interview: Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing is a poet, sociologist, educator, and perhaps first and foremost, a child of Chicago. Her research focuses on racism, social inequality, and urban policy, particularly as these forces converge to impact public schools. She is the author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year’s best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. We spoke with Eve about her poetry and her work both inside and outside the classroom, touching upon inspiration, Afrofuturism, and advice for young writers looking to follow in her footsteps.
First, could you start by talking about the process of creating Electric Arches? When did you start writing this book, and at what point did you know it was a book?
EE: I started writing some of the poems in the book probably as far back as 2013, and I was a finalist for a prize called the Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books. The way that prize works is that you submit a sample, and if you’re a finalist, you have to submit the full manuscript. I was a finalist for that, and that was really helpful because it forced me to sit down and write a book-length amount of work. I didn’t end up winning that prize, and meanwhile, I had continued to write a lot of prose work and publish essays. A publisher asked me, “Would you be interested in doing a collection of essays with us?” and I said “No, not really, but what do y’all think about these poems, though?” They were like, “Oh, these are good,” so I sat down with a publisher, and something that was really helpful was that Julie Fain, the editor at Haymarket Books, was really kind and thoughtful. Because [Haymarket] is not a poetry press and publishes across genres, she was just really open to hearing my ideas about the book, and through a conversation with her, I was able to realize—[like] when you go to a friend for advice and you just realize you already knew the correct thing to do? Similarly, I had a conversation with her, and through talking with her, I was able to realize the ideas and concepts that interested me the most. I went back and did a lot of cutting and reworking to try to make [Electric Arches] a book, a much more cohesive thing and not just a collection of random poems, which I think is a challenge for a lot of first-time authors and poets writing first collections. So yeah, that’s kind of the story of the book.
Before this interview, I looked up a couple of interviews you had done previously, and you had said you wrote this book as an “amalgamated version of my 14-, 15-, 16-year-old self.” I wanted to know how you came to focus on this era specifically, and how do you feel that informs the poems in Electric Arches?
EE: Without referencing that specific quote, I think it’s more that I wrote the book to that person or to that reader, not necessarily as that writer. I think that I was attracted to the idea of writing a coming-of-age book that also would be attractive to young people, partially because I’m an educator and I think a lot about the ways young people shape our literary cannons. The way that their consumption and their choices are so important for the landscape of American literature in a way that I think people a lot of times don’t fully appreciate. So I knew I wanted to write a book that is appealing to young people but also that allowed me to explore a lot of my memories and formative years growing up in the city, and I knew that I wanted to write about the city. I think, in a lot of ways, I still see the city the way I saw it as a teenager, in the sense that when you’re a teenager is when you start being independent and learning to see the place where you live through new eyes. So I wanted to capture that feeling in the book.
That’s mad cool. I heard you mention the city, as in Chicago, the place you were born and raised. Everyone I know from Chicago reps it so hard, and I know that it serves as the setting of Electric Arches. How does Chicago inspire and continue to inspire your writing?
EE: I think that the city is really central to the book, and it’s really central to all of my writing in some way or another because fundamentally what I’m trying to do is to try to paint the city as a better place to live for myself and for my children, for other children. I really believe in the city even though there’s so much that is painful and difficult about living here. I think that the love and frustration that I feel for the city are both very productive places to write from. That motivates a lot of what I do.
Thank you for that. Now I want to kind of get into specific [pieces] in Electric Arches. A poem that I liked was “Sestina with Matthew Henson’s Fur Suit.” I definitely know sestinas are hard to write!
EE: I found it hard, for sure.
Tell me how you went about writing that specific poem, and what is your relationship with form in your poetry?
EE: That’s an excellent question. I really struggle with form, so I wanted to push myself to do it. I had heard other sestinas that I really liked. I think that the repetition of the core anchor words can create a really good grounding in the poem without being too boring or monotonous in a way that I find some other forms to be. So I wanted to try writing a sestina, and I also felt confident in the words that I chose to be the repeating words. I wrote it during the trip that is described in the poem, so I was with other poets in a place that felt very alienating. It was kind of a release to be able to write about it.
Cool—you definitely didn’t pick the easiest words to repeat, like victories, curiosities.
EE: [laughing] Thank you. I’m not going to say words were easier or harder, but to me they were words that I knew could have multiple meanings and words that I could do enough things with. It also helped me to know that I could write the sestina; it gave me confidence to experiment with other forms.
I also took interest in your bracketed retelling of poems or prose pieces, whichever you choose to label those as, because of the handwritten words at the end. Can you tell me how you came to make the choice to include handwritten words in the book?
EE: A text that really inspired Electric Arches in many ways is Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and in that book, Rankine is really experimenting with what words can do on the page and how to represent different ideas. And there’s one part in the book—I don’t know if you’ve read that book—but there are parts in the book where she’s talking about video, and it begs the question, How does one represent a video in a book? Then she has the frame-by-frame of this video, and I just thought that was so cool. Like, she really put a video in a poetry book. That really gave me permission to think, “If you experiment enough, you could put anything in a book.”
I guess another way in which Citizen inspired me was that Citizen, for me, was a documentation of the present moment in which we are living, [specifically] the racial tension in the country between the time that Trayvon Martin was killed and the last several years. That book to me is so much about the present; it’s like a documentary book. So I was like, Okay, I want to write a book about the past and the future, but I want to experiment and play, and I want to write and alternate version of the past and future. That was really powerful for me. Basically when I was a kid, whenever I had a bad dream, if I woke up my mom, my mom would tell me, “Okay, you have to finish the dream. Tell me what happens next.” I would have to make up an ending to the story, so it might be like, “A monster was chasing me down the street and while he was chasing me, I turned around and asked the monster, ‘Why are you chasing me?’ and the monster said, ‘Your shoe is untied, and I was just trying to help you.’” So, it’s not like the bad dream didn’t happen, but I’d have to rewrite the ending in some way to fix the problem or make it funny or make it lighthearted or silly. I thought, as I was entering the book, that I want to write about these traumatic things, but I don’t want them to just be an accounting of trauma. I feel like that is important, but I want to do something different with this book because so many other authors were doing [trauma] in so many amazing ways in other works of art during the period of time I was writing. I don’t want to deny that the trauma happened, either, so I decided to use my childhood strategy. [laughing]I love handwriting in general, also, so I thought it would be really cool to incorporate that as a way to signal the shift between the memory as it actually happened and my retelling of it.
I like that! You said Citizen was a direct inspiration to this book; do you think your book is in conversation with any other pieces of literature or specific authors?
EE: Oh yeah, everything that I’ve ever read. [laughing] But I would say a couple of books in particular; one is Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall, who is my good friend who also edited some of Electric Arches; that book is him telling his coming of age in Chicago. Another book is Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. Ross is really amazing and he read a lot of early versions of these poems. He was really helpful, and his work is so much about joy and celebration, and even the moments when he’s writing about really sad, tragic things, he writes about them with a euphoria and an ecstasy, where he’s fully in it. He kind of makes me feel like even the bad moments in life are just part of life, and that makes them incredible. Ross is the one who taught me a lot about seeing magic in everyday places. Then Gwendolyn Brooks—all of her works, but especially the book Annie Allen had a big influence on me in my young adulthood. Those are some of them, but I definitely like lots and lots more.
I feel like the more you talk about this, the more I can see that. So, Electric Arches is not only a book of poems, but also a book of visual art and essays. How do you make the choice of what idea goes with what art form? I often struggle with this because I’m both a musician and a poet.
EE: I don’t, really. I don’t feel like there’s a choice that I make. It’s kind of like baking or cooking. I love cooking and I love baking. When I look in my fridge, if I have butter, sugar, and sweet potatoes, then I’m going to make some mashed sweet potatoes, right? If I have some chicken, parmesan, and vegetables, I would [make] that. I wouldn’t try to make a sweet dish with a bunch of pasta and cheese, and I wouldn’t try to make a stir fry if all I have is cereal. So for me, I have different ideas at different moments, which can be expressed more readily in one form or another. I try not to force it—I try to let each thing be what it wants to be.
At this point, I’ve been writing for a long-enough time to where that’s not a deliberate choice. That’s the number one thing I get asked in interviews, and I feel like I don’t have an adequate answer because it’s not a conscious decision, it’s not that much of a strategic decision for me. It’s more of the thing will be what it wants to be. I guess I make strategic decisions more with my prose work. I make strategic decisions about what tone I want to take, for sure. If I’m going to be writing about school and equality, I could write something for Complex and it would have to have a certain tone, or I could write for The New York Times or an academic journal and it would have a certain tone. With that, I think more strategically about who I want the audience to be, but for the most part I just write what comes out. [laughing]
For sure. So I know that you’re a sociologist as well, and a lot of your work is rooted in the community. I really appreciate the kind of mindset you bring to the table.
EE: Thank you.
I want to ask: How do you feel like you’ve effectively expanded your appeal outside the confines of academia? What are the kind of things that you do, artistically, to have Electric Arches be widely appreciated?
EE: Are you asking how do I cultivate a broad audience for the book?
EE: I think that there are a lot of writers…they primarily surround themselves with literary writers, primarily literary communities. Then they write a book or create a project that would be of general interest, and then, after the fact, they strategize how to figure out how to reach different people—but I don’t think it works that way. I spend a lot of my time trying to be in lots of different communities, and that means that when the time comes [to publish], those people are really open to learning and talking about different kinds of work. I also think people have erroneous assumptions about who will be open to what kinds of work, and I find that those lines are a lot more blurry than what people expect. Different kinds of people like different kinds of writing. To be more particular, I think a lot about how to bring the book to teachers, and I like to visit schools and talk to kids. A lot of teachers come to my readings, and I was a middle school teacher, so that also informs a lot of the reasons why I try to make the work accessible.
I saw in another interview I read, you said you believe your work falls under the genre of Afrofuturism, and I wonder how you can negotiate or bring in the future into your writing while also staying autobiographical. Could you talk a bit about that?
EE: Well, something can be autobiographical and not be an autobiography, so there’s space in the book to be creative since it’s not literally an autobiography. Also, because I said that I am writing about the city more broadly, it means that part of what I’m trying to do is expand into a vision of the future. One of the poems in the book, “Arrival Day”—I am a character in the poem, but it’s me as a person who is 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 years older than I currently am. It’s a vision of the future, but I’ve inserted myself into that vision.
Would you say that you’ve done most of your creative work in a more academic or communal setting?
EE: When you say academic or community setting, do you mean those as two different options?
I mean, does most of it take place in a workshop, classroom kind of deal?
EE: If the question is about writing and where I learned to write, then I definitely learned how to write primarily outside of school settings, in community settings, and from my peers.
I have one more question, and this is more so for me. What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?
EE: I think that—this is going to sound really basic—but you have to just do your best work. I feel like it’s really easy for people to just focus on the social capital and think I need to meet this person or take this class, but the most important part is the craft. The most important part is spending the time making your writing do what you want to do and learning a set of tools that you can have at your disposal to bring your ideas into the world. You can never possibly spend too much time on that; that should be your focus. I’m really grateful that I’ve had time in the last couple of years, but, something I always say: there are lots of opportunities.
Although it’s a cliché to use sport metaphors, I’m really a believer in being in the gym and doing your free throws, jump shots, and running drills. A lot of people say “I want a book deal, I want to publish something, I want to get in x journal,” but they don’t have anything ready to show for that. It’s kind of like if I say “I want to try out for the Olympics,” and I’m just waiting for somebody to pick me and I never practice my sport. I think that focusing on being good, getting better, getting feedback, revising, being tough on yourself, asking questions and reading—opportunities will come when they come. Opportunities are always going to come, but you have to be ready and good enough to take them and do something with them.
A selection of Eve’s poetry and essays can be found at her website.
Interview by Nia KB.
Photography by Lauren Miller.