Behind the Words: Elizabeth Yalkut

Posted by on Apr 7, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Elizabeth Yalkut

Elizabeth Yalkut’s “Momos” was published in Spry’s fourth issue. She takes a moment to discuss her poem and writing life with Katie Eber, a frequent contributor to our blog and miniseries.

I love that “Momos” dives right into the idea of cooking as a show of love, and I love that it’s so short and to the point. Why does the short poem work so well for this particular subject?

It would be ridiculous to make this snapshot overblown; it would be counter to the image presented. Look at the language: only, tidy, straightforward. Poetry isn’t known for being efficient — and goodness knows that I’m as prone as any poet to wandering around what I’m talking about — but in this case, I managed to get out of my own way. Cooking of the kind I’m talking about here, the feed-who-shows-up, the what’s-in-the-pantry, kind of cooking, doesn’t take kindly to being garnished. (I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

There’s a lot of action in this poem without it being explicitly stated. How can poets use the subtlety of their craft to make the reader feel movement?

Oh, wow, ask me to sum up “how to poetry”! Tension, juxtaposition, specificity — these are all tools that I reach for when I’m trying to evoke a lot of connotations in as few words as possible, saying “scallions” instead of the more generic “onion” here, for example. “Pleated” is a more vivid word than “folded.”

When we write about memory, it’s easy to get lost in the memory itself, but this poem doesn’t do that. How did you approach this poem without getting tied up in telling the whole story?

It helps that it’s fiction! I didn’t have a specific “real” memory I was writing about, so the work of writing the poem wasn’t cluttered up by trying to adhere to the “facts” of “what happened,” I was able to pay attention to what I was trying to say. In general, being disrespectful with reality, giving yourself permission to lie, can be helpful for poetry — I think we’ve lost something with the relentless focus many poets have on “truth” and “authenticity.” Making stuff up can be liberating.

A lot of memory poems connect through our senses. How do you think our sensory relationships affect how we write about food?

Writing about food is one of those things that’s really easy to get wrong, not least because it’s such a common topic in so many contexts; one of my favorite Twitter parody accounts is @ruthbourdain, now sadly defunct, because it is so done with the rapturous, meaningless, adjective-heavy kind of food writing. The popularity of that stuff in restaurant reviews and cookbooks and whatnot has made that kind of language clichéd-sounding. So it can feel frustrating, like there’s a ton of language that’s off-limits. But it just means thinking more deeply about how to get your audience where you’re heading — are complex similes and metaphors a better choice? can you get onomatopoeia on your side? we have other tools, we just need to use them judiciously.

There’s a great part in the second stanza where you list ingredients, both organic (beef, scallion, garlic) and non-organic (frustration, affection). I feel very close to this, because when I try to cook my grandmother’s broccoli casserole more frustration goes into it than anything else. How do you think our memories affect how we read recipes and other directions left from our personal traditions?

This is such an interesting question. I like to think that great books are different every time you go to them, because as a reader, you’ve changed since you read the text before — possibly because of that book! — and extraordinary writing has different layers for different parts of you. The thought that recipes, which are superficially uncomplicated, a list of objects and instructions, can be as many-faceted as literature, has a lot of potential. It’s definitely true that the recipes and the food we live with become repositories for memories, the person who made a dish, the people you ate it with, the place you cooked it last. And food can be mysteriously transformed from your memories: strawberries that aren’t as sweet as the ones you picked as a child, kugel that never crisps the way your mother’s did. I love the idea that the recipes transform and transubstantiate in the same way.

Katie Eber is a graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA program and Roanoke College. Her work has appeared in Hobo Pancakes, MadHat Lit, Quail Bell Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, Sum Journal, DASH, White Stag, and Garbanzo Literary Journal. She, however, most proud of her November 1994 achievement in winning “Most Quiet Rester,” an award given to her in Mrs. DeLucia’s morning kindergarten class – Katie having never been quiet nor restful since.

Katie lives in the shadow of the Metacomet Ridge in central Connecticut, is the current poet laureate of Wallingford, and enjoys good beer, good music, and good sandwiches.