‘Baltimore Writers Club’ is an occasional series by Marion Winik introducing new books from Baltimoreans.
One of the sweetest things about living in Baltimore has been the opportunity to be part of the active community of writers here, including the teachers and students I work with at UB, the authors I hear at readings, and many of those who sit in the audience with me. From this pool has come a group of friends who are the first readers and editors of each other’s work, something all writers need.
In this occasional series I’ll introduce new books from Baltimoreans I admire, and prevail on their authors to answer a few questions for Baltimore Fishbowl readers.
First in the series is the poet Liz Hazen, who teaches English to seventh and eighth graders at Calvert School, those lucky dogs. She’s the kind of person who’s too smart to be so pretty and too pretty to be so smart (she went to Yale) — and too modest and self-deprecating to read this sentence. Her first collection of poetry, “Chaos Theories,” debuts this month. It’s an amazingly cohesive group of poems, giving you a clear sense of diving into another person’s emotional and intellectual infrastructure, a particularly rich and interesting one.
Liz’s poetry is intellectually stimulating but not hard to understand. She has an obsession with science that comes with being the daughter of the prominent geologist Robert Hazen, recently the focus of an episode of PBS’s Nova called Life’s Rocky Start. In poems like “While our father was hunting rocks” and “Trilobites” she remembers her childhood experiences among bones and stones and fossils. Metaphors from other branches of science — physics, chemistry, biology — run through the other poems, and, of course, give the book its title.
The twist is that these theories and ideas about the natural world are applied to the mysteries of our emotions and relationships. The elegant cool of science meets the sensuality and vulnerability of this speaker, whom we see as a girl and a woman, nursing a baby, mourning a breakup, giving in to desire. And some of the poems are not theoretical at all, diving straight into distilled emotion and memory. A favorite passage from the poem “Coastal”:
Our mother’s beaches were east coast, brown and blurry,
like slow-shuttered photographs or the view
from a moving train. They spread blankets, unloaded
buckets, sieves, shovels. They cranked umbrellas,
settled in, adjusting their suits, slathered
our backs with lotion, told us Go on, play.
Liz was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book:
Your poem “When I Was A Girl” contains the line “My memory is a haunted house that will not let me leave.” I’ve been chastised in the past for reading poetry as autobiographical. Yet it feels to me like you are the speaker of these poems, that these are your memories and your life. Is that wrong?
You are not wrong! I draw heavily from my experiences in my writing. The poems about childhood all come from memories — of playing with my brother, camping during summer vacations, searching for fossils, working on science projects, reading my father’s Playboy. But there are gaps in those memories, too, which get filled with invented details. There is one poem in the collection about a laundromat that emerged from a memory of what was essentially a ghost town in Arizona that my family passed through on a road trip. The feelings of isolation and loneliness that drive that poem are very autobiographical, but I don’t remember actually folding laundry and there was no dead cat.
Can you tell us something about the birth of your poems? How do they first come to you? Many are organized into couplets or other stanzas of equal length, and a couple even rhyme. Does form come in early or late in the process?
Sometimes a poem starts with just a simple image or a fragment of memory. The poem “Underwear Girl” began after I saw a girl running down the street in my neighborhood in nothing but panties and an undershirt. I thought for years about what it meant, and finally ended up writing a poem about getting older and becoming less visible.
A lot of the science poems begin with a phrase or scientific concept that resonates either because of its sound or its metaphorical weight. When I wrote “Thanatosis,” I was thinking a lot about fight versus flight, and I wondered about animals that play dead. I was reading about it and came across the phrase “tonic immobility,” which I loved and seemed like an alternative that resonated with me and the way I sometimes deal with stress.
I often use the framework provided by science to explore less tangible things like emotions and human relationships. Poetic form works the same way for me. I think I need some kind of structure to work against, so I often write in very loose iambic pentameter. Similarly, I like the sense of order that results from equal-length stanzas. I guess I prefer playing tennis with a net. As for rhyme, it usually emerges somewhat naturally. When I do see the potential to use rhyme, I get very excited; they are great fun to work on and lead to unexpected ideas and connections.
The poems are divided into three numbered sections. Can you talk about how you grouped them?
I must admit, the order of poems was a real challenge for me. I went through several versions until Rose Solari, my publisher, helped me decide on the final order. Because the poems in this collection were written over more than a decade, there isn’t really a single narrative thread. In fact, there are multiple narratives – growing up and coming to terms with my childhood, early marriage, the suicide of a close friend, motherhood, divorce. And presenting the poems chronologically didn’t really work, either.
I knew I wanted the book in sections, if only to allow the reader a chance to breathe. I am a fan of white space. And I guess to me the poems create a kind of emotional narrative that begins with the question posed by James Gleick in the epigraph—“Above all, in a universe ruled by entropy, drawing inexorably toward greater and greater disorder, how does order arise?”—and builds to what I see as an acceptance and maybe even embracing of the disorder in the world. I also tried to have each section move from a place of chaos and confusion to a place of, if not order, at least slightly less tragic chaos and confusion.
Which poets do you think of as your influences?
The first poet I read in earnest was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In middle school I used to spend a lot of time in the library and one day the librarian showed me A Coney Island of the Mind, which opened up a whole new world for me. I discovered that I could write about my thoughts and feelings and that could be the basis for a poem. One of my earliest poems was modeled after Ferlinghetti’s “Autobiography.” Mine compared my life (all 12 years of it) to a disco. I was quite proud of myself.
By high school, I was buying tons of poetry books at a second hand shop where I spent a lot of time. I loved Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Later, I found Elizabeth Bishop. I consider Leaves of Grass my Bible and I absolutely love John Berryman.
The presence of science is your poems begins with your geologist father, with rocks and bones being the landscape of your childhood. How does science come into your life now? Do you read science magazines?
I read a lot of science writing in books and online. In my childhood I was exposed to many ideas and experiences because of my father’s profession, and in an unconscious act of rebellion I avoided science education to the extent I could, so for years it was absent from my life. When I started really writing in earnest, I had to write about my childhood and science had to be a part of that. My father’s presence dictated so much when I was growing up, and science was the language of that relationship. Now I feel less scientifically-literate than most people who have had a college education. In some ways this ignorance is helpful, though. It’s like I’m coming at the science totally blind, so I can understand it in my own framework.
I looked up a few words while reading this book – embouchure, aperiodic, thanatosis. Talk a little about vocabulary.
I love words that have several different meanings, and I love the strange and lush language of science. I looked up lots of words and had a wonderful time doing it. I think a lot of poets have sort of a word fetish – the sounds of words, the layers of meanings. I think a lot about the weight a single word can have, the failure of words to capture what we really mean, the way words feel in your mouth when you speak them.
I don’t think readers would expect someone as brainy as you to be addicted to horror movies and American Idol. Please explain.
Ha! Well, I actually have a series of horror-movie sonnets – how’s that for brainy? Or maybe that’s just nerdy? Anyway, I wrote them in part to justify all the hours I spent in my twenties in front of old horror DVDs and reruns of Buffy. I think my fascination with the genre is not unlike my fascination with science. There is a clear set of rules and principles that define these movies, which I appreciate. Plus they are really fun diversions and, believe it or not, many are quite beautifully filmed. As for Idol, I love having something I can watch together with my friends and my son. We all need little bright spots in the work week, and for me Idol has become one of those!
The launch for “Chaos Theories” (Alan Squire Press, 70 pgs, $19.99) will be held on April 7th at Atomic Books at 7 p.m. More information at elizabethhazen.com.