In this conversation poet Teow Lim Goh and I discuss three poems from Ansel Elkins’ first book, Blue Yodel. We talk about how a life can change when it’s put into words, and Goh recalls how her life changed when she began writing. Goh also talks about her current project, and about how Blue Yodel served as a model for Goh’s interest in persona and writing from the archive. Thank you for joining us!
Teow Lim Goh reads “The Girl with Antlers” by Ansel Elkins:
Jessica Hudgins: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” is a fantastic line. It’s sort of like describing a poem’s tone, rather than identifying it as a sonnet or an elegy. How has Ansel Elkins’ work influenced yours?
Teow Lim Goh: The first time I read Blue Yodel, I was between projects, trying to figure out the approach and tone that I wanted to bring to my work. This book just blew me away. I’m not sure if I can put a finger on it, but I shall try: I think I am most drawn to the ambiguity of her stories. And I think of these poems as short stories in verse. She creates a dream-like mood and at the same time, she touches on something visceral and corporeal.
It strikes me that many contemporary poets write autobiographical free verse. I don’t have a problem with it per se – I enjoy a quite a bit of it – but it sometimes feels like an expectation rather than just one of many modes of poetry. It’s not my place to say whether Blue Yodel draws from Elkins’ life, but it reminded me that I don’t have to write about myself to be a poet.
I tend to write persona poems and draw many of my characters from history. My first book Islanders imagines the lost voices of the Chinese women detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay – I joke that it is about current affairs. My second manuscript, which is currently in submissions hell, is based on the real story of a Chinese prostitute in Evanston, Wyoming.
I feel that I allowed more silence and ambiguity into China Mary than Islanders. I’m sure a part of it is the subconscious influence of Blue Yodel, but who knows.
Teow Lim Goh reads “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins:
JH: What are some of your favorite moments in these poems?
TLG: “Autobiography of Eve” is one of my favorite poems, period. Elkins takes a well-known story – arguably, the creation story of Western civilization – gives Eve a voice, and turns the story on its head. She gives Eve her agency, and look how that changes everything:
I stood alone in terror at the threshold between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake – at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
“Devil’s Rope” is based on an old ballad, but here Elkins creates a sestina in the voice of the man who killed his girl Ruby. I like to challenge myself to write from unsympathetic perspectives, so I appreciate Elkins’ approach here, but more than that, she did it with an intricate fixed repeating form. I aspire to write a story in sestina form one day. Meanwhile, I reread lines like this:
In my own dreams I battle with the devil.
He and I could be blood brothers.
He leads me into the ground, down a pitch-black mine,
guides my hand over an earthern wall that spells your name, Ruby.
I touch the ember letters, leave my hand to bear the heat. Dawn
be damned, I will remain here, buried.
I have to say that Elkins’ stories are so intricately layered that it is difficult for me to pick selections from them. Her poems build on themselves:
The devil’s rosined bow begins to fiddle at dawn
as his brothers pick banjo. I carve your name in the stump below mine.
I’ll sing for you, Ruby, and lay you in the shade where the rooster’s buried.
Teow Lim Goh reads “Devil’s Rope” by Ansel Elkins:
JH: These poems each explore how a life can be changed by the words we use to describe it. The last two stanzas of “Autobiography of Eve” make a powerful point: change the speaker and a fall from grace becomes a leap to freedom. The mother figure in “The Girl with Antlers” says, “What you are I cannot say,” and lets the girl be uncategorized. Finally, “Devil’s Rope” is a song written for a woman, Ruby, by the man who has killed her. Was there a kind of watershed moment in your life when you realized the way that language can influence experience?
TLG: In some ways I think of my life as Before Writing and After Writing. I was a math major in college and began writing after I graduated and went into the workforce. Looking back, I was in a place where I felt powerless. I did not have the language to describe even simple everyday things, much less the complexities of my own experiences. It was survival instinct that led me to the glorious struggle of making language.
This much I know: my memories are much sharper and deeper After Writing. I really don’t remember a lot of my life Before Writing. The verifiable facts I know; it is the texture of that life I find elusive. Last fall I spent a weekend in Nashville. It was my second time there – the first was Before Writing – and I felt as if I had never been to the city before. My husband, who was my boyfriend on that first visit, talked about the things we did and the places we went and the only thing I could remember was that we watched the Rockettes at the Opry.
Writing gives a shape to my thoughts and experiences. It has enabled me to reclaim my agency and take charge of my life. And I am beginning to reap these benefits.
JH: Have you adapted other texts, as Elkins does with “Devil’s Rope,” into your work?
TLG: As I have said, I often write from history, which means that on some level or another, I am adapting other texts. In Islanders, I drew on the poems the Chinese men wrote on their barrack walls. (There are no records of poems the women might have written, as their barracks was destroyed in a fire.) I did not even attempt to imitate the classical Chinese lyric form of the original wall poems, but I used some of their images and emotional moments.
I also dug into a trove of oral histories with former female detainees. Many of the most harrowing stories in my book are drawn from the records; I could not make them up even if I tried.
I am currently trying to write about the 1885 Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I have a box of archival documents: speeches, newspaper articles, and even telegrams between Union Pacific officials and the Wyoming territorial government. I haven’t quite decided how I want to handle it, but I am leaning toward incorporating direct quotes into the verse. There is a bleak and ironic poetry in these source texts.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.
Ansel Elkins is the 2014 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, judged by Carl Phillips. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, and Boston Review, and has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Discovery/Boston Review Prize. Elkins currently serves as visiting assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.