It Ends When You Decide To End It: An Interview with Elizabeth EllenBy Lauren Grabowski
February 13, 2018
I saw Elizabeth Ellen before I’d read any of her work. There was a photo of her on a flyer for a book tour during the fall of 2014, and it piqued my interest so I googled her book Fast Machine. The search result provided several dozen more striking pictures of Elizabeth and I remember thinking, who is this chick? I found her website and read everything I could find written by her online. My obsession with Elizabeth Ellen was born.
I read Person/a last fall and when I started the second volume of the book, titled Volume I, it took me a few minutes to realize I was reading a complete retelling of the first volume. I felt a little duped. As I continued to read, a few things happened all at once, in a swirling stimulation inside my brain or mind or heart or soul, or all of those places at once. I didn’t entirely get what the hell I was reading, but I wanted to absorb it all because I loved it. It was kind of like when I fall for a guy and I feel an intense connection to him and I GET HIM and he GETS me, except for those parts of him I don’t understand at all. And in those places of uncertainty the love and desire and intensity mutates. I tweeted about the book. I carried it in my purse like a woobie, and read it everywhere: in cafes, inside my car in a parking lot if I showed up early to wherever I was headed, on my sister’s couch for hours on Thanksgiving. I emailed Elizabeth Ellen, thanking her for her writing. She wrote me back. She sent me a care package with Saul Stories and her collection of poems titled Elizabeth Ellen. The poems sometimes left me feeling concerned that they weren’t actually poems. Or worse, that maybe I didn’t “get it” and then I’d think god I love her. She challenges me. She makes me want to be a better writer/woman/human.
Once I finished Elizabeth Ellen I wanted dry hump the book but found it more gratifying to instead email her interview questions which she kindly responded to within a half hour of me sending them to her. I think she likes me, too.
Me: My first impression of your poetry collection was that the table of contents reminded me of the first time I opened a book of Bukowski poems (it was Open All Night). I’m talking about visually, how the table of contents looked. Anyway. He has a poem in Love Is A Dog From Hell titled “462-0614” which was Bukowski’s phone number. You wrote a poem that’s also titled a phone number. Is this a deliberate ode to Bukowski?
EE: Ha, no. I went through some heavy Bukowski-loving years and I still love Bukowski (fuck the haters) but I’d forgotten he did that.
And was that you who texted me back?
Ohmygod, was that you? Why didn’t you say so?
I know you’re a big fan of parentheticals. Tell me about your usage.
(WTH? Am I? idk.)
Your poem “Alt Rock” mentions several ’90s songs that a woman named Tanja discusses her random theories about. She couldn’t be more wrong about the song “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe. This song is about two teenagers from NJ who hid their pregnancy from their families and when the baby was born they put the allegedly stillborn baby in a dumpster. They ended up going to jail for the crime. Could you please explain to your friend that she’s wrong about this song?
Oh, really? Well, I don’t know about The Verve Pipe but “Tanja” had this to say about how I represented her in that poem:
Have you ever been written about? One time Elizabeth Ellen wrote about me in a poem and she misquoted something I said about Third Eye Blind and I was absolutely mortified. So I really can’t imagine how bad it must feel for someone to read something written about them that’s actually serious or whatever.
Me after reading Tanja’s reply: Yes I have been written about and also misrepresented. Kinda related but I also choose to believe the character of “Lauren” in Person/a is actually me, so, yeah!
Do you think you thought Eve 6 sounded like an SWV R&B-esque band because their name is so similar to Vanity 6?
Yes, I do, actually!
Vanity 6 has a song called “Nasty Girl” which was played during a scene in the Phoebe Cates movie Private School that came out in the ’80s. That scene had Betsy Russell strip down to her underwear and it was like softcore to my eight-year-old self even though I didn’t know what softcore porn was yet. Do you remember any of the first movies or songs that made you horny as a kid? I feel like because I texted you and because we’ve been talking over email the last couple of months that I can ask you this sort of question.
Ha, but I didn’t even know you texted me! So does it even count? Um…hmmm…Grease? Yeah, definitely Grease made me horny. I saw it a few times in the theater and had the soundtrack and was maybe nine when it came out? Definitely wanted to make out with “Danny.” But also probably, in retrospect, was into the girls who were also in their underwear in the slumber party scene. Rizzo was hot because she was such a rebel. Who doesn’t get turned on by a rebel? I mean, come on.
In your poem “Gerald” you say “I was masturbating on my bed with hairbrush” — and I wondered how does one masturbate with a hairbrush, like, exactly? Then recently I read an incredible review of Person/a by Juliet Escoria where she writes “…there was a scene in which the narrator masturbates anally with the handle of a hairbrush. This scene has been deleted. I don’t think Elizabeth should have deleted it.”
What made you delete certain things in Person/a when the novel is so otherwise blatantly candid? What made you delete a scene in Person/a about masturbating anally with hairbrush only to publish a book of poems a few months later where you talk about masturbating with hairbrush while you’re thinking about a young man you know from the Therapeutic Equestrian Center?
Context, I guess. The poems are very raw and humorous and not to be taken seriously. So the perfect place to talk about masturbating with a hairbrush (which, btw, you can do vaginally or anally – some brushes are ribbed for your pleasure!). I took that masturbation scene out of Person/a because it felt too porny/cheesy. I didn’t think it fit the feel of the book.
Do you ever cry in public?
Hmmm. Not really. Or, I don’t know. Is in your car ‘public’? I would say I try to refrain from weeping openly where other people can see me. But same with drinking, smoking, etc. I really like my privacy and prefer to do most things without people viewing me. I’d make a horrible cam girl, I guess.
I can’t tell if the reason I worship my feelings so much is because I’m a writer or because I’m a Scorpio or because I’m a recovering alcoholic who feels everything now that I’m sober or maybe it’s a combination of all three. As a writer, what is your experience with dating guys who couldn’t talk about their feelings? I’ve never dated a writer. Is being in a relationship with a writer easier because they talk about their feelings more or am I completely delusional?
I have not found that male writers talk about their feelings any more than men in general, in other occupations. My husband, for example, almost never talks about his feelings. Most of the time I admire this. Very rarely it makes me completely crazy. But then again, what doesn’t, on occasion, make me crazy
In your poem “Miley Cyrus” you talk about being constipated and how you inserted your finger up your asshole to massage shit out of your butt. I hate shit and talking about shit and hearing about shit. But I didn’t even remotely mind reading this poem because I have such an affinity for you and your work. Recently my boyfriend farted quietly while he was lying on my bed and I looked over at him and he apologized and I just said “for what?” pretending I didn’t hear him fart because I just love him so much. Can you tell me about any experiences you have had where you just love someone so much that you weren’t grossed out by things that are maybe gross? Am I very uptight?
Personally, I find shit way less gross than the other. Ha. I’ll say as a parent of a small child, nothing grossed me out. That’s a case of loving someone so much nothing was gross. I don’t want to go into specifics because my daughter is no longer a small child and would kill me. But, yeah.
You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to because it’s supposed to be anonymous but I related so much to your relationship with your ex-husband and his addictions and your role that you played in his life long after you were no longer married to him, and you mentioned in the poem “My Old Man” that friends of yours suggested you go to Al-Anon. My question is: have you ever gone to any 12-step programs or done any therapeutic work with your codependency (and I hope you don’t mind me calling you a codependent but you kind of say it yourself in a few of your poems so I hope I’m not being offensive). If you decide to answer this question I’m sure I will cut all of this apologetic shit out of the final interview.
I don’t really want to reveal how much of a fucking codependent I am, too.
No, no. I insist you leave it in! And no, I’ve never done any such program or therapy. And I grew up the child of what I would say was an alcoholic (though that’s never been admitted to or said by the person in question), so you can do the math on that one, if you’re the type to analyze someone for the romantic choices they make based on their childhoods. I think we use a lot of easy labels in our current culture, some of which may be useful, a lot of which seem to…reinforce people’s behavior. I’m just sort of against labeling as a general rule. But I don’t find it offensive. Definitely not offended.
When I got to the poems in the Elliott Smith section I couldn’t believe that I was still reading so much about whoever the inspiration for Person/a was. Like, I almost wanted to shake you or skip them but obviously I’m going to do either and I read every single word in your collection. You mentioned on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi that after you wrote Person/a you’re obsession ended. I’m sure after the book came out and all these poems were published you probably have a ton of people, myself included, asking you about them. Does reliving the experience while talking about your writing fuck you up emotionally in any kind of way or have you fully exorcised your obsession over this person?
I feel fine.
More on this subject— your poem “Let The Right One In” describes my exact sentiments in the above question, the “Really Elizabeth? Still this guy? Still? STILL?’” But I was also so aware that my bewildered reaction to this was in direct correlation to past obsessions I’ve lived through. I had a relationship—honestly let’s call it what it was: an affair—with a married guy from another state and 90% of the thing was done online/over text or the phone and it nauseated me and everyone around me for over half a decade. It started out feeling enormous and exciting and toward the last few years whatever I was doing was whittled down to the smallest and lamest feelings I could hang on to—essentially, why aren’t I the person you’re choosing and also when the fuck is this going to end? This isn’t really a question. More of like a “hey me too!” and it’s one of the reasons Person/a hit me so hard.
I think you/we were probably asking the wrong question. The obvious answer is it ends when we/you decide it ends. And the question could just as easily be: when are you/I going to choose someone else or choose no one at all? Why put it on the other person? It turns out we had as much control as anyone the whole time.
Have people who don’t know you but talk to you about your writing been up your ass trying to figure out who this guy is? I refuse to ask but clearly I want to know. You have a poem where you imply he is an alt-lit writer with an Italian name. So I googled alt-lit. I know very little about that time in writing, I wasn’t really writing then. I knew nothing about the scandal that prompted you to write this poetry collection. I learned about it on Otherppl. Anyway, I could only find one writer with an Italian name. So in my mind it’s him. I will edit this out; it’s not really a question. Well this is: Have people who don’t know you but talk to you about your writing been up your ass trying to figure out who this guy is?
Honestly, and I’m not trying to avoid the question, but also, who cares? Haha. But no one ever asks me anything about the book.
In your poem “DAD” you write about picking up cat shit that hadn’t made it into the litter box and your eye catching a cardboard box that contained a photo album your daughter made her father (your ex-husband) when she was a little girl. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz” because I had just read that poem in class a few days earlier and I was moved that “DAD” had a striking resemblance to the Dickinson poem; both poems have random things (bugs, cat shit) mentally distract the speaker during emotional self-reflection. I’m reading a lot of Dickinson in school this semester and a lot of Elizabeth Ellen and I see you in her work and vice versa. Do you ever get obsessed with art or writers and binge on all their stuff, and then see it everywhere? When I was getting sober I re-watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer series for the millionth time and I saw the 12 steps in all of the Buffy shows. Do you ever do this?
Interesting. I’ve sadly never read Emily Dickinson. But, yes, I definitely get obsessive with a particular author or filmmaker or actor. That’s fun, right? Like, what else is that fun in life? Recently I’ve been obsessed with Patricia Highsmith, reading a lot of her novels as well as biographies of her. It’s great!
You wrote a poem called “I Think I Want To Say Something about Patti Smith And Mapplethorpe Now” and in it the speaker says she has a friend who only comes around when the speaker is “going through something.” You write, “But I think I need her as much or more during times I am not going through anything or at least that’s what I feel loneliest.” Do you think “going through something” can be a form of self-induced drama as a means to experience heightened emotions? Like those heightened emotions can be anxiety-inducing but also exciting, and in contrast to feeling “nothing” or “not going through anything” it’s preferable to be “going through something?” Do you ever confuse being untroubled for being bored?
I think I definitely used to, yes, of course. I hope it’s a sign of maturity that I (hopefully) do that less and less now. If you take away all the stuff people get upset about—because, ultimately, we’re all going to die and someday the earth will die, too—you’re left with nothing. And few people do well with facing meaninglessness. It feels better to be outraged or despondent or high or in love, right?
By the way, how was Just Kids? I bought it but have yet to read it. I never got too into Patti Smith. I like the 10,000 Maniacs version of ‘Because The Night’ better. I read Please Kill Me twenty years ago and formed a negative opinion about Patti Smith and it’s never changed. I think if I re-read Please Kill Me now I’d have a different opinion, but I have no time to reread Please Kill Me or Just Kids. I feel like she is someone I “should” like but I really know nothing about her.
Interesting. I was just watching old music videos last night and one was 10,000 Maniacs, but not that song. I think I made it halfway through Just Kids and loved what I read but also feel like I still don’t know much about Patti, either. But I was way more into learning about Mapplethorpe, anyway. Or into reading about their relationship. I wish Mapplethorpe and Tennessee Williams and people like that – people who were controversial artists – were alive today. I miss them and I miss their art. How uncomfortable it made people but also how most of us were wanting to feel uncomfortable then. At least those of us who weren’t Republican, right-leaners. Why do people not want to feel uncomfortable anymore? What’s that about? I was watching Baby Doll last night…highly recommend. But I almost never get excited about films or books or art anymore because people won’t publish or produce anything that might make audiences UNCOMFORTABLE. They’re afraid of losing money and being alienated. Well, fuck. I guess we’re left with boring, cookie-cutter books and movies for the next five to ten years.
In your poem “Fine Young Cannibals” the speaker describes a friend giving out seemingly unsolicited advice. Over the last few years I learned that when I give out unsolicited advice I’m being a bad listener to those whom I care about or even don’t give a shit about, and being a good listener/friend/person(??) means just listening without feedback. And giving advice is really trying to subtly get the other person to do what you want whether you are aware of that or not. Know-It-All ism. Which is why people get annoyed when others don’t take their advice. The speaker also got unsolicited advice in your poem “Chinese Restaurant.” How do you respond to unsolicited advice? Do you give unsolicited advice?
Hmmm. I have to admit, I’m having a hard time following this question or line of thinking, so I’m not sure I can properly answer it. I’d say we all do to others what we don’t want done to us. So yes, I’m sure I give unsolicited advice all the time. I guess where I’m conscious of trying not to do this is with my daughter. For better or worse, I always try harder to be a better human with her. So I’m aware of not offering opinions most of the time and trying to listen and see her perspective on things and to understand we can each have a different perspective and that’s okay, too. Like with “Cat Person.” We read it very differently. But her reading of it taught me a lot about how she views things and I read it again after she stated her opinion on it (I had asked her to read it and tell me what she thought) and I did see the story in a different light the second time I read it. And I’m happy I was able to do so.
In your poem “11/27/2014” you write “alcohol is not the problem.” What is the problem? You don’t have to answer this.
To be honest, I don’t have the book in front of me and I don’t remember that poem, specifically, but I’m sure a whole host of other issues were problems and I was just saying, hey, I’m not blaming this on the alcohol, Jamie Foxx.
I became obsessed with you after I heard you on Otherppl and after Chelsea Hodson encouraged me to read Person/a. I kept waiting for the poems in this collection to get angry, as opposed to melancholy and self-aware as the speaker identified with Chris Brown (right?). I wanted the anger. Then I got to the 90’s Riot Grrrl section and I tore this collection up and finished it in like thirty minutes. In “Empathy Exams” the speaker calls out the hypocrisy of outrage culture which is so apparent to everyone online. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Oh, geez. I think I’ll let the poems speak for me. Not trying to be coy or whatever, but I’m honestly just exhausted by all of that. But thank you for reading them and for not hating me.
I know I mentioned Al-Anon earlier but you hit on the topic of control/codependency again in “I Have Age Spots Bigger Than Your Balls, Dude” which is a kick-ass poem by the way. I mean, clearly I have my own issues with codependency and control and addiction and self-awareness, which is why I’m so apologetic asking you one-third of these questions. How do you handle being asked questions you don’t want to answer?
I can’t remember ever being asked a question I didn’t want to answer. Unless you consider the above question as such. I think you answer with however you feel comfortable. I don’t ever feel pressured to answer a certain way. So much of what I want to say or what I want to reveal has been said in my books. And I honestly kind of believe you don’t want more specific answers. I doubt you want everything spelled out for you. I bet you like some of the ambiguousness. Otherwise, there would be no reason or room for “obsession.”
I love your poem “Difficult Women.” How do you feel about women being labeled “brave” in our current cultural landscape?
Well, that’s a very broad, general question. And, again, I don’t have that poem in front of me, but thank you. I guess there are infinite ways to be brave. As men, women, humans. I think I could probably make an argument for everyone being brave and an equally compelling argument for no one being brave. I think in general people should strive to argue both sides of every question, to truly understand what they’re arguing or talking about.
I felt a kinship with you (for the zillionth time!) in “Ask The Dust” because my gums bleed when I brush my teeth. I like to think it’s sleazy/sexy but really I have not been to the dentist in years and now I’m afraid to go. This is just a side comment. Another side comment: You write as honestly as Bukowski and I adored this collection from beginning to end.
Well, thank you very much! That’s a huge compliment and I greatly appreciate it and appreciate the time you’ve taken to read my books and to think about them and to ask me these questions. I’m glad there are things you can relate to in my writing. Honestly, this interview has made me miss Charles Bukowski, and miss how I felt as a twenty-year-old in 1989, reading him for the first time, watching Barfly for the first time, while going through a total existential crisis, having no idea what I was doing, not going to classes, flunking out of school, becoming agoraphobic, thinking at times I was going truly crazy…I owe a lot to Charles Bukowski, and I’m talking mostly about friendship. Sure, Charles Bukowski was an asshole and human and you can write him off if you want to but you’re losing out, you’re losing out on a great friendship, if you do. (Sorry, Lauren, got all passionate there for a sec about Bukowski. My heart hurts when people are “written off” for being human. And now, were I in public, I’d be “crying in public.”)
Last question BE HONEST are we friends?
I hope so! I need friends. Text me again and this time SAY WHO THE FUCK YOU ARE PLEASE. Thank you. <3
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