Dr. Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year’s best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. She is also author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side and the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. She is a scholar at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues.
Eve L. Ewing’s debut poetry collection Electric Arches is a stunning hybrid work of art that encompasses poems, short stories and visual images. An award winning text, Electric Arches explores Black girlhood and womanhood in a blend of futuristic and magic realism prose that skillfully erupts from the page. Dr. Ewing took a moment to chat with me about the formulation of the work, how childhood influences her poems, Afrofuturism, and the lure of ideal writer lives.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ashunda Norris: What specific book, person or action led you to poetry?
Eve L. Ewing: I don’t have an answer for that because I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing poetry or reading poetry. The first poem I wrote I remember writing when I was six years old. Poetry has always been my life. I’m sure a major influence was that my parents used to read to me a lot. In my family, we have a big tradition of silly rhymes and word play. My mom used to make up really funny, silly songs for us that used repetition and rhyme and sing them for us when were little. That was the first thing that led me to poetry. It’s something that has been in my life for as long as I can remember.
AN: This collection seems childlike—and I don’t mean that pejoratively—in its brevity, clearness, hybrid art forms, innocent speakers. While reading, I placed myself back into specific ages of my girlhood: 10, 12, 16, 18, etc. Can you talk about how the text came to be and how you formulated worlds within the worlds of the poems?
EE: Thank you so much. That’s a huge compliment because that was definitely my intention. I wanted to write a book that could tell a coming of age story but in a way that left space for a possibility in the past and in the future. I think of the book as a series of tellings and retellings of memories and flashbacks that I’m inviting people to inhabit with me. I’m somebody who, in many ways, [laughs] is very childish in nature. A lot of my work is centered around thinking about futures for children and how to make the world better for children, working with children directly and indirectly. That definitely influences the way I write. I used to be a middle school English teacher, and I thought a lot about my students as a very specific imagined audience as I was writing. I think childhood is really important. Often, people think of poetry as this really serious adult thing. For most Americans, their youth is the height of poetry consumption in their whole life because poetry is read in school. A lot of adults don’t necessarily go on to keep poetry as a part of their reading habit. A lot of the ways people perceive and recall poetry are influenced by childhood, and children really play an important part of shaping the literary canon. I like to celebrate and lean into that notion.
AN: A great deal of your poems speak to the nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up the Black woman. You’ve included pieces that pay homage to very complex women—namely, Zora Neale Hurston in “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife,” Erykah Badu in “appletree,” and Marilyn Mosby in “one good time for Marilyn Mosby,” each poem focusing on a different aspect of Black womanhood. Was this deliberate? Can you speak to the conception of these poems?
EE: I think we, as Black women, although this is something that is changing and improving, we (Black women) are given really limited models of how we get to be and how we get live with the expectations placed upon us. I’m intrigued by the many examples of Black women, both famous people and everyday people, who defy conventions. All of us, every single one of us, is an individual in ways that are not acknowledged and not portrayed in media and in books. When I was younger, I felt pressure as a Black woman to write about certain topics or to write in a certain way or have a certain tone. For example, the idea that I had to write about—especially with me coming from a performance background and spoken word culture, that my poetry had to be like, sad or like had to be about trauma stuff or it wasn’t good Black woman poetry. And I just wanted to resist that. Of course, with all recognition to and appreciation for people who have used their poetry to write through trauma. I also think there needs to be space for us to be our full selves. I wouldn’t say I see each of those women as representing a different particular part of Black womanhood, necessarily, but that I hope that the book presents many different facets and idiosyncrasies of Black womanhood. There is no one such Black womanhood. There’s no homogeneous vision or idea of what it means to be a Black woman. The sooner we understand that, the freer we can be.
AN: Visual art is character in the collection. A great number of the poems appear on black paper—an unorthodox choice but quite effective, especially in the piece “why you cannot touch my hair.” How did you initially build this poem? Where did the choice to change up the paper emerge in the process?
EE: I wanted to make a book that was going to be visually striking as an object as well as in the content that it presents. When people are presented with words or literature or art in general, our society tends to be hyper-verbal and focuses on the words themselves. There is something about visual presentation that allows people to access the information on a quick level. Even if it’s somebody who can’t read or who doesn’t know all the words being used in the poem, or a maybe it’s young child or a person who doesn’t speak English. There is something valuable in thinking about the book as an object itself. Even people who consider themselves readers of poetry, we underestimate sometimes about how much the visual impacts and compels us, or doesn’t. It’s almost taboo to admit that ugly book covers are not compelling or interesting. I was really excited to work with the designer at Haymarket. To think about, what does it mean for this book to be a visually compelling object, and what are the ways that we can do that? The black paper is a part of that. As for the poem, the line or idea I thought of first was the line about the hair being technology from the future or being somehow dangerous. My hair as, like, a menace to society. Thinking about all the times when I was a kid when people would say, “Oh, your hair is so crazy.” Playing with the idea of hair being seen as unruly or difficult or a problem. When I was a kid, my hair would not look the way people thought it should look. Babysitters and random people thought they could come up to me as a child and ask me about my hair or try to touch it—or want to play with my hair, braid my hair, just do something to it. It was always understood to be this thing that didn’t belong to me, that it was seen as a threat. As I got older, I learned the language and the history to understand that our hair is considered dangerous and has to be tamed or controlled. I think that’s where the poem initially came from.
AN: What is your current writing process?
EE: It really varies depending on what I’m working on. I’m very deadline- and goal-oriented in the sense that I’m not a person who sits around waiting for inspiration to strike. Writing is my job. As a scholar and academic, writing is definitely my job. My promotion and whether I get tenure is based on my ability to write well. I don’t have the option of “Oh, I don’t feel like it.” I have to really set deadlines to get it done, power through and hustle, which is not the most eloquent or romantic answer, but it’s my work, and I have to do my work. When I need to write, I’m trying to create a space that is as free from distractions as possible. My ideal writing process is creating an environment where I wake up in the morning, walk to the computer, and start writing. I may have to make breakfast in advance or drink tea and close all of the open tabs that don’t relate to the writing. I return to things. I revise them. I usually like to give my work a bit of space or finish a draft or a bigger project before returning to revise it.
AN: Afrofuturism is a theme throughout the collection. In this work, alternative worlds don’t seem as far-fetched or endlessly out of sight; that is, Afrofuturistic nations are a plausible reality, as in the first poem of the collection, “Arrival Day” which opens with a quote by Assata Shakur. For me, the piece names or imagines an optimism within the proximity of human thought—it provides an entryway into the poems that follows and commands the question, What is home? How does it manifest for you as a poet?
EE: For me, home is really about people and the stories we construct. It’s about the people that we love and how we became the person that we are and how we’re continually engaged with the process of becoming. The reason I write about Chicago so much is because the city made me who I am as a person and as a writer. I have a lot of love for people who are serious about where they’re from, and it also doesn’t even matter where they’re from. It’s about being a person who is attentive to the relationships that are being formed, including the relationships you form with yourself and understanding the role that place has to play in that. The streets that you walk, the tree that you see and the dogs in your neighborhood and the person who cuts your hair and the person who takes care of you when your mom is sick and the person who taught you to ride your first bike. Those people a part of how you come to be as you are, and that is inextricably bound up in place.
AN: Those who are reading this may be living or attempting to live full writer lives, which can be a tricky balancing act of many responsibilities. What advice would you give those who see you and believe that you’re living a seemingly flawless writer life?
EE: [Laughs] Well, whether you want to be a writer or an athlete or musician or entrepreneur, no one should ever believe that someone else’s life is flawless or feel like you understand even one percent of what a person’s life is like from what you see on social media or from what you assume based on these cultural tropes that our society has. The purpose of social media is to take the stand-in of photo album or a note to a friend or a diary. These are things that represent fragments of a person’s life. None of them represent a totality of a person’s life. People don’t understand what came before. I’ve been really blessed that the book is doing well, but that doesn’t tell you about all the times the book was rejected before somebody agreed to publish it. I started blogging when was fifteen years old and practiced writing every single day. I did freelance when I was nineteen or twenty. I would get paid $20 to write something. That would be hours of work with me getting paid very little money. Those are the things that helped me hone my craft. You don’t see me working in a restaurant writing poems on napkins. Those forms of labor are not visible. You don’t see a person’s whole life through any one fragment of a portrayal of them. People underestimate the regular, everyday work of being a writer.
AN: And finally, name five books and five works of visual art you’d recommend to readers.
EE: Five books: Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde; Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith; Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler; madness, by sam sax; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. Five works of visual art: Tehran Taboo, directed by Ali Soozandeh; the “Vetiver Night Women” series, by Brianna McCarthy; the poster collection from the Justseeds collaborative; “Little Miss Sunshine,” by Hebru Brantley; and “Color(ed) Theory,” by Amanda Williams.