I first met Ellene Glenn Moore in 2013 when she was admitted to the MFA program at Florida International University where I teach. Through our years together I came to recognize Moore as a fellow marveler at the mysteries of the world, a cerebral traveler through the texts she encounters, as well as a probing and visceral poet and prosist.
Moore’s debut poetry collection, How Blood Works, was published in September by Kent State University Press. Here, we discuss the evolution of that collection as well as her literary influences, ekphrastic experimentation, and the power and value of hybrid forms.
The Rumpus: I love to hear book publication stories, and you have two: the news that your first poetry chapbook, The Dark Edge of the Bluff, was selected as runner up for the 2016 Hopper Prize for Young Poets and would be published by Green Writers Press, and the news that your first full-length collection, How Blood Works, had won the 2020 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and would be published. What can you share about these experiences? What changed for you as a result of them, and what didn’t?
Ellene Glenn Moore: Aside from the obvious concomitant benefits of having work I love published I suppose what’s changed for me as a result of these experiences has been a feeling that I can breathe a bit easier in my practice. For years I have held a very quiet and precious belief that good news comes to me in August. I have no idea where this idea came from, but I can trace back years of good news finding its way to me in August. The email about The Dark Edge of the Bluff, for example, hit my inbox in August 2016. I had just graduated with my MFA, and all of the poems in the chapbook save one were from my thesis. Of course, it felt good to get that news, like I was on the right track. And How Blood Works was another bit of August grace. My family and I had just moved into a new home after a difficult move across the country in the middle of the pandemic, and I was surrounded by still-unopened boxes in the dining room when I answered David Hassler’s call. I was ecstatic (and I cried) but I also felt a strange mix of relief and determination: relief that my faith in this manuscript actually mattered, and determination to keep going. I think any writer will affirm that to persist in the face of constant rejection—which can so easily be incorrectly interpreted as evidence against our worthiness—takes a certain amount of magical thinking. In writing we have to be utterly open to our work, in revising we have to be skeptical of our work, and in publishing we have to be the first and loudest champions of that work.
Rumpus: How did How Blood Works begin to take shape for you as a poetry collection, and how did the book evolve from its inception to its finished form? Or perhaps the book doesn’t feel finished, exactly?
Moore: How Blood Works grew out of some obsessions I began developing my last year in graduate school. I had been writing a series of homages to Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” color series: very short prose poems that I thought of as little color studies, but with words. I’d only written a handful for my thesis, and I knew there was more to do there. I think seven or eight eventually made their way into How Blood Works.
At that time, I also found myself more and more drawn to prose forms in general (prose poems, lyric essays, etc.), which I had really only just begun to explore while in school, in that kind of self-conscious way that I think can sometimes characterize early experiments with new forms and styles. Writing on my own, my prose poems became a little more free-wheeling. I remember sitting on my couch banging out the first draft of “In Chicago,” a prose poem in How Blood Works, and writing the words “I wish I could forget you.” At first I wondered if I could really say something so trite in a poem, but that thought was immediately followed by the certainty that I just couldn’t bring myself to care if it would make a workshop cringe, that I had already said it, surely for a reason, and that was that. Very little in the poem changed between that first draft and the version in the book.
Something about prose poems seems particularly to make space for this kind of take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and I found it very freeing to occupy that space as I wrote. As I continued down that path, I really started thinking about spaces as a concept to explore—spaces in the body, spaces created by memory and trauma, natural spaces, architectural spaces, and of course the space a poem or a book of poems inhabits. How Blood Works kind of became a repository for all my tangential and circular thinking on these subjects.
It’s interesting to think about whether a book is ever actually finished. I think as an artifact, the book is finished, but as a practice the work is not finished. The book is a kind of snapshot in time of something that is always evolving and yet always self-referential. I’m still thinking about everything I mentioned above, and I’m still sinking even deeper into the hybrid genre landscape. I’m currently working on a collection of hybrid forms that range from shorter pieces, which feel very distinctly like prose poems to me, to longer pieces that are much more narrative in sensibility. I’m interested in how these pieces might hang together in the hybrid genre space, and I don’t know that I would have gone down this road without first putting together How Blood Works, which bounces between prose poems, lineated lyrics, and lyric essays.
Rumpus: Who do you consider the most vital and personally influential members of your literary cohort? How do you think about your lineage as a poet, a prose-poet, and a hybridist? Who are the touchstone established writers whose work spurs you forward, and keeps extending invitations and permissions to you in your own work?
Moore: I loved studying the work of FIU alumni when I was in school. Richard Blanco comes to mind, and Emma Trelles. I remember picking up the debut books of fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnae like S.E. Smith, Sally Wen Mao, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram after I left undergrad. I think what these writers and their books possible-ized (something I first encountered in your graduate seminar: the possibility of “possible-izing!”) for me was a future as a writer, something beyond workshops. It was a comfort, and a powerful motivator.
My cohort, both those I’ve studied with and those I’m just lucky enough to be emerging with, are absolutely killing it. There are so many brilliant poets working today. I’ll mention Ariel Francisco, a fellow alum of FIU and a wonderful writer and translator. I love coming back to his work first and foremost for the sheer joy of reading good writing. But also, from a technical perspective, I take particular pleasure in his work because in school we studied, emulated, and, to my reading, are still clearly influenced by some of the same writers (Plath, Bishop, Hass, Wright, Bashō) and yet I find that these influences announce themselves in our work in manifestly different ways. It’s so interesting to me, seeing how lineage actually produces such incredible variety.
Something that has been very exciting for me is to realize that hybrid writers and hybrid forms exist just about anywhere you care to look, irrespective of how long they’ve carried that label. I’m thinking particularly of Jamaica Kincaid, as an example. I first encountered “Girl” in high school, where it was presented as a piece of fiction. I later read it again in your class in the anthology The Next American Essay, where John D’Agata had recast it as a lyric essay. Then a few years ago I heard it and other selections from At the Bottom of the River read aloud and was immediately struck by how much like poetry her work felt, in structure and sensibility.
I’m always on the lookout, now, for models of hybridity masquerading under different labels. Of course, anyone who has read my work can probably identify Mary Oliver, Anne Carson, and James Wright as obvious influences—also Beth Ann Fennelly, Lia Purpura, and you, Julie! Athena Dixon is another poet-essayist, local to Philly where I currently live, whose debut book, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, came out last fall. The interplay of lyric and narrative in her essays is endlessly inspiring.
Rumpus: How has the pandemic affected your sensibilities as a writer and reader, or more broadly, as an artist and human being? What’s different now in your approach to the texts you encounter and the texts you make that you can trace to this new normal?
Moore: It’s been quite the year and a half. When the pandemic started I still lived in South Florida. In summer 2020, I moved with my husband and daughter to Pennsylvania with what felt like very little ceremony or even time to think. We had been out-of-our-minds on top of each other since March, hadn’t seen any of our local family or friends in months, and suddenly our house was empty and we were in a car driving away. In Pennsylvania we were in temporary housing for two months in the middle of nowhere before finding and moving into our new home. We were barely in that home for nine months before we got news that we’d be moving again at the end of this year. To Europe.
I share all of this because as a writer and reader/artist/human, I tend to be very sensitive to my physical environment. I mentioned above my obsession with spaces, and a lot of my past work has really developed from the outside in: beginning with a space I occupy, like a room or a city or a place in nature, and using that space to get inside my own thoughts. The capstone essay sequence of the collection I’m working on, which uses landscape and time of day to meditate on my thirtieth birthday, is entirely predicated on this craft strategy. I’ve had to change tacks during this time of isolation and upheaval, what I’ve thought of as a “fug of rootlessness.” So much of what I’ve written these months has started not with my environment, but with a thought, a bit of trivia, a piece of information metabolized by the weird interior of my (very anxious) mind: how different roofing materials behave in the sun, instrument classification, what I remember of high school calculus, the independent will of gut microbes. My practice has been much more inside-out, out of necessity. I guess I’ll accept this as a new freedom in my work, like any other change!
I think in the absence of a physical space to which I feel connected, and about which I can write, I’ve been offered the writing itself as an alternative.
Rumpus: This makes a great deal of sense to me, based on the poetry and lyric essays of yours I know. You’re an architectural kind of writer with a unique attentiveness to particular kinds of details that puts me in mind of writers like Lia Purpura and Lydia Davis.
Do you have a creative origin story, a moment from your early life to which you trace the impulse to write? If you haven’t thought of it this way before, perhaps what I really mean to ask is: what forces have shaped your identity as a writer from early on, that inclination and desire to mobilize language as aesthetic power?
Moore: I’m sort of perennially curious about how other writers answer this question, specifically, how many of them experience their own origin stories as a single moment. Because I don’t know that I can point to a moment that set me on this path. Rather, it feels like an aggregation of impulses and interests, which maybe only look significant in retrospect. Listening to a tape of Shel Silverstein performing poems from A Light in the Attic, for example, or writing a little verse about squirrels of different colors, or sitting in English class and realizing with extreme delight that every word in every sentence has a job and a label to go with it. I’ve always loved reading creation myths, and I remember being moved as a child by the idea that a whole universe can simply be spoken into existence. That certainly seems meaningful, thinking on it now.
I adore this phrase you used, “mobilize language as aesthetic power.” I wonder, too, if we’re not just talking about aesthetic power, but personal power? I write often about childhood and memory and trauma, which is in some ways an aestheticization of my experiences. But of course there’s a corresponding reality, which is that the nature of my family life was such that I often found myself in volatile situations that were difficult to navigate, or even to understand at all, and I think this engendered in me a deep sense of having to Say the Right Thing at all times. And, I think this a common trait among people with similar experiences. Do we all become writers? I think we all become people for whom language is perhaps the most essential (and sometimes, only) power we have. “Writer” definitely seems like a sensible application for that power.
Rumpus: I, too, remember the delight of realizing every word in the sentence had a job to do and a part of speech moniker, like an official badge to go along with it. Don’t even get me started on the thrill of diagramming sentences, visually instantiating the relationship of all those words to each other! Like a family tree, but for language!
Would you share a few words—it seems fitting we should go granular here—that are personally and poetically resonant for you? In essence, words you love and why?
And would you share a writing prompt that has been generative for some of your own work or that you can see now, in retrospect, has been a guiding question for your writing all along?
Moore: I’ll share these words from Annie Dillard, describing her response to seeing a flock of starlings: “I stood with difficulty, bashed by the unexpectedness of this beauty, and my spread lungs roared. My eyes pricked from the effort of trying to trace a feathered dot’s passage through a weft of limbs. Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?” This is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but I first knew it as a passage for analysis on an AP English Language practice test I took in high school. The essay prompt asked us to compare and contrast this writing of Dillard’s with a passage written by John James Audubon, also in response to seeing a flock of birds. Obviously they were very different, but it’s the nature of their difference that has stayed with me for the last sixteen years. In his, Audubon gets off his horse to mark in his journal every flock that passes by (making it to 163 before giving up); Dillard cries and wonders if the birds could be inside of her very body, in her blood. Oh, Annie, I hear you. I really do. Ironic that I then had to spend forty minutes writing a closed-form, five-paragraph, thesis-driven essay about it. But happily I’ve been departing from that form ever since.
I think all of my writing tends to circle around the questions why has this happened? and where does that leave me? Examining memories that don’t seem to add up is both a troubling and liberating endeavor—which I think is a good starting point for any piece of writing. One thing we know about memories is that the actual chemical process of remembering causes those memories to degrade. Each time we remember an event, we’re looking at a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. This is especially interesting (read also: disturbing) if we consider that memories are stories we tell ourselves about who we are. So, for a prompt to end with, I’ll offer this: begin by recounting a familiar memory. Then, notice where your memory fails you. Where it loses granularity and precision. Does this change anything for you? Have you connected dots or filled in blanks? Write about those missing moments. Ask yourself, Could this have happened any other way?
Photograph of Ellene Glenn Moore by Bill Bedford.