Poet and creative nonfiction writer Elizabeth Hazen, who teaches English at Maryvale Prep, and whose work appears regularly at Baltimore Fishbowl, learned earlier this week that her poem, “Thantosis,” will be published in Best American Poetry 2013. (Way to go, Elizabeth, from your friends at BFB!) I talked to her about her craft, her earliest inspirations, and her interest in chaos theory. You can read her winning entry below.
How/when/why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in earnest when I was fairly young – maybe around eleven or twelve years old. I was not terribly social, and I was often alone. The angst of adolescence also hit me pretty hard. Writing was a way to sort through my emotions. I spent a lot of time in my middle school library. The librarian, a kind man with whom I still keep in touch, introduced me to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. His poem “Autobiography” opened up a world of possibilities to me. In a melodramatic style typical of young writers, I composed my own “Autobiography” which was, as you can imagine, pretty awful. But the process of writing the poem was cathartic. I think that was really the beginning. Over the years I have certainly questioned the point of it all, but I always end up back at the computer. I sometimes think that being a writer or artist is like being forever poised to fall off the wagon. You really need a support group to help you through the days that bring rejection and the nights that bring the existential questions about this life you’ve chosen. I have been very lucky to have family, teachers, and friends who help me stay on the wagon.
How do you get inspired to write a poem?
Sometimes the inspiration is an image – a fire burning in the woods or a desert landscape I recall from a road trip long ago. Lately, my poems have emerged from scientific theories. My father is a scientist, and I often start with passages from his books, picking out phrases I like or concepts that seem to carry metaphorical weight. There is something about the language of science that attracts me, and I have always been drawn to ideas that I can’t quite wrap my head around.
What was your process like, working and reworking this winning poem?
I was reading about the principle of fight or flight when I came across a third defense — tonic immobility. Having long been intrigued by the idea that silence and invisibility are forms of power, I thought about the idea of playing dead. This exploration triggered memories of childhood games of hide and seek. The form of the poem evolved on its own, though I do frequently work within the confines of meter and rhyme, and a strict form seemed fitting for the content.
Who are some of your favorite poets? Do you teach much poetry?
Poets I always go back to are Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath. Lately I have been reading Natasha Tretheway, Jack Gilbert, Tracy K. Smith, and C.K. Williams. I am trying to be better about following the advice I give my students, which is to read, read, read!
I do teach a unit on poetry in my ninth grade classes. Most of my students are brand-new to poetry, so I like to show them a wide range. I love their reactions to poets like Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg. Anne Sexton’s Transformations is also really fun to teach.
What are you working on now?
I continue to be obsessed with chaos theory, so I am working on poems related to that. I also am slowly putting together a collection of essays.
Her winning poem, “Thanatosis,” which we reprinted back in the summertime, was originally published in Southwest Review.
For those who cannot camouflage themselves,
the alternative to fight or flight is tonic
immobility. The victim’s one trick:
to keel over. The cooling skin expels
foul smells, teeth clench, eyes glaze, the heart sustains
a sluggish thump. What’s outside can’t revive
the creature; it feels nothing, though alive,
paralyzed while the predator remains.
Waiting in the closet behind my mother’s
dresses, scent of hyacinth, I transmute—
mouth pressed in the wool of her one good suit—
into a speechless, frozen thing. The others
call me from far away, but I am fixed
right here. As if these shadows have cast doubt
across my way of seeing, I don’t want out,
and like the prey who plays at rigor mortis,
biding her time when the enemy is near,
while I’m inside this darkness I can’t see
the difference between death and immobility,
between what it is to hide and to disappear.