In her debut collection of poems, C. Malcolm Ellsworth speaks from the barbed boundary between love and cruelty, survival and death. The poems of Artesian Well evoke the grit and grace of rural life in layered images of darkness and beauty, as seen through the eyes of farm girl who comes of age in the Midwest.
Like the speaker of these poems, Ellsworth grew up on a farm. She notes that her childhood in Iowa, “constructed the semiotics through which all subsequent experiences have been translated. Everything—the wavelength of light, the lay of the land, the proximity of animals, my family and neighbors—created the code that deciphers my interactions with the world.” The stone, mud, wood and waters that made up her childhood topography have made their way into poems that bring a woman’s hindsight to a child’s experiences. Ellsworth has lived in Kansas since 1988, and it is this landscape that provides the canvas for many of her introspective poems of adult relationships and universal human challenges. Of Kansas she says: “It’s a place of such beauty, space, and quiet; especially the Flint Hills. Once you leave the urban areas, every swell and hollow is laden with, if not history, memory.”
Artesian Well describes a natural world both dangerous and wonderful, and reveals family love as a burden and a blessing. These are poems that will cut you and comfort you–a collection that you’ll want to read again as soon as you’ve finished.
Click here to view Artesian Well in our catalog, or to place it on hold.
Read on for an original interview with C. Malcolm Ellsworth, followed by the full text of two poems.
Home is a series of concentric circles, the further away from home I am, the larger the circles become. When I’m in, say, Oregon, I miss the Midwest, but when I’m in Kansas, I miss Iowa. Iowa is the bull’s eye of all homesickness. Iowa is my core, my native tongue. Although I don’t necessarily write about Iowa, my childhood there constructed the semiotics through which all subsequent experiences have been translated. Everything—the wavelength of light, the lay of the land, the proximity of animals, my family and neighbors—created the code that deciphers my interactions with the world. However, Kansas continues to inspire me. It’s a place of such beauty, space, and quiet; especially the Flint Hills. Once you leave the urban areas, every swell and hollow is laden with, if not history, memory. And then there’s the people. My husband once said: Iowans are “unassuming, but substantial” and Kansans are “flinty and unknowable”. Maybe not unknowable, exactly, certainly taciturn. But it’s that reservation that, on one hand, makes me want to wheedle my way in, and on the other hand, allows me to stand back and observe.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
Basically: input, output. In reality this includes a means of support and time (when I’m working, I need a way to allocate my free time; when I’m not working, I need structure). Input has its own physiology. First of all, I’m curious. My kids have told me I’d make a good stalker. I think of curiosity as a type of affection, as Richard Wilbur wrote (paraphrasing St. Augustine): Love calls us to the things of this world. Plus, I have a strong compulsion to reveal, assemble, and document. Output is discipline, with a big dose of resilience. Ultimately, my process is about finding a balance: the right point between being permeable and circumscribed–the world comes, just enough to be perceived, and my mind is circumscribed, just enough to process it.
Your BAs are in English and journalism, and you also have an MFA in art. Has your experience in the visual arts influenced your approach to writing?
I didn’t go into art until grad school, but I’ve always been partial to the visual. In my 20s, I did a letterpress book of my poetry (“self-publishing” letter by letter, sheet by sheet). The title was Saccade, which means the movement of the eye from one point of fixation to another. The idea that a person sees only one thing, then the next thing – that rung true. And, in fact, my favorite artwork was a series of SX-70 diptychs and triptychs, relying on gestalt, tilting meaning by juxtaposition. My poetry often works the same way, images are strung together until they elicit a reaction or create a story. I’ll include a poem from when I was doing both writing and photography – the connection is pretty clear.
What authors and poets have influenced your work?
While I enjoy fiction, poetry is what I turn to for sustenance. There are exceptions, of course, generally prose that reads like poetry, has emotional heft and a strong sense of place like “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean. Rather than poets, I’d say there are specific pieces that I’ve sought out over and over: again, it’s cadence combined with content: “For What Binds Us” by Jane Hirshfield and “Twilight: After Haying” by Jane Kenyon, for example. And Robert Haas’ “The Problem of Describing Color” intertwines resonant words and imagery with a compelling, and singular, structure. These are the kind of poems that I return to with regularity.
Tell us about your current writing projects. What are your writing plans for the next few years?
I recently started working full-time, and while that will keep me busy, I’m still determined to carve out time for writing. Writing is a big part of who I am, as well as my mechanism for equilibrium. I’m working on several short stories right now, but poetry often emerges of its own accord. And I have a book started. We’ll see.
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
I have a (long) short story, “Resolution by Proxy,” up at Scissors & Spackle. And ELJ Publications, which published Artesian Well, maintains a web site for its authors: http://eljpublications.com/our-authors/c-malcom-ellsworth/
Miranda Ericsson interviewed C. Malcolm Ellsworth via email in April, 2014
We knew how to keep warm.
We pulled the dog across our laps,
his hair matted with cockle burrs and seed heads,
stinking of carrion and cow pies.
In winter wind, we laid on shaggy horses
in open fields and pressed our backs
against the south side of tree trunks.
We crouched with our knees in our jackets
and our hands in our sleeves, we sought shelter
in machine sheds and chicken coops and haylofts
until called to supper.
I remember the creek
and the swallows’ mud nests under the bridge
and black knots of hair on willows
and the tracks of animals into cloudy water.
She remembers only the apple trees,
how they faced the road,
how their white blossoms,
sharp as wings,
churned blue sky that smelled of broken earth,
and the fruit that, even when ripe,
We were children
who wrote on rocks
who wrote on wood
we built houses of sticks and mud,
scolded by blackbirds,
as our father scratched a line
on the edge of the world.
Giving You A Name
In my dream we have two sons.
The oldest is Christopher.
The other is Patrick.
I photograph them running.
Christopher photographs Patrick and I
making angels in the snow.
You join us and
you hang your red scarf on a blue pine.
When you pick it up to go home
Patrick tugs on a neighboring bough
and a fine dust of snow
falls on you like light.
Long before I knew you
I’d given you a name.
Sometimes I was certain
that you were in the car with me,
your laughter was such
that it made me tilt back my head,
my face relaxed,
I would smile slightly,
close my eyes briefly.
I missed you most in autumn:
the wind in the drying leaves
sounded like fire,
coming into the house,
my cheeks would burn.
When I met you
you were walking down a hill.
Your shadow ran ahead of you
like a river.
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