Interview with Fordham Poet, Erica Ehrenberg

Fordham English professor and poet, Erica Ehrenberg, graduated from Amherst College and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. Her poems have been published in a variety of publications including, The Paris ReviewSlateThe New Republic, and Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. She has been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. In this interview, we discuss drawing inspiration from everyday minutia and the power writing has to connect us with others. 

Erin Coughlin: How did you start writing poetry?

Erica Ehrenberg: I wrote a poem by accident. I grew up in Manhattan, surrounded by the museums. We were writing poetry in fourth grade, reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in sixth grade. It was very much a part of my childhood. My parents are psychoanalysts. They were always encouraging me to read. When I was around twelve, I was just sitting on the couch. It was the middle of the summer and all I could focus on was the air conditioner because it was so hot in the room, and I had this moment of everything shutting down outside of that moment. Like I was possessed by the air conditioner, and I just started writing about that. It sounds kind of ridiculous. There was a moment where everything else kind of stopped, and I just started writing and it had line breaks.

EC: Just naturally?

EE: It totally surprised me, because I was not a big reader of poetry at that point. I just read fiction. It was really interesting. I surprised myself. Even in the stuff I’m working on now, I’m fascinated by the most mundane things, like that cigarette butt or that rock.

EC: I can see echoes of an experience like that in your work, like the poem, “Meat.” I think poetry more than any other form lends itself to taking a moment and living inside that moment and examining it, whereas with fiction, it’s often much more about plot or story or character, but poetry is about moments. Not necessarily only moments…

EE: I actually think about plot a lot.

EC: So many of your poems have narrative. I think that’s fascinating. I’ve been reading a lot of poems lately where it’s much more about language than story, but there’s story in your poems, and I love that, as a fiction writer. The poem, “The Most Careless Girl in the Class had the Most Exquisite Body,” I could relate to very much, as someone who was once a teenage girl. Inserting yourself into the interior life of somebody else.

EE: Which is something I’m interested in. In so many different dimensions.

EC: What did you like to read when you were growing up?

EE: I guess when I was around the same age as when I wrote that first poem, I was in France and for some reason, reading Tender is the Night. I was way too young to be reading that, but I was so transported by Fitzgerald’s prose, and also sucked in by the romanticism and the escapism. I read out of this…it was almost like a hunger, and it was so much about pleasure, and the pleasure for me was connected to getting lost in characters and in a story. The feeling that it was a parallel universe, but that it wasn’t necessarily any less…

EC: Real?

EE: Real, yes.

EC: Sorry I finished your thought.

EE: You read my mind.

EC: I think anyone who loves to read can understand where you’re coming from. Do you find that you read as a writer?

EE: I never write without a pile of books next to me. I’ll have Elizabeth Bishop, and I’ll think, “Okay, I’ve got this formal, exquisite poetry,” but I’m also be thinking of Thomas Bernhard, who’s this Austrian prose writer doing something relentless, the opposite, in some ways, of what Bishop is doing. When I put those two books together in a pile, there’s a charge that comes off the juxtaposition. These are two different people writing in totally different ways, but both of those styles are extremely important to me, personally. To me, that’s generative.

EC: And then you find your own voice through that. I always think it’s an interesting thing about human nature that we have all of this stimulus in the world, and we respond to certain things more than others. I think that says a lot about personality and what makes us unique.

EE: I think that’s one of the biggest engines driving the prose poems I’m writing now, being someone who from a young age was so interested in disappearing into books. I think there’s something in the prose poems, letting go of the line breaks and the form that has to do with wanting there to be as little of a barrier as possible between me and whatever is in the present moment. Like in “Meat,” can you get a poem out of exactly what just happened, or exactly what is in front of you on a Tuesday afternoon? No matter how mundane it is, there’s an intimacy with what is right there.

EC: So many people who write struggle to find ideas, but ideas are everywhere. Ideas are in everything. Ideas are in an air conditioner! Writing is about tapping into the minutia.

EE: Everything that you observe is in your presence, so there’s a relationship between you and the thing that you’re observing. I’m interested in subjectivity as this thing that’s impossible to avoid and yet—I think I’ve talked with my students about this—what do you do about the fact that everything is subjective and you’re at the mercy of that? I hope to go as deep as I can into my subjective experience of what I’m seeing while trying to be aware as possible that it’s subjective the whole time. You actually learn about how you’re seeing.

EC: Do you consider that a goal when you sit down to work?

EE: I never think in terms of goals, consciously, but it’s actually a visceral desire. The fact that I write in the first place comes from feeling overwhelmed by existence and reality. I think that can be paralyzing, but you can imagine that writing is that exact thing you can turn to when you feel, “This is too much. I don’t know what to do. I can’t comprehend what’s happening,” whether it’s a conversation with another person or something that happened in history or a painting or even you look at something on the ground and you don’t know what you’re looking at. Is that a pile of vomit or is it spilled milk? What if you can’t write yourself into finding an answer, but you can wrestle with it? Well, you end up with some kind of knowledge at the end of that, even if it’s not ‘answer knowledge.’ Something was just born out of that confusion.

EC: There’s a quote that I love. I’m going to forget who said it now, but in answer to, ‘What should you write about?’ the answer was, “That which you can’t get rid of by any other means.”

EE: That’s great. People ask ‘what do you write about?’ all the time and I always find that a hard question to answer. I want to say, ‘I write about things I don’t understand,” but there’s so much I don’t understand. There’s a lot I don’t understand that’s very close to me. Namely, myself or people I love. How do you get to the depth of who somebody else is? How do you trust which thoughts are true to you and which aren’t? There are all these things that we know so much about, but we don’t understand them. I think that’s how I relate to being a person. I don’t know how I got here or what anything means or what’s in space, but I know a lot about neurotically trying to figure out what to eat every day.

EC: Do you think your parents being psychoanalysts inspired that?

EE: Definitely. I was raised in a household where things were analyzed. I remember being really young and my dad talking to me about the unconscious and I thought, “Yeah! The unconscious! That’s really important.” Even if I didn’t know what he was talking about, I felt something connected with that idea that I knew was really important to me.

EC: It was probably coming from the unconscious.

EE: Exactly.

Both laugh.

EC: When you sit down to write a poem, what do you usually start with?

EE: I think I never know what the poem is about. I don’t have a topic, but I have a tension. There’s a weird charge on something. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, but I want to unpack that as far as I possibly can.

EC: I would never have described it that way, but I understand what you mean. Something will creep along and you just can’t stop thinking about it. It’s almost like a physical sensation.

EE: We had this doll when I was a kid. I think it was my brother’s. It was a pleather doll of E.T. and there was something about that doll that creeped me out, but also I felt really protective of it. I’d seen the movie and [there was] something about this sick being from another planet. For some reason, I was thinking of that when I was taking notes and I began to write. I didn’t even know what I was going to say. I think it’s always important to remember that you don’t have to show this to anyone. This may or may not be a poem. So, I just went for it and things came up that felt surprisingly resonant, like how do you protect people you love? It became this poem about vulnerability and intimacy and also feeling one’s own connect / disconnect from the world.

EC: Did the E.T. doll show up in the poem?

EE: Oh, yes. I think it’s called “Doll of an Alien.” A lot of things [from childhood] are like that. They have a strange charge that you don’t fully understand. So many feelings that we experience are not nameable. How do you write about a feeling if you don’t know how you feel? One minute you’re repulsed and the next you’re attracted. We have words for these different feelings, but they’re so inadequate. So what do you do about that? I think you need more space than a word, and that’s one thing a poem can do.

EC: With a character like Bruno, did you start with narrative in mind? Was that always going to be a series of several poems?

EE: No, that started out as one poem. I just randomly wrote a poem about a character named Bruno. I was experimenting for a few years with this idea that I wanted to write poems that were kind of a condensed novel. It was somewhere between condensing the world of a novel into a single poem, but at the same time focusing on one of those passages in a novel where the author takes a person and paints their portrait. Portrait of a Lady is an obvious example of that: a novel where it’s really about this person and who are they and what’s going to happen to them. I realized that the charge [Bruno] had for me was that he was this vulnerable young man. It was a way of accessing what it means to be a man, not because I’m so fascinated with that concept, but because I’m fascinated with what it means to be any person. I’m not a man, so it’s interesting to me to write from that perspective, but then it also became about trying to imagine what it was like to be men who I was very close to. There’s a lot of my father in [Bruno]. My father was a hidden Jewish child in France during WWII. I never felt like I could write about that directly. It was something that I grew up with and heard about all the time and it felt very intimate and removed. Bruno became this way of personifying the person who I’ve internalized as my father. If I felt it was difficult to write about these experiences because they weren’t mine, what I did have was the experience of being the child of someone who had these experiences.

EC: The Bruno poems have this dreamlike quality of not seeming to take place in any specific geography or time. In “Bruno Sits on the Washing Machine” you talk about pioneer women and men hunting, but then there’s a parking lot. And of course, the washing machine of the title. Clearly, there’s a disparity. So, okay, this isn’t the American frontier, and then a few poems later, it sounds like he’s in—my thought was Prague, but I’ve never been to Prague. So, my idea of Prague. I enjoy that in fiction, too. That non-specificity.

EE: The world of Bruno looks to me like some weird intersection between Europe and America, which is kind of where that part of me lives. I feel totally American, but my dad came here when he was 25 and had this crazy history back in Europe that was so central to who I was, but I wasn’t there. We would go back to France when I was a kid. I was really interested in, “Oh, that space is in me. The stories that he was telling since I was a kid were completely a part of how I perceive the world and how I see everything. I wanted to see if I could write this character who’s born out of that intersection. It’s interesting to talk about this in an interview because I don’t really mention WWII or anything that would locate Bruno in time or history. In some ways, I’m more interested in the private experience of a person going through these events in history. It was important to me that it be somewhat open. I think there’s also something interesting about being defined by where we’re from and how other people see us or categorize us. This person looks at me and sees XYZ, but they don’t know me at all. What is that thing that feels to you like you and how do put that out or become that?

EC: Have you ever thought about the people you meet once during the day and how they perceive you and in their world now, that’s who you are?

EE: All the time.

EC: I think writers ask themselves, “What do I have the right to write about, emotionally?” I often feel intimidated by the idea of writing in the voice of a man, or even just writing a male character because I feel I don’t have the right to write about that because it’s so foreign from my own experiences. But I know men. They’re half the population and this is worth exploring.

EE: Do you know Fernando Pessoa, the poet?

EC: No, but is that the Pessoa in [Erica’s poem], “Pessoa is Willing”?

EE: Oh, yes. I’m fascinated by him because he created all these heteronyms. He made up characters who were not him, but wrote poems as if he were that person. I’m interested in that sense of elasticity of identity. It’s not so much resisting how you’re defined in the world, as it is always having that sensation that we’re always in flux. We’re always changing. It feels weird to be defined by something, but then what if you change? Virginia Woolf said, “In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female.” It’s not so much that I want to get inside the head of a man. I want to get inside the head of another person. The thing I find interesting about picking a male character is, some of the people I love the most—my dad, my brother, my boyfriend—you kind of carry them around with you all day. I mean, my mom, too. It’d be interesting to write about her more, which I haven’t done. The people you love are present. You’re talking to them every day and they affect how you see everything. There’s an intimacy that’s so powerful. It’s especially interesting when you think of writing as a way of connecting. It’s almost an act of love. That sounds really cheesy, but [you] want to see another person from the inside so much that you write about them.

EC: And yet writing is so inherently solitary. You’re in your own head, and you’re probably alone in a room doing this.

EE: I think when you write, even if you’re isolated, there’s a self-awareness that can develop where you start to understand yourself and how complicated you are and how complicated everything is that actually makes you a better interactor.

EC: I’m never as good with people if I haven’t written in a while.

EE: Isn’t that interesting? There’s a reason for that. There’s some disconnect in me when I don’t write.

EC: How do you balance your work as a poet with your teaching?

EE: I feel like the two are so connected. Like you were saying before about being alone in a room [when you write]. Then you get to go into a classroom where there are 15 students who are all asking the same questions that you are. I just love being in a room full of people who are really dedicated to writing. A lot of the stuff I’m thinking about in my work as a writer can be useful in the classroom. Sometimes I feel like I’m the best teacher when I’m wrestling with the same things they are, and then to have a conversation about that. I learn from them and it’s a way to explore those ideas. I guess, time-wise, it’s an issue, but if I didn’t teach, I don’t think I’m the kind of person who would want to just write and that’s it. I’ve fantasized about it, almost from the model of a visual artist, where you have your own studio and you go every day, but I think I would probably go crazy. I feel refreshed by my work.

EC: I’m sure your students are an inspiration, as well. Working with them and talking about writing, so that when you go back to your own work, you’re rejuvenated.

EE: If a person writes a poem and I’ve met them, I’m so curious. I get excited learning how other people think and function. I had this great experience last semester in a creative writing class. I had been reading Lydia Davis and there was a piece in her book, Can’t and Won’t called “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable.” She writes [things like] “I’m in the shower, but the water’s too cold. Or, ‘I ordered a muffin, toasted with butter, but it’s not toasted.’ All of these things are so mundane, they should be boring, but instead it feels extremely intimate. You’re learning about how another person gets through the day and what’s important to them moment by moment. I had my students do that assignment and it was one of the best assignments that a lot of them wrote. It was so specific and personal, but not in the way that we think of the word personal, like ‘Oh, look at my private life.’ Instead there’s spoiled milk in the fridge. Here’s how I do my laundry. This is what I’m nervous about. And they were so powerful. I’m always thinking, “What did that person have for breakfast? Where do they shop for clothes? What do they think about most of the time?” I’m interested in interaction so much, and teaching fields that.

EC: And that’s what a student wants in a teacher: someone who’s interested. What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future? Poetry-wise?  

EE: I’ve been writing prose poems now for two years and I’m still going strong with that. I don’t know the last time I wrote a poem with line breaks. I’m reading this woman, Killarney Clary. All of her books are prose poems. There’s an interesting question going on in my mind right now: how important is it to me that what I’m writing is poetry? Does it matter? Is it neither a poem nor a short story? Maybe that’s actually more interesting to me. What is that space between a short story and a poem? I’m a big fan of W.G. Sebald and how he incorporates fiction, non-fiction, travelogue, psychology, reflections on historical events, research and combines it [in his work]. The thing that makes it so important and interesting is the fact that it’s not quite classifiable. It’s expressing something that there isn’t really a medium that we have a name for. When I read [Sebald’s] work, I didn’t know I needed to read something like this, but it felt so immediate. I am able to write about reality or history or people who are real, but as free as a fiction writer. Or imagining the life of a person who actually existed. That fascinates me. What if you don’t want to write about a biography, but you want to write about the relationship you have with somebody in your mind?

EC: A biography can never tell the whole story.

EE: I know, and then you feel like you’re betraying them. The people I’ve been engaged with in that way, so far, are people in my family. I think I sent you that poem? “The Aladdin Hotel, Woodbourne, NY.”

EC: The one about your grandfather?

EE: I felt such a connection with him. I felt like we really loved each other, but it was strange because he was very old and we didn’t really know each other. He was a little bit out of it and it was hard to really communicate. I remember how painful that was, but also how intimate and moving it was. He was blind at the end of his life, so I would just sit there and hold his hand, and it kind of freaked me out. I was uncomfortable, but I remember what his hand felt like because I felt so much love. I think that poem is really about the strangeness of this person who I didn’t really know and yet felt deeply connected to. It’s crazy to me that he lived this entire lifetime before I was even born and he experienced all of these things. He came from Russia. I had no idea what the landscape looked like where he grew up. If I attempted to describe that landscape, I would be completely off. There has to be an image in my head that I refer back to that’s my understanding of what his life looked like. That piece really feels like a poem to me, and not an essay about my grandfather. I’m taking all these liberties and the imagery is all coming from the imagination, but for me it’s so liberating. Whatever that space is that I’m imagining, there’s something true about it because it came up between us.

EC: Were you a child at the point when you knew him?

EE: Yes.

EC: Because you can never assume that the “I” in the poem is the poet, but I’m glad you brought that up because it did feel very personal, like it could be autobiographical.

EE: The idea of writing something explicitly autobiographical is terrifying to me. That poem is not definitive. It’s just this one impression of something I felt with this one person.

EC: Like how Bruno isn’t your father, but he came up from all these thoughts and feelings and emotions that you were having about your father. So, you would never tell anyone, “Here are some poems about my dad.”

EE: Right, and that was important to me, too. It’s not a one to one connection.

-          This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image: At Night I Dream of Trees.

From the web project, Parallelograms: