Ellie White holds an MFA from Old Dominion University. She writes poetry and nonfiction. She has won an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize and has been nominated for both Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Breakwater Review, SLANT, The Columbia Review, Foundry, and many other journals. Ellie is the author of two chapbooks, Requiem for a Doll (ELJ Publications, 2015) and Drift (Dancing Girl Press, 2019), and one full-length collection, and for too long after (Unsolicited Press, 2019). She is a social media editor and reader for Muzzle Magazine. Ellie currently rents a basement in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. To read more of her work, visit her website: elliewhitewrites.com
Allison Pitinii Davis: The blend of verse and prose (and more experimental forms, like erasures) not only provide formal variety but give the voice a lot of room to transform. I love that this is a collection where deeply lyric moments—”her shattered teeth now the eye/of a blazing dahlia” (19)—exist along straightforward declarations: “If there’s event the slightest chance that I can do something myself, I’ll always try that first” (47). When did you realize that the poetry and prose were part of the same project? Were there any other collections that served as useful hybrid guides? How does the formal hybridity speak to the collection’s thematic hybridity?
Ellie White: The idea for the book started with the essay, “Climbing Croagh Patrick,” which I wrote the summer before my thesis year in grad school. The original essay included several poems interspersed with the prose. When thinking about my thesis manuscript (which was this book), I decided I wanted to do the same thing again, except way bigger. I spent the rest of that summer thinking about how to structure such a manuscript. I struggled to find examples in other books because my concept was something I hadn’t seen done before. I found Maureen Seaton’s memoir, Sex Talks to Girls and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to be helpful. I also found the narrative structure of Sara Eliza Johnson’s Bone Map useful to look at.
APD: Describing this book eludes me—it’s about “going to a midwestern Steak ‘n Shake with a sister + climbing a mountain in Ireland + mental health + ekphrasis + sexuality.” Yet these disparate elements not only cohere yet require each other by the end of the book. Climbing the mountain in part two rarely addresses the mental health struggles in part one, yet the trek still intercepts the energy of part one and transforms it. In our age of the “project book,” how is your book both participating and rejecting the idea of coherency? Even the title both makes sense with the book yet also preserves some autonomy, as if it refuses to contain the book’s themes too neatly.
EW: I was obsessed with coherency during the first editing phase. I wanted this book to feel like a continuous narrative, but I was worried that a reader wouldn’t be able to follow it because of what you mentioned. It does go from Indiana to Ireland and back while addressing a myriad of topics. Plus, it jumps around chronologically. One thing I did to try to mediate the confusion was utilize repeated colors and images throughout the book. Red is the most prominent color, but blue and yellow also link certain pieces together. In terms of imagery, a lot of things swing back and forth, and a lot of things bloom. I also had pretty much every smaller story line (example: the BDSM relationship) in every section of the book because I thought it would help.
When I did a major revision of the manuscript two years later, I wasn’t feeling as into coherency. I wanted the book to have the organic feeling it had prior to the first edit. I undid many of the changes I’d obsessed over and moved a lot of poems around. But I kept the repeated colors and images because those are subtle. The reader may not even notice a yellow flower in a poem, but when it shows up again later in another poem, it’s like a little thread connecting them. This book is held together by lots of little threads.
APD: You write stunningly about so many “confessional” topics: family, sexuality and BDSM, suicide and mental health. What advice do you have for others who want to write about these topics but might not feel ready to share them? Was it a process for you or did you feel comfortable from the start? Do you think it’s even useful to label projects as confessional/memoir/etc.? Are there other writers covering these themes that you feel your work is in conversation with?
EW: I think beginning my writing career in poetry slam gave me an advantage in terms of addressing difficult subject matter. Slam poets go in hard about issues a lot of folks don’t feel comfortable discussing with their friends or family, let alone sharing with strangers. I had so many examples of writers being brave and putting it all out there. To anyone wishing they could share more personal experiences in their writing, I recommend checking out performance poetry.
APD: The revelations that end several of the “Croagh Patrick” poems rang so true: “When you refuse other people’s help long enough, it stops feeling like a choice…like there’s never been another way to exist except cut off from everyone else” (57) and “I’m making myself act on the assumption that fortune isn’t cumulative. It’s random” (68). Did these revelations come during the physical act of climbing up and down the mountain or after, when writing about it? Or was it a joint-effort that spanned the physical action and your reflection upon it?
EW: It was a joint effort. I had a conversation with my nonfiction professor on the way down the mountain in which I revealed some information about my past. I talked about my father’s addiction, which isn’t something I keep a secret, but also isn’t something you just throw out in a casual chat. The conversation with my professor got me thinking about the time in my life when my dad was actively using drugs, which is when my budding trust issues really kicked into high gear. I wrote the essay within a few days of climbing the mountain, so it didn’t surprise me that it ended up being a piece about trust. I say “ended up” because I rarely know what I’m writing about when I start writing something. I find out as I go along.
APD: What’s your writing journey been like? What are you working on now? Who are you reading? What advice do you have for people working on their first books?
EW: I started writing nine years ago. In the beginning, I was incredibly prolific. I’d lived for 24 years without writing anything that wasn’t for a school assignment, so I had a huge backlog of material. As the years have passed, especially since leaving school, I definitely don’t produce as much. I work full-time and my job kind of kills me. The time I used to spend writing I now spend trying to recover mentally and emotionally from work. The last thing I wrote was a sestina, and I think I finished that about a month ago. I liked writing it so I may try another this month. As far as reading, I just finished The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. I haven’t picked my next read yet. Like most writers, I have a big pile of unread books that seems to grow rather than shrink. To anyone working on their first book, I’d say get ready to be your own biggest fan. Sending out a manuscript is brutal. Publishing is brutal. You have to psych yourself up so much to make it through, you may as well start early.