Eloisa Amezcua is everywhere. The author of three chapbooks, Eloisa recently won the inaugural Shelterbelt Press Poetry Prize – judged by Ada Limon – for her full-length manuscript From the Inside Quietly, which will be published later this year. On top of that, Eloisa also runs The Shallow Ends, an online journal of poetry (only one poem at a time!) that has published an array of voices since its relatively recent inception.
I have long believed that writing is a generous act, a gift of self-giving, this access a writer provides into the personal and often wrenchingly beautiful depths of consciousness they sift through daily. As such, I’ve always admired writers who are generous people themselves, who give and share and support and uplift. Eloisa does this daily. And her work, too, her work shines and shimmers. Her poetry enacts that simmering human burn of wanting to know so much in the face of knowing we know so little, of sometimes failing at love and finding not just beauty in such failure, but beauty in the self reconstructed. Eloisa’s language is language as loss, love, rebirth – a curatorial exercise in life.
Eloisa and I chatted over text message for an entire evening about her work as both a poet and editor. It was a lot of fun. We talked through yoga breaks and cereal-shopping and train delays and meals. All of it – timestamps and typos erased – is below.
Devin Kelly: Hey Eloisa! It’s Devin – sorry I’m getting to you so late. I was swamped by my high schoolers. But if you’re free let’s chat about books and shit.
Eloisa Amezcua: Hi! Yes. Let’s chat!
Awesome awesome. I’ll be in and out a bit for a little while. But I wanted to first say congrats on the full length! What was that process like, both the writing and learning about it being chosen for publication?
The writing of the book has been a long process – I think the oldest poem that made it in is from 2011 and there are a few still being written/tweaked that I’m hoping to sneak in there if possible (sorry, Adam!). The poems are somewhat autobiographical and for the most part have the same speaker (me), so it was the process of putting the manuscript together that was hardest. I had a .doc with every poem I’d written that could potentially fit into the scope of what I wanted this book to be, narratively speaking, that was about 90 pages. From there, I built the collection and wrote some poems to fill in gaps where I sensed them.
I learned that it’d been chosen by Ada Limón for the prize on the last day of a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I missed a call from NYC and had a voicemail from Ada asking me to call her back (yes, I saved it…). I called her back and we got Adam Clay on the phone as well. It was the perfect way to end the residency. I still can’t really believe it.
Oof that’s crazy! I’d still be pinching myself. There’s a lot you mentioned that I want to pick at but first I should ask – I’ve got your chapbook Symptoms of Teething in my bag. Are any of these poems in the full length?
Yeah, a few of those did make it into the full-length!
Oh lovely. I have a bunch of them dog-eared, especially “To X.” Those first lines – “I can see the moon / from my lover’s shower / tonight but I don’t // know what it means” seem for me to poke so much at what it means to write – just, like, really existing in this unknown.
Totally. So much of the writing process is having this music, these lines in my head that sound great, but I have no clue what they mean so I sit down and try to figure it out. Sometimes it turns out they didn’t mean much, but other times I get somewhere and a poem starts to take shape.
I know that feeling. Sometimes I feel myself humming words and sometimes I feel myself writing something stagnant only to find a rhythm halfway through – it feels so much like water.
It certainly feels like doggy paddling sometimes.
Hah, yes. Did the residency help? Where were you again?
I was at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. It definitely helped me make progress on the manuscript I’m currently working on, particularly because it snowed the entire time I was there and that forced me to stay indoors and focus on the writing.
Yes, I saw you post some pictures – there was that one of a bunch of poems taped up on your wall.
Yeah. This project is definitely more visual than the first book. It was also really inspiring to be around visual artists whose works-in-progress were on display in their studios. I thought, why don’t I put my work on my walls too?
Hah, I can imagine. I’m always interested in the ways various mediums can affect writing. Which is why I’m always excited by writers who have, say, favorite photographers or painters or such. Which also makes me want to ask who you turn to for inspiration – which writers, artists, etc?
Oh, boy. This question is so hard to answer.
There are books I return to often: Ararat by Louise Gluck, Rose by Li-Young Lee, Zero at the Bone by Stacie Cassarino. Lately, I’ve been very inspired by Tadeusz Dabrowski’s Black Square and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing. But I also turn to friends, to conversations, TV, music, all that fun stuff.
And you’re a boxing fan, aren’t you?
Hah, yes. The current project is all about boxing so I’ve been watching lots of old fights on YouTube and reading some wonderful nonfiction about the sport. Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing is an incredible book. I’d recommend it to any reader, regardless of their interest/knowledge of boxing.
Oof. I have that book and am now ashamed I have yet to crack it open! I bought it, I think, in college. I had a phase where all I did was watch old Mike Tyson knockout videos. Something beautiful is wrapped up in all that violence, something terrible too. Have you read Fat City by Leonard Gardner?
I haven’t but it’s on my list!
Ah, it’s so good!
I have this horrible habit of starting 3-4 books at once and trying to read them all at the same time and I’ll usually only finish one. I’m trying to break that so I’m being strict about not starting a new one till I’ve finished another.
Yeah, I do the same thing. There’s just so much out there that’s good and beautiful. This seems like a decent segue into talking about your work with Shallow Ends and the poetry world at large, but I also want to ask you more about your interest in boxing.
Ask away! I’m happy to talk about both.
Okay let’s do boxing first – what’s the interest there?
Well, my parents used to have their friends over to watch big matches on PPV and I remember thinking it was so glamorous and beautiful and violent.
As I got older, I’d watch fights with my dad on TV randomly but my deeper interest in the sport began a few years ago. I became fascinated with the histories of boxers–where they’re from, how they got into the sport, the personas they take on inside the ring.
I knew I wanted to write about boxing but I wasn’t sure how to approach it until I stumbled upon an article about Bobby Chacon–a two-time world boxing champion who passed away last September.
There’s so much more to boxing than two people punching each other in the middle of a ring.
Oh yes, for sure. And I think that holds true for sport in general, would you agree? I love when I find writers who are passionate about sports. And I think watching sports in this world require this cognitive act of being able to separate the violence, for example, from the narrative, or whatever lies beneath. Maybe separate is the wrong word. But you know.
I just keep thinking about being a kid and trying to grapple with when Tyson bit off Holyfield’s ear.
Yeah, I remember watching that on TV. I think I was 7-8 years old when that happened.
Yeah I was real young. And it took me a long time to learn more about everything that led up to that moment, to really appreciate the tragedy of it. And the oddity.
But yeah, I agree that it’s true for most sports. I guess what draws me to separating violence from narrative in boxing has a lot to do with the politics of the sport–many boxers see the violence in the ring as a way out (financially) from the different types of violences in the world (poverty, lack of education, homelessness, incarceration).
And that’s true for many professional athletes in many different sports, but I guess I’m drawn to boxing precisely because it isn’t a team sport.
Sure. It feels more decisive, immediate to me. Which is perhaps why I love the title of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s book, Apocalyptic Swing. It just feels definitive.
That book is really incredible.
(Oops I was typing that on a subway platform and just completely missed my train.)
But yes, it is! I just got it in the mail. I think because you had recommended it on twitter or something. “What a lucky sack of stars.”
Ha! That’s awesome. (I’m sorry you missed your train.)
Heh, it’s okay. Happens all the time lately.
I’m excited though to see what comes of this for you. Mostly because a lot of your work marries tenderness with wounds, the potential for violence. You have those lines in your new chapbook – oh here I am on the train trying to find them.
“You weren’t one of those children / who tied a loose tooth with a piece // of string, the other end on a door knob, / were you? I was.”
I just love that. It feels like you’re at once the boxer and the man in the corner, dressing the wounds.
I think we’re all lots of different people, we have different personalities/sides to us because we need to. Eloisa at work is different than Eloisa crying on the phone with her mom is different than Eloisa getting a drink with her friends, you know? And I think they can all exist in poem. Why limit it to just one.
Yes I love that. So much of the work I am drawn to is capable of that multi-feeling’ed transcendence. Is that one of the things that draws you to the page? This way we can be at once so many things?
I’d never thought of it that way, but I think that is a big part of what draws me to writing. I think that’s what’s drawn me most to the boxing project. The poems are all in various personas and that’s something new to me. It’s been extremely freeing.
That’s nice, isn’t it, when poetry can be freeing instead of binding? Especially too when you’re combining some elements of fiction – is that liberating?
You been in a cereal aisle lately? There is so much cereal in this world.
No! It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cereal aisle but there will always be a soft spot in my heart (and stomach) for Reese’s Puffs and Golden Grahams.
Hah, I’m becoming a fan of plain and simple Life. Anyways!
Can we talk about The Shallow Ends? How did that come about? I’m fairly certain that was the avenue through which I came across you and your work.
I wanted to start a site where fashion, poetry, and art collided, but after lots of thought and planning, I decided that’s not what I really wanted to focus on. So I decided I’d start a small journal that had a very simple premise: one poet, one poem, every week.
I really wanted (and hope) TSE is a place where readers can discover the work of poets that are new to them and where the voices published are eclectic and bring different views, different perspectives to the table.
And TSE’s twitter feed is more or less a space where we can continue to support our contributors. That’s a big goal of mine with the journal, to highlight our contributors’ accomplishments long after they’ve published with us.
Yeah, I was going to say – there’s a sense that TSE is at the center of this sort of makeshift family. Every day when I log onto twitter it feels very much like I’m reconnecting with people who I have known for years. How important is that for you now? To help foster this intimate kind of community in our literary world?
(Sorry, yoga break.)
Community is everything in today’s literary world, especially as we begin to look at its foundation and the structures that are holding it in place–the “gatekeepers” and “tastemakers” and “values” through which we view literature.
No worries! I’ve been cooking anyway. But yes, I agree – as TSE grows and the literary world grows hopefully along with it, what do you think this rebuilt community will look like? What should be at its heart!
Oops, I mean “?” instead of “!”
The ! Is fitting. That’s what should be its heart: joy, love, excitement, the shared sense that words matter.
What’s been, perhaps selfishly, the best part of running TSE? Other than building community? I ask only because you publish such a wide range of styles and voices – it must be something else to sort through and read that.
The best part has been getting to read all the incredible work that comes in. It’s hard because I do have to pass on some pieces I really love but just getting to be a reader of all these voices is a gift.
Also, seeing where some of the voices we’ve published are going is really cool. Natalie’s second book is forthcoming from Copper Canyon, Paige has a chapbook forthcoming from Tupelo Press, Jasmine started an amazing new journal called The Ellis Review, and that’s just 3 contributors!
I know! It’s like a who’s-who of wonderful poets.
I’m blushing on their behalf.
Do you think, then, that writing or participating in any sort of art requires some sense of responsibility to, say, the world? You know what I’m trying to say.
Yeah, I do. I think to some degree there is a sense of responsibility first to yourself as a writer and to writers as an editor.
From there, there’s a sense of responsibility but also a sense of trust in releasing your work and the work of others into the world. And from there, hope. Hope that it’ll reach someone who needs it.
That’s lovely. Can you say more about the responsibility to yourself as a writer?
I’m not one of those poets that started writing in childhood or kept a journal. I didn’t really read much until college either. I was fortunate to have two wonderful professors that guided me into the practice of writing and taking myself seriously as a writer. But once I began my MFA program, I realized that a lot of my peers and the faculty would make suggestions or give critiques of my work that were trying to change something that I thought was foundational to my own voice.
I think learning to trust your instincts and learning when to ignore criticism or advice that doesn’t serve you are two things you owe yourself as a writer.
Oh, yes. There’s this strange notion of criticism in the writing world where writers are expected to at once listen to it and at the same time rail against it when it goes against what separates them as an individual writer. I see so much self doubt, because it’s so tough to figure out what’s truly yours, you know?
Exactly. Especially when those critiques are coming from someone you admire and trust.
So how do you personally get over that? The doubt?
I’m not sure I know how to answer that because I definitely still have some of that doubt. But I think finding readers who understand you and your work is a great place to start.
Writing a lot of bad poems helps too. It forces you to define what you don’t want your voice to be. No one needs to see those.
Hah, yes. If anyone saw how many poems I’ve written that just got pushed back into deep recesses of my computer…hah, it’d be a trip.
Mine are on an external hard drive and god only knows where that is.
One day it’ll find you at the worst time.
You’re probably right. I just know I’m not going to go looking for it.
Do you feel an increased sense of urgency in this moment? This year? Lately it seems that everything has been deemed “necessary,” but I’m just wondering how you perceive your work in this moment.
Oh, man. I’ve always felt an urgency but I think the impetus has shifted since the election for sure.
I started the boxing project before the election and sometimes when I’m working on it, I think about all of the crazy shit that’s happening and how maybe I should write about more “relevant” topics. But then I ignore that voice and continue writing because this project matters to me.
Which is important, I think – not just in the sense that all art is political, but I think in a deeper sense that we continue on in our pursuits, that we still find value in what we find (or found) beautiful.
We just can’t let the bad guys win.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (forthcoming 2017, CCM Press). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.