A Conversation with Elisa Gonzalez
BY JENNIFER GROTZ
Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, an essayist, and a fiction writer whose work appears in The New Yorker and elsewhere. In addition to Grand Tour, she is working on a novel, The Awakenings, and a nonfiction book, Strangers on Earth, both forthcoming from FSG. The recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, she lives in New York City.
Like most every writer I know, I keep a notebook that I carry around to scribble in and like to copy things down into. In recent years, I’ve also taken to cutting out certain poems from magazines or journals and taping them right onto the page. Elisa Gonzalez’s “Notes Toward an Elegy” was one such poem, clipped in early October 2021. When I clip poems, it’s because something startles me, or pleases me, or confuses me, or upsets me when I read them. Elisa’s poem did all four of these. The poet Adam Zagajewski once confessed to me that he didn’t believe poetry could be taught but rather, all one could really do is collect poems that had “fire burning inside them.” One collects fires, watches them burn. Zagajewski and more broadly, Polish poetry, is further territory Elisa and I have in common. I clipped a second poem of hers in April 2022 because of yet another frisson of recognition I felt when reading it: “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad” traffics in fresh and searing grief. But even here, Polish poetry and fire resurface: “The same friend and I discuss a line by Zbigniew Herbert / where a distant fire is burning / like a page of the Iliad.” When I had the good fortune of being interviewed earlier this year by Elisa, I found myself wanting to ask questions back, to lengthen and learn more from our discussion. Hence the following conversation, where I get to ask questions about her début book of poetry and much more.
Jennifer Grotz: It’s delightful to be back in conversation with you, Elisa, after our first Adroit interview earlier this year. Now we’re turning the tables to give me the chance to ask you some questions about Grand Tour, your new book just out from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. I wanted to start with a question asking you about what the experience of writing this book of poems was like. Often it seems that first books are generally motley in nature, sort of combining all the very best work one has thus far produced. Those sorts of books are fun to read because they seem embedded with clues for all the future directions a poet might take. But sometimes first books end up being rather cohesive in nature, usually when they were written swiftly or when an abiding obsession or two starts to stitch the poems together. How long did writing Grand Tour take you, and how might you describe its making and coming together?
Elisa Gonzalez: I am also delighted to converse! It’s a lovely piece of luck that our books are out in the same year—the perfect pretext to talk about poetry.
There are two opposite but equally true answers to your question: the book came together very fast; it came together over several years. I began writing poetry when I was eighteen, and a few of the poems in this book were originally drafted in college—at least one in the poetry workshop I took during my first semester of freshman year. (Those poems have, of course, been revised a lot.) For years I wrote poems without the aim of making a book, partly because I lacked some kind of necessary belief that I could make a book, partly because the impulse to perfect seduced me.
As you know, my youngest brother died suddenly in the summer of 2021. After his death, I was fully prepared never to write again. And when I thought of all those hundreds of poems that I’d written, they seemed like the words of a dead woman. I couldn’t imagine revising them. But after a few months, I decided to see what I could make of them without making any substantial changes, and so I sifted through everything with an eye toward crafting a coherent book. A few of the poems were written in early 2022, right before the book was submitted for publication. At first I thought that these—the ones that are most explicitly elegiac, for my brother—belonged to a different book, and then I realized that the tragic, or ironic, inflection they lent to everything else was an important texture. No single book could capture such grief, anyway, so I’m sure I will return to this subject, and to him, in other books.
I think that his death transformed my relationship to poetry, among many other things. And it transformed my relationship to my own life. I kept thinking, after, that I needed to stop being afraid of either failure or success. And that if I was going to stay alive, I needed to really live, which meant, in my case, writing the book I said I wanted to write.
JG: I have a pet theory that most poets fall into one of two categories: poets who write poems or poets who write books of poems. Of course dichotomies like this are silly in a certain sense and any poet who has written a book of poems, yourself and myself included, is obviously both, but the dichotomy helps me think about something I often experience or intuit when I write. Now that you are a poet who has finished a book of poems, do you have a sense of whether you lean toward one impulse over another? Or if that’s an unfair question, maybe another way to ask it is: were there special pleasures, or challenges, or insights unique to the making of a book as opposed to making a poem that you discovered?
EG: I like this dichotomy! Like many such oppositions, I think it illuminates the space in between. I suppose I would say I am a poet who writes poems. Or at least I am right now. I have yet to glimpse the next book, anyway, but I have written a little since finalizing this book, and I am trusting that things will become clear. For me, a lot of writing poetry is setting myself questions and trying to answer them. But it’s also a kind of listening, and that feels specific to each poem. Making a book was a fascinating process because it required forswearing poems that I did like, poems that I thought were good but just didn’t fit. So I felt as if I were learning how to work in the service of a project larger than the project of each individual poem.
JG: I’d also love to hear you speak a little about the title of the book and perhaps also about the question of travel, one of the collection’s great subjects. Although there are various locations—from Poland to Cyprus!—and different sorts of sojourns and journeys in the book, the title Grand Tour strikes me at least in part as ironic, that the travel undertaken in these poems is in stark contrast to the “grand tours” educated young wealthy or elite individuals once took as a part of their proper education. Would you like to comment a bit on that?
EG: The title is certainly ironic, in just the way you mention. As I describe fairly explicitly in, for instance, “Failed Essay on Privilege,” I did not grow up with money. The poverty of my childhood and adolescence was also distinct from the instability of the artistic life I pursued later on, and I have long been interested in the gradations within the larger categories of wealth, privilege, poverty, etc. From the time I was very young, I wanted to know, and I wanted to travel, and I’ve been lucky both to have gotten an education and to have traveled a fair amount. But the circumstances of both were quite different from those of many people I knew—the journey cost me differently. The title widens the canvas a bit. It refers explicitly to a life of many journeys, crossings, way stations, etc. And, at least to me, it points to the last, great threshold we all have to cross.
JG: Well, this brings us back to another of the book’s abiding subjects: death, both its inevitability as you point out but also its ineffability, in a sense. It is very moving to hear your experience of your brother’s death and of how it seemed to shatter your previous thinking about poetry and perhaps your own sense of what you’re doing. I must say as a fellow poet who suffered the sudden death of her younger brother as well, it rings all too true to me. It’s like we’ve both found ourselves elected into the membership of a club no person—much less a poet–would ever want to belong to. One thing I noticed with great fascination in Grand Tour is the way the elegiac, as you say, permeates the book but also that there is a simultaneous treading cautiously towards it. It feels important that the opening and one of the most powerful poems in the collection is “Notes Toward an Elegy” (Italics mine). Is there a mistrust of elegy inherent in this enterprise? Or a sense of inadequacy/inability/unwillingness to “rise” as it were to the occasion I’m thinking in part of W. S. Merwin’s one-line poem “Elegy”: “Who would I show it to?”
EG: It is an election I wish that I could reject, but I am, given rejection’s impossibility, always glad to meet other members. Much feeling requires less translation when speaking with you, for instance. And it is, when reading the work of others, comforting to see that poetry can be both permeated and aerated by the elegiac—that there is not just one mode to be exercised and repeated for the rest of one’s life. Though the grief lasts, it also morphs. That doesn’t answer your question, though, so let me attempt that. Baldly, yes, the book’s approach to elegy does reflect a personal and poetic mistrust. I feared—fear—immuring the complexity of a person and the emotions arising after death. Of course each poem can only glancingly capture something, but I worry about obscuring the impossibility of fully describing, about fixing something in narrative until I could no longer get it out of narrative. I worried most when putting together this book about the “solace” that is often associated with traditional elegy. I wasn’t reconciled to my brother’s death, and I actively refused to pursue a closing note of consolation. I was all bewilderment and anger and sorrow. “Notes Toward” emerged after the death, in late 2020, of a friend, Nihal Karaman, and the poem was almost an accident at first. I had titled the document “notes toward an elegy” and meant to try to shape something more coherent out of these disparate images and memories, but then I realized that sense of confusion and fracture was perhaps the closest I could get. And maybe I should just gather and keep them, like someone picking up the pieces of a shattered, beloved vase.
Another caution that was very much on my mind in writing Grand Tour was that my brother’s death was and is very recent, in the scale of life and how much life I can hope remains for me. And I didn’t want to set anything too definitively. It is, if anything, a record of what I felt six months after, a year after, but I know I will track these feelings and the loss over more time.
That Merwin question might be the truest question about elegy, though. I’ve thought about that line so much, as I feel that I am always trying to talk to the (particular) dead, or to “keep allegiance” to those who are gone, though they cannot talk back. But the absence of a recognizable, or possible, answer does place a strain on the poems that arise from this compulsion. They are always facing their own lack.
JG: Since we’ve introduced the topic of elegy, which is not only a poetic impulse but a form, I want to ask you about the myriad of formal choices and declarations that are made in the book. So many of the poems are building on or riffing off other familiar, not always conventionally poetic, forms such as “note,” “essay,” “fable,” and even (I love this) weather journal. Was this something you undertook intentionally or was it something you noticed when you started to assemble the manuscript, I wonder? Do you have any thoughts on these or other formal choices present in the book?
EG: It might seem clinical, overly cerebral, even prosaic, but I sometimes find a way into poems by giving myself a formal assignment, or perhaps, said better, asking a formal question. Can I write an essay that’s simultaneously a lyric poem? (Distinct, of course, from the lyric essay.) If a fable typically includes animals and a moral, what can I say in that container? And I adore indeterminacy, so the “note” will always be with me, I think.
The “weather journal” was more of an accident—I started keeping one when I moved to Warsaw in 2016, because I’d been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I was as fascinated by his journal entries on the variegation of weather as I was by his spectacular poetry. I felt that a profound love for the world was expressed through his noticing of the natural world. And I wanted, even in an urban environment, to stimulate more of that in myself (noticing, love). Then later I found that some of the entries did lend themselves to poetry, a communication that he may also have experienced, in a different way.
Anyway, I think these formal queries or riffs mostly emerged over the years out of a particular bent in my mind, but when putting the book together, I did like that a subtle formal play also appeared.
JG: I love those journal entries by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which have been really important to me as well! So much pleasure and careful attention in the descriptions. Your mentioning Warsaw and the “weather journal” makes me remember something much more banal, though, that I encountered the first time I traveled to Poland (though actually it was in Prague where I saw it): watching the morning news on the television, the weather forecast would be acted out by a young blond woman who would begin wearing nothing but a bra and panties. The “forecast” would be how many clothes she put on, skirt or pants, blouse or sweater, or a hat and raincoat, and the like. The report ended when she was dressed! It was appalling but also bewildering. And admittedly, given that I didn’t know any Czech, it was something I could actually understand. But bringing up Eastern Europe brings us to another commonality we share, which is a deep appreciation (would you call it an apprenticeship, even?) to Polish poetry. I wondered if you’d like to share anything about how and why you went to Poland and how that may have influenced you as a poet or writer? I don’t know if you encountered similar kinds of sexism there, but I also wonder if and how that may have registered for you or if there were other kinds of challenges that widened your perspective on things. Or if you prefer, maybe you could describe what interest modern and contemporary Polish poetry holds for you?
EG: That’s a fascinating (and distressing) anecdote—fascinating in that it features one of those ironies that surround the unlanguaged traveler (or, sometimes, even the languaged, as cultural translations can be absent even when the words are reachable).
“Apprenticeship” seems a fitting word, because I feel my relationship with Polish literature and Poland itself is an ongoing pursuit of knowledge, alongside perpetual reminders that I do not know—and will never know—so much. But I have learned to feel this kind of lack as an opportunity, and to treat the discomfort of ignorance as a territory to step into bravely, rather than retreat from.
Edward Hirsch, a fantastically generous and polymathic teacher, introduced me to Polish poetry—Miłosz, Szymborska, Herbert—in a class in graduate school. I had by that point already read Zagajewski. All my attempts to describe the effect of reading those poets, especially Miłosz and Herbert, sound silly and cliched: like being blown back by a strong wind, like a fever, like a revelation…I felt myself being changed. So I followed that feeling through months of preparation for the Fulbright application, and eventually got myself to Poland. I didn’t even speak Polish when I arrived, and had never been there before. People were constantly surprised that I wasn’t even a bit Polish. I just kept giving an answer that amounted to “love” as motivation for studying complicated grammar (acquiring the genitive case changed my daily life) and venturing into an unfamiliar place.
Around the time I moved to Warsaw, there had been a rightward turn in the government, and I was moved by the vibrancy of the work of those who wanted to counter it. Not only in writing; on the streets, too. A kind of weary fervency.
Perhaps most of all being in Poland made me live in the interrogative mode. I had to approach life as a series of questions, and deal with the unsettling contradictions, without perhaps ever finding certainty in my interpretations. I mean that poetically, linguistically, politically, culturally.
JG: One of my favorite lines of the poet Czesław Miłosz, who we evoked also in our last conversation, is from his “Ars Poetica?” In English the lines are: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how hard it is to remain just one person.” I was thinking of this line often while reading Grand Tour in part for the ways in which it seems haunted by other people, but also even by one’s own self. One of the unique features of this volume is the series of poems to former selves (to the thirty-year-old self, the thirteen-year-old, the twenty-four-year-old, and so on). How did those poems come about?
EG: Those poems emerged in a rush after I reread Brenda Shaughnessy’s collection Our Andromeda in 2021. She has a series of poems to former and future selves that I thought were remarkable in their management of the slipperiness of time and self. I had already written one poem (not included in Grand Tour) to a younger self, and I decided to try again. I wrote the three that are in this collection in less than a week, I think, and they’ve changed relatively little. It was a rare feat of inspiration.
Part of what interested me is the general condition of an epistle. What I say now will be read by you in a future moment that will be the present, and so an alternate timeline is created by virtue of our writing to one another. With these poems, I wanted time to seem unstable—is she really writing to the past self, or also to the present?—and I wanted the reason to turn to these former selves to be legitimate, not just a pretext for a pretty discourse on the past. So if the self seems fragmented and various, I’m glad.
JG: I love that you bring up Brenda Shaughnessy and Our Andromeda—it’s a compelling book indeed—and it brings me in a way to my next question, which I suppose is the question of poetic influences. I once heard Paisley Rekdal assert that every book has its own canon behind it, i.e., the books and authors that came before that made that book possible in some way. I sometimes think about influence—at least for myself—as navigational guides of a sort. Certain poets and writers I’ve read are like bright stars in the night sky that I connect into a sort of constellation to guide me. We’ve evoked Polish poetry in general, and a few other names have come up, but are there other specific poets or writers who helped or inspired you to make these poems?
EG: I have walked to my bookshelves to answer this question. I think that perhaps only I could actually follow the map laid out by the books I see and think of—influence is so subtle and various—but here is an incomplete list of the guides to this particular book: of course there’s Miłosz and Herbert; Our Andromeda; Elegguas by Kamau Brathwaite; Emily Dickinson; Tory Dent; George Oppen; C.D. Wright’s ShallCross; Maggie Nelson…and in prose, I think of Brian Dillon, Henry James, Toni Morrison, Józef Czapski, James Baldwin. There’s also the natural entwining of thought and rhythm that happens with friends who are poets, including Jameson Fitzpatrick, Hannah Aizenman, Lauren Roberts, Maggie Millner, and others.
JG: For my last question, I want to make the observation that lyric is often considered a genre primarily related to feeling or singing, but in the case of Grand Tour, I really love how so many of these poems aim to be vessels for thinking or a kind of intellectual work. I think this connects to some of your own comments above about these other genres such as “notes” or “essay.” I know as well that your next projects are prose ones, a nonfiction book and also a fiction book, if I have that right? Do you want to say anything about those projects or how they come about? Do you anticipate the prose writing to be borrowing from poetic impulses and conventions? Or do you have any final thoughts on lyric or Grand Tour, or anything else, really?
EG: Thank you for saying that. I do hope that the thinking entwines with the feeling, so that they seem—as they often feel—inextricable. And yes, I am writing a nonfiction book, Strangers on Earth, that braids a personal narrative (originating in the death of my brother) with an exploration of Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie, or estrangement (or “defamiliarization,” or “enstrangement,” depending on the translator). The novel, The Awakenings, explores the pressures of religious belief, or the loss thereof. More straightforwardly, the main action takes place in a contemporary evangelical church in an invented town in the Midwest. A pastor is murdered by a church elder over a doctrinal dispute, and the murder reverberates in the rest of the story, which is really about “aftermath,” I think, if it can be “about” anything.
I’ve been told I’m a poetic writer in prose, though I don’t see it as much myself. I suppose it’s hard to pry away that intense focus on individual lines, even if I’m not conscious of it. I think the projects all relate in that they reflect my obsessions and enthusiasms, but they feel distinct to me. A story presents itself to me as a story, an essay as an essay, a poem as a poem—it’s more intuitive than considered.
Though I’ve been working on these books concurrently for a while, I am glad Grand Tour is the first to enter the world—poetry was the first writing I pursued seriously, and it seems appropriate that this book, which winds up so much of my life and thinking, is the official beginning.