Getting to Know Elizabeth Sylvia

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

Like any good Doc Martens wearing teenage proto-goth of the early ‘90s, I loved Sylvia Plath, along with Yeats. It’s hard to believe now, but that was as close to contemporary poetry as a small town girl was likely to see before the Internet. Poetry came and went through my early adulthood, but latched on ferociously
after I became a parent. The all-consumingness of motherhood awakened an equally powerful need to be someone, somehow, somewhere, on the terms of my own personhood, and I released that need on the page.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I have a terrible writing routine, which is that I worry about whether I’ll die before I ever write another decent poem while trying to complete the never-ending series of mundane tasks modern life seems to demand. Eventually, the top of my head pops off and I run screaming into the converted garage behind our house and hole up there for as long as I can without my family beginning to worry about me. (Perhaps) more seriously: I’m a summer and weekend writer, since poetry doesn’t pay my bills. I try to write at least once a week, and I try to read at least five poems every day so that my mind holds on to the form of poetry. I’m endlessly grateful to my bimonthly writing group for providing the structure and support I need for a consistent writing practice.

Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

My poems are always my half of an imaginary conversation with the world, and as such, they are often inspired by current events or my own reading. None But Witches, subtitle Poems on Shakespeare’s Women, was (obviously) inspired by Shakespeare: I had made a New Year’s Resolution to read all of the plays in a year, and I couldn’t stop myself from talking back to them, but the poems also reflect my anxieties with modern womanhood as I was thinking about female experience during the #metoo movement in 2018. I’m consistently interested in the intersection between the individual and the world (in both its social and natural senses), particularly in what we owe the world and what it might owe us. At the same time, I want my writing to avoid didacticism and outrage, and to be always exploring the contours of the possible.

Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
This question always troubles me because I worry that people will look for traces of my influences in my writing and not find them! While I’m moved by the voices of many poets, I can only manage to write as myself (sometimes I would like to be more like another). I’m eternally drawn to poets who cast a wide lens with a cool eye. Frost, who was so unflinching about the majestic smallness of human life, anchors me. Among contemporary poets, I return always to the intellectual chill of Anne Carson and Linda Gregerson, and to Natalie Shapero and Kevin Prufer’s razorblade social critiques. I’m a wide reader though, and apt to find something interesting wherever my eyes might wander.

What excites you most about your new collection? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?)

Because I was reading Shakespeare while I was writing towards him, creating None But Witches was an incredibly intense experience of language for me, almost like growing the poems inside a glass conservatory built from
Shakespeare’s characters and plots. I felt a richness of creative experience in the drafting, and only began to think about a collection when I had already written most of the poems. By then, some of the earlier poems were almost strangers to me, and it was fascinating to see how the poems yelled to each other across their Shakespearean references and into my own life experiences. However, I think the reception None But Witches has received is the most exciting part of all. I’ve been lucky to be invited to share these poems and talk about their creation with so many people, and is there anything better than discovering that people are interested in, or angry, or curious about the same things that you are?

Nell’s Ode
She is spherical, like a globe.
I could find out countries in her. — Comedy of Errors

All that is great in me might be made little
by a word. But I will spin you a tale
that brings you in again, for every orb
is an icon and every kitchen
an abattoir birthing appetites. You
name, but in the kitchen Fire
is the force worth knowing. I am swart
as the earth’s crust, soot as the banked embers,
hot as a devil’s dam inside
just like this mantled world, and I
will swallow you in me so that
the map lines of your life are lost. By me
you are a stranger made a woman’s man
uncertain to himself within the wheel
until you turn (but just as I turn)
toward you and away. As if you ever
could stop burying in me
desires that I raise in you.

Elizabeth Sylvia lives with her family in southeastern Massachusetts, where she teaches English.
Her first book None But Witches (2022) was the winner of the 2021 3 Mile Harbor Press Book
Award. Sylvia’s work is upcoming or has recently appeared in Carve, Cherry Tree, The Southern
Review, SWWIM, On the Seawall, Lily Poetry Review and at Verse Daily, among others. She has
been a semi- or finalist in competitions sponsored by DIAGRAM, 30 West, and Wolfson Press;
has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes; and is a reader for SWWIM. Find her online at