“Still, My Basic Instinct is to Run”: A Conversation Between Elizabeth A.I. Powell and Dana Roeser

poetry collections

What happens when two poets whose acclaimed work spans numerous themes and images meet? Elizabeth A.I. Powell, author of Atomizer and Dana Roeser, author of All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts convened to discuss American culture, feminism, spirituality, God, online dating, authoritarianism, olfactory art, Personism, and poetry.

Dana Roeser: Atomizer is such an ambitious, capacious project. In looking at its scope and rich variety of forms and topics—the sheer number of words and varieties of acrobatics that they perform—I am wondering if the book itself isn’t a political statement, i.e., a declaration that a person—in this case, a woman—can take up space and can talk about anything that they deem worth talking about. That the personal does not need to be relegated to its own unspoken-of corral (how many people has this notion hurt and killed?). Also, as the book is such a full and rich whole, it throws into question the whole notion of compartmentalization that has plagued poetry as a “high art” and, in particular, elitist white male poetry of the past. 

The book opens with the question: “Is it right to write about love during the new regime?”  I am thinking this is answered by the breadth of the project itself, but I would love to hear you comment on this pressing question for all writers and artists, i.e., the relevance of our work during the “new regime.”  

Elizabeth A.I. Powell: The new boss always is the same as the old boss. Historians write this all down for us. Historians like Timothy Snyder. We need to pay attention to patterns. Poets, I hope, are people that pay very close attention to patterns as a way to see and make meaning. Atomizer tries to use the bodily sense of smell as a way to ascertain truth. The book trusts the senses in a society that wants to get us further and further from our human senses. The computers, the Internet, the iPhone, all lovely tools, but nonetheless get us away from our real senses. We live in an increasingly authoritarian world that tells us not to trust our senses. Men have been telling women that for centuries. “It’s all in your head” kind of thing. Atomizer asserts a stay against societal confusion. The question about is it right to write about love during a dark time is not a new question. It is a question Brecht and Celan took up during one of the world’s darkest times.  

Atomizer, through scent, looks at the way the erotic is not only personal and physical but also societal and political. Audre Lourde reminds us in her essay, Uses of the Erotic, that the erotic is our source of power, and we must work from that power that place of our deepest knowledge, not the subversion of it depicted in the femininity seen in the beauty industry, for instance. My work is erotic because it comes from my deepest knowing and joy. Perhaps there isn’t a gap between the erotic and the political. Scent is a way to write and talk about Eros. We have so many chemical connections with other humans that direct our actions in love, in parenting. 

We know this now scientifically, but texts like the Old and New Testaments also enact meaningful narratives through the use of scent and perfume, such as in The Song of Songs and Mary’s Anointing of Jesus with expensive nard perfume. Mary’s is a highly charged, erotic act, thought frivolous by those who witness it, but Jesus understands the depth of meaning and value in the sensual Eros and creative inspiration that the act enacts. Olfaction is highly meaningful and important to the spiritual. Note our use of frankincense and myrrh in high-church holidays, the uses of sage in cleansing ceremonies, or the use of nag champa in meditation or yoga classes. In fact, the ancient Hebrews some time after instituting circumcision took the cut off foreskins and burned them as incense to God. In addition, Dioscorides wrote of nard in the De Materia Medica. Pliny the Elder and the poet Horace also mention nard in their work and Eros, the divine, the other, and the self. Darkness looms to subvert Eros and creative truth. Eros interestingly is born of chaos. So the enactment of Eros in the poems must include that darker side. Atomizer thinks about the ways in which Eros can become chaos and darkness when it is not held in reverence and understanding. 

DR: How has your training as a fiction writer, your love of theatre, your gift with humor and satire, your mastery of poetic forms, your skill at deploying a compelling seemingly autobiographical narrator, your work as an editor, etc. freed you to work in so many forms, and within the aegis of one whole? I would love to hear anything you have to say about the use of hybrid forms in your work (including your wonderful novel Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues).

EAIP: When I was in graduate school, genre was fiercely segregated. I didn’t have the language back then to come up with a term like hybrid genres. I never like being boxed in, and I always wanted to write things that used all genres. As a young writer I especially loved “The Murphy Stories” by Mark Costello and “The Motel Chronicles” by Sam Shepard. “The Murphy Stories” are a collection of short stories about an alcoholic rogue named Murphy, and when we the reader get the chance to see his inner consciousness enacted it is all written in poetry. Amazing. Shepard’s  “Motel Chronicles,” are prose poem pieces written by my favorite playwright, who I was reading voraciously back then. The work of Charles Simic, one of my greatest teachers and mentors, was also hugely influential. He helped me see the prose poem as a valid form and undid some bad training. I also love Simic’s humor. His work taught me humor in poetry was a valid way to be. 

In addition, my great-grandparents were refugees fleeing from Vilnius, Lithuania, where they were from a family of artists and musicians. Vilnius’ Yiddish Theater before the Nazis was a place like a temple, a bustling, important center of community and art. Plays and theater are like religious ritual. The theater is in my DNA.

I wrote my novel as a way to try and push genre boundaries, using a clothing catalogue as a device to organize a story. Each chapter in the novel puts into words the story a page in the catalogue is telling. The novel looks at the narrative of the advertising and the actual narrative of the people who are the models and the photographer. For me a hybrid point of view is like the point of view of the Holy Ghost in that it is moving, roving, all-knowing, revelatory, and in flight above us, creating meaning. In my view, the Holy Ghost is the creative force and spirit of God and the inexplicable way things make sense in hindsight.

EAIP: What strikes me as so very original in your brilliant book are two things that knit together into a magic carpet: voice and form. I’m always astounded by your adept use of the longer form, how it slips and slides with grace and courage down the page. Can you talk to me a bit about your form in the longer poem? How did you find each other? When did you know you had met the line and form you would marry in this book? I guess this is a question not only about revelation in process, but the ways in which form finds us.

DR: Frank O’Hara says in his famous “Personism: A Manifesto” that, “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete).” This exemplifies my feeling about form. He also says, “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” Like O’Hara I want to keep a sense of urgency in my poems and not give in to obvious poetic self-consciousness. Often my poems are voice-driven/colloquial, and the sentence is stretched over many short lines—often with alternate indentation in couplets or patterned indentation in tercets. It’s as though I were trying to outrun The Thing That Cannot Be Named, which prevents one from being able to write at all. I think all of my “style” can pretty much be attributed to that one endeavor—trying to stay on the move—and keep things a little messy—so that torpor, fear, anxiety, and the dreaded Other Thing (W____’s B____) don’t paralyze me. Anxious people develop coping strategies. Plus I do have a very real sense of danger, held over from childhood, that there could be repercussions for saying what I actually think (as indeed there were). This also calls for outrunning the “threat.”

Regarding technique, O’Hara says: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” But, as stated above, a direct approach to technique doesn’t work well for me. Or rather I can beat a poem to death with technical effort, and that might be a good idea, but it’s highly unlikely that that poem will have any vitality afterward. The reason that it’s a good idea is that I might learn something really valuable that eventually works its way into my unconscious and then comes up seamlessly in another, later, poem. Again, I kind of have to trick myself into learning things—that’s possibly why it took me so long to get any poems that would “hold water” (I heard Stanley Kunitz once refer to a poem as a bucket of water that one did not want to spring any leaks.)

O’Hara also says “Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” Not every poem I write is a direct address, of course, but I did get a leg up when I realized that every piece of writing has a narrator (who said that? William Styron? Janet Burroway? both?) and that that narrator didn’t have to be me. (Even if the piece were in the first person, the narrator could be a persona—as I think all of my narrators are.) Similarly, the narrator’s speech could be dramatic, in a subdued or a more overt way, and be addressed to someone implicitly. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work without “voice” and that I had to kind of overdo it in order to be able to do it at all (see above). I was influenced by Mark Halliday’s 1983 interview with Frank Bidart (included in the ground-breaking In the Western Night and reprinted in Bidart’s Half-Light, Collected Poems, 1965-2016). Bidart spoke about inscribing the voice on the page: “Slowly I stumbled toward ‘deploying’ the words on the page through voice; syntax; punctuation. (By ‘punctuation’ I mean not merely commas, periods, et cetera, but line breaks, stanza breaks, capital letters—all the ways that speed and tension and emphasis can be marked).”

The drama and intensity of the poems in In the Western Night changed my whole view of poetry and what could be done. Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her introduction to my first book, Beautiful  Motion (2004), says: “[W]hile Roeser’s rhythms are a long way indeed from Frost’s iambs (and in part a critique of them), her short, interrupted, syncopated lines form the same sort of ‘crossed swords’ as his fixed meter, around which idiom dances so nimbly.” Leaving aside the comparison to Robert Frost (!), I do feel that in my lines I look for ways to “oppose” the sentence, the verse rhythm, anything “expected”—I am always casting about for something to keep the tennis net up (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net,” Robert Frost). One of the genius tools of the “vital sentence” (Frost’s term) is the full stop, for example. 

So while I think that my use of the line has evolved from book to book, I am still drawn to “low” diction, conversational story-telling, vernacular, and deliberate satirizing of not just cultural norms but of what I see as poetic expectations, and I need to keep reading and thinking directly about technique to continue to develop ways to sustain timing, interest, tension.

Recently I showed a poem to a trusted reader, unsure of how to lineate it. It had started as a block with stanza breaks for obvious changes of topic (this may work for some people but recalls the freshman five-paragraph essay for me and is deadly) and then I started moving the lines randomly off of the margin but still didn’t know what I was doing. This reader steered me toward a sort of tercet container for the jagged lineation, saying your poem has so many little turns, you need not to favor the ones you think of as the big ones. 

Another influence has been poet Charles Wright who speaks often of surface and depth. What I take from what he says is that they are interchangeable. My interpretation of this is that there are no “topics” and no subordinate clauses, and no subordinate ideas, in a poem. Everything is foregrounded. I don’t think that’s what he means, exactly, but it has helped me to elevate the trivial and bring down the lofty, and this appeals to the satirist in me. As I am unable to find a quote outside of Charles Wright’s work on this topic (and can’t recall exactly what he said, when I heard him speak about it)—and as he often comments on his poetics/aesthetic in his work—I will quote the opening to “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” which makes reference to this preoccupation:

Sunday, September Sunday … Outdoors,

Like an early page from The Appalachian Book of the Dead,   

Sunlight lavishes brilliance on every surface,

Doves settle, surreptitious angels, on tree limb and box branch,   

A crow calls, deep in its own darkness,

Something like water ticks on

Just there, beyond the horizon, just there, steady clock …

Perhaps the interest in surface and depth has to do with a painterly orientation. I started as a painter, and I feel the “problems” and restrictions of poetry are quite similar to the “problems” of the blank canvas. This is what Charles Wright says in an interview about his method: “My poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work off one another. Vide Cézanne’s use of color and form. I try to do that in sound patterns within the line, in the line within the stanza, and the stanza within the poem. Tonal units of measure, tonal rhythms in time.”

But, still, my basic instinct is to run, as if someone were chasing me down the street with a knife.  

DR: “My atomizer’s a DeVilibiss Art Deco made of opalescent glass,” your book’s opening poem states. Why Atomizer? Why perfume? Is the book itself an atomizer? Is the poem?

EAIP: The physicist Richard P. Fenyman says it best, as I recount in one of the book’s epigraphs: “I….. a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.” I wanted the book itself to release atoms composed into poems, spray by spray, and I wanted the book to release those atomic configurations section by section, like the way a perfume opens in top note, then heart notes, then base notes. It always struck me that a fashion device that expels perfume has such a powerful name as atomizer. It almost sounds like it has the power to atomize the whole world, atom by atom, pixel by pixel, pointillist painted dot by pointillist dot. I always have the sense watching dust in sunshine that the world is just floating by in this swarm of atoms that I can almost see, but somehow feel as a synesthete.

DR: At what point did you know that all of these poems would go in this book? Did you write “to” the title/topic/project from the beginning or did you see the thread as you were producing poems randomly and then realize that they could be grouped that way? Did you write poems for the book? Did you do research? Could you tell us a little about what reading or research informed your writing of the book?

EAIP: I try to do what Rilke recommends in his “Letters to a Young Poet” and that is to “live the questions.” I realized a long time ago that a poem can’t be finished until you’ve lived the experience that has informed it or have lived into the future that will understand the situation of the poem. For me this is living the questions. Living the questions also is a way to help deal with the suspense and stuckness of not knowing what will happen in the future or how you will be in the world in the future. Instead of fretting about the questions just try to be them, it is in that way the future comes with its coveted answer, even if you can’t see it at first. Imagery in poems sometimes doesn’t line up with narrative, and this certainly happened to me as a young poet. With my second book “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter” I had written a whole manuscript I never published before that. It was chockfull of imagery that would fortune tell events that would happen in my life, but I had to wait for the narrative to come, which took ten years. That is why there was a fifteen-year gap between my first and second book. The images were little psychics that foretold narratives I couldn’t imagine until I lived them. It was only then that the questions I was living could be turned into poems. 

As far as research goes, I always wait to do that until I have a rough draft and see what themes and ideas are there, and then I do research. I read a wonderful book on the use of scent in ancient Hebrew and Jewish ceremonies and rituals.

The work of journalist, writer, and curator Chandler Burr has also been important to me in seeing the ways in which perfume is an olfactory art. Olfaction is a sense that is taken for granted in much poetry. In addition, the work of Luca Turin, known for the vibration theory of olfaction, has also been influential, helping me to understand the chemistry and science of fragrance. The poems in Atomizer consider what happens when that structural device goes rogue, diffusing it into new configurations of atoms, of false narratives, of oppressive and dark seductions.

DR: Can you comment on your particular relationship to scent? How the sense of smell for you also includes the other senses, i.e., your experience as a synesthete. How did this open up this project/subject for you? 

EAIP: Yes, as a synesthete I have always had a “special” relationship to sense, feeling colors, tasting scents. Sometimes scent is so overwhelming to me, it takes over the world. I used to joke that when I was pregnant I could smell rotting meat a mile away in a freezer. But, seriously, there is so much power in scent and in its purest form it encourages us who to mate with, but also keeps us safe from imbibing or eating things that might harm us. However, oppressive factors in society can tell us, especially as women, not to trust our senses, and in this way things begin to get distorted. Political distortion starts from not trusting our fundamental senses, from being told our “gut” is wrong. Advertising, of course, contributes to this, especially if as a child one watched a lot of television, for instance. Olfactory art and perfumery exploit that distortion in both artistic and economic ways. Interestingly, men have been at the forefront of the perfume industry, at least historically. While perfumery can be an art, it is also a kind of deception that tries to cover up our smelly (figuratively or otherwise) humanity. Plus, when you are a synesthete  you can feel odd, as I did as a young person, and not want to talk about it when you realize it’s not quite “right”.

EAIP: How is the current political and social climate affecting your writing?

DR: Regarding our current national situation, I’m glad you asked. I think the best thing that I can say is that I am slow. I follow politics avidly, but my feelings about what is going on seep very slowly into the water table of my working imagination as a poet. And yet I think as a woman writer (age 67) at this moment, my work is politically charged at every moment. “All writing is political.” Who said that? Lots of people, including James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich.

I am very excited to be working on a project now that takes on big topics. I am taking part in a “Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Seminar” (via Zoom), a project of the IUPUI (Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis) Arts & Humanities Institute, in which a group of artists, performers, writers, poets, and musicians are exploring the role of the artist in response to our planetary crises: climate change and the pandemic. We are comparing the biblical flood story to the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as reading secondary sources and taking in artistic responses to the flood story, climate crises (Hurricane Katrina, for example), the pandemic, the disproportionate harm falling to Black people and people of color in the foregoing, as well as at the hands of our country’s law enforcement, and related issues and repercussions. I am really excited about applying my sensibility to these topics. I’ve studied many poets who have taken their approaches/styles/aesthetics along with them on their explorations of ethically/politically challenging material, and I look forward to doing the same. A poet can’t leave their signature style behind in undertaking this “different” work, but their aesthetic range and style can be made larger to accommodate their new exploration and discoveries.

DR: I loved “When the Insemination Man Comes to the Farm,” “Killing Rabbits,” “Escape,” “An Alabaster Jar of Nard,” “Things that Aren’t Good,” and “Sociopath Mon Amour,” among many, many other poems. Could you comment on any of these? Their form? When were they written in relation to the others in the book and to the project as a whole? How soon in the process of writing them did you determine their form, or did they come out in the “right” form right away? 

EP: Well, the teacherly answer is that form is a revelation of content and vice versa! The first four poems you mention took a lot of revision on form and finding the figuration that I thought was a good juxtaposing factor. The last two poems you mention were earlier poems that came all at one. When I’m writing in hybrid forms, sometimes it is like doing a puzzle, and all of a sudden it seems one must write a Spenserian stanza out of the paragraphs. Really, I try to use all the tools, poetic form and figuration, narrative structure, the playfulness of creative nonfiction and braiding techniques. It’s like high fashion, figuring out what looks good juxtaposed with something else. Art.

DR: Could you say something about online dating and about how “Culture is obsessed with commodifying mating”? And maybe cyber-dating and addiction? Heterosexual online dating and men? We’re all ears. You can tie this into Starbucks feeding customers baby formula (I’ve written letters to the governing body of Starbucks/because everyone knows they make baby formula for grown-ups, in “When the Insemination Man Comes to the Farm”), if you like!

EP: I never thought I would online date; it seemed like writing an advertisement for yourself, which somehow seemed like selling yourself. But when I divorced, living in a very rural area where everyone seems married, I did try it out, and then put my hand on the hot stove again and again. It was an interesting revelatory experience about the nature of humanity.

At one point, I recalled my grandmother looking through a book of sires to have her cows mated with when the insemination man came to the farm to inseminate the cows. As a nine year old this was very startling and interesting and weird. While I was swiping left and left, I considered it wasn’t that different from my Gram deciding on which bull semen to order, based on the copy next to a picture. 

One book that has been very influential is “In Praise of Love” by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who wrote: 

“That’s right. Paris is plastered with posters for the Meetic internet dating-site, whose ads I find really disturbing.” Get Love without chance!’ And then another says: ‘Be in love without falling in love!” … I believe this hype reflects a safety first concept of “love”…. The Meetic approach reminds me of the propaganda of the American army when promoting the idea of “smart” bombs and “zero dead” wars….It’s all rather the same scenario…nothing random, no chance encounters. Backed as it is, with all the resources of a wide-scale advertising campaign. I see it as the first threat to love…”

As far as the Starbucks being baby formula for grown-ups, my sister and I enjoyed getting lattes there, and I always felt I was a cranky baby until I had my Starbucks baby formula for grown ups. It’s a sisterly joke between us. On holidays we still send each other Starbucks cards as a nod to that.  I think also that many people on online dating and elsewhere suffer from various attachment disorders, and this extra layer between humanity distorts that all the more. It always seems to come down to babyhood, grownups still need their formula, whether it is Starbucks or bourbon or Ben and Jerry’s or extreme sports or advanced shopping or phony prestige or compulsive sex. There is a soul crater that needs filling, and sometimes humans can turn that crater into a garbage can. And then, because we are human, once the soul is a garbage can, we sometimes mistakenly invent cults of personality to try and fix ourselves. 

EAIP: Who are your poetry inspirations? Your work, your voice both are so thrillingly unique!

DR: Emily Dickinson speaks most to me right now, and has for months. She is my pandemic poet and my solitude poet (and lovelorn poet, in the most interesting way). I love many other poets, but when I’m lost and want to turn off the news and go to the source, it’s Dickinson who sustains me. And I order and read books just out. The beautiful Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral; Homie by Danez Smith. James Arthur’s Charms Against Lightning and The Suicide’s Son—I am crazy about his work.  I am an eclectic reader, and I often read books out of order (though eventually I do come back and read them from the beginning, as was likely intended). It goes without saying that these are poets who are all doing, in their individual ways, what I cannot do. And that is the pleasure (and maybe the instruction) of reading them. I am also reading the novel Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kwakami, beautifully written (and translated—by Sam Bett and David Boyd) and a true pleasure to read. In a not dissimilar vein, I adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I read and listen to all sorts of news outlets, as we all do, I’m sure. And then I need a palate cleanser—again, as I am sure we all feel we do.

DR: Could I tread very lightly here and ask about the epigraph for Atomizer, “This book is not for him or him or him/only Him”? I would love to hear you say something about the relationship of spirituality to your art. (I am thinking also of your novel Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J.Crew Catalogues, which features the Holy Ghost.)

EP: I agree with Emily Dickinson, the greatest church has “an orchard for a dome.” I grew up always running about outside. My church was an apple orchard, my temple was a pine forest, and my altar the cow stalls of the farm. Still, I go outside and walk and walk into the mystery. This is my most human place, and always has been. From my youngest days forward, religion was always of great interest to me, but also daunting and slightly scary. On my grandmother’s dairy farm in the summer and at holidays, I would gladly accompany her to her Episcopal country church. It felt like home. She was not religious per se, but she sang in the choir, and music was her mission. My father’s family was Jewish refugees trying to find the illusive American dream. Perhaps I like hybrid forms because I feel like a hybrid form myself, I can hold opposing beliefs together and make them part of me, my own. As a five year old, I was punched and beaten on the playground by boys who wanted to see my horns and tell me I killed Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitic acts occur around me all time, even today, in the most unexpected places. Anyway, the past was all extremely confusing. But that was the starting point of my spirituality: synthesia, the woods, the orchards, the farm, the hybridity of religious culture where I loved the Episcopal church and the care and comfort of a Jewish Seder in spring with my loving, doting Jewish grandparents and family. If I wanted to say the Holy Ghost was a dove flapping wings in my chest, transmitting poems, well, why not?  If I wanted to say my abandonment felt like unleavened bread, I could. My relationship to art is the same as my relationship to spirituality: Hybrid and being okay with that and not letting anyone tell me what I can or cannot believe or where I can or cannot fit in. My thesis statement? I believe in hybridity. And finally, the epigraph is a reminder, do not let men be your gods, let God be God.


Dana Roeser’s fourth book, All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, won the Wilder Prize at Two Sylvias Press and was published in September 2019. She is also the author of The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed,recipient of the Juniper Prize, as well as Beautiful Motion and In the Truth Room, both winners of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. Among her many awards and honors are the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She has read her work widely and taught in the MFA programs in poetry at Purdue, Butler, and Wichita State Universities. Recent poems and translations have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pushcart Prize XLIII, North American Review, The Florid Review, Green Mountains Review, Crazyhorse, PI (Poetry International Online), Laurel Review, Indianapolis Review, and Notre Dame Review. For more information, please see www.danaroeser.com.  

Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of three books of poems, including Atomizer (LSU Press, 2020). Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was named a Books We Love 2016 by The New Yorker. Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues was published in 2019 in the U.K.  She is Editor of Green Mountains Review and  Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Vermont University.

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