Erika Eckart discussed her forthcoming chapbook of prose poetry, The Tyranny of Heirlooms (Sundress Publications, 2018).
Jenna Geisinger (JG): I am obsessed with the metaphor of heirlooms, which are usually connoted with sentimental or valuable objects passed down a family line, but in this collection, we are looking at heirlooms in a new light—as tradition, religion, regret, parenthood/mental illness, etc. How did you come to heirlooms as a metaphor?
Erika Eckart (EE): “The Tyranny of Heirlooms” is the title of an article in The New York Times. My dear friend, Judi Van Erden, told me about the article and described to me the phenomenon it discussed, that nobody wants them anymore, these treasures, but we take them along, keep them strapped to us like carpetbaggers out of obligation and we bend and bow under the weight of them, both physical and emotional. It got me thinking about everything else that we inherit that we had rather not: trauma, disease, addiction, really ugly dishes. I went home that day and listed everything negative I had to carry around from my ancestors: a grandfather who wore blackface, alcoholism, heart disease, just to name a few.
My mother has had a couple strokes and a heart attack and after each one of these incidents she shows up at my house with more stuff, things I didn’t even know she had, wedding china from her second husband. She’s unloading in a frantic reverse nesting. I had been working on a poem about this hot-potato-hand-off of goods and decided this title felt right. This collection went through a few iterations and was actually orphaned by a publisher which shut down before print–along the way as it evolved I saw the weight of inheritance as a common theme throughout. I like that the root word “loom” is in there, it suggests a stubborn presence, something that isn’t going anywhere.
JG: I was excited when I saw that The Tyranny of Heirlooms was composed of prose poetry. I was even more excited as I was reading because in a way it lends itself to the biblical and mythological references, while also emphasizing the collection’s challenge of traditional beliefs. Why did you choose to use this format for the entire collection? Do you prefer writing in prose as opposed to stanzas?
EE: In undergrad I really thought I was a fiction writer, but my short stories were dense thickets much to the irritation of my professors. Then in a mandatory poetry class we had to read and imitate Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel.” I didn’t know you could break the rules like that, and I was thrilled to find this new set of rules. I love how much of an assault a prose poem can be. How breathless and harried and surprising it is to see the music and imagery of poetry all packed into a tidy paragraph.
I adore how they challenge the notion of what can be a poem and therefore how they challenge the idea of classification and a bunch of imagined finger-wagging order keepers. I feel like they are the right vessel for some of the rule breaking I want to do.
JG: In the first half of the collection, the speakers seem to be adults—many parents with children—while the second half seems to be predominantly comprised of child speakers with an emotionally abusive mother. Why did you choose to organize the poems in this manner?
EE: I had this body of work that I felt had a common theme and form and I was looking for a way to make them feel cohesive. I felt the poems in the first half were dramatic monologues, all representing different people but with a common theme: unfulfilled longing or regret or just this very human idea vulnerability. The second half are in one voice, a child’s. These are semi-autobiographical pieces, and I looked at it as taking one dramatic monologue and exploding it, giving an opportunity for one character to explicate their formative experiences.
JG: Has teaching changed your worldview or informed your writing in new ways?
EE: Teaching has made me much more more generous to people in my writing. In teaching thousands of students I have only found goodness and compassion and light. I’ve also discovered in a concrete way that everyone has a unique story, no one is a cliche.
Another way teaching has informed my writing is through repeated readings of texts. Often I will teach something for a few years in a row and each year I get to read and discuss it with students several times a day. It is like a seance, where we bring to life the words of a writer everyday, and there is something spiritual about it and it opens up new pathways For example, I teach a set of poems about Icarus and have students evaluate how author’s subvert myth for their own purposes. And this constant evaluation of these works got me thinking about Daedalus and how we empathize with Icarus, with youth culture and how my perspective has evolved since become an old person and a parent. The product of that was the poem “Daedalus,” which is in the book.
JG: In your author’s bio, you mention the currently untitled novel you are writing. Do you approach fiction and poetry differently? Has working in two different genres changed how you write in either genre?
EE: Writing poetry is intense work of examining each word, deciding if a sentence can survive without an article or preposition, finding ways to express something in fewer syllables, inverting and playing with verb tense, whispering to yourself a line 30 or 40 times. It is about collapsing language to its core. Fiction, on the other hand, is about expansion. It draws on a whole other set of skills. To maintain several plot threads, to tease out an idea over 2 to 3 hundred pages requires a kind of sustained plate spinning over months or years. I have always done both so I’m not sure how they impact one another, having before and after to compare.
JG: What books are you currently reading?
EE: Right now, I am simultaneously reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.
Erika Eckart‘s work has appeared in Double Room, Quick Fiction, Quarter After Eight, Quiddity, nano fiction, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ghost Ocean and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She has an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and English from Loyola University Chicago and an M.Ed. in Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. When not writing, she teaches high school English in a suburb of Chicago and makes vegan baked goods for her husband, Mark Donahue, and their two children, Ella and Archer. She is currently writing a yet untitled novel about a cult leader, an energy megacorporation and a popular high school girl found dead in a river.
Jenna Geisinger is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from New Jersey. She attends the MFA Professional and Creative Writing Program at William Paterson University, while working as an associate managing editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and a reader for Philadelphia Stories, where she has been published.