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Elizabeth Powell

Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of The Republic of Self a New Issues First Book in Poetry Prize winner. Her second book of poems, Willy Loman's Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was a 2016 "Books We Love" in The New Yorker, a Small Press Best Seller, and won the 2015 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize.


This visionary and innovative novel explores the intersections of representation, desire, prophecy, evangelism, and American consumerism, as it tracks the narrative contained in each photo spread of a J. Crew catalogue. The chorus of voices, the models, the photographer, the copywriter, as well its main consumer/observer—a US Senator's wife who is obsessed with breeding and bringing a golden calf from an American farm to Israel to bring on the apocalyptic end times—tell the tale of a world beginning to spin on a different axis.

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Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues

"I think Truth is a kind of purpose": Elizabeth Powell & Terese Svoboda in Conversation


Terese Svoboda: Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues has Wolfgang, a failed photojournalist-turned-fashion-photographer; describe the motivations of the two models in great sensuous detail for a shoot he is conducting. “Perhaps this is your first kitchen together, the first time you’ve ever shared a kitchen, and you’ve just made love while cartoons played in the background.” Meanwhile the male model has an erection, one of the women is thinking about hunger — and sex — while the photographer conjures up another scenario about smoking endless joints with the women in a cabin. Thus begins this piercingly accurate confection of a novel about desire. Did you write short stories as a warm-up to this, or were your books of poetry preparation? If so, how?

Elizabeth Powell: At one point in time all of the fiction I was writing was determined to be something else, something hybrid and poetic. The novel was all my poetry’s idea. My poetry is always right there looking over my shoulder. The lyric is mighty. But, yes, the novel started out as a short story that I published in Black Warrior Review. I couldn’t let go of the characters, they still had some investigating into the human heart and soul to do. Wolfgang, in particular, was insistent, and kept turning up in my prose. He is very roughly inspired by a photographer cousin of mine who passed away. I tried to continue my conversation with my cousin about image after his death in my own writing, not only as a way to grieve, but to continue on the relationship beyond the constrictions of time.


Elizabeth Powell: Your prose is so gorgeous, so resoundingly meticulous, lyrical. How does your work as a poet inform your prose writing? You are so prolific in many genres: What do you think it is about your creative process that feels so comfortable in many different genres?

Terese Svoboda: Fearlessness. That’s the prime requirement for all poets, the strength of mind to know that not every inspiration is going to thrive in a quatrain, that you need a lot of tools for the myriad of materials that arrive. The requirement for genre-switching is that whatever the material, the words will need a lot of pushing around, something that the poet is used to. I’m always satisfied, I’m always failing.


Terese Svoboda:  “Beauty, Helene thought as she tapped on Wolfgang’s window, was a measure of some sort of purpose.” Is this a belief the author shares?

Elizabeth Powell: I’m interested in what beauty’s purpose is, why we use beauty as a way to get what we want or make others do what we want. Of course, there are cultural ideas about beauty. The natural world of flowers, for instance, has much to tell us about beauty and its uses. I’m interested in that in general, but here I’m more interested in what does beauty with a capital B have to say, that old fashioned cousin of capital T truth. I was thinking about Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” I think Truth is a kind of purpose. I was also thinking about Keats’ poem “Endymion,” about the quandary that human beauty does pass into nothingness and ashes and dust. I was thinking about the idea of beauty being as Keats’ says “Full of Sweet Dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”


Elizabeth Powell: Why the American West? The desert over time? What was the creative spark that inspired the book’s breadth and intensity of subject?

Terese Svoboda: Written over 25 years, the book’s spark was slow in coming. I wrote only two stories after I found the title about ten years ago, one of which was “Major Long Talks to His Horse,” which explains how the region became known as the Great American Desert. My formative years were spent in that desert, near the mysterious Nebraska Sandhills where water was always a topic. The pivot sprinkler came into use in the 1960s and revolutionized the climate and what could be grown. I have land there now and I’ve seen the corn turn blue and disappear back into the earth during a drought. Farmers think a lot about the future.


Terese Svoboda: You mentions Pessoa, and Pound — a send-up of Pound as the subject of an Apple Think Different ad. These are not references that bestsellers evoke. We poets applaud this, but so many won’t understand. Does that matter?

Elizabeth Powell: I think it is incumbent upon people of all stripes to look up things they don’t know. I think Pessoa and Pound should be part of a general knowledge, and if not, then should be obtained through looking up. Does looking up stuff you don’t know matter? It depends upon what kind of world you want to live in and create for the future generations. When I wrote that, I was thinking about the Apple Think Different campaign where they use revolutionary thinkers like Gandhi and Einstein as a way to peddle their wares. That happens all the time in America, this capitalistic thievery of ideas as a way to make money or deceive someone into a desire that comes from a place of insecurity and emotional deadness. If you recall, part of that Think Different campaign was “To the Crazy Ones”, meaning if you want to think outside the box and become a legendary and revolutionary thinker, you should buy Apple products, which are ways to produce work, not ways to think in original terms. The novel references Pound and Pessoa as a way to mimic what the campaign itself is doing: Look at how you might become a crazy, brilliant person if you buy some shit that is very expensive, but will supposedly make you a better human. That desire, to be part of an equation that is trying to pull you into a magical place that is really a void.


Elizabeth Powell: Did the ideas of Westward Expansion and the so-called American dream figure in at all?

Terese Svoboda: Whatever group overcame the Clovis people surely had a dream of expansion. Manifest Destiny warranted Major Long’s expedition, even if he denigrated the area with his nomenclature. Homesteaders exchanged the dream of riches in owning free land for the reality of its almost unimaginable difficulties. By the time the Dust Bowl descended, the homesteaders had endured enough. The land blew away and with it, the dream. Now, despite market forces and pollution, the very poor farmers left hold on to the dream that they live as their parents did, close to the land.With regard to the Anthropocene future of America — we need a better dream. After all, that’s not a rising sun in the West, it’s one that’s setting.


Terese Svoboda: “Wolfgang continued to mine for some image of Helene that would express all the lingering beauty of the past as it incubated into the present.” This being a Rilkean ambition, what are you writing now?

Elizabeth Powell: I love how Rilke, in Letters to the Young Poet presses us as writers and humans to live the questions fully. Living the questions is the life and is the art, both of which use the past as a kind of incubator for the present. The past is beautiful because it is part of the question that reveals the present, the future.

I have just completed my third collection of poems and hybrid essays called “Atomizer”, which will be coming out in 2020. That book addresses questions surrounding love in the age of technology, online dating, and movement toward oligarchy. The work is in discussion with a favorite book of mine by French philosopher Alain Badiou called In Praise of Love. And because it is about love it is about the senses, the sensual. Scent looms large in the book vis a vis perfumery and my long history with perfume.


Elizabeth Powell: Place is often a character in a work of fiction. In what ways do you see place as emblematic of character in your book?

Terese Svoboda: Water, and its lack, is central to nearly all the stories. Having something immoveable at the heart of a collection, a protagonist or at least a minor character that is silent, like the old man and the sea until the shark shows, best chiaroscuros the petty human endeavors that play out against it. But place in the book, that is to say, environment, is actually not immoveable, it is just as permeable and malleable and poisonable as our varying relationship to it, especially with regard to how it is shared. I have the characters reacting to what becomes a dynamic environment, a character. People forget that and think the earth’s always the same, no matter what they do to it.


Terese Svoboda: I’ve directed a little, and worked on commercials, and I was very impressed at your ability to capture the experience. You have the actors in a sort of repertory model, so they appear in a series of shoots, each with its own narrative, a kind of lyric poem really in which many elements are left open yet are linked. Have you been involved in commercial film shoots?

Elizabeth Powell: I have not. My daughter, however, is a commercial model and television host, and I have appeared on her show and observed all the camera operators. Her work in the fashion industry comes from a family interest in image in poetry, art, life.


Elizabeth Powell: Both my novel and your last story, “Pink Pyramid,” broker in the idea of dreams and their effect on not only the individual, but also the collective consciousness of history and with the present moment of now. What role/effect do you think dreaming has on history and place?

Terese Svoboda: I believe Trump never dreamt of being President — but Putin did. Without someone standing in a field envisioning a plant, nothing gets grown or built. Dreaming your sweetheart pulling up her blouse engenders population. But dreams are meant to fade and be replaced by others, hence their mark on particular times and places — except for prophetic (inspirational?) dreams, e.g. Vladimir Klebnikov’s dream in “The Radio Wall” that imagines television in the 1920s. But that is falling into the tech trap that dreams are all about enlarging our material footprint on the planet. Other dreams – our collective unconsciousness — of talking to animals or of breathing like a tree help us rethink our present and our relationship with other life. In my own writing, I’ve heavily invested in dreams. Tin God began as a persistent dream that I used in a poem, then a short story, and eventually a novel, pitting the 16th century against the present, in alternating chapters.


Terese Svoboda: Did you start with the literal image of a catalogue page and enlarge it, or you discover the imagery through the characters?

Elizabeth Powell: I started out by thinking about what it meant that I liked looking at catalogues so much. Was it the image of the person or the image and how it related to the surroundings in the photograph? One of my grandfathers was a freelance photographer for Life magazine, and I spent a lot of time during my childhood studying books of photography, especially The Family of Man a book from a 1955 photography exhibit curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art department of photography. It was a seminal book for me, very influential to me as a poet and a person. Since then I have always loved the interchange between image and narrative that occurs in the photographed. Catalogues are narratives used to sell something. I wanted to co-opt that device as a way to let the spiritual and material worlds collide. Creation is in some ways the action of the spiritual and the material colliding, which then goes on to create narrative. It’s a commentary on the idea of taking pictures of things that don’t really exist to make them exist. That idea is a cousin to the idea of photographing something that exists mostly to be photographed. I’m a huge fan of Don DeLillo’s work. Your question makes me think of a section of White Noise that discusses this idea, a section that heavily influenced my writing:

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.


Elizabeth Powell: “Camp Clovis” seems to me a kind of cousin to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Have you been influenced by her at all?

Terese Svoboda: Not particularly, although as the eldest of nine children, I adored her stories about family life and the mundane horrors of motherhood. “Camp Clovis” came out of a belief that a child’s preoccupations in the summer must be universal and timeless, and from living in South Sudan for a year, relegated to the status of a child in a materially-challenged environment.


Terese Svoboda: I was certain that Wolfgang would have a heart attack chasing after the model on the beach. Was it hard to determine an end point for the book?

Elizabeth Powell: The end point always had the beach in mind. The beach as an image is always representative of leave taking and arriving from a destination. There is a kind of violence that the beach represents, who is coming? Who is going? Are we safe in this terrible, wonderful beauty? And then sometimes one looks at the sunrise and the sunset from the beach as a meditative stance, as a way to understand the opening and closing of the day, beginning and end. Moreover, the beach is part of the photoshoot narrative, so the conclusion logically leads imagistically back to the beach.

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