Lending a Mineral Cast to the Words: An Interview with Elizabeth Arnold

Interview Conducted by Karl Zuehlke

Elizabeth Arnold has received numerous awards including the Amy Lowell scholarship, a Whiting award, and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center, Yaddo, and MacDowell.  Her poems regularly appear in major poetry publications such as Poetry magazine and The Kenyon Review.  In addition to Life, Arnold has published three books of poems, The Reef, Civilization, and Effacement. She is on the MFA faculty at the University of Maryland.

Her poem, “Iraqi Boy” which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry, is an important landmark in mapping the development of her aesthetic. Although it does not feature quite the same strong enjambments as her newest poems, “Iraqi Boy” creates a similar effect to poems in Life through the delay and discovery of unfolding syntax. It also has motifs central to Arnold’s work: motion and stillness, amputation and recovery, and revealing the forces that move us. Effacement, her third book, explores these themes through accounts of World War I soldiers who were wounded in the face and who then went through some of the earliest forms of plastic surgery. Her newest book Life investigates similar themes of recovery, but with a personal lens that can somehow also be a telescope and microscope. These poems persist as life persists, under a volcano, amidst emotional upheaval, trying to keep a balance on continents that slide, on a spinning ball of water and rock whipped around the sun.

I feel indebted to have studied under Dr. Arnold, and through her, to have read and been influenced by many of the authors and texts central to this interview, which, besides her own poems, are namely James McMichael, George Oppen, and Manuel DeLanda. In my time as her student, she unlocked these writers, and I like to think, some of her own thoughts that became the poems in Life. This interview was conducted over the summer of 2014 via email, telepathy, bookshelves, and time-zones.  The wind, too, was part of the process.

–        Karl Zuehlke

Karl Zuehlke (KZ): My first experience reading your book Life was a little disorienting in the best way, I found myself following the minutiae of syntax as it created tension against the line-breaks. After finishing the book and rereading it, I feel more familiar with the tension, and I imagine each of your lines and strophes capturing a millisecond of progress as in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion.” To begin, would you talk a little about your process as a poet, how it has developed particularly in regard to your lines and line breaks? I love the space in the poems in Life, as it allows for a great clarity too. I get the sensation of being very close to a surface, and yet still a million miles away from it, and I think the lines are involved in creating this effect. Am I on to something?

Elizabeth Arnold (EA): At fir