Interview with Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Author of “Last Hula”

Photo: Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Photo: Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Brief Biography:

Elizabeth Kerlikowske is the author of two chapbooks of poetry( Postcards, Her Bodies), a collection of children’s stories (Before the Rain), and a prose poem memoir of her father (The Shape of Dad), all from now-defunct March Street Press in North Carolina.  Her first full length book of poetry is available from Mayapple Press (Dominant Hand.)  Another chapbook, Last Hula, was the winner of the 2013 Standing Rock Chapbook Competition.

Her works have appeared recently in Encore, Cincinnati Review, Passager, Poemeleon,  and in many journals nationwide. She is the president of Friends of Poetry, a nonprofit dedicated to the enjoyment of poetry. The group runs the annual POEMS THAT ATE OUR EARS contest and sponsors a reading series for adults and the Celery City chapbook contests for Michigan residents.

Elizabeth completed her doctorate at Western Michigan University in 2007.  She is a visual artist also, whose works have hung in juried shows. She makes big collages out of found materials with an emphasis on paper of all kinds.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get into writing?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I was a reader, like most writers. My sister and I were raised by our grandparents, and they sat around with relatives telling stories until I could tell them myself. We were at a cabin every weekend and all summer, so my sister and I only had each other. We made up games, changed the rules of existing games, left secret messages on a reel to reel tape recorder. In 1960, I forced her to be Gore Vidal to my William F. Buckley and act out political convention coverage. She was six. So were had very rich imaginative lives, but there was a lot of unspoken tension and mysteries in the house. I hated secrets. I wanted everything out in the open, and I think that’s one reason I write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: The first thing I had published was when I was nineteen, a poem about my great great grandfather who was a checkers champion in the Union army. But I spent plenty of years in a funky basement next to a pair of waders pounding out e.e.cummings-type poems.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I started seriously when I was sixteen. It has been the constant in my life. Once I was going to give it up, but I couldn’t. That would have been like giving up breathing.

Geosi Gyasi: I read from online that you like to write outside in the sun. Could you comment on this statement?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I like sun, but Michigan is not an overly sunny state. I should say I like writing under gray skies with lots of humidity that makes the paper stick to my arm. But writing in different locations helps certain poems blossom. I like the music of birds and wind in trees. Always and particularly lately, I am writing a lot of poems grounded in my home place of Michigan. I had a tree house I wrote in, but the squirrels ate it. Now it’s a yoga platform.

Geosi Gyasi: You served 25 years as president of “Friends of Poetry” in Kalamazoo. Could you tell us anything about “Friends of Poetry”?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I am still president of Friends of Poetry! Our mission is to bring people and poetry together. We have a contest for children in its 39th year, The Poems That Ate Our Ears. We sponsor a reading series featuring local writers. We have painted murals of poems on downtown buildings in Kalamazoo. We respond when we perceive a poetic need, and there are such things!! Kalamazoo is a real hub for writing in the area, and FOPs has helped create that environment, I hope.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your book, “Dominant Hand”?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: Thanks for asking about my least favorite but best-looking book. I was just never satisfied with the order of the poems, and there are three poems I’d like to rip out of every copy. . I can say positively that the publisher (Mayapple Press) let me run a contest through one of my colleague’s art classes to design the cover, and then I chose from students’ designs. So I love the cover. I like individual poems in there, but it doesn’t feel whole. Several of the poems are going to be in my new mss.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Her Bodies”?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: “Her Bodies” was born during the height of my reproductive years and has a dark, childhood slant. I was very much a creature of biology at that time, and the book is funky, sweet, angry, and overall seems kind of wet to me, like it needs to be wrung out.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry readings?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I love performing. There are quite a few opportunities in West Michigan for readers, and I try to take advantage of them. I’m also active in the community and try to work poetry into every place I can.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us which of your poems won the 2010 Shaw Prize for poetry?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: It’s called “Ducklings.” It’s about ducklings raised by swans, influenced by Hans Christian Andersen and an illustration by Chris VanAllsburg (Polar Express, Swan Lake) somewhere back in my head. It’s about the discomfort of everything and the cold. It was pretty funny at the reading/celebration for this that I had to read the poem for tv, radio, the reading, and then after the reading one more time. I started to hate it! But I like it again now.

Geosi Gyasi: As a Michigan native, tell us something about the literary scene there?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I can only speak for my region. There seem to be three in Michigan:

West side of the state (Lake Michigan), East side (Lake Huron) and “Up North”, which is a state within the state (Lake Superior). As I said earlier, Kalamazoo is just a great town for writers. There are three colleges, a huge philanthropic community a very active art and music scene, and many writers who come to college here stay. It’s quite collaborative also. A group has started a Poetry Festival, which was really successful the first year. There will be another in 2016, and I’m looking forward to it.     At the risk of sounding like the worst mother ever, my younger daughter began performing poetry at a bar called the Kraftbrau when she was fifteen because that’s where it was happening for her. She now has an MFA in poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific purpose for why you write?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I write to understand but not in a directed way. There’s so much I don’t understand, I’ll take anything that comes along. Right now I am on a tear to put a new book together. I’m writing new poems to even out the read between personal and universal.

Geosi Gyasi: Who edits your manuscripts?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: All different people help me with my work. With the chapbook “Rib”, my readers were another poet, a former student, and (this is true) the coffee window woman at Biggby’s who I knew was a believer, and I wanted to see if my version of the Garden of Eden was offensive to her because I did not want it to be. (And it wasn’t!)   I’m in a couple of writers’ groups, and my peers are really helpful. I think it’s so important to have others read your work and let you know what is succeeding and what needs improvement. My husband will also serve in a pinch, and he is the best cold reader ever.

Last Hula by Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Last Hula by Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet and visual artist. Could you distinguish between the two?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: Easily: there is no drying time in poetry. When I get the idea for a piece of art, I want to do it immediately and have it done. Nope. Things have to dry or set. At first I found this immensely frustrating, but then I started learning about writing from visual art, that letting it “set” can be a good thing for a piece of writing too. I like to make huge collages, and I also write about the art or include poems in the art.   My most ambitious piece is a paper quilt 8 by 5 feet with 72 separate “squares” which are also collages connected with cloth, ribbon and buttons. Then I wrote a poem for each of the squares. It would be great if it had all come together, but it was a bad poem, but a very good experience.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new book?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: The one I mentioned earlier. It’s about/of/around/from lakes and the Midwest. An editor just took the title poem, and he said, “It’s alluring and mysterious with a fantastic ending.” I thought I would like that to be about my life.

Geosi Gyasi: I find the title of your chapbook, “Last Hula” quite interesting. What is it about?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: “Last Hula” is about my dad’s final days. The title poem is describing his hands as he lay in bed. Although he could do almost nothing, his hands did the actions to which they were accustomed. He hung lights. He washed windows.  It was beautiful in a way.

The judges of the contest “Last Hula” won did not care for the title. I was pretty upfront about wanting it and wrote a defense, which ended up as the back blurb for the book. It all worked out great. Thanks to Standing Rock Cultural Arts in Kent, Ohio!

Geosi Gyasi: Should I assume that your book, “Suicide Notes” is all about suicide?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: It is, but not in a grisly way. A friend of mine collected linen, and in one house, she found notes pinned to napkins and antimacassars that said, “I’m so lonely.”   I took that idea and brought it into my home. This was another project at my college: the graphic design instructor wanted her students to have real life experience and asked for a short manuscript. I gave her Suicide Notes. I went in three weeks later, and most of the covers were nooses or slit wrists. I tried to talk with them about subtlety. One girl cried. It was great. Two weeks later, I went back to pick the winner blindly, and it was the crier’s. She’d gotten graphics message but also made the book small because all the poems are tiny.  Now Friends of Poetry and the graphic design program work together to produce two chapbooks a year for the Celery City series.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any relationship between teaching and writing?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: I always try to bring as many aspects of my life together as possible. I was thinking about this the other day, that I never write about teaching. I never wrote about students. It’s separate. Like doctor/client privilege. However, I looked always for opportunities to write in class. Sometimes the fifteen minute free-write in Creative Writing was all the time I got that week.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be remembered as a writer?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: Truthful and bold with a good ear and very earthy.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m not sure if you have any question to ask me?

Elizabeth Kerlikowske: Have any of these interviews gone hideously or excellently awry?

Geosi Gyasi: Not in anyway I can think of, but I will tell you a funny story. I once sent a set of questions to a writer I was interviewing and he politely replied that the books I was questioning him about were not his. I later realized that another writer bears the same name as his.



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