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10 Questions for Elizabeth O'Brien

You fuss in the hospital
bed one vein sharp
across your forehead
is a rill. . . .
—from “What Color”, Fall 2017 (Volume 58, Issue 3)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember—I remember writing a poem about the sun when I was in the first grade that my teacher wrote on poster paper and posted in the hall outside our classroom. It was strongly influenced by Shel Silverstein.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This is simultaneously an easy and an impossible question, because there are so many things that have influenced my work! I remember reading The World According To Garp and Sometimes A Great Notion in high school—both books passed down to me from older relatives—and thinking, yes, I want to do this someday. And I haven’t finished my first novel yet, but it’s something I’m still working toward.

As far as poetry goes, Elizabeth Bishop is a big influence, because her work is so sharply precise, and so restrained, and yet you sense the real living, breathing person behind the words. I love the long, loping story poems Larry Levis wrote. I hated Walt Whitman in high school, but I loved Leaves of Grass when I picked that book back up years later. I discovered Diane Seuss at a critical moment in my writing, and I consider her a poetic influence. Also Aracelis Girmay and Jericho Brown. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda and elena minor’s Titulada are both favorites.  I love John Ashbery because I always struggle like crazy with his work, but I always come out the other side feeling like I’ve gained something important. Alice Notley is another poet I hated when I first encountered her work, but eventually I sort of struggled through what she was doing and now I really, really love a lot of her poems.

That visceral response—either I love this or I hate this—is important to me. I've learned to pay as much attention to the things I hate, and to interrogate why I hate them, because several of my favorite poets now are ones whose work I initially thought I hated.

What other professions have you worked in?
I currently work in sales for Consortium, a distributor of small press books. I’ve also worked as a bookseller, at a bakery, as a teacher, in the IT department of an architectural firm, and as a Kinko's copy-punk.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I think the realization when you're a young adult that you aren’t infallible, and that your really strong-seeming friends are not infallible—that has motivated a lot of my work, including this poem.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
We moved a lot when I was a kid, but I largely grew up just outside of Baltimore, in Ellicott City, an old railroad and mill town, and one of the original B&O railroad stops. There’s lots of old ruins of buildings back in the woods around town, a big historic district, and, until recently, the decaying remains of the old Enchanted Forest amusement park were there. For the longest time, I didn’t think Maryland influenced me much, but since moving to Minneapolis a few years back, I find the distance between me and “home” has become really noticeable, and suddenly I'm seeing lots of little ways—beyond an early and abiding love for John Waters, Old Bay Seasoning, Cal Ripken and Berger’s cookies—that Baltimore’s history and dysfunction and ghosts and quirky charms have rubbed off of me and, by extension, my work.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I actually listen to old Industrial stuff—VNV Nation, Neubauten, Nitzer Ebb, KMFDM, Covenant, that sort of thing—when I really need to concentrate. Sometimes I change it up for really trashy girl pop, on the rare occasion I want something more upbeat. Anything with a fair amount of repetition, a driving beat, and enough build or development to keep it from being too tedious—anything that essentially would make good workout music--helps me write.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Often, it’s my husband, although usually I read it aloud to him. He doesn’t give me feedback, but he likes when I read to him, and I usually find the problems in a piece by reading it out loud.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Sculpture, I think. Clay or paper mache or something similarly wet and messy.

What are you working on currently?
I’m working on an essay collection and on a full-length poetry collection. And I have a novel on the back burner. I'm a messy writer—I always have a lot going on at once. But I do have a pretty good track record of finishing what I start. So it works.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis very slowly, and I'm tearing through Eve Ewing's Electric Arches, which I highly recommend. I also just finished blud by Rachel McKibbens, which is a fierce, lovely, loving book of poems.

ELIZABETH O'BRIEN lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many journals, including New England ReviewRumpusDiagramSixth FinchRadar PoetryPANKCicada, and the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outage, is forthcoming from Diode Editions.

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