Happy Spring everyone! I’m pleased to introduce you to my favorite new poet, Elijah Burrell. I was fortunate enough to meet Eli while our respective spouses were in their pediatric residencies and we bonded over a love of writing, music, and our young daughters. Since those days, Eli has gone on to complete his MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and has been published in multiple literary reviews, before publishing his own anthology, The Skin of the River. He currently teaches creative writing and literature at Lincoln University. Burrell received the 2009 Cecil A. Blue Award in Poetry and the 2010 Jane Kenyon Scholarship at Bennington College.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Was it always poetry for you?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. As soon as I could read, I started writing my own adventure stories. I wrote comic books and song lyrics. I spent summers at the local community radio station writing and producing radio plays and skits. It wasn’t until I started thinking pretty seriously about girls that I began writing love songs and poems. We didn’t read a lot of poetry when I was in high school, but I immersed myself in it during college. Couldn’t get enough. It got to the point when I was reading one or two books of poetry per week. I was like that speaker in the Mark Strand poem “Eating Poetry.” In graduate school, I kept up the same pace—long hours in the bookish dark. I fell for all kinds of poets. Poetry stuck.
What inspires you more, the world around you or the feelings inside?
I’m inspired by all of it. I think, to a certain extent, all writing comes from within. Writers must choose how best to deliver their ideas and memories to their readers. I have entire notebooks full of images, words that rhyme in interesting ways, and bits of language I’ve picked up in “the world around me.” The poem takes shape when I gather each of these sundry elements and try to stir them together. I’m always trying to notice things around me. Equally important, I try to navigate my own internal terrain the best I can. I work on my cartography skills every day. It’s a strange place.
You’re a busy man – husband, father, professor – how do you find time to write? Do you set time aside, or write when the mood takes you?
It’s almost impossible for me to maintain a regular writing schedule. I either try to write late at night, when everyone has gone to bed, or through irregular daytime eruptions of output. It would be fantastic to wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down to a clean desk and a blank page each morning. That seems to be the romantic perception of a writer’s existence. I’ve come to grips with reality that, in this stage of my life, that’s just never how it’s going to be for me. I’m not complaining.
What is your editing process like?
Every poem in The Skin of the River endured numerous revisions and rewrites. I’m one of those poor fools who never think the poem is finished. I find myself reading some of the poems from the book aloud, out in the world, thinking I’d like to change them still. One time I heard Donald Hall tell a crowd of writers he revises each of his poems over a hundred times. I do anywhere from a fifth to a half of that. If I look at the same poem too long, I start getting itchy.
How do you fight writer’s block?
I’m going to say something wildly unpopular. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Someone smarter than me once said you don’t see carpenters complaining about carpenter’s block. I’m building things when I write poems. I put on my metaphorical tool belt and go to work. Maybe I think that if I keep telling myself there’s no such thing as writer’s block, I’ll never suffer from writer’s block.
What advice do you have for other writers?
I’ll give two pieces of advice that will seem very obvious. First: Write. There are so many distractions all around us. Most of them come from some bright screen—a television, a computer, a phone (oh, the phone). Unplug those distractions, take a deep breath, and just start writing. Seems easy, but it’s not. Second: Read. I’ve yet to meet a great writer that never reads.
The Skin of the River is a collection of poems that evoke a feeling of childhood summers in the south. Burrell’s words flow like a conversation with an old friend. Pick up a copy today at amazon and discover a whole new world of modern poetry!