From running “Cheap Wine and Poetry” and working at Hugo House, I know many people in the literary community, but there are few who I enjoy more than Elizabeth Austen. I first met Elizabeth four or five years ago when I enrolled in her class, “The Poet’s Toolbox,” at Hugo House, and after she skewered my use of gerunds in a certain, never-to-be-published poem, I knew she meant business.
Since that class, Elizabeth has been featured at “Cheap Wine and Poetry” numerous times and was even our nominee for Seattle Poet Populist in 2008. And, most recently, she premiered new writing at Visiting Hours, the second event in the Hugo Literary Series. (If you missed it, read her original poems here.)
But Elizabeth is no mere poet—she trained as a classical actor and vocal coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and for nearly 10 years, she has produced literary programming, including author interviews and commentary, for KUOW 94.9. In her non-poet life, Elizabeth is a senior communications specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Brian McGuigan: Back in November, you premiered several new poems at Visiting Hours. What have you been working on since then?
Elizabeth Austen: I’ve been really lucky to have two chapbooks taken for publication this year—“The Girl Who Goes Alone” will come out in late May from Floating Bridge Press, and “Where Currents Meet” will be out with Toadlily Press in September or October. So I’ve been revising, reconsidering and shuffling two separate groups of poems, getting them as ready as possible to go out into the world without me.
BM: You were an actor, vocal coach and director before you came to poetry. What caused you to leave theater?
EA: I burned out on what I perceived as a lack of control over my creative life. I never figured out how to market myself effectively as an actor, and I didn’t consider myself “solo performer” material. Even when I was working, too often it was on a play that I didn’t care about, didn’t believe in. Plus, it turns out I’m really, truly a morning person. If I kept it up, actor hours were going to seriously mess with my circadian rhythms and make me prematurely old.
BM: How has your training as an actor and vocal coach informed your approach to poetry on the stage and on the page?
EA: Well, that’s kind of the irony, I think—I didn’t feel like a solo performer when I considered myself primarily an actor, but that’s pretty much what I do now when I get up in front of an audience to read poetry. The influence of theatre on me as a performer has been obvious (to me, anyway) from the beginning—I aim for a dynamic, lively, spontaneous exchange with each audience. The poems I wrote for the Hugo Literary Series last year really capitalize on that—two of them, “Problem Was” and “The Girl Who Goes Alone,” are essentially monologues and are very informed by my theatrical sensibility.
It’s only with the poems that I’ve written in the last year, first for the “My Uterus, That Party Balloon” project and, most recently, in several of the poems in “The Girl Who Goes Alone” and “Where Currents Meet” that imagery from the theatre world has directly influenced the content of my poems. It kind of snuck up on me, and actually took other people commenting on it for me to really see it, and then I consciously followed it, to see what kind of new terrain it might lead to. There’s also a certain sweet circularity for me, personally, in feeling my first love (you have to understand I was a complete theatre geek from about the age of 14 on) surfacing in my poems.
BM: Several years ago, I was in your six-week workshop, “The Poet’s Toolbox.” What are your favorite “tools” to employ as a poet?
EA: I’m a big fan of cultivating opposites, of using questions to stir up the surface of a draft to see what rich muck might lie underneath. Sometimes I do that in a literal way, by writing with my non-dominant hand. Other times it’s more analytical, looking at what I’ve got on the page and asking myself what the opposite impulse would yield. My poem “Epithalamion” is an example of that—I was attempting to write a poem for a dear friend’s wedding and getting nowhere. Then I decided to write the exact opposite of what would be appropriate for a wedding poem—as a result I got a new poem, and cleared the way to write a poem I could stand up and read at the wedding.
BM: In that workshop, you gave me some valuable feedback on my poetry, particularly regarding gerunds. Are there any “rules” of poetry that you follow? Or any that you deliberately break?
EA: Ah–the gerund! You must have taken that class with me right after I discovered my own work had a not-too-pleasing “ing ing ing” ringing through it—unintentionally. One of the things I’ve discovered late in life is that when I’m in an uncomfortable situation (like a messy almost/maybe draft of a poem or a challenging social situation), I’m apt to try to figure out what the rules are, so that I can have the illusion of structure (i.e., safety). I’m learning to listen for that, and then take a long hard look at the “rule” I’m tempted to bow down to. So—to answer your actual question and stop psychoanalyzing myself—no, I don’t believe in rules anymore. I know what has been useful to me so far, and I try to continue to do those things until I notice that they’re no longer useful, just habitual.
BM: What's the best thing about Seattle's poetry community?
EA: The best thing is its range and vitality—every single night of the week, you can find a poetry reading happening somewhere. Whatever style you’re after, you can find it here.
Read more about Elizabeth Austen on her Web site, elizabethausten.wordpress.com.