An Interview with Elizabeth J. Colen ~ Jory Mickelson

Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of Lambda Literary Award-nominated prose poetry collection Money for Sunsets (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and flash fiction chapbook Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011). She currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, is poetry editor of Thumbnail Magazine, and blogs at
Jory M. Mickelson's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Knockout!, Assaracus, Barnstorm, Oranges & Sardines and New Mexico Poetry Review. He won the 2011 Academy of American Poets Prize at the University of Idaho. He is the nonfiction editor for the literary journal 5x5 ( and blogs at Literary Magpie ( He currently lives in Idaho.

Jorie Mickelson: Your first book of poetry, Money for Sunsets came out in June.† It has been compared to Gertrude Stein meets "Twin Peaks."† Let's take the latter half first.† Are you a Twin Peaks fan?†
Elizabeth J. Colen: Let me start by saying that while I conduct my life as a series of random experiments and make most decisions by reducing them to a factors of a and b and flipping a coin, David Lynch is in fact the reason I moved to the Pacific Northwest. †

I donít know if I ever consciously thought of Twin Peaks as an influence while writing anything, but I was 14 when it came on in 1990 and it blew my mind. Iíd never seen anything like it. I was always more of a reader, never really watched TV. And the stuff I read then was crap because itís what I had access to. I read whatever romance novels my mother had lying around (you know, to learn about sex), and then whatever my older brother had from school. And when Iíd ask someone for recommendations, like a teacher or someone, I didnít know what to ask for. I never liked age-appropriate stuff, I refused to read YA books, didnít care about Judy Blume. I wanted literature, but they kept giving me kid stuff. So I think at that point I had yet to be impressed by anything that wasnít music. †

And then this show came on. Of course, I had no idea who David Lynch was then. But the music, the first few frames of the intro, that bird, the waterfall, the sawmill! I didnít even know about the muted colors he used for the intro because I watched it on a tiny 12-inch black and white TV in my room. I was drawn in just by the credits! And then the strange speech patterns of the characters, the dead girl on the beach, the attention to odd details, like Lucy in the first five minutes explaining to the Sheriff what phone sheís sending the call to. I was like, what in the world is this? But the truth is that it wasnít in the world. And thatís what Iíd been looking for. There was something more real to me about these characters than the people I knew. It all made more sense to me than the world I was living in. I mean, I really believe we exist in a series of secret rooms, red rooms. Or at least I do. Parts of our experience that are unseen, places we canít take anyone to. I think my idea of narrative got started here, the nascent sense that reality is subjective, that some of the most important things that happen donít actually happen, and that the things that do donít occur start to finish, but rather in a circuitous way, a Fibonacci sort of curl where everything can turn in and look at itself, the real and unreal, all of it the same.
JM: Have you been to Twede's in North Bend, the Double R Diner in the television series?† Can you see a twinkling of Twin Peaks in your work or do you feel that Denise Duhamel was off base in making the comparison?
EJC: As important as it was to me, I never watched it again until this year. And that was deliberate. For the same reason I donít take pictures when I really want to remember something. I could sense pretty immediately that this Thing was going to have an effect on me, and I was going to let it. And I wasnít going to taint that by looking at it again. And then I bought the whole series on DVD a few years ago and decided on the 20th anniversary (this year) I was going to watch it again. This was also going to be the year I went to North Bend, which I did. I am not sorry I watched it again because it clarified a lot of things to me. But I am sincerely sorry I went to Snoqualmie Falls and sincerely sorry I went to Twedeís. They were so unlike Twin Peaks as to almost destroy it for me. I donít even want to talk about it really. I mean, the Double R is half a mile from an outlet mall right off the highway. Letís just leave it at that. Bellingham is more Twin Peaks than Twin Peaks. And that might be part of why I live here. The beauty and the creepy intertwined. ††

I hadnít been thinking about TP when I wrote MFS, but I live here. ††

So when I got the call from Denise Duhamel and she started talking about David Lynch, Iím like, well, yes, of course. Some element of it is probably in everything I do.
JM:I love the idea that we live some part of our lives in secret red rooms.† When I was in the fifth or sixth grade my grandfather took me to a brothel museum.† I remember that some of the rooms were left untouched when the†sex workers†fled.† It was like seeing a picture in three dimensions--these secret lives retelling their stories.† My secret rooms are probably†done in crimson flocked wallpaper.

†Your poem, "Synthesizer Approximating Strings" has stayed with me.† I think I've read it over a dozen times now.† It seems to be a crystallization of so many of the other threads running through your work: danger-sex-power.† So much is happening here.† Tell me about this poem.†
EJC: Taken from a literal reading, I suppose kidnapping someone and paying them for sex is dangerous power. Suddenly Iím thinking of Boy George. Didnít he get in trouble for this recently?

I suppose the girl in the poem could be a prostitute, but I didnít really intend her that way. And the violent sex could be anything. The poem (to me anyway) is more about understanding transference. How weíre often making do with something not quite right, and the sort of mental turmoil that comes out of that. How sometimes you want one thing so bad, but then thereís this other thing in front of you and thatís what you have to work with. Square pegs, you know? I mean, arenít our whole lives about this to some degree?

It was one of the last poems I wrote for this book, and I think you're right that it's a confluence of threads.

Oh! and I donít mean that women are ďthings,Ē obviously. It could be granola for cake, gum for cigarette, or staycation for a week in the tropics, etc, etc. Sex is just more interesting. Thereís not much that feels more self-destructive than having sex with one person while thinking about another.
JM: I am curious about how you titled your poems. The prose poems, by their nature appear to be fragmentary narratives. Tell me about the process for titling your poems. Where do the titles come from and how do they work?
EJC: Titles are hard for me! And when they arenít theyíre like magic. ďSynthesizer Approximating StringsĒ was like this. I had a conversation with a friend about some song from the 80s (I donít remember which) and as a musician, a purist he said it would be better to rent an orchestra to get the strings right, and I said the synthesizer approximating strings was perfect because 80s music was supposed to be artificial.

So when I wrote this poem a few months later, the phrase was still kicking around in my head and seemed to be perfect for what the poem was trying to say.

But! Usually birthing a title takes as long as writing the poem. Or close to it. Sometimes nothing seems to go. I think part of the reason Iíve decided never to have children is the anxiety of naming. When I think of it that way, I begin to wonder why anything we write has names. Why not title stories and poems like classical music, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, etc, etcÖ ? Iím sure there could be some equivalent worked out for poems. I know youíve got some poems that fall into something like this, the ďCarbonite DreamĒ poems. Maybe youíve got something there.

I love reading books of untitled poems (like Karen Volkmanís mostly untitled Spar, like Carol Guessís Tinderbox Lawn) because itís one less intention that gets between me and the meat of the work. That said, titles should be intentional, of courseóand Iíd like to think that most of mine are. I have this idea that poetry exists on several planes, and thatís what makes it wonderful: it is what it is, but then itís also other things. This is really simplistic, but I kind of see the poem, my poems as the meeting of my world, the readerís world, and the world at large. The text of the poem is a kind of map that always leads back to something Iíve experienced (though I can rarely say a poem is nonfictional). But there are holes in the map, gaps left to any sense of narrative, and I hope thatís where the reader works themselves in, filling any space in with, I donít know, their stuff, mythologies, emotion, whatever they need to dump out and take a look at. Then the third part, the outside world is where the titling comes in. To me, at least. I mean, what I try to do with a title is take my apologue and whatever the readerís bringing and connect it to the outside world, kind of how I want it to mean in a bigger sense. Thatís a lot to ask of a title, which is where the anxiety for me comes in.

For example ď11 Bang-BangĒ (or alternately 11 Bulletstop) is military slang for an infantryman, and the first poem in Money for Sunsets is about knowing someone who died in the war. ďSaintly Meat of the HeartĒ comes from an Allen Ginsberg poem I had just reread at the time (ďTelevision was a Baby Crawling Toward that DeathchamberĒ). ďThe Match,Ē which references Caravaggio, alludes to the troubles tennis caused him. ďTakeĒ is a simple anagram of the person that poem is about. And so on.
JM: I do have a set of poems I am working on called the "Carbonite Dream" series. The first two were published in the issue 1 of Psychic Meatloaf-Journal of Contemporary Poetry. Let's talk about the maps you are making. As I understand it, you are (or were) primarily a prose writer-short stories? How did you get from prose to poetry? How did MFS take shape?
EJC: Well, maybe I'm naive, but there really isn't much distinction to me between writing prose and writing poetry. On the surface I recognize the aims of a poem may be different than the aims of a novel, for instance. But the actual difference in writing (to me anyway) comes down almost entirely to the matter of time.

If someone asked me what kind of a writer I am, without hesitation I would usually say novelist. But working / reworking a novel takes an amount of brain space and focus I'm usually incapable of. With everything, my first interest is in language, turning a seductive or lyrical phrase, etc, whatever the meaning actually is. I realize most novels are generally sense / story first, language second (or third or fourth). Maybe this is why I've had less success with longer forms.

The first manuscript I ever completed was a novel, 464 pages. It might be too fragmented or circuitous or something for the average reader (or average editor). It had some close calls with really excellent presses, but has yet to hit. I devoted more than three years to that project. I was exhausted after.

But I had to keep writing, right? It's what we do. So I went back to short stories, which got shorter and shorter. Until some of them were only paragraphs in which the language got tighter and more obsessive. And then I called them prose poems and started ordering them and they became a book. And of course I wrote more and dropped some "lesser" poems, put the stronger ones in and over the course of about ten months had an incarnation pretty close to what Money for Sunsets looks like now.
JM: So where does the writing in this book come from?† We discussed "Twin Peaks," but tell me about what influenced you, obsessed you and wormed its way onto the page.
EJC: I guess everything Iíve ever written could probably come down to an obsession with fucking, lying, and dying. But I think everything in life relates to these three elements in some way. They are, perhaps, my earth, wind, and fire.

†Iím also fascinated with borders. The obvious being the Canadian border, which I can see from my backyard, Palin-style (as in, not really). The line between land and ocean, good and bad, beauty and creepy, family/ love, which is supposed to be safe, but so often isnít. Iím interested in contradiction, especially self-contradiction, and also self-implication. Like how am I or ďIĒ or whatever third person responsible for the ills in the world. Thatís part of where the bookís title comes from.

A lot of the book reaches back into childhood to explain or build upon the present tense. Or maybe I just like Freud too much. I am continually fascinated that each person started out as and survived this smaller version of themselves. Itís probably just because I had unkind parents.

When I was six years old I heard David Bowie for the first time. Changes:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their words
Are immune to your consultations
Theyíre quite aware of what theyíre going through

Iím fairly certain ďimpermanenceĒ and ďconsultationĒ were the first words I ever looked up in a dictionary. And that line about the children trying ďto change their worldsĒ struck me as something I could maybe do. The first stories I wrote were me trying to set things right. Taking a situation that didnít go well, my parents fighting, the neighborhood kid trying to drown me in his pond, getting stuck in a storm drain, getting stuck in a cornfield (I was always getting stuck places) and altering the outcome to something positive. To some degree this is what Iím still doing, except Iím less interested (actually, not really interested at all) in the happy ending. There is no happy ending. I mean, no matter what we die. And so I write about the fear of death a lot. In some ways everything I write is about this, or maybe trying to change the outcome. And all of this comes from childhood in some way.
JM: You say that Bellingham is more ďTwin PeaksĒ than ďTwin Peaks.Ē The City of Subdued Excitement is definitely in MFS. Tell me what Bellingham is.
EJC: I think could get in trouble for trying to pin Bellingham down. Itís a contradictory, sometimes inscrutable admixture of disparate parts. I mean, itís really a different town to different people. Usually people don't seem to find the creepiness as highlighted for them as it is for me. Maybe I look for it. I don't know.

David Lynch said (of Twin Peaks) ďItís the kind of place you want to go in a daydreamĒ and I think thatís pretty accurate of this place. In daydreams also you can turn your attention more purposefully to the pretty parts of your imagination if things get ugly too fast. That can happen here, too. I live on a nice street, across from an expanse of green space where the neighborhood kids gather and play games and parents put out signs telling people to slow down. Then the green space leads the next street over to a park and playground where people sort through the bushes to dig up psilocybin mushrooms. And I know drug deals go down in the bathrooms because Iíve seen it.

What is Bellingham? A border town without the actual border. Weíre on the bay and really close to the mountain. Thereís water everywhere, lakes. From my house I can walk to half a dozen waterfalls. More parks per capita than anywhere, I think I heard. So itís green, itís lovely. Thereís also more artists than anywhere, supposedly. I mean, I can talk about the drug trade, the schizophrenics that get shoved out of the other small towns and end up here, people passing through to get to the border, maybe running from something. Itís actually a little bit famous for how many serial killers have passed through. The Hillside Strangler, Ted Bundy and some others, most recently the D.C. snipers. Even without that history I think it would feel creepy. I could talk about how people will camp anywhere. Sometimes you see tents in a the woods of a city park and no one says anything. There are supposedly shell-shocked veterans populating the woods. But then itís also town thatís always highlighted as a model of community: local commerce and green everything, sustainability. I know my neighbors, and they all recycle, they all love their hybrid cars, ride their bikes, donít lock their doors. The whole town has kind of a culture of laid-backness, like really good intentions often coupled with poor follow-through. Youíve lived here; you know what I mean by that. Itís a place both wonderful and strange. A lot of it doesnít make any sense, but beautifully. And thatís why I live here.
JM: I love the idea that things donít make sense in a beautiful way. I have a friend from my time in Montana who has synesthesia. She saw colors with certain sounds or letters. For her, the letter C was blue. She drew us pictures of the color of our names. There is another layer to the world and I feel like Bellingham has some of that other layer sticking out. Tell me about your double vision as a writer.
EJC: Well, Iím certainly no synesthete. I have enough trouble with words haunting me. I canít even imagine that extra layer.

†I donít know if I have double vision so much as double life. Iím interested in memory, how we change things just through perceiving them. I donít believe thereís any such thing as nonfiction, unmediated truth. Or maybe I just mean I couldnít write it. But I donít believe in it!

†Maybe as a step further I should say I donít ever just experience things as they are happening. Iím sometimes thinking about how future meís might interpret more notable events. But even the mundane details, the everyday I am transcribing them in my head, retelling the scene already as it is happening. Sometimes itís about how I will retell it to someone later, whether or not I do tell it to someone later. I had a friend in Atlanta who took his camera everywhere and witnessed everything through it. He was never just at a coffee shop or at a party or show or event, he always had his camera on his face, seeing everything frame by frame, in composition. Iíve become like that, maybe.

†As a side note, someone once told me you should write down the weirdest thing you see each day. Last week was all feathers. One day it was a man getting out of a pickup truck on the 5 and all these white feathers just billowed out and up into the air and he stood there holding the door with a kind of wonder as he looked up at it. The day before I saw sitting upright on the sidewalk next to a bus stop shelter a dead little bird, a tiny black-capped chickadee, beak up and slightly open and its wings kind of propping it up weirdly. It reminded me of the first time seeing Norman Batesí mother in Psycho. But cute!

†I have no idea if Iíve actually answered the question.

†Also though, have you noticed how most readers want to believe the ďIĒ in the poem is you, the writer? Have you run into that? Thatís been a hard one, re: fiction/nonfiction. I mean, my familyís reading this book and Iíve got girls locked up in cars!
JM: I have run into the ďIĒ problem in poetry. Where I am studying, there is a strong tendency for people to ask you what parts of your poem are autobiographical. Perhaps this started as a way for folks to get to know one another, but some of us ďfirst yearsĒ now have nicknames based on our first workshop sessions together.

I wrote a poem in which the speaker may or may not have burned down the house next door because of an obsession with the neighbor. That is not my personal experience from either side. However, I think part of being a writer is having an ability to ďgoĒ to those places and inhabit those spaces in order to retrieve words, scenes, characters, and images. What spaces were you delving into as you wrote MFS?
EJC: Well, certainly my fascination with early death plays a part. At one point when I was a child it seemed like one kid a year died in my elementary school. Other than older relatives (which isnít quite as surprising), I havenít experienced much death since, but there is great force in the memory of those years that continues to play out in everything I write. Itís part of the anxiousness that gets me to write in the first place: the fear of invisibility, of non-being, that at any moment all of this could be over too soon.

But really, if Iím honest, there is something of me in each of the poems. They are situations Iíve been in, or started to be in and got out of, and imagined the rest of. In my life, I probably play it pretty safe as far as ďdangerĒ goes, although that hasnít always been the case. I think youíre right that a writer ďgoes toĒ and inhabits these sometimes unfamiliar spaces, or revisits spaces theyíve gotten out of. I think a lot of writers experience the world differently, kind of like I was talking about in the last question. The dual living, or the more-than living, I should say because sometimes itís more multiple than two. How we might witness a glance between two people as weíre walking down the street and within a few blocks have conjured up an entire history between them. Itís like that. Or to see a bruise on someoneís face and feel we know maybe just how it got there. Or we see a particular shade of lipstick on a cigarette butt and create a woman and that womanís life around it, just building her right up off the sidewalk. Itís in these spaces that truth and fiction are not only inaccessible, but extraneous. To the writer, I mean. We make truth out of the stuff around us. And itís just as good a truth as whatever anyoneís selling.

But to get back to this idea of autobiography, when people ask me if the ďIĒ in my work is me I tell them that sometimes it is, sometimes it isnít, but that usually itís some bastardized version or composite of me / not-me.
JM: I sometimes wonder if I became a writer because of the sense of experiencing the world differently than others. For me, that is tied into my sexualityóthere were no visible gay people in my hometown. Queer peopleís lives have been and still are marginalized or erased in my hometown. Writing is a way for me to leave some kind of record. What is your experience of writing and living as an outsider and/or queer person?
EJC: Your hometown sounds a lot like mine. Gay people were marginalized to the point of complete invisibility. In high school I only knew one other queer and I was fucking her. And she didnít even admit she was gay until a few years after we broke up. Maybe I was stupid, but I saw the invisibility as excitement, like we were super heroes or something. I mean, I knew we could be killed, that much was clear from the language used around everything queer. And from the fact that the one kid in town everybody thought was gay (I donít know that he actually was) was beaten up pretty regularly.

When I think about marginalization and about not being heard / wanting to be heard as a possible catalyst for writing though, my outsider status comes from other and, to me, harder places. We moved a lot when I was a kid, so I was always that new weird kid no one ever got to know. I was the product of a first marriage living in the second marriage house and that looked very different than the other families I knew. My older brother and I were often disincluded from family events, and from family finances. I think those two things shaped me more than anything I experienced around being gay.
JM: I understand the idea of invisibility as excitement. A friend of mine told me that although he is glad that S&M culture is out in the open now, he can only imagine the kind of charge it had when it was still taboo. What do you think is still taboo in poetry? Conversely, what is becoming taboo that has been standard in poetry for some time?
EJC: Wow, I donít know. What do you think is taboo? I feel like I want to ask everyone that now. I think there are particular subjects that are taboo to particular writers, like each writer maybe has a few. But I feel like most people will say you can talk about anything these days and itís ďallowed.Ē Nothing really seems forbidden anymore, though Iíll never feel like I read enough to have a finger on the pulse of contemporary anything. There arenít enough hours in the day. To me the trend often seems more towards nonsense / the trivial everyday existence and less talk about things that actually matter: political issues, comments on contemporary society, wars and economics and stuff. I donít know. I donít know if I feel qualified to talk about whatís taboo or about trends. Or about how few poets seem to address important "issues" anymore. How in the past few years (maybe longer? I only started voraciously reading contemporary poetry five or six years ago) there seems to be a trend away from seriousness. Not things lighthearted exactly, but a strong focus on insubstantial subjects, or to rely too heavily on cleverness without actually saying anything. Or maybe just not saying anything I can attach to as serious or meaningful beyond the personal. Not that everything should be serious or have a moral or be focused on politics exactly. But I donít see enough of a connection between the personal and greater concerns. That said, there are some fabulous poets out there who do these things incredibly well: D. A. Powell, Khaled Mattawa, Patricia Smith, Shane McCrae, to name a few poets I couldn't live without.
JM: I know that you have a flash fiction chapbook due out soon with Rose Metal Press called Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake. Is this the writing you are talking about? Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming publication?
EJC: The two manuscripts I referenced above are other creatures entirely. But, yes! the fiction chapbook comes out in May! DMMDDM is a failed mother-daughter relationship told in 19 stories, about half of which are told from the daughterís point of view, half from the motherís. Of course some of it is based on my relationship (or lack thereof) with my mother, but itís fiction for the most part. As in most of my work, thereís road trips and weird sex and people who really just canít seem to figure their shit out. Itís actually one-fifth of a collection of five flash fiction chapbooksóme and four other authors: John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvingon, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Millerójoined together under the magnificently explosive title They Could No Longer Contain Themselves. Iím really excited to have more of my fiction out there, but even more excited about this form of bookófive authors under one ISBN. Rose Metal Press did this a few years ago with another group of authors and I have to say, I think the way the stories, and the interplay between the authorsí styles, played out was really phenomenal, somehow giving the book even more voice and volume through these layers of unintentional connection. Iíve read the four other chapbooks in They Could No Longer Contain Themselves and I really think weíve also got this incredible alchemy going on. Everyoneís work is so different, but work together in really exciting and unexpected ways; Iíll be interested to see what people have to say about it.
JM: Thanks, this has been a great conversationÖ

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761