INTERVIEW WITH ELINOR ANN WALKER
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re enamored by the vivid imagery of sediment that conveys the experience of “hollow love” in your poem “Sediment.” How did you develop this as the central metaphor in the poem?
Elinor Ann Walker: I’ve always loved rocks and have picked them up from various places my entire life—smooth and striated from streambeds, veined with quartz, or flecked with mica, anything that catches my eye. Recently, when my elderly mother moved, she found a shoebox-full stashed away in a cabinet from my childhood collection. In college, I learned more about limestone, particularly on the Cumberland Plateau. Years later, after a hike, I sat on a bluff and listened to water drip down steadily, channeling its way. At that rock formation and the caves underneath, I could see how one drop of water falling over and over carved out little bowls over time—little beveled indentations everywhere.
As usual, clarity comes in retrospect. Many of us have been in unhealthy relationships in which words can be like those drops of water. They may seem insignificant, but they accumulate. Even when the words are “I love you,” if actions don’t sync up, then the words themselves affect trust and do harm. I think we minimize these experiences in the moment when we would do well to pay more attention. And when we stay in a damaged place, we risk losing ourselves and failing to be good for anyone else, too. Likewise, we should be very careful about how we speak to others. Water always finds the lowest point, and words that find us at our lowest can be devastating indeed.
RR: We’re drawn to the powerful use of second person. How do you decide to address the reader directly as you do in the poem?
EAW: I like to experiment with point of view for many reasons. A poem that has always moved me is Ruth Stone’s “Advice.” There’s a wonderful recording of her granddaughter Bianca Stone (herself a fine poet) reading this poem here. Right in the middle of the poem, the point of view shifts from the first person to the second to powerful effect: “Dear children,/ You must try to say/ Something when you are in need./ Don’t confuse hunger with greed;/ And don’t wait until you are dead.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that poem or sent it to friends. I wasn’t consciously thinking of it when I wrote “Sediment,” but I imagine some subconscious influence was at play. In a way, I’m addressing my past self with a perspective I lacked at the time. Also, I’m a parent of kids who are in their twenties now. We have to make our own mistakes, but I hope the poem might speak to them—and to all who may be struggling to extricate themselves from an unhealthy relationship or situation, which takes a lot of courage. So using the second person is an exhortation to any person who needs to hear it.
RR: We see that nature is a prevalent theme in your work. How do you approach writing about nature in terms of process?
EAW: Anyone who knows me well knows that if I can be outside, I will be. I try to pay attention using all of my senses, and I find that practice meditative. Often an observation or sensation that arises becomes the germ of a poem or other writing, and I try to jot those thoughts down as closely to the moment as possible so I won’t forget. If I don’t have a notebook, I’ve been known to text myself an idea (and then try to put my phone down). The natural world is almost always what inspires me, even if the poem that results isn’t ultimately about it.
RR: As a writer and a teacher, you are able to experience the writing process as well as help others through it. How has your role as a teacher influenced your writing?
EAW: I think teaching has helped me see things differently—the world through other eyes, as it were. Sometimes my students describe something in a way that I never would have considered. I also think being a good listener is crucial to being a good teacher. Really, it’s all about trying to pay attention and be present.
RR: In your many years of writing, what has been the most rewarding part?
EAW: Writers are as full of self-doubt and prey to the imposter syndrome as the next person. I think one rewarding part is placing a piece that has been rejected over and over—not only because it will finally be published but also because I’ve kept sending it out. The most rewarding part, though, is hearing from those who have read my work and been moved by it. No one wants to toss a coin into a well and not ever hear it hit bottom. I would write anyway, but I love knowing that others are reading and that the words have mattered.
Elinor Ann Walker’s work in Issue 9.1: