harm” is said, though incorrectly, to be the first sentence in the Hippocratic Oath. Is that a good rule for doctoring creative writing students as well?
EP: It’s a good rule for anything. Here’s my story. When I was young, 23, I kept sending my short fiction to The New Yorker and The Quarterly. I had studied with Lorrie Moore as an undergraduate, and I knew some stuff about the literary world from her, even though I wasn’t her best student in terms of attendance or attention. So when I kept getting handwritten notes from Gordon Lish and invitations to come to his workshop, that I should work with him, I thought, “Who is this guy trying to get it on with me” and threw out the nice rejection notes and his notes on my manuscripts. Only later did I learn who Gordon Lish was. What an idiot I was back then.
The New Yorker also used to send me nice handwritten notes back. Then I went to graduate school and my first male professor said, “Oh no, not another first-person women’s story.” I shut down and set out to actually ruin my fiction writing unintentionally by writing in third person, stories I didn’t care about. So with my students I try to emphasize what is working well in their writing and expand on that, instead of shutting them down. I learned the hard way: Don’t let others hold your score card. Big mistake. I don’t perform unneeded surgery, though sometimes I will provide a bit of cosmetic surgery.
WT: In addition to your magazine editing and full-time teaching in a regular creative-writing program, you have also been teaching in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s low-residency M.F.A in writing program and the Vermont College M.F.A. in Editing and Publishing. What made you add the latter to your considerable workload?
EP: I love my students at the M.F.A programs I teach in, and feel a responsibility to give back. The future is built on our contributions. It is also engaging to have dialogue with colleagues, which inspires my work. I’m not afraid of work. Like Frost said, it is the thing that sustains us. When I think of my immigrant great-grandparents and how they lived and worked, I have nothing to complain about. That said, I take on all this work— it’s also called single-parenthood and the wage gap, 77% on the dollar, and it’s worse in academia, even though we are all supposedly “so” enlightened.
The problem with the world is that we think grown ups know what they are doing, but I really think everyone is faking it. That’s what I’ve learned. Also, Vermont is only above last-place Mississippi in its funding of higher education. So we are a progressive state, but not when it comes to our state colleges. Our state gives more to the flagship university that tries to market itself as a private ivy for out-of-staters. The state college system tries to do the heavy lifting of our Vermont natives, many of whom are first-generation students coming out of impoverished rural backgrounds. The flagship university pays its teachers twice as much for half the workload. When I feel sad about it, I remember that my great-grandmother lived in a place not even as nice as the restrooms at my job. I hope Bernie Sanders rides up on his white horse and fixes that for us, because our new chancellor thinks maybe a marijuana legalization effort and a “higher education tax” will fix it. Maybe, but it sounds kinda like a corrupt idea.
WT: What are you working on right now in your writing?
EP: I just finished writing a poetry manuscript called “When the Insemination Man Comes to the Farm.” It deals with the end of love that is brought forth from online dating. French philosopher Alain Badiou’s work “In Praise of Love” has been very influential. I recall my dairy farmer grandmother studying a book of sires to mate her cows: Online dating seems similar.
I’m writing a memoir about generational political activism in my family. My grandfather was involved in the Manhattan Project, then later in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, then in working for peace and justice the rest of his life. I marched in utero over the Pettus Bridge with my mother, who worked for Mayor Lindsey in New York City. I was deeply involved in the No Nukes activism of the early 1980s. The memoir also traces my suffragette great-grandmother. In the essays I reflect on this generational narrative within a political, but also spiritual, context in the form of the lyric/hybrid essay.
Elizabeth A. I. Powell is the author of The Republic of Self, a New Issue First Book Prize winner, selected by C.K. Williams. Her second book, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, won the Robert Dana Prize in poetry, chosen by Maureen Seaton (Anhinga Press, 2016). In 2013, she won a Pushcart Prize. Powell has also received a Vermont Council on the Arts grants and a Yaddo fellowship. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Ecotone, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Associate Professor of Writing and Literature at Johnson State College.
William Trowbridge is the author of the full-length poetry collections Enter Dark Stranger (1989), O Paradise(1995), Flickers (2000), The Complete Book of Kong (2003), Ship of Fool(2011), and Put This On, Please: New and Selected Poems (2014). He is a distinguished professor emeritus at Northwest Missouri State University and currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska. He lives in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, with his wife.