When my inspired moment came, I realized that I could just write the female voice that is left out in “Death of a Salesman”, a voice that is like mine, like our mother’s and grandmother’s, the silenced female holding up the American dream for the men to eat of. The 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 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, the old deadly American dream. I was thinking about how Luigi Pirandello’s great play “Six Character’s 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. Then I was 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 in construct the persona who wanted to speak in reality. That phrase seemed to me 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 “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 that I have lived imaginarily in truthful circumstances as well in a positive way, imagining positive things that could be. So as 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.
What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
Congratulations! In a world full of despair and junky advertising and famine, you have found some light! Now, I hope you have your own interior life that amuses you! And, enough money to pay someone to help do the chores!
What’s your advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)
A teacher I once had said all creative types should marry successful doctors. I don’t know about that. Really, I don’t know much about finding a lifelong partner. I was married seventeen years to a wonderful artist, but we got knocked up young. Now, I find myself looking for a lifelong partner, so I can tell you useful traits in my list of what I’m looking for, which might not be realistic. Number one: Not a sociopath (there are more of those than you think in polite society, as they make good doctors, businesspeople, for instance). Trust your gut, know the romantic narratives of your forbearers, as much as you can, and learn to listen to your still small voice. Find someone who doesn’t need taking care of, someone who is hot and funny and likes to watch similar movies and eat similar food, and wants to read books together. Find someone to laugh with. And the “old church lady truth” to dating is to find someone who you can have good conversations with, because if the sex goes, baby that’s all you got. See, I don’t know much about this. What I’ve learned is that I can never be with anyone who is a ski freak. Such stunning knowledge! Seriously, writing the poems in “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter” helped me to be done with the past once and for all. Writing is a way you can do that, take your power back while developing critical human empathy for all. What is not working in your writing is the thing that’s not working in your life.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I was a blunt talking, sassy, awkward, fairy princess-misfit who liked to stay home with my father’s mother in Scarsdale and wear all her silkiest Saks nighties as evening dresses over my own Danskin attire and eat raisin cookies from the Italian bakery down the street. I liked the quiet. I liked the hugs from my grandmother and her maid, both ethnic and affectionate and able to hug me close like my WASPY mother wouldn’t or couldn’t. It was never quiet at my parent’s house, lots of clients and dinner parties always going on, as well as their 1970s yelling, divorce style. As the oldest daughter, I was shipped off, thank God, to all my grandparents. During the summers I’d go to my Waspy back-to-the-land gram’s farm and ride the cows and play in the woods. I was always divided, split down the middle, city girl, country girl. Wasp girl, Jew girl: Never totally a fit anywhere. I suppose the main thrust of my growing up was that the men and boys always seemed to be the most important people among our tribes, both my Wasp side and my Jewish side. Inside that division was a kind of e plurbis unum way of identity that I grasped for. I love what Diane Seuss said in a Divedapper interview about her poetry: “It’s about girlhood surviving manhood” and that has been true for me, too. My childhood took place in a kind of Mad Men scenario, both my grandfather and father worked on Madison Avenue. I could only watch that show once (it activates PTSD in me).
Back then my Jewish grandparents considered Brooklyn “the old country”, a place to escape. I think that’s why Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” always resonated with me, growing up in a family striving to make and survive wealth, only to have nothing in the very end. My father eventually destroyed the business (almost on purpose in a Greek tragedy kind of way), and then went through millions and millions of dollars leaving us penniless once again. It’s that “dream”, that filthy dream that Biff is always referring to in the play. That filthy dream pervaded my family since my father was the son trying to rise in his family’s business. My mother was all the time trying to be the perfect seventies wife, but under it all was a masculine, lesbian self that she wrestled with her whole life. There was great chaos. That chaos was a thin film over the truth I knew existed, even as a kid, but was always and forever on the verge of being revealed. Maybe it’s being a descendant of actors in the Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe, but that chaos had the pathos and tragedy of the drama I kept seeing unfold weirdly inspired me to make up songs and complex narratives. Narrative (storytelling) and music (poetry) was a way for me to make sense of it all, and both my self-proclaimed liberal Jewish and Waspy grandparents thought that was okay for a girl if she was going to marry right. 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.” Looking at the tumultuous time of my growing up through the lens of drama and poetry helped me survive the chaos and find a moral compass, a way out of crazy. Not only was home a disaster of opposites, religion, sexuality, etc. but the times were upsetting. I recall being regularly scared by the news, all the time.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
Yes! Being a congressional aide and working in politics when I was younger helped me to really spin and fictionalize a narrative in a way I wanted it to be seen! It was like being a salesman of eternal bullshit. I guess that is why my father’s travelling salesman narrative and the Willy Loman narrative really resonate with me, how that explosive glory seeking can never replace the light of hope and redemption in the simplicity of things. Sometimes the only thing around the corner is death, and the American business narrative wants to erase that to a degree. We won’t really be redeemed by thingyness, after all the cross itself is only a symbol. Like Frost said, if you’re lost in metaphor, you are lost in history, lost in science, etc.
Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?
Charlie Simic was my professor in graduate school and he taught me how to cut (or should I say gut) the entrails from my poems. His poems really reflected to me the actual voice and wit I heard in the man, it made me ask myself about my true voice that I had buried deep inside myself because as a girl I felt I should just shut the fuckup already. I was too chit-chatty and it drove my parents nuts. Also, Simic’s sense of image/metaphor and juxtaposition appealed to my own Eastern European side, a darkness in my heart that could, if I let it, turn to wit, a kind alchemy for the soul. I love what he said about the similarity of timing of a joke and a poem. I grew up with a quiet waspy mother and a larger than life Jewish guy who was always joking, that eastern European Jewish humor made my growing up, linguistically speaking, bearable. Not to mention my father had Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce on the turntable a lot. I love the way humor guides us through the dark, and it does this by really recognizing that darkness unafraid. There’s a kind of communion in that, spiritually speaking. It breaks down barriers.
Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
For a long time I thought I had to decide which side of my family to side with since we were raised with both Christian and Jewish holidays. I spent time in the Episcopal Church with my maternal grandmother, and my spiritual home is there, but I’ve come to accept myself as my daughter calls me—the Episco-Jew. The Eucharist is the Passover feast. I can sit at that table. Spirituality and religion have helped me to understand myself. A lot of my book is about disassociation of the self from the self. For a long time I was scared of God, scared of religion. Psychiatry has helped, but somehow I kept having these female Episcopal priests show up in my life and mentor me. My experiences in the Episcopal Church have healed my life. I love the liturgy of the “Book of Common Prayer”, and when I was young I wished I could write a poem as beautiful. I was so excited when I met the poet J. Chester Johnson, a man I admire so very much, who had helped Auden with the translation that is used to this day.
When I was writing “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances”, I heard an Episcopal priest give a sermon about liturgy as play. The gist of it was theater is a way we play, and that playfulness brings us near to creation and our creator. I loved that idea. Theater is a kind of worship to me. My work and process is part of me becoming the person I’m intended to be, and since I have missed out on some of my life, I don’t want to miss out now. So, to answer your question, yes, I believe there is another world, maybe it is in this one. I find the new work of physics beautiful. Everything is everything. Coming from where I’ve come from, I need the peace that passeth all understanding. There is so much space inside this space, and the writer is trying to communicate with it and for it. That makes me happy.
If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
To save my soul, of course! I think that road to hell is paved with Wall Street dudes and dudettes. I suppose it is because I really believe in the biblical story of the gifts. Somehow I’ve ended up in this profession, so different from where I thought I would go, being an ACLU or environmental lawyer. I argued so much with my father about our lives that he always told me I’d make a great lawyer. The dutiful daughter searching for acceptance, I was headed to law school from having already worked on Capitol Hill. Instead, things turned in a minute. I found myself in my own version of the movie, “Knocked-up” as I’ve mentioned. So, instead I had a baby, which made me go back into my own heart and see the young poet and writer I had been and abandoned in order to try and resurrect my family’s lost dignity and get my father’s attention.
Motherhood has been a central part of my creative and spiritual work, a way to find my true self that was lost along the way in my difficult childhood. So, in terms of the professional life, I have tried to really take up that mantle of Shelley’s that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, as a way to bridge that vocational issue. I keep teaching because maybe there is someone for whom my particular narrative of life information will mean something and help them in changing their lives in a “you must change your life” kind of way. Big order, but without that hope I don’t think I could teach. Meaning making is everything, in some sense. Nothing is scarier to me than that which is empty of redemption.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
Really my whole life has felt like triage, cleaning up metaphorical messes and actual messes, albeit mostly blessed messes. I try to have schedules, but life has a way of interfering. I just keep a pen handy, take lots of walks. If I’m writing, I’ve come to understand that doing that makes the rest of my life come to fruition, come into focus because it is investigating the truth-consciousness I can’t yet see otherwise. What needs figuring out in my life needs figuring out in my writing and vice versa. This is absolutely always true. There’s the balance: The Mystery. If I am adequately addressing the Mystery in my life, the rest takes care of itself.
Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I once read an article in grad school that said to tack all your rejection letters up above your desk. I don’t recall whose advice that was, but it really worked for me. Having rejection letter wallpaper, really helped me get used to rejection in a way that I’m not really built for. I have come to believe we all have “our way” and what’s for us won’t pass us by. We each have a crazy recipe that makes our lives, so I try to remember that I can’t always understand the ways of this world. I have found envy of others totally useless, who knows what their actual lives are like behind success. Criticism and rejection in work has been easier than in love, for instance. Criticism means, at the very least, you’ve maybe made some one think something.
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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 of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances won the 2015 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize, selected by Maureen Seaton, and was just released in September of 2016. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2013, Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, Ecotone, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Slope, Sugarhouse Review, Ploughshares, Post Road, Zocalo Public Square, and elsewhere. She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Johnson State College. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, as well as the Vermont College of Fine Arts Editing and Publishing MFA. She lives in Vermont with her four children.