Elliott batTzedek holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University. Her translation manuscript of "Dance of the Lunatic" by the Israeli Jewish lesbian writer Shez won the 2012 Robert Bly Translation prize, judged by Martha Collins. She is the events coordinator for Big Blue Marble Bookstore, cofounder of QuillsEdge Press, and founder of Poetry Business Manager. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the journals: American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Naugatuck River Review, Lambda Literary Online, and Sinister Wisdom, and in the anthologies: Passageways: the 2012 Two Lines Translation Anthology, and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. She blogs about poetry and translation at thisfrenzy.com.
Mai: Tell me about the genesis of this piece and how it grew from there.
Elliott: “1 Woman, 3 Relationships” is as close to nonfiction as you can expect a poet to get. The physical details in the piece happened, from the handholding to the park-walking to the labrys kissing every night. The wretched crush itself happened many years ago, and the piece was actually written in nearly this form also many years ago. It began as just the structure of the journal, trying to use language and repetition and clipped orderly sentences to wrestle the dizzy emotions of that visit; the poems on either end came about trying to capture emotional truths the journal itself wasn’t getting to. And the mock interview—I think I’ve always used snide and witty as a way to process truths that are a little too true. This piece had been accepted for publication twice, both times in lesbian journals that folded before the work appeared. Such is the nature of writing in and from subcultures.
Mai: Why do you write? Why did you start writing? What have been some of your most exciting moments as a writer?
Elliott: I write when there are no words for what I feel or know inside so I have to invent some. I’m not one of the driven, daily schedule, on task writers; I write when I cannot not write, which might be only for a day or two, or as much as humanly possible for month after month. I definitely write more when surrounded by other writers, or by great writing. I have two responses to work by other poets: either “I could do that,” which then doesn’t inspire me to write, or “holy hell, I can’t do that,” which sends me running to the keyboard.
Mai: Tell me a bit about your writing fascinations -- what drives your poetic investigations these days?
Elliott: My current poetic fascination is the function of the line. There’s a wonderful series of small, hyper-smart poetry and fiction craft books put out by Graywolf called “The Art of.” I first read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song which send me down a path of analyzing how lines in poems exist in tension with syntax (well, in good poems, anyway). Then I found James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line and I actually felt brain cells sizzling. Page after page of analysis of how the best writers use the line, and within that a single declaration that kicked away the last support of the annoying workshop question, “Why does the line break here?” Lines don’t break, Longenbach points out, they end. What you do at the end of a line is not break it, but judge if it fits, if it feels finished, if it wants to end along with a syntactical unit or leave that unit open and so drive the reader quickly into the next line.
Mai: You're a long-time resident of Philadelphia and a long-time writer. How does Philly enter or inform your writing?
Elliott: I’ve lived in Philly since the early 90’s, after having only lived in the Midwest. I grew into adulthood here, but quantifying or qualifying what that means is complicated. Am I a “Philly writer”? I think what matters most to me is the “We’re Philly, we’ll do it our own way, screw you if you don’t like it” attitude. That works well with my own blue collar/working class background, gives me the edge of not caring what Famous Writers think. (Here in Philly, I think “famous writers” is a coded term for Sure-They-Are-The-Center-Of-The-World New Yorkers). I’m definitely a NW Philly writer, almost stereotypically so – Jewish, lesbian, an unfavorable student loan to potential income from the degrees ratio, working as a book seller and “consultant.” Damn good life, all in all.
Mai: Current favorite books -- what should we read this summer?
Elliott: I never know what to say when someone asks me to list my “favorite books.” If I’ve read a book, consumed it, taken it into me, it becomes flesh of flesh, blood of my blood, bone of my bone. Do I have a favorite bone? Favorite blood cell? There are certain books that serve as blazes, appearing when I’ve felt lost and pointing me to new directions; I wouldn’t say I love these more, but they have proven themselves more practical. The first blaze was Judy Grahn’s collection The Work of a Common Woman, then Adrienne Rich’s Your Native Land Your Life. Recent blazes include: Marilyn Nelson’s crown of sonnets A Wreath for Emmett Till, Tyehimba Jess’s double-voice poems in Leadbelly, Rachel McKibben’s shattering Into the Dark & Emptying Field, and Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation. But naming only those makes me feel disloyal to all my other printed beloveds.
Mai: Do you have any advice for young poets?
Elliott: Don’t ever waste time reading crappy poetry. Read only the stuff that makes your brain ache for the wonderment. If your writing community is people who don’t read poetry, and who don’t believe in rewriting, get another community. As Kim Addonizio says in my favorite piece of poetry advice, “Maybe you're one of those people who writes poems, but rarely reads them. Let me put this as delicately as I can: If you don't read, your writing is going to suck.” And as Gerald Stern in my favorite piece of poetry description, “We are readers of poetry who sometimes write poems.”