The Life of the Mind: A Conversation with Elizabeth Scanlon


“You have a better chance of being canonized / than of winning the Mega Millions lottery,” Elizabeth Scanlon writes in her first full-length poetry collection, Lonesome Gnosis (Horsethief Books, 2017), in a statement that captures both the playfulness and the timeliness of her work. In her poems, technology and TV and money have replaced the sacred. We revere the lotto winner, happily, loudly, fantasizing about all the things he will buy himself and his parents, and disregard the poet, talking to herself in a corner, trying to apprehend the inapprehensible. We hold “iPhones… loosely like prayer beads,” while “Christmas [comes] around the corner like a thug,” wanting “my wallet or my heart.”

This is a book yearning to escape capitalism and the productivity economy, the rhetoric of use and accountability; this is a book that doesn’t bemoan technology—that’s corny, Scanlon says in our interview—but that mourns the loss of the quiet and the sacred, of seeking after knowledge without a search bar. And it is a book that does all of this with a wry self-awareness: “Have I become already the person writing about flowers?” Scanlon asks. No, she hasn’t. But if she did, I would still want to read it.

Elizabeth Scanlon is the Editor of the American Poetry Review. In addition to Lonesome Gnosis, she is the author of two chapbooks, The Brain Is Not the United States/The Brain Is the Ocean (The Head & The Hand Press, 2016) and Odd Regard (ixnay press, 2013). She is a Pushcart Prize winner and her poems have appeared in many magazines including Boston Review, Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, and others. She lives in Philadelphia.

We spoke over Skype about poetry as prayer, the resonances between science and poetry, what it was like to come of age during the shift to digital, brains and trains, and how Scanlon’s work as an editor has influenced her as a writer.


The Rumpus: From where would your ideal reader enter your work? How would you want them to approach this book—in relation to what ideas, what other books, what literary tradition?

Elizabeth Scanlon: I think as someone who is also an editor of a magazine, I always find it hopeful if someone has read poems elsewhere in the world first before coming to a book. It feels more organic that way, if someone sees the poems in the wild so to speak, and then seeks the book out, that feels great. And it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about that kind of progression—like “Oh, I saw this poem in Boston Review and then I was curious about the book,” or something like that.

Aesthetically, I’m not sure how to answer the question. This book in particular is concerned largely with ideas of knowing, of how we decide things for ourselves, so I guess that would be beneficial if someone were coming at it from a kind of meditative practice, or that kind of life of the mind.

Rumpus: When you say a meditative practice, do you mean an explicitly spiritual one? In my reading, many of these poems seemed engaged with a religious, and specifically Christian, tradition. To what extent do you consider yourself a religious person?

Scanlon: I’m not a religious person at all, though throughout my life I’ve been exposed to many different religious practices. So I think that having brushed by them but never really attached to any of them has influenced my thoughts a lot. My mother was from a Catholic family—a very Catholic family, but she died when I was very young. Part of my family is Jewish. Part of my family has Buddhist practices. So there are different traditions there. And I myself, though I don’t ascribe to any one religion, I do meditate, and I do find the topic really interesting.

Rumpus: Do you have a relationship with God?

Scanlon: I wouldn’t say God. I would say I have passionate relationship with the idea of talking to yourself, with what some people would call prayer—though I think of it more as self-talk—and how that can be comforting or harmful. I think that culturally a lot of the things that people relate to as God are beliefs that they have about themselves. That how we value or punish ourselves is the way we parent ourselves, and we call that God, to not be entirely responsible for it.

Given, the book is called Lonesome Gnosis—the idea of gnosis being something you know without knowing how you know it. If you are engaging in a self-determined spirituality then there is something inherently alone about that. You might want to share it, but you don’t always succeed in sharing it.

Rumpus: So do you see poetry then as a kind of prayer or self-talk, something overheard?

Scanlon: I do think there is an “overheard” aspect of it—that these prayer-monologues are always going on in one’s inner life.

Rumpus: You said earlier you see the book as largely engaged with ideas of knowing. Could you talk more about that?

Scanlon: Sure. I think we construct our personalities on these ideas of what we know for sure—I mean that’s sort of an Oprah-ism—but many people believe in their own capital-T Truth, and I have always found myself very hard-pressed to subscribe to a capital-T Truth. But I find that desire really understandable, right? I mean we want to know something for sure. We seek certainty. But I just don’t know if it exists.

Although, maybe that sounds darker than I mean it to be. To say it in a lighter way, I’d say that I’m more interested in the spirit of inquiry than I am in being right.

Rumpus: Science and the scientific is one of the book’s preoccupations. Do you see science and poetry as having an inherently antagonistic relationship—given that science is in many ways after “Truth”?

Scanlon: No, I think poetry and science are closer than we think. I should also say that in this moment of the hideous Trump abuse of fact, I’m not conflating truth and fact. The truth I’m thinking of is on a spiritual plane; facts are facts. And I think there is a beautiful alliance between poetry and science in that science is the spirit of inquiry. Science, if we are engaging in a deep way, is never satisfied that everything is known. You have to keep looking, you have to keep learning. I mean, granted I’m not a scientist, but in my fandom of it, I think that there is a similar ethos between poets and scientists in that the desire to explore, to find out, is its own reward.

Rumpus: I’ve always seen the connection between poets and astronauts, or astrophysicists—anyone who studies space, really. It’s the one branch of science that people think is useless, that struggles to secure funding.

Scanlon: Yes, how could you not be curious about that? You’re absolutely right; that is a field that just goes on and on, and how could we ever get to the end of that? I don’t think we can, right?

And in the opposite, inward, direction, I think neurology—which is something I touch on in the book and in other poems—is infinite, or nearly infinite. We’ve only just begun to begin to understand how the brain works and what more lies beyond what we know.

Rumpus: Are some of the more science-y poems sparked by outside reading? Do you ever do “research” for a poem, or just bring in what you find while reading in the world?

Scanlon: I am coming at the brain-specific stuff from personal history. My son is an autism spectrum kid—and he is wonderful and thriving, he’s now twelve—but when we first received his diagnosis when he was three, that opened a whole new chapter of my life, of really having to engage with medical research and cultural ideas about what this means, and how you speak about it, and how other people are going to talk to you about it. That was an influence on everything in my life. Suddenly I was reading research articles on a daily basis. So that’s certainly a part of that… um. I lost the train of thought there.

Rumpus: Well maybe we should talk about trains, which feature prominently in the book.

Scanlon: [Laughing] That’s a good lead actually! Well, as a person who is a non-driver—I have never owned a car, never driven a car, I’ve always lived in cities—trains are just part of the landscape of my life. It’s no accident that they show up in poems. Though, too, I think once I noticed that they were showing up in poems, then it became more intentional to keep them there and to really tune into what is going on in all of these environments I am in.

Rumpus: I love the train, and I think, regardless of what you intended, it’s a rich vehicle for metaphor—and punning. Do you see your poems as funny?

Scanlon: I do! I’m always delighted when somebody thinks they’re funny because I think oftentimes I’ll be writing something in a little bit of a jokey way—but there’s darkness there as well—and I guess depending on the reader, some people will be like, “Oh, that’s so sad” and some people will go along with the joke. And both of those readings are fine, but, yes, I do. I’m a person who likes finding the oddness, the funny, in things.

 Rumpus: For the record, I think the poems are funny!

I found myself frequently thinking of the sonnet—you have a number of thirteen- or fifteen-line poems—and also—because of your many even shorter poems—of the haiku, or even the koan, while reading your book. Were you working consciously within either of these traditions?

Scanlon: I was aware there were a lot of shorter poems in this collection and part of that is allowing them to be those short little snapshots—in part because when I was writing many of them was in early motherhood, when the available time to write any particular poem was brief. And so, though you go back, and you revise, and you reconsider, it felt truer to allow them to—funny I’m saying “truer,” right? It felt more, uh, accurate to keep them in that short form. A lot of them are “off” sonnets because they were originally drafted as intentional sonnets, but then as I was going back, in revisions, I was like, “You know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to force it to be a sonnet.” But, yes, there is the ghost, or shadow, of a sonnet in a lot of them—not only in lineation but also in that I can’t resist a little internal rhyming. I think poets of our era, people are really resistant to a real rhyme scheme, a strict end rhyme or something, but every once in a while I can’t resist it.

Also as a young romantic person, my first ideas about poetry were really shaped by memorizing Shakespearean sonnets and things like that. I memorized a great deal of them. I went to a high school for performing arts in Baltimore, and we did all of this elocution, we had to memorize and recite things. Now, of course, there’s Poetry Out Loud and all of the national competitions, but that wasn’t really in existence yet when I was young; it was more unusual then. So I think that remains, that definitely is in the cellular memory.

Rumpus: Do you find that work as an editor has shaped you as a writer?

Scanlon: Being at the American Poetry Review as long as I have in a way was my grad school, was my MFA. I came there straight after graduating from Bryn Mawr and have been there ever since. The sheer volume of work that I read, that I have always read there, certainly influences my aesthetic. People have frequently asked me, “Don’t you get tired of it? Don’t you get burnt out?” And actually I feel just the opposite, that the more I read, the more I just want to stay in the swim of it, because it’s inspiring. It’s inspiring even when you’re reading thousands of things and maybe a day passes when none of it blows the top of your head off. But the next day, there will be. There’s something amazing on a pretty regular basis. And that’s really inspiring to me.

Rumpus: Have you ever had anxiety about, I guess, the anxiety of influence—about how all that reading will affect your work?

Scanlon: You know, I don’t, because more than anything I see where my differences lie and how to honor them. Maybe that’s thinking too much of myself, but I don’t experience it as a prideful thing. I think of it more as, “Oh, this is part of what’s really interesting about being an editor and doing this much reading.” It’s that you see the patterns emerge and you see trends certainly, but you also see how someone sounds different and how vital that is, how cool that is.

Rumpus: What differences do you see in your own work?

Scanlon: I have a very strange diction—in terms of word choice and colloquialism; I think I’m pretty unusual that way, and I think that’s both a blessing and a curse. In my own revision process, I frequently find if I’m stuck on something, if I’m examining something really hard, it’s usually either because I think it sounds too chatty and lazy and casual or the polar opposite—that it sounds so highfaluting and weird. That maybe I shouldn’t say “cotillion.” Because I do have an appetite for those kinds of words, for five-dollar words, that isn’t always useful. Sometimes you have to say, “No, come on.”

Rumpus: Could you talk more about your revision process?

Scanlon: It is long and sloppy. I find that—maybe always but certainly in the current era, post-motherhood—for me, drafting a poem is something that happens on the fly, then gets filed away, then gets reopened, redrafted, put away again. Then I come back to it with more intention… I mean it’s just time and time and time again.

I’m grateful to be a part of the Grind, a group of people online who participate in daily writing. I’ve been participating in the Grind on and off for maybe six years now, and it has been so helpful to my revision process. When you do the Grind, you commit to sending your group drafts everyday, no matter what. And it’s not about feedback, it’s honestly just about showing up and having accountability to do it whether you feel like it or not. I find I do move forward with revisions a lot more swiftly than I would otherwise because I’m committing to looking at it everyday. I don’t otherwise do that.

Rumpus: The poems reflect an interesting confusion between digital life and actual life. What is your relationship to technology and new media? What intrigues you about surveillance, about the surveillance state, about that end of the digital spectrum?

Scanlon: Yeah, huh, what about that?

On the surface of it, I would say that, well, my father was a police officer, so that’s a factor in the awareness of problematic authority and what you show or don’t show. But also I think that it has something to do with being Gen X, the kind of “middle” generation, it’s like I lived a completely analog youth and then my adulthood began right at the same moment as the digital era. I remember being in college—I was a freshman in 1991—and email was brand-new. People were still figuring out what to do with it. We’d go and check it maybe once a day in the basement of the library. In some ways I feel completely fluent because, of course, I’ve been using digital media for the entire time that it has existed. And in another way, I’m really aware that I’m of this generation that straddled the divide and still has a different appetite for things before this.

Rumpus: How do you sate that appetite for the before?

Scanlon: I know; it’s a little corny. I’m aware that it’s corny to rail against it. I just think about how our interactions are different. But I mean, obviously no one can go backwards, so in a certain sense it doesn’t matter. Unless you want to choose to be a complete Luddite and just unplug from everything, but I don’t feel that way. I don’t bemoan our technological advances.

Rumpus: Were you writing poetry when you were entering college, and when this “shift” was happening?

Scanlon: I was. I entered college as a theater major, so I wasn’t focusing entirely on writing, but as a performer I was really engaged with text in that way. At that point in my life, I was writing poetry but I wasn’t publishing until much later. I remember feeling a different kind of solace in relation to poetry than to other kinds of writing. I think what it gets down to for me is that poetry is where I work out what I think. It’s where I’m doing the best job of listening to myself. I think some people call that prayer and some call that meditation and for me that mostly happens in poetry.

Rumpus: I asked that question in part because I wondered if living through that technological shift had changed your writing. But maybe it’s impossible to tell because your writing was going to change anyway over such an extended period of time.

Scanlon: Yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t lay any heavy meaning on that. I don’t think it changed my writing, per se. But the writing community, that is different. We know so much more about who’s writing and what they’re writing and what’s available and that’s amazing. As an editor and as an advocate for small press publishing, I talk a lot about what a golden age we’re living in. There are a lot of people who want to say, “Oh, poetry’s dying, it’s so troubled, culturally it’s in such a crisis” and everything, but, look—fundraising is always hard, but in terms of the art? The art has never been better. The art is really thriving and extraordinary in this moment. And we know more about who’s out there than ever. That’s real. That accessibility is true.

Rumpus: The “I” in these poems, the speaker, seemed very slippery to me—in part because you often have these long sentences unfolding over many lines—but the effect was one of always being motion, impossible to pin down. For you, is writing a way of escaping the self?

Scanlon: I wouldn’t say it’s escaping the self—for me it’s about honoring and entertaining the multivalence of self. It’s something I talk with my students a lot about; it’s the idea that we can use the “I” and not have to be autobiographers. Even if the speaker is an I, it doesn’t have to be your life story. It doesn’t have to be capital-t Truth. Because there are other things to explore. This isn’t a court testimony; this is a poem! Which isn’t to say that I don’t value people who want to be really faithful to their own autobiography. That’s great, too. But I think—and maybe this ties into my background in theater as well—there’s something valuable in being any “I” that that poem wants to be.

Rumpus: So do you see it as a persona or more as a different aspect of the self?

Scanlon: It depends. My primary mode is in aspects of the same self—it’s in turning the kaleidoscope so you see different colors. But sometimes, yeah, it is a persona thing. Sometimes you find yourself in a state of mind that doesn’t necessarily have the same vocabulary as your normal life, and that’s a gift.

Rumpus: I was surprised to hear you talk about your son, because I didn’t see him at all in the poems. 

Scanlon: That’s intentional. Though I see the places where the child looms in some of those poems, in revision, I did dial it back because I’m really concerned with not speaking for someone else or to take without asking from someone else’s experience. For the purposes of these poems at any rate, it was really important to me to think: even if the subject matter is something from his life, what I’m writing about is how I’m processing it.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Scanlon: I have a new manuscript called Whosoever Whole that I just recently finished, just beginning to send it out. I’ve been reading poems from it at different events, so that’s really nice. It’s nice to feel like I’ve got irons in the fire.

Rumpus: Were you working on Lonesome Gnosis when the election was happening? A number of the poems, like “The Brain is Not the United States,” for instance, made me think of that time.

Scanlon: Well, it was published in January 2017, so it was in proofs by the time of the election. So, no, though there exists in my writing—I was going to say “vague” but I don’t think it’s vague at all—a discomfort with the dominant culture, right? I think an awful lot about economic disadvantages and car culture and issues of feminism and racism and workers’ rights, all of those things are always on my mind. So they bubble up no matter who’s president. That’s an ongoing task, or a going concern as they say.

Rumpus: Would you describe your poems as political?

Scanlon: Some of them are. This is, I guess, a bigger conversation about what is political poetry. By one definition, I’d say they all are because I’m someone who is concerned with those things, and who wants to engage, and wants to talk about injustices. On the other hand, they’re not overtly political because I’m not coming at it with an agenda. Though I don’t think anyone who opened this book would doubt for a moment that I’m a lefty, radical weirdo.

Emma Winsor Wood is Editor of Stone Soup, the magazine for kids by kids. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and tweets @emmawinsorwood. More from this author →