10 Questions for Elizabeth Barnett
- By Christin Howard
“We’ve never read her a story without a happy ending.
The divorced dad and his daughter make pizza. The rabbit loves chores.
When I flipped my mom’s suburban on 290, all the windows broke.
We climbed out of the passenger side, the cuts on our arms
The only injuries we got.” —From "Watching Sophia with my daughter, the one where the king’s coach crashes," Summer 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In fourth grade, I wrote a serial Batgirl story featuring my friends that I would read in front of the class. I was Batgirl. Even when I made people villains, they loved being in the story.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The poem you published is one of my longer pieces. Usually, I write really small poems. I was writing small before reading Lucille Clifton, but she made me believe in the possibilities of short poems again. “study the masters” and “won’t you celebrate with me” are two of my favorites of hers. Each line can be read so many ways! When I write longer and looser, I’m in deep debt to Frank O’Hara, who I think of, maybe wrongly, as a “flow” poet, someone who accesses this genius place and the poems come out more or less complete. I contrast this to the tight control and heavy revision of a short poem, at least the way I write them.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Basically this, a teacher and writer.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was watching this cartoon with my daughter and there was a terrible coach crash that should have killed the king. But it’s a Disney cartoon, so everything was fine. I was watching the cartoon with her instead of doing something else because I’d found out I had cancer (I’m fine now, I think) and was just trying to be in her presence as much as possible. She wasn’t worried at all during the crash---she’d internalized the genre conventions and knew there was no real risk that anything sad was going to happen. I was thinking about how unprepared she would be if something happened to me.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Spaces I’ve walked---that seems to be how I internalize them enough to write about them or to make them the implicit setting of a poem that may seem placeless.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I listen to music around my writing times, just not during. This is sad, but if I feel jealous when I listen, I know I like it. Roberta Flack and St. Vincent are two favorites these days.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
My friend Lisa Dordal has a simple and effective writing routine that I stole. She sets aside time, and if the writing comes easily, great. If not, she reads until it does.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d write big, satisfying novels. I’d be Donna Tartt.
What are you working on currently?
Hmm. I guess this puts the lie to the last question. I’m writing poems, unsure how they’ll add up or what the bigger project is. And I’m in the early stages of writing a literary biography of author/illustrator James Marshall. He wrote George & Martha, The Stupids, Miss Nelson is Missing. I felt like my scholarly work was of the “this is problematic, here’s why” variety and I wanted to swerve and write “this is brilliant, here’s why.” My working theory is that Marshall is brilliant because he upped the discursive complexity of children’s literature. The characters rarely say what they mean.
What are you reading right now?
Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? My favorite line so far: “Where you are born---what you are born into, the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own---stamps who you are…”
Elizabeth Barnett lives in Kansas City. Her recent work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, and Poetry Northwest.