To Shake Them Awake, Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Ansel Elkins

IVELISSE RODRIGUEZ: Your manuscript “Blue Yodel” just won the 2014 Yale Younger Poets Prize.  Can you tell us about your work—your initial hopes for the work, and what you currently want to achieve? 

ANSEL ELKINS: I don’t recall what my first hopes were for my work because I was feeling my way blindly through it, trying on this hat, then that one, trying to carve out a voice. But one thing I always knew was that I wanted my poems to jar people, to shake them awake, to touch them in some way. I don’t want to write tidy little poems that are polite and refined and forgettable. As an artist, I want to engage directly in the problems of the world. I create poems to combat inhumanity. I hope my work will help change people’s perspectives—and prejudices—about others. I want my poems to reach people who aren’t poets—people who work at gas stations and Wal-Mart, everyday people. But I also see it as my job to reach people like Klansmen too, to reach them on a human level, and try to awaken them to compassion. 

IVELISSE: The Washington Post quotes you as saying, “I tend to naturally inhabit the voices of outsiders and those living on the peripheries of society . . . Much of my work explores the Deep South as a complex place of racial violence, poverty, familial love and personal isolation.”  With these people and topics in mind, what stories do you want to tell about outsiders?  In your poetry, what vision do you want to offer about these topics? 

ANSEL: I should start out by saying that all this comes from my childhood and how I was raised. My father, Ken Elkins, was a photojournalist, and I met all kinds of interesting characters when I traveled with him on assignment throughout Alabama. Both my parents instilled in me a curiosity about the lives of others. My father always had reporters’ notebooks scattered throughout his car, and I’d pick up one and take it with me and ask people questions about themselves and write down their answers. But through my parents, I met some real unusual people—and I learned not to be afraid of people because they are different. I see outsiders as essential to our understanding of society, because through their marked status we see what we are afraid of—that which lies outside the norm, that which is labeled “Other.” One of my favorite outsiders in literature is Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein. This creature wasn’t born a monster; it was society that beheld his difference, trembled at that difference, and named him “Monster.” In my work, I want to play with—and embrace—the status of the outsider, the other, the person who defies categories and lives on the peripheries. 

I also attribute my affinity with outsiders as a result of having grown up straddling several different cultures. By way of an explanation, I’ll offer this: My Uncle Juan jokingly offered up an ingenious portmanteau to define our racially and culturally complex family: “We’re red Ricans,” he said, “—a mix of redneck and Puerto Rican.” In a way, this might be the most accurate description of my family’s blended cultural identity. As a woman of Puerto Rican descent who grew up in the Deep South, my work is woven from a multitude of different voices enriched by many different cultures. My father was the son of Alabama sharecroppers, and so that is a very different culture from the one my mother came from, but both shared a common experience of growing up poor in the South.

IVELISSE: In some of your published poems, for example “Blues for the Death of the Sun”; “Reverse: A Lynching”; and “Mississippi Pastoral,” violence plays a role in your poetry.  There are various ways to approach violence, for example in brutal and cynical ways. In your work, it almost seems like we fall into the violence, and it’s wrapped up in such beauty.  How do you approach the violence in your work?  Why? 

ANSEL: I grew up surrounded by violence—not in my own home but in the area in which I lived.  A man was found doused in gasoline and burned on the softball field where I played as a girl…every day when my mother drove us to school we passed what was called the “murder house,” where a husband had killed his entire family. Violence was a pervasive part of my landscape. I don’t feel it’s honest to shy away from violence; instead, I tackle it directly in my work. I don’t know any other way.

IVELISSE: In two of your previously published poems, “Woman with the Severed Arm” and “War Mask,” you focus on multiplicity/duality in relationships. For example, in “War Mask,” you write, “I thought I was Achilles. / Then, Hector.” In “Woman with the Severed Arm,” you write, “A man and a horse are brothers.” Could you discuss your view on this notion of multiplicity/duality in your work?

ANSEL: In Pessoa’s poem, “Time’s Passage,” he writes: “I multiplied myself to feel myself, / To feel myself I had to feel everything, / I overflowed, I did nothing but spill out, / I undressed, I yielded, /And in each corner of my soul there’s an altar to a different god.” It’s my natural tendency to inhabit multiple voices, multiple selves. On one hand, it’s a form of play. But there’s another aspect, too. Henry Fielding has a line that’s always stayed with me: “who masque the face, t’ unmasque the mind.” Inventing various personas, wearing and speaking through multiple masks, allows me to explore different ways of being. I’d feel confined if I was limited to writing about or from a single point of view—and so I imagine a plurality of perspectives. For me, it all stems from the imagination. And my most beloved poet, Blake, wrote, “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” 

IVELISSE: The history of the South is conflated with slavery and violence.  As a Southern poet contemplating the history of the South, what Southern present or future, do you hope to shape in your poetry? 

ANSEL: The town I was born in, Anniston, Alabama, was founded after the Civil War and heralded as the “Model City of the New South.” How ironic, then, that it’s most known for the horrific firebombing of a bus of Freedom Riders in the 60s. I want to confront race and class head-on. I want to confront injustice and inhumanity head-on. The South’s present is in the past. Look at what’s been happening at the University of Mississippi with the recent defacing of the James Meredith statue, and, then, earlier in the fall, there were anti-gay slurs yelled at performers in a production of “The Laramie Project.” Look at the University of Alabama, where they refuse to integrate their sororities. While it’s easy enough to condemn those people by saying, “Oh, look at those racist yokels!” or “The South is so backwards!” that’s not doing anything to engage with the problem in any meaningful way. You can’t just judge people; you’ve got to engage in a dialogue with them to help them transform themselves. The South is changing, but there’s a lot of resistance to that change. These injustices are not going to go away on their own. I believe the arts are a great tool for creating dialogue and challenging these deeply held beliefs and suspicions about people who are different. 

IVELISSE: You have already started working on your next poetry collection. Can you tell us about that new writing project?

ANSEL: My second collection of poetry explores the private lives of conjoined twins. As someone interested in multiple ways of being, I see the situation of joined twins as just another way of being. We “singletons” (as joined twins often refer to single-bodied people) might see the Siamese twins and be stunned at the sight of their bodies or even find them grotesque, but just as you or I, they were born into their bodies and it’s no more strange to them than it is strange for us to inhabit our own bodies. Instead of viewing their bodies as a limitation, I see them as unique because they experience the world in radically different ways than everyone else. They are truly extraordinary. 

I am also currently at work on a memoir about being a love child. It is the story of the tremendous hostility my parents endured for the sake of love—of “unlawful” love—and what they went through to bring me into this world. Especially my mother, because women always bear the brunt of shaming whenever there’s some kind of social transgression. In Love Child, I’m exploring what it means to be an “illegitimate,” and the social stigma of being born out of wedlock. I’m taking as a call to arms Edmund’s line in “Lear,” “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”