Interview with Elisabeth Weiss
ELISABETH WEISS teaches writing at Salem State University in Salem, MA. She’s taught poetry in preschools, prisons, and nursing homes, as well as to the intellectually disabled. She’s worked in the editorial department at Harper & Row in New York and has an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s published poems in London’s Poetry Review, Porch, Crazyhorse, the Birmingham Poetry Review, the Paterson Literary Review and many other journals. Lis won the Talking Writing Hybrid Poetry Prize for
2016 and was a runner up in the 2013 Boston Review poetry contest.
“Strangers you meet on the street teach you weird things and lessons in life. People disappoint you or walk away. You take in all those things, and that makes your life richer.”
The editors of Eucalyptus Lit recently had the privilege and opportunity to speak with Elisabeth Weiss, poet and professor at Salem State University. Her work “Hungry Lions” features in Issue 2, Passage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you start writing?
I've been writing most of my life! I had a mother who taught me about Haiku when I was six years old, because I thought that I invented syllables and I was asking her about those.
Those were my first poems. I had so many of them by the time I was 10 years old, my mother suggested putting them in a notebook. I probably have 20 or 30 notebooks in the attic right now.
Why do you write? How do you get your inspiration?
I write to make sense of the world. I think it's a very natural expression for me—it helps me to find my way on a map like in days of yore. Also to have some control of my world—to get a handle on it, put a harness on things.
I find what I want to say by being quiet. I need to be quiet and uninterrupted for long periods of time to think and read. I process very slowly. I unfortunately don't have a lot of free time, but I love just getting immersed in one or two books all day long and then by evening, usually or late afternoon, I'll just start automatically writing. Taking walks also really helps me observe things in really small detail. Really just looking at one little thing.
And sometimes playing, playing like when you were young in a sandbox, playing with words and trying to stick words that don't usually go together together, maybe even making up your own words and having fun, feeling secure. Not feeling like I don't do what other people do; they're going to think I'm weird. Just getting that out of your head.
I also think place has had the most to do with how I write. I needed to find a place where I felt like I could be very creative and have a good place to look at the horizon. And I live almost on the Massachusetts Bay in a small fishing town or what used to be a small fishing town north of Boston. I do love being able to see the sunrise every morning and to see the water moving. That kind of imagery has a lot to do with my writing. Place is really important.
What genres do you mainly write? Why these?
I think I started with poetry and kept with poetry: every time I tried to write a story, it was either really weird, really poetic or left unfinished. I just tried [essays] again recently and the same thing happened. I thought I was writing an essay, but one of my old teachers commented and said, “Oh, yeah, that's a prose poem.”
It’s very exciting, in a way, to try new genres. Some people can do all of them and that's amazing, but I have not had that experience. Poetry seems really immediate. It's short. It can be like a little spark or a Zen moment. It doesn't have to be plotting and going through chapters: that, to me, is really difficult.
I think as a student it's best to try everything. That's how I teach it. I say, “Try whatever genre feels right to you.” It's really interesting to see what speaks to different students. Some people are just sentences and paragraphs completely. Some people do really well bursting forth with tons of writing communities, writing, collaboratives, writing workshops, writing groups.
I think it really depends on who you are, where you're coming from, and what speaks to you. You have to stop looking around so much and really listen to yourself.
Could you tell us a little bit about your time at the MFA program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop?
That was a long time ago. When I went, it was very inspiring. I felt like I finally found my own people, and it’s really important to find your own people—to be in a space where people are like, as kooky as you or as obsessed with the same things. That doesn't happen so many times in your life. So when you find that, hold on to it.
I had very inspiring teachers, but it was a very long time ago where mostly men ruled the academy. The Academy of American Poets didn't even include many women. And it wasn't a thing to go to big conferences and lots of writing workshop programs—there were only about three MFA programs that I knew of in the country. So it was a very different scene back then. There were all sorts of schools of writing—the Black Mountain School, the New York School, the Iowa school. That was kind of the way things went. So it was limiting in a way, but it was really freeing and fun because I didn't have so much fun in college.
I was so happy in grad school. I think place is really important, and your spirit has to be in the place where you are. I went to parties and stayed up all night writing. We had long conversations in coffee shops and then we'd go out dancing and, you know, that was fun.
I'm very grateful to my teachers there, but I feel like I'm still learning the lessons I learned there. I'm a perpetual learner. I don't think you ever stop doing that.
What do you feel has influenced you the most as a writer?
Strangers you meet on the street teach you weird things and lessons in life. People disappoint you or walk away. You take in all those things, and that makes your life richer.
When I was young I almost felt kind of boring. I had nothing to write about. I needed angst, you know, I needed things to rub against each other more and have more tension in my writing. My writing was quite narrative, and maybe too contained. That's one thing I always have had to work to get out of. Always being open with an open mind and an open heart is a way to approach the world that would be helpful to a writer.
As far as people, I think a lot of women writers really influenced me early on. Louise Glück, who just passed away. I'm also thinking of Marie Howe, whose work has affected me since I lived here the last 33 years or so. I think she might have been in Cambridge then. I've had her as a teacher a couple of times and she's wonderful, very highly skilled. And one thing she said the last time I saw her was, “Please yourself in your writing. Make yourself happy. Do what you want.” That felt like permission to me.
What inspires you to write?
Lately I've been reading Jean Valentine, I've been reading some works in translation.
Also, I always think it's great to pick up an anthology—an international anthology, or a vintage anthology. It's really good to flip through journals that are popular and anthologies that are new, so you can get a good smattering of who's writing right now. Of course, you can get it all online. Button Poetry is great, Poem of the Day is great, Rattle, The Slowdown can be really good. All those places. Signing up for them is awesome. It's like getting a gift in your email in your box every single day: you have a present waiting for you and you can read something.
If something strikes you, you can write a response—that's your poem. When you write a poem, you're sort of answering a problem. Someone you love or hate-love, or you're answering someone else's piece. Make poetry as a response.
I think you need time to daydream. The best thing that I did as a teenager was photography, walking in the woods—quiet things. I couldn't even imagine having to go on social media all the time and worrying what people think of me. When you get into college and afterwards, clicks don't matter at all. People don't matter, you know, except the ones that you get to know, that you love and that you want to hang out with. I think you become freer as you grow older.
How has being an educator in creative writing influenced you?
It's just really fun to hang out with young people. I ask my students about all the slang that's being used, all the words. Language has been messed around with, and I think that's really, really fun. My favorite thing has been having joint conferences with a few different students. Around here we have a lot of Dunkin' Donuts. We'll sit at a table together and we'll all help each other with writing. Or we'll all just hang out. I mean, I'm kind of a slacker.
I do love hanging out with kids. I also love it when the light bulb goes off above their heads and they get something they didn't get before. I have found that student writers, creative writers come up with fabulous things I couldn't do in a million years. They're just brilliant without knowing they're brilliant; they just pop out. Another great feeling is when students come back after years and they pop into my office to connect.
Was there any experience in particular that was especially rewarding for you as an educator?
I have to say one phenomenal class I did was for intellectually disabled students at a community college. So these students, a lot of them had Down Syndrome or autism. They were coming to college and getting a certificate. I had this amazing class and all I did was say, “What kind of writing do you want me to teach you next week?” And they would tell me and I would make it up. They were generating the whole curriculum and syllabus, and I was just listening to them. That was probably the greatest classroom experience I've had. At the end, when they wrote their evaluations, many of them said, “More poetry, more poetry.” I was like, “Yay! Poetry gets one point.”