Who has authority to speak, and what gives them that authority?
Poet Elizabeth Austen discusses “How to Interrogate an Archangel” and “Calling Out the Names” (NER 40.4) with NER staff reader Jessica Gigot, in which she reveals that “I still want language with the force of a spell, the power to change everything—for spoken language to bring coherence to an incoherent world.”
Jessica Gigot: Your poem “How to Interrogate an Archangel” begins with a determination to find answers from a “spiritually / disheveled higher being.” You later write, “Remember information is secondary / to your purpose. The voice matters most.” What do you mean by this and how do you feel it influences the resolution of the poem?
Elizabeth Austen: If I remember right, generating this poem involved a line borrowed from Ladan Osman (cut in subsequent revisions), a requirement to include all 15 words on a list, and about 18 minutes to write a first draft. When I’m lucky, something uncensored surfaces while my directive mind is occupied working in all the “given” words within the time limit.
Though I wasn’t conscious of it in the generative phase, the question at the crux of the poem is: Who has authority to speak, and what gives them that authority?
Angels and archangels were entirely real to me as a child, and until my late teens I believed in the authority of the Church. I’m always a little startled when I realize how much the images and ideas of my Catholic upbringing still foment (ferment?) in my subconscious. In this case, in retrospect, I see that the poem expresses that old desire for there to be Someone Wise Who Is in Charge, alongside a deep suspicion of those hierarchically endowed figureheads.
I still want language with the force of a spell, the power to change everything—for spoken language to bring coherence to an incoherent world. By the section with “your own human hands,” (I hope) I’m raising a question about how we might recognize and express the limited, but real, power that we do have.
JG: In “Calling Out the Names,” you honor origins. “Sand remembers shell” and “Honey remembers hive, bee and blossom.” The line “Grain in the loaf remembers field” particularly stood out to me and speaks to the beautiful and brutal power of transformation—loss and gain, grief and healing. Why is it important to remember and to call out the names, as you have titled this poem, and how does that implicate the “you” addressed at the end of the poem?
EA: I wrote “Calling Out the Names” for a very specific audience, and a particular occasion. It was commissioned by Seattle Children’s Hospital, for the annual memorial service for children who have died. Families come back year after year to participate in this communal ritual of remembrance. At one point in the service, everyone is invited to speak the name of the child they are grieving.
(I’ve worked at Seattle Children’s for more than 20 years, and for the past decade I’ve also provided poetry/reflective writing sessions for the staff, as a means of self-care.)
I haven’t experienced the profound loss of a child; in fact, I’m not even a parent, but I wanted to say yes to that request. I knew that I wanted to write a poem that could rise to the level of ceremony, that would have an incantatory quality, readying the space for the calling out of the names.
Every parent I’ve spoken with who has lost a child has said, in one way or another, how important it is to hear their child’s name spoken aloud by others, and to know that their child is not forgotten. One mom, in particular, spoke about the death of her child after years of chronic illness. Her description of making her son Jeff’s bed for the last time ignited the series of images that shape the poem.
In some ways, this was the least “willed” of any occasional poem I’ve written. Though of course it went through many revisions, the final version is essentially how the poem arrived. It’s mysterious how these things happen.
I’ve learned in the couple of years since I wrote it that the poem resonates with many kinds of loss. Sometimes I’ll include it at the end of a reading, and invite the audience to call out the names of their missing beloveds, and I call out the names of mine. For those of us who are not part of an organized religion, opportunities to share our mourning, and our remembrance, are so few.
JG: Are these poems part of a new collection of poetry for you? Can you tell us more about this body of work?
EA: Yes, for several years I’ve been working on a new collection of poems. Today I think it’s nearly finished, but ask me tomorrow and you’re likely to get a different answer.
At the core, these poems reflect an ongoing obsession with questions of agency and authority: who gets to speak, whose voice carries weight, whose actions matter, and why? My intention is to consider these questions in the context of marriage, family, country, environment.
But these newer poems are frequently angrier and more overtly political than I’ve let myself be in poems before, and so they pose new craft problems—it’s harder to find the necessary revision distance, for one thing.
It’s also, in many ways, a more frankly spiritual collection of poems, concerned with questions about what prayer might be, and what might constitute a response.
I just looked up from my computer and my eye landed on one of the seven Post-it notes on the mullion: “the finishing is the part that makes the artist. —Claire Dederer.” Yep: working on the finishing.
JG: You are a former Washington State Poet Laureate (2014–2016) and you have taught and shared poetry in several institutions in Seattle, including Children’s Hospital and as a poetry correspondent for KUOW radio. How have these experiences informed your work and/or inspired new work?
The through line connecting all those roles is poetry as a spoken art, and an innate desire to invite people into the pleasure and depth of poems—I just get a huge amount of joy bringing poems (my own, and others’) to life for an audience. This is especially thrilling when the audience is initially skeptical about poetry, or about the possibility that poems could speak directly to their lives. Of course, I don’t always win them over, but when I’ve managed to write or choose a poem that connects, and to speak it in a way that pierces through resistance—well, that’s what sustains me.
And of course the great joy in my 19 years at KUOW was bringing other poets’ voices to new audiences, and getting to interview a huge variety of poets, from W. S. Merwin and Tim Seibles and Jane Hirshfield to first-time authors.
JG: We are living through a lot of political and environmental uncertainty right now. What role does poetry play for you in unsettling times?
EA: Oh, my answer to this question varies daily. I’ve always needed the space poems hold for ambiguity, for multiple meanings; I’ve always craved the kind of intimacy and connection across time, geography, and experience that a good poem can give me as a reader. Now I need those things more urgently, and want to provide them to others, when I can—either through what I write, or, more often, by sharing others’ poems.
Do you know Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, the anthology James Crews edited? I keep buying it to give to my non-poet friends. It feels like a necessary counter-voice. And I keep recommending Tracy K. Smith’s podcast, The Slow Down. Her warm, kind voice, her choice of poems, and her concise, intimate introductions to the poems feel like a kind of rudder to drop into the day.
JG: What is your writing routine? Do you have a writing group that you work with to develop new poems?
EA: For the past several years, I’ve written regularly with two talented, accomplished, and generous poets: Kathleen Flenniken and Susan Rich. I meet with each separately, once a month. We use short, timed constraints, often involving a piece of visual art or a borrowed first line or end words, vocabulary banks, etc. That structure—and their friendship—pulled me through a period of intense doubt about poetry itself, and my ability to write it. And yes, it was one of those writing sessions that generated the first draft of “How to Interrogate an Archangel.”
Elizabeth Austen is a former Washington State poet laureate, and author of Every Dress a Decision (Blue Begonia Press, 2011) and two chapbooks. For the past decade, she’s led poetry and reflective writing sessions for clinicians in a variety of healthcare settings. “Calling Out the Names” was commissioned by Seattle Children’s Hospital for the annual memorial service for children who have died.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher, and musician. She has lived in the Skagit Valley for over 15 years and is deeply connected to the artistic and agricultural communities that coexist in this region. Her first book of poems, Flood Patterns, was published by Antrim House Books in 2015 and her writing appears in several publications, including Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, The Hopper, Pilgrimage, About Place Journal, and Poetry Northwest.