The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Eve L. Ewing about her latest collection, 1919 (Haymarket Books, June 2019), the histories we don’t get taught, how kids make the poetry canon, books as visual objects, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: How’s Chicago tonight, Eve?
Eve L. Ewing: It’s decent!
Brian S: I ask about the weather in part because it’s an element in the story of this book—the heat. I grew up in Louisiana and lived in Florida and was still taken aback when I moved to the Midwest eight years ago. How the heat can lead to frayed tempers and an unwillingness to put up with stuff.
One of my favorite poems in the book—I mentioned it in the piece I wrote about why we chose 1919 for Poetry Book Club—is the take on Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” which plays on the heat as well. Can you talk about how that drove some of the writing of the book and what it felt like to riff off such a well-known poem?
Liz: The poem “July July” is such a powerful reminder of how we are still—and ever more, given climate change—creatures living within weather, vulnerable to it.
Eve L. Ewing: This is a great point. The book is definitely inspired by that. In The Negro in Chicago, they talk specifically about the role the weather played—first the heat, then the rain—and it reminded me of the 1995 heat wave which I also write about in the poem “July, July.” And of course, Do the Right Thing.
Gwen Dawson: There is also the poem “in November” that talks about the cold. So, yes, lots of weather.
Liz: Eve, I must admit I knew very little about the 1919 riots. (Oldish white lady). I found this book a remarkable combination of history text and creative response. Did you know from the beginning you wanted photos included? And does your “poet self” ever conflict with your “educator/academic self” when you’re writing poems?
Eve L. Ewing: You know, most people know nothing or next to nothing about them! Which is part of why I wanted to write the book. It’s a really important part of history we don’t talk about much. I learned more about them while writing Ghosts in the Schoolyard and it was like… as a person who cares a lot about Chicago history and race and has a lot of degrees and has read a lot, why don’t I know more about this? So I really hope the book will be a good access point for people to learn more about the Red Summer.
Gwen Dawson, yes! Good catch.
Liz: Throughout the book, you keep bringing us back to our physical nature. The heat. The “good quilt” protecting a sleeping body from the hard and bumpy floor.
Eve L. Ewing: Liz, no conflict between the poet self and the academic self. 🙂 As for the photos—I’m not sure when it occurred to me but the brilliant thing is that they’re mostly in the public domain. I am a big believer in trying to use the book as a visual object so it was a natural thing to do.
Liz: Good! One of the things I admire about you—and envy—is how you manage to live in so many worlds at once.
Eve L. Ewing: I’m really lucky that Haymarket is really supportive in letting me do weird things.
Brian S: I think a lot of people in general don’t know about how common race riots were in the US until relatively recently. I remember reading Nixonland and being surprised by how it seemed almost weekly there were race riots in the US around the time of the Fair Housing Act. And that happened right around the time I was born, so far from ancient history.
Haymarket is such an excellent press.
Eve L. Ewing: Also: The photos were mostly taken by a Japanese American guy named Jun Fujita. So one thing to think about is his position as the cameraman, sitting at the boundary of this violence and how his identity as neither Black nor white allowed him to take those photos. There is a photo I didn’t include of someone being stoned to death. I included the photo right before it, the one of a mob of white people approaching a house.
Gwen Dawson: Yikes! Glad that one didn’t make the cut.
R. Rafferty: Speaking of the book as a visual object, can you talk a little bit about the erasures in “it wouldn’t take much”? (I loved that poem, and also thanks for chatting with us tonight!)
Eve L. Ewing: And some people think that the photo of the death itself is the first time a photo of a dead person appeared in the newspaper. According to Fred Sasaki at the Poetry Foundation, who curated a show of Fujita’s photos.
Sure, R. Rafferty. And thanks for chatting with me. Well, I had never published an erasure before, though I’ve written some. People do erasures different ways but I like the kind of redacted look because it reminds you that what has been “erased” is still present in a latent way. It reminds you that there is a source material.
Liz: And whether you intended it at the time or not, the redactions feel utterly of this present political moment. As so much of the book does.
When I first saw the book, its physical presence reminded me of a kid’s book, which I thought was great. Kids literature often blends fact and poetry and understands that pictures add to a story. I wish more “adult” books were as playful as this one in that way.
Eve L. Ewing: Liz, I don’t know if this will always be the case but as of now I think of my writing generally as being for young people of all ages—adults who want to feel like kids and kids who have wisdom beyond their years. I also have a sort of theory about that…
Liz: Do tell!
Eve L. Ewing: Which is that: I think a lot of poets don’t consider young people as their audience.
Gwen Dawson: Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder why that is?
Eve L. Ewing: Or they think of poetry for young people as being somehow distinct. But the thing is, ninety-five percent of people in this country primarily read poetry before the age of eighteen. If you walk up to a random person and ask them to name a poet, odds are they’ll name someone who was assigned in their high school English class.
Liz: Yes! I was a journalist long ago and edited a daily page for kids explaining the news. The ability to write for kids without condescension is something all too rare.
Eve L. Ewing: Or a poem they memorized in elementary school. So in fact, young readers make the canon. There’s the smaller proportion of adults, like y’all, who avidly read poems 🙂 and I appreciate you.
Liz: Young readers make the canon. Have you written this essay!?
Eve L. Ewing: But a lot of poets write for that five percent (or whatever it is). When I sit down to write poems I am writing for everyone else. And I’m pleasantly surprised that the more experienced readers of poetry also seem to like my work.
Liz: I can’t wait to tell my eight-year-old niece about this theory.
Eve L. Ewing: The average eight-year-old probably reads more poems in a year than the average adult.
Liz: Yup. And certainly writes them.
Gwen Dawson: I know that’s true. I have an eight-year-old.
Brian S: You know, I’ve been at The Rumpus for ten years now, and I think there’s been a shift (for the better) in poetry toward a wider audience, but not—as a particular class of poetry folk might suggest—toward “simpler” poetry.
Eve L. Ewing: They might all be Shel Silverstein poems or Maya Angelou or Jack Prelutsky but who cares. Here’s the thing: I believe that you have to give your audience the tools they need to understand what you’re trying to do. I believe that in my academic writing and in my poetry and comics. I think it’s worthless to complain that people don’t get you or they’re ignorant if you haven’t done anything to invite them into the things they need to know to read you well.
Brian S: And don’t condescend to them either.
Eve L. Ewing: For instance. Remember when “Cat Person” came out and everyone was talking about “Cat Person” on Twitter for a day? That was an interesting day on Twitter for me. Because people who never talked about literature were suddenly saying they hated this story. And it was a moment to be like, okay what do you hate about it? Asking people to articulate it. Gives them a chance to try to flex a muscle maybe they haven’t used. Also, some people were like “I hated this essay.” When it clearly said FICTION at the top. So it’s like, if you’re writing in a context in which people don’t know what fiction means, what can we do collectively if we care about literature to meet people where they are and carry them forward?… Okay, I can stop ranting about this now and we can talk about the book.
Brian S: LOL
Gwen Dawson: Haha! Love it.
Eve L. Ewing: tl;dr—shoutout to eight-year-olds!
Brian S: Look, I have five-year-old twins, just starting to read, and half their books are in some kind of verse. Maybe that ought to just be the standard for education. Everything in poetry. I’d probably have done better in calculus if it had been in iambs.
Liz: So many people think of literary analysis as the dreaded papers they wrote in high school in which they were supposed to point out every image in a story/poem that “presages death.” My sons used to yell about that and I agreed; the joys of reading and analyzing and playing with language are often taught so badly.
Gwen Dawson: I’d be interested in hearing more about the Exodus poems. I loved the biblical language in a non-biblical context. Or, I guess it is sort of a biblical type of context…
Brian S: About the Exodus poems: I especially liked the way you used them to set up sections. It sort of reset me as a reader for each new set of poems.
Eve L. Ewing: Thank you! Yeah so, Exodus is an important book in the Bible for Black people. I’m not really Christian (for more on this topic you can read my essay about it in Electric Arches) but I am kind of into the Bible as a text. Historically a lot of Black hymns are about the story of Exodus which was a source of comfort for people during slavery because it’s about enslaved people fleeing injustice with god on their side. But it was also an important image during the Great Migration when the Black press deliberately invoked Exodus to encourage people to flee the South and go north.
Liz: And the travails of the escape. (Jewish, so yeah—Exodus.)
Eve L. Ewing: They felt it was a sort of exodus. Which literally speaking, it was. My own grandmother left Mississippi when she was five and went north with her family.
Gwen Dawson: I love how you evoke the biblical language in those poems to talk about something that’s happening at a different time period—very powerful effect.
Eve L. Ewing: Thank you! I really like the story, probably one of my fave parts of the Bible, so I wanted to weave them together, the Exodus story and the real life exodus that happened, and play with the language because the verse in the Bible is so interesting and distinct.
Brian S: Was it just good luck that Richard Daley’s biography was titled American Pharoah? (Google searches for that term have been wrecked by the racehorse now, for the record)
Eve L. Ewing: YES BRIAN HOW CRAZY IS THAT. It writes itself don’t it. In the first Exodus poem with the names, those are names of my relatives. Adeline was my last enslaved foremother. She was born in slavery and died in freedom, so I’m also kind of playing with the whole so and so begat so and so lineage thing in the Bible and tying it to my own life. That’s one of the few really autobiographical elements in the book. In that sense it’s really different than Electric Arches. In a way that frankly was a relief and a totally different kind of challenge.
Brian S: Another one of those things where, if you stop and consider it for just a moment, you realize it really wasn’t that long ago that slavery was legal.
Eve L. Ewing: Not at all. And to your question about Mayor Daley, like, that’s what I mean when I say we really need to talk about this part of history more. The most powerful mayor in the city’s history. One of the most powerful politicians in American history… most likely was involved in this riot. His son was mayor for most of my life.
Liz: The interplay of hope for better lives and the disappointment of the reality at the end. Of the exodus—so powerful and well done.
Eve L. Ewing: A recurring theme across all of my work is which histories we tell and which we don’t, and why.
R. Rafferty: And how history repeats itself. Going back to the idea of giving your audience the tools to understand what you’re trying to do—this was really interesting in 1919 through the context and framing of each poem with a part from The Negro in Chicago. One of my favorites is actually “there is no poem for this.” I’m really interested to hear more about how your work on Ghosts in the Schoolyard led to you writing these poems.
Gwen Dawson: Yes, definitely. I think we need to keep studying and learning history. Things seem to be even worse now than just ten years ago. We seem to be moving backwards
R. Rafferty: I was struck by how many poems could have been describing present day events.
Eve L. Ewing: You know in a way it’s like… if I were a different poet or a different type of person I probably would have just worked for a year to try to write that poem, but I wanted to let the archive speak for itself. And that probably has something to do with me being a social scientist as well as a poet.
Brian S: Yeah, I’m about the same age as and from very nearby where Natasha Trethewey is from, and the poems she writes about the way history was taught in her classroom speak to my experience as well, only without me being uncomfortable because I was the ignorant white kid who trusted his teachers. So even when we teach history, a lot depends on who teaches it and how.
Eve L. Ewing: And R. Rafferty, in a sense that’s the answer to your question. I was reading this archival document and I was like… this is bananas.
1. It’s so interesting.
2. Why didn’t I know this?
3. This could be right now.
And 4, this isn’t a poem but this sounds awfully poetic.
So I just wanted a chance to spend more time with that text and also a way to invite other people to do the same. The entire thing is available online! Easily searchable. So I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert on it.
R. Rafferty: Did you think of the poetry in terms of reaching a different and/or wider audience than your historical work?
Eve L. Ewing: Like, I guess I could have written another nonfiction book. Yes, I thought it would reach a different audience and also be more accessible. Also, the year 2019 was coming! And I thought, well damn. This was like late 2017 or early 2018, I think. So it was like, okay I have a year to write and publish this book lol.
Brian S: I was really struck by the fact that the governor at the time wanted the perspective of black men in that report. I was astonished by that, in fact.
R. Rafferty: Perfect timing.
Eve L. Ewing: That’s why, quite frankly, I’m so grateful and pleasantly surprised that anyone wants to read it! I’ve done very little to promote it.
Gwen Dawson: The times we live in are promoting this book for you!
Eve L. Ewing: I don’t know if anyone here has heard my podcast but it’s a similar concept to this book.
The idea is that archives are available for everyone, so I see myself as an inviter and a curator and an interlocutor. Like hey, here’s a little snippet of this cool thing, did you know? And if you like it you can dive in on your own.
Liz: Are you doing readings of the book? Specifically, in NYC? (She said, crossing her fingers…)
Eve L. Ewing: I’m not officially touring! Two consecutive book tours kinda took me out of commission. But I will try to do at least one NYC reading.
Brian S: The poem “there is no poem for this” reminded me of a line from Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” where she says “There is no other way to say this,” which has always felt a bit like a signal that there’s some things that just are too much even for poetry. You can’t art them, in other words. Is that what you were feeling with that story?
R. Rafferty: I know this is kinda a hefty question, but do you hope for any response or reaction/action from your readers? (Not to undermine the value of awareness alone!)
Eve L. Ewing: I think I have mixed feelings about whether there are some things that can’t be poemed. I think I’d like to think that anything can be poemed. But I (or whoever) might not have the stamina or the timing or the voice to poem it.
I think one thing is, I always write about Chicago. And it’s not just because Chicago is special and magical (though it is). It’s because Chicago happens to be where I’m from. And what I want is for people to ask critical questions about the places where they’re from. What histories have you never been told? Why? How did the present come to be? What does it look like to imagine something else? Those are the questions I’m always asking and I think they’re fruitful questions wherever you live. I do think in this particular case I want people to at least be moved to google 1919. Or google red summer.
Brian S: I grew up near New Orleans, for example, and didn’t know most of the stories about the Confederate monuments there until they were coming down. And I’m fifty! What the hell?!
Eve L. Ewing: Right! And I think sometimes people position those as individual failures. And sure, they can be. But generally, they’re collective failures.
R. Rafferty: I was like so many others here who were shocked never to have learned (or even heard) about these events!
Brian S: And I know (from Facebook) that I’m more interested in those stories than most of the people I went to school with, so I’m pretty sure they have zero idea about it.
Eve L. Ewing: When I was five we made construction paper George Washingtons with cotton ball hair. Why? Who decides that’s instrumental knowledge for a kindergartener?
Liz: Growing up in Boston in the ‘60s it was Pilgrims 24/7.
Eve L. Ewing: Why not Toussaint Louverture or Phillis Wheatley or I dunno, Malcolm X?
Brian S: I mean, I do put a bit of blame on my high school teacher who called it the War of Northern Aggression and not the Civil War.
Eve L. Ewing: Yes they are definitely at fault lol. I’ll give you that one.
R. Rafferty: Equally at fault, however, was the “progressive” private school where I didn’t learn these things.
Liz: And as my history professor brother likes to remind me, the Puritans were seen as so important for so long (to the exclusion of anything to the south or west) in part because of the sheer percentage of history academics in New England in the first half of the twentieth century.
Gwen Dawson: I was interested in the poems “or does it explode” (call and response) and “jump/rope” (a jumprope chant). I like how you’re using standard (and often lighthearted) forms to address this heavy material. That was a nice juxtaposition for me.
Eve L. Ewing: Thank you! The Quentin Tarantino effect. Or now if you’ve seen Us and the Beach Boys scene I guess it’s the Jordan Peele effect. Lighthearted context juxtaposed with violence.
I read the poem “Harlem” for the first time in seventh grade, which of course reinforces my earlier point. And the images never left me, crusting over like a sugary sweet especially. It’s such a gross image. Repulsive. But juxtaposed with sugar. It’s always given me shivers.
Brian S: It’s like a scab
Gwen Dawson: Ewwww.
Eve L. Ewing: And I thought about the figurative language in that poem, and also of course the image of a raisin in the sun (a hot thing that explodes), going with our earlier discussion of heat, so I thought about the image of an egg frying on the sidewalk, you know that metaphor. And I was thinking about how Black people as part of our oral tradition use really absurd figurative language in everyday speech in a way that I think is really inventive and poetic. When a ten-year-old says yo mamas so skinny she could hula hoop in a cheerio… that’s kinda genius.
Gwen Dawson: I just ran over to Google to refresh my memory of the poem… definitely one of the greats. (I read it in school, too, but I think it was ninth grade.)
Eve L. Ewing: So “or does it explode” is kind of playing with that.
Liz: The imminent explosion echoes through several of the poems.
Eve L. Ewing: Yes! The book is supposed to feel TENSE.
Liz: You succeeded! I kept thinking of the different feeling heat must have between the Deep South and Chicago.
Brian S: Liz, I can tell you as someone who has experienced both, they’re very similar. It really surprised me when I moved to the Midwest, but there’s this thing called “corn sweats” which really feels similar to the thick humid air of south Louisiana.
Liz: And thus I reveal myself as a woman who has only lived in the cities on Amtrak’s Eastern Corridor.
Eve L. Ewing: “jump/rope”… I don’t know I came up with that, but it’s just playing with the image of the rope as a lynching tool and of course Eugene Williams was essentially lynched without a rope.
Liz: Also, so visual, as if we’re watching the crowds moving through the streets, wreaking havoc, from above. While also being down there, vulnerable.
Eve L. Ewing: And another place where poetry lives that we don’t necessarily acknowledge. Jumprope songs. In person, I sing that poem.
Brian S: Another reason you need to tour with the book! 🙂
Eve L. Ewing: lol!
Brian S: I always like to ask what you’re reading lately. Is there anything we should be on the lookout for? Poetry or otherwise.
Eve L. Ewing: What I’m reading—about to start The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Gwen Dawson: Oh, I can’t wait to read that!
Eve L. Ewing: Also just finished a book of essays called White Negroes that’s excellent, coming soon from Lauren M Jackson, highly recommend. Other art I’ve loved—Jamila Wood’s new album! Anderson .Paak’s new album. Also, this amazing podcast that’s an audio drama, called Blackout, starring Rami Malek.
Brian S: I keep hoping an advance copy of Coates’s book will show up at my house and it keeps not happening.
Brian S: Jamila’s album is so good!
Eve L. Ewing: Farewell y’all. Thanks so much to Brian S especially and everyone at the Rumpus for showing this book love.
Eve L. Ewing: And thanks to you all for the great questions and for reading!
R. Rafferty: Thanks, Eve!
Brian S: Thank you, Eve! I know you’re so busy and this was amazing.
Photograph of Eve L. Ewing by Nolis Anderson.