Elizabeth J. Colen examines 20th / 21st century conspiracy theories from a poetic standpoint. She visits the sites of alleged secret plans and alliances and their sometimes cataclysmic outcomes, investigating through verse such topics as black helicopters, chemtrails, the North American Union, the fluoride conspiracy, and the JFK assassination,

Elizabeth J. Colen. Waiting Up for the End of the World. Illustrated by Guy Benjamin Brookshire, Jaded Ibis Press, 2012.


Elizabeth Colen’s ambitious Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies (Jaded Ibis Press) offers a cohesion of themes: cataclysm, catastrophe, and possibly worse, and the legal definition of conspiracy, a decision by two or more people to commit a crime.
The collection is a countdown of four sections (and an interlude) that imagines the phenomenon of recent conspiracies. Colen also provides a handy two-page list of the conspiracies she covers in the order of their appearance in the text. The description of each is theatrical, accurate, and deceptively tongue-in-cheek, given the soberness of the poems. The conspiracies include, among others, a London tube bombing, black helicopters, and fluoridated water.
With an elliptical approach, insofar as she is not offering narration or specific description, Colen often addresses, or creates, the sense of fear that accompanies an attack or supposed conspiracy. In the first section of the poem “Genesis,” ostensibly “about” allegations that officials in the United States government knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, Colen works with suspense, if not terror, and reflects on memory (collective or individual) or lack thereof. The trick is, she does so without reference to the attack itself, but instead by using an event that occurred during the speaker’s childhood.
My brother once stapled a girl’s arm to her sleeve.
Remembered for holding his breath,
once breath stopped, the memory was gone.
In the quarry pit he sank into a hole.
The bleeding was simple.
The minutes ticked and we were with him.
Red on roses, blue barrette in her hair.
There are no screams under water.
There is nothing to hold onto that looks like us.
There is only what’s left in your lungs.
Lines such as that ominous, “There is only what’s left in your lungs” along with “The bleeding was simple,” and other similar poetic statements are declarative echoes of the human condition. They are frequent in these poems, and signal a decided viewpoint that supports the collection’s glum feel. There is no Pearl Harbor or bombs in this poem, a fact that may lead the reader to believe Colen’s effectiveness as a poet is not so much the description of the conspiracy itself as it is how her imaginative persona perceives it.
In “Motor of the World,” which addresses the alleged conspiracy that “someone” would create a North American Union (similar to the European Union), Colen suggests the upside of conspiracies—they can offer solutions. They fix fear.
Tell me you’re in trouble, I’ll find a machine that fits that.
Like a watch tick, like the memory of,
like the storm, worm or substance.
Like the grease you fielded me in.
Fold me over your fold.
Lift me over your year.
I’ll be the next.
Tell me in text, dear. Tell me you’re—
Tell me your sign, then.
Tell me you’re fine, I mean mine,
I drew so many new words.
I didn’t have time for a line.
Waiting Up for the End of the World is sold in two editions: one black and white, one full color. The latter shows off the book’s accompanying artwork by Guy Benjamin Brookshire. Including illustrations (also in the black-and-white version in black-and-white) is a nice touch on the part of Jaded Ibis Press to expand the collection’s effect.
What I want from poetry and what I admire, are sometimes two different things. I want a purchase on something greater than myself, maybe a heaven (loosely defined, mind you—could be the star the philosopher Spinzoa suggested, in a letter, we’d be part of in death); godhead, a little bit, a lot, a promise of, a hint. Even dire poems such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets,” revelatory of great depression, offer that. Colen’s poems do not always do that for me. I admire cohesion, however, of theme, and this collection’s coherence. She writes clean clear poetry that embraces and addresses more than the theme of conspiracy. Colen takes on the challenge of many targets, with hits and misses.
However, returning to one of the nation’s double whammy of conspiracy and national tragedy, Colen captures both shock and poignancy in her poem “November 22.”
In the hospital where they brought him,
the governor, his wife, both wives, the pristine bullet, g-men:
on a floor wedded with wails of new lungs:
one baby was born too soon or too late.
Something was dead.
Someone said Jackie walked past her room,
but it wasn’t true. Just something
to take her mind off it.
Someone said she was lucky to be alive,
but no one knew who they meant,
the one with the failed womb, dead son,
or the one riding next to a bullet,
blood on her dress and pink in her hair.

That is the immortal Jackie: tragic (blood) and well-dressed (that pink outfit). The affection and poignancy of “November 22” show that despite the ubiquity of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the poet can make fresh the tragedy of loss. . Sarah Sarai

1. Conspiracy theories are enjoyable, people who embrace conspiracy theories can be depressing but when you’re not listening to one and simply letting your thoughts amble along wondering about JFK or the Lunar Landing or 9/11 you can entertain yourself for hours without getting far away from yourself—at least not too far to recognize who the hell you are when you’ve finished. It’s exactly the same principle that draws an H.P. Lovecraft to writing about fictive beasts and Tolkien to create an entirely different world to tolerate living in this one: embellishment, lies, theorizing, half-truths, all of these things provide immediate freshness to a very stagnant daily existence, and we as people cling to these in some form or another with some consistency at for at least part of our lives.
2. Sometimes conspiracy theorists creep me out; sometimes they don’t. This time, they don’t.
3. Books of poetry written on a theme, much like concept albums, are more direly hit-or-miss than mere collections of one’s best work. To let oneself think for a long time about one story and let it someday become a novel is—compared to this—a relatively easy feat, but to somehow tie together large amounts of poetry to coalesce into a book by the finish is nothing less than brilliant.
4. Sometimes themed collections of poetry fail; sometimes they succeed. This one succeeds.
5. Elizabeth J. Colen’s new collection of poetry Waiting up for the end of the World operates from a center of conspiracy—and features the descriptor “Conspiracies,” rather than poems, mind you—and though there’s ceaseless range to the content of each poem and these don’t all merely reflect one central theme per se, there is an anchor throughout of conspiracy and noted theories that’s quite comforting while reading.
6. Is that the mark of a good book of poetry? Comfort? I’m not quite sure but I think of visual artists creating fresh visions of antiquated imagery while tied to comfortable symbols or colors and I’m tempted to argue it’s true. It probably isn’t true, but this book of poetry is oddly comforting for something labeled “conspiracies.”
7. Most of the poems feature subtitles like “Lunar Landing,” “Princess Diana,” “New World Order,” and other household conspiracies that provide the aforementioned comfort, and make Colen’s description of scenes from a character’s youth or a father figure that much more effective and compelling.
8. The idea of the Lunar Landing being faked still terrifies me. These poems sort of mollify that sense of terror through looking more at the guts or emotions of the situation as opposed to the broad spectrum of technical information available (especially with the internet) but still, the idea of the Lunar Landing being faked still terrifies me.
9. Reading this collection during “election day” hoopla is ideal, but reading it in one month you’ll have another set of lunatics screaming at you and a year from now the same goes so I wouldn’t worry about it, I’d probably just buy the book.
10. Elections make Americans politically paranoid for roughly four months on either side of election day and then for a very long time we work and do a bunch of other more important shit that has nothing to do with politics.
11. I don’t think I like politics.
12. This book doesn’t feel political. It could, it could feel preachy and unnecessary and lowbrow, I guess, but it doesn’t. Probably has to do with that tendency I mentioned earlier to look to the guts of the situation as opposed to looking at the minutiae apparent.
13. Start a band called Minutiae Apparent, sell out before you record a song.
14. These poems reflect the hysteria described by their titles and subtitles and yet they are not marred by these connections. They do not require the actual history to exist and stand on their own just as hysterical as the actual events they are riffing off of.
15. The reimagining of Kennedy’s assassination in “Triple Underpass,” is my favorite account of the event I’ve read since American Tabloid or Libra, and is a page and a half long. Somehow Colen’s ability to effortlessly move from lines sparsely detailed and historically accurate to the poem’s close with “the winter wants in you.” Convinced me yet again of the lunacy JFK’s assassination was steeped in even though I’ve long wanted to ignore most discussions of that event. This perhaps is the mark of a truly good poet, an ability to retell a story that others have spent thousands of pages on in a very short amount of time with very serious questions of word choice to consider and then to pull it off. I read it again and I don’t understand how it’s done. I could rewrite it and not understand how it’s done.
16. I hope this is one of the last words we have on JFK and yet it won’t be by ten million miles. Everyone loves talking about Kennedy/Dallas/Hysteria and I can’t hold it against them. I’ll, however, likely just reread this when those other books come out.
17. I like it when I don’t understand what an author’s achieved exactly to make something so brilliant. I like feeling as though there are still tricks to be learned or aspired to.
18. The actual poem, “Waiting up for the End of the World,” is heartbreaking and perfect, and as I reread it I can hear some small distant voice reciting the lines and it is not my voice and it might be Colen’s voice but I can’t be sure. This entire collection harbors a subdued frustration that comes through in aggressive stultifying lines that sneak out of descriptions of people or places or emotions. There are also considerations of my own personal nostalgia for excited wild individuals that love speculating about events as they might truly have happened; but I don’t think that accounts for the distinct emotional pull of a poem like this one. Harsh setting: The-World-Is-Fucking-Ending and we are not being thrust into romantic visions of yore by a William Blake but, instead, given stark realism balanced against the imagery of swans. I am terrified, I am comforted, I am terrified.
19. Is the world fucking ending?
20. I’m tempted to nominate this book for awards in not only poetry but nonfiction. Someone said they felt the young authors of late seemed promising because they were looking into the past. Someone else, Fitzgerald, I think, said that an ability to write when younger typically presents itself in the form of poetry. These two things tied together—though I have no idea how old Colen is—seem to come together in nearly scientific perfection for the author.
21. The noticeable quote on the back cover emphasizes the word “AMERICAN,” by emboldening the word more than anything else, and this is quite true. Think, perhaps, of the chaos and Americanness of a film like Natural Born Killers as told by C.P. Cavafy and you might be close, maybe not. These two cropped up in my mind just now while writing this and to me it makes sense although there’s no structural similarity to immediately connect Colen and Cavafy—I think perhaps it’s rather that word “subdued,” I mentioned before that connects the two.
22. Americans love conspiracies, Americans react to horrific events (in media) very strangely, Americans romanticize the damndest things; this book is all of that, too.
23. If there is a poetess to mirror the effect Don DeLillo has had on fiction, I think Colen might be it. Is that too much to say? I don’t exactly think so. This book is steeped in that nervous description of beautiful human moments the exact same way DeLillo’s novels reify things we’ve all experienced and imbue them with a paranoia as thick as mud. I hate comparing a poet to a novelist for the very complications implicit in such a statement, but all the same it’s one I feel does Colen a great deal of necessary justice.
24. I worry about talking about Don DeLillo too much. I do it a lot and quote him everywhere and I’m gonna go read ten other authors to avoid this happening again.
25. This book is an achievement, its author has a command over history and poetry that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading in a long time and I now feel connected to the “Conspiracies,” so completely that I imagine I’ll sit down and read them again right now. If you like theorizing, if you like good, contemporary poetry, if you like new voices on old events, I highly recommend picking this up. - 


Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake in
They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: 
A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks
By Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller.Rose Metal Press, 2011.

Read an Excerpt…

They Could No Longer Contain Themselves contains—but just barely—five chapbooks of flash fiction, including the winner of the third annual Rose Metal Press short short chapbook contest, and four of the finalists from the fourth. Dropped toddlers, attempted drownings, juvenile promiscuity, road trips, and inappropriate therapy sessions compose the multi-voiced family portrait in Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake by Elizabeth J. Colen. Yoga stalkers, guns and gold, babies with iron stomachs, drunkards with t-shirt cannons, and warlocks are the stuff of Do Not Touch Me Not Now Not Ever by John Jodzio. Dominatrixes and fetishists, face paint and goo, fierce parental love and perverse longings cohabitate in Evan's House and the Other Boys Who Live There by Tim Jones-Yelvington. Leukemia, meteorites, Wal-Mart, bocce ball, Charlie Brown's clinical depression, the language of talking crows and of Che Guevara's omelets fill the eggs in How Some People Like Their Eggs by Sean Lovelace. And smallstories about pretty girls who sit quietly and behave themselves (or not) populate the pages of Paper and Tassels by Mary Miller.
The uncontainability of each of these remarkable collections suggests the exuberance of the flash fiction form itself, including the way in which, despite its small size, it pushes past its own borders and into the territory of something larger and impossible to confine.

"Rose Metal Press has done it again. A wonderful range of voices comes at you from this collection of flash fictions with stories that haunt, that tell of grit and love and loss and longing with the kind of detail and patience that makes your teeth ache."
—Sherrie Flick, author of I Call This Flirting
"It's often said if you want to get a true feel for a story writer's work you need to read at least one entire collection by that writer. The Rose Metal Press chapbooks speed this up. With a collection of collections like They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, you begin to get a feel for an entire generation of writers."
—Robert Shapard, coeditor of Sudden Fiction Latino

"What a fantastic collection. Wow! What emerges is the sense of the possibilities of compression and conviction, each piece complete in itself, connected to the whole. Throughout is Jodzio's 'tiny spark, that small bit of combustion deep inside,' a desire that demands our intense attention, that, to rephrase Colen, might steal breath back if we look away. It's all so full of wonder and surprise, where purple thermoses meet the edge of sky, couples spread arms and fingers to quantify love, and Charlie Brown, in 'this same musty shirt, 34 years,' writes it all down."
—Randall Brown, author of Mad to Live


Elizabeth J. Colen. Money for Sunsets Steel Toe Books, Bowling Green, 2010.

Reading Money For Sunsets pulls your eyes open, unable to blink, until you finally finish and blink repeatedly wondering where you’ve gone, and what you’ve done in that time. Elizabeth J. Colen’s prose poetry collection has the ability to make words feel new, as if she created them herself. There is no longer a distinction between poetry and prose; everything blurs into pure language, no labels. There’s a particular line and image in her story “After the Fire” that best mimics her collection: “Her stomach was flat like before when I used to push the round part of my fatness into last year’s tiny pants.” Every story takes a shapes that has odd proportions, but with every read, unravels itself to its purest shape.

Colen’s best work sounds like this:
A famine. You, me. On the brink of war, a teapot set on the table’s edge, spout-side out. A hovering. I watch the steam rise between us, watch the way it mutes the color of your shirt, your waving hand.
The story within Oolong recreates hunger and what it means to hunger; the reader is just as starved as the “You, Me.” She creates a tension that is sickeningly unsettled and lingers past the dimensions of the page. Steam is the ultimate mediator making everything within the scene appear muted and veiled. The natural becomes even more natural.
Another striking moment occurs in her story “January Window.” The “I” has a dream of being lost in the lover’s hair. The reader looks through this same window seeing and feeling something the body can’t recognize. Colen writes, “When you’re on someone’s scalp or the roads of tendrils coming from it, it’s so easy to lose your bearings.” Being this close takes guts. She continues, “When we got into bed, clean and leavings small circles of wet on the sheets, I mentioned the anger I had seen and we never took a shower together again.” She isn’t afraid of what comes next. Heartbreak mingles with danger and flirtation, and something stings long enough to dive right back into the mess of things.
Colen’s stories are awesome, as in awe-inspired. Reading this collection wakes up the brain and every other organ. The inside and the outside of the body are competing for affection, and Colen knows just how to rub vulnerability raw. Now, you can finally blink.- J.R. Bouchard

Money for Sunsets, the debut poetry collection from Pacific Northwest writer Elizabeth J. Colen, exposes slant in the middle of slant’s heyday—when love becomes sin; money, speech; and things, people.
Inside her city, a fenceless border town set in a time of oil and empire, where “Here we are only bulwark and stockade, blockade and gunpowder” and “Here we take matters into our own hands,” dogs dig up bullets and bodies wash up on shores while some “we” “stray inside the sunset city, perilously close.”
The images foreshadow an end.
The poet waits for it as she watches her companion prepare by filling her pockets with rocks, herself thinking “less weight the way to go” and, in “Somewhere We Burn,” laying out her own game plan: “Think of every last disaster you were a part of. Start from the start, make it clean. Make it right. Make it real” (67).
That’s what Colen does here. Divided into “Your arsenal,” “silence,” and “refraction,” the poems in Money for Sunsets, like the title of Colen’s debut collection of prose poems, offer a concise and deviceless study in twists, especially the kind that have to do with desire—or bigger, choice.
Tracking the sun, getting lost in her lover’s hair, leaving bones at the beach, and witnessing “each subject shriek about his or her death murdered or not,” Colen knows “Somebody’s got to be left to burn.”
Making it clean is not that simple, though, for “Love is never clean like memory.”
In “Home Before it Divided,” Colen fleshes it out: “Before baby and after. Not baby. Before Daddy’s slap. The reddened years of my face. Before the adults and after children. Before seatbelts. And me in between.” Here, memory marks a series of events defined by change or trauma. Their definition suggests “clean” means divisible. If love is not clean like memory, is love indivisible? Is there an amoral character to love? Do we wrongly divide it?
In any case, it is unclean. In “Survival of the Species,” she says, “If I knew my mother would slap me for saying she married for money, I would have done it sooner. The red hand on my cheek speaks of love.” Six sentences later, Colen likes women “the way her mother likes men.” And suddenly, no love is clean: not a woman’s for a man, not a mother’s for her daughter or husband, not a woman’s or brother’s for a woman; not a girl’s for the red mark of mother love; and not God’s for her: “If my mother knew I liked women the way she likes men, she would have hung me. My brother likes women too. The Bible says he is O.K.”
A sister likes singing hymns, a mom likes “the men who come.” Somebody likes this thing or that thing and there is hell to pay for liking one thing over another and nothing at all to pay for liking the wrong thing. Wrong pairings, desire gone haywire, a whole world’s store of wants sprung mad like a cheap machine—these are the twists Colen exposes, like someone who, stuck in the uncoveted seat between Mom and Dad before and after baby, might grow up thinking chronologies don’t add up to answers, wondering why a slap can slice time so much more easily than affections.
Stuck between unloving lovers, you might grow up thinking about choice or lack of it: the choice to leave or not leave, for instance. Is this how Colen knows to read the face as a series of parts indicating whether one lives or leaves? In “Coasters,” for instance, “You’ve always had hubcap eyes. What I mean to say is you’re leaving now.”
Or in “If Not for the Boy,” where, “Upstairs, my mother has become an end table”:
Her eyes are. Her teeth are, though not smiling, are. Her hands and nails are. Her hips and lips. Her knuckles and nose are. Her face altogether is is is. And her legs are legs. At last they are nothing but legs” (?).
Moms vacate and chain-smoke, “pulling air from a Pall Mall.” Baby sisters seem to sink them like a stockpile of pocketed rocks; in a letter to her sister, the speaker recalls, “The rock was shiny and you.” Meanwhile, kids gnaw away at “callouses, yielding to yellow teeth, nails coming off in the water.” Yet, somehow, the poet learns well anyway because she is “never that stable, never that chair.”
Is it from watching her mother, who used to “bring men home” then “fuck and fall asleep on the couch,” dead to her son’s calls, that she knows in “Waiting for Winter,” “The sun fucks the blue bluer”? Is it from Dad she knows choice becomes doing; preference, action: in “Grand Canyon,” for instance, “I say wife and my father hears knife. I think it’s got something to do with religion. I’m not trying to do this to him”?
Stuck between unloving lovers, you might grow up thinking about the desire behind decision, about nominalization even—how some “love” becomes “preference,” reduced to “like” when others look on it, evacuating love and ushering in body parts instead.
You might think of that twist as a projection when you witness body parts wash up on shores and realize a host of unchecked desires do kill—not girl loving girl after all, despite what she might have learned—but the unnamed preferences, like the lust for things that never warrants its own special name.
When a war torn boy lies dead, “box of hair on a beach,” smelling “of candy and burn,” for instance, what he wore “could fit inside your palm or, if you like, could hang off the two fingers left of your right hand.” Colen doesn’t say who would like such a thing, but the sentence reconstructs a gestalt, a hole where the whole might be if we were honest: someone or something is responsible for the death of a boy—perhaps an enterprise mired in and somehow disguised by chronology and causation—but that story is absent, oceanic.
How does a poet speak of a force having excused itself in the wake of its own giant spill? Colen approaches the story sideways, alluding to evil without letting it act.
Beyond the sediment of cause and effect is something even more tangible than story: stripped bare, the entity that makes decontextualized bodies out of living people is a person with a preference.
It’s a matter of preference to say “inside your palm” or “off the two fingers” when a boy washes up on the shore. And someone must like it, she hints, the way someone striking a deal like “money for sunsets” must want what? To sink the sun? Sell it? Try to buy it? Parcel it out like so many derivatives? Who are these people? They’re not subjects here.
Here, evil is atmosphere—apparent as aftermath, felt as mood, absorbed by bystanders—the conditions of which Colen details in poetic straight talk, a course that never leads to the scene of a crime but to the place where criminality might be established.
You have to go to the ocean sometimes to see what will wash up. The ocean is honest, doesn’t hide what happened anywhere.
In “11 Bang-Bang,” a boy is scattered there; in “Slack Tide,” a body washes up; in “The Rules of Subduction,” “Find what could have been shell shards or the bones of human fingers—carpal, metacarpal, phalanges. Leave them at the water, untouched by the stick in your hand”; in “Money for Sunsets,” a girl gives in there; in “American Beach,” the poet once “lost everything there” where “hotels stand as monuments to what we haven’t yet destroyed.”
Money for Sunsets is peopled by the ones navigating aftermath, post-crime, where crime has yet to be established, which is why lovers move “perilously close” through a city with a lease on sunsets inhabitants can rent piecemeal for the price of a dinner out.
In the end, Colen promises one thing: “I am going to keep believing in the devil until the earth is proven otherwise uninhabitable”—because it’s the gestalt that needs vacating, the setting that’s corrupt.- Kathryn K. Stevenson

Recent Work

An Interview with Elizabeth J. Colen ~ Jory Mickelson
Jorie Mickelson: Your first book of poetry, Money for Sunsets came out in June.  It has been compared to Gertrude Stein meets "Twin Peaks."  Let's take the latter half first.  Are you a Twin Peaks fan? 
Elizabeth J. Colen: Let me start by saying that while I conduct my life as a series of random experiments and make most decisions by reducing them to a factors of a and b and flipping a coin, David Lynch is in fact the reason I moved to the Pacific Northwest.

I don’t know if I ever consciously thought of Twin Peaks as an influence while writing anything, but I was 14 when it came on in 1990 and it blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it. I was always more of a reader, never really watched TV. And the stuff I read then was crap because it’s what I had access to. I read whatever romance novels my mother had lying around (you know, to learn about sex), and then whatever my older brother had from school. And when I’d ask someone for recommendations, like a teacher or someone, I didn’t know what to ask for. I never liked age-appropriate stuff, I refused to read YA books, didn’t care about Judy Blume. I wanted literature, but they kept giving me kid stuff. So I think at that point I had yet to be impressed by anything that wasn’t music.

And then this show came on. Of course, I had no idea who David Lynch was then. But the music, the first few frames of the intro, that bird, the waterfall, the sawmill! I didn’t even know about the muted colors he used for the intro because I watched it on a tiny 12-inch black and white TV in my room. I was drawn in just by the credits! And then the strange speech patterns of the characters, the dead girl on the beach, the attention to odd details, like Lucy in the first five minutes explaining to the Sheriff what phone she’s sending the call to. I was like, what in the world is this? But the truth is that it wasn’t in the world. And that’s what I’d been looking for. There was something more real to me about these characters than the people I knew. It all made more sense to me than the world I was living in. I mean, I really believe we exist in a series of secret rooms, red rooms. Or at least I do. Parts of our experience that are unseen, places we can’t take anyone to. I think my idea of narrative got started here, the nascent sense that reality is subjective, that some of the most important things that happen don’t actually happen, and that the things that do don’t occur start to finish, but rather in a circuitous way, a Fibonacci sort of curl where everything can turn in and look at itself, the real and unreal, all of it the same.
JM: Have you been to Twede's in North Bend, the Double R Diner in the television series?  Can you see a twinkling of Twin Peaks in your work or do you feel that Denise Duhamel was off base in making the comparison?
EJC: As important as it was to me, I never watched it again until this year. And that was deliberate. For the same reason I don’t take pictures when I really want to remember something. I could sense pretty immediately that this Thing was going to have an effect on me, and I was going to let it. And I wasn’t going to taint that by looking at it again. And then I bought the whole series on DVD a few years ago and decided on the 20th anniversary (this year) I was going to watch it again. This was also going to be the year I went to North Bend, which I did. I am not sorry I watched it again because it clarified a lot of things to me. But I am sincerely sorry I went to Snoqualmie Falls and sincerely sorry I went to Twede’s. They were so unlike Twin Peaks as to almost destroy it for me. I don’t even want to talk about it really. I mean, the Double R is half a mile from an outlet mall right off the highway. Let’s just leave it at that. Bellingham is more Twin Peaks than Twin Peaks. And that might be part of why I live here. The beauty and the creepy intertwined.

I hadn’t been thinking about TP when I wrote MFS, but I live here.

So when I got the call from Denise Duhamel and she started talking about David Lynch, I’m like, well, yes, of course. Some element of it is probably in everything I do.
JM:I love the idea that we live some part of our lives in secret red rooms.  When I was in the fifth or sixth grade my grandfather took me to a brothel museum.  I remember that some of the rooms were left untouched when the sex workers fled.  It was like seeing a picture in three dimensions--these secret lives retelling their stories.  My secret rooms are probably done in crimson flocked wallpaper.

 Your poem, "Synthesizer Approximating Strings" has stayed with me.  I think I've read it over a dozen times now.  It seems to be a crystallization of so many of the other threads running through your work: danger-sex-power.  So much is happening here.  Tell me about this poem. 
EJC: Taken from a literal reading, I suppose kidnapping someone and paying them for sex is dangerous power. Suddenly I’m thinking of Boy George. Didn’t he get in trouble for this recently?

I suppose the girl in the poem could be a prostitute, but I didn’t really intend her that way. And the violent sex could be anything. The poem (to me anyway) is more about understanding transference. How we’re often making do with something not quite right, and the sort of mental turmoil that comes out of that. How sometimes you want one thing so bad, but then there’s this other thing in front of you and that’s what you have to work with. Square pegs, you know? I mean, aren’t our whole lives about this to some degree?

It was one of the last poems I wrote for this book, and I think you're right that it's a confluence of threads.

Oh! and I don’t mean that women are “things,” obviously. It could be granola for cake, gum for cigarette, or staycation for a week in the tropics, etc, etc. Sex is just more interesting. There’s not much that feels more self-destructive than having sex with one person while thinking about another.
JM: I am curious about how you titled your poems. The prose poems, by their nature appear to be fragmentary narratives. Tell me about the process for titling your poems. Where do the titles come from and how do they work?
EJC: Titles are hard for me! And when they aren’t they’re like magic. “Synthesizer Approximating Strings” was like this. I had a conversation with a friend about some song from the 80s (I don’t remember which) and as a musician, a purist he said it would be better to rent an orchestra to get the strings right, and I said the synthesizer approximating strings was perfect because 80s music was supposed to be artificial.

So when I wrote this poem a few months later, the phrase was still kicking around in my head and seemed to be perfect for what the poem was trying to say.

But! Usually birthing a title takes as long as writing the poem. Or close to it. Sometimes nothing seems to go. I think part of the reason I’ve decided never to have children is the anxiety of naming. When I think of it that way, I begin to wonder why anything we write has names. Why not title stories and poems like classical music, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, etc, etc… ? I’m sure there could be some equivalent worked out for poems. I know you’ve got some poems that fall into something like this, the “Carbonite Dream” poems. Maybe you’ve got something there.

I love reading books of untitled poems (like Karen Volkman’s mostly untitled Spar, like Carol Guess’s Tinderbox Lawn) because it’s one less intention that gets between me and the meat of the work. That said, titles should be intentional, of course—and I’d like to think that most of mine are. I have this idea that poetry exists on several planes, and that’s what makes it wonderful: it is what it is, but then it’s also other things. This is really simplistic, but I kind of see the poem, my poems as the meeting of my world, the reader’s world, and the world at large. The text of the poem is a kind of map that always leads back to something I’ve experienced (though I can rarely say a poem is nonfictional). But there are holes in the map, gaps left to any sense of narrative, and I hope that’s where the reader works themselves in, filling any space in with, I don’t know, their stuff, mythologies, emotion, whatever they need to dump out and take a look at. Then the third part, the outside world is where the titling comes in. To me, at least. I mean, what I try to do with a title is take my apologue and whatever the reader’s bringing and connect it to the outside world, kind of how I want it to mean in a bigger sense. That’s a lot to ask of a title, which is where the anxiety for me comes in.

For example “11 Bang-Bang” (or alternately 11 Bulletstop) is military slang for an infantryman, and the first poem in Money for Sunsets is about knowing someone who died in the war. “Saintly Meat of the Heart” comes from an Allen Ginsberg poem I had just reread at the time (“Television was a Baby Crawling Toward that Deathchamber”). “The Match,” which references Caravaggio, alludes to the troubles tennis caused him. “Take” is a simple anagram of the person that poem is about. And so on.
JM: I do have a set of poems I am working on called the "Carbonite Dream" series. The first two were published in the issue 1 of Psychic Meatloaf-Journal of Contemporary Poetry. Let's talk about the maps you are making. As I understand it, you are (or were) primarily a prose writer-short stories? How did you get from prose to poetry? How did MFS take shape?
EJC: Well, maybe I'm naive, but there really isn't much distinction to me between writing prose and writing poetry. On the surface I recognize the aims of a poem may be different than the aims of a novel, for instance. But the actual difference in writing (to me anyway) comes down almost entirely to the matter of time.

If someone asked me what kind of a writer I am, without hesitation I would usually say novelist. But working / reworking a novel takes an amount of brain space and focus I'm usually incapable of. With everything, my first interest is in language, turning a seductive or lyrical phrase, etc, whatever the meaning actually is. I realize most novels are generally sense / story first, language second (or third or fourth). Maybe this is why I've had less success with longer forms.

The first manuscript I ever completed was a novel, 464 pages. It might be too fragmented or circuitous or something for the average reader (or average editor). It had some close calls with really excellent presses, but has yet to hit. I devoted more than three years to that project. I was exhausted after.

But I had to keep writing, right? It's what we do. So I went back to short stories, which got shorter and shorter. Until some of them were only paragraphs in which the language got tighter and more obsessive. And then I called them prose poems and started ordering them and they became a book. And of course I wrote more and dropped some "lesser" poems, put the stronger ones in and over the course of about ten months had an incarnation pretty close to what Money for Sunsets looks like now.
JM: So where does the writing in this book come from?  We discussed "Twin Peaks," but tell me about what influenced you, obsessed you and wormed its way onto the page.
EJC: I guess everything I’ve ever written could probably come down to an obsession with fucking, lying, and dying. But I think everything in life relates to these three elements in some way. They are, perhaps, my earth, wind, and fire.

 I’m also fascinated with borders. The obvious being the Canadian border, which I can see from my backyard, Palin-style (as in, not really). The line between land and ocean, good and bad, beauty and creepy, family/ love, which is supposed to be safe, but so often isn’t. I’m interested in contradiction, especially self-contradiction, and also self-implication. Like how am I or “I” or whatever third person responsible for the ills in the world. That’s part of where the book’s title comes from.

A lot of the book reaches back into childhood to explain or build upon the present tense. Or maybe I just like Freud too much. I am continually fascinated that each person started out as and survived this smaller version of themselves. It’s probably just because I had unkind parents.

When I was six years old I heard David Bowie for the first time. Changes:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their words
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

I’m fairly certain “impermanence” and “consultation” were the first words I ever looked up in a dictionary. And that line about the children trying “to change their worlds” struck me as something I could maybe do. The first stories I wrote were me trying to set things right. Taking a situation that didn’t go well, my parents fighting, the neighborhood kid trying to drown me in his pond, getting stuck in a storm drain, getting stuck in a cornfield (I was always getting stuck places) and altering the outcome to something positive. To some degree this is what I’m still doing, except I’m less interested (actually, not really interested at all) in the happy ending. There is no happy ending. I mean, no matter what we die. And so I write about the fear of death a lot. In some ways everything I write is about this, or maybe trying to change the outcome. And all of this comes from childhood in some way.
JM: You say that Bellingham is more “Twin Peaks” than “Twin Peaks.” The City of Subdued Excitement is definitely in MFS. Tell me what Bellingham is.
EJC: I think could get in trouble for trying to pin Bellingham down. It’s a contradictory, sometimes inscrutable admixture of disparate parts. I mean, it’s really a different town to different people. Usually people don't seem to find the creepiness as highlighted for them as it is for me. Maybe I look for it. I don't know.

David Lynch said (of Twin Peaks) “It’s the kind of place you want to go in a daydream” and I think that’s pretty accurate of this place. In daydreams also you can turn your attention more purposefully to the pretty parts of your imagination if things get ugly too fast. That can happen here, too. I live on a nice street, across from an expanse of green space where the neighborhood kids gather and play games and parents put out signs telling people to slow down. Then the green space leads the next street over to a park and playground where people sort through the bushes to dig up psilocybin mushrooms. And I know drug deals go down in the bathrooms because I’ve seen it.

What is Bellingham? A border town without the actual border. We’re on the bay and really close to the mountain. There’s water everywhere, lakes. From my house I can walk to half a dozen waterfalls. More parks per capita than anywhere, I think I heard. So it’s green, it’s lovely. There’s also more artists than anywhere, supposedly. I mean, I can talk about the drug trade, the schizophrenics that get shoved out of the other small towns and end up here, people passing through to get to the border, maybe running from something. It’s actually a little bit famous for how many serial killers have passed through. The Hillside Strangler, Ted Bundy and some others, most recently the D.C. snipers. Even without that history I think it would feel creepy. I could talk about how people will camp anywhere. Sometimes you see tents in a the woods of a city park and no one says anything. There are supposedly shell-shocked veterans populating the woods. But then it’s also town that’s always highlighted as a model of community: local commerce and green everything, sustainability. I know my neighbors, and they all recycle, they all love their hybrid cars, ride their bikes, don’t lock their doors. The whole town has kind of a culture of laid-backness, like really good intentions often coupled with poor follow-through. You’ve lived here; you know what I mean by that. It’s a place both wonderful and strange. A lot of it doesn’t make any sense, but beautifully. And that’s why I live here.
JM: I love the idea that things don’t make sense in a beautiful way. I have a friend from my time in Montana who has synesthesia. She saw colors with certain sounds or letters. For her, the letter C was blue. She drew us pictures of the color of our names. There is another layer to the world and I feel like Bellingham has some of that other layer sticking out. Tell me about your double vision as a writer.
EJC: Well, I’m certainly no synesthete. I have enough trouble with words haunting me. I can’t even imagine that extra layer.

 I don’t know if I have double vision so much as double life. I’m interested in memory, how we change things just through perceiving them. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as nonfiction, unmediated truth. Or maybe I just mean I couldn’t write it. But I don’t believe in it!

 Maybe as a step further I should say I don’t ever just experience things as they are happening. I’m sometimes thinking about how future me’s might interpret more notable events. But even the mundane details, the everyday I am transcribing them in my head, retelling the scene already as it is happening. Sometimes it’s about how I will retell it to someone later, whether or not I do tell it to someone later. I had a friend in Atlanta who took his camera everywhere and witnessed everything through it. He was never just at a coffee shop or at a party or show or event, he always had his camera on his face, seeing everything frame by frame, in composition. I’ve become like that, maybe.

 As a side note, someone once told me you should write down the weirdest thing you see each day. Last week was all feathers. One day it was a man getting out of a pickup truck on the 5 and all these white feathers just billowed out and up into the air and he stood there holding the door with a kind of wonder as he looked up at it. The day before I saw sitting upright on the sidewalk next to a bus stop shelter a dead little bird, a tiny black-capped chickadee, beak up and slightly open and its wings kind of propping it up weirdly. It reminded me of the first time seeing Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho. But cute!

 I have no idea if I’ve actually answered the question.

 Also though, have you noticed how most readers want to believe the “I” in the poem is you, the writer? Have you run into that? That’s been a hard one, re: fiction/nonfiction. I mean, my family’s reading this book and I’ve got girls locked up in cars!
JM: I have run into the “I” problem in poetry. Where I am studying, there is a strong tendency for people to ask you what parts of your poem are autobiographical. Perhaps this started as a way for folks to get to know one another, but some of us “first years” now have nicknames based on our first workshop sessions together.

I wrote a poem in which the speaker may or may not have burned down the house next door because of an obsession with the neighbor. That is not my personal experience from either side. However, I think part of being a writer is having an ability to “go” to those places and inhabit those spaces in order to retrieve words, scenes, characters, and images. What spaces were you delving into as you wrote MFS?
EJC: Well, certainly my fascination with early death plays a part. At one point when I was a child it seemed like one kid a year died in my elementary school. Other than older relatives (which isn’t quite as surprising), I haven’t experienced much death since, but there is great force in the memory of those years that continues to play out in everything I write. It’s part of the anxiousness that gets me to write in the first place: the fear of invisibility, of non-being, that at any moment all of this could be over too soon.

But really, if I’m honest, there is something of me in each of the poems. They are situations I’ve been in, or started to be in and got out of, and imagined the rest of. In my life, I probably play it pretty safe as far as “danger” goes, although that hasn’t always been the case. I think you’re right that a writer “goes to” and inhabits these sometimes unfamiliar spaces, or revisits spaces they’ve gotten out of. I think a lot of writers experience the world differently, kind of like I was talking about in the last question. The dual living, or the more-than living, I should say because sometimes it’s more multiple than two. How we might witness a glance between two people as we’re walking down the street and within a few blocks have conjured up an entire history between them. It’s like that. Or to see a bruise on someone’s face and feel we know maybe just how it got there. Or we see a particular shade of lipstick on a cigarette butt and create a woman and that woman’s life around it, just building her right up off the sidewalk. It’s in these spaces that truth and fiction are not only inaccessible, but extraneous. To the writer, I mean. We make truth out of the stuff around us. And it’s just as good a truth as whatever anyone’s selling.

But to get back to this idea of autobiography, when people ask me if the “I” in my work is me I tell them that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but that usually it’s some bastardized version or composite of me / not-me.
JM: I sometimes wonder if I became a writer because of the sense of experiencing the world differently than others. For me, that is tied into my sexuality—there were no visible gay people in my hometown. Queer people’s lives have been and still are marginalized or erased in my hometown. Writing is a way for me to leave some kind of record. What is your experience of writing and living as an outsider and/or queer person?
EJC: Your hometown sounds a lot like mine. Gay people were marginalized to the point of complete invisibility. In high school I only knew one other queer and I was fucking her. And she didn’t even admit she was gay until a few years after we broke up. Maybe I was stupid, but I saw the invisibility as excitement, like we were super heroes or something. I mean, I knew we could be killed, that much was clear from the language used around everything queer. And from the fact that the one kid in town everybody thought was gay (I don’t know that he actually was) was beaten up pretty regularly.

When I think about marginalization and about not being heard / wanting to be heard as a possible catalyst for writing though, my outsider status comes from other and, to me, harder places. We moved a lot when I was a kid, so I was always that new weird kid no one ever got to know. I was the product of a first marriage living in the second marriage house and that looked very different than the other families I knew. My older brother and I were often disincluded from family events, and from family finances. I think those two things shaped me more than anything I experienced around being gay.
JM: I understand the idea of invisibility as excitement. A friend of mine told me that although he is glad that S&M culture is out in the open now, he can only imagine the kind of charge it had when it was still taboo. What do you think is still taboo in poetry? Conversely, what is becoming taboo that has been standard in poetry for some time?
EJC: Wow, I don’t know. What do you think is taboo? I feel like I want to ask everyone that now. I think there are particular subjects that are taboo to particular writers, like each writer maybe has a few. But I feel like most people will say you can talk about anything these days and it’s “allowed.” Nothing really seems forbidden anymore, though I’ll never feel like I read enough to have a finger on the pulse of contemporary anything. There aren’t enough hours in the day. To me the trend often seems more towards nonsense / the trivial everyday existence and less talk about things that actually matter: political issues, comments on contemporary society, wars and economics and stuff. I don’t know. I don’t know if I feel qualified to talk about what’s taboo or about trends. Or about how few poets seem to address important "issues" anymore. How in the past few years (maybe longer? I only started voraciously reading contemporary poetry five or six years ago) there seems to be a trend away from seriousness. Not things lighthearted exactly, but a strong focus on insubstantial subjects, or to rely too heavily on cleverness without actually saying anything. Or maybe just not saying anything I can attach to as serious or meaningful beyond the personal. Not that everything should be serious or have a moral or be focused on politics exactly. But I don’t see enough of a connection between the personal and greater concerns. That said, there are some fabulous poets out there who do these things incredibly well: D. A. Powell, Khaled Mattawa, Patricia Smith, Shane McCrae, to name a few poets I couldn't live without.
JM: I know that you have a flash fiction chapbook due out soon with Rose Metal Press called Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake. Is this the writing you are talking about? Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming publication?
EJC: The two manuscripts I referenced above are other creatures entirely. But, yes! the fiction chapbook comes out in May! DMMDDM is a failed mother-daughter relationship told in 19 stories, about half of which are told from the daughter’s point of view, half from the mother’s. Of course some of it is based on my relationship (or lack thereof) with my mother, but it’s fiction for the most part. As in most of my work, there’s road trips and weird sex and people who really just can’t seem to figure their shit out. It’s actually one-fifth of a collection of five flash fiction chapbooks—me and four other authors: John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvingon, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller—joined together under the magnificently explosive title They Could No Longer Contain Themselves. I’m really excited to have more of my fiction out there, but even more excited about this form of book—five authors under one ISBN. Rose Metal Press did this a few years ago with another group of authors and I have to say, I think the way the stories, and the interplay between the authors’ styles, played out was really phenomenal, somehow giving the book even more voice and volume through these layers of unintentional connection. I’ve read the four other chapbooks in They Could No Longer Contain Themselves and I really think we’ve also got this incredible alchemy going on. Everyone’s work is so different, but work together in really exciting and unexpected ways; I’ll be interested to see what people have to say about it.
JM: Thanks, this has been a great conversation…   www.boxcarpoetry.com/