Stupidly, Terribly Present

An interview with Elizabeth Gross

These poems, while different in style, play between place and displacement. What can you tell us about the relationship between the “ghost thing” poems and “DEAR ESCAPE ARTIST?”

My work is often focused on place and haunted by displacement. The earliest poem here “Out at Coney Island” is set in New York but preoccupied with a past that’s set in Prague; the “ghost things” are preoccupied with New York but slide around in time and space; and DEAR ESCAPE ARTIST is set in New Orleans but preoccupied with absolutely anywhere else.

What has the reception been for these poems when you’ve shared them or read them aloud?

One time I read all of the “ghost thing” poems-in-progress (there were about 12 of them then) at a karaoke bar and a woman in the audience heckled me. I was explaining that I’d been writing the poems for a couple of years but I couldn’t work on them too often because I have to cultivate this deep self-hatred to get to that voice, and I couldn’t stay there all the time. “Yes you can,” she kept yelling, “yes you can!” It was terrifying.

Both poems offer us semi-mythic figures: the escape artist, the ghost thing. Are they two sides of the same coin?

The escape artist is more of a person, although absent, where the ghost thing is stupidly, terribly present, but pretty abstract. Both the ghost thing and the escape artist allow the speaker to throw their feelings away from themselves, though. (The ghost thing tends to boomerang whereas the escape artist manages paper airplane distances.) The escape artist voice felt like something of a departure in my work, particularly because I’d been focusing on translations and erasures for a year and a half, but the other day my workshop pointed out to me that DEAR ESCAPE ARTIST and the ghost thing poems share an urgent, direct address to a shifting other.

Where can a curious reader find more of your work?

DEAR ESCAPE ARTIST is a collaboration with my artist friend Sara White featuring loose ink drawings alongside the poems; it’s due out November 15 from Antenna. The poems featured on Okey-Panky were the first I wrote in the series, although they’ve changed considerably as the concept grew into 18 poems, covering a wide range of topics such as insomnia, zen, sinkholes, and shrimp. DEAR ESCAPE ARTIST will be available soon on Antenna’s website. In addition, you can find links to other online publications on my website.

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