General 5-14-2007

Ellie Schoenfeld: The Coexistence of Humor and Poetry

Ellen Sandbeck had lunch with poet Ellie Schoenfeld and reports back . . .

Ellie Schoenfeld

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few hours in a cafe with Duluth poet Ellie Schoenfeld. (Note: I will refer to the poet throughout as “Ellie,” not only because that is what I call her, but also because referring to such a blithe spirit as “Schoenfeld” seems de trop.) Our situation struck us both as slightly absurd: our indoor table was actually an outdoor one (a metal-mesh patio table gratuitously shaded by an umbrella embellished with what appeared to be the remnants of an old hula skirt), though as Ellie pointed out, the view of the frigid lake was indeed beautiful. The setting was perfect for an interview with a poet in whose poems the beautiful, the meaningful and the absurd cohabit.

Upon interrogation, Ellie was cheerfully forthcoming. (Apparently not all poets are dour, driven creatures.) This particular poet obviously doesn’t take herself or her poetry too seriously, and that, frankly, is her beauty and her attraction.

We ordered our food, and then Ellie informed me that I was lucky that she had just been working on an application for an ARAC grant, which had forced her to think about her relationship to her poetry. Otherwise, she told me, she would not be an easy interview because she doesn’t tend to dwell on such things. I asked her why she writes poetry. She replied, “I like the rhythms of poetry and I like metaphors so that’s the natural way I express myself.” And she has been writing poetry for “a long time. My mother and father dug out some old boxes of my school stuff, and there were lots and lots of poems from elementary school. . . . Since my early 20’s I’ve been reading my poems in public and have been published, so they’re not just personal, or therapy. I’ve been sending them out into the world and showing them to people.”

When I asked her about her working methods she said, “I have tons of material. I keep a variety of folders. When I come up with a fragment or a phrase, I write it down in my little notebook, or if I don’t have a notebook with me, on a napkin. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone. I often lose things. It’s easy to lose scraps of paper, envelopes, etc.
     “Often I start with a regular expression or a phrase that we don’t think much about. The expression is usually edited out completely by the time the poem is finished. I start in longhand, put different pieces together.
     “Sometimes a fragment sticks with me and I can’t get it out of my head. Sometimes the only way to get them out of my head is to use them in a poem. Sometimes I move these fragments around, from poem to poem until they work. Slide them into poems.”

On her writing habits, she notes: “I try to do those things that writers do. I really believe that if you sit down at the same time every day and write, you will be more productive. Writing a poem every morning worked well for me, and I captured more dream images, but I couldn’t sustain it.
     “I’ve taught workshops, so I’ve tried to learn about the structure and forms of poems, but apparently I don’t care enough about them to remember them. Sometimes I think my poetry suffers because I’m not good with forms (sonnets, villanelles, haiku, etc.) People who like forms say that they like them because they force them to be more creative. When poets are really good at forms, you don’t really notice the form, you just notice the rhythm. I’ve never written anything in a verse form that worked. I’m lazy. I’ve decided not to try it right now.
     “When I was in my first writing group, other members would talk about what they thought my poems were about. I think we poets just write stuff and other people find deep layers and complexity in it. I don’t know anyone who writes like that.”

Ellie strives for quality control. She says, “The huge majority of my poems never get out of the folder. Some just come quickly and some stay in the folder for years. I have to revise; even poems that come relatively quickly need to be revised. Every once in a blue moon a poem doesn’t need much changing. Sometimes there’s that wave of inspiration that I catch. I love those things when they work, but usually they don’t. Sometimes I wake up and I think I’ve thought of the most wonderful things. In the morning it seems, not so much.”

She’s an accomplished reader of her own poems, but she remembers, “When I was first reading poems aloud, I was scared. ‘It’s a piece of my soul…’ I was talking to a friend who said flippantly: ‘It’s just 10 minutes of your soul.’ I try not to take it too seriously. Often life is hard; I think it’s helpful to be able to laugh in the face of adversity. But I have a rule that nothing leaves my room for a couple of weeks, because I’ve embarrassed myself by reading new poems in public. I like to allow time for re-evaluation.”

Ellie, like all poets, has experienced her share of rejection. “My most interesting rejection slip was one on which someone had written: ‘This is not a poem.'”

The rejection was for “Northern Love Poem,” which was later published in Ellie’s chapbook Screaming Red Gladiolus.

I have sweat my soul
into your skin and now leaving
is like tearing my wet tongue
from a frozen screen door.

I have been to many peace and other assorted left-wing rallies in Duluth, and Ellie has read her poetry at all of them. Wintertime rallies in Duluth are notoriously quiet (What is the sound of hundreds of mittened hands clapping? What is the sound of half that many scarve-swathed mouths yelling?) but Ellie’s poems– read in her singularly dry, amused way–would have induced standing ovations in every case, if we hadn’t already been standing.

I first heard Ellie’s poem “Interview With God” at a peace rally in Duluth. The poem had an electric effect on the crowd. It has now been published in The Moon Rolls Out of Our Mouths, a book by five poets: Deborah Cooper, Candace Ginsberg, Ann Floreen Niedringhaus, Ellie Schoenfeld and Anne Simpson. I have asked around, and I am not the only person who bought this book because it contains “Interview With God.” (Printed with permission. Buy the book anyway!)

    Interview With God

In the dream I am a journalist who has landed an interview with God and God is a wrinkly old man wearing an aqua tutu. He can tell that I am a little surprised by His appearance, says He picked the god as a human male thing to match my upbringing, and the tutu (which I don’t remember hearing anything about while growing up) well, He confesses that it has always surprised Him that humans, who have free will and can wear anything they like, don’t all just gravitate to ballet clothes. Those lushly colored, diaphanous fabrics which lend themselves to twirling– an activity God suggests we spend more time in– are one of the better things we have ever come up with. We discuss fabric for awhile and then I ask Him if humans are really the most evolved of the species. He has a hearty belly laugh, tells me how much we crack Him up, pulls Himself together and tells me no. Says the raspberries, for example, are light years ahead of us. Think about it– there they are with their berries that perfect shade of red, that pleasing texture, they offer up their sweet sensuous selves to the world. They spread joy, don’t argue, have flags, feel patriotic, or go to war. They just share their perfect selves and here God reminds me about the ones who were good enough to plant themselves right by where I park my earth-destroying car. They don’t hold this car against me, they know that humans are not smart enough to do anything else. I ask about the sparkly crown which is more like a tiara and He says, yes, that’s what it is because tiara is such a prettier word than crown which implies kingdoms and that bad impulse to go to war whereas a shiny tiara just makes a man feel pretty. God laughs, says He thinks He was a crow in a past life and I think Wait! It’s me who thinks this crow thing about myself to explain my attraction to shiny objects so maybe this is one of those lesson dreams, maybe I’m starting to think of myself as God when I should clearly be trying to emulate a raspberry and when I wake up I eat my new role model for breakfast because I have always heard that you are what you eat.

Some people’s natures drive them to sing, to dance, to sculpt, to draw; apparently Ellie’s nature erupts in poems. Her poetry collections are Difficult Valentines (Fallow Deer, Duluth 2003; second printing, Poetry Harbor, Duluth 2004); Screaming Red Gladiolus (Poetry Harbor 1999); The Moon Rolls Out of Our Mouths (Calyx Press, Duluth 2005).

You can hear her perform with her band, Warm Women of the North, at The Amazing Grace Coffee Shop in Duluth’s Canal Park on the second Sunday of every month. She says, “I think it’s funny that I’m part of a band because I don’t sing or play an instrument! I do spoken word.” (The other members of the band– Kim Curtis-Monson, Lori Ward, Beverly Johnson, Kathy McTavish, and Diane Soden-Groves– are all musicians.)

Or go to a peace or human rights rally in Duluth. She’ll be there, and she will read a poem that will knock your socks off.