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"Among the Soot-strewn, Some Pink Amulet": An Interview with Elisa Karbin

Elisa Karbin’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Journal, West Branch and Blackbird, among others. She earned her MA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is now a PhD candidate in poetry. She currently serves as a contributing poetry editor for The Great Lakes Review.

Her poem, "Self As Cenotaph," appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewe Courtney Flerlage about titles, the mystical, and managing a poem's time. 

Which came first for “Self as Cenotaph”: the poem, or the poem’s title? Where did the poem start?

That’s a really good question—the poem came first but I knew going into writing it that the title would be “Self as” something because it’s actually part of a series of “self as object” poems from my manuscript. The title of the poem owes a lot to the poem’s mood and form, echoing a kind of self-elegizing solemnity inside a chunky block of text.

For a poem of only ten lines, it’s so generous—the speaker searches for “some small creak of bone” or “some pink amulet,” once contained “moonstone and onyx,” finds, at the end, the “full belly of the moon.” There’s so much to see and sense. “Self as Cenotaph” also feels so textural—the speaker’s own cold sharpness (“a skin / husk flaunting its weightless white”) contrasts with the moon’s “full belly.” Even the image of the moon itself suggests both completeness and—like the speaker—absence, depending on its phase. I’m curious: what drew these different elements of the poem to you? How did you determine what you kept and what didn’t make it in?

It probably won’t come as a shock to learn that I’m very image-driven when it comes to crafting and revising. More often than not the poem sort of happens on the page in one go and then I undertake the process of wrangling and refining, using the images as guideposts for the sense and logic of the poem. This poem, specifically, was written with an eye toward the mystical, metaphysical realm of the tarot, parapsychology, Jungian alchemy— all these related fields that seem to converge around arcane rituals and elemental materials, hence the notion of gemstones as talisman, for example.

You manage pacing so deftly here—we move from a present “each night” to a memory of the past (“Moonstone and onyx / cracked under my skin for so long”). The speaker then describes the “now” and imagines the future: “A fair shake / and I’ll be winded again.” You lead us through so many units of time, and yet as a reader I never feel jarred or deprived. Could you share a bit about how you worked this movement into the poem? How did you contain it?

I think that with a poem as small and compact as this one, it’s super important to attend to structure and pacing—there’s less bulk to hide the seams behind, more opportunities for readers to spot lazy craft. I think having an understanding of how a poem’s tone and conceit—in this case, a kind of self-memorialization over time— informs its pacing, and vice versa, really helped me establish a fluid series of movements from each moment to the next.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

Oh boy! I’m currently working though Roxane Gay’s Hunger and it’s giving me so many feelings, most of which are a confusing mix of that gut-clenching, brace-for-impact anxiety, deep and stinging sadness, and awe at Gay’s superb talent. And I just revisited the heartbreakingly gorgeous sad boy/detective by sam sax. It isn’t a lie to say I’ve been harassing (their words) my friends to read these too.

What projects do you have in the works?

Right now, I’m working on a new manuscript of poems about family, femininity, and… murder. And I just sent back edits for my first chapbook, Snare, which is coming out in mid-2018. Exciting things are afoot around here!

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