Elly Bookman’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the first annual Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from APR and of the 2017 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize from The Georgia Review. She writes and teaches in downtown Atlanta.
The Drowning I miss you. I wandered away above the sea caves, walked along the grassy cliff for so long the tide came in, and now it laps over the cuffs of my jeans, now to get back I'm wading into the deepening black and feeling a rock's curve press into the arch of my footstep. It feels like your heel digging there as it did so many mornings as we woke each other slowly, with such small pressures the noises of the day beginning outside seemed to soften. Where are you? Were you there that groggy afternoon I crawled inside a playhouse in my childhood city? You'd remember the pink light, how the plastic walls seemed to breathe back their chemicals into the warm air. The bricks underfoot were damp; between them the dirt had let a low moss come up, softening each step. An earthworm squirmed next to my blue sneaker. Were you watching as I lifted a doll's cup and pressed its lip down into the worm's soft body, splitting him in two? I was thinking about skunks, how they spray their invisible stink when they sense danger, and octopuses spilling their clouds of ink into the sea, and about bees stabbing their poisonous rear ends into flesh and then dying anyway. I watched both ends of the worm writhe as if with renewed life and believed one had become two bodies. Now I see an anemone's eye close, and now the water wraps and pulls at my waist. Are you waiting on the northern shore, where I began? When I went back to the playhouse days later, only one worm was waiting. Headless, I finally understood, for it was shriveled and dead in the foyer of my imaginary life. If the other survived, crawled away alone, I never understood how. How, as the sandy floor falls out from under me, does a body float to shore?
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for Yemassee. How are you feeling at the start of this new revolution around the sun? How are you feeling in the wake of 2017?
2017 was a year of terrible and wonderful extremes, both for me personally and for our country and the world. Luckily these are perfect conditions for great poetry, so I’m feeling good about the state of our art, at least.
I’m very enchanted by what your poet-eye sees and chooses to make a poem from. Some of your subjects—an ice storm, a World cup soccer game, listening—seem very small, but by the end of your poem have become so large and significant for not just the speaker but all of us. You really seem to be someone who knows how to slow down and notice. I feel that it has something to do with what the speaker in “Las Vegas, 1981” says: “And if I wanted, / I could be just as reckless. // But I’m going to be less than they were. / I’m going to hold on to everything.” Can you talk about how you select a subject to poem as you seemingly notice/hold on to everything, even the small things people pass by?
My impulse to “hold on to everything” is very real. Though it’s not so much that I slow down and notice things as it is that when I notice something, and especially when my mind begins to attach meaning to it, my first inclination is to preserve and remember that meaning. It’s practically an anxiety, really—a fear of forgetting. When that noticing becomes a poem, it does so through an association. An ice storm happening outside without anyone noticing reminds me of the sea crashing in the dark. And it carries on from there.
Ice, and the sea, and storms, and military apparatuses and language make it into your poems often. Is this imagery informed by place or obsession? Where does it come from?
These images probably generate more from an obsession with trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Admittedly, there are real places and stories that inspire them, but ultimately what they have in common is that all of these things are incredibly mysterious to me. I bring them up again and again to try and make sense of them, but of course I never do.
You also did your MFA in the Carolinas—University of North Carolina at Greensboro. What were some important moments or items or aesthetics or a favorite place that shaped your work while you were in NC? What was “community” there?
At UNCG, the “community” was everything. Besides having two years to write and learn from great teachers, in Greensboro I was living in a nest of about three-square blocks of front porches and tiny apartments where poets and writers honed our craft but also hung out, played music, watched movies, and danced. It was a little Carolina village of passionate, unpretentious young writers, and it was a very important time for me.
What does it mean to be a poet from Atlanta?
Atlanta is a very poetic place. It’s full of contradictions, complex history, and its identity is still very much in flux. I feel lucky to have grown up in the city and to live here again as an adult as it continues to evolve. Poets should be witnesses, and Atlanta is a fascinating place to witness.
Something close to guilt accompanies the speaker in a lot of your poems. I’m thinking of “Another Thing I’d Rather Not Know About Myself” in American Poetry Review, the worm in “The Drowning,” and of the last line of “Privilege,” which was published in The New Yorker: “I’m finally alright / knowing good things / in me have died.” Is this a complete misreading or would you say, in your mind, guilt is an important theme or process of interrogation in your work?
It’s a very accurate reading, though I can’t claim that I’ve returned to that theme on purpose. It just keeps coming up. Guilt is such a complex emotion—a painful one that still contains good intentions. Poems are excellent venues for working through something like that. And I think I’m especially drawn to examining guilty impulses because they often are the ones that lead us humans toward our most baffling behaviors.
Where can we look for more of your poems? Are you working on a manuscript?
I’m working hard on polishing and finding a place for a manuscript. In the meantime, I’m grateful to places like Yemassee for giving my poems a home along the way. I’ll have work appearing soon in the spring issue of The Georgia Review, and always more in the pipelines.