Behind the Words: Elizabeth Cooley

Posted by on Jan 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Elizabeth CooleyElizabeth Cooley’s small poem “Genesis” charms the reader with its depiction of creation as child’s play. But there’s much more to this poem than play. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer some questions about this poem and her writing process in general.




Donna: If you’ll pardon the bad pun, what was the “genesis” for this poem?

Elizabeth: Sometimes for me, poems run out onto the page and I’ve no idea where they come from. Of course, there are plenty of poems I really have to coax out, but “Genesis” wasn’t one of them. I didn’t immediately think of the Genesis story, but of Earth being a kind of experiment, or at least seeming to be that way. I initially thought of having God be a little kid in this poem because I wanted a real sense of imperfection and playfulness, which meant God couldn’t be an architect, just a kid in a sandbox who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, who’s just playing around. So maybe that’s controversial, but I didn’t write the poem to make any statements on God or intelligent design.

What was important for me was that the poem focus on imperfection and end on human imperfection, which is a take on God creating man in his own image. So when the hand slips at the end of the poem making man, it’s God saying, “whoops, accidentally made those thumbs opposable,”–or whatever it is he messed up on–which could be true whether you believe in intelligent design or evolution or some combination of the two or none of the above.


“Genesis” recalls a well-known Biblical event through a very unique lens. Do you address issues of religion or spirituality often in your work?

Not often, no. I’ve been told my poems have a kind of spirituality threaded within them, but it appears more in language than overtly in subject matter. For me, spirituality is a way of understanding the world. So it sneaks into my poetry because poetry is my way of understanding the world. The things I see as “sacred” or spiritual in the world then appear in my poems, because those are the things I spend time thinking about.


You capture the intensity of a child’s creative focus in the poem through the use of relatable but vivid images. (Most readers can recall at least one of these activities – playing in the dirt, being surrounded by drawings, sneaking books and projects into the darkness.) How does your own writing process mimic or mirror a child’s approach to creating?

In his poem “The Trouble With Poetry,” Billy Collins describes poetry as “the longing to steal, / to break into the poems of others / with a flashlight and a ski mask.” I see those lines pointing more to a playfulness in poetry and in poets than a delinquency. Maybe it’s the flashlight, which always reminds me of reading under the covers after lights out. Poetry is fun, and absolutely childlike. It’s a game in which poets get to play around with sound and image and language and everything else that goes into a poem, in the sandbox mixing up mud and sand and grass and forgetting to add punctuation.

Even when I’m doing the “grown up” stuff–going back and editing–I’m often just messing around. Eventually I’ll polish it or put it in the kiln or whatever metaphor you want to use, but even that polishing is figuring out where to polish and where to leave the poem roughed up, which is an experiment: you can always go back and change the poem, even after its been published (“Genesis” hasn’t been changed since it was published in Spry, not yet). At least for me, that’s the real joy of poems. More often than not, making them is fun.


This particular poem is very compact, which seems appropriate for the perspective. Do you tend toward shorter poems, or does each poem dictate what it needs?

I try to let each poem dictate what it needs, but I also work in phases of form. For a while, I was writing really big, blocky poems with long lines, all one stanza. Once I tired of that, I tried spare poems in short stanzas, but sooner or later, I’ll tire of that, as well. With poems, I’m always looking for something new. I’ll write the same poem over and over, but as soon as that subject or form or those sounds aren’t new for me anymore, I want to find the next thing.

Also, I always look for different styles of poems to read, particularly when I’m trying to get out of a rut. While writing “Genesis,” I was in a sonnet phase, writing these little, structured poems, so I was reading little, structured poems. Then I found Kathleen Graber and Dean Young and Frank Gaspar’s huge poems with quick turns. Those were so different from what I had been reading and writing before, that they excited me, and I began working some of their sensibilities into my poems.

I would say that “what the poem needs” follows from playing around with form. When I’m writing sonnets, I’m more likely to be writing poems with subject matters like “Genesis,” just because my brain is in that place, thinking of little, vibrant images I can draw into a poem, but when I’m interested in making big, messy poems with many images that change rapidly, I’m more likely to be tackling really intense subjects, and I’m more likely to be more abstract, just because my brain is working in that way while it’s preoccupied with that form.


It seems it is impossible to escape the influence of writers that we are currently reading, whether it be in terms of line length or quick turns or sparsity of language. Do you often find the form/style of your writing taking on the characteristics of poets you are reading? Or do you feel that, no matter where you begin, you end up in a style that is more or less “your own?”

I almost always find my work taking on characteristics of the work that I’m reading. I do think that’s impossible to escape, but I’m not trying to escape it. Though I’m not usually consciously trying to write like a particular poet (though, yes, sometimes I am), the influence is often clear. It’s why I read work I admire over and over–I want to be influenced by these people. A poet’s particular voice or style comes out of the mash up of everything he or she is reading. I’m never going to take exactly the same thing from Keats that another poet will take, nor are we reading exactly the same poets. So my personal style evolves not only through the writers I’m reading, but through the parts of their work that are most affecting mine. Then, what I bring to my poems of myself as a poet and a person necessarily has to make its way into my work, simply because I’m the person writing it. There’s no way I can separate my experiences from my writing (or from what I’m reading), and thus, my voice, or style, in poems.


There is a careful attention to sound here – for example, the short a sounds in
“wrapped it around his hands,/scratched out an alphabet with chalk./I
ve imagined…”
How much of your creating/revising process is focused on sound?

Lots of it! I had training as a classical musician in flute performance, so careful attention to how anything sounds is still ingrained in me on the conscious and subconscious level. For me, sound and poems are intrinsically connected–there’s no separating them. So sound gets as much focus as content and image in my poems (sometimes more), and it’s often where I start writing a poem. Though my first drafts are attentive to sound, in my revisions I’ll go back and look at it more closely, trying to find new ways of playing with the poem’s music and language that weren’t obvious or intrinsic to me from the beginning. I always read my work aloud; hearing it helps me understand what’s happening in it. Music is a huge part of poetry, and it’s meant to be read aloud, so I’ve always seen sound as a necessary part of both processes–creation and revision–as well as the art itself.


Donna Vorreyer is a Chicago-area writer who spends her days teaching middle school, trying to convince teenagers that words matter. Her work has appeared in many journals and her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies, is forthcoming this year from Dancing Girl Press. Her first full-length poetry collection, A House of Many Windows, is now available from Sundress Publications. She also serves as a poetry editor for Mixed Fruit magazine. Visit her online here.

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