In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Elise Paschen

by May 28, 2024

Your poem, “Divination,” is a gorgeous blend of imagery, myth, and spring welcoming. Where did the spark for this poem come from?

Thank you! During the pandemic, our family moved to a house in rural southwest Michigan. Spending days in isolation, I became fascinated by the birds outdoors. In another poem in this series, “Skywriting,” I describe living in our house as if in an aviary. When I drafted “Divination,” I had been inspired by the image of robins festooning a tree in the cold of winter. I then continued the trajectory of my beguilement by imagining the emptied nests around our house inhabited in spring.

I love the cascading effect of the lines. With layered poetry like this, I’m always curious if there’s another way this poem can, or is intended, to be read? How did you craft this format?

While working on “Divination,” I also was writing a long poem, “Heritage,” which employed a similar staggered stanza structure. In the past I’ve written contrapuntal poems which can be read vertically or horizontally. This one functions more as a concrete poem, mimicking spatially the robins on the branches. Behind the poem’s structure lies this notion of threes, inspired by a sense of divinity in nature.

So much of your work delves into the themes of relationships and nature. What draws you to these themes?

Throughout my life I’ve had an ineffable relationship with the natural world, a place which offers inspiration and sustenance. During our time of isolation, I rooted more deeply into realms outside the human one.

Your poems have the qualities of stories. What is your writing process? When you set out to write a poem, do you have a narrative, or do you work from imagery? 

I try to catch the impulse of the poem when it arrives, allowing the music to carry its own momentum. I often will write the first draft quickly and then continue redrafting the original version. Poems have been inspired by many things—history, dreams, art, film, myth, memory, emotion, the natural world, to name a few. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on William Butler Yeats’s revisions of his female persona poems, and I am a relentless reviser. When working on a poem, I hope that the language will help to determine its particular direction. I also endeavor to surprise myself while writing—so, much of the time, I don’t know where the poem will travel. 

Over these past years I’ve envisioned writing a book-length project. My previous books have been assembled through accretion, poem by poem. With my new book, “Blood Wolf Moon,” I’ve attempted to create a narrative which engages the reader from beginning to end. Within the dramatic propulsion of the narrative there is an intrinsic architecture, a sense of plot or even a five-act structure.  

A new writing preoccupation is to create sequences of poems, in which one poem will lead to the composition of the next. As I had mentioned, “Blood Wolf Moon” opens with a long poem called “Heritage,” composed of hanging indent stanzas. The last line of the first poem becomes the first line of the next, creating a crown of fourteen poems. There are several other series in the book, including the avian poems and a botanic suite, which I’ve broken up and scattered throughout. In part four of the book, I’ve taken earlier prose fragments and created a prose poem memoir sequence.

Poetry is, in a way, a language unto itself. And you’ve written work that incorporates the Osage Nation’s language, including “́/Waléze/Stationery” and “͘ ́   ́/Máze Htáhtaze/Typewriter.” Can you talk about what your process is like when working with multiple languages in your writing?

I have always been fascinated by the Osage language. On my desk are two Osage dictionaries, the older one compiled by Francis La Flesche and the newer one by Carolyn Quintero. The La Flesche dictionary helped my work on a poem called “Wi-gi-e,” which is spoken by Mollie Burkhart whose family was systematically murdered during the Reign of Terror (1921-1926) in Oklahoma. A line from that poem, “During Xtha-cka Zhi-ga Tse-the, the Killer of the Flowers Moon,” helped to inspire the title for David Grann’s book and Martin Scorsese’s film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

While working on “Blood Wolf Moon,” I began delving into Quintero’s dictionary. In “́/Waléze/Stationery” and “͘ ́   ́/Máze Htáhtaze/Typewriter,” I chose words in the dictionary at the end of the alphabet and worked my way forward. With regard to this process, I see the words in translation and the poem arises, tapping my past, my dream life, my unconscious, offering unexpected discoveries. Esther Belin accepted these poems for her special issue on Land Acknowledgment for “Poetry” Magazine. Right after the acceptance, I became aware of the creation of Osage orthography by the Osage Nation. Christopher Cote from the Osage Nation Language Department provided the translations in orthography for the poems. 

Where do you draw inspiration from in your life? What authors or works inspire you?

I love balancing my work as a writer with my work as an anthologist. Reading and discovering poems by others continues to fuel my own writing. My most recent anthology, “The Eloquent Poem,” is based on writing workshops I’ve taught in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As I teach that anthology this semester, I continue to rediscover new aspects of the poems we study. How I love, for instance, Kimiko Hahn’s collage poem, “Things I Am Beginning to Forget.” Next week we’ll discuss January Gill O’Neil’s “Bloom,” along with other mirror poems. The book includes artist statements at the back, so you can learn from the poets (as well as from my general introductions) how to write an ekphrastic poem or an aubade or an ars poetica, for instance. 

I’m a founding board member of Indigenous Nations Poets, and we’re talking to my editor, Gabriel Fried, about editing another Persea anthology comprised of poems by our In-Na-Po Fellows and Board members. The work of these writers continues to amaze me, and I can’t wait to get started on this project. 

I look for inspiration in all the poems I encounter. I was struck by how Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ first and final poem in “Silver” mirror each other in reverse. I’ve written a couple of mirror poems but had never thought to begin and end a collection with one. Reading Monica Youn’s “Detail of the Rice Chest,” helped jumpstart a recent new poem. Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” inspired the trajectory of “Blood Wolf Moon.” Another favorite is Timothy Donnelly’s “Chariot”—a multi-faceted jewel of a poetry collection. I look forward to reading Sophie Cabot Black’s collection, “Geometry of the Restless Herd,” and Kenzie Allen’s “Cloud Missives,” among many other books coming out soon.

You have authored several poetry collections, The Nightlife, Bestiaries, and Infidelities, among numerous other works. What project is at your fingertips now?

I just brought out a chapbook, titled “Tallchief,” (Magic City Books Press, 2023), a selection of poems from my first three books as well as new poems, inspired by my mother, the prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. She is featured on the US quarter, and her Osage name is represented in Osage orthography. When I was working with the US Mint on helping to choose the design for the coin, the Osage Nation Language Department suggested the Mint incorporate the orthography —hence my own realization of the need to include orthography in the Osage translation poems.

“Blood Wolf Moon” will be published by Red Hen Press in April 2025. The poet Rachel DeWoskin, after reading the manuscript, wrote a beautiful long email. Here’s an excerpt: “There are constellations all the way throughout, stars and birds and light and darkness and beauty and horror and nature and humans and history – multiple languages, bloodlines, meter.” I’m grateful to Rachel for these words.


Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Elise Paschen is the author of six poetry collections, including The Nightlife and Blood Wolf Moon, forthcoming in spring 2025. Her poems have been published widely, including The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and The Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. She has edited or co-edited numerous anthologies, including The Eloquent Poem and The New York Times bestseller, Poetry Speaks. Paschen teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


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