Gingerbread House Lit Mag

Alicia Elkort / Poem & Interview

Intro: In A Map of Every Undoing, Alicia Elkort skillfully navigates the world of childhood trauma toward healing with extraordinary skill and vulnerability. A former contributor, Elkort was kind enough to let us feature “These Days Are Hard” and sit down with GBH to discuss her debut collection.

These Days Are Hard

We are amulets of divination. We throw crenellated runes at dusk—they return as dust. We sit upon a wastrel’s throne, throwing stones at midnight. Joy is scarab, is amethyst & we approach with the merriment of an axe. We toss coins into a fountain hoping for some slight change, anything to renew us, but we lack wisdom. Instead, we exalt the courage of scissors— only we forget precision &, yes, these days are hard, a cracked boot against the incessant dawn. We are small blue buttons on God’s raiment attempting sorcery to build a palace & when it all goes to shit, we seethe & seep, & yet, there’s gratitude for each sapphire in hand. Because who among us has not received a blessing at the end of a spear?

Alicia Elkort

‘Out of Terror & Into Joy’: Mapmaking as Survival—An Interview

GBH: How did you begin as a poet? Did you receive formal training, or did you learn as you went?

AE: I first wrote poetry during undergraduate college. Not very good poems. About twelve years ago, I found myself writing poems again. When I realized that I was going to keep writing poems, I took a few classes at UCLA with Rachel Kann and Suzanne Lummis. Then a few more classes. I found The Poetry Barn run by Lissa Kiernan and took many of the online classes offered there. I went to readings to see what others were doing, and eventually I got the courage to stand up and read my poems. Then I went to a writing retreat. Then another. So not formal as in MFA program but many classes. And of course, I read other poets all day long.

GBH: Your allusions to fairytales (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and particularly myth (Medusa, Icarus, Persephone) feel deeply appropriate for the subject matter of trauma and difficult life experiences since those texts often deal with trauma as well. As you were writing, did the use of fairytale/myth come about organically or did you use them deliberately? Did you feel they offered a sort of shorthand, since so many people know these texts? Or did they offer a bridge between childhood and adult understanding?

AE:  How insightful. A little of all of what you say.

When I started writing poetry, I did set about re-creating the storylines in a way that either spoke to what I imagined was the truth of what happened, in the case of my poem about Medusa, or retelling the story in a manner that gave agency to the female characters as in my poem “Red” about Little Red Riding Hood. It generally starts with me getting mad about something. Then I sit down and rant on paper. Then comes craft. Each word, each line. How it’s lineated, etc. When that is done, I have a poem. 

But also, a bridge. Thank you for that. What a great metaphor as we process traumatic childhood experiences that were overwhelming and confusing but now, we have an adult understanding of context. For example, if our mother abandoned us as a child, we would most likely conclude that she left because we were bad or not good enough. As an adult we can begin to understand that our mother had her own demons, and we can build a bridge to that child, to that childhood story we created to understand what was happening, and then we can begin to heal.

When I was a young child, I loved, loved fairytales. As I got a little older, I began to have questions, and by the time I went to college, after learning that in one of the earlier versions of Cinderella, the story ends with her sending her stepsisters down a hill in a wooden barrel lit through with long nails, I rebelled against the modernized tired tropes that diminish and create single dimensional women. Also, while at college I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and my mind exploded first and foremost at the beauty of the writing and then at how there are ways to seek and re-tell a story with a deeper and more meaningful understanding of a character presented with limited depth, i.e., the crazy woman in the attic in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. But also, the novel demonstrated that I could tell a beloved tale completely differently. So, I started writing a novel (um I’m still working on the novel) about a princess who rescues her kingdom. At that time in my experience there were only princesses that were rescued by princes. So, organically as well because fairy tales are always on my mind.

But to your great point, these stories are an amazing way to speak about trauma. When we suffer trauma, we become disconnected from all the different parts of ourselves. To heal we must connect to them, love them, including the angry child, the scared child, the lost child. Fairy tales are a kind of map to finding all those lost selves and bringing them home. I see myself in Medusa’s eyes. I want to rip the heart out of evil and bury it by a tree where it will bloom differently so I give that task to Little Red Riding Hood and then by counterposing it to Mary (had a little lamb) and giving her a wolf instead of a lamb, we can begin to ask questions about innocence and what we are teaching our children. Perhaps I can do more by way of interrupting misogyny (and the tired stories that are created from misogyny) with well-known characters than if I had written that poem about myself. Also, in re-telling the story, I am demonstrating for those that have suffered trauma and abuse that as adults, we can re-tell our stories, even the ones society has deemed sacred.

GBH: You have a series of poems that allude specifically to Scheherazade, the female storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, who famously fends off her death by telling story after story. You also have several other poems which discuss telling stories and bearing witness. How do you see storytelling as a post-traumatic survival technique? (Alternately, is telling stories how a map is made?)

AE: There is something that happens when we write our pain. When we take it out of the body and put it on the page, we begin to separate the experience from who we truly are, much as meditation creates a space between the thinker and the thought. I am so much greater than the sum of some childhood experiences. I am the writer, even an alchemist—I mean to say I take my raw, terrifying experiences and craft them into sonnets or couplets, something lace-like and beautiful. Replacing the one with the other. I am fascinated by Scheherazade. She is remarkable. She succeeds at life because of her ability to craft story, to take her raw terror and channel it into a power that transforms that raw terror (a homicidal maniac) into love. So, I use her the way a kid uses a super-heroine—I become her. If she can avoid certain death using the power of story, certainly I can use story to help myself heal. 

When I was in therapy years ago, I couldn’t get past the shame I felt at being bullied at school as a child and left sitting at a long lunch table alone, day after day. My therapist suggested I re-construct the story. In the new story, I invited Jane Austen and Paul Gallico and his snow goose and Baryshnikov etc. to sit down with me at lunch. In my new memory, we would spend lunchtime talking about writing and dancing and art, all very magical. And the memory that once haunted me now delights me. Years later I put this experience into a poem, further inscribing it into my psyche.

Life is a series of physical and egoic experiences. Some of those experiences are what we label good, and some are what we label bad. Storytelling for me is where we can lift beyond the physical and the mirage of the ego into the realm of the ethereal, or to say it differently, lift those experiences into the mind of wisdom, where art and poetry and writing and music live. Not that it must be so esoteric.  Whatever it is—making bread, climbing mountains, painting flowers, or writing, whatever will bring us out of terror and into joy.

This is all very much at the heart of my work as a Life Coach. Helping others shift out of the stories we’ve created in response to trauma and our younger lives and move into a life more in integrity with who we really are and what we have the power to create.

GBH: Much of the collection is centered around grief—the loss of innocence, the loss of friends, eventually parents—yet you skillfully stir away from the maudlin. How are you able to recognize when a poem is going astray and rein it in to be emotionally resonant? (Alternately, how did you balance the deep violation & trauma with hope & kindness, particularly in the poems themselves?).

AE: The answer to how I stay away from the maudlin might be found in how I stay with hope and kindness. And for this I will say because of my father. He had polio as a child and was in the hospital for a year. He survived, and, despite a difficult childhood and having polio, he was a gentle, kind man and always looking forward to all the beautiful experiences of life. He was a writer and street photographer, capturing images of people on the street, doing what we do, but with a compassionate eye that really loves people. You see that love in his photographs, in the details he captures. I suppose some of that rubbed off on me and has now found footing in my life, in my poems—rooting the poems in specific experiences, key moments, and the truth of people and our connections with each other. The more specific we are in image and detail, the more vividly we see an individual experience, the less likely it is to veer into cliché, which we also deem maudlin.

GBH:  Your use of imagery is so skillful—”Joy is scarab, is amethyst & we approach with the merriment of an axe.” I particularly love how you thread images throughout the collection: the hole in the chakra, the color yellow, the broken sidewalk, daffodils. For the writers in the audience, how do you think about creating such images and subsequently, the placement of the poems in a collection to enhance their connections?

AE: I am a visual person, am always seeing patterns or visual repetitions in the world at large. I draw from what I see directly in front of me and what I go looking for. If I’m feeling stuck, I’ll take magazines and use whatever I am drawn to as prompts. Joy is scarab, is amethyst came to me from a National Geographic essay about Egyptian relics. I placed the scarab in my poem with its accepted symbology of renewal and rebirth.

As we know, ordering of poems in a manuscript or book is an art in and of itself. The process is partly intuitive and partly thematic. I changed up the first poem in the collection several times until I landed on “Wherever You Go / Notes from My New Mexico Journal.” I wanted to start the collection with a poem questioning what it means to “lose one’s virginity” and how that concept is misogynistic and outdated, how it perverts the beautiful essence of purity. So, let’s start there, lay it all out on the table. After that it was presenting the map of healing, really. Tommy Sheffield, my wonderful editor from Stillhouse Press, also offered nuanced suggestions for moving a few poems around. It’s wonderful to get feedback from others.

GBH: What’s next for you? And where can our readers buy your beautiful book?

AE: A Map of Every Undoing can be purchased at the press’ website, or on Amazon. I continue serving others through my work as a Life Coach while writing new poems and submitting my second book to contests and open reading periods. This second book is about the joy I experienced after the healing occurred. During the worst of it, joy seemed impossible, but here we are.

Artwork: Natalia Drepina, “Golden Touch.”

This entry was published on December 30, 2022 at 12:10 am and is filed under 54 (December 2022), Current Issue, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
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