Monday, June 9, 2014

Interview with Poet Elizabeth Oakes

Eve reaches into that sun,
toward a word. It is so right,
that beginning world, her rising,
a word in the sun. It is so right.

She is reaching for it now.

from “The Woman Who Uttered Paradise,” Elizabeth Oakes

Elizabeth Oakes' other volumes of poetry are The Farmgirl Poems, which won the 2004 Pearl Poetry Prize, The Luminescence of All Things Emily, a volume of poems about Emily Dickinson and her friends and family, and Mercy in the New World, a series of persona poems imagining the life of an actual American colonial woman. A widely published poet, she was also the co-founder and co-editor of the Kentucky Feminist Writers Series, which published three volumes between 1999 and 2005. After teaching Shakespeare and women's poetry for twenty-one years, Oakes, who holds the Ph.D from Vanderbilt University, now devotes herself to writing.  She blogs about Art and Writing from the Spiritual Imagination at and lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Sedona, Arizona, with her husband John, an artist.

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I first met Elizabeth Oakes several years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, but I was introduced to her poetry in 2009 through her intriguing collection, The Luminescence of All Things Emily, which re-imagines poet Emily Dickinson's life through the viewpoints of her sister Vinnie, her brother Austin, his lover Mabel, his wife Sue and people employed in the Dickinson household.

     Karen L. George

 (This interview was conducted via email in January and February, 2014.)

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One of the things that resonated with me in Leave Here Knowing was the large number of ekphrastic poems, poems that respond in some way to works of sculpture, architecture, paintings, and cave art. Color and shape appear everywhere. Are you also a visual artist?  Can you talk about why visual art plays such an important part in your book?

EO:  No, I'm not a visual artist, but I play one in my poems, to paraphrase an ad. I respond to visual art verbally as well as visually (color, shape). Visual art is like an encapsulated world to me, one I can see in its totality. Perhaps I can sum it up in the words microcosm/macrocosm or even the saying, “as above, so below.” Everything is a reflection of both itself and the entire universe. Visual art is a peephole into the universe for me.

One of the things that makes this book such a strong collection is the varied types of poems.  Besides free verse and ekphrastic poems, there are prose poems, and poems written in couplets and quatrains. There are also quite a few examples of the persona poem, where you write from the point-of-view of someone besides yourself, such as in your poem "Love Song, from the Sinagua Petroglyphs," where you give us a glimpse into the imagined consciousness of a woman in the Sinagua tribe, which your notes say were "a pre-Columbia tribe in central Arizona...before 1500."  Other of your poetry collections features persona poems.  What draws you to write this particular type of poem?

EO:  I hadn't rhymed in a poem, except accidentally, since high school, and I didn't think about at the time why I was doing it in several poems here. Looking back, perhaps it was because one is about a woman in England in the 1500s, and I wanted the feel and sound of the language then. In “Love Song . . . ,” I was trying to capture the incantory rhythm of Native American chants (I have some Native American DNA – a grandmother who was Cherokee). About the persona poems – I taught a class on American women poets for about fifteen years, and I always told my class that the story of Anne Bradstreet's sister was just made for a historical novel – that she had a sister who was also a poet but whose work has been lost and that, moreover, it was that sister's husband who took Anne's work to England to be published. In addition, there was the sister who preached and suffered a similar fate to Anne Hutchinson. It was just such a story! Then early one morning my husband and I were driving out of Birmingham, AL, where we had stayed overnight on the way to a beach, and I saw some trees and the light coming through them, and I had to search through the belongings in the back seat, for a poem was coming, and it was in the voice of a combination of Anne's two sisters. After that, Mercy, the name I gave the combination of the real Mercy and Sarah, just started talking through me, similar, I believe, to what fiction writers say happens. 

Much the same thing happened with the book about Emily Dickinson. I was attending a workshop in Santa Fe and sitting in my little adobe hacienda when some lines just started coming. Many people believe that poets should center themselves in a place, and I agree with that, but I wonder if there is something about being in another place, not in our usual home and routine, that enables this to happen. We dislodge ourselves and let go of who we are in that space and open up another channel, perhaps. I do know that the “voice” seems to be different.

The idea of "giving voice" to imagined, historical, literary, mythological, and spiritual women feels central to your collection, tied along with the idea of the "feminine divine."  Can you talk about the feminist sensibility running through your collection in poems such as "The Survivors Speak" and "In Memoriam"?

EO:  I was a feminist before I knew the word and before I knew the words for what I was seeing; I just knew something seemed to be wrong. I think the absolutely most important insight of my lifetime in this aspect is that the way society and the roles of men and women were structured was not natural but constructed and thus could be deconstructed. When I was in high school, an English teacher told me that I actually had won a writing contest – my essay was by far the best – but they were going to give it to another student, a male, as the prize was more suited for a male. This was sometime around 1960. I remember thinking that there was something wrong with this and that I was going to spend my life doing something about it.

One of the elements I admire about your poems are their sense of mystery, their surprising turns, and the unusual connections they make, as in the ekphrastic poem "Nimbus" whose epigraph says it's "on a painting of the 'Madonna and Child' at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston." Your poem describes the Mary in this work of art as "dough-faced, with muddy skin," not like the other Mary's, "blonde and beautiful. They're everywhere in / this medieval sanctuary, being as omnipresent / in the Middle ages as Barbie today, I suppose." Are a sense of mystery, a surprising turn, and an unusual connection something you strive to incorporate into your poetry and why?

EO:  The imagination takes leaps and jumps, as it isn't bound to sequential time and reason. I think of the line by Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.” If a poem I write doesn't surprise me, if I don't say something I didn't know I knew or felt, then it's almost always not much good.  When I wrote the beginning poems in The Farmgirl Poems, I was trying to recover the way we see the world through the imagination as children. 

In the fifth section of your book, your poems are centered on what you term "your pilgrimage" to Glastonbury, England in July 2008. In your preface you say that in this place "the veil is, as they say, thin." Can you elaborate on what this means to you, and how it applies to your experiences there?

EO:  There really are places that are spiritually charged: Macchu Pichu, Glastonbury, Mt. Shasta, Easter Island, Stonehenge, and many others. Perhaps it's something in the actual earth itself. The red rocks of Sedona, AZ, where I live now, have a high iron oxide content, which some claim is the reason for the vortexes there and for the healing and cleansing many people find among them. Glastonbury has been a place of pilgrimage since way before prehistory. It's a place of legend – Arthur is supposedly buried on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant who supposedly had been to England as a trader, is said to have brought the holy grail there. Maybe, maybe not, but many legends have at least a grain of truth – they rarely arise out of just thin air.

What I do know is that, for whatever reason, some places are infused with an energy that accumulates over time. Each person who makes a pilgrimage to that place adds to it. We live in the material world, but we also have an imagination and, I believe, a spirit and a soul. As Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Have you gone on any other pilgrimages, or do you have any planned, that have made their way into your poetry?

EO:  When our children were grown and we finally had some extra funds, my husband and I decided that we wanted to visit arty, spiritual places as those were where we felt most at home. We didn't want to go on cruises, we didn't want to tour, we didn't want to go from place to place, in the “If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium” mode. We had done some of that and enjoyed it, but we were in a different mode now. We wanted to live there and know both the material and the spiritual aspects. We wanted to know the rhythm of the place. First, we lived in Glastonbury for a month; we had an apartment there, no car, and we left the place only once to go a few miles away to visit a cathedral. We shopped in the grocery, met people (one with whom we're still friends) and just got to know it. It takes a long time to “see” a place. We visited the Abbey grounds, now a park, almost every day to walk, and what surprised me and affirmed for me that this was the way I wanted to travel was that it wasn't until nearly the last day there that I actually “saw” some medieval carvings on the ruins, ones I had walked by many times. Even though it was only a month, it was a total immersion, and it was like I had imbibed the place. Then we went to Santa Fe twice, and then my husband said, “Let's go to Sedona,” and I said, “Okay,” and like it has been for many people, many, many people, it immediately felt like home, like the home I'd never known. It was really strange that this Kentucky girl found it to be her spiritual home. I once thought I couldn't leave Kentucky – that its light and its hills were a reflection of my soul and vice versa – but there was another version of me that responded to another place.

Your book has such breadth of time, place, and subject matter, and yet it's tightly woven together by repeated imagery, symbolism, and theme. I'm interested in how your collection came into being.  Were these poems written over a span of many years, and did you begin to discover commonalities that led you to group them together, or were you interested in certain ideas that you began writing toward, or was it a combination of both, or something else entirely?

EO:  The poems were written over many years. “Daughter, Peaches, Moon” and “The Daughter I'd Seen Before” were written after one of my daughter's birth, and she now has a daughter. Sometimes at that early time I didn't know what they were about, for instance, that “The Daughter . . .” was about reincarnation. It was only in putting the collection together that I arranged the commonalities. I had no idea that I was writing a series, except for the poems about Glastonbury, which I did deliberately. As we know, the quantum physicists say that literally there is no time – that it is a construct of the material world – and I think the imagination lives outside time, so that a poem written thirty five years ago and one written today might be more connected than two poems written within days of each other.

I learned so many things in your book, such as the concept of Bardo, which you describe as the "Tibetan Buddhist word for our existence between lives, that nebulous place and time that can be described only by simile, metaphor, analogy, not remembered."  I was inspired to look into things such as the cave art you described, the Sinagua petroglyphs, and I began thinking about pilgrimages I've made and what I've learned through them. Do you believe that it's important for poems to teach us something?

EO:  Maybe it's not so important that poems teach us something as much as open us up to something we already know or that they connect us to the body of human knowledge that can't be put in a textbook (I've always had in my mind Robert Bly's title Sleepers Joining Hands). Not that we're asleep literally but that we're oblivious to how we're all connected. So poems, to me, should open us, engage us, get inside our head, change the way we live, and that includes the poet.

Many of your poems establish a connection between the poems' characters and the natural world, referencing sky, sun, moon, ocean, rivers, trees, seeds, berries, birds, nests, horses, gardens forests, glaciers. Can you describe why the natural world is ever-present in your poems?

EO:  One of the revealing things to me about writing Mercy in the New World was that when it came to creating Mercy's world of colonial America, there were so few things. The given throughout time, however, is the sky, sun, moon. Today we have things but have lost the connection to a great extent with the sky, sun, moon . . . . The natural world is our elemental connection and will always be; the sun is the same sun the Sinagua woman, for instance, saw, even though the rest of our world is different.

Who are some of your favorite poets and why?

EO:  I, predictably, would have to say Shakespeare; I'm rereading the sonnets and am amazed again for the umpteenth time how he makes such a net of language, how he captures feeling, how he's able to suggest so much in fourteen lines, how he pulls on my emotions. I fell in love with Shakespeare many years ago – the whole world's here, I thought – and it's continued. He amazes me. Later in my career I became fascinated with Dickinson. When I began teaching her, and I at that point knew mainly the usual poems from her canon, I read through in sequence her nearly 2,000 poems (it took several months!), and what I found was an entirely different Dickinson – not the shy recluse but a social critic, a passionate lover, a wry comic. Those two are in my literary DNA now, I would have to say. There have, of course, been many, many others – Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens come to mind; really, all of them, even some of the “bad” ones – books gave me my life as I know it. Starting with Enheduanna, a Sumerian poet in about 2200 BCE, and ending with poets writing today, poetry to me is the original language. In the beginning was poetry.

Whose poems are you currently reading, and can you tell us what you particularly like about them?

EO:  I'm reading Pablo Neruda, and what I like is that he follows the poetic stream wherever it goes. His emotion guides the poems. I'm also living now in a place where I hear a lot of Spanish, and I'm reading aloud the Spanish (totally butchering it, I know) and then the English. I'm also re-reading Adrienne Rich, that great voice, and Jorie Graham's poems in Erosion. Some time ago friends on Facebook were posting poems by William Stafford, as it was the 100th anniversary of his birth, and it made me remember how much I loved some of his poems, so I re-read some of them. There's a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Sifter” in which she compares herself to a flour sifter that has been on my mind since I read it about a month ago. Who knew a kitchen implement could be the genesis of such a poem! And then the sonnets, as I've noted, which are, like the plays, always and forever for me. Really, so many – so many poems, so little time.

What are you working on now?

EO:  I'm writing poems based on a line or two from Neruda, that, and a series of meditations (not analyses, not summaries, not interpretations) of lines from Shakespeare's plays (a slow, ongoing project, one I've been doing off and on for several years). I've, of all things, gotten interested in the short story, as I found myself unexpectedly and inexplicably writing one or the beginning of one in a writing group to which I belong in Sedona. I'm just beginning, and I think they would fall under the magical realism term, but it will be interesting to see where it goes.

Elizabeth Oakes blogs at:


Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011, and her chapbook, Inner Passage, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. You can find her work in Memoir, Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Website, Wind, Border Crossing, and Adanna.


  1. Hey, your blog helps me a lot with my essay. Actually, I want to ask about 3 volumes which published between 1999 and 2005. Is it Children's Stories; The True Child, The Moss Cup, and The Dandelion? If those are the titles, I kinda confuse, because in another article those were published about 1846-1849. So, I need to make it sure, because I will add this to my essay for my final Thank you before...

    1. Erris, I'm not understanding your comment on my interview with poet Elizabeth Oakes. I'm not familiar with "Children's Stories; The True Child, The Moss Cup, and The Dandelion?" Sorry.


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